This article originally appeared on Transformations.
I remember that day so clearly. I was 8 years old. We lived in Tempe, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. I was outside playing hopscotch near the clothesline and Mum had just walked out to put up the washing. My sister Christine had just taken a shower and my mother was trying to process the conversation she just had with her. My mother said to me in Greek, “Katina, ask your sister what she just told me inside.”
Then without giving me a chance to ask Christine anything, Mother continued: “She thinks she can hear the man next door in our bathroom. We have to fix that, I’ve always thought there might be something wrong with the design of our homes so close to each other.”
I tried to reflect on Mum’s words, and then Christine said adamantly: “Katina, our next-door neighbor, Mr. Murray, somehow knew I was shaving my legs, and he said silly things to me in the bathroom.”
I tried to process why my brilliant and super intelligent sister had made such a statement. Christine was known to always tell the truth, be a perfectionist, and was an incredibly reliable and polite child and sibling. My earliest memories of Christine are teaching me the ABCs at about 2 years of age and how to add and multiply large numbers before I even began kindergarten. She was also our unanimous hair stylist, as my younger sister Dianne and I wished for plaits and braids in the mornings, just before she left for high school each day. In eighth grade, she was 5 feet 10 inches tall and about 120 pounds, and had recently put on braces. Christine was known for her calligraphic handwriting, exceptional creative writing pieces, and precision drawings. She was the top of her class. Gentle and patient, she was my go-to person whenever I had an assignment and needed someone to listen.
My mother interrupted my thoughts, “You see, what is she saying?”
I knew something was wrong but did not know what. Neither did Mother.
The most difficult day of my childhood was seeing an ambulance reverse into our long driveway right at the place that my three siblings and I would play tennis. Christine was near the vegetable patch breaking out into giggles, completely oblivious to the fact that she was about to be escorted by paramedics into the back of an ambulance and away from her home. As Christine resisted entering the van, our aunt who was present advised that my older brother, Arthur, not allow us to see what was about to take place. But we overheard the quick confrontation. And it was all too much. Within a few minutes, the ambulance was gone, and so was our eldest sibling.
I asked Arthur, what was going on? In my heart I thought I knew, but I required confirmation. I cannot imagine what my little sister, Dianne, was thinking. He sat us down in the granny flat and told us bluntly, “Our sister is insane.” We asked him what that was. And he said: “Christine is going crazy. She’s hearing voices.” From that moment onwards, I looked at “crazy people” in a different way. To me, my sister was normal, but something had just gone very wrong. She couldn’t take Panadol to stop the voices because what she had wasn’t like catching a cold. We’d need to learn to cope with it. But “crazy” sort of became the new norm for me.
Doctors later described what happened to Christine at 15 as a nervous breakdown leading to clinical depression, but their diagnosis eventually morphed into paranoid schizophrenia. After repeated attempts for Christine to sit her final years of high school, her grade 10 School Certificate did not show her brilliance, and attempts to complete grade 11 began well but ended horribly. The full marks in reports vanished, even her calligraphic writing began to waver. Her dream had always been to become a doctor. She became a chronic patient instead.
Christine underwent electroshock therapy around 1986. Following the treatment, she went into a catatonic state for about two years. She would stand for hours in the same spot, robot like, spaced out like, sometimes breaking out into laughter and other times crying like she was in agony. I would ask her to sit down, and it was like I was talking to a stone. Sometimes I would wave my hand over her field of vision the way a magician does to change their expression, and I would break her gaze but not always. What was she looking at? What did she find so funny on occasion? And what so desperately disturbing, and how could she go between both these states within moments?
We had to remove all breakable items in the house, ornaments and the like. She would at times unexpectedly pick them up and throw them toward us, but never meaning to harm us, purposefully falling short. There was a constant battle waging war in Christine’s head—the auditory hallucinations versus her ability to distinguish them as falsehoods not to be trusted. For a short time, Christine would say I was Brooke Shields.
I remember visiting her in hospital every day at about 6 in the evening and spending hours and hours in psychiatric wards, day after day. When things were particularly bad in the beginning, Christine was placed in maximum security. These were among my saddest moments.
Christine’s shape also changed over a matter of weeks. She gained weight acutely because she was heavily sedated on anti-psychotic drugs, and sometimes was so out of it, we would go to the hospital, sit by her bedside and not even speak.
My younger sister and I would often be creeped out by the other patients at the ward. Some would try to have abrupt conversations with us, others would unexpectedly grab us. We wondered why our sister was there when she was so smart, and since she was such a good child to my parents and had been an excellent student. What in the world had got her so sick?
My father was an anchor and my mother a vessel of unconditional love at these times. They never gave up on their eldest daughter, and kept talking to her, even if at times it looked like no one was listening.
I do not recollect Christine ever being violent in her choice of words or her actions. She had a gentleness about her that some would describe as saintly. This illness simply sucked the life out of her. Mum always wanted to tuck her into bed before we left the hospital. We found it difficult to reconcile the person we knew and loved, and the person that Christine had been reduced to by this illness.
My earliest memories of hospital psychiatric wards? An unclean stench that pervaded. Strange sounds coming from adults with an unkempt personal appearance, including worn-out clothing. And zero privacy for individuals and their families when they visited.
Christine was plagued by suicidal ideation in her late teens and attempted suicide a number of times. On one occasion, I pulled a large knife from her hands while she was looking at the bathroom vanity mirror. Mum had asked me to go and see why Christine had yet again taken so long to get out; the additional layer of OCD that had begun had exacerbated things even further. I reported back to Mum that Christine had a knife on the vanity and that I had removed it. God knows we all went into autopilot. But we were always on Red Alert.
The closest Christine got was throwing herself into Cooks River; though she was not the strongest swimmer, she could keep afloat. Mum had gone to pick us up from Greek Afternoon School and Arthur was out playing tennis. It was late spring. We returned home and Christine was missing. Mother became frantic. She rushed outside, looked up and down the street, but Christine was nowhere to be found. Dad was working a double shift to earn some extra money for us, as he often did whenever it was offered. It was the longest half-hour I’ve lived through.
We were about to call the police when Christine finally returned. Like a scene out of a movie, she was drenched from head to toe. I still remember she wore jeans and her long black hair was dripping wet and tangled. We asked her what happened. She told us she had walked into the river from the boat ramp on Holbeach Avenue. And then what? “Two men came and pulled me out.” And then what? “They disappeared.” Mother burst into tears, then: “Tell me who they were who helped you so we can thank them and give them money for saving your life.”
I remember Mum quizzing Christine as to who it might have been, but none of the descriptions matched the locals we knew well in the surrounding area. She attributed all this to a miracle by Saints Kosmas and Damianos, the twin doctors in the Eastern Orthodox faith. If it had been two men in the flesh, I do not believe they would have let Christine go home alone. Tempe Police Station was only about 200 meters away. Surely someone would have turned her in.
Arthur had been studying for his final Grade 12 exams in the granny flat, and we were watching TV quietly one evening in 1989 as Christine fell sleep. When she awoke some 40 minutes later, she came into the living room and said she had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary who encouraged her and told her that her health would be restored, and that she should maintain her daily prayers, which she has continued to do since that moment without fail. It was the first time we’d heard her speak in full sentences in two years.
That night I saw my father weep. We celebrated until midnight. The drought had broken. To hear my sister talk in full sentences again after two years of nothingness was a feeling I will never be able to describe. And not only sentences but the kinds of words that we’d find in her English essays. I don’t think any of us slept that night from our utter relief, joy and excitement, and hope that the very next day would bring more of the same. It was like someone had been brought back from the living dead. Since that time, despite the many ups and downs, Christine has continued to be a positive force to the people around her. We could not think of our lives without her.
But we still felt the stigma of mental health at full brunt. Mother and Father did not disclose Christine’s illness for a long time. I would say years. I don’t blame them in hindsight: Who could have made sense of what happened that was so overwhelming? Our family doctor had a child of similar age who had had a breakdown and then was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but he only revealed that to my parents some 25 years later, right before his retirement. If only my parents had some support to tell them that nothing they could have done differently could have prevented what happened to Christine. Although we had endless family meetings in group therapy with social workers and psychologists, we still felt like we were left to fend with all of this ourselves.
My mother’s prayers to God and the saints and her daily devotion and her inaudible cries for help and constant tears that could fill the kitchen floor—these are all things that I remember. Sometimes I would sit on the chair in the kitchen next to her looking at the iconostasis. Looking at the flame burning bright. What was this other place that Mum entered into with all her faith? Who were these men and women in the icons? What did their lives show? I believed. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had begun to actively seek God around me, in the simplest ways. My dad, instead of caving in, stood tall as best he could, to continue to feed his family and pay for the medical bills. But there were times that I thought we’d all collapse under the pressure, and that things would then be irreparable. But we stuck together, and God was at the center.
When Christine was about 18, at her most volatile stage, I remember a conversation that my mother had with a psychiatrist outside the infamous Callan Park at Rozelle Hospital. He said: “You have two choices. You can leave your daughter with us at the gates, and the chances of her turning into a vegetable are high. We can sedate her and make sure she does not harm herself, but you’ll lose your daughter as you know her. Or you can take your daughter home, and give her all the love and affection possible, and I know already you are good at doing that.” Mother took a split second to reply in her broken English: “I take her home.”
Two uneducated people never gave up on their daughter. They still are with her today—she’s now 52 years old—caring for her in different ways than before. Christine’s life would be completely different if she was not so loved by her parents, siblings and nephews and nieces. She is one of the gentlest people I know, and after Mum and Dad, is our most important family member. Somehow, the one who we all rushed to save, has in many ways saved us.
In my teens I often reflected, especially at church during the Divine Liturgy, why it had been my sister that had developed schizophrenia and not me. I didn’t think it was fair that at the prime of her life she fell captive to mental illness. This isn’t supposed to happen to students who give and get 100 percent in everything, I thought. This isn’t supposed to happen to well-mannered kids who are compliant and respectful.
As an adult, I’ve long stopped asking God the “why” question, and come to a fuller awareness that every member of society is invaluable by their very existence and in their current circumstances. As a result, the “iisms” have been smashed in my head. We are each human and dependent on one another for our survival. Today, I affirm that we are all living with something, that something often doesn’t carry clinical labels. We are each, in our own way, living a journey of restoration.
Occasionally, my children ask me why Auntie Christine is not married, does not have kids, and does not work. I tell them there is nothing typical in life, and there is no normal. I have come to realize that children are more attuned to seeing the person than the illness. And in today’s society, we need to desperately become like “little children,” as described in Matthew 18:3.
No, my sister is not a schizophrenic; she is “Christine,” the one and only “Christine” who we love and who happens to be living with schizophrenia. She is the eldest child to George and Vicki, the eldest sister of Arthur, Katina and Dianne, and the beloved aunt of eight nephews and nieces who adore her.