Affliction Ate Her

November 4, 2009

The following story references a period shortly after my brother’s death. My brother (my only sibling, a year and 3 days older than me) was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder 1 – Rapid Cycling, when he was 30 years old following an extreme and debilitating mixed episode. I was diagnosed with the same thing 3 years later. Unfortunately, my brother passed away when he was 37. I hope this story helps to illustrate the devastation that Bipolar Disorder can wreak on even the closest of relationships.

One day I looked up and it had been exactly six months since the very last day of your life. A tough day, starting as it did with your fear of dying and ending with rain, wheezing breaths, the drugged sleep of your troubled lover in the hospital room next to you. I think of this now and feel a squeezing pressure on my head, on my face. Old troubles followed you to that room. Nothing had been resolved.

But the next day, though you didn’t live to see it, was incredibly beautiful. White petals dripped from fruitless pear trees thru a sky of Disneyland blue, and gushed to a ground white from the snow of spring blossoms.

In the beginning I told myself that grief was a decision, a choice, just as silence or stoicism is a choice, and I didn’t know which choice to make. I decided not to mourn you, the day you died; at least, I think I did – but maybe that’s just an illusion of control over something out of my grasp, my reach, my influence.

“Honey, this is your father.”

“Oh.” Of course you know that I knew this was a death call. Father’s don’t call from Dallas at 4:21 in the morning unless it’s about death.

Likely people went through my head – Granny, Mom…

“Honey, your brother passed away about an hour ago.”

“We’re at Medical City, on the 8th floor – one second honey, ‘Polly, are we… 8th floor? Medical City?'” I heard a woman sobbing.

I turned around to face my computer. I sipped my coffee. I sent my coworkers an email.

“My brother passed away early this morning. I’ll be unable to attend our meeting and will probably be out for the next couple of days.”

(I mention this only because you always accused me of not caring about people, of being selfish and self-centered. Maybe I am. That morning, at 5:51am, I didn’t feel your death; it may well be that friends and coworkers thought I never did.)

I realized I hadn’t even asked what killed you, so I hit *69 on my phone to ask Dad.

Your voice on the other end of the line: “This is John Sullivan,” you said, going on to explain to your customers that your were unable to take their call, etc., etc.

Are our thoughts really so fast? In the time it took your answering machine message to say, “This is John Sullivan” I’d thought: this is my brother, this is his voice, and I love him. I love this voice. Hear how sweet he sounds. How lovely. How inviting. How I love his voice. How I love him. He is dead. And I will never speak to him again, never hear his voice again.” I saw overwhelming pain and sadness bearing down on me like a train in a dark night. Maybe it was histrionic to hang up on your answering machine. But in the instant I did, as I watched the phone bounce on my bed, everything disappeared. The voice, the pain, the love. Everything. I just swallowed and went back to my sitting.

I sat and sat, for hours, thinking “I should do some laundry for this trip,” “I should call and rent a car for this trip”, “I should get in my car and head to Dallas”, “I should call and get a plane ticket to Dallas”.

I spent many mornings on my balcony, at that apartment, listening to and watching the birds. Hours wondering in a peaceful way – about their language, their skill, about the history of birds. When I started crying the morning you died, I went to the chair on my balcony to do it.

I thought that maybe… maybe birds are really angels. Maybe every song announces a birth, or describes a life. And you had a whole life, didn’t you? Because it began, and it lasted for awhile, and now it’s over. So everything in between made up your… whole… entire… life?

Panic. Your existence like feathers, floating all around me. The impulse to try to gather you up and restore you. I pictured you in your space helmet, Christmas of whatever year it was that man first walked on the moon. I remembered how I’d believed that you, of all people, could be anything you wanted to be. Suddenly understood that one reason I’d been so angry with you was because I’d never stopped believing it. Too late.

So I climbed into my Jeep and headed towards your death. My head was filled with static: life insurance problems, travel problems, money problems, a crisis of faith, a lack of planning, questions I couldn’t answer.

On my way to Dallas that morning I started wondering what your death had been like, for you. I contemplated the mysticism of you dying, and the possibilities.

I had this idea that maybe it had been a pure joy. Maybe you just burst out of your body, looked around at all the unresolved darkness in your life and your head. And then I imagined you flying through that gorgeous blue sky, a five-year-old passenger in our grandfather’s Cessna, zooming over Texas. Seeing my car. Delighted. Throbbing with happiness.

Did you ever suffer the feeling of feeling nothing? I did, for a few months after you died. Mom thought it was detachment and that I was trying to protect myself. My doctor called it low-level depression, but I associate depression with tears, sadness, and hopelessness.

I was simply blank.

Months after you were gone I began to long to have seen you after you died. How did you look? Did you look dead? Could some magic word have pulled you back? Could I have touched your face, squeezed your hand, kissed your cheek… sat alone with you, at least, and said goodbye? Interwoven throughout all the years of estrangement were countless moments of secretly missing you; of wishing I could hug you, could Indian wrestle and laugh with you; of wishing you would stand still long enough to let me really touch you, and of missing the big brother who loved me when I was little.

I got up one morning, made coffee, and went to the garage, where there are tubs of your papers.

If I died today, my world would fill boxes – pages and pages of diaries would give anyone who chose to read them a virtual tour of my thoughts, my feelings. Your tubs are filled with school papers and mementos. There doesn’t seem to have been anything about me in your world.

What a turn-off your supposed detailed knowledge of everything in the universe used to be, to me. We couldn’t have a give and take conversation. You weren’t open to exchange. I didn’t believe anything you said about anything. I avoided your calls. I avoided you.

What did the tubs I looked through (there are many I did not) tell me?

Notebook after notebook in your distinctive handwriting. History. Psychology. Self-improvement. And one paragraph of a fishing story you’d tried to write to illustrate the emotional bond you had with Dad.

What happened to your brain, John? How is it possible that a man in his 30s who takes such prodigious notes, who pursues so much knowledge… how is it possible that the same man sometimes exclaims, “my brain is shrinking, my brain is shrinking”? How is it possible that such an incredibly smart, curious man was never able to grab on to something solid and quiet, never able to clear the crap out of his thoughts?

The announcement of your death was slippery, to me. Dad said, “Your brother passed away about an hour ago”.

Passed. Away. Passed away. Words that seemed less irreversible than “died”. As if it were a gradual move. For a while, it seemed as though I could stop your death – could stop the passing. Could reach out and grab your soul and stuff it back in to your body. And I wondered – if that were possible – if I even would.

Your strengths, your virtues, were so large that they literally pushed through whatever else was getting in your way. Somehow, with you, both your seemingly super-human sanity and a sharp, chaotic insanity coexisted. I saw that whenever I saw you. The insanity drove me away. But I think I was also jealous of the super-human side of you.

One of the tubs had a bag of what I at first thought of as my childhood. And then I realized that it was your childhood, and just my memories. Your football helmet. A sack filled with trinkets – your Hot Wheels cars, a wooden racecar Dad carved for you and that you’d painted, a Zippo lighter. I closed everything up.

So much of my childhood was borrowed from you. You were so vibrant, so alive, taking in and using the world around you. You grabbed everything up that you wanted to grab. You have no idea the embarrassment I suffered over being so unlike you in these respects. Your sincere interest and involvement in everything. I was the ghost, when we were children.
Looking through those tubs took me back. For 30 minutes that day, I was a little girl in your closet, going through your stuff. Pretending it was somehow mine, too. Pretending that you were sharing your life with me.

You always seemed to feel something 24×7. You were an emotion machine, and seemingly without shame about your reactions.

Siblings love each other. I know there are some who don’t. But we were only a year apart – a year and three days – and there were no others. We shared growing up. We shared vistas. We connected in our own way.

Laughing. Do you remember when we were still little enough that we shared a bed at the farm? It seems to me that you hardly ever woke up first. I remember being the first one in the whole house to wake up. I remember the soft, solid, breathy perfection of the world. And I remember growing bored. Feeling too little to get up by myself.

And tickling you.

Paul roaring at us from the master bedroom. Squealing like laughing little pigs. Tickle fights. Just me and you. You pretending to go back to sleep, and then pouncing on me. Both of us crazy-eyed with fun. Our blonde curls. Same skin, same mouths, same eyes.

Hours and hours of laughter over the years. Hours and hours of comedy routines. Maybe nobody else remembers. I do.

I remembered months before you died. Missed it. Never laughed with you again.

Was I ever something good to you? Was I always just an annoyance, and later, just another source of disapproval? I know you loved me. But was it ever love based on really knowing me? And did I ever love you enough?

I felt you there with me in the months after you died, whenever I wanted you. I wondered – was it selfish of me to want to keep you here? Should I let you go? Was I imprisoning you, preventing you from moving on? Did you love me so much that you really did come to me when I ached for you? Or was it pretending. Like when we were kids. It felt like pretending. But it also felt real.

I dreamed about you. You were so handsome. All the extra weight was gone, and your whole body was strong. You were tan. You had laugh lines. You were looking in to the distance and smiling as though you saw friends on the horizon. No worry. No confusion. All your energy and greatness. No mania. You were a perfect you.

I thought to myself that here, finally, was a solid dream of you. And since it was my dream, I could hug you the way I’d always wanted to.

You wrapped your arms around me and held me to you. And all the sudden I thought, “this is real!” I think because I wanted it to seem that way. I told you how much I love you, then, in a way I never did when you were alive. How relieved I was that there was more after death.

And it was ok to step out of the hug and out of my dream and to wake up.

I never, ever have that much control over my dreams. I wish I did… was that a visitation? My head says no, but my heart so wishes it were.

We were never friends. We resented each other for a number of reasons. So my grief wasn’t the grief most siblings would feel, I don’t think. There’s even some relief that the man who insisted that his brain was shrinking is gone. There is grief, but not the kind of grief I think it should be. There is love, but it doesn’t encompass as much as I wish it had.

What I miss often around here is your impulsive energy. I used to have that same energy, but where did it go? There’s so much to do here, from yard work to housework to artwork… so much work that never gets done. After you moved to Dallas and hurt your back we lost that ability of yours to get things done.

One day I thought, I wished you were 25 and here with me. The place would be in much better shape, I thought, and you could swim, ride your bike, go to school, and hang out with friends at the clubs downtown. And I think that’s when I began to realize that pretending led to the same kind of grief that reality does.

So I had a talk with myself about the difference between make-believe and real.

Make believe is pretending that you are here whenever I want you to be. Real is that you no longer exist. Make believe is pretending that you are now everything I ever wanted you to be. Real is that you no longer exist. Make believe is pretending that my life after your death doesn’t have to involve grief because you have somehow been transformed into my perfect – albeit invisible – brother. Real is who you were when you were alive, and your death, and my own life now, which is singular and without my only sibling. Real is that we were where we were when you died.

Mom encouraged me to call you the night before you died. I declined. You died.

And I thought to myself – and even accepted it: you began passing away around 20 years ago. It was a gradual thing. Every time I looked up, you were a little farther away. And it felt like you were dying, in a way. It was as if you were… passing away.

Very early one morning, before the birds woke up and before all the future that might have been the rest of your life – had I been looking, I might have seen you disappear.

For more about me, and my own story, visit my blog at


  1. Dang… all sorts of triggers there lol. I hurt for you. =(

  2. This was absolutely beautiful. What amazing words, gorgeous prose. I could truly feel your soul through this piece. I am so sorry for your loss. Just know that your brother would want you to thrive and not suffer the way he did. Hold on to that. I prefer to believe that it is not that our loved ones, such as your brother, don’t care about us; it is that their heads and hearts are so overtaken by the tasks required to manage themselves, they simply have no room to truly lend space in their heads and hearts to others. Yet, they want to and would if they could.

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