Over the weekend my mom reminded me of a quote that has always resonated with me – “A relationship is only as healthy as the sickest person in it.” We were talking about how people who are out of control can begin to make even the most sane person crazy. But if you love the person who’s going through a case of the crazies, when do you decide to detach and walk away and when do you stay and fight?
Years ago, one of my sisters and I had an afternoon that was so special that to this day neither of us have forgotten it. We were up at one of the manufacturing buildings on our family farm playing a game of basketball. It was a perfect afternoon, big clouds shading us from the warm summer sun, a light breeze rustling through the yard that had been recently mowed. No one was working that day, so it was relatively quiet aside from the thump, thump, thump of the basketball against the concrete slab where we played and the swoosh of the ball through the net when one of us scored. I don’t remember the specifics of what we talked about, but I remember us being so precisely on the same page it was as if for a brief moment in the book of our lives we were the exact same word. We laughed so hard and felt so carefree that had we not been called in to dinner, I think we probably would have stayed up there forever. When my sister became anorexic a year or so later, dropping from 120 pounds down to about 59, it was this afternoon I thought about most, especially on those nights when the crazy of her disease threatened the very foundation of my family’s existence. And had I not been there to witness her as the playful beauty that she had been that perfect summer afternoon, I might never have believed that anything other than the terrifying monster she became ever existed.
Anorexia in and of itself makes absolutely no sense. It’s a disease in which the person who is anorexic believes whole-heartedly that they are overweight and constricts their diet in order to be as thin as possible. To anyone who witnesses anorexia first hand, it is like something out of a horror film when over the course of a few months, right in front of you, a real life human being dissolves into a walking skeleton with bulging eyes and a gaunt soul. For me, watching my sister burst into fits of rage and spells of intense sobbing over being forced to eat even the smallest portion of food was crazy-making. Long after the rest of the family had gulped down the delicious and healthy dinners my mom would whip up from scratch morning, noon, and night, my sister would sit there trying to talk herself into eating a tiny dinner roll or a morsel of chicken as though it were a scorpion full of venom sitting on her plate just waiting to kill her if she were to ingest it. We had to check my sister’s hands and clothes and napkins before she got up from the table after every meal because she would hide the food she pretended to eat. And she wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom for an hour after a meal because she would throw up anything she had been forced to swallow. The demon that seemed to possess her during the years of her anorexia was crafty but also incredible ridiculous. My sister was constantly lying over even the smallest, most ludicrous things, things that were clearly untrue. And the whole family attempted to catch her in her lies, to hold up a mirror to her sickness in order to show her how unhealthy she had become. But even when we cornered her to confront the disease that whittled her down to nothing and had turned her into a sociopath, she would turn it on us. We were the problem.
On one level I suppose my sister’s disease brought my family together because we were united in trying to get her healthy again in order to save her life, and on another level, I suppose it debilitated us to the point that nothing we did as a family was enjoyable anymore because her craziness had invaded every aspect of our existence. For almost a year, we held on to my sister with the fiercest conviction we could help her see reason. We took her to family counseling. We prayed with her. We catered to her every whim and need, even the ones that exceeded logic. We loved her – this monster that was our sister in name only. Then, it became too much. Our family was falling apart. Any joy that had existed between the walls of our house had been replaced by terror. And in the end, the incredible expense of caring for my sister both monetarily and emotionally forced my parents to let go of her. They signed her over to be a ward of the state of Missouri, and she was put in a treatment facility in Kansas City five hours away from us. She could have gotten worse. She could have run away and disappeared from our lives forever. She could have turned eighteen and signed herself out of treatment to die as a fragment of what she had once been, but luckily for us, after almost a year, she started to get better. It was an indescribable feeling of relief to realize that my sister would survive the dark place she had been to, but I think looking back the guilt my family felt of handing her over to someone else’s care left each of us believing our love had somehow failed her. And to this day, I struggle to keep myself from attempting to heal all the wounded birds I find in my path, to stay when everyone else would go, to love when I have every reason to hate and to be strong when the ones I care about are weak. Whether it be my lovers, my friends, or my family, I feel this determination to not give up. But sometimes letting go is what you have to do. A relationship is only as healthy as the sickest person in it. And so we detach. We move on. And we hope that the person we love finds their way back to health and maybe even one day back to us, to laughter under summer clouds and euphoria from even the simplest game of basketball.