Ashes and Sage

I’ve not really written about the big story that looms still over my head. It seems almost too much of a story—so many wrong turns, so many places that dead ended into hopelessness and incredulity. I’m not even sure if there’s a place to start. So much is what happens when there’s a person in your life that needs help and refuses to be helped.

My fiancé and I have bonded as two people who tried in every way we could think to help two women and each attempt to help did not help, exasperated the situation, or flat out didn’t work.

It seems so easy. You want to solve something that looks on the outset like it has an easy answer. Just get them employed. Just get them social services. A therapist. A class to take. A support group. Drug treatment. Detox. Friends. Something that isn’t us. Something that doesn’t require it be us. Something that makes them not our responsibility. Something that makes them functional adults.

As an artist I’m often baffled at the road map that lies before others that they refuse to take. How I long for a road map. If you do A, then B will happen. Artists work in the hopes that there might be a pay off somewhere but they also feel compelled to be artistic. It’s a way of life and a lifestyle that I would not have chosen given the choice. And now I just have learned to create regardless. Create in ashes. Sage the burned out places of life, make them safe enough if not entirely safe and move forward.

There’s resignation and regret—you wanted one life for them, but you’re stuck with another.  I guess that’s the way it has to be. But what if there could be change? We like to think people can and will get better. If only this one element were fixed things could be okay. That’s certainly the way I see my sister who suffers from mental illness (among other issues); and that’s the way my fiancé sees his ex-girlfriend—a woman whose emotional growth stunted by childhood traumas. Both have had psychotic breaks with reality. Both estranged themselves from friends and family until there were very few of us left holding on to memory and hope.

My sister is now estranged from me. Living sometimes in another county with a man none of us know. Living sometimes in jail when things get too much and she has an outburst of violence after a binge of drinking. My sister spent last Christmas in jail for violating a restraining order against someone who’d witnessed her rage. She is not the person she was 10 years ago. I have mourned her even as she is still living. She discovered opiates nearly 10 years ago but there was always something even before that. There will be, I know, always a hole in my heart, every birthday, every Christmas—knowing I gave up, knowing I couldn’t save her from her. It’s my own arrogance. She didn’t want to be saved.

Last time I saw her she called me a ‘normie’. As in ‘you normies wouldn’t understand.’  That’s addiction talking I said to myself. But when there’s nothing left of the old personality then what have we left?

The last time we spoke things spiraled into circles. Heavy circles. Accusations. Memories that seemed insignificant to me that she carried with her for decades.  Places to set blame on the shelves of her mind. I wouldn’t “be this way if it wasn’t for you sort of thing.”

My fiancé had much of the same. Maybe this treatment. Maybe this therapist. If she’d only get off all the prescription meds. If she’d only go outside. If she’d only make friends. She finally tried to kill herself in his bathtub. 5150’d to a mental hospital. Lied. Got out. Broke into his house—the house of the last person on the planet who would treat her with any kindness—and tried to burn down his house the day after Christmas last year. She was arrested. Jailed for six months and as she’d never been in trouble with the law and is great at playing the victim, was released into homelessness in Santa Ana where she now lives in a converted bus terminal with a few restraining orders over her head.

None of this had to go down this way but you can’t make someone do what’s best for them.

I miss my sister. The way she was 10 years ago. The way I mourn her like she’s dead but she’s living in a changeling body somewhere in the foothills of these mountains. The arsonist was supposed to be in a half way house that took care of mentally ill patients but refused to go.  But the demands of both women were too high for either of us to live with. If I’d been younger and childless, I’d have made my life miserable and moved my sister in with me and watched my life burn away like my fiancé did.

It’s an accident on the roadside that I cannot look away from. Both of us have those solution problem solving personalities that want to fix things but in these cases we did not know how. We have had to admit our faults. Our powerlessness. Our stupidity at not knowing how to handle those who inhabit many spaces in their minds. We see a glimmer of hope and negate in our own minds the person before us who wishes to cause us harm. And so the closer we got the more we got singed. How do you hold someone who is aflame without going up yourself?


Last week we were in his house demolishing what’s left so it can be rebuilt. Months ago we went through it and began dumping the burned debris and molded items from the fire suppression waters. Hardly anything could be saved. She went after photographs of his daughter, anything that he cherished, and in the midst of it set her own things afire. He lost things only of value to him: the few possession of his late father and dear family friends.

In the end there were a couple of boxes of photographs of her own kids that she was estranged from. She never arranged pick up of them. On social media she exclaimed to hate them. We have nowhere to send them. They sit in a corner reminding us of what happens when someone goes a lifetime without treatment. I want them gone. I want to move on.

I found remnants of spells cast on him. Black magic spells attempting to bind him to her. My stomach would turn as I’d read the spell words and feel the ash of the fire the melted candles, the mishaped accoutrements of spell casting.

I too want to assign blame. To the mental health doctors who kicked her out of the hospital because she’d eaten through insurance. To the social worker who didn’t make sure she went to the half way house instead of squatting in his house. To the cops who let her squat because she’d once lived there and needed to be legally evicted.  To the court who let her out when they had the opportunity to treat her. To every friend of hers who silently crept away rather than confront her. And for my sister I wanted to blame every man who ever took advantage of her trusting nature. Her ex-husbands who separated her from us. Friends that didn’t look after her. Myself.


Thankfully I sat down one day with a former friend of my sister’s who said. “She was a grown ass woman capable of making her own decisions. This is what she chose to do.” That coffee that day in San Francisco with that friend is what saves me from despair.

I bought my man sage. We scrubbed through the debris and broken spells with token salt water. I am probably the most understanding I have ever been in my life now, with this man, who knew so little of that before. I have made it my quest—to keep him safe from at least this kind of harm.

And now the house is stripped to the posts and studs and with any luck by next summer he’ll have a new house—a bright place where family can thrive and friends can laugh. 

May all those in need of help find the road to that help. We are at crossroads. What will it take California, America, for all those needing treatment to get treatment again? How many bystanders go up in flames before it happens?

But out of these particular ashes, from this sage scrubbing, my man and I—we will start our lives together, phoenix rising. Sisterless. Crazy ex-girlfriend free.

Holding each other tightly—focused on our children, our families and our passions that keep us alive—no longer hoping against all odds for miracles among the embers. Creating out of ashes and sage a new beginning without them.

Blue skies after the storm.


  1. Cookie Jackson

    I have no words at this moment, just to many thoughts screaming around in my head.Trying to take this all in so I can make a logical statement but don’t know that I will ever be able to.

  2. magicafe

    Wow, you h e been through it…so sorry for you.i understand. There was a young man in the town where I used to live who was like your sister in some ways…after he burned a friends house down, three of us were talking and we called ourselves the “ suckers for Jimmy” It’s too much caring and not enough knowing what to do..but then who does know?

    1. Margaret Elysia Garcia

      Thanks for reading. There are two women in the story: my sister, and my fiance’s ex. I lump them together because we were going through them a bit simultaneously and it drew us together. The fiance’s ex is the arsonist. My sister’s behavior has been (when she’s on the wrong thing) has been domestic violence (which lands her in jail).

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