I have two sisters really, the carefree, super-intelligent, fun one that she was before her schizophrenic breakdown, and the quiet one of the present who struggles to carry out a short conversation while being tormented by voices in her head. The first one is a blurry memory because I was about 13 when she got sick, and she had already been out of the house for six years before that. The second one is this weird presence that's always lingering on the side of family gatherings and holidays. Actually, there's a third sister, much darker, the one she becomes now when she is not taking her meds, the one she became when she first broke down, before we knew she had schizophrenia. But I don't like to talk or think about her...
Her illness rocked our family, and it defined my teenage years. I believe it destroyed a piece of my mom that was never recovered, and my parents' marriage, which was less than healthy before my sister's breakdown, only became more strained. My younger brother, always too sensitive, too caring, and too fragile, endured perhaps more than he could handle during those first few confusing years of my sister's illness. And my beautiful niece unfortunately only knows that second aspect of my sister, her mother, the one who is quiet, awkward to be around, and always, always fighting the voices. While I am thankful that she doesn't remember the dark times of my sister's illness, it's sad beyond words that my niece only knows her "real" mother, the one before the breakdown, through stories.
As an atheist, I understand the science behind schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. I know that a combination of genetics and environmental factors caused my sister's breakdown, and that severe mental illness runs in my dad's family. Is it comforting to know these things? Perhaps in the sense that knowing what causes it helps us better manage and watch for it.
I've mentioned before that there are certain things in this world whose very existence makes it impossible for me to believe in a deity that is both all-powerful and benevolent. The look on my sister's face when she struggles to hear a question above the voices in her head is another one of those reasons. Growing up witnessing someone struggle with sanity, watching her literally tormented day and night, to the point that she often cannot sleep, is, well, there isn't a word for that. If I believed there existed an all-powerful deity that both created that illness and could remove it but does not, I would be tormented as well.