About The Book:
A surprise sink-or-swim lesson at the tender age of nine opens this gripping memoir of love, mental illness, and care giving. A swirling narrative carries readers from pre-WWII Illinois to the infamous Oregon State Mental Hospital of the 80s and forward along a harrowing chasm carved by dysfunctional parents, inhumane social systems, and driven by Dr. Nanette Davis’s powerful love for her mentally-ill sister and son. Raging Currents spans mental health therapies from sedation and isolation, to twelve-step programs, tough love, and modern neuroscience-driven treatments.
From the childhood of a strong-willed, fiercely independent, and curious girl to the roles of supportive sister, wife, and mother, Davis shares her life’s foundation, development, and endless devotion to those she loves. Expertly weaving social norms in compelling prose, Davis offers the wisdom and reflection of age through the clear-eyed recollections of a trained sociologist. Her ever-increasing understanding of compassion is the bedrock of this insightful and vulnerable telling. Raging Currents offers more than an inspiring memoir: it provides practical advice and solace for modern caregivers, friends, family, and people living with mental illness.
Keywords: bipolar disorder; compassion; family caregiving; memoir; mental illness; schizophrenia; dual diagnosis
Storming through our Portland, Oregon home day and night, I knew my sister must leave. Her insanity cut like a knife through our lives. Finally, I faced the phone call I’d been dreading. Dad needed to keep his word, after our agreement for me to bring Sharon from Chicago to my home, where he would take care of the rest: fly up from California and take my sister home with him. Why was he stalling? I left that message on his phone a week ago, and he still hasn’t returned the call. Sharon was ready to go. I was ready to shove her out.
We had made a deal. Dad proposed: “You told your Mom last Sunday, when you called, that you plan to be at your sociology conference in Chicago. Why not bring Sharon back with you after you finish? You’re the one who mentioned she’s too alone there in the big city. Once she’s on the West Coast, I’ll fly up from San Diego. It’s only a short hop away. You can do this for me. I’m too old now for that long flight to Chicago, and Anne can’t travel that far either. She gets too nauseated from flying.”
“Ok, Dad, I’ll let you know when I have Sharon safely in my home,” I agreed as his reassuring words murmured in my ears.
Now, I’m trying to follow up on his promise to pick up my poor, deranged sister, as he agreed. After about five minutes of inane phone conversation, he finally blurted out: “I can’t take your sister. You know, Anne can’t be expected to take care of Sharon in her elderly years. She’s been very involved with her beloved granddaughter, who’s over here half the time. Sharon will be fine with you and your family. You know, I’m not married to her mother.”
“What are you saying, Dad? I’d barely moved to Portland, and you lay this assignment at my door. I’m in the midst of trying to establish myself and the kids: new city, demanding job, difficult colleagues, and Jim five hours away in Bellingham. We have a commuting marriage now. Taking on Sharon would make this an untenable situation.”
Perhaps I had a misbegotten vision, but I had dreamed of Sharon, intact and happy, living in sunny California, keeping up her beautiful tan and meeting eligible men. Anne was part of the fantasy. That gracious lady, an absolute jewel, would look after my precious sister, and bring her back to health. We could all visit together once Sharon was restored to normality.
I made more phone calls with the same message. “You have to take Sharon. Keeping her here is unthinkable.”
But Dad was not budging. “You know, I’m not married to her mother.” And then a final closure. “Don’t call me anymore about this. You heard me. My answer is no!”
What a lame excuse… “not married to her mother.” I could not believe he kept repeating that ridiculous phrase to me. My mind raced with the injustice of it all.
First, my father tried to unload my mother on me, and now he’s doing the same thing with my sister. I vowed last year, in the midst of our family turmoil, that once we were resettled, I wanted to keep my family calm and happy. How could I possibly achieve that looking after Sharon?
I brought her back, all right, dismayed and disgusted with my father’s deceit. I couldn’t manage her. He deserted us both and abandoned Sharon, the same stunt he pulled when he left Chicago and retired in California. Our parents simply left her behind. What kind of parents do that? He expected me to understand him, but unbelievably, he had no idea what I was going through. He left me holding the bag, a bag I was terrified to look inside. And he used his second wife as the reason he couldn’t take care of Sharon. Why me? I knew nothing about the adult Sharon or how to help her. My nerves were in shreds realizing that my father made the situation normal for himself, while he, in his words, threw me to the wolves.
* * *
After arriving in Chicago for the conference, I encountered a series of mishaps and disasters. Once the plane landed, I rushed to my hotel, took a quick shower, registered for the sociology conference and evening festivities, and located Sharon’s apartment on the near North Side. My plan was to visit her the following day when we were both fresh and rested.
On a bitterly cold December day, I hastily grabbed a cab to Sharon’s apartment, some considerable dollars away from my hotel, knocked on her dingy apartment door, jumping from one foot to another to warm up. No answer. I took a quick taxi back and read my carefully crafted research paper to a yawning audience. Feeling defeated, I rushed again to her apartment. Silence. The door remained shut tight against me.
Time seeped away. I felt anguished that I had taken on this clearly impossible job, while trying to set up a new home, build my career, and seek tenure in an urban university. The kids needed me to help them put down roots in their new schools and neighborhood, and to support the teenagers in their search for part-time jobs. The biggest hurdle turned out to be negotiating family time together on weekends. Jim and I faced the looming prospect of bringing the two parts of our fragmented family together on infrequent weekends and holidays.
It did seem crazy to take this long-distance position in Portland. Jim and I took turns commuting from his base in Bellingham, Washington, but as an administrator, his free time was extremely limited. In the beginning, Jim did the commuting because traveling with the children complicated our situation. After I moved the children to Bellingham and got an apartment, it was my turn to do the commuting.
A swirling memoir from retired sociologist Dr. Nanette Davis gives readers a vulnerable narrative reflecting on care-giving and treatments of her mentally-ill sister and son.