We first noticed that something was wrong with my sister when she was seven. That was when she jumped out her bedroom window because the voices in her head told her to kill herself. Our parents rushed her to the hospital, where they put a cast on her broken ankle, but that didn’t stop her from clunking around the house, stabbing us with forks and screaming, “Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me!” Back then, I assumed that she was just being immature. I wrestled the forks from her, slapped her across the face, chastised her for her behavior. But that sent her into an unrelenting crying fit- she curled into a ball in her bedroom, pounded the locked windows, and refused to eat, drink, or sleep for two days. Even when that tantrum ended, she still sobbed herself to sleep, screaming that the “voices” were telling her to do horrible things.
We brought her to a doctor. Laura howled in the waiting room because everything was too white, too different, and all these strangers were staring, and the “voices” were going to split her skull apart, and Mommy, why couldn’t she get up and run around and play? Mommy held her on her lap, eyebrows creased tightly. I sat beside them, eyes darting back and forth between them, tentatively, as Dad paced around the room, scowling. But nobody spoke to me. Nobody looked at me.
I waited alone when the doctor came for Laura. They returned an hour later, my sister sprinting to me first, grinning absentmindedly. She lunged, pulling me into a breathless hug, squealing “Lana Lana Lana Lana Lana!” Our parents stood behind her, looking grim. I pushed Laura off of me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked my mom, my eyebrows creased. “What did the doctors say, Mommy?”
Both my parents ignored me, but Laura beamed. “They say I have schizophrenia,” she giggled. She pronounced it sheezafreenia. “Schizophrenia. I practiced pronouncing it for you. Isn’t that a funny word? Schizophrenia.” Laura giggled happily again.
I laughed nervously. “And what’s sheezafreenia, Laurie?”
Laura’s smile immediately vanished, replaced by confusion. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I think- I think they say I am two people. Isn’t that funny? Two people.”
“Haha, yeah, that’s funny,” I said, not knowing what to say. “Well, I think we’re going.” I stood awkwardly. Our parents started to leave and Laura bounded ahead, yelling, “Two people, two people, two people!” We reached our car, and although he didn’t say anything, I thought Dad slammed the door shut just a little too loudly. Mom started driving, but I couldn’t help but notice the slight swaying of the car as her hands shook the wheel. Dad stared out the window in sullen silence, arms crossed, jaw clenched. I didn’t know anything, I was confused, but it was more than enough to tell me that something was terribly wrong. Our usual liveliness had been smothered by a blanket of silent tension. Schizophrenia was more than just a funny word. Something had happened to Laura, to my sister.
At first, I could almost make myself believe that everything was normal. I woke up the next day, feeling revitalized and cleared of the previous day’s events. I had an ordinary day at school and at track practice. After dutifully finishing homework, I rushed into the kitchen at 8, expecting dinner to be ready as always. Instead, the table was empty, the stove cold. Upstairs in Mom’s bedroom, I found her sitting on the edge of the bed with her chin in her hands, elbows on her knees. Her eyes seemed to stare without seeing. When she noticed me, she sat up straight and looked at me expectantly, but I noticed her face, creased like crumpled paper.
“Dinner?” I suggested timidly.
Mom’s eyes widened. “Oh my gosh,” she said quietly, after a short pause. “I’m so sorry, Lana. I was thinking and I lost track of time… I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay, Mommy,” I said. Mom smiled faintly, but something about her demeanor was wrong. She seemed distracted, playing with her hands and hair. I knew it had to do with the doctor yesterday, but I was afraid to ask. My mom, who had always been so strong, someone I could lean on, now seemed so delicate, so fragile. Curiosity and caution battled in my mind.
“Mommy, what happened to Laurie? What did the doctor say yesterday?” I tried to sound sweet, so I wouldn’t upset her, so I wouldn’t make another fold in her origami-paper face.
“Lana honey, nothing happened to Laura. Don’t worry about her.” Mom placed a tentative hand on my shoulder.
“But Laura says she has sheezafrenia.”
Mom pursed her lips. “Oh, that. There’s nothing wrong with Laura. It’s just… something she has. So she has different personalities sometimes.”
“Is that why Laurie says she has voices?”
“Yes, Lana. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Then why are you so worried?”
“I am not worried,” my mom snapped. “Your sister is fine. I’m going to make dinner for you girls now.” She stood from the bed, abruptly, and left. I listened to her footsteps down the stairs until I couldn’t hear anymore. Then I left the room, too. The click of the door behind me sounded like a gear turning into place- yet I didn’t understand anything, not at all.
Laura had her first episode that weekend, during breakfast. After frantic searching, she complained, “Where’s the cereal?”
“We ran out yesterday,” I told her. “How about pancakes or oatmeal?”
“No,” said Laura stubbornly. “I only want cereal.”
“Well, we don’t have cereal, so can’t you eat something else?”
“No,” Laura insisted, a little more defiantly. “Cereal.”
“Laura, stop. There’s no cereal,” I said, annoyed. Laura could get unbelievably stubborn.
Laura stamped her foot. “There is cereal. You’re lying to me.”
“There is cereal there is you’re hiding it you’re lying! LIAR!”
Dad coughed. “Don’t start a fight, girls.”
“She started it,” said Laura petulantly. “She won’t gimme cereal!”
“There isn’t any cereal,” Dad pointed out.
Laura’s bottom lip quivered. Suddenly, she turned and sprinted away. I heard her crashing up the stairs, slamming her door, bursting into muffled wails.
“She’s crazy,” I muttered, breaking the silence downstairs.
“Lana!” my mom scolded. “Don’t say that about your sister!”
“What, what’s wrong with-”
“Okay,” I mumbled. “I’m leaving.” I trudged upstairs into my bedroom. But once my parents downstairs had dispersed, I knocked on Laura’s door instead.
“Who’s that?” warbled Laura’s wounded voice.
“It’s me. Lana.”
“Fine, come in.”
I went inside and sat next to my sister on her purple rug. She was no longer crying, but her eyes were puffy and red.
“What happened, Laurie? Why were you so upset about cereal?”
Laura sighed. “I wasn’t, really. I went into the kitchen and saw you and I felt so annoyed, like I hated you. It was weird. I don’t hate you, but I just felt really mad and needed to yell. Sorry.”
“Umm… was it the voices again?”
Laura nodded uncomfortably.
“Tell me about your voices, Laurie,” I prompted.
“I can’t remember all of them. There’s Katie, Annie, Lizzie.”
“What do they say? Are they telling you to- to be mean?”
“Well, Katie is really bossy. She says who I can be friends with and who I should hate.” Laura stuck out her bottom lip. “Annie always agrees with Katie, but she makes me do bad things. Except she tells me the bad things are all cool. Like, Annie says it’s funny when I poke you and Mommy with forks. And Lizzie, Lizzie is so mean. She says I should hate myself. She tells me to jump out of windows and touch the stove.”
“Aww, I’m sorry,” I said, unsure of how to respond. “Can I… help?”
“Wait, no!” said Laura, suddenly agitated. “I forgot- I forgot 71.” She pouted. “I don’t wanna talk about 71.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to.”
“No, I want to! No- I have to tell you. 71 is the meanest. He tells me to hurt other people. Like, he says I should strangle the cat and kill Mommy and Daddy in their sleep. 71 said to hit you with a knife this morning.”
“Wow, that’s scary,” I sympathized. “Don’t you hate your voices?”
Laura grinned through her face of dry tears. “No, no, I like them. I know they’re bad, but I like them. I don’t know why.”
“I see,” I assured her, but I really didn’t.
Over the next months, Laura’s behavior slipped continuously. She was having episodes daily, and Mom had to pull her out of school and homeschool her, although Laura did little if any learning at home. Her “math” classes with my parents often regressed into bouts of screaming and bawling that resulted in Mom ignoring everyone for the rest of the day and Dad doing everything too loudly- walking turned to stomping, eating turned to chomping. Actually, my parents never really paid attention to me anymore. It was what I would have always wanted before, peace and freedom, but back then, Laura was my confidant. But now, she was too fickle, too fragile, too volatile.
So what could I do? There was no one to talk to, anywhere. My classmates asked me why my sister had disappeared, but I couldn’t bear to tell them. I strung together frantic, far-fetched explanations that only my teachers pretended to believe. I knew I was becoming increasingly closed-off, but I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t counter it. It was all happening too quickly, too suddenly, that it felt like I was frozen in time, unable to move or react, while the rest of the world was on fast-forward, zooming ahead. I became irresponsible and hopelessly entangled in my thoughts. My friends grew suspicious. “Lana, are you okay?” they asked every day. “Lana, is everything fine?”
“Yes, I’m alright, I’m okay.”
At first, they couldn’t take that for an answer. I saw their concern as they followed me around school, maintaining forced conversations. I saw it in their eyes, when they glanced furtively at the scrapes and scars on my discolored legs before quickly averting their gaze. But after a while, the extra attention dwindled into normality, and everything, at least on the outside, was okay again.
On the inside, though, things were anything but okay. I began to dread returning home from school. Although I kept reminding myself that the bus ride was an opportunity to socialize and enjoy life before the daily torture began, my mind was preoccupied with dread for the upcoming hours. More often than not, I found myself staring wistfully out the window as roads zipped by, contemplating my life, my dreams, and my future. But those thoughts invariably led to thoughts of home. Of my mother and father, and of Laura.
It had been nearly a year since the Diagnosis Day, as I had come to call it, and the signs of stress were all over me, from the dark-as-mascara circles around my tired eyes to my unkempt hair and disheveled clothing. My whole family was breaking- physically, emotionally, financially. Laura’s treatment wasn’t cheap, and my mother had recently been diagnosed with clinical depression. She quit her job to care for Laura, and now my father was toiling endlessly to pay not only taxes but their hefty health bills as well. He was trying so hard to be the perfect parent, by buying us little gifts and cheering us up with dad-jokes, but it broke my heart to see that barely beneath the exterior, my father was crumbling, too.
After a particularly bad episode that left my mother cowering underneath her bed, shaking and sobbing, I took a length of rope and tied a noose on one end, attaching the other to the handle of my open window. I carefully stepped onto the sill and put my head through the noose, poised to jump. Experimentally, I pulled the knot against my neck. It felt strong; powerful, and it was frightening to realize I was holding something that could easily end me. I stepped back from the sill and discarded the noose, but the fact that I had even considered jumping terrified me.
Months passed. Emotion was gradually receding from Laura’s face, a common side effect to schizophrenia. The corners of her lips sunk, settling in a puffy pout. The light faded from her once-animated eyes, rendering them dull, lifeless, empty. Her delusions were worsening as well. She refused to enter her room at night because of “the demons.” I tried to take it lightly, but she was screaming herself hoarse with hysteria. Yet sleeping in the same room to ease her fear just wasn’t safe. She was dangerously violent, and the delusions gave her superhuman strength. In the end, I spent many sleepless nights listening to her wails in the next room, wishing and waiting for oblivion.
One late June day, I was outside getting the mail when I felt my chest contract. My heart started pounding, and I drank air in rapid, thirsty gulps, unable to breathe. I rushed inside and called weakly for my parents. There was no answer, so I ran up to my mother’s bedroom and flung the door open. She wasn’t there, but her room reeked of cigarette smoke, an odor that never used to be there. On the ground, rolling aimlessly, were empty liquor bottles.
I took an uneasy step back, heart in my throat. My mother had never drank or smoked before. If she, the strongest women I knew, had succumbed to these temptations, what did that mean for me? I had never felt so alone, so vulnerable, so powerless. It was awkward remembering that this broken, beaten, helpless girl was my mother, that I was supposed to look up to her, that she was supposed to be my role model. Did I love her? Of course I did. But I couldn’t respect her, not like this- the girl who left me alone to deal with my sister’s wrath while she cowered in her bedroom, hiding from her own daughter; the girl who escaped her problems by drinking and smoking and crying; the girl who hit Laura during one of her episodes and punched the wall repeatedly, sobbing, “I can’t do it! I can’t take it anymore!” Thinking that way made me feel guilty, but I knew that I had to move on, that the times when I could look to my mother as a parental figure had passed. For ten years, my mother had helped me. But now, our roles were reversed. Now, I had to help her.
The past two years had felt like running downhill- heart pumping, arms flailing, unable to control myself, breathless with exhaustion. I was distancing myself from everyone. With my father, we exchanged only bland pleasantries. With my mother, we pretended that everything was normal by ignoring each other, but the tension between us was tight as twisted ropes. Once honest, meaningful conversations with my friends turned into back-and-forths of feeble, empty remarks. Though I tried to stay positive through it all, to carry my burden like a trophy, it hurt to make small talk with the people I once told everything.
My panic attacks were increasing in frequency, yet still nobody noticed. I crept out of bed at night to eavesdrop on my parents, not out of curiosity, but because it was routine, a habitual means of self-defense. I had an extreme fear-of-missing-out- I had lost so much of my childhood that I couldn’t bear the thought of missing any more. One night, I heard my parents conferring quietly downstairs. I knew from the tone of their voices that it was different and important, so I kept perfectly still, straining to catch the words. I couldn’t hear it all, but I heard “going too far,” “dangerous,” and “institution,” enough to tell me what was happening, and how serious it really was.
Alarm raced through me. The panic gave way to indignation and then anger. After all that they’d done, after all we’d sacrificed for Laura, how could my parents just hand her in? She had caused pain, misery, and mountains of inconvenience, yet she was my sister, and my parents’ daughter, and we would not just give her up like that. And I knew I would never let it happen.
As always, time passed. Despite staying up every night to eavesdrop on my parents, I heard only general comments, filler dialogue that could be cut-and-pasted to fit any gap in their conversation- the oh-Laura-had-five-episodes-today and the do-you-think-we-should-teach-her-long-division and the sure-but-she-barely-knows-her-times-tables. I didn’t hear another mention of sending Laura to an institution, but our family was nonetheless drifting ever-further apart. My father used to tease Laura, as they tossed playful jests to each other in Laura’s better moods, and my mother used to snap back at her during certain episodes, but even that was all gone now. They became impossibly polite to Laura- yet it was vacant, meaningless niceness, the kind reserved for strangers. With nobody else to vent to, and perhaps tired of each other as well, my parents turned on me. I became the scapegoat of all our problems- the convenient explanation for every wrong, no matter how irrelevant.
I tried to stop it, I hated myself for it, yet still I couldn’t help it- I began to resent my sister for what she had done, for all the agony she had caused, for the childhood she had stolen from me. A life without Laura would have meant an easier, happier life. A life, perhaps, of playdates with Maddie and Ben and other former friends, of cruise ships and boardwalk strolls, of chasing after Frisbees with premature legs in the cool damp lawns of summer. And the more I thought about that, the stronger grew my grudge.
It was my thirteenth birthday, and unsurprisingly, Laura started the day with an episode. After sobbing into my bedsheets for an hour, I went outside, thinking that a walk would clear the despairing thoughts that plagued my mind. I started along the path, relishing in the rare tranquility, lost in my brooding thoughts. But in our overgrown garden, I found Laura sitting cross-legged on the ground, picking and arranging weedy flowers. In the soil- I strained to decipher her crooked letters- she had scratched the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY LANA.
I stumbled forward. It was only a little thing, yet I was so accustomed to being forgotten and neglected that to have someone remember my birthday at all was entirely unfamiliar. I felt a sudden rush of affection for Laura. I had always loved my sister, yes, but ever since that horrible Diagnosis Day, my love for Laura had been masked by a sheen of humiliation and fear. But as I stood watching her weaving weeds through her fingers to gather my birthday bouquet, her features eternally passionless yet her fingers nimble and her gait lively, I realized that despite all the trouble she had caused, I couldn’t imagine a life without Laura and her voices, without the screaming and the fighting and the long, meaningful heart-to-hearts on her purple rug. In the end, she was irreplaceable. And I know that sudden revelations are fairy-tale material, that epiphanies are cliché, but right then, I felt all my doubts- all my guilt and my fear and my terribly complicated feelings- slip and fall away, and as I took a long stride forward, I felt as if I were leaving it all behind, and stepping out to venture into something… newer. Braver. Better.
“Don’t ever leave me, Laura.”
She looked up blankly from her bouquet. “Why?”
“Because I love you.”