Illustrations by Marne Graham

'It's the Devil': Coming to Terms with My Sister’s Schizophrenia

Growing up, I saw my sister as a rival and a bully. Then we found out she had a severe mental illness, and I had no idea how to break through to her.

Jun 3 2016, 3:35pm

Illustrations by Marne Graham

We knew there was a problem when my sister started tacking up black sheets over the windows in her bedroom.

"It's because of the helicopters," my sister, Amber, said. "It's the FBI. They're after me."

We started to realize the full severity of the problem when she called the LAPD around 2 AM one day, claiming my mother had a shotgun and was planning to use it. The cops came by and sneaked their way up the dark stairway of our home in the San Fernando Valley, guns drawn, and when I walked out from my bedroom, all groggy and confused, they yelled at me to put my hands where they could see them.

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Despite never having previously had a gun pointed at my face, I wasn't scared. Instead, I was annoyed that the whole mess had woken me up. The onset of my sister's illness didn't disturb me much—mostly because I had almost always seen her as a rival. Throughout our childhood and adolescence, she always outshone me, taking home awards and straight A's for her giftedness in math, science, English, French, and history, while I sort of stumbled through school with a 3.0 GPA. With her 6'2" frame, Amber starred on the volleyball and basketball teams, winning even more accolades. I tried out for both and didn't make the cut.

She also taunted the shit out of me, calling me "King Tut" because my naturally curly hair, which frizzed out right at my chin in the shape of Tut's headdress. She called my thighs chunky, she called my drawings stupid, and when I lashed out in response to this incessant teasing, she'd say, "Temper, temper," throwing me into an even blinder rage. My parents agreed that she always "started it," and they constantly chastised her for aggravating me when I just wanted to be left alone.

I also had my own problems when the cops crept up my stairs—I was 16, boyfriend-less, and weathering the nascent stages of binge eating disorder. At that point, I was gaining five pounds every week, and, as a result, sinking into depression and struggling with constant irritability and a perpetual bad attitude.

Unfortunately, by the time the cops saw me, they'd already cuffed my mother, who stood barefoot on our brick porch in her baby pink flannel nightgown, which was cut right below her knees. The soles of her feet must have been freezing, given that it was the middle of January, and back in the 90s, the San Fernando Valley dropped down to around 45 degrees after the sun went down.

Mom didn't get pissed or belligerent in those cuffs. Instead, she stood limp and lifeless, unsuccessfully trying to spit out what really happened between sobs. Her words were unintelligible because of the crying. It both broke my heart and filled me with disdain—she seemed so helpless, so unable to fight. And I knew it was up to me, despite my bad attitude, to straighten things out.

With two clunky retainers in my mouth that gave me a veritable speech impediment, I explained my sister's condition to the cops. "My sister's crazy," I said in a lisping slur. "She's imaging things."

Amber stood behind me, on high alert, still terrified. I later learned that this particular delusion had hit when my mom was already asleep: Out of nowhere, without even interacting with my mother, Amber had become convinced my mom was in her room, loading up a shotgun to kill her, which lead her to call the cops. She'd said nothing to my mom or me prior to making the call.

"My mother doesn't have a shotgun. So can you please take off the cuffs?"

Thankfully, they obeyed.

And when my sister countered with, "No, she does have a gun! I saw it!" I just said, "Ignore her," to the cops, in a cold flat tone.

Whatever was going on with Amber, I thought, it would certainly pass. She was the superstar, the salutatorian of her high school class who scored entrance to UC Berkeley. She was the pretty one, tall and slender yet still with nice curves. Her hair, thick and straight and chestnut-colored, fell down to her shoulder blades, far nicer than my King Tut 'do.

My mother doesn't have a shotgun. So can you please take off the cuffs?

She was my nemesis, constantly making fun of me, constantly upstaging me, and, if she wasn't doing that, ignoring me altogether.

Later, we learned that her incessant taunting, an immature habit, fell right in line with a predisposition for schizophrenia. Though Amber was gifted, she didn't have the emotional self-awareness that I had as a kid. When she wasn't studying or playing sports, she had two distinct personalities: rude and mean or completely zoned out. Pictures of us as kids reveal this. I'd be making smartass faces and big smiles into the camera, while Amber appeared distant, foggy, emotionless, and aloof.

Her mental illness kicked in right as she failed out of her first term at UC Berkeley, most likely due to her round-the-clock weed use. There's little doubt—at least according to every psychiatrist she's ever visited—that the pot catalyzed the latent schizophrenia that had been dormant in her brain since birth. It's a solid enough hypothesis, given my paternal grandfather was also schizophrenic. Like male pattern baldness, mental illness often skips generations.

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At home, she'd curl up around her stereo, blasting the Beatles and the Who and seeking respite from the noises in her head.

"There are pops in my head," she would complain, terrified. "This constant loud popping noise."

After about six months of this behavior, my parents really started to worry. I was numb to it.

"Aren't you concerned about your sister?" my dad asked as we ate shitty eggs and bacon at a Marie Calendar's near his house in Orange County. But I so detached from Amber due to our strained relationship that I couldn't even answer the question.

"I don't know how you can be so cold about this," he added.

I remember shoving those rubbery eggs around with my fork, unwilling to eat them since I'd binged on a dozen or so doughnuts the night before, and gazing out the window. Rays from the blinding Southern California sun ricocheted off the blades of the stubby palm trees planted outside the restaurant. The entire landscape glittered, making me feel even more depressed.

"Because it's going to be fine," I finally said, irritated. "She's going to get better. Why are you guys worrying so much?"

But she didn't get better. Instead, she started climbing the brushy hills behind our house during 110-degree summers—with bare feet—and standing on top the hills,waiting for God to suck her up into heaven because angels had informed her that the apocalypse was coming. She'd return home with welts beneath her toes and heels from the blazing-hot sidewalk, along with a severely sunburnt face. The next day, her cheeks and chin and forehead would break out in unsightly blisters the size of quarters.

After a few 14-day stints in psych units that resulted in Amber taking meds—meds that actually began to work on the paranoia—my mind began to adjust to the reality that my sister had developed a severe mental illness.

Schizophrenia, the doctors told us, brought on severe and delusional paranoia—hence Amber thinking that my mother had a shotgun or that the FBI spied on her or that angels had prophesied an apocalypse. While the doctors said she wouldn't become violent or aggressive, they warned us there was a chance that she would put herself or others in danger in an effort to protect herself. She soon confirmed this when my mother was driving her down Sepulveda Boulevard, en route to a doctor's appointment during afternoon rush hour. Amber opened the passenger door while the car was slowing down toward a red light and jumped out, running from the vehicle. Once again, she feared my mother would physically harm her.

But, according to the doctors, a good medication regime could alleviate this kind of paranoid psychosis. First, they gave Amber old-school Haldol, one of the first medications used to treat schizophrenia in the 1950s. It took away the psychosis but also slowed her mind and body to a near-halt, and she slept all day when she was on it. My parents wouldn't have that, so the doctors switched her to Clozaril, a newer antipsychotic and the only one that actually alleviated her symptoms without turning her into a zombie.

Unfortunately, Clozaril gives many users irresistible food cravings while simultaneously sending their metabolism into a nosedive. Amber didn't escape this side effect: She put on about 200 pounds after taking it for just a couple of months. This visible manifestation of her illness flipped a switch in my brain. I could see the severity of her illness for the first time, and the weight gain softened my attitude toward her and cracked open my heart. From there, it continued to break.

A few months after Amber gained 200 pounds, her obsession with Jesus kicked off. During a particularly bad spell, after going off her meds in 2003, she called me and frantically yelled, "I'm the Lamb of God, and I'm going to be crucified."

I was driving through Laurel Canyon at night. I was alarmed by the distress in her voice and tried, unsuccessfully, to talk her down from the delusion. "Amber, you're not going to be crucified. It's all in your head!"

"You're lying," she said and hung up.

This led to a months-long stay in a run-down psychiatric hospital. It was a place where residents had little to do, save for strolling through a small cage-like outdoor area the size of a dining room. When I brought her a stuffed teddy bear to cheer her up she thought it was the Beast from the Book of Revelation and refused to keep it.

"It's evil," she said. "It's the devil."

I took it back home, dismayed. My stoic denial had turned into crushing sadness for a sister I had failed to connect with—a sister who was now seemed like she was slipping away for good.

My stoic denial had turned into crushing sadness for a sister I had failed to connect with.

For the most part, Amber lived with my mother. I took another step back. I didn't know how to deal with her or our broken and fraught relationship, so I became passive. I'd only see her at family functions: birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day, or Father's Day. Every once in a while, I'd reach out and take her to lunch or a movie or to a coffee shop, and I would leave rattled. There was still a small part of me that held onto the delusion that she'd somehow snap out of it.

Then there were the times I'd go on drunk benders and in a stupor start sobbing to the point of hyperventilation. Sometimes I'd punch the car window with my fist or throw beer bottles across my apartment. They'd smack into the wall and shatter; for whatever reason, this made me feel better. I needed to rage against what I thought was brutal unfairness.

I've had 20 years to process Amber's illness, and, today, it seems far less apocalyptic than it did even five years ago. At this point, I've accepted that it's not going anywhere, and I've shifted my perspective to focus on the positives.

She's safe. She's not on the street, nor does she want to be. Instead, she lives in a comfortable board-and-care in North Hollywood because my mother is getting older and can't take care of her. She's compliant with her medication, which keeps the delusions and paranoia at bay for the most part. She has a family who loves her. Despite the weight gain and even the ensuing type 2 diabetes, she's reasonably healthy. Though it's true our country can do far more in terms of providing government-subsidized mental health care and housing, she's still much better off here on US soil than she would be in a developing nation that lacks social security disability insurance. And she has ambitions—she's taken classes in drawing and accounting at the junior college. She even earned a degree in theology from King's College.

Just a few days ago, I took Amber out for her thirty-eighth birthday. She wanted to hit the El Pollo Loco for one of those two-pound burritos packed with chicken, rice, beans, and lots of cheese.

In between bites, she told me that she started a Bible study at her board-and-care. "People come," she said happily, her large brown eyes opening wide. "Tom comes. Susan comes. And this nice woman, Diane, comes."

After lunch, we sat on her extra-long twin bed in the small room she shares with an elderly woman in the board-and-care and continued talking. Above her bed hang two crosses that I've gifted her—one made of a red, yellow, and silver mosaic that I purchased in Barcelona, and another covered with multicolored Aztec beading that I bought in Mexico.

"Can I read the Bible to you?" she asked soon after we sat down.

"Sure," I said. Though I'm not a Christian, I know she loves reading the gospels to people—it's one of her favorite things to do.

She picked up a small blue leather-bound New International Version from a wooden bedside table and lowered her head to the book with reverence, her chin-length brown hair falling toward her eyes. A few new lines had formed in her fair skin, reminding me that we're both getting older and that it's important to spend as much time with her as possible. She pulled her hair behind her ears and started reading from the Beatitudes in the Book of Matthew: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

As she read, her entire being calmed. Her voice grew steadier and more confident. I listened. Even though I'm not a believer, the tranquility in her tone and the words she read moved me.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

In that moment, she seemed so well, so grounded, as though she had no mental illness. The more she read, the more I listened, connecting with words, connecting with her, ready and willing to accept and love her exactly as she is.