Why making time & space to cultivate your mental & emotional wellness matters
Today is my sister’s birthday. She died on February 11, 2019.
As a sister, you are kinda obligated NOT to air out your sister’s dirty laundry. You know — out of respect for your sibling and family pride. However, as I reflect upon her life, I’d like to share pieces of her story that I think she, being open hearted and very generous, may be ok with others knowing if it would help someone.
Sherilyn “Bootsie” Joyce Scott was a spirited, fiesty, fun, smart and very pretty girl in North Memphis (Tennessee). A high school majorette with legs for days in a 2–parent household, she even got a car at age 16 (pretty cool for a black girl in the 1960s) and was quite the desire of the many boys.
After high school, she packed up her little Toyota Corolla and headed off to Tennessee State University. She aborted the college mission and returned home after one year. She worked and got her own place. As a little girl, I knew her to be a beautiful big sister, who spoiled me and her goddaughter Bonnie with candy, kept me overnight at her place, taught me how to do hair & nails, and while in cosmetology school used our hair/heads as her school manicans for new hairstyles & perms (OMG did we get many scalp burns from those trials). Her friends — Julia Mae, Ida, Ann, Miss Chris and Miss Michael were all so cool. It was through her that I gained my appreciation of LGBTQ+ folks and culture. She loved widely. And I felt pretty special when she made me pretend to be her daughter to get special favor as needed. It’s the story of many little sisters.
We were born 20 years apart separated by eras & decades, yet born by the same mother, and raised by the same father. Yet as is often with siblings, even with similar privilege, our lives played out pretty differently.
In the 1980s, crack cocaine hit the country hard, especially black neighborhoods and black cities like our hometown Memphis. Our middle-class family was tried and shattered by my sister’s addiction. My mother’s guilt and shame resulted in depression. And after my mother & father adopted her son at 5 years old, she ultimately lost her apartment and moved in with us.
Now, many families with addiction have stories of theft. We did not. She had a code. A line if you will. Nothing was ever missing (except our mother’s car keys). And the collective family prayer was just for her to return every day, alive. Too many nights she wouldn’t return. Others, when we didn’t hear the doorbell, she’d rap on my window for me to let her in— a lingering sound in the night that still touches me to this day. As a teenager, her “foolishness” annoyed me. Why couldn’t she get it together? I wanted her so badly to get it together and give me candy again (or something like it).
But, different forces had taken over her life. She struggled with substance abuse for approximately 40 years. Our Bootsie experienced a suboptimal life, subsisting beneath her intelligence and creative talents. In and out of prison for years for mostly petty theft crimes related to drug acquisition and consumption. Raped and misused by men often. Her life had disintegrated into mere fragments. She’d gotten pretty deep into a life over which she felt she had no control.
Growing up observing this, I had two goals: 1) To get out of Memphis, and 2) To restore joy in my mother’s spirit. Memphis at that point equaled pain. And I wanted out. My mother wanted me out. So, I left Memphis at 17 for the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1991. My mother forbid my sister to have my phone number while I was in college (something I didn’t understand at the time — but later understood to be protection). So, Boots wrote me letters, many from prison. I don’t think I wrote her back much. I was busy creating a new life. I was angry. Angry at what had happened to our family. Our parents separated, mother was severely depressed and sister just not the sister I knew, loved or understood.
Post my Mizzou ’95 graduation, I moved to Chicago for my first advertising job. I was 21, had friends and what seemed like a good start for a career & life. But, I longed for a relationship with my sister. Siblings are never far in spirit from one another. So, I somehow got in touch with her. By this point, she wasn’t easy to find and wasn’t always staying with my mother. We were always sisters, just didn’t know much about one another and I believed there was more to my sister than her being an addict — the black sheep of the family. There had to be more — she was my sister afterall. So, one day during a phone conversation, I asked her, “where did this all go wrong? we had the same schooling. same parents. what happened?”
She was 100% sober that day. And confided in me two life events that pushed her into her addiction, one which I shall take to the grave, and one was becoming pregnant. She shared that she never wanted children — the responsibility of them. And that when she became pregnant with her first child Justin (1984)— my mother threatened not speak to her again if she aborted. So, my sister said “Can you imagine your mother saying she would never speak to you again?, so I had the baby. And I went on into drugs as postpartum. I did not want children.”
Honestly, I was skeptical — is she really blaming her addiction on pregnancy? But, given the sincerity and seriousness of the conversation coupled with her super free-spirited nature, I believed her then—and now. Given what I’ve heard, post-partum is real. Crack was cheap and very easily accessible in North Memphis. So, I get it, now.
Yet, I wonder today—what if instead of drugs, instead of anything harmful to herself, she could have looked inside, and trusted her inner beauty, her divine, her specialness. What if she could have been stronger and made the life choice with her child that she thought was best for her life?
As time went on, my sister had a second child Jasmine (1990) and continued to struggle with addiction — for years. She got close to breaking free around 2013–2014 when she finally had an apartment of her own and was living independently. But, life happened again. In 2015, my 4'11, 100 lb sister was hit by a car as a pedestrian in a hit and run accident and this set her back even more. I understand from acquaintances she was with at the time of the accident, that she was under the influence. Which pissed me off. How many more years of this will I have to endure (selfishly)? How many more years can her body deal with this? But, as the resilient one that she is, she recovered after a near-death coma resulting from multiple broken bones, shattered ribs resulting from her suspension into the air upon the car’s impact landed her on the road’s gravel, she fought her way back and re-learned how to walk & talk, I questioned less why she was careless with her life and gained profound respect for her fight in this life. Even if she had been under the influence, she was a fighter.
Three years post-accident, in August 2018, Bootsie had recovered most of her bodily functions and was independent enough to move back on her own in a cute Southeast Memphis apartment. She was thrilled! She’d wanted my financial assistance with this move and I repeatedly said no (this time). Our dad, and our sister Jeanna and our niece Erika extended a gracious helping hand. I chose not to contribute this time because I was exhausted of the years of addiction and I’d hoped that in not doing so that she would find confidence in knowing she could stand on her own two feet.
We spoke AFTER she was settled in, and she commented about how much she loved her place, how much at peace she was, and then she cried and said “I’m sitting in an apartment full of furniture, none of which I bought — I guess I must not be all that bad.” She sobbed. I comforted her with “Of course you’re not. Why would you say that??” And I realized that over the 40+ years of addiction and all the shame, guilt, judgment (by self and others) and loss of self-esteem, that SHE thought she was bad. She no longer thought her life was worthwhile. She’d finally kicked cocaine, but there were prescription pills in her life.
We had so many honest conversations around her birthday when she shared that she wanted to get better, and to not give up on her. And I didn’t. Every year, I would tell her that if God still had her on this earth, she could turn it around. But I think she stopped believing a long time ago. She no longer believed she mattered. Upon clearing her things after her fatal heart attack last year, I found a notebook in which she’d written a word of a specific mental illness. And it all clicked for me. Addiction can lead to mental illness, and mental illness can lead to addiction. There is a cycle of behaviors that can leave one trapped in a life of self-destruction if we don’t take the time to release ourselves. We must prioritize peace of mind to free ourselves.
Life is hard. Period. For some, like my sister, it’s really hard. But, life can be more tolerable when we commit to our self-value and prioritize our mental health and wellness. There has to be an internal place, and an external place too where we can all go to reconnect with who we are and to help us course correct. For many people, they have given up hope. Society has told them they don’t matter, or there are clues from others that they don’t matter as much which over time denigrates self worth and esteem. Which is why we have to find the space to implore upon ourselves our own value.
When I created a self-care experience (Freedom At The Mat) for women, I briefly toyed with making the class unisex, but inspired by my sister and so many other women who doubt themselves and their worth, I’m resolute in my decision to dedicate a sacred space for them. Although Boots was curious about yoga and would tell me “I should try that,” she didn’t get the opportunity to in this lifetime. So, I dedicate my Freedom At The Mat women-only practice to Bootsie and all the women who are not free from society’s judgments, their pasts, and their own fears and shame and need a small place (a yoga mat) and time to be supported by other women in a non judgemental way, while also getting a dose of physical and mental exercise.
A life lived, is a life loved and a life worth remembering. My deepest desire is that in sharing this story of my sister that each person — especially women — push through their past, their shame or their perceived lack of self-worth to believe that they matter, and that their existence matters and work to create their fullest life maximizing their gifts.
And I hope that in sharing her story that you will extend grace to others instead of judgment. For many of us, we judge without knowing more of their life story, as I did with my sister for so many years. Loving addicts and those in need is hard. I know. But often there’s something much deeper that’s driving them to the addiction, so if you’re the free one, how can you help?
Wishing Bootsie all the joy in her freedom from this life’s cares. And feeling grateful for our journey together for it has made me who I am today.