Defining Who I Am

By Rayssa Martins

My sister was 17 when she lost herself to drugs.

It’s interesting to talk about it, as if I were the one that went through it. As if I were the victim in this story. It kind of feels like one of those movies where you listen from the “good guys” perspective. However, I suppose a part of me did suffer a bit; my sister wasn’t the only one affected by the situation, was she? In a sense, I’m somewhat of a victim too. The trauma cast upon me at a young age such as seven changed my view drastically on the planet. I’m 14 now, and as much as I know the truths that lie deep underground in this vast world, I’ve realized that I had to mature younger than expected.

Of course, it wasn’t ideal for seven-year-old me to have witnessed all of that. At an age that young, I couldn’t understand why my sister was yelling profanity at my father at the top of the staircase with a butterknife in her hand. I couldn’t completely process the situation, and why my sister was being taken out of my home—our home—with baskets full of her belongings. I didn’t necessarily notice how every day her hair got shorter. When did she have the time to cut it? Why did she cut it? When you’re a second grader with a sandwich and a juice box for lunch, you don’t notice the tiniest yet obvious hints someone may be conveying unintentionally. I guess the same can apply to adults, when you’re a parent struggling with bills and two younger kids to take care of, you don’t notice the oldest child slowly slipping away into an everlasting depression and a future full of torment.

Because of this incident, I had to stay at a friend’s house for three whole days. That’s 72 hours in someone’s home, 4,320 minutes in someone’s bed, and 259,200 seconds with just my American Girl Doll on someone’s rustic bedside cabinet as my belongings. See, coincidentally, this friend attended the same school as I did, so it was convenient for me since I wouldn’t be missing any days of class that could eventually cause problems for my mother. I recall coming to school the day after my sister left, feeling exhausted because I couldn’t bring myself to sleep the night before. On that day, the school was serving my sister’s favorite cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, for breakfast. All I could do was sit there and stare tensely at the mini plastic bowl filled with cereal, the eight-ounce whole milk carton on the side, and the whole-grain crackers that were served to me on a paper tray. I felt a lump forming in my throat, but I couldn’t cry in front of my classmates. What would they think of me if I told them? Would they just assume that since I’m related to my sister I’m “crazy” too?

On my third and final day of having to stay at my friend’s place, I ended up breaking down in front of my second-grade teacher. My teacher had, unfortunately, noticed my malnutrition and how fatigued I appeared to be during class time, which led to a private conversation during a lesson. I didn’t want to tell her the truth right there and then. What if she judged me too? I couldn’t risk any of it, right? After finally controlling my tears, I ended up just mentioning some small details that had happened and made it seem as if my sister had just left for college. I lied to my teacher saying that I missed her dearly, and that life at home wouldn’t be the same without her. Which is partially true, I did miss her, and life at home wasn’t going to be the same and never would be. My teacher tried comforting me with the same basic sentences that everyone had been telling me that past week. Insincere phrases like, “It’s okay to feel this way, you’ll be fine” or “Your sister will be alright, just don’t worry about it!” was all that lingered in my miniature innocent brain. Well, just a miniature brain now. What did they know about any of this anyway? They weren’t the ones with their sister being forcefully dragged into an ambulance and then watching them be sent to an awful hospital clinic for those who are considered “psychotic.”

When I got back home, the first thing I noticed was my sister’s empty room. All that was left were plain white walls, an insane amount of dust, and a vintage mahogany wood desk. My stomach fell into my toes as I walked further into the room, picturing the photo frames that were once hung up on the walls and her stack of books in the corner of the room that looked as if they were about to topple over. Standing in the middle of the room alone, I felt as if I was stranded on an empty, deserted island with just myself as company. Not that I minded being alone, but I started to get used to the feeling of being lonely as soon as my sister, my best friend, was taken away. I’m not sure if my mother had heard the floorboards creaking, or maybe my nose sniffling because of the abundant amount of dust in the room, but it didn’t matter anyway because as soon as I heard her assertively yell, “RAYSSA” my stomach had twisted into a rollercoaster. She sounded irritated and frustrated. What had I done this time?

When I made my way into the slightly disheveled kitchen, I noticed the displeased look that my mother had set upon her face. At first, her words seemed to fall flat, as if they were blurred out in my mind, but I was able to cut out one thing:

“Why did your teacher call me and tell me that you were crying in class today?”

As soon as I heard the question, tears started to stream down my face like a never-ending waterfall. My mother would understand me right? I don’t need to hide my emotions to be accepted into a society that automatically places people like my sister into the “demented and unstable” category, correct? Being related to her doesn’t make me “insane” either, does it?

“I just miss her mommy. [sniffle] My sister, my best friend.”

My mother, for the first time in a good while, sympathized with me. Back then, my mother had been stressed for some time and my sister’s situation didn’t help with that in any way. She comforted me with sincere words, reassuring phrases that people hadn’t been telling me that past week. And at that moment, in an instant, I just knew deep in my heart that I would genuinely be alright. My sister’s actions do not define me as a human being on this planet, as we are both separate, divergent, individuals who have our own lives. I may be forever related to my sister by blood, but I am not her. I am Rayssa. I am myself. I am my own person.

Present tense, I am now more transparent with my story unlike before. My sister is currently 30 and was just now interned at a hospital for people with the same disorder as her. Recently, I discovered that she was diagnosed with Bipolar Schizophrenia, which is extremely informative because for seven years I’ve just told myself that she was mentally sick. I don’t think my sister will be getting better anytime soon, as there are other personal aspects behind this story that I will leave unmentioned, but I’ve come to accept my sister, despite my disagreement with her life choices. Yes, It’s disappointing to see my sister lose herself and her identity, but I’ll break the example that she set. I haven’t lost myself yet, and I don’t plan on doing so.

My sister does not define who I am. I define myself.

Rayssa Martins is a student at the Newark School of Fashion and Design.

Featured photo by Pexels