This column, and two related columns, recently won first place in the Original Column category for large weekly newspapers. It first ran in Austin Weekly News on Aug. 6, 2014.
When my father called last week from Kentucky to tell me my sister had died, my response was, “Dad, I’m glad she’s not in pain anymore.” Was I shocked? No. Was I in shock? Yes. This was the end of my sister’s long struggle with mental illness and addiction. And I was happy for her.
I set about the business one does when they learn of loss. I sent some text messages to a few close friends. I made a few phone calls. I rearranged my schedule. I talked to a friend who informed me I was, in fact, in shock. And then I prepared myself to tell my son Paxton that his Aunt Sandy had died.
Paxton was not surprised. Over the course of his lifetime, he was blessed to have the best moments my sister could muster up. They were close. He was her rock. He was the glimmer of hope that someday she could have a normal life. And he was the threat. The “take-away” if she couldn’t keep herself clean.
We aren’t sure when my sister’s struggles began. Was she born with mental illness? Did it begin when she lost her baby 14 years ago? We know it ended her marriage. I wasn’t aware of it until about 10 years ago, when I had to make the tough decision that I couldn’t leave Paxton alone with her ever again. That day came when, while babysitting Paxton, Sandy called me at work to say that Paxton was lethargic and she thought he had been drinking from a bottle of Drano. By the time I arrived at her house, she had forgotten about the call, and Paxton was fine.
Sandy’s mental illness often surfaced in myriad odd ways. Faking accidents and falls, odd conversations that made no sense, parking her car on train tracks, and so on. Stories about strangers coming into her backyard and molesting her while sunbathing. Stories about brain tumors. Typically these events landed her in an emergency room, where she could get access to narcotics or secure some sort of lock up. And drama, always drama.
The connection between addiction and mental illness is strong. The term for this is comorbidity. I believe my sister’s addiction stemmed from a need to numb her pain. Sandy was cunning and stubborn. From cough syrup to narcotics, she could always find access to a fix. Mail order drugs. Internet hook ups. Ebay. Airports.
My sister was in and out of rehab for the past 10 years. She thrived under lock and key. She had so much potential. On a ward, she was witty yet kind. She was a leader. Out of rehab, she usually had a few good days before things returned to status quo. My parents cared for her in Kentucky, always giving her a soft place to fall. At one point a neighbor told me my dad had tied Sandy to her mattress to prevent her from leaving the house to find alcohol or drugs. She made it all the way to the front lawn on that mattress — a spectacle of shame. I can’t imagine all that my parents have been through, although I’ve seen enough of my sister at her worst to understand the possibility of giving up hope.
Paxton recently visited my family and saw Sandy at her worst. She couldn’t pick herself up to enjoy his company. I knew it was almost over for her. My parents begged Paxton not to tell me how bad things were. They feared I wouldn’t let him return to visit them if I knew the truth. Of course he told me everything the minute he got off the airplane. I was angry for a day, but then I called my dad to tell him I would continue to pray for my sister, for them, and I hoped for an end to my sister’s pain.
Sandy made headline news in Kentucky when she died. I couldn’t help but watch the videos of strangers reporting the news of her death. Good old dependable Google: cassandra hotel pool dead
The night my sister died, Paxton and I were Out & About on the West Side. We stopped by a gala for the Bobby E. Wright Behavioral Health Center in West Garfield Park. We wanted to support our friends who serve with us as West Garfield Park Community Stakeholders — committed to a drug-free West Side. And then we stopped by Sankofa Cultural Arts Center in Austin to watch “War on Drugs,” a video by the West Side Writing Project, which shows how drugs have affected residents of one block in Austin. We didn’t know our sister, our aunt, was dying. The duality of mental health and addiction — made so clear and evident in supporting what our community cares about.
We are sad. But we will be OK. Paxton, more so than the rest of us, truly grasps the concept that Sandy is in a better place. She is with God. She is at peace.
I share with you my pain, my loss, because I know our community is in pain. As your community newspaper, we set the agenda for public debate. We single out the important issues and devote the resources to documenting and reporting on them, setting the course for argument and action.
My role as your associate publisher has been to highlight the good in our community. But I know the senseless violence, the killing, the pain, it all has to stop. We know mental illness and addiction contribute to this nonsense. We need to step up our commitment to you. As your paper, your voice, help us as we pull together an editorial vision to truly support our community and move us in a positive direction.
Dawn Ferencak, a Chicago resident, is associate publisher of Austin Weekly News and sales manager for Wednesday Journal Publications.