I have a photo of my daughter looking at an old, black and white photo of a couple and the woman in the photo is her namesake. The woman is my great grandmother and I’ve heard some funny stories about her over the years but I wish I knew more.

One story came from my mom who said great-grandma had once reached into a cabinet while mom was visiting her and pulled out a small bottle, took a swig, looked over her shoulder and told my mom “It’s for the heart, don’t you know…”

And then she giggled.

I guess there was always something about the photos of my great grandmother that caused me to imagine she had been a fun person, but also one full of strength and wisdom.

I know she most likely also had some big hurts hidden in that heart, especially the pain of a mentally ill daughter who was sent away from the family because back then no one knew how to treat schizophrenia. My grandmother probably felt that pain as well but I never heard her say. It was only her and her sister and then one day her sister was gone and in a hospital hundreds of miles away.

Onieta, my great aunt, sent letters, begging to be allowed to come home with her family. Her life was cut abruptly short in so many ways, not in a physical death but certainly an emotional one as the promise of a future as an artist, a wife, a mom were taken from her by a medical world that didn’t know how to help her and in many cases didn’t want to because of the stigma mental illness stamped on a person.

I didn’t know about her until I was almost nine or 10 when I traveled with my parents and grandmother to see her in a nursing home about an hour from us. I wasn’t allowed to see her, actually. I sat in the car with my mom who explained it all to me as my dad and grandmother went inside. Dad told me later she didn’t really know them but she hugged her sister.

I imagined the rest for myself-that sister bond that could not be broken, even by mental illness no one knew how to treat. I imagined how close the two were growing up and how shattered their lives must have been all those years apart. When my great aunt died, she died alone and I don’t remember her funeral.

For me she was merely a dream I’d once had and later her life was a tangible fear that when I turned 21 I’d go crazy like she has at the same age.She was an artist and even before I knew she existed I had liked art as well. Maybe art was the gateway to crazy I had once thought. Or maybe 21 was the magic age when the genetics kicked in and schizophrenia rose up and took over and you jumped out an upstairs window like she had.

But schizophrenia never tormented me, other than through fear that I would be the next in the family line to crack. Mental illness didn’t affect me the way it did Onieta , though I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression. It didn’t tear my life apart or pull me away from the ones I loved in the way it did her. I was lucky to be born in a time of more understanding and more pharmaceutical advances.

Maybe it isn’t the same for others in my family, but for me, Onieta was our big family secret, something hidden and dark, not because of her mental illness but because she was hidden away, pushed away and almost never spoken of within the family. For me, at least, she never really existed. But for my great grandparents and my grandmother the pain of losing her must have been unbearable.

There is something about a mother’s heart that is hit especially hard by the loss of a child, whether that child is lost in a world of confusion or physically lost. A mother spends nine months with a child inside her, feeling the movements, talking and loving the child before they are even born outside the body.

Then the first few years of life are spent caring for the child’s every needs until they are old enough to do it themselves. Back in those days my great grandmother would have done almost all of it – breakfast and lunch and bedtimes and middle of the night cries. For her the day they knew they could no longer care for a daughter whose mental illness had taken over her mind must have been mental and emotional torture.

My heart aches for the women I never knew – my great grandmother and my great aunt – for their heartache and their emotional anguish. I wish I could go back and take it all away for them, hand Onieta some medicine or find out if a thyroid or hormone issue or even a vitamin deficiency was the problem, and let them be a real family, let her live a life full of promise, fulfillment and joy. 

I can’t, of course, do that but by dragging it all from the darkness into the light, maybe I can help to be sure history does not repeat itself. If a member of our family faces a similar tragedy I want to be sure they aren’t hidden away, pushed away and loved only in the darkness of secrecy and through memories of who they once were.

I want them to be loved in the light for who they are.

I’ve started to think about how I owe it to Onieta to live my life fully alive, with fears pushed aside, to experience life the way she was never allowed to. The best way to pull her from the darkness of exclusion and back into the family is to not keep her a dark, hidden family secret.

She’s gone from this earth now but if we keep talking about her and imagining even a little of the pain she faced, then we keep her memory alive and we keep the determination for it not to happen again alive. Because of what she faced and suffered through hopefully others will be spared. Hopefully I will spare myself from a life limited by fear, anxiety, illness and mental pain. Sometimes I feel like Onieta is urging me to really live, do what she could never do, be who she could never be and feel free the way she never did.