I won’t end this story with the flight home from Poland, where my brother refused to sleep, his eyes lit, his muscles twitching, even after I’d given him all of the Seroquel we’d brought and the last of my Ativan except for one. I won’t end back in the U.S. or on the ride up to the inpatient clinic in Massachusetts where he spent the next few months, so manic that even the staff forgot who he used to be, forgot that this was a condition, not a personality, and began to think of him as crazy, all the way crazy.
That recovery, though real, is too long and too quiet. It took place at the pace of lived life, the pace that allows hard memories to soften, and details to be forgotten. I won’t even end with the time after, when he finally started responding to the medicine, finally came down, evened out, left that place and eventually the outpatient program that followed, lived in his own apartment, steady, steady, graduated from his carpentry course and “made good.” That recovery, though real, is too long and too quiet. It took place at the pace of lived life, the pace that allows hard memories to soften, and details to be forgotten. This is not life, this is a story about life, and so it is shorter, more finite, and more solid. The words all have meanings, the moments all add to something more. And so I will begin and end on a bright moment, in Poland, in the early hours of morning, talking to a stranger, the two of us, my brother and I.
The sun was out, but it could not have been six o’clock. Europe, summer. My father and I had landed the day before, bought our tickets the day before that—the day they called to tell us Zack was sick again. Sick on the other side of the world.
“First class,” Dad said, proud or awed by the price, and the ease with which he’d paid it. “This is what money is for. If he needs us, then we’ll go.”
The “we” was a relief. At first he’d planned to do it alone, travel across an ocean and back. Mom had called in a panic, asked me to come over. He’s not a good traveler, my dad. Directions, languages, timetables—he does not navigate well on his own. And he is old. Not old and feeble. Not doddering or weak. But older than he was. Older than he thinks himself to be. If he had let me, I would have gone alone or with my husband for support. But he would not let me. He was still the father. It was enough that he’d bought me a ticket, too, allowed me to help. And so we drove together to Newark, flew through London to Warsaw, then Rzeszów, a trip of at least twenty-two hours when we finally landed. We didn’t sleep much in that time.
Zack had been in Poland for two weeks by then, volunteering with a group that restored synagogues. He’d been excited before he left, looking forward to the travel, the freedom, and we’d all congratulated ourselves on how far he’d come. He hadn’t had an episode in almost two years. The new medicine was working. We were nervous, yes, but how can you gauge recovery if you don’t allow the recovered to live? To travel? To risk?
“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” my mom said before he left, talking through her trepidation. “We won’t know unless he tries.”
When the volunteer coordinator called about his “aggressive behavior” and “disrupting the group,” it was no surprise. And yet, it shocked our system. Yes, we were already on alert. Hadn’t we been afraid of exactly this, every day for the last two years? The last ten? But fear is not readiness. You can dismiss fear as paranoia. You can tuck it away, tell yourself it’s a remnant of the past, no longer a necessary state. You can convince yourself that fear detracts from daily life and that it must be purged and forgotten and moved on from, until you get a call from Poland in the early morning from a woman who is livid about the behavior of your brother or son.
He stayed up for a week, took too much Ritalin, recited rap lyrics, scared a female RA. I reverted to a state of readiness and regret. My mother got sad again. Sad and tired. She helped plan the trip, made sure I was involved, but did not feel up to going herself. We all agreed. It would have been too much. She could stay home and contact hospitals, track down doctors, make sure there was a room for him when we got back. My father, as was his way, did not fully believe the volunteer coordinator, could not be convinced that his son, his youngest, was at fault—that this thing we’d been through many times before was happening again.
“She said he hit his head. I’m sure that has something to do with it,” Dad said on the drive to Newark. “They took him to a hospital. Seven stitches. He’s just out of it, that’s all.”
I can tell you the first time feels like a fluke, a mistake. My brother had his first episode, his first psychotic break, almost a decade before, when he was a month into college and eighteen years old. He stayed up for a week, took too much Ritalin, recited rap lyrics, scared a female RA. The school called the police, who kept him for a couple of days before moving him to a hospital. I lived on the West Coast at the time and heard about it via phone calls. It didn’t seem real, and I kept working, went out with friends, checked in with my parents, and wondered from a distance what it was all about. He was hospitalized for six weeks, then released into my parents’ care. The first time it happens, you’re sure it’s a one-off. No reason to take a doctor’s words too seriously. The police jumped to conclusions. The RA was high-strung. The people in the hospital didn’t know him. They only knew the sick him, not who he really was. Once he calmed down, cleaned up, got some rest, he would become himself again, my brother, my parents’ son.
“We don’t even know if this is a real episode,” my father said as we boarded the plane to Warsaw. “We’ll be sure when we see him.”
I can tell you that the second time (even if it comes only nine or ten months after the first) will feel like a coincidence or at worst, a continuation. Maybe he forgot to take the medication, or maybe he didn’t come all the way back from that first episode. It shook us all— the realization that this part of our lives was not over as we’d thought. But it did not change our understanding of my brother as essentially himself—a kid with some problems, a kid with some complex chemistry going through hard times.
“I don’t like her,” Dad said about the volunteer coordinator, as we neared the end of our last flight. “She seems uptight.”
By the third episode, though, when you’ve seen someone you know change into someone you don’t, when you’ve been scared both of him and for him, when you’ve driven him in the middle of the night to the hospital, sat and begged him to take the meds, you have to acknowledge the pattern. You have to acknowledge that not only has this happened, but it’s happened steadily, again and again, on a regular basis—in Zack’s case, every eight or nine months since it began so by the time he was twenty-one, he was spending almost as much time in hospitals as out. Or, at least I had to acknowledge it. My father did not.
“We don’t know what Zack’s thinking,” Dad said in the taxi from the airport. “He might be mad that we’re making him come home early. Just act casual. Convince him that it’s the only choice.” He’d been talking through potential scenarios for the entire trip, practicing on me the speeches he would use on my brother, anecdotes and reassurances, entreaties and quips. The fake cheer with which he imitated himself was exhausting.
“You can’t talk this much,” I said. “When he’s like this, his mind is wide open. He picks up on things, fixates. No stories. No explanations. No jokes.”
“When we were in the ambulance in Vermont, the paramedic guy was hitting on me. He kept making small talk,” I told Dad. “And then later in the hospital Zack repeated it all, worked it into the thought stream. It’s better just to stay quiet. Answer questions. Let him talk. Don’t give him more to think about. Don’t stoke the fire.”
“Okay,” Dad said, pressing his lips into a thin line, practicing.
When Zack saw us on the street corner outside the hotel, he cried. He hugged us. One of the group leaders, a guy about my age, had been watching Zack, staying with him, keeping him calm. They’d been walking the city all night, maybe even for the last few days, sleeping little, killing time. I wanted to thank him, but there was no chance.
“You came for me,” Zack said. “Thank you.” He hugged us again. His eyes were big and glassy even after the tears, and he looked like he’d been in a fight. The bruise from his fall was a week old by then, turning bluish green above his eye. He parted his hair to show us the stitches.
“That’s not so bad,” Dad said, punching him playfully in the arm. “We thought you really got hurt.” He was about to start in on one of his rehearsed speeches, so I touched him and made the shape of shhh with my mouth. He stopped speaking, hugged Zack, and checked us into the hotel. We didn’t talk. It was better that way. I just followed him around the city.
Had it been up to me, had I been there on my own or with my husband, we would have flown home right then, on the next plane. But it was not up to me. Dad had booked rooms and a flight two mornings away. He had not known how Zack would react, had not known how much convincing we’d need to do. And Dad does not travel well.
“The time zones,” he’d said. “I’ll need a full night’s sleep so I can adjust.”
Ten years of this and he still had not adjusted.
“We can see the city,” he said. “I’ve never been to Poland.”
“It’s not a vacation,” I should have said. “It’s an extraction.”
But at that time there was still a question about whether or not I’d be going, so I let him do what he did and for the next forty hours, we took shifts.
Zack doesn’t sleep much when he’s manic. He’ll pretend, put his earphones on, shut his eyes, lay still for an hour or two, but he doesn’t sleep. I fed him as many of the pills that his doctor had sent as I could. At first, when he was happy to have us there, he took what I gave him and went to sleep. A relief. He woke up a couple hours later, energized, wanting to show us the city.
“I’m learning Polish,” he said as we turned down a side street towards the old town. “I can understand a lot and speak a little.”
“That’s fantastic!” said Dad. “How do you say ‘Hello?’”
Zack did not answer for a bit, as if he was calculating. “Dzień dobry,” he said, proud to have remembered it. We were impressed. We tried to sound out the syllables, but Zack corrected us.
“Djane DOH-brayh,” he said. “Djane DOH-brayh.”
“What else can you say?” Dad asked.
“Fskish nish dishkig.”
“Ndig skiznisksdisnis.” It sounded like a record played backwards.
“Snizsgis fluis-nk cro-ann.” He moved his hands as he spoke as if sculpting the words in the air. We were still walking, but he’d turned to Dad and was speaking directly.
“Ok,” I said. “We get it.”
“Disgisnik fizgiznis. Lsgznik disniz.” He was smiling wide, working his hands, moving closer to Dad, towering over him.
I forced a laugh and slapped him on the arm, trying to pull his attention. He looked over and laughed too. We found a restaurant that sold pizza and had some for dinner.
That night he took four more pills and seemed to sleep. I cannot say for sure because I slept myself. Perhaps he was faking, lying as still as he could for as long as he could while his mind worked. Whatever it was, sleep or stasis, we rested that night—I in the room with my brother, our dad next door, adjusting.
The next day started before dawn. Whatever was in Zack had worn off, and he didn’t want another pill when we woke up.
“I’m going out,” he said.
“Nothing’s open yet.”
“Just to walk around.”
“We could watch TV,” I tried.
“I’m going,” he said.
“Then I’ll come with you.” I pulled on a sweatshirt and drank some water from the bathroom faucet.
I could not see the sun, but there was light in the sky. We walked down the street our hotel was on, past the train station, closed kiosks, buildings of unknown purpose. Zack’s pace was quick and the air was cool. Every minute or so I had to skip a step to keep up. We didn’t talk. It was better that way. I just followed him around the city.
We walked by early morning commuters heading towards the station, women in sensible pumps, men smoking cigarettes. As a people, the inhabitants of Rzeszów seemed puffy-faced and worn. I hoped they were too tired to take us in. Zack had the bruises on his face, but that was the only thing that set him apart. He was not wearing the weird turban he’d made from a bright yellow child’s T-shirt. (He’d worn it for a while in the room the night before, and when he took it off to sleep, I hid it in a corner.) He was not speaking, though if he had been, they would not have understood. He was looking at everyone we passed though, as was I, I guess. But where I was trying to read their faces, he was staring, hard, challenging each citizen of the morning, male and female, to see if they would hold his gaze. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I worried what others would think, how they would act when confronted this way. It seemed as if we were on the brink of something, right up on the edge.
They did not react. Not one of them. Every person that passed looked away, moved aside, made just that much more room. The more it happened, the calmer I became. No one was interested in a confrontation. If they detected Zack’s state of mind, they gave him space, avoiding him, us, confrontation. If they saw at all what was going on, they treated us like they would any transient or crazy person. For those not attached to the crazy, there was no point in engaging.
After a while Zack slowed, and we kept on in silence. I didn’t know my way around, but we never seemed to get so far from the hotel that I couldn’t figure out what direction it was. The blanket of my exhaustion had started to lift, and I noticed parts of the city as it came awake. The growing light reflected off windows, and more cars drove by.
We found our way back to the train station and a bench by a now-open kiosk. I bought us both sugary Fantas, one orange, one yellow. We drank them with straws and sat up on the back of the bench, our feet on the seat. More people passed. More avoided Zack’s stare. He threw bits of paper at passersby, becoming more aggressive with his attention getting. They walked away more quickly.
“Quit it.” I said.
He ripped off another piece of the napkin he’d found and threw it to spite me.
And then he caught someone’s eye.
“Americans?” asked the man, approaching us both, but looking at me. He was older, wearing a slightly rumpled button-down shirt.
I tried to ignore him.
“You visit Poland?” He asked. “You like?” He smiled at me, eyed Zack, then focused back my way, ignoring the big crazy dude to my right. It was too early for this. I was too tired.
“Dzień dobry,” Zack said.
“Yes, yes!” said the man. “You speak!”
“Ndig skiznis,” said Zack. I placed a hand on his knee.
“Excuse?” said the man. He looked as if he were trying to understand, figure out our native tongue.
“Yes,” I said. “Just visiting.”
“You liking Poland?” The man asked, moving closer still. I noticed my legs then, bent in front of me, and felt for a second like he might try and touch one like I’d touched Zack.
“Kizsh nizsh dishkig,” said Zack. “Disgis fizgiznis.”
The man stopped again, did not come any closer. The sureness with which he’d approached dampened.
“Ssjksvsigsngdgskizwz.” Zack was moving his hands again, gesturing to convey the deeper subtleties of his invented tongue.
The man looked at me again, up and down, and then at Zack, whose eyes were as wide and bright as ever. The excitement on his bruised face came through in any language. He wanted to talk. He wanted to fight. He wanted to engage. He believed the world of himself at that moment and he was looking for anyone who would listen. The man smiled politely.
“Enjoy,” he said, gesturing to the city around us. He nodded and walked off. And that was it. All the worry about what would happen, of what Zack would do, of what people would think, all the hours and years of trying to manage my brother and his illness, all that waiting and watching for the next relapse, the next episode, paused then for one golden moment. Zack, my protector.
There were still thirty hours until our flight. Hours in which Zack would stop listening to me, to my father, try to escape our watch. Hours in which he refused to take more medicine, hours in which he tried to steal the rest and take it all at once. Hours that pushed past what we thought we could handle, past what we’d come to expect. Had my father or I been able to navigate a Polish phone book, we surely would have called a hospital or the police, and our three interminable days in that country might have become weeks.
But that is not a place to end. The end is somewhere better. The end is somewhere pure. The end is a moment in the sunlight, in the early morning in early summer in a country I’d never been—one I have no plan to return to. I am sitting on the back of a bench, watching the back of a stranger as he walks away, and I am putting an arm around my brother, and he is smiling, and soon, if we can make it through another day and one more night, soon we will get to go home.