80 year old Me by Annita Woz

blurrysquishedhammockfeetI’ve been accused of acting like I’m as old as an 80 year old woman.  This from my sister who has always had a way of saying things that make you tip your head and think about why it makes sense but doesn’t feel completely accurate.

My sister is bipolar.  The common term for it when she was twelve was manic depressive. She could tell a convincing story, could stay up all night and talk and imagine and tell and retell stories until she didn’t even know what she had seen, heard or embellished. Her tales were clever, almost to the point of making them absurd, but not so off the wall that a stranger would ever notice the discrepancies in the chronological order or the changing participants.

She could accomplish surreal events, like getting via taxi from a small rural town to the nearest mall, a mere 49 minutes away and then somehow know how to ask the driver to wait on the cement slab in front of our three bedroom ranch home while she ran in to retrieve for him uncounted but carefully folded dollar bills from the dresser drawer in the room we shared.

I just know I had never seen a taxi on our street, ever.  And it wasn’t yellow like on television.  And I didn’t know when it arrived to pick her up or who had called in the address.  I had no idea we had that much cash in our home.  It was exciting for this 80 year old woman,  until I really thought about it.

Actually, the excitement stopped there, really.

When you have someone who is so clearly suffering from a mental illness, who has no understanding of the consequences of her choice of words,  has no concept that her accusations and arguments might never be smoothed away,  it ceases to be amusing.  She would alienate all who cared about her while trying to convince us of her position on an argument.  She played the devil’s advocate and infuriatingly wrapped the details around the story rather than admit that her truth was just her truth and no one else’s.  She believed herself.

One day we woke to a half-painted kitchen.  It stayed that way for many months, maybe it was years,  like a scar our home wore to remind us of all she was going through.  We either refused to see the paint halfway up the wall near the front door because we wanted to believe that it was just an unfinished project that she would return to finish or we refused to fix it because if we painted it over, made it right,  it would be like accepting that we understood why she started to paint it in the first place.

While we tried to adjust, she cried.  She cried often and would tell us that she didn’t know why she was sad.  “I just am,  and I cannot change it, ” she would confess.  Teachers would come to my classroom and rap on the door. I sat in the desk closest to the door, and would get called out to the hallway or the lunchroom or the playground to come and calm her. This was 25 years ago. No one knew how to help her-  how to hear her. There were no classroom aides or guidance counselors prepared for the confusion.

She once packed up the living room in black garbage bags and declared she was shipping them to Ethiopia for the starving children, just as the Pope had requested. In fact, she was going on the Phil Donahue show later that day to tell her story and get others involved to fly there with her. She was fifteen.

My family took the advice of a social worker, declared her a ward of the state, and they led her through a procedural scene in a courtroom;  her hands were cuffed behind her back.  I believe she is still angry about what she still calls “the betrayal.”  Insurance then didn’t cover medications,  psych wards,  repeated returns to the hospital.  When I went to see her, my first trip to a mental ward was unlike anything I had ever read.   It was full of regular looking people, regular until I heard them rattling on,  telling stories to anyone who would listen.  All were endless victims in a society that didn’t treat them fairly, never realizing that the standard fair is hard to apply to those who defy logic.

No matter how much we loved her,  we could not love her enough to make her mind work. We kept trying to rationalize her problems, to address her issues, to understand her confusion disguised as reality.  Except to her,  it was reality and confusion is what she lives.

I did not get to visit her that day. She was not allowed to see me because she had been trying to engage in a romantic relationship with another patient.  I left her a note. She kept it and showed it to me years later.  Somewhere in her head, she keeps everything.

My calendar quote for today says, “The brave know fear but march on anyway.”

She grew up. She found medication. She went on it, she went off it, she convinced herself she didn’t need medicine,  she gave up, she started over, she met and married, she has two children.  She may not have slept for years.

We don’t know her.  And she doesn’t know us.  But I believe it is good that she has two children. They can rely on each other, and know that they aren’t alone in wondering why she is where she is in her head. They aren’t alone. Some day they will connect with us and we will all not be alone, together.

Two years ago, she called and reminded me that I have always acted like I was 80, that I needed to relax and have a little fun more often.  I needed all that ancient wisdom that she credits to me, wisdom to teach me to learn from her spirit.  Something good has come from knowing this girl, this sister of mine.

I am an 8o year old woman, and I am grateful for the lessons my sister has taught me.   I have learned that the world doesn’t always follow logic and that sometimes we have to accept that, and appreciate our life as it is.

I have gratitude. I am thankful that she is in a safe place, in a world that she has created, where she can balance her imagined life there by forgetting her life here. I am grateful to be left behind.  I am grateful that her husband must be a patient man, must be a good provider, must be a stronger human being than I am.  He has loved her for all these years, somehow made sense out of her stories, allowed her the safety of hiding from all of us and given her purpose and value in his world.

I know that twice, after delivering her children, she was hospitalized, held, stabilized.  She has protected her children as any mother does, from the world. Even if her world is much scarier than it is for all of us, she has been the best parent she can be.

We do the best we can with what we have no matter our age. 40 or 80,  I am grateful.  I could be lost in my own head, fighting to find myself, thinking I had and then repeating the journey over and over.

by annita woz


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