About My Sister

Still Life with Root Vegetables, Robert Spear Dunning, 1879

*Editor's Note: Some names in this essay have been changed.

Sometimes I write down quotes that my sister says. When I'm with her, I often keep myself so protected and measured that I can’t always appreciate some of the lines she says until I can look at them later, reflect on them.

But as long as I’m in her presence, trying to navigate a dinner, a coffee, a moment with her, I generally have a strategy of some kind that I’m trying out.

My sister has a mixed diagnosis history. The one that helps me to understand her the most, which she got from one of her therapists a while back, is Borderline with Schizoid Features and Depression. She is also psychic. She is also shockingly intelligent and well-read. I am also terrified of her.

“Now that Trump is elected, we will probably be eating more root vegetables,” Elizabeth said as I was cooking a dish of turnips and rutabaga for Thanksgiving dinner.

We hadn’t been talking about Trump, or even politics. But yes, there were root vegetables on the stove in front of me.

I told myself that I would only say rational, logical things to her, not to encourage her psychosis. This is a technique I made up with no guidance from a therapist or god or mother.

I gave my technique a try. “I don’t see what Trump has to do with root vegetables, Elizabeth.”

But I did know. I knew that she smelled, saw the vegetables, and her mind ran into association, linking them to a food of a time she imagined when things were scarce and people had less, lived on farms, counted potatoes.

She meant that times would be scarce now in a similar way, although we have food, there is an emotional scarcity. I know that this is what she was referring to.

It scares me that I often know why she says the things she says.

I once volunteered at a camp for children of mothers with breast cancer. One of the facilitators was Tom. Tom had once been a therapist of my sister’s. I went to a therapy session with him once to have a dialogue with Elizabeth, so Tom and I knew each other.

During the course of the camp, I found myself actively trying to prevent Tom from thinking that I was like my sister. I tried to meter my actions, my comments to seem the most like that of a sane person that I knew how to sound. I confessed this to Jaclyn, my friend and another volunteer in the program, who was and is, thankfully, awesome.

“I’m worried that Tom is going to think I’m like my sister,” I told Jaclyn as we walked up a winding asphalt path on the spiritual center’s campus.

She heard me. “Becca, now that you’ve said that, I want you to prove to Tom that you are insane.” she said. “Make it a goal.” We made it to the top of the hill and I breathed out.

Jaclyn was right. I have a complex inside of me that says I need to prove to the world that I am sane, so that they don’t see me the way they see my sister. But this is a complex that I invented on my own, private only to me. It does just as well to turn the complex on its head, play the opposite, to try to actually be insane. To hope that others leave with the impression of me as a little unhinged. The result is usually that I act more like myself, rather than a caricature of someone who walks inside of the lines. Others’ concepts of me ultimately don’t hold as much weight as I give them, and it provides me a sigh of relief to give myself permission to be myself, who is, in truth, a little bit insane.

One move I’ve made with my insanity is to enroll in a creative writing program and get my MFA. I find myself drawn to surrealistic authors like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, and now Joy Williams. I gravitate toward symbolic and magical themes in the fiction stories that I’ve written for the program. My first mentor complained that my writing had no structure, switched POV frequently, had no clear beginning, middle, end. She wasn’t wrong. I don’t believe that we only have one self. I don’t believe we have only one POV, or that only one arc happens in our stories. Where could I have gotten these ideas, these perceptions, which come out more and more apparently in my writing? Like my sister, I can make broad associations between ideas that seem unrelated, and it’s often what I find myself trying to do in my writing. Could it be that she has always made comments which seem so far astream from the situation at hand that I’ve had to develop the muscle to tie them together, to make wide associations, metaphors, to make sense of her perception of the world?

In a way, my sister could be an endless source of writing prompts. Trump gets elected and a family wakes up to find a sack of root vegetables on their porch the next morning. Write from there.

I still have no idea how to get through a conversation gracefully with Elizabeth. It’s not easy at all. I still don’t know how to manage the guilt that comes from being a mentally abled person while she is not entirely. Those parts remain untied.

But after our conversations, there’s almost always one or two things that come out of her mouth that are worthy of a place in my notebook.

Saying goodbye to my sister once, she looked at me and said “I’m glad you are where most people are.”

I don’t know what it means, but I wrote it down.

Becca Wild is currently earning her MFA in Fiction at Antioch University. Her work has appeared in Chronogram, Awosting Alchemy, and The Huffington Post. She is currently writing a collection of short stories.