The Dark Sides of Mental Illness

I shared bad news today.

I guess the hardest part about the news is not that it is bad, more so that it is old.

I reconnected with an old family friend via Facebook some time ago and got somewhat caught up on her life and she about mine.  She was a very close high school friend of one of my sisters and as often happens when you grow up and move away they had lost touch.

This year on my sister’s birthday I posted on Facebook that I loved her wherever she was.  I thought that possibly her kids might be with her and they would see the post and share it with her.  Instead what happened was that they too missed her and commented on my post their love and support of her and one another.

Today that old friend sent me a message wondering if my sister had passed away or if she was ok since the post had been a bit cryptic.  I realized when I responded many of the closest people in my life likely think I have only one sister which is not the case.  It was never intentional, but I suppose that since sad news hurts I don’t discuss it very often and certainly not unless prompted.

I thought that maybe as a virtual sign of support I would tell the story and maybe feel a little less like I am hiding the truth.

My sister Shannon is three and a half years older than me and she has been diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia when she was 23 or 24.  In hindsight, she was sick for a long time before that, but we didn’t know that the symptoms had a specific cause.

Many of the symptoms include delusions, paranoid hallucinations, but some are more subtle and can be considered energy issues and dismissed as having a surge or depletion of energy or attention deficit.  Eventually the hallucinations were what caused us to move towards a clinical diagnosis.

The illness itself can be treated to some extent with medications but one of the side effects with the disease is the fact that once the meds level you out, you think you don’t need them.  This causes a roller coaster ride for the families and the person suffering.  Some people live with schizophrenia  and lead pretty normal lives, but that is not the case for Shannon.

Today, close to 15 years after a diagnosis Shannon has been in and out of support facilities and hospitals; arrested more times than I know and evicted from countless apartments/halfway houses/supported living locations.  She is off medication much more often than she is on it and for those of us watching she has all but lost most of the person she was.  She has been let down by the health care system and despite the advocacy of my mother on her behalf spends a great deal of time homeless and lost to us.  It can be days or weeks before we know she has been evicted and the financial benefits she receives are often absorbed into alcohol or pot within hours of receipt causing more evictions and missed meals because they are for use at her discretion.

As a person Shannon was always very energetic and told the most lively stories you can hope to hear, she gave the best hugs and had more love to share than anyone else I have met since.  Today that is not often the case.

I guess this is my way of telling you a bit about me and a bit about the sad realities of mental health from the family point of view.  I have avoided and hidden from much of the pain and sadness that my family has faced for more than a decade because I live across the country.

I don’t often speak of it because it makes me sad.  Each time I get a phone call at the wrong time of day I am worried it will be the news that she is gone.  My last visit with her was strange and off balance and I eventually I left the pigsty of an apartment that she was living in with her screaming obscenities at me.

The disease stole my sister and the truth is that I can’t fix it.

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