When you lose a soulmate, you lose pieces of yourself inside that pain. It started in December. I was seven years old, begging my mother to buy me Bratz dolls and Bulls-Eyes candies in CVS, while somebody I love was out on the train tracks of our hometown, tracing beer cans with his raw fingers. Dad hoped to kill his soul in the heart of one, two, three, another shot, just one more, until he was on the ground, passed out drunk. We were left to wonder why he got to leave us in this world, with nobody worth holding and nobody worth talking to.
I knew my sister was sad. At six, seven, eight, even nine, my mind grew more aware of the cigarettes and beer cans under her bed. I knew her bedroom walls better than I knew myself. I sprayed Febreeze when Mom was at work, when her room smelled a bit too incriminating.
When I was supposed to be studying times tables, reading Charlotte’s Web, and coloring outside the lines of life with no apologies, I was slipping slices of key lime pie under her door when her anger and sadness bounced off the walls like mosquitoes caught in a blinding light. My mother used to “go out for a drive,” looking for her lost soul, while my orders were to paint a picture or play with my dolls. I didn’t. As soon as I heard the gravel crumble on the driveway, I’d throw on my Crocs and run around the neighborhood like a crazed little girl looking for her lost puppy, all alone in the world, with nobody worth holding and nobody worth talking to.
This is how I knew my sister was sad. It didn’t come all at once; it was rotting eight years at a time. There were months at a time where I would see her smiling in between bites of cookie dough ice cream, watching the game, avoiding homework like it was her God-given talent. In Catholic school, they taught us to pray for hope for ourselves, but all I could seem to manage was hoping she’d stay alive for me.
Fast forward three springs, she became a world class phenomenon of sports and perfect SAT scores, all while surpassing a hangover. She was sitting in the front seat, wearing a shirt a bit too green for her liking, with her size 13 practice sneakers on the dashboard. It started out soft. It wasn’t all at once, with tears flowing out of her like a river of sadness; it was delicate, small talk becoming big talk, where her sadness just couldn’t seem to subside inside. For the first time in years, she was makeup-free, less color coded; she was complete and utter chaos, and I just had to take her storm by storm.
From one morning to the next, she became a walking tsunami; all torn up on the streets of our hometown with nowhere to go and nobody to see. I was on to new beginnings, graduating middle school with my $50 dress and hair done up in curls with makeup to hide my sadness. I whispered “I wish you were here” during the ceremony, and the boy I thought I loved at the time smiled at me and squeezed my hand, and all I could feel were constellations exploding inside of my mind, and I couldn’t breathe without the sound of her snores. They thought I missed Dad, but I wanted my sister there – whole and happy, not torn into pieces like the Barbies I used to play with.
I didn’t tell anybody. She was “away for lacrosse,” “busy working,” or “away with friends,” not deteriorating inside a rehab center, with nobody to hold and nobody worth talking to. I wrote her five letters. I sent one. The only one I had the courage to send was the one I dropped my Greek salad on and had a collision with my entire soul, right on the page. It was seven pages long. I just wanted to write I love you over and over again, but I thought she’d stop reading after the second page.
I visited. Once. The day before I became a counselor in training, when I was in pain but nobody knew it. Mom had been in shambles for weeks and I knew it was my job to hold the house together, because Dad wasn’t here to hold us, and Mom risked everything to keep my sister alive; so I sat in the front seat listening to Lana Del Rey and looking at the Berkshire mountains that she inhabited.
I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. When I started to feel oceans coming to shore in my tear ducts, I’d dig nails into my skin and punish myself. I had to be strong: for her and for me.
Fast forward: I cried. Well, that’s an understatement. I fell into her arms with a moan and collapsed in between her shoulders, my shield of armor unraveling like a roll of twine, and suddenly I looked into her soul and saw raw life. We were silent. She was the aftermath; no color coding here – she was complete and utter chaos. I knew to take her storm by storm; I’d been preparing for lifetimes already.
After the summer of hell, weight loss, sobriety pins, long phone calls, letters, and oh so many goddamn tears, she returned home. Not into my arms, but … home. From what I’ve heard she stood in front of the Division 1 Lacrosse team and told them only a fragment of her story: I’m an alcoholic.
Finally I saw her for the first time in three months. Her soul was recovering and so were her eyes. I hugged her so tight I think she stopped breathing. She hugged me back. We sat down to dinner and she smiled and I pretended not to be so completely obsessed with her healing, sneaking glances at her as she smiled at Mom with all of her heart and soul. This was when I knew she was going to be okay.
Currently, she’s doing okay. She goes to football games, calls us on weeknights, asks about old friends, shares music and her guitar learning process, speaks of her insecurities, and she laughs. She really laughs. If anybody should know a real laugh from her, it’s me. She’s gotten her heart broken, wanted to relapse, and time has stopped because of her pain, and that’s okay. Recovery isn’t just one straight shot up the mountain; it comes in jagged lines of bad days and good days.
Something I’ve learned through my years of observing her every move (and pretending not to) is to love so much my heart aches. I want epiphanies, stories to tell my grandchildren, adventures in New York City, surprise trifles, random phone calls, and most of all, I want my sister to be happy. I want to be happy. When she wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy. Even when she was just beginning to define recovery, I wasn’t happy. That’s okay. I’m learning to embrace the moment, remember the pain but not live through it again, talk about my struggles, seek help when I need it, and love the people I love most with all of me. I deserve happiness, and after her story, she sure as hell does too.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.