Jessica Stephens was 13 years old when her sister, Ann, pulled her in the bedroom for a heart-to-heart.
Ann was 11 years older than Jessica, but at 24, she had never lived independently. Their mother, Barbara, had died two years before from cancer.
Their father, Jerry, worked several towns over, so he was gone from early morning until quite late, and often it was just the two sisters alone in the house. That day, as so many days, the sisters were having a fight about music. Specifically, who could play it the loudest.
Each sister staked out her own claim on the household’s decibel level. Ann was listening to the radio show she listened to every day, and she had a special reason to. She was in love with the D.J., and he with her.
Sitting on the bed in Jessica’s room after his show was over, Ann urgently whispered some sisterly advice: “You really looked like the bad guy in that fight.”
She just wanted to explain, so Jessica would know for next time, precisely why it was a bad idea for the two of them to have fights like the one they’d just had.
It was a bad idea because Jessica wouldn’t have come off well to anyone who might have been listening.
And the stakes were high because many were listening: The radio station had bugged their house, the love affair had to be kept secret, and the D.J.’s bosses were conspiring to keep the two lovers apart.
“It’s a condition called erotomania,” says Jessica, speaking from her bedroom in Nashville, sitting on her bed. “It’s a form of psychosis.”
Erotomania is a delusional disorder that presents more often in women than men, though men who have it are more likely to become violent or exhibit stalking behaviors.
“She had entered this radio contest,” Jessica says, remembering some of the proof points that seemed to exist at the time, “she had entered at the very last minute and she won tickets to HFStival. And she was like, ‘He knew, and he orchestrated it and made sure that I got the tickets.’”
To the kid sister Jessica was in 1997, that was proof enough that, strange as it sounded, it must have been true.
Jessica says she never shared any part of her sister’s fantasy around having someone who would come whisk her away from her home life, but it was attractive to think people were paying attention to her family.
“There was this nugget of hope,” she says, “that this D.J. was gonna break through, and they were going to get married.”
Jessica describes circumstances that I think most of us would consider gruelling, even horrific. Her sister once stole the family car to try and talk to the D.J. Drugs were a recurring problem. Her dad and sister would be up odd hours of the night fighting, and would regularly wake Jessica up. She would show up to school tired as a result, which she suspects read as depression, because two teachers and a guidance counselor expressed concern that she wanted to kill herself.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself,” Jessica says, “because I don’t know if it would’ve been better for me if things had been different. The bad things that have happened to you, you don’t know if your life would be better if they hadn’t happened. I think about shellfish who find a shell and they live in that until they’re too big for it. And then they move to something else.”
I think I’d be mad, if I were her.
I admire endlessly this ability to look at such a hard thing and make the decision to view it as her invitation to climb into a bigger box.
With such a mindset as that, the box you can get into must be basically infinite.
Jessica says the ordinary things teenagers and their parents would fight about had never applied to her. She was given no rules around not watching too much television or going out.
“If I’d been sleeping around, going out, or doing drugs,” Jessica says, “I’m not sure that my dad would’ve noticed because he was so worried about my sister.”
Ann’s object of love, the D.J., was in a band, and she would travel to Washington, D.C. from suburban Maryland to go to shows. Eventually, a restraining order was put in place, which Ann violated once and was sent to jail. She also spent time in an institution. The family worried constantly about a second violation, once she was released.
With erotomania, the condition generally lasts until they move on to someone else. And by the time Jessica was in high school, the D.J. had been arrested for heroin possession; a story had appeared in the newspaper about it. Jessica doesn’t remember when exactly she figured out the truth, but she remembers by that time, her sister’s gleeful reaction that something bad had happened to her “ex-boyfriend.”
“I understood the truth by then,” Jessica says, “like, he doesn’t know who you are and is not in love with you.”
“There’s difficulty and frustration in trying to talk someone who doesn’t see the world the same way you do,” Jessica says. “When she stole the car, that’s a financial risk, but that’s also an emotional risk that someone might do something like that, if you trust them.”
By the time of her sister’s death in 2013, the two weren’t speaking anymore, and Ann had alienated most everyone in her life. She was living in King George County and a friend stepped out to go to the grocery store.
Ann passed away while the friend was away from the house on the errand. She died alone, with no witnesses, which is called unattended death. In the commonwealth of Virginia, an unattended death means the medical director must perform an autopsy. The medical director said she’d died of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is an umbrella term for a variety of lung conditions.
“It’s really to quantify what might cause someone to die,” Jessica says. “Was it COPD, or was it a life of extreme stress? My brother died in a car crash, and my parents both had cancer, so there’s something you can point to. But with her, I wonder. Is it this illness that the doctor found? Or was it just the life itself that killed her?”
Jessica emphasizes that, as hard as it is to watch someone go through such a tough life battle, it’s also hard to be the person, and she has a high degree of empathy for the life her sister led.
“People are so afraid of saying the wrong thing,” Jessica says, “that they won’t talk about it at all. To talk about people dying and this weird mental illness that surrounded me growing up. A lot of people would shy away from those conversations, but sometimes I do want to talk about it.”
“If there’s someone who has mental illness,” she says, “and that is like the only thing about them, that’s a problem. The fact that she’s wrong about some things doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know anything.”
A few facts about Ann that are unrelated to her illness:
She could be very fun and funny. She had a child about two years after the D.J. was arrested. She correctly diagnosed a medical issue with her child, but wasn’t taken seriously by the family until another relative was able to confirm it years later. And although she would often alienate them, she made friends quickly and easily.
Ann’s childhood nickname was Anna Banana.
Jessica moved to Nashville for a grant writing job, and now works for the state of Tennessee. Her job title is “statistical research specialist,” which means she spends her days updating the people managing programs about how many people we provided certain services to, how many people were enrolled in certain programs, and what kinds of demographics of people have a high need in which regions.
She said it’s rewarding to do this work, helping make the case that addiction, like mental illness, is not something people choose to bring on themselves.
For her next tattoo, she’s thinking of getting a banana.
Jessica Stephens is an accordionist, copy editor, and writer. She has a dog named Louise Puggs.