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The Place Between Breaths

This is my ten year novel. We all have one of those, right? It stayed in my computer and I toyed with it off and on for a long time. The seed began even before my third novel, and in fact, I was on the fence between working on The Place Between Breaths and The Fold. My editor at the time thought going lighter might be best so I stood at the proverbial crossroads and started down the path for The Fold. After the third novel was finished, I knew I had to return and finish The Place Between Breaths. At the time, it was entitled The Middle Place. Part of the reason why it took me so long to finish this novel had to do with the story, which I envisioned like a DNA strand structure, and part of it was just plain life. My second child had just been born and I wanted to enjoy her babyhood as I knew she would be my last. I was also single moming it for a while, as well as teaching to make ends meet. All that crazy chaotic wonderful life didn’t always leave time for a depressing story about schizophrenia. And…the story was so very personal it hurt sometimes to live in that story space.

THE MIDDLE PLACE began shortly after my brother passed away, a year after my first child was born. My brother was an amazing, artistic, kind, gentle and troubled soul. Towards the last years of his life, he went missing and we could not locate him. After a brief hospital stay for a psychotic break, he disappeared. At the time, I was nine months pregnant and ready to give birth. My parents searched and searched for him, but could not find him. Soon after he went missing, my eldest daughter was born, and months later, the police contacted my parents with the sad news that my brother had passed away. It was a joyous and heartbreaking year on many levels.

One, I knew my brother would have loved and adored his new niece. To know that they shared this earth briefly, but never met, still brings tears to my eyes. Somehow, in my fantasy world, I wonder if seeing his newborn niece might have made him fight for life harder. My brother had struggled with depression and drug addiction for most of his adolescent years, but he overcame those demons and went on to study archeology and found a real passion for this field. He also found love with a woman who had a young son and they seemed happy in their life together. Finally, it seemed he had found what he had been searching for all those years. So when he started to slip back into those difficult patterns again, we couldn’t understand what was going wrong. When a loved one has a mental illness, we want so badly to make it better. To “solve” the problem, but this is not how it works. My belief that my newborn daughter could have helped my brother see life anew is my selfish need to find a solution to a problem instead of seeing the truth of my brother’s illness. The ideals of career and family, the markers that speak of achievement, these are also ways of telling us what we cannot know or understand of an internal life.

Second, my brother had been missing over the last two years of his life, disappearing for months and months only to resurface for a week and then go underground again. When the police picked him up and he was placed in a psychiatric hospital, it was almost a relief because we knew where he was. They had him in treatment for a psychotic break and I could speak with him on the phone. I was so grateful to hear his voice, but then when he began speaking about people and things that were not true or real, my gratitude turned to fear and uncertainty. We knew he needed help and after the required fourteen-day hold, the medication had begun to take effect and he was released to my mother. We had found him a halfway house where he could begin treatment for his mental illness. They found no drugs in his body and after being on anti-psychotics, he was starting to understand what was happening to him. But the day my mother picked him up from the hospital to take him to the halfway house, he turned menacing and made my mother pull over, taking whatever money she had in her purse and disappearing. He did not resurface again until the police contacted my parents to tell them of his suicide.

My mother sent me a box of his writings after he died. Inside, I found lyrics to songs-he was a self taught musician and had played guitar in a Spanish rock band for a while. He spoke Spanish fluently. So many talents. I found a notebook with writings that proclaimed he was the son of god, lists of people persecuting him. I thought about a night when he called me out of the blue and I spent the entire night convincing him that the aliens were not coming for him. There had always been small clues, but we had easily written them off as drug induced hallucinations. Even when he had been sent to the mental hospital we wondered what possible drug could be the culprit to this horrible event. When the doctors found no drugs in his blood stream, we finally realized that he was suffering from a major psychological illness. Clearly, one that he self-medicated for and that we could not understand from our small-minded perspective. Pouring over his writings, I was grief stricken to realize how little we had done to help him. All my life I had been the older sister who took care of everything and here was my little brother, in all his words, suffering for so long on his own and I had not known anything about his pain.

To deal with my grief after his passing, I began to read. This has always been my coping mechanism. If I can’t understand how, what, why, who, I turn to books. I read everything from medical journals and articles, to non-fiction works by psychologists about mental illnesses from schizophrenia, suicide, bipolar depression, first hand patient accounts about suffering from these diseases, books by siblings and family members of sufferers. I read until I could grasp what might have happened and this little bit of knowledge helped me cope with my mourning. THE MIDDLE PLACE began as a catharsis for the loss of my brother and the connection that it had to my grandmother who also committed suicide and suffered from mental illness. Why him and not me? What choices do we really have when we suffer from a genetic illness that might skip generations only to reveal itself in the most destructive ways? What do we hold onto when there is so much medical and genetic knowledge, but no cure or even consistently useful medication? We have uncovered so much about how our body and minds work, but we are still lost in the night with such distant stars as guides.

This book began as a way to understand my brother’s life, but it ended ten or more years later as a testament to why I wake up every day ready to work for what I believe to be real and true. The ripples we create cannot always be quantified or known. There are elements that do not live in explanation. It just is and we must do our best to accept and understand them. I believe we can make a better world, make better choices, make life as full and free from the hauntings, for the future, present and past of who we are in this moment, in this unpredictable life. I believe in us as humans who love, grieve, battle, strive, win, lose, hurt, understand, empathize and persevere for something better than ourselves. This is my faith.