Not Normal |
by Eunice Flanders

The phone call reporting my younger sister, Lois’s, arrest came a day before Thanksgiving. It isn’t normal to hope a sister gets arrested, but all seven siblings did because in jail she was safe. Earlier phone calls from my sister Deb described how a few days earlier, Lois accidentally drove off a dirt road in East Montpelier, Vermont. Shaken she arrived home hoping to get hugs, but neither Neil, our nephew, or Naomi, my eldest sister, wanted to hug because they were scared of her. Lois, Naomi and Neil lived together in our childhood home. Lois, recently, had raised a knife threatening Naomi when they had argued. Neil told me Lois often stayed up all night mumbling and growling Native American chants as she piled furniture in front of her bedroom door. To keep out his evil spirit she said. It was clear she was off her meds he said, and she was not sleeping and was acting crazy.

A month earlier, I received a call from Lois telling me she had been fired from her job with Montpelier Public Schools after thirteen years. She ranted about her school environment; she suffered symptoms due to unhealthy working conditions---something bad was in the air. So then Deb called again and said Lois had built a stone totem on the school grounds and topped her Native American “message” with a plastic gun to protest her firing. The school placed a restraining order on her. She was told if she stepped foot on school property police would arrest her.

My sister Naomi and Neil, afraid of her anger avoided going home. With endless energy she rarely slept. Unlike the lows I grew up knowing, when she retreated into her bedroom and hid in silence and sleep, now she was full of energy and plans. She wrote jumbled messages to me on facebook:

"Where is the Love....

Eunie...if you cannot call me today...I do not know how to wipe the tears from my Eyes...I your sister...need beloved Strength...when I lost my Job...and I was being "Watched" by the district...myself and my former Land Lady with MS and a $3000 dollar a month med bill...I need my soul sister sunshine moonshine have always been my strength...I have been poor by choice...but I will be no business plans were put on a shelf for Mom and hit the ground running...when I...who never felt dis-abled...signed up...because she was feeling institutionalized...and I was time to leave...from about...Day one of this school year...I love you Eunie...more than words can say....

This Fall it is My Hopes and Dreams that I must live...and all is Falling into fast as I set the table...”

I could not stand the pain in her cries so I “unfriended” her and began to meet her calls with silence.

When Deb called and told me about Lois’s arrest it was a consequence of her unpaid truck payments and her not taking her drugs for bi-polar disorder. No longer able to afford her truck payments, her arrest resulted from her attempted escape from the repo man. She had spoken to him when he arrived at the house in East Montpelier, but Lois insisted that the truck was hers and she would get money. She left the house to pick up a pair of winter tires, at her friend’s house she later told me. With her black lab, Annie, she drove to Barre, to Raylene’s, but unbeknownst to her the repo man had followed. When she disappeared inside Raylene’s house, Lois left her dog behind and the keys in the ignition.

The repo man, seeing an opportunity, hopped in her truck and took the keys just as she walked out, tires in tow. She yelled, fought back. Annie barked and snarled at the repo man. Lois says she can’t remember what happened. Raylene says she grabbed on to the truck’s bumper in a rage. The repo man tried to dodge Annie and drive away. Lois held on to the bumper, refused to let go. So the repo man called the police. When the cop tried to pry her loose Lois assaulted him, and that’s how she ended up in jail. Safe at last.

There is no good time for a mental collapse, but this ordeal arrived just three months after the death of our father. Perhaps, in some twisted way, his death set up Lois’s irrational thinking. Naomi, the eldest, and Lois, the youngest, served as caretakers for both parents. Now both parents were gone. We were parentless. Both Naomi and Lois have struggled with emotional problems. I think, perhaps, Lois believed all her stress passed away with Dad; she thought she no longer needed her drugs. On top of that, when she was fired she lost her insurance so she could not afford her medication. By the time summer’s July heat hit she had escalated to a mania that grabbed her fast and pulled her high. She loved that high. I could see its gleam in her eyes.

Thinking back, I saw hints she was coming unhinged. On an early June visit with me she requested a Cosmopolitan. Bipolar disorder means she should not drink. I rationalized her request. She is an adult, I thought, what is wrong with drinking one martini? It is just one. So I mixed us drinks. We laughed and recalled how we got drunk my last year in high school. Lois remembered Mom’s anger. I was held culpable for her drunken state that left her puking. I remember how Mom held Lois’s head as she wretched herself empty. I stood by filled with cheap wine and guilt. I should have known better, I thought. Lois has bipolar disorder; she can’t drink alcohol. Ever.

As Lois spiraled out of control, one of her many complaints was that no one took time to call her once dad was dead. No one took her seriously. She was seen as weak and dependant, she complained. As her mood swung higher, she aimed to prove she was intelligent, not “dis-abled”. She was writing a business plan to start a daffodil farm she said. She has spoken to the bank about a loan. She had investigated state grants. We see her only as her illness, she complained. She would show us.

My full silence started after I foolishly intervened in a conflict between my nephew Neil and Naomi. I drove up to hike, and to help Lois clean her cluttered office. “Come back. Make it neat. Clear the sightlines,” she begged. So I figured I would combine hiking with helping.

Neil and I climbed Mount Mansfield, but the air and the steep downhill left me exhausted and my defenses were down when I faced our family dysfunction. I was sitting on a small couch surrounded by yellowed black line etchings that hung heavy on dusty wire, as I contemplated childhood memories in a parentless house. I had just pressed my head into a musty pillow on the narrow antique couch when an argument broke out. I stayed quiet until it got loud and what I thought was downright silly: missing vegetables in the garden. I tried to calm Naomi who was saying Neil needed to move out that night. Foolishly, I sided with Neil. So Naomi yelled “Out! You get out! Get out or I will call the police!” She, I later learned, like Lois was not taking her drug: Prozac.

Back home, I swore to never speak to either sister again. Lois had arrived home as I screamed at Naomi. I had let Naomi know that no one visited the house when Mom and Dad were ill except for me because of her. She loved to complain and make herself out as a martyr, but her ugly moods and selfishness had caused a rift in our family. She was the problem! I yelled. I wanted her to know what everyone was afraid to say to her face. I wanted to kill her with words. I screamed so loud and hard I lost my voice for several days.

As I threw my clothes into a bag tearing around to get out, Lois sat at the kitchen table and said nothing. I was there to help her clean and organize and she remained silent. Naomi had kicked me out of what is our jointly owned house and Lois had betrayed me. I should have known better and I should have been able to forgive, but I was stuck in my own stubborn willful ways. I was sick of “sick” and their dysfunction I told myself. So I drove away in the dark, away from the gloomy Green Mountains and the distant southern sky enveloped me like a blanket. I wanted to go home.

It took Lois being committed to the Waterbury State Hospital to break my silence. Deb’s call started the process of bringing us back into an uneasy dysfunctional normal. I made daily calls to Waterbury State Hospital. It was my penance. I listened to Lois, who refused any medication, say how President Obama was involved in her case against the school. “Injustice will not go unanswered,” she yelled. “Do you hear me? Do you understand?” Sitting in the cinderblock room on the ward, I watched her wild eyes glitter.

Once home, I dreaded punching the programmed cell key calling Waterbury State Hospital. But I did it every day for a month or so. I never knew how Lois would be. Sometimes we had semi-sane conversations. She asked me about my daughter. I told her how I was tracking down her repossessed truck. Later, I told her there was no way she would get it back. But she believed in my ability to fix all her wrongs. Often, her talk was nonsense and dissolved into screaming and she’d hang up. I said the wrong thing.

I began to drink red wine for courage and to dull my pain. Lois was lost in her delusions and I felt lost in a sludge pile of guilt and confusion. I stopped listening to NPR. I stopped reading the newspaper. I have enough trouble, I thought.

One particularly bleak night I wondered about myself. Am I normal? What is normal? On the bell curve at which point, in all the points on the rising line, sits the point of madness? Lois was clearly mad. Where do I fall? I wondered. Where did Naomi fall? She had suffered a breakdown and received shock treatments when I was in college. My father came back from World War II having pulled bodies off the fields as a medic, within three years was catatonic and hospitalized for over a year in the V.A. hospital in Boston. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome they call it now. Like Naomi, he only returned to normal after shock treatments. I surfed the Internet and read definitions describing depressive illnesses. What label best captured Lois’s condition? I knew she was labeled bi-polar. I looked up delusion.

Meanwhile, back in Vermont Lois got a court date. I drove up and witnessed her plea deal with the D.A. Ninety days in the mental hospital instead of a trial and jail. She still refused meds. She loved her “brilliant madness” as described by Patty Duke in her book about living with manic depression. Years before, Lois had asked me to read that book. I never did. For over one hundred days Lois refused to take medication.

I stopped calling every day. I received a $379.00 cell bill and with my own house underwater and just coming off a divorce, I couldn’t afford it. The truth was I didn’t want to listen anymore.

Then the issue of guardianship was raised. Of eight kids I was the one willing to take legal guardianship. So I signed the papers. I paid her bills, talked to her social worker, and worked on clearing up financial details.

In March, the end of winter in sight and under threat of forced injection, Lois finally took a pill. If she didn’t the court order said she would be strapped to a table and injected with lithium. Some sliver of sanity peaked through her mania and saved her.

Within weeks, Lois’s social worker called me. “You can pick her up on Friday,” she said. So I drove back to the Green Mountains. It was early spring and the snow was beginning to melt. I brought her home. I watched her hug and cry as she wrapped her arms around her black lab Annie. I made Sheppard’s Pie for her, my nephew, and my sister Naomi, who I no longer like. I stayed three days to give Lois time to adjust, to help get her back to living a normal life.

The Writer: Eunice Flanders teaches 8th grade English and teaches Writing and Communication at Berklee College of Music to freshman.
The Artist: Bob Craig is a Western Canadian artist whose path in the fine arts has led him to a unique expression of mood and color through collage and mixed media. He has explored numerous forms of art and craft; painting in watercolor and oils, pottery, sculpture and bead-making, to name a few. He has also worked in art restoration and education.