My brother Jay believed I was the best and most important writer in the world. Of course he also thought the world was coming to an end and that our lives were being broadcast on a cable channel by an evil organization called The Cahoots.
He was insane, but I didn’t know that until I invited him to move into my house in Austin after he graduated from high school. That summer I watched him decompensate from a teenage pothead to a man with paranoid schizophrenia. Taking care of him was overwhelming, and I began writing as a way to make sense of the nonsensical. On the page, the bizarre characters and strange ideas were far less powerful.
Eventually it became clear that I had a book on my hands. While I spent the next three years writing about the nightmare we were living, Jay was hospitalized six times and refused to take medication. After a judge ruled that he was not a danger to himself or others, he decided to live on the streets, far away from family and hospitals.
Remarkably, we remained close, e-mailing and IMing whenever he could make it to the library to use the computer. He stumbled upon an essay I’d written by Googling “Ishtar” and (our hometown) “Lubbock.” He didn’t believe he was sick, and I was worried he’d be angry and push me away when he found out I did. It had the opposite effect. Once my thoughts were in print we were able to talk, although not agree, about his diagnosis. I’d made peace (of sorts) with his homelessness and choice not to take medication. And then, two weeks after I’d written the final page and given the book a somewhat happy ending, Jay killed himself.
It’s true that writing is therapeutic, but just as you can’t begin physical therapy when there is still blood gushing from the wound, it was far too soon to take this experience to the page. Instead, I wrote his obituary, delivered his eulogy and turned off the writer in me. Writing had been my way of making sense of all that had happened to my brother, and in turn, to myself. Now when I needed it the most, it was gone.
And yet, the book wouldn’t stay in the drawer.
Just a few hours after I found out Jay died, an agent who I’d sent the manuscript to salted my wound by sending a rejection letter saying that she couldn’t represent me. When an editor asked me to submit a bio for an anthology I had an essay in, all I could come up with was “Ashley Womble is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her brother is dead.”
When I sit down to write a new chapter or edit an old one I sometimes wonder if this crazy story is even true. On days when I can muster up a few paragraphs, sentences pop out as if to say, “Are you sure?” I don’t know when the words will come again, but I have learned that when you write about your life, you have to be prepared for a plot twist.
As painful as it was to lose my brother — and to put my book on hold, indefinitely— there is comfort in knowing there are chapters left to live and write. I still don’t feel ready, but the hope that our story might make someone with a mentally ill loved one feel less alone is reason enough to try. It would make me the kind of writer my brother always thought I was.