Invisible Illness

Tomorrow, I will be released from the psychiatric hospital. I’ve been here a month, facing down my demons and learning how to rebuild a life torn apart by a brain that doesn’t work quite as it should.

My diagnosis is printed, stamped, and signed — the only benchmarks that matter in making something offiziell here in Germany. I have my follow-up therapies scheduled. I am ready to go. Ready to pick up the pieces of my shattered life. I will be fine. I know it.

I’ve been lonely here — mental illness can be isolating in itself, but my lack of fluency in German has prevented me from connecting to most of the other patients in an easy and meaningful way.

I will miss Hannah.

A few nights ago I met her. In the ward corridor, I came upon a nurse escorting a shrivelled, confused, frail old woman. She walked with crutches, and didn’t seem to know where she was. She seemed about 90 years old, having gone senile or suffering from Alzheimers. I followed closely behind as she was escorted into my room —looks like I had a new roommate.

The nurse turned and left, and I watched as the woman began to unpack her things. Her movements were slow, reluctant. Deliberate. She began setting belongings on the nightstand.

A stack of dogeared books, a pair of woollen socks.

With great effort, she propped up a heavy saxophone case in the puce-coloured closet. My interest was thoroughly piqued. Why would an old woman bring that to the hospital?

I looked at her, really looked, for the first time. It dawned on me that she wasn’t nearly as old as I’d thought, perhaps in her mid-50’s. She was exceptionally frail, wizened. It was immediately clear that there was more to her story, very much so.

I struck up a conversation.

The woman’s German was broken and heavily-accented with a North American twang. Smiling and relieved, I told her we could speak English. She told me she was from Massachusetts and her name was Hannah*. I told her I am from Los Angeles.

The woman turned towards me, as if seeing me for the first time. She paused, blinked, eyes blazing with hot fresh tears. I will never forget what she said next.

I began to weep. This conversation had take an unexpected turn close to home.

You see, I myself had nearly committed suicide prior to entering the hospital.

This woman — she could have been my mother. In my dark moments leading up to my near-suicide, I had selfishly thought only about the swift action that would be The Answer To My Misery, not about those who are left behind to pick up the pieces, those who die along with you.

It was a rare chance to have an allegorical conversation with my own mother, seeing past the veil of death and understanding firsthand the trauma I would have inflicted on her if I had gone through my plans on that chilly October night.

Instead, I was lucky. I got help. Entered the psychiatric ward.

Hannah’s daughter did not.

Hannah’s daughter was Bipolar — a difficult mood disorder not so far away in its symptoms from my own disorder. The doctors had recently changed her medication, and they got something wrong. She’d called Hannah to say that she was mentally unwell, and to come as quickly as possible. Hannah booked a flight for 5 days in the future, the only affordable ticket from Germany to LA; her options reduced by limited financial means and an empty savings account.

Desperately, Hannah had breathed down the phone, begging to her daughter to hold tight. To endure. To wait.

She didn’t wait.

It was the fiancee that found her body, hanging from the ceiling fan in their studio flat in Venice Beach — blue, stiff, unyielding. Hannah described seeing her daughter’s lifeless body at the funeral home, saw the marks around her baby’s pale, slender neck.

Unsatisfied with the generic shroud they had used to cover the body, Hannah purchased a new one in the exact dazzling shade of her daughter’s blue eyes — eyes now shut, forever.

Her daughter’s name had been Rachel — meaning “tenderness” in Hebrew. Rachel had been a ballet dancer.

She didn’t wait.

Moments of intense horror sometimes overcome Hannah, like a dark cloud passing in front of the sun. She says she has crystal-clear visions of her daughter reaching out for her, calling for help. These visions consume her at times, she trails off mid-sentence and drifts to the thin shadowy place that exists between the realms of the living and the dead.

I myself am childless, but my own mother tells me of the connection that exists between a parent and child. Indeed, she has an uncanny ability to sense when I’m in pain, even though we live on opposite sides of the world. There is an invisible thread, an ethereal connection, that is woven between a mother and daughter — defying all logic or physics or time zones. Countless times, when I need her most, the cracked screen of my phone lights up with a message from my mother, just checking in on me. A bit of bright California daylight, injecting some cheer into cold German night time.

I wonder how Hannah feels now that the other side of the line has gone static.

She told me she feels overwhelming guilt. The thoughts of “What If?” consume her, devour her, render her catatonic. What if she’d dropped everything, found the money, and caught the next possible flight to LA, instead of waiting 5 days? What if she’d been a better parent in some way? What if she could’ve somehow protected her daughter from this crippling mental disorder? What if, what if, what if?

Would Rachel and her piercing blue eyes be alive still?

Over weak black coffee and perched on hard plastic hospital chairs, the hours pass. Hannah begins to unravel her personal story for me, piece by painful piece.

She grew up poor in Boston, with a father who had committed suicide and a strong-willed, long-suffering mother who worked 3 jobs to keep the family afloat. It turns out Hannah isn’t nearly as old as she looks, though her real age is still a mystery to me. Her limp and sad shuffling gait are only temporary; her crutches are the result of a foot surgery last month. She is Jewish, and devout — goes to Synagogue each and every week; her faith the only thing keeping her sane. Reads books in Hebrew.

Her greatest lifelong passion is jazz music; she has played the alto saxophone since she was 17, came to Germany to chase her dreams of being a professional performer, and had a huge amount of success at one point. Released a few albums. Toured Europe. Had a strong following, earned good money. But that was before.

Before it all went wrong.

6 years ago, her husband left her for a ‘New Young Thing’ in Hamburg. Devastated, she developed a psychosomatic tremor in her lower lip, rendering it nearly impossible to play saxophone like she used to. Two great loves of her life, robbed simultaneously. Along with it, her means to make a living. Her confidence.

A series of unfortunate events transpired, bills piled up. Friendships dwindled and dried out. Her health began to suffer.

Hannah showed me a few videos of her performing, immortalised on YouTube. These videos are a true gem, a time capsule — demonstrating a snapshot her life only 6 or 7 years ago, a life which was a parallel universe to today.

In the videos, a buxom figure stands defiantly on stage, her wild blonde hair a lion’s mane, a halo. Strong, curvy body, passionately clutching her saxophone like a lover, the woman commands the attention of every eye and ear in the room.

She had star power — raw, visceral talent.

I look over at the skeletal figure next to me. The Hannah I know is dangerously thin, 42 kilos dripping wet, shivers with cold under 2 thick duvets. I doubt she could wield a heavy saxophone in quite the same way as she had before. The tendons of her hands protrude like sinewy tree roots. The doctors are threatening to give her a feeding tube.

I think it would be a good idea.

Although she had lost a lot of weight in the last few difficult years, her health has deteriorated rapidly in the last month — since the day that Rachel took her own life.

She took what was left of her mother’s life that day too.

I like Hannah. I can’t help it. I’d like to be her friend. I find myself wanting to do little things for her, make her smile. When she smiles, it’s a hard-won prize.

I find myself utterly transfixed when she speaks, keen to understand her world world, the way her life looks. She has only 2 friends here in Germany, Anja and Tanja (really!). The 3 go together to the Synagogue each week and drink a bit of whiskey afterwards.

Aside from that, Hannah is alone.

Hannah misses America. Misses peanut butter. She misses her mother’s pumpkin pie- always the best and never made from a recipe, yet perfect every time. She told me a story that when her mother died, her sister found a big slice of their mother’s fruit cake in the freezer. She express-mailed half of the fruit cake to Hannah in Germany, they ate it while on the phone together. Cried. Their last ever taste of their mother’s famous baking.

First thing I’m going to do when I’m released is go home and bake the best pumpkin pie I can, balance it on my lap on the U-Bahn on my way to the hospital. I’ll deliver it to Hannah, with strict orders to eat as much as she wants.

I asked if her she liked to cook. The black clouds passed behind her eyes again. She paused, took a breath, and said she used to love it. When Rachel was a little girl.

I am at a crossroads in my own life, in my thirties and at a point in my life where the decision of whether or not to have a child will soon no longer be mine to make. I have a limited number of years ahead of me where child-bearing will be possible, and the decision to make sits heavy on my plate day after day — a peach wilting on the vine. Many childless women my age will understand this feeling.

Will I? Won’t I? Can I? Should I?

Beautiful things spring to mind. I imagine the gentle warmth of a baby’s weight on my hip. The soft hairs sprouting from the crown of a newborn’s head. The potty-training, the first day of school, the awkward teenage years. The investment you put into your child will pay dividends as they grow and succeed in the world.

I yearn for these things like a constant, dull ache in my core. Whether or not I will ever have that privelege, I already love this invisible child. Fiercely. Relentlessly.


Having met Hannah, I now see a sharp new challenge to that rosy view. Childbearing is not a wholly noble and joyful pursuit. What nobody can prepare you for is the unique, acute depth of pain that a child can inflict upon their parent. The particular, unyielding anguish that a parent must feel when they lose a child, especially like this.

The long nights spent awake — feeding, comforting. The ballet lessons. The scrimping and saving to buy a special birthday present. The sheer investment in your child — emotionally, physically, financially. The unsinkable optimism that we reserve for our offspring, the intrinsic and quintessentially human hope that our children will have a better future than we had.

It can be gone in a flicker. It can be all for naught.

This new knowledge doesn’t help me to make my decision about if I can have a child. I don’t know if I could survive this kind of pain.

Iam not entirely certain whether or not Hannah will ever “get better”. She says she does not feel strong enough to get through this moment. Looking at her, big brown eyes unfocused, wrinkled hands trembling, looking 30 years older than she is, one is inclined to agree. There is nothing romantic, nothing “starving artist” about Hannah’s situation. Nothing noble about this grief —no matter how talented, how passionate, how worldly you are, you too can end up alone in a German mental hospital, with nothing and no one and nowhere to go.

No matter how much you loved your child, they can take their own life, and take yours in the process.

And yet, her flame hasn’t flickered out. There is something in there that keeps her going. She refuses to play the victim, though many would. There is an underlying passion, a spark in her eyes, a quick wit that is irresistible and infectious.

From her musician friends, she heard about a specialist in Munich who may be able to help her with her lip problem. She sees it as the next step to getting back on her feet, doing what she loves again. Hannah has a hope that refuses to die, when many in her shoes would have given up long before.

I see so much of myself in her, my own desperate fears and apprehensions. Many layers of my own life and health have been peeled back this past year, and the sad truth is that anybody, no matter how resilient, can have bad luck.

Life is cruel. Life is beautiful.

Life marches on.

The bare concrete in the stairwell was cold against my skin. My phone in my hand, dialing the familiar number — was it daytime yet in California?

I was nervous. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hello?” my mother’s voice quavered on the other end. It was as comforting as it was when I was still in the womb. There is no sound in the world like the voice of your mother.

I took a deep breath.

“Hi Mom. It’s me. I am calling to promise you something.”

*All names and identifying characteristics have been changed.


Emily Ellen

– Delphine Millet (photograph)

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