When you grow up with mental illness in your family, you might not know the label at the time, but you probably know something isn’t quite right. After a long battle with mental illness and addiction, my sister’s life ended tragically this summer, and it still doesn’t feel right.
This is how I remember my sister – she was high-strung, often cruel, and she acted erratically most of the time. One of Sandy’s dominant behavior patterns was to belittle the people she was closest too. This was painful for our family and we didn’t understand it until after her death, when we learned she had been seeking counseling to learn skills to curb this behavior.
Recently I visited my parents in Kentucky and while there my mother asked me to help her release my sister’s ashes. Mom was feeling empowered about the need for closure, and I wanted to support her. Sandy liked to look out at the Kentucky River, so we decided the river would be her resting place. So my mom, my son Paxton, and I drove down to the river. We slipped across the barricades to walk out on the old bridge to do the deed. We found our spot, said our prayers and goodbyes, and I started to pour the ashes from the box. Well, it was windy and the release didn’t go as planned, and I’d say 90 percent of my sister landed in the river, and 10 percent landed on the bridge. Since Mom’s vision is very poor, she wasn’t mortified by this mishap. But I was! However, after a few moments, I regained my composure as I just knew my sister was watching from heaven, laughing, and saying, “Yep, Dawn, you even managed to screw this up.” I could imagine her cruel smile and laugh, the glimmer in her eyes. And for the first time since my sister’s death, I felt closure. I felt like Sandy was finally at peace.
I’m closer to my sister in her death than I ever was in her life. I can’t stop thinking about her and I am overcome with sadness. The slightest trigger can set me off, and the next thing you know, I’m in tears. It happens just about every day at some point. Someone in the office can crack a joke that reminds me of Sandy. A mention of bi-polar disease, mental illness, or addiction can set my water-works off. Sometimes it can be as simple as a silly song on the radio. But not a day goes by that I’m not triggered by a memory that brings me to tears. I’ve come to cherish these trigger-moments of memories and closeness to Sandy. I think of them as my sister-moments.
At a recent board meeting of the West Garfield Park Stakeholders the topic of triggers came up. One of our board members works with teachers to provide training on best practices engaging with youth. She specifically mentioned the need for teachers to recognize their own triggers. Triggers are those moments when you act on something from your past that has affected you, but really has nothing to do with the person, or child in front of you. Triggers can have damaging effects on the people around us, especially children, if we don’t learn to recognize them and handle them appropriately. Training is needed, and it is available. This discussion made me think about how we all have triggers, and we all need to be gentle with ourselves and others this holiday season.
We’re often ashamed to talk about mental illness and addiction. Since I’ve been writing and sharing about my sister’s struggles and her death, many people have shared with me their own stories of personal experiences with mental illness and addiction. Let’s end the silence and shame. We need to talk about mental illness and addiction. State Senator Kimberly Light ford and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin are just two of our elected officials who are working to help shed light on this disease and, in particular, how it affects African American communities.
Dawn Ferencak is associate publisher of the Austin Weekly News