Family Secrets

My Crazy Sister

Susan was manic-depressive, but nobody ever loved me the way she did

I was almost 13 when I first met my older half-sister Susan. She was sprung on me the way your parents might bring home a new car. At first you "Ooh" and "Ah" but eventually you just start taking it for granted. After all, it's just a car.

She was being raised in Massachusetts by Dad's first wife Helen, who my mother labeled "crazy." Mom lingered on the "e" sound way too long whenever it came up. Although still a kid, I knew having a crazy mother was not good. I knew that you inherited things from your relatives, and it was starting to look like our family tree definitely had some nuts in it.

Susan would visit us in New Jersey—"The Blurbs" she dubbed it. She thought we were bourgeois and made me look it up when I asked what it meant. Before she arrived, my life was so carefully guarded and coiffed like our lawn that I didn't even know I lived in a suburb, had no clue we were bourgeois. I learned a new word that fall and I wanted no part of it.

She nurtured the gypsy in me, and nicknamed me her little "Sissy-Boo." I'd listen for hours about her off-beat friends, Moses and Party Patty. She spoke of people who were writing novels in Paris!? She was like this exotic busker who brought music, poetry and unfiltered love into our suburban trance.

Susan made mobiles out of feathers and antique beads; she painted and sang. She had a laugh that could chase the crumbs off a table—a cackle, really. But her untamed joy had this twinkle in its eye as if to say we were the joke, we were the squares who didn't get it, the poor slobs of the world who had to work for the man. Yes, we were bourgeois.

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When she went to college, she'd send me poems. I held onto each one like it was evidence in a trial and I'd tack it onto my bulletin board right below my picture of Patty Duke, who was starting to look bourgeois to me.

When she went abroad to Paris for a semester, I got postcards from all over France. One day, a postcard arrived from Versailles bearing this message: "And the rain of eyes cries out buckets of vomit falling onto the heads of Kings." This was the first evidence that my sister's joy had turned.

She was 23 the first time she "flipped out," as we called it. Our father flew to California to bring her home. It was the Seventies and she had driven across country only to freak out on some bad acid in Colorado. By the time she got to Frisco, she was at the cusp of what would become dozens of manic-depressive episodes.


On the plane back from S.F., Susan rang the stewardess and when the girl arrived, she blasted her. "Listen, Stewie, you have way too much rouge on," she ranted. "This isn't Kabuki theatre here, it's a plane and you don't fit in." When the stewardess dropped off the drinks, my sister hissed, "Don't let the bad men make you be their whore." She usually did have a point buried deep within her.

Back east, she was quickly diagnosed as manic-depressive. Her joy had found its soul mate: pain. That began what would become a lifetime of medications, psychotherapy, shock treatments and a string of mental institutions. My father's sister Phoebe had been manic-depressive, and was in and out of mental institutions for most of her life as well—until one day, at 45, she killed herself, leaving no note. This disorder is hereditary and I began to worry about my own sanity. Would I be the next to blow?

Dad foresaw the deja vus ahead of him—the therapists, institutions, shock treatments. In-between Susan's initial diagnosis and her first official lockup, my parents moved her into my bedroom, as I was at college in Vermont. My father's plan was to embed Susan into the normal life she never had, mingle her with a couple of little brothers, and play more family games.

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"We'll play Risk every night," said Dad. "She'll be fine."

He thought that entrenching Susan in an endless game of world domination would spark her back to reality.

Two months into this normal life, Susan went stark raving mad and had to be institutionalized. It happened during a violent game of Risk, while Dad was attacking her from Kamchatka.

My parents drove her to the suburbs of Philadelphia to a psychiatric hospital called Fairmont Farms.

I came home for Christmas to my redecorated girlhood room. She'd converted it into a beatnik garage sale. Psychedelic hippy mobiles dangled from the ceilings, and poetry had been written on my private things. She'd written in the margins of my diary, defaced pictures of me, wrote across my face on one picture: "Carlsbad Caverns, Dig Mistakes Underground."

When I went to visit, I whispered that I was very sorry she was locked up. She smiled that crooked smile, "We're all locked up, Deborah, but only some of us know it."

I heard that she'd been given shock treatments. Like mental bug zappers, they killed off her memory and stole her off-beat thoughts. This seemed drastic to me, as medieval as a bloodletting—something that they only gave to kings, Kennedys and killers.

My vote meant nothing and they followed it up with a steady electric stream of more zaps finally breaking her spirit, muddling her memory and erasing precious thoughts of me, her Sissy-Boo. She and I both begged my father to stop with the treatments, but the doctors prevailed. They took the "Susan" out of Susan.

Over the next few years, she was in and out of Fairmont Farms and attempted suicide multiple times. Sometimes she just wrote the note—something like "Blah!"—but wouldn't go through with it. She was ambitionless from the shock treatments and committing suicide was definitely a project with a goal at the end.

The minute she was released from wherever we held her at the time, she'd run back to San Francisco and again my Dad would have to go get her. Like Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape," she couldn't stop trying to break free. Then she'd get pumped with different meds and she'd calm down for a while, keeping her crazeeee thoughts to herself.

She eventually moved to Vermont, where she began to carve out a simple life that didn't make her sick. She was relatively under control on lithium—the panacea of the manic—and although far from normal, she wasn't breaking down anymore. Like an old car she could make it around town, as long as you didn't throw too many peaks or valleys her way. She didn't always stop at red lights, either, but she was hanging in.

I was still in college in Vermont and I'd drive up to see her from time to time, and she'd always say something like, "Ah, Deborah, it warms the cockles of my heart just to see you." I went often, as I liked warming her cockles, whatever they were. Nobody loved me the way my sister did. She openly adored me and she didn't care who knew. Somehow, I had transcended the bourgeois—Susan had made me special.

After Dad died, she became a bit of a family project that we had sadly neglected, like a worm farm rotting on the window sill of a fourth-grade classroom. I was living in New York by now, and I'd call her occasionally, hoping she'd be using central thoughts in her sentences.

Early one spring, she called to tell me they were keeping her in the Vermont State Mental Hospital against her will, secretly performing experiments on her, pulling out her long hair to make wigs for the staff. I assured her that I would investigate the wig scam when I got there.

The next day, Mom and I headed to Montpelier where the state hospital was. It was a white-walled building with too many signs telling you where you could or couldn't go and why. By the time we got to her wing, I was faint from the smell of insanity.

I hadn't seen her in a year and a lot had changed. She was only 40, but she was starting to look like my grandmother. Her previously luscious hair seemed to have been chopped off in random places with something not so precise like a socket wrench. She'd lost so much weight, her skin was hanging off her like beige fringe. Her teeth were coming undone and her gums were gray and speckled, and she smelled like Bactine. She had been a beauty in her day, but now she just looked unloved. We got her released and placed in a halfway house nearby. But she was refusing to take her meds, so she was full-on manic.

During more lucid times and behind everybody's back, Susan became active in mental patient's rights, and had gone to court, to make sure that nobody could ever make her take her medications against her will. She found out that her kidneys were failing from years of lithium, so she took herself off all medications.

The doctor told her that she'd blown out her kidneys, like two speakers on a stereo, and she needed dialysis or she'd be dead in five years, so she whited-out the doctor's number from her book and quietly descended into the dark carnival in her head. She hit the manic-depressive skids, and became one of those unsightly people who you cross the street to avoid.

A few days after receiving a very disturbing phone call from an unrecognizable Susan, I drove to Vermont to visit her in the halfway house. The house mother warned me that she was long off her meds, and nobody could communicate with her.

When I found Susan, her back was to me. Sitting on a hard chair in the middle of this stark room with her fingers plugged in her ears, she turned and looked up at me, smiling.

"Guess what! My fingers touch in the middle!" she cackled. I recognized that cackle, but nothing else.

That was the last time I saw my sister conscious. I drove to Vermont one last time to say my goodbyes. She was dying of complete renal failure from the years of lithium. Spending her life on a dialysis machine seemed much more insane to her than insanity, and death, which she opted for.

My Sissy-Boo had taken the brunt of the family disease, keeping me warm and safe from it. I was now well past the age that manic-depressiveness showed up. She was the underground mistake; she was Carlsbad Caverns.

She left this life with no particular fanfare and only me at her bedside. She was 45 years old. She had warmed the cockles of my heart and I loved her as best I could, which was never as much as she loved me.

Tags: family

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