“What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you?” I was recently asked. And I lied. Because the truth isn’t polite. The truth is really scary. Maybe it’s the time of year, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Because on Halloween eight years ago, a farmer from some random farm called my dad to say that he’d come home to find my big sister rummaging through his drawers, her body smeared in mud from the creek outside. She was wearing his wife’s bathrobe. She had lost her mind. My sister was gone.
Ellen is three years my senior and as little girls we were inseparable. Our mom called us “Mutt and Jeff.” Where Ellen went I followed and whatever she said was truth. Once, when no one was around, she cut my bangs. Then she told me that I was the one who had done it. I believed her and took the fall for it. She didn’t admit her guilt for several years. And Ellen was such a fun playmate. She cut all the hair off of my baby doll and glued it back on as a beard, and whenever we played Barbies, Ken was an Interior Designer with a lisp who went by the name, “Chevrolet.”
When Ellen started high school our days of Mutt-and-Jeffing it were over. She was classically beautiful with a great rack and had plenty of friends her own age. I was socially awkward and stacked like a little boy. I wished to be just like her. When she was fifteen she started dating Jake, a nineteen year old musician.
During the eight years that Ellen and Jake dated, he practically became a member of our family. We used to argue like brother and sister. Once Jake and I got into a dispute over a Fat Bastard quote. In Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, there’s a part where Jake thought that Fat Bastard said, “Well listen up, Sonny Jim, I ain’t a baby!”
I corrected Jake. “No, he’s saying, ‘I ate a baby.’” This was the nineties, so we couldn’t Google the quote. Instead, after much argument, I cued Austin Powers up on the VHS and turned on Closed Captioning. The line was, “I ate a baby,” much to Jake’s chagrin.
Like a lot of high school sweethearts do, the lovebirds broke up eventually. I think my whole family was sort of heartbroken, but Ellen took the breakup especially hard. It was difficult for her to be in Omaha when Jake seemed to be everywhere—including in bed with her best friend. She accidentally walked in on the new couple together.
She decided to go to Graduate School in Colorado. At the time that she moved, I was almost due to have my first daughter. I was sad to see her go, but when Layla was born she drove all through the night back to Omaha and was one of our first visitors. Ellen was a natural aunt and totally obsessed with Layla right off the bat. She came back to visit frequently and we grew close, the closest we had been since we were young girls.
Ellen took anti-depressants after the breakup and in Colorado she started to smoke a lot of pot. She began taking more meds than she was supposed to, but she was probably already manic when she started to do that. No one back home had a clue that anything was wrong. When she came home for visits she wasn’t nearly as depressed as she’d been in Omaha. It seemed like a good thing.
There were warning signs. I remember one visit in September, Ellen was full of energy. She could barely sit down at all, even doing stretches on the living room floor while we talked. A thunderstorm started outside. Ellen jumped up and ran out the door and down to the sidewalk. She jogged down the street as it poured, all the while mumbling about the beautiful rain. Her extreme display of appreciation for nature seemed very “Colorado” to me and I laughed it off, thinking that this was just who my sister had become in the past few months. Her eyes, though, when I think of that day I see her eyes so wide and electric. The next time I saw her would be in the hospital.
Ellen was paranoid, delusional, and in the midst of a psychotic episode when she made the eight hour drive home from Colorado for Halloween. She had almost arrived, was just a few hours outside of Omaha when she stopped at a farmhouse down a road just off of the interstate. She thought the cows were watching her and that she was being tracked so she hid her wallet, keys, even her clothing around the farm. She jumped into the creek to scrub herself down and ended up in the house rummaging through drawers. One drawer was filled with sex toys. She found a woman’s robe and put it on before rifling through the kitchen. She was on the kitchen floor when the farmer walked in and found her. At that moment, Ellen thought she was waiting for our whole family to arrive at the farmhouse. She believed she was there for a surprise wedding shower celebrating her hallucinated upcoming wedding to Jake. When my dad and brother-in-law showed up and were walking her out to the car, she laughed at the décor in the farmhouse and told my dad what a good job we’d done decorating for the Tacky 80’s Farmhouse party theme.
“The denim pillows and wallpaper borders are great!” she cackled.
I woke up the morning after Halloween and phoned my mom. She was at the hospital with my dad and Ellen. They had been up all night. Ellen was out of her mind. I was four months pregnant with my second daughter and working part-time at a bank. I called my boss and tried to explain why I couldn’t come to work that day.
“My sister’s in the hospital. She was… she was driving home from Colorado and she… stopped at this farmhouse and she didn’t know where she was. Something’s very wrong. I have to go see her.”
I had no idea what to expect when I walked into her hospital room. Ellen was so happy to see me, she gave me a big hug and then her eyes rested on my swollen belly.
“I ate a baby,” she whispered into my ear and giggled at the inside joke. I looked to my parents. They were calm but exhausted and frightened. I tried to talk to Ellen but she pointed at the wood grain on the door.
“Look,” I did as she told me, “It’s an owl.”
“Yes, it looks just like an owl. I see it, too.”
At the top of the door the wood grain was straight and boring, but halfway down the door it swirled dramatically then curled inside itself like big owl eyes. I looked back at Ellen. Her own eyes were like saucers. I knew I was going to cry so I excused myself from her room. Out in the hall I searched for a bathroom, a hallway, any isolated little spot that I could burst into and explode.
After calming down I know I went back to her room, but I don’t remember it at all. I just remember how Ellen’s mania wound down within a few weeks and then a depression hit her. I remember the strong desire she had to end her life. She was in and out of the hospital. I can picture her on my couch one afternoon, she described being deep, deep down in a hole, like she was underwater, and if she looked up she could see a light. But no matter how hard she swam, she couldn’t get to it. She was gone, practically silent, completely dazed at family gatherings. There was no trace of her biting, witty humor when you spoke with her. The doctor warned that she would have a severe, prolonged depressive period after going through such an extreme manic phase like she had. But the depression was so deep. We were both afraid she would never feel happy again. I remember talking to her until my voice was hoarse, trying to reassure her that it would get better. Then at night I would cry because I had never lost someone I loved so much. I missed my sister.
She was brutally depressed for over a year, but Ellen did eventually get her head above water. She gradually became more independent, started working again and got her own place. She attends therapy religiously. At five years after the episode she was doing pretty well. Now, on the eight year anniversary, she’s thriving. She jogs daily, practices Yoga, and meditates. She recently quit her cubicle job to pursue her dream of writing. She has always loved to cook and in the past year she’s been eating healthier. She’s totally off the baby meat. Eight years ago it seemed impossible, but my sister is back.
Ellen is better than ever, but her past experience is an ever-present shadow. It feels good to tell my part of this story because I suffer from Depression and Anxiety and take medication. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m going crazy or that my children will be depressed or worse. Talking about that fear helps me work through it. When my family was really struggling with Ellen’s illness, it felt very lonely. But now I know that we weren’t alone. One in four adults−approximately 61.5 million Americans−experience mental illness in a given year. A lot of people struggle, but not everyone talks about it.
There were times I thought I wouldn’t laugh with my sister again, but her old sense of humor has returned. She is my hero, same as when we were little girls. I’m proud of my sister, proud of her story, and grateful for all the lessons she has taught me.