There aren’t many teenage girls who would demand to leave school early so they could take care of a dozen wounded feeder mice. Even fewer would do this: call countless rehab centers until they found the right equipment and then nurse all the mice back to health in their own room. Yet my 16-year-old sister Gwen has done all of these things. It all stems from an instance of personal tragedy that would have left almost anyone else shattered, but she’s found a way to craft it into something that is as considerate as it is therapeutic.
Nurturing animals is something she’s always had a knack for. Both my parents are veterinarians, so as far back as I can remember, we raised fawns, ducklings and puppies to adulthood in our home. I helped just as much as she in raising these animals, but I was always impressed by her maternal instincts and willingness to form the closest of bonds with whatever creature we had. The mice are the most recent of these endeavors, but they are also the only group that my parents didn’t need to take in. She began raising the mice this spring, after 18 months of recuperating. She’s given me permission to explain that this incident was an assault that she experienced in her first year of high school. This pulled her into a prolonged depression that became so severe that she eventually transferred to another school. I had already left for Oberlin when her spells became really severe, and every time my mom mentioned it when I called home, I was genuinely worried that my family might not be able to manage all of this.
I’m not sure if it was time or support, but eventually Gwen began to recover. It would be wrong to say she’s back to normal, but things are definitely better than before. It was during this period that she was getting supplies at the pet store with my dad and saw a cage full of feeder mice. She was so intrigued by their situation that she wrote a poem about them. When my mom read it, she immediately bought three and told Gwen she could raise them. Now she goes to my parents’ clinic every day after school and feeds them, holds them and arranges an intricate system of tunnels for them to play in. Oh yeah, and one had a dozen babies.
As horrific as my sister’s situation is, it’s far from uncommon. But what she’s done in lieu of it is more of an anomaly. Coming from a family where mental illness is pervasive and the word “depression” is never taken lightly, I’ve learned that overcoming such adverse circumstances will never be as easy as taking a pill or speaking to a therapist. These interventions can certainly help, but the nature of mental illness and the complexity of human emotions ensure that moving past such darkness is an individualized task that simply can’t be done by someone else. The recovery she’s made so far is incredible.
In my last article I voiced my frustration with trigger warnings that preface presentations on campus, and my feelings are only strengthened when I consider my sister. The words and ideas that would set her off aren’t anything that anyone could guess, and this isn’t unique to her. To think that patterns of depression and post-traumatic stress can be foreseen and distilled to a list of potential “triggers” undermines the individuality of mental illness. But this doesn’t apply only as criticism of Oberlin habits. The idea of individualized responses applies not only to negative triggers but to positive ones as well.
I think this is what made my sister decide to raise the mice. Since she was six years old, carrying around her puppy blanket and pronouncing “th” as “f,” she’s found immense joy in being able to raise something as her own and tend to its needs. Even though she’s gone through significant changes since then, it’s a testament to her character that this passion has pervaded everything she’s been through. There was no way to know how much healing those mice would provide her, but the fact that they helped so much is a stirring testimony of hope that I believe can assure anyone that adversity is not only endurable but can be translated into something beautiful.
Before I finish this piece, she told me to make sure I included all the mice’s names. The mother is Ellie, and the children are Annabelle, Blue, Christopher, Delilah, Emmett, Franny, Gracie, Holly, Iris, Josie, Kate, Leonardo and Mavis. And yes, in case you weren’t sure, she can tell them all apart.