Austine Christmas 2013Writing about family mental illness is a lot like treating an open wound: you flinch, unsure if it’s really worth it. Only later does one see the healing.

A week ago I saw my sister Austine, on the occasion of her birthday, and I haven’t been able to write a word of this blog since.

You see, there’s this depth of fear in her eyes that haunts me, an inconsolable sadness.

Plus, she doesn’t speak. My sister Austine is sunk in silence, so meekly catatonic that the vast distance between us fills me with dread. She’s as unreachable as a distant star, and I am helpless to help her.

Brother and Sister Stick FiguresI found her a week ago Wednesday where I usually do, asleep in her very nice single room, this day on her 57th birthday.

I sat on her bedside. She seemed happy to see me at first, though she didn’t talk, responding “yes” or “no” in a tone with the same sad inflection that matches her visage.

Hello, goodbye, yes, no, and I don’t think so are the only words she’s able to muster.

“Did they have a cake for your birthday?” I ask, trying in vain to provoke some sort of small exchange.


I find out later that the house had. Austine wasn’t being coy. She lacks the cognition to converse.

Whatever schizophrenia is, it’s robbed her brain’s prefrontal cortex of the capacity to process the simplest answer to the simplest question.

Through her group home and government disability care, she is offered a variety of rehabilitation, peer support, and education services, but Austine has been unable to make use of them.

Medication causes her to walk with a shuffle and there’s a yellowish pallor of skin, a consequence of 40 years of heavy smoking.

Lots of teeth have fled her mouth, and she won’t be taken to see a dentist. She won’t say why. She can’t say why.  We’ve pleaded, to no avail.

Which reminds me of a recent news story about a British woman, diagnosed with schizophrenia, who’d won the right not to have her leg amputated even though it had been infected with gangrene that was spreading.

Justice Peter Jackson ruled that the choice was hers to make as “a part of what it means to be human.” He said a forced amputation would amount to a “criminal assault.”

I agree. I’d never force aging Austine to do anything against her will, as compromised as her capacity to make rational choice is.  Who doesn’t dislike dental visits? Her fear is nearly normal.

We don’t know because, for 35 years, she’s been unable to verbalize her thoughts, but if she’s determined not to do something, then she can make her wishes known.

All we can say for sure is that schizophrenia hit her like a cannonball–quickly and with enormous impact–as she was leaving adolescence. Before it hit, Austine was the life of the party. Ever since, you’ve never met anyone more shut down.

The before-and-after contrast could not be starker. When you live twenty years with a girl whose brightness dazzles, you never get used to the 36 years of deep, zombie-like schizophrenia that follow.

Austine and I were as tight as teenage siblings could be, back when she had a sparkling personality–lively, lovely, funny, quick, sharp, cool, and the best dancer this side of the nineteen seventies.

Those are the nicest memories, but on the occasion of her birthday, the only feeling I have is the anguish of absence.

I always think of mom when I see Austine. She was mom’s fourth child—and second daughter with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia arrived like a windy breeze through an open window, and then returned a few years later through another window, and then swept mom into an early grave.

She’d seen enough of the whole tornado returning too many times. It’d taken not just two daughters, but her own mother and brother as well, before it came back to scoop up Austine, the cruelest case of all.

Mom couldn’t face it. She was looking right at Austine the moment she died. Looking at her baby girl, whose mind had been run down by a train, she died.

Fast forward near four decades, and Austine refuses to leave the premises of her red-brick residential home, even with me, her closest sibling.

Smoking cigs dished to her outside in the cold, she shudders and manages a hug back by way of saying goodbye.

I don’t cry easily, but on my way out of Austine’s, I’m always a man of quick tears.