Kate: Sisterhood is the realization that someone will always be by your side, always have your back, and will do anything to protect you. I grew up as the eldest of my sisters with a single mom who was living with an undiagnosed mental illness. There are many stories I could share with you that speak to the testament of this unwavering bond.
Jennifer: Bottom line, mental illness is hard. It’s hard for those suffering with the illness, and hard for those loving the person who is suffering. My mom’s Bipolar Disorder was untreated and undiagnosed until she was 52 years old. She had six children by her mid-twenties. Traumatic highs and lows impacted our childhoods and left us reeling from our mother’s impulsive life-changing decisions. Kate and I are her two eldest children, out of the four that survived.
THE BOND OF SISTERHOOD
Kate: At a very young age, I carried a heavy burden and intrinsic need to protect my sisters from harm, and to try to keep them safe and sheltered from the nightmare happening to us.
Kate: Bipolar Disorder is a serious mental illness. People with bipolar disorder habitually exhibit extreme, intense, and disturbing emotional states known as mood episodes. This includes extreme happiness or excitement, called mania, and melancholy, depressive episodes. Fear and paranoia are also symptoms of this disease, and my Mother experienced chronic episodes of paranoia, the worst of which was when I was 17 years old.
Jennifer: The only constant was my sisters and they were my lifeline. In and around all the traumatic events that peppered our lives, we built a foundation of strength, friendship, support, and unconditional, heart-bursting -- ‘I will always have your back’ - ‘We’ve got this!’ - ‘Ride or die’ -- kind of love.
THE PROMISE OF A FRESH START
Kate: In 1989, I was in grade 11 and we found ourselves living in Camdenton, Missouri, USA with our mother and her then-boyfriend. This was another one of my mother’s ‘let’s have an adventure and cross the border in the back of a black pick-up truck in the dead of night’ episodes. We were moving in with her boyfriend, illegally of course. By this point, I had attended thirteen different elementary schools and three different high schools. During my mother’s mania episodes, she would have these grandiose ideas of adventure and take us along with no consideration of the possible dire consequences. The unspeakable trauma my mother suffered as a child left her forever seeking safety and reconciliation; and, she drew us into these battles repeatedly.
Jennifer: That Spring, the houseboat company my mom’s boyfriend worked for relocated him to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Located in the Mojave Desert along the Colorado River, it was a mecca in the sand and a booming spring break spot, hence the busy houseboat rental business.
Once again, the black pickup truck was loaded up with our worldly possessions. But this time, we were driving south and west through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and then Arizona.
Kate: As we travelled from state to state, I dreamed of what my life would be like when I could leave home. Where would I go? What would I do? And who would I be? I only allowed myself a few moments to dream, because if I let my thoughts run away for too long, panic and apprehension would kick in. Who would take care of my sisters and keep them safe? What would happen if I was not around? Who would stand up to mom? In the last two years, I had gotten better at not tolerating her abuse. Did Jenn watch me? Would she do the same? Was it fair of me to put that on her? All of these questions whirled around in my head causing me to feel dizzy and sick to my stomach.
Jennifer: This move felt different. Mom’s boyfriend had a good, steady job and his income must have been pretty high. Our lives felt less financially strained. We were eating out more, which was a noticeable difference, and we even had a microwave!
A SUNSHINE STATE OF MIND
Kate: We showed up in the sunny state of Arizona and my three sisters were so happy. We were hanging out on the beach, taking in the sunshine and scenery, and living a dream. I was into reading the ‘Sweet Valley High’ book series, and actually allowed myself to think, ‘Hey, this might be a cool place for a teenager to live.’ I was hesitant though as we were here illegally. And, because I was sure that soon we would be caught, I never really allowed myself to enjoy the moment.
Jennifer: Kate’s high school returned to classes sooner after the break than our school did. And, as per usual, Mom always made a big deal over our ‘first days’ at new schools. Really, it wasn’t like any of us cared at this point. Kate was going into grade 11 and was so ready to graduate and get off this roller coaster ride!
There weren’t any school buses in town, so we all piled into the truck to go pick her up after her first day. Kate came out of the main doors and headed over to us. Students were everywhere and I had never seen so many denim mini-skirts! This was going to be so cool, I thought. I was liking the warm weather!
Kate: Well, I was right! My first day at Lake Havasu High School was like a chapter out of ‘Sweet Valley High’! Then, the nightmare began again. I was called down to the office at the end of my first day because they needed my mother to provide paperwork showing I was legally allowed to attend school.
‘Of course,’ I screamed in my head. ‘Nothing can ever be simple in my life. Nothing.’ I know teenagers can be dramatic, but I had a right to be. My life was a goddamn shit show.
Jennifer: In a tone that felt a little ‘I-told-you-so’ with a dash of ‘I-can’t-believe-this-is-my-life-right-now,’ Kate told Mom that they needed more paperwork for her enrollment. She had been called to the front office at the end of the day and they wanted Mom to come and speak with them.
GULP. Silence settled over all of us as our eyes looked toward Mom to anticipate her next move. She looked past us for a moment and then looked away.
“Well?” said Kate.
“Get in the truck,” Mom said. And we all left the parking lot, quickly.
Kate: Throughout the next couple of days, Mom and her boyfriend tried to figure out what to do with my sisters and me, since they weren’t going to be able to go to school either. Mom suggested that I go back to Canada, but I refused. I was not leaving my sisters alone with them, no way.
SEPARATION AND SURVIVAL
Jennifer: Decisions were made. The two younger girls were staying put and being ‘home-schooled,’ and Kate and I were leaving. Within a few short days, we were saying goodbye at a Greyhound bus station in town. To maximize the number of belongings we could ship back to Missouri with us, we were given a trunk. This was also a lot easier to ship on the bus. We were being sent back to live with friends of our mom’s boyfriend. They had three young kids so we could be helpful to them while they let us stay there to finish off our grade seven and grade 11 years. We were going back to the same school in Missouri that we had just left. This felt so awkward because we had told them we were moving to Arizona.
I had just turned 13 and Kate was 16. Together we were about to embark on a 96-hour bus ride from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, to Springfield, Missouri. The trip was almost 1500 miles or 2500 kilometres.
Kate: Who sends two young girls, aged 16 and 13, on a 96-hour bus ride across the country, with no adult supervision, to live with strangers? This was just another one of our experiences resulting from our mother's mental illness journey. I remember feeling very uncomfortable and afraid. Not only were we going to be on a bus for 96 hours, but we were also going away to live with complete strangers. There was sure to be little contact with my mother throughout this bus trip, but the hope was that we would be able to make a few collect calls at pay phones along the way. We truly were on our own, so thank God we had each other. We always had each other.
Jennifer: The bus had started to make its way west in Los Angeles, and its last stop was New York City. Some people were aboard for the entire route. A few friendly people took us under their wings but we kept our guards up, just in case. Mom had given us some money for food, which we stretched as much as we could. We ate at bus stops, drank pop from vending machines, and bided our time as we stared out the windows as each state passed by. We went from sand and cacti to grasslands and farmland, with a bit of city here and there. The longer the trip lasted, the colder it became again. We didn’t change our clothes for days but tried to brush our teeth very quickly every morning at the first pit stop. My biggest fear was having the bus pull away without me, so I always anxiously and hurriedly brushed my teeth, trying to rush out the door and back on the bus as fast as possible.
Kate: About halfway through the cross-country bus trip, we stopped in a shady town and two young guys boarded the bus. One took a liking to Jenn and proceeded to try and strike up a conversation with her. He was asking her name, where she lived, and where we were going. I gave him very short false answers in hopes he would leave her alone.
Jennifer: He tried to strike up a conversation and Kate answered his questions minimally to keep the peace, but she was not happy with this guy at all. Kate told him my name was 'Lisa,' and right away, we could hear him musing, “Liiiisssaaaaa……. Liiiiiisssssaaa,” as he placed his face between the seats to get as close to us as possible. Everyone was sleeping, and the bus driver was far up at the front. “Please stop,” Kate asked. His tone had become aggressive and I was starting to feel very uncomfortable.
Kate: He proceeded to bother Jenn, even though I repeatedly asked him to stop. So I strategically got my foot ready and waited for the right moment to strike. He turned his head to speak again and I kicked the seat with all the strength that I had.
Jennifer: WHACK! Before he could understand what was happening, Kate kicked him in the head, and his head flung to the other side of the headrest and bounced off. We looked at each other and held our breath. I silently peered down the dark aisle towards the driver and counted the number of seconds it would take for me to make a run for it.
Kate: And for the rest of the trip, not he nor anyone else bothered my sister.
Jennifer: Once again, Kate was my superhero sister and my constant protector, no matter what. How was this our life? Where were the adults who should protect us and keep us safe? ‘I'm only thirteen,’ I thought. I wanted to scream.
US AGAINST THE WORLD
Kate: We snuggled into each other, holding tight. We knew we only had each other, that it was us against the world. This was my job; I needed to keep her safe, to protect her. I always would, no matter what.
Jennifer: Forty-eight hours or so later, exhausted, dirty and hungry, we were dumped into a snow-covered bus station in Springfield, Missouri. Still in shorts and t-shirts, we slept in the cold bus terminal until the morning. We huddled together and tried to sleep as we imagined what our next few months were going to look like. We were used to the unknown but this felt different, bigger, scarier. I snuggled in even closer to Kate, draping my body over hers as much as possible to stay warm, but mostly to feel safe. ‘We can do this,’ I thought. “As long as we’re together, we can get through anything.”
To read more open and honest shared stories like this, check out our "Be Kind, Love Hard, Make Memories: A Mini Memoir Meets Guided Journal" here.
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