It is the eve of the anniversary of my sister’s suicide, and I am watching a 12-minute video Irish performer Sinead O’Connor posted on her Facebook wall. In it she is tearful, saying that she is suicidal and alone. She is both pleading for help, and chastising those who she believes should be helping her (“my children, why is it acceptable that your mother lives in a fucking Travelodge?”).
O’Connor describes herself as “one of millions” who are suffering from mental illness and the stigma that goes with it, and who have been abandoned because of it. In the video, she speaks directly to her family a number of times, and asks why they are afraid of her. “I am 5’4”. I sent angry emails but how can you be afraid of me?”
I remember the soulful eyes that were so mesmerizing in O’Connor’s video for her song Nothing Compares 2 U. The 50-year-old, heavily tattooed woman in the Facebook video who looks like she is wearing a hospital bracelet is recognizable, but not the eyes. She says, “my soul is strong but my body is dying,” and she look like she is disappearing.
I had already been thinking about my sister. I always do on this anniversary, more so than on her birthday or any holiday. This is a date that lives in my soul. This is the date that created one of the cracks in my heart that is now filled with so many broken pieces. I see Dolores in so many people and today, I see her in O’Connor.
O’Connor reminded me of something I still carry guilt and shame about. I often didn’t like my sister. She was in pain, but as a result of that pain she would lash out. She would harm because she felt threatened. She targeted the innocent as well as the guilty. Sometimes if you were in her path, you would be attacked simply for being there.
Dolores was beautiful and funny and talented. When she wasn’t actively suffering she was one of my heroes. Guys loved her and she was an amazing actress. She was cool and had a lot of friends. She was sardonic, witty, and a badass – when she wasn’t hurting.
O’Connor tells the camera that she knows she is lucky because she was able to escape since she had the money to (apparently she was able to “walk out of a hospital in bloody Ireland” and come to the US). She credits her “purse” for this; something she notes most mentally ill people who have been abandoned by loved ones do not have. She frequently comments on her small stature as defense against the idea that anyone could have found her threatening and suggests that those around her used her mental illness and it’s symptoms as a way to declare her violent and dangerous.
“I learned through my own experiences that suffering can turn into fear, and fear can turn into anger, and anger can make everyone around you disappear.”
O’Connor blames her family; mostly her children and their fathers, for not taking care of her. She remarks that she paid for everything for everybody and eludes to being abused by so many men. She urges viewers to take care of their mentally ill family members and pleads with her family members to take care of her now: “Please will someone in my bloody family act like you give a shit…… Get on a plane and look after your bloody mother.”
It sometimes felt like my sister’s emotional pain was contagious. I believe fully that my own life long struggle with depression would have occurred regardless, but it was often painful to be around her. And she could be mean and sometimes violent. When she was that Dolores, the scary Dolores, I wished she would disappear. I felt unsafe around her and wished I could run away. She was taller than 5’4” but she died at 19, still a teenager – a kid in the minds of most.
As I watched the video, I thought of O’Connor’s children, about whom I know nothing. What was their experience of having a mentally ill mother like? Were they scared like I was? Did they get angry with her like I did? Were they afraid her struggle might be contagious as I feared?
I entered the mental health field, but it did not protect me from my own demons. I have had periods of debilitating depression throughout my life. I have written angry emails, said hurtful things, not shown up when I said I would, and frightened people with my pain. I have driven some people away. Some I have accepted will never come back. I learned through my own experiences that suffering can turn into fear, and fear can turn into anger, and anger can make everyone around you disappear.
O’Connor talked a lot about the stigma that results in the shame, poor treatment, and abandonment many mentally ill people experience. I agree with her, but I also think it is not that simple.
I remember a discussion I had with someone about the stigma of addiction. She countered my opinion that those with substance abuse issues are judged too harshly and seen as less than human. “People with cancer don’t lie to my face, steal from my wallet, or rant hatefully at me when they are high” she said, and she was right. What may be seen as lack of empathy may also be interpreted as self-preservation.
Days after the video, someone posted on O’Connor’s account stating she was safe and receiving help. She was no longer ensconced in the Travelodge in the video a few towns away from where I grew up, and where my sister died. But those of us who know that darkness are not naïve enough to believe all will be ok. Even on my “best” days I feel the psychic shoulder tap, the message in my dreams that the darkness hasn’t dispersed for good and the storm will eventually return.
“I’m walking through the desert
And I am not frightened although it’s hot
I have all that I requested
And I do not want what I haven’t got”
~ from I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got by Sinead O’Connor