By Stella M. Chavez
My earliest memory is of my mother on the telephone, crying. As she sobbed, I walked into my parents’ bedroom, opened a drawer in the cherry walnut dresser and pulled out a handkerchief. My mom says I regularly took her handkerchiefs, sometimes heading straight for the dresser at the sound of the telephone ringing. I was only three or four years old. I don’t think I understood why Mom was always crying. I just knew she was hurting.
On a cold, cloudy November afternoon in 1975, my parents made their most difficult decision as parents: to have my 19-year-old sister, Silvia, committed to a state mental hospital. With the help of their Catholic priest, my dad filled out the necessary paperwork, declaring her a threat to herself and others. Police officers could then come to the house in Waxahachie, Texas, and take her away.
My oldest brother, Hector, was away at college and my other brother, Xavier, either in school or hanging out with friends. Silvia was home dressed in a red bathrobe when police arrived and led her away in handcuffs. My mom said she did not scream. Silvia was in shock.
“I cried,” Mom recalls.
Silvia was not a criminal nor had she done anything to warrant an arrest. She just happened to be part of a small percentage of people who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. She heard voices and felt someone was after her.
I don’t remember anything about that day. That’s probably a good thing.
But there are plenty of other things I do remember about Silvia and her illness, from her numerous hospitalizations to her battles with the voices in her head. There are moments I wish I didn’t remember.
Silvia has always been the quiet, shy girl in the family. She might also have been the smartest. Mom remembers Silvia getting better grades than me or my siblings. She was disciplined and focused. She loved reading books and sewing dresses for her Barbie dolls. Her dream was to become a fashion designer.
My mom was 43 when she found out she was pregnant with me. It was, she said, “a surprise.” The last child had been born 13 years before. Silvia was thrilled. She had always wanted a little sister.
The pregnancy was difficult and painful. Somehow, I managed to position myself across the womb instead of the normal position, causing her a lot of discomfort.
It must have been a rare sight, because Mom remembers her doctor calling his daughter, who was studying to be a doctor at the time, to look at Mom’s stomach.
Silvia, 16, helped my mom a lot during her pregnancy, shopping for groceries, doing laundry and washing the dishes. My parents didn’t have a normal kitchen. It didn’t have even a sink. Instead, Silvia would fill up two large metal pans with water to wash the dishes. When she was done, she’d dump the dirty dishwater in the toilet. As Silvia washed the dishes one day my mom heard her giggling and asked her what she was laughing about. Silvia said it was nothing. But my mom caught Silvia laughing by herself several other times. She thought it was unusual.
After I was born, Silvia’s symptoms grew worse. She became rebellious, skipped school and talked back to my parents. She was afraid to sleep alone, mistaking the noises of the night for someone coming after her. Mom began staying in the room with her.
“Will she get better?” Mom asked their priest one day.
“No,” he said. “She’s going to have to deal with this for life.”
Mom’s heart sank. She didn’t want to hear that. She needed some sign of hope.
I don’t remember when I learned what was wrong with Silvia or at what point I understood the severity of her disease. What I do remember is growing up feeling like life was hard and painful for everyone around me. Neither my parents nor my brother talked about it openly. After all, who would understand?
Many nights I lay in bed praying things would get better. I prayed there would be a cure for Silvia. If Silvia got better, she’d be happier and so would mom, I thought. I could invite friends over. Dad wouldn’t yell so much. If only there were a cure, life would be a lot different.
It was wishful thinking on my part.
When I was young Silvia was like a second mother to me. My mom never learned to drive, so Silvia often took me places – the library, the mall, restaurants, and to visit her friends. She introduced me to books and helped me sign up for my first library card. She rode amusement parks rides with me and bought me clothes – the cool, brand names that all the kids were wearing. When I developed a crush on a local disc jockey, she took me to see him at an area shopping mall.
When I got older, we’d sometimes venture out to the local pizza place. We’d drop quarters in the jukebox and listen to our favorite ‘80s tunes. Billy Squire’s “Rock Me Tonight” and Robert Plant’s “Ship of Fools” were among her favorites.
But somewhere along the way our roles seemed to reverse. When it became clear that Silvia had stopped taking her medication or was taking less than the prescribed amount, I didn’t hesitate to speak my mind. Frustrated, I’d tell her to think more positively, to not pay attention to those voices in her head. I tried in vain to convince her that no one was talking about her, that no one was stealing her stuff. I spent many nights trying to calm her down. Other times, I’d blow up at her, angry that she didn’t understand my reasoning.
I did some research and learned that schizophrenia is an incurable affliction. I asked God, Why did my sister have to be the one? Why was my mom -- sweet, sweet Mom -- burdened with this? It didn’t seem fair.
Silvia’s illness took a toll on the family. My mom refused to go out when my sister was not well. She reasoned that if Silvia couldn’t have fun, then neither could she. If I had plans with friends, I’d avoid telling my sister. Through the years, she lost many of her closest friends, so it didn’t seem right for me to brag about what a fun night I’d had.
If friends picked me up to go out on the town, I made sure they didn’t come into the house. If they did, it had to be on a night when Silvia was okay. That meant medicated and not hearing voices.
Silvia was a different person when she was on her meds. At least it seemed that way. She was calm, sweet-natured, friendly, not paranoid. She was the sister I wish I had – the one with whom I could have a normal conversation. She was the sister who offered to help around the house, interacted with others and didn’t keep anyone up at night.
“What did you say?” she often asked when she heard us talking, before telling us what she thought we said about her.
When she went weeks or months without medication, the symptoms grew dramatically worse. There was usually yelling, accusations, sometimes the sound of fists pounding on walls. She walked outside in the middle of the night, wandering aimlessly in search of who knows what. She would keep us awake at night, slamming doors and drawers, organizing and reorganizing her room, talking to herself or, rather, to the voices in her head.
I’d lay awake in bed listening to every sound, hoping and praying she wouldn’t go outside and wake the neighbors. I hoped she would run herself so ragged that she’d collapse.
Maybe if I did more research, I thought, acted more like a leader than a baby sister, she could get better.
Every few years, there would be a glimmer of hope. With the help of another family member, she managed to get in to see one of the top psychiatrists in Dallas. Luckily, he spoke Spanish, which meant my parents could communicate with him during family meetings.
Each time, however, I’d come away disappointed. Inevitably, the family meetings would deteriorate into accusations and mistrust. Any hint of criticism or truth about the seriousness of her condition would send Silvia into a rage. I’d leave dejected, but I always tried to save hope in my heart for the next appointment.
I thought, if I won the lottery I would use it all for treating Silvia. I wanted to see her well, happy and with friends.
What must it have been like not to have a single friend left? Silvia might have a roof over her head, but her spirit was exposed. I’d see her in a chair in the living room, crying, clutching a rosary or a prayer booklet. I wanted to reach out and hug her, but too often I simply turned away, unsure of what her reaction would be. Unsure of how to talk to her without setting her off.
I didn’t share any of this with anyone until I’d graduated from college. I don’t know if I felt embarrassed or if I didn’t know how to bring it up. One afternoon, while sitting in a friend’s living room, I broke down and told her about Silvia. When I finished, she was in shock.
“All these years I have known you, I had no idea,” I remembered her saying, her eyes tearing up.
I felt relieved. And in that moment, I decided it was time to open up about my sister. If I was going to help her – or anyone with mental illness – I needed people to understand what it’s like for her and our family. Years of bottling it up inside made me angry. Why is it people can talk openly about cancer and other diseases but not about something afflicting the brain?
My parents were unconvinced. “They won’t understand,” Mom would tell me when I urged her to open up, even if only to family members.
I understood what she meant. Sometimes people’s reactions are insensitive or just plain ignorant. Sometimes people want to change the subject.
Since I was about to begin a career as a journalist, I felt an obligation to the truth. Informing people about the reality of any situation was part of my makeup as a budding reporter.
That same year, I began to write about Silvia in my journal. It was my way of coping with the inevitable decision to have her committed again to a state mental hospital.
Dec. 10, 1995:
Silvia, now in her late 30s, has progressively worsened. Although diagnosed as paranoid, delusional, schizophrenic, she’s a strong soul. Strong because despite her illness, her drive and ambition remain. If only those two factors were enough to pull her out of her misfortune.
In that same entry I listed four things on my Christmas wish list. My second wish was that Silvia accept treatment and gradually improve.
Dec. 24, 1995:
This year will be a difficult year for my family in the sense that tradition will be broken. Instead of going to Midnight Mass, we’re going to 8 a.m. mass tomorrow…Mom doesn’t want to leave Silvia alone so late.
Gosh, I’m not even in the mood to write. How sad.
Dec. 28, 1995:
Tomorrow will not be a day we’d all like to remember. Rather it will be one we will want to erase. But I pray to God tonight that if this is the right thing to do for Silvia that there not be too much hassle nor too much pain. I feel such sorrow for her because she has so much talent. Why can’t she be well?
Dec. 29, 1995:
It’s almost that time (12:30 pm). I am so afraid – afraid of how this will all turn out, how everyone will feel…I feel like I should be with Silvia right now, hugging her and telling her I love her and that I do not mean for this to happen but that it seems there’s no other choice.
Now, it is just a waiting game. Every car that I hear, I wonder if it’s the one which is going to take my sister away. I hope the police are running late.
When the police arrived, Silvia screamed and resisted. The officers had to handcuff her. I tried to calm her down, telling her it would be okay. It was difficult to hold back the tears. My father, who rarely showed his sensitive side (except for the day I graduated from college), broke down after Silvia was gone.
“Se llevaron a mi hjia,” he said, his hands reaching for his eyes. “They took my daughter away.”
I couldn’t fight the tears any longer. I escaped to my room and sobbed.
Later that day, we were summoned to the courthouse. I was asked to testify that Silvia was a danger to herself and others. I felt a knot in my stomach. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. I was 22.
Silvia looked at me as I sat next to the judge, her face a mixture of anger, surprise and sadness. The series of questions from an attorney are a blur. I wished I could be anywhere else.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Silvia,” I thought.
I answered the attorney’s questions, none of which I can really remember.
I tried to convince myself it was the right thing to do. But I couldn’t help feeling disgusted with myself for what she went through. In her mind, I’d plotted against her. In some ways, she was right.
Ten years later we faced the same decision. I was newly married, had recently bought a house and my father was recovering from a stroke. It was a time filled with both excitement and despair.
Silvia had been off her meds for awhile, and she was at it again: yelling, banging on the walls, accusing us and neighbors and people she barely knew of going into her room and stealing her “stuff,” usually beads, fabric, anything she considered important for her creative endeavors.
We’d had enough. So there I was again, suggesting to my family that we have her committed. The sick feeling returned to my stomach. Whenever I brought up the subject, my mom voiced her displeasure with the process, likening it to how criminals are treated.
“I don’t like that they handcuff her,” she’d say, shaking her head and looking down. “No me gusta.”
We proceeded anyway. This time we were a little more prepared. We made sure my parents were out of the house. My older brother took Mom and Dad to a doctor’s appointment while I stayed with Silvia. The plan was for my husband to arrive shortly after they left so he could be with me when the police arrived. But he didn’t make it in time. The police came early.
Once again Silvia yelled and pleaded, trying to go back into her room. I stood back, wishing I could disappear. I hated that she would forever associate me with having her institutionalized. How could she ever trust anyone if she couldn’t trust her own little sister?
It was the same story over and over. She’d go off her meds, wind up in the hospital, get back on her meds, get released and then get off her meds again. But each time, I learned a little more.
When we had her committed in July 2009, I told my brother I didn’t want to be home when the police took her away. I’d had enough.
But I offered to help get the process rolling. I visited the county’s district attorney’s office and filled out an application for a mental health warrant. It’s tough answering basic questions when your mind is somewhere else. It’s like seeing into the future and knowing exactly what’s going to happen. I was nervous yet determined to get it done. It had to be done because my parents, now in their 80s, could no longer have Silvia at home in her condition. Four years earlier, my father had suffered a stroke. Caring for him had taken a toll on my mom. The stress of caring for someone with mental illness had also affected her health and their quality of life. I felt they needed some peace in the last years of their lives.
My brother agreed to stay at the house while I drove my parents around. The day before, my mom had surgery on one of her toes, so we told Silvia that Mom had a follow-up appointment and that Dad needed to go, too. Instead, I took them past the beautiful historic homes in town. I tried to distract them by talking about how lovely the homes were and the number of homeowners who were remodeling.
It was difficult to enjoy the scenery. Our thoughts kept drifting to Silvia. Had the police arrived yet? Had they taken her? Had she put up a fight? I drove around for what seemed like an hour until Xavier called and told me it was done.
I felt relief but I wondered what my sister was thinking and how she felt. About a week later, I saw Silvia inside a courtroom where a judge had to decide if she should be released or transferred to Terrell State Hospital for longer-term commitment.
I had mentally prepared myself for the visit and decided to bring a notepad and pen with me. If I treated it like a reporting assignment, maybe I could avoid becoming emotional. I sat in the back of the courtroom and waited for my sister’s case to be called.
Silvia walked into the courtroom dressed in a striped, short sleeve shirt and jeans, her hair down. She didn’t see me at first.
Why didn’t she take the medication, the judge wanted to know.
“I didn’t really trust the medication too well,” Silvia told him.
She explained she’d stopped taking it because it was too much medicine, that she wasn’t feeling well and that she didn’t feel like herself.
“How do you feel now?” he asked her.
“I feel better today…a little better,” she said.
He asked her how she felt about returning to Terrell State Hospital. She had things to do, she told him.
“You understand why you’re here?” the judge asked.
The questions continued. I scribbled as fast as I could. The desire to jot everything down seemed to help keep my emotions in check.
Silvia would spend the next month and a half at Terrell. Her commitment would buy us some time to figure out what to do next. It would also give my parents a small break.
Silvia seemed to do okay at the hospital. A caseworker took an interest in her. During previous commitments, it was difficult to develop a relationship with any of her doctors or caseworkers. This time, I checked in regularly with the caseworker and she was good about returning my calls. She even suggested that my parents and I participate in a family meeting with Silvia and her doctor. Finally, some progress, I thought.
Because of my parents’ limited English, it was often difficult for them to play a role in Silvia’s treatment. Her doctor at Terrell spoke Spanish, which helped.
“Que le paso con su hija (What happened)?” he asked my parents.
My mom fired off a list of problems: Silvia was angry. She’d go outside at night. She would remove the door to the attic. She felt the medicine made her stupid. She thought there was a man on top of the roof trying to break in. She’d say Mom was no longer her mother.
The doctor left the room and let us have time alone with Silvia. Mom wanted to know if she’d eaten well. She had. Dad wanted to know if she was mad at him.
“No, daddy,” she said, softly and calmly.
My dad’s eyes teared up.
“Tengo mas ganas de llorar que platicar,” he said, explaining he felt more like crying than talking.
Shortly before Silvia’s release from Terrell, I learned she had been accepted into a temporary apartment program for the mentally ill. I was ecstatic. I posted a cryptic message on Facebook about being happy that someone was getting a second chance in life. Could this really be the big break we’d all been hoping and praying for?
I imagined Silvia, now 52, would finally learn to live on her own. She would attend classes there and become self-sufficient, with only occasional help from us. Mom and Dad wouldn’t have to worry as much about her.
The apartment complex was less than a minute from my brother’s house. He could check in on her every now and then. Perhaps she would make friends and learn some life skills, like cooking.
But the day she arrived, there was a mix up. They weren’t expecting her. And Silvia wasn’t expecting me or my brother to show up either. She wasn’t happy. The apartment folks weren’t happy. The driver who took Silvia from Terrell to the apartment complex wasn’t happy. Words were exchanged and finally my brother and I decided it would be best if we left. We drove to a nearby restaurant and had lunch.
Silvia’s stay at the apartment complex was short-lived. After a week, I received a call from the program manager.
“It’s pretty volatile,” she explained. “She’s had major problems…She doesn’t want to be here…We can’t keep her here.”
My heart sank. Why couldn’t my sister catch a break?
I explained she couldn’t go back to my parents’ house. My mom had finally come to terms with the arrangement. She told Silvia over the phone she couldn’t return home.
The program manager offered to call a few boarding homes to check for openings. One in east Dallas had room. She’d have to share a room with two other women, but at least she’d have a roof over her head and three meals a day. The cost, $500 a month, would be taken out of her disability checks.
I drove to the apartment complex on a Saturday afternoon to pick up Silvia. I helped her with her bags as we made small talk. I wondered what was going through her mind. Would she resent me forever?
On the way to the boarding home, she was calm and reflective.
“I didn’t try hard enough,” she said, explaining why she was dismissed from the apartment.
She apologized for everything she’d put me through.
“It’s okay, Silvia,” I said, fighting back tears.
We arrived at the boarding home, a tan and red brick house with red siding and a black metal fence in front. Would she be comfortable sharing a house and a small bedroom with strangers? Only time would tell.
She walked with me back to the car to get the rest of her stuff. She seemed resigned to this new living arrangement. I, on the other hand, fought back the temptation to take her back to my parents. This is what’s best, I kept telling myself. This is what’s best for her and for Mom and Dad.
She wasn’t angry and she didn’t shed a tear.
“Pray for me,” she said.
Eight months after Silvia moved into the East Dallas boarding home, she returned home, a couple of days before Mother’s Day. She refused to go back, insisting on living at home again with Mom and Dad. That summer, June 2010, my family and I decided to move my father to a nursing home in Waxahachie after the care-giving duties had become too much for my mom.
In some ways, Silvia’s move back home seemed like a good idea because Mom wouldn’t have to live alone. While not having to care for my father 24-7 was a relief for her, she also couldn’t get used to the idea of him living in an unfamiliar place where other people – strangers – were taking care of him. But having Silvia back also made life more challenging and stressful for my mom.
On June 23, 2011, my father passed away unexpectedly. We had last seen him four days earlier on Father’s Day. Silvia continues to live at home and has not been consistent about taking her medication.
The question haunts our mind: What to do and what is best for Silvia and my mother?