If you’re a regular reader, you should know that today’s essay is slightly disturbing. It is an honest, painful glimpse into the life of guest writer Rachel Wilhelm, whose sister died in 2010 after a long battle with mental illness.
Although this essay is different than the typical post on my blog, I decided it was the right thing to do after hearing about the death of Pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew. Matthew took his own life earlier this year after a long battle with depression. And in the aftermath, Warren and his church are beginning a major campaign to raise awareness about mental illness.
Consider this my contribution to that effort – and in honor of Rachel’s sister, please take a moment to pray for those who are fighting this invisible enemy every day.
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There is a day that is forever burned in my memory. The exact date is one I prefer not to remember. I just know vaguely where it is on the calendar, and I am okay with that.
I was singing and playing my guitar upstairs in my bedroom. I remember looking out the window and seeing the mailman come by, and then I saw my son dart out to the mailbox. He ran back to the house with a letter, small and white, flapping in his hand.
I stopped fingerpicking. My voice quit. I could hear the boy pound up the front steps, burst through the door, and run up the stairs. Then he came into my bedroom, flicked the letter at me, and said, “Someone’s deceased.”
Recently I was at a surprise party. The part I remember most was the face of the friend who was being surprised. When the door opened and everyone shouted “Happy birthday,” he had this look on his face like his mind had to stop and figure out what was happening.
That’s how I felt when my son handed the letter to me and I saw that it was my own letter, returned. I had forgotten about it.
“That’s not good news,” my son said quaintly in his even, blunt Aspergerian fashion.
No, it’s not good news, I thought, looking at the envelope with my hurried writing on the front, in pencil. “Deceased” was written in an ugly scrawl in pen, on the top.
It was a letter to my sister, Errin.
To this day, the letter remains unopened under a mix of papers – discarded, but waiting there for a time when I can muster up the courage to touch its sealed surface again and feel the unread letter, folded underneath.
I wrote that letter quickly after I found Errin through a people search on the internet. I had resorted to this method because I knew my sister might have lost everything again after being admitted into a psych ward.
It was long-running habit: she would be admitted to the psych ward and then be discharged with a Social Security check in her hand to start over with. Rather than go back to her last residence and pick up her belongings, she would usually leave them behind and never retrieve them again.
She would get a cheap, run-down apartment and visit the Goodwill, purchasing cookery or a few glasses and some forks and spoons. She would buy clothes and wear only a few of them while leaving the rest hanging in the closet with the tags still on. She would put boxes in corners and store some prized items in case she decided to pick up and leave again. She would always buy a mattress before anything else, in addition to CDs and a CD player, because lying on her bed while listening to music was her favorite thing to do.
My letter sat in her mailbox for two weeks. For two weeks she never got her mail – actually, she couldn’t. She was in panic, spiraling down into a depression so deep, no one could resurface her. If she left her apartment, she would only look to the ground as she made her way across the street to get food at the store or pick up dinner at a restaurant. She had no car.
Once, old friends spotted her loading up a cab with an abundance of supplies at the front of a store. She would not – or could not – hear them when they called her name, and she hastily got into the cab and left, leaving her friends baffled and worried.
She would barely eat – the only thing she could control, she controlled. And she binged and purged until one day she purged too long, and eventually, lying on her bed, listening to music, she could not get up. She couldn’t get a drink, she couldn’t get food, she couldn’t reach her phone, and she certainly couldn’t get her mail.
The music stopped for over a week, probably two, and the neighbor in the apartment next door realized it. Music reverberating through his wall was part of his day. Seeing her leave the apartment to get her mail was part of his day too.
The apartment manager found her lifeless body, called the police, and the police called the coroner who did an autopsy and declared that she died July 4. They could find no relatives because the mailman, who complained of her huge pile of mail, was told days later to return it all because she was dead.
In his frustration, he scrawled “deceased” on every scrap of mail and stamped “return to sender” in red.
I stared at it, my eyes filling with tears, as I realized that after 32 years of loving Errin, this was all I had left.
For the follow-up post to this essay, read Rachel’s moving piece, “An Answer in Grief.”