WAYNESBURG – When Amy Smith began writing a journal, it wasn’t a consideration that one day she might publish her thoughts, but Smith decided it was time to share a period of her life in print. The result is “Whirlwind and the Storm,” a poignant journey through mental illness, alcoholism and family dynamics.
“When I was 10, it was my means of therapy,” the 40-something Smith said.
It is easy to forget while reading the book that this is about real people. At times, Smith’s family members are characters to root for and then become frustrated with right along with Smith.
“I don’t think this book is for everybody. I think the content itself, the whole story itself, is fascinating,” she said. “There is my ugly in there. There is foul language. I decided it’s fair and only right that I leave my ugly in this thing – the life lessons. I made poor decisions. I had ugly language and ugly thoughts.”
Smith said she cringes when she thinks about the ladies of her church reading the book. Out of respect for her grandparents she waited to write it until they had all died.
“There were multiple reasons why I chose to write the book. It was cathartic for me,” she said. “I wanted to convey how wonderful my grandparents were, and they were wonderful, but they grew up in a different time when people were very focused on the fact you don’t air your dirty laundry.”
Smith said in a lot of ways that mindset keeps people sick and if she can help one person because she has laid it all out there, warts and all, she will be happy.
Throughout the book, her maternal grandfather, Clifford Bissett, or Pappy, is a stabilizing force in Smith’s life. With candor, Smith talks about his struggle with alcoholism that leads to a divorce from her grandmother, Nanny. They later remarry when Bissett quits drinking but alcoholism still plagues the family. The drinking of their younger daughter Dee, Smith’s aunt, is an almost constant source of frustration for Smith, who cleans up after her aunt more often than not.
The tragic death of Smith’s brother, David, 22, from a seizure related to an inoperable brain tumor diagnosed as a little boy, spirals Dee further into the depths of alcoholism and worsens Smith’s mother Dolly’s already diminished mental state. Smith traced her mom’s mental illness back many years.
Smith believes the early signs showed up around the time Dolly graduated from high school and entered nurses training. She would drop out, but Smith said she could never get a straight answer from her family or her mother why it happened.
Constantly seeking answers about her family history and what made each of them who they are, Smith takes every opportunity to ask questions.
Pappy, a Korean and World War II veteran, is honest and forthright as he shares his experiences with Smith. His stories are some of the most poignant parts of “The Whirlwind and the Storm.”
As the book progresses, Dee and Dolly continue to sink lower into the depths of their diseases. In an out of lucidity, Dolly tells Smith they are Nazi war criminals and she thinks they adopted her. Smith never knows what state of mind she will find her mother in when she visits. The occasional letter from Dolly is welcomed by Smith even though they teeter from loving and nurturing to over the top and disturbing.
Dolly’s second husband, not Smith’s father, tells Smith her mother has been prescribed multiple medications during their marriage, but she never takes them for long.
A registered nurse, Smith seeks a diagnosis for her mother. She even tries to get answers from her mom’s therapist, fully knowing that privacy laws prevented him from telling her anything. She said deep down she always knew the answer but continued to feel the need for confirmation.
When Dolly was 25 she was having what Nanny called “nervous spells,” Smith said. Shortly after that a physician diagnosed her as “high strung,” Smith added.
When Smith’s maternal great-grandmother tells her a story about Smith’s great-great grandmother, Osie, she finds it very telling.
“She told me every time Osie had a baby she’d just go haywire. She’d lose her mind,” Smith said. “Grandma went on to reveal to me that her mother (Osie) eventually had to be put in Dixmont, a mental institution.” When Osie came home from Dixmont she never had her feet on the floor again, according to Smith’s grandmother. “She just lay there, never moved. She died when she was 48,” Smith said.
She began to wonder if Osie was schizophrenic and had become catatonic. Smith becomes convinced a first cousin was also schizophrenic. The thought that her mother’s mental illness was hereditary became stronger.
Later in the book, Dolly lands in a Washington County nursing home where doctors find a combination of medication that controls the voices in her head. The best part is the drugs do not leave her in a zombie-like state. Smith feels like she has her mother back, or perhaps for the first time in many ways.
It is bittersweet as Dolly had the opportunity to mend her relationship with her father, but the chance to do so with her mother had passed. Smith said the most important thing for her mother to understand is that none of what happened was her fault.
When the book ends, Dee is experiencing a long period of sobriety. Smith said what comes next that puts Dee in the nursing home with her big sister, Dolly, is a story for another book.
“Life is a journey. You can love someone too much. With Dee there was always a safety net. It was a good example of enabling. My grandparents did the best they knew how,” she said. “I’m not blaming them. I just learned that it keeps someone sick when you are always there ready to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess.”
Proceeds from the sales of Smith’s book support her ongoing mission work. She will be traveling to Sudan in February to render aid in “the place the world has forgotten and the innocent bystanders of inner-tribal wars,” she said.
“Whirlwind and the Storm” can be purchased at Amazon.com or from barnesandnoble.com.