The summer when I was ten years old my sister came home from the mental hospital. She had been in there for eight months already and my mother wanted her home with us. So she had her discharged against doctor’s orders.
It wasn’t a big deal- this is what I was told. In fact the whole happenstance of my sister even having been in a mental hospital was treated in the same way. She had been resting, that’s all, she’s not crazy, and her blank, glazed over eyes and slack mouth which refused to form words were just something to ignore.
I had hated that place and our Sunday visits to it. My mom would leave me in the common room where patients who were better off would roam freely and she and my dad would go fetch my sister for a visit. It wasn’t a visit though really, they’d wheel her out in a chair and she’s stare at us or rather through us while my mother talked on and on about what we had been up to that week. Mom would glare at me if I didn’t try to talk to my sister too. So I’d mumble something about my week and then I was allowed to go back to looking out the windows that faced the parking lot and dare someone to see me. They never did, the windows were the kind that let you look out but don’t allow anyone see you- but I’d try anyway. I thought that if I could focus on the guy crossing the street hard enough maybe he would look up or if that failed maybe I could make him trip or something.
I didn’t really want anyone tearing up their legs on pavement, mind you, it was just a diversion, and it was an escape. I hated the way everything around me felt sterile and yet dirty. The whole place smelt of Clorox and underlying sickness and sometimes I held my breath until the point where I had to gasp for air which only made the smell flood through my nose all at once.
But the summer my sister came home wasn’t that much better. She was off all of the drugs that kept her in a permanent stupor but the wordlessness had given way to the speech of a five year old. She even took to calling me big sister and following my mother wherever she went, holding on the end of her skirt. She was afraid of the dark now and shrieked through the night until she was finally able to go sleep. And I was made to play dolls with her when my mother needed a rest.
My mother found us a big tub of Barbie dolls at a garage sale for our play dates. It was so bizarre to be forced to sit in a room with this stranger, this eighteen year old in pig tails who giggled and then stomped if I didn’t giggle back. It was surreal and even the ten year old me knew it wrong. But my mother seemed so happy about it all, happy to see the two us playing together. She was so happy to have her daughter home again so we all pretended that all of it was normal. And I hoped that it would pass soon so that I could go back to really being a normal kid again. That hope was like something that shimmered from afar, something to cling to for someone who just felt very scared and alone in the whole situation, someone who felt like her feelings must be strange when everyone else seemed like all was alright.
But I was never really able to feel normal again.