This is something I wrote just after a relapse. It’s terrifying to be this honest — and that’s why I’m doing it.
This Is Why I Hate My Sister Alice
So energetic and upbeat. Eager to help. She jumps up to do the dishes, volunteers to paint a fence. She even goes with our dad to wax the boat (“It’s just a small yacht,” he says, and she always laughs — too loud). She makes sure she takes time out of her busy schedule (she’s a lawyer — with a ton of business clients) to send birthday cards and bake cookies. In a time of crisis, Alice is always there – up all night at the hospital clutching a loved one’s hand, on the phone or Facebook making everything better. She is so even-tempered she makes Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice look like a raving lunatic. And, of course, she doesn’t have bipolar disorder.
And she’s not real.
I dreamed her up. After a crying spell — a good two hours about nothing and everything. At dinner, my dad started collecting the plates, and I wished I could jump out of my chair and say, “It’s alright Pa, I’ll take care of these for you.” Instead I sat there, feeling weak and useless, and said: “If you had another daughter, she’d help you clean up.”
“Oh yeah?” my dad said. “What would her name be?”
In an instant, I imagined the whole of her. “Alice,” I said.
It was way too easy. And that disturbed me. Was my self-worth so rattled now for so many years that I could visualize an “opposite me” who was so much better than me? Not only better — lovable.
Neither Alice or I need jewelry or trips to a spa to be happy. But I have to be very high maintenance about my health, so I can’t be high maintenance for others. As one family member put it, this makes me “a total bummer.” (OK, so she isn’t educated about mental illness and sounds like a moron anytime it comes up. It still hurts.)
Where Alice can say “yes” all the time, I have to say “no.” A lot. My sleep comes before anyone and anything else. A family member can be dying in the hospital, friends can be out drinking at a birthday party, my cat wants to sleep on my bed, or someone wants me to go camping or sleep over on their couch or fly to someplace wonderful on cheap red-eye plane tickets. My answer is, “No.” Without sleep, I can get totally out of whack. So I guard my sleep the way a lion guards her cubs.
Alice can be up all night for a week and still make everybody a gourmet breakfast. I really hate her.
And all my meals — not just breakfast — have to be frequent and healthy. Energy is precious. It’s reserved for my writing, so there is none left to help somebody paint a fence.
Alice actually whistles while she paints the fence, the house, the living room. I really, really hate her.
Worse, I need lots of rest and relaxation or my brain speeds up and won’t shut down. Visits with friends have to be brief. And infrequent. I have to schedule them the way Alice schedules her client conferences.
Everyone who has lived with bipolar disorder long enough to know that taking care of ourselves this carefully is our key to sanity is probably laughing right now. We know how ridiculous we seem to others. The alternative to rigid self-care is dangerous. We are “total bummers” because if we don’t take the best care of ourselves, we don’t get a little cranky or hungry or “low.” We go insane.
When we lose our minds, we also lose the ability to take care of ourselves. For the lucky ones, like me, our friends and family take care of us. Some people don’t have that luxury. They end up on the streets. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose everything. It happens fast.
Unlike my sister Alice, I’ve needed people to cook and feed me meals. I’ve made them so worried that they demand I eat, they beg me to drink water and take my pills, they drive me to and from psychiatrist’s offices and the emergency room, they pay bills I ran up when manic, they watch me 24-7 and give me a spare bedroom to live in.
And when I get better, I feel as though I can never pay them back. Alice would send them to Hawaii for a week or throw a dinner party to celebrate their kindness and generosity. But after a relapse, it’s a slow road back to recovery for me, and I have to say no even more often. Nothing can get between me and my healing. I don’t even pick up the phone.
It sucks. I catch myself comparing myself to those with much more energy than me — not just Alice, but even really old people. I see friends getting degrees and promotions. Sure, people with bipolar disorder do get degrees. In my case, I have to do everything differently than other people and on such a different schedule that it sometimes takes much longer to complete anything. What Alice can finish in four years (actually, she got her B.A. in just three years — I so hate her), could take me three times that long. And all the time, others are getting further ahead.
I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others. If they had the same mental disorder, if they had to walk in my shoes, they would have different life styles, too. After years of anguish, they would learn to say “no.” But people like Alice still make me jealous. I may be crazy, but I’m still competitive.
But that’s a waste of my precious energy.
So is hating Alice. After all, she is my sister.
A friend of mine read this and said, “I read your essay and just thought – get over it!”
If she had this illness she would not just be able to “get over it.”
Would she tell someone with diabetes or multiple sclerosis to “get over it?”
This person is ignorant and lacks compassion.
People like this are wrong, stupid, and dangerous.
Don’t listen to those idiots.
Thanks for reading.
Her Own Dangerous Neighborhood
Why do girls turn on themselves?
In moments of quiet,
moments when they should feel safe –
they pick up a razor or a piece of glass,
turn it into a murderer’s switch blade.
Girls corner themselves,
their eyes wild,
their eyes like the men
in the “Wanted” posters.
Girls who attack themselves
next to their own beds,
where they should be resting,
dreaming, sleeping sweetly.
Girls play the bully –
the madman – the victim –
it is a one woman show.
As a joke, in the garden, you slapped a rose bush
for snagging your dress.
Your finger bled.
You used to turn on yourself,
you used to lie to get glass.
Girls who should be giggling,
sweet as a toy piano —
which is, thankfully,
what you are doing