The Latest 'Condition'

photo by Meaghan Harris

photo by Meaghan Harris

By andrea duggan

When I was 10, I was home with the flu and lying on the couch.  My older sister, who was 18, said to my mother: "Ever since i've been pregnant, I've been feeling really bitchy."  

Now, you might think that this statement isn't that big of a deal, but to me, at 10, I was totally freaked out.  My sister is pregnant? I mean, it was 1975 and believe me... we had the full catholic my sister, who not only wasn't married but also didn't even have a boyfriend (that I knew of) was now pregnant! Like, wtf??  Who knows this? What is she doing about it? Can others see her bulging belly? 

Sadly, although we had a huge family of seven kids, I would never really know the answer because this issue was never discussed, mentioned, or spoken of.  You should also know that this was not just any ordinary sister (if that even exists).  My oldest sister had always exhibited symptoms of mental illness for as long as I could remember.  She would routinely cut up any and all clothing that my mother bought her...not to destroy it, but to modify it.  She slept with steak knives in her slippers on the floor beside her bed, in case someone attacked her in the night. Basically, wherever she was, crisis wasn't far behind, so this latest 'condition' was just another fucked up situation, and most of my childhood feelings of angst and shame stem from her actions.

My parents sent her to an 'unwed pregnant teen' facility  (probably some catholic place with horrible staff) where she stayed for the last few months of her pregnancy, gave birth, and gave the baby up for adoption.  She always spoke of her baby-- Vanessa-- and how she wanted to see her.  I don't believe keeping her baby was an option.  She wouldn't have been stable enough to raise a child and thankfully, she never got pregnant again.

The shame of this situation stemmed from the 'secret' of it.  Nobody had even mentioned something that was so friggin' obvious! What the hell?  My thought was: Everyone is going to think I'm a loser if they know my unwed sister is pregnant.  As I got older, and met people who knew her from high school, I was fully convinced that they would think that I was promiscuous or mentally ill, because my sister had been. (I say promiscuous because that is what one would assume of anyone who got pregnant as a teen, isn't it?) I don't even think teen pregnancy is that big of a deal. It's a story that affects many families.

The crisis and stress and angst and shame that comes from the stigma of mental illness can shape your whole existence and it certainly did mine.  I never let my sister see or meet my children because I didn't want them to have to "deal with her bullshit." As she got older, she didn't get better.  She just got more fucked up, self-medicated with anything that was available, and lived a pretty sad life.  

I was shocked and devastated when I got the call that she was found dead on a reserve, on the floor of the home of her abusive alcoholic boyfriend.  She had a heart attack after a day of consuming alcohol and cocaine.  It was really sad, and even the circumstance of her death had an air of shame to it. 

I was happy for HER, though, that she was free from her fucked-up brain-- 48 years of mental illness was enough for her.  I had dreams of her afterwards, where she was happy and having lunch with girlfriends and singing songs.  I interpreted it as a message from the other side that all was well.  I will say that masking, ignoring and hiding mental illness (and the scenarios that inevitably come with it)  within a family creates deep shame and dysfunction.  It was typical of the time period that it happened within, but let's be glad to move on and accept mental health issue as a health issue, something the bearer cannot control. 

Emily Dickinson