My younger sister died a month ago. She suffered from mental illness and a drug addiction. It was important for me to finally write this blog post by today since May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To be honest, I have sat at my laptop at least 10 times since May 1st to try and write down my thoughts, but as you can imagine, its been challenging to sift through the chaos and emotions that come in overwhelming storms.
My sister, Catherine Mary Airan, was 46 years old. When we were growing up, she was Angeli Laurie Airan but she decided to change her name later as an adult to Catherine when she converted to Christianity from Hinduism.
We were three girls in the house – Rashmi, Angeli and our younger sister, Subha. Angeli and I were only a year apart. So, as you can imagine, she was my best friend, even though we fought like cats and dogs. Angeli was the silly one who always made funny faces and tried to get others to laugh. She was brilliant, bold, and beautiful. She had incredible artistic talent in painting, writing, singing, dancing, and performing. As a child, she did all of these things and more. She was a loving and empathic soul who laughed and nurtured each person around her. As a teenager, Angeli was courageous as a staunch activist against drunk driving, for women’s rights, and fighting for those who were less privileged in our community. She worked hard and was always surrounded by friends.
She went on to graduate from Georgetown University with an Economics degree from the School of Foreign Services and later started her Master’s Degree in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Creative Writing at Georgetown. She earned her Master’s degree finally from University of Miami.
It was in college when the mental illness emerged. It was 1990 and hardly anyone talked about mental illness or depression. The medication available was not researched or really tested enough. The stigma was pronounced, much more so than now. And, we as a family, did not know the early signs, which we later realized actually began the latter part of her senior year in high school. My parents were puzzled, confused, and had nowhere to go for answers. Fearful to discuss what was happening with their community, we kept my sister’s struggles private and kept searching for answers. I remember my mother reading, watching, talking to anyone and everything that had any knowledge about mental illness. She was constantly trying to find the cure, the solution, the way to save my sister.
My sister dropped out of school a semester or two. She came home for extended periods of time. She disappeared many times. And my parents would desperately await word from her or look for her in all possible places. Since there was so little known about mental illness and the stigma attached to medication was so strong, my sister began to self-medicate with drugs rather than take the prescribed medication. Over the years, this morphed into a full-blown crack addiction. As most people know, the success rate for overcoming this particular addiction is zero.
After 27 years struggling with her illness and addiction, my sister sadly lost her life in a relapse episode where the product was unknowingly laced with fentanyl. An elephant tranquilizer, a mere speck of fentanyl is lethal to humans. I am grateful that my sister passed with no pain and instantly. I have had a few weeks to pray, grieve, and understand the legacy of my sister’s life. Over the past quarter of a century, my mother’s passion and mission has been to help others in our community and beyond who suffer from mental illness – all inspired by my sister. She was focused on finding solutions for others like my sister to integrate into society as working adults. So, she helped co-found Key Clubhouse in Miami with 7 other parents many years ago. She is diligently trying to develop affordable housing options for those that suffer from mental illness and need a place to live. She is exploring alternative treatment options including yoga, meditation, and more to help people. She is dedicated, committed, and unwavering in her love for each person she knows who is afflicted with this terrible disease.
Catherine spent each day over the past few years reading, writing, painting, and praying. She lived with my parents for the past three years and she enjoyed special times with my parents whether it was watching a movie, cooking, eating out, or taking an evening stroll. The three of them created beautiful memories together in each other’s company. She loved her cats and nature and took special care of them. In the final years of her life, Catherine reached a new level of companionship with our parents and achieved true happiness through her love for God and the universal positive energy in all. She was a gifted poet and wrote poems for my parents and her love and faith in God.
The morning of her passing, my sister wrote a journal entry that stated “…I have everything I need in life because God lives with me inside my heart, mind and soul.”
We as a family know that my sister is finally at peace and with God. (or the universe, positive energy source, spiritual force – whatever it is that you believe).
When I close my eyes, I will think of singing together countless times.
I will think of swimming and making sand castles together
I will think of visiting you at Georgetown
I will think of making tomato sandwiches
I will think of doing Sunday worship together
I will think of playing scrabble and trying to beat mom
I will feel your strength and courage every day. I will cherish every smile you gave me.
You have taught me to trust in God and his presence in every moment of my life. You inspire me to have complete faith and surrender to God’s purpose for my life. Thank you for being my Master. My Teacher. My Sister.
I love you Angeli.