About loving someone who fights inner demons



Credit – Photo courtesy of Susanna Schrobsdorff

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Many of those who struggle with the most serious mental health issues have a small tribe of loved ones who walk this road with them (as many as anyone can). This week’s essay is for those of you who might know a little more about this trip. This somewhat abbreviated newsletter is also a call to action for this year’s World Mental Health Day in the wake of a pandemic that has had disastrous effects on the most vulnerable. Yours, Suzanne

About loving someone who fights inner demons

Every family has its own secret language nicknames and worn jokes. Ours was based on words from toddlers from when my youngest sister, Rosemary, was little. There was a clean bath talawals in the closet at mom’s house, and we would put our swimwear for the beach long after we became adults and long after we lost Rosemary.

My siblings and I are shaped by his absence, just as we have been shaped by his illness. She fought the most terrible depression. It was a bird of prey that rushed into puberty and never left for long. And at 22, it finally took her.

When my kids were young, they asked me about the light-eyed girl in our family photos. They had never met Rosemary, but she was there, framed on the shelf, at 10 months old in a white knit dress with embroidered roses, her hair slicked back into a brooch loop at the top. Her cheeks were red and Dad had given her a big, matching red apple.

At 13, her face more chiseled, she sits up with a calm smile in a blue plaid shirt holding the reins of a caramel-colored horse. Still later, she was cautiously floating around the edges of the vacation photos, clearly disliking her dressy clothes. And then she was no longer in the albums.

I told my kids that Rosemary had been sick, and the doctors tried to fix what was going on in her brain, but the drugs didn’t work. I said it was like she had cancer that blocked the sun and hurt everything. Explaining to them helped me in a way.

And then I explained to them how she could make me and my other sister burst into laughter with a well-timed eye roll or a single deadpan observation about our giant brother. She would have loved to be an aunt, an ironic little muse who knew all about cars and horses.

I did not describe to them the sound of a locked room door ringing when we visited him during terrible times. And I didn’t tell them how our mom used to lean over the sink while smoking, waiting for a call.

I always felt that the mental health care system was a game of chance: this therapy could work after eight or ten weeks. Or maybe not. Mental illness is mercurial, dormant and then reappears without warning. And then there are the burning choices imposed by financial constraints.

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In these waiting rooms, we saw the other members of the club. All the families who take care of this night light with love and tenacity. Sometimes it’s just for a teenage season; other times it’s a lifetime gig. There are the little brothers who become responsible when a big brother gets lost. And there are parents and spouses who always find themselves on the alert, scanning beloved faces for signs of distress.

We are the families who hold times of calm tight against our hearts, imbued with normality. We don’t talk too much about the bad sides and the guilt that sometimes rises for what we can’t or didn’t do. We don’t talk about it outside of our closest friends because it’s not our story to tell, even though we all struggle with it. Even so, he can be lonely.

These diseases are the river that runs through your house. They are part of our architecture, intertwined with all the glorious and joyful elements. Decades later, Rosemary is here with my children and I: her laughter, her supreme spirit and the worry I had for her are ingrained in my bones.

This emotional radar is how members of this club recognize themselves. A little aside, a confession, a brief relief that we are not so alone. Bound by love and worry, we do the only thing we can do, keep going, arm in arm, until science and the people who control the budgets provide relief from these diseases.

With the grace of distance I have a measure of peace. And I can tell newcomers that it’s easy to see the most painful times as the most important. But that is changing. I remember a photo where I am about ten years old trying to lift Rosemary’s sturdy little girlish body with my skinny arms and a lot of authority. I changed her diapers and made her laugh, sometimes just by popping up in front of her and widening her eyes in mock surprise.

I was his favorite person for a while. And now I know those tender days were as important to both of us as anything that followed.

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If you are in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) toll-free number at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24/7. The service is accessible to everyone. All calls are confidential.


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