This post was originally published on March 6, 2015.
My older sister was always remarkably bright, so bright she tested into the gifted program in elementary school, passed calculus and chemistry with little effort and ended up the salutatorian of her graduating class in high school.
She could learn the sheet music for the piano at what seemed like light speed. While I struggled to read the notes, her mathematical mind could transfer the complex chords on the page to her fingers in an instant. But her timing was always way off—the rhythm, the mood and the accents eluded her. Interestingly, our piano teacher called me a “music empath,” saying I could express “feeling” easily, but it didn’t matter much because I was the jackass stuck at the piano for hours trying to nail Mary Had A Little Lamb while she was blowing through Mozart’s Sonata No. 16 in C major. And she’s only 18 months older than me.
All of this really pissed me off when I was eight years old. Her room was packed with trophies—basketball trophies, volleyball trophies, English trophies, math trophies, honor roll certificates, and I was this misfit class clown who got bored in school and racked up a bunch of mediocre report cards, most of them plagued with unsatisfactory marks in “self-control” because my teachers had to constantly tell me to shut up.
But despite Amber’s awards and her genius IQ, she was socially withdrawn and emotionally detached as a child, and by the time she graduated high school and went off to UC Berkeley, it was clear something was off. All she wanted to do was sit in her room alone blaring music or trudge around with a bunch of class-ditching potheads, which was quite startling given her teacher’s pet track record.
We all thought it was just a phase, although I certainly didn’t care too much either way. When she was a freshman in college, I was a grouchy and depressed 16 year-old full of my own problems (no boys liked me and I never got the lead in the high school plays), so I wasn’t really paying too much attention. My parents, on the other hand, started tearing their hair out.
She failed a bunch of classes at Berkeley and had smoked so much weed for four straight months she ended up in a perpetual fog even after she put down the pipe for good. After returning home during winter break, she was not the same person.
“I’m asleep,” she kept saying. “I’m asleep. I don’t know what happened. I was smoking weed and smoking weed and this one time I felt my mind blow away.”
A few weeks later, her fogginess turned into something much more dangerous.
First she started putting up black sheets all over the windows of her bedroom, convinced the FBI was sending helicopters to spy on her. Then she became convinced my mother had a shotgun and was hell-bent on killing her, so she called the cops in the middle of the night. The LAPD banged on our door, slapped handcuffs on my sobbing mother, then proceeded to climb up the stairs in the pitch black dark to see if anyone else, besides my sister and mother, were home.
Uh, yeah, that would have been me. (My parents are divorced and dad lived in the OC.) After hearing the commotion, I crept out of my room—still in a foul teenage mood—with two uncomfortable retainers stuck in mouth. One of the cops pointed a gun at me.
“Put your hands where I can see them,” he said.
I guess it was good I was cranky, because I didn’t give a shit about that either. I hate getting yanked out of a deep sleep.
“What’s going on?” I asked, with a slight tone of teenage sass.
“Come downstairs,” he said.
I went downstairs, saw my mother in hysterics and my sister telling the cops she had a gun, and, with those stupid retainers giving me a lisp, I started explaining.
“My sister’s been acting crazy,” I said very calmly so they’d believe me. “She did a bunch of drugs and now she thinks the FBI is following her. My mother doesn’t have a gun.”
I guess I convinced them, because they let my mom go and the next day my sister was off to a 14-day hold in the psych ward.
It was hell from that point onward. We waited and waited for the symptoms to pass, but they only worsened. After a few months, the word schizophrenia got thrown around, and I soon learned that my paternal grandfather—who I’d never met—had also been schizophrenic, a big family secret.
But it wasn’t until a year or so had passed that I actually started getting concerned, realizing that she was not going to snap out of it. Amber began having psychotic religious experiences, believing she was the Lamb of God about to be crucified and that clouds in the sky were angels. She’d walk up the hills behind my mother’s house, stand at the top and wait for hours, beneath a searing sun, for God to suck her up into heaven.
More trips to more psych wards followed, coupled by lots of medication. The only medicine that’s ever significantly allayed her paranoia is Clozaril, one of the oldest antipsychotics on the market that unfortunately spikes her appetite while simultaneously slowing her metabolism. What was once a 6’2″ bean-pole of a girl is now a 300-pound 38 year-old woman.
In the following years she had multiple stays at the few long-term lock-down facilities in LA, depressing places with puke-green walls, awful food and careless workers, where she remained terribly bored month after month after month. She went on and off her meds, fumbled in and out of college, and has tried to lead a normal life, but she could never get completely back on track.
It killed me.
I know that sucking down all the weed pushed her schizophrenia into full throttle—she’d never had a flicker of psychosis prior, and afterwards the episodes of psychosis wouldn’t stop despite her ditching the pot. But it’s equally obvious she was predisposed for the illness, which may have been why she was smoking so much to begin with. The early signs were all there.
After swimming in despair over her situation for nearly 20 years, I’ve not only accepted Amber’s schizophrenia but I’ve (mostly) gotten over it. My sister is still my sister, and she’s more than just her illness, even if other people can’t see it. She still has many moments of lucidity between those breaks into catatonia and paranoia, and even when she’s catatonic and paranoid, I’ve come to embrace these states and not take them too seriously.
So she makes people nervous when she stares blankly into the sky; they can go fuck off. So she questions strangers and thinks I’m speaking with “double meanings,” who gives a shit? At the end of the day, she still has passions and curiosities, and as long as she doesn’t enter a perilous state of paranoia that warrants hospitalization, she’s doing fantastic in my eyes. She engages the world on her terms, and I think that’s pretty badass.
She’s even gone back to take more piano lessons. No longer jealous, I now tear up when she plows through that Sonata in C at the small recitals her teacher hosts. Yeah, it’s a bit off-beat, but it’s still better than anything I could play.