a long overdue story, and a recipe for blueberry cobbler

I want to tell you a story. It’s an evolving story, so I can’t tell you how it’s going to turn out. I’m hopeful that it will turn out just fine, but I am a realist, so I’m not getting my hopes up. I won’t share everything with you. But I do feel that I need to share at least some of this story.

For now, I’m just going to tell you the beginning.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

It was 1995, and I was home for the summer, having just finished one year of graduate school in Georgia. I was getting a Masters degree in psychology, and I had recently decided that I was not on the right track. My new plan was to live with my parents for a short time while I took the undergraduate science classes necessary to take – and hopefully pass – the medical school admissions test (the MCAT). It was going to be some time away still, but I thought I might be interested in psychiatry, or maybe even neurology.

When I moved home, I had a room next door to my brother. He was 18 or 19 at the time, and he couldn’t seem to get his act together academically. Despite being a very smart kid, once he was in high school, his grades began dropping. He could have graduated from high school if he’d made up one class in the summer following his senior year. He chose not to.

Those first few weeks home were difficult for me. I was commuting about 45 minutes each way to attend my classes. I was looking for – and eventually found – a job to pay for those classes. In between, I made time to study for physics and chemistry and biology. At night, I went to sleep with formulas spinning through my brain.

And every night, for what seemed like a very long time, I would awaken to hear my brother next door in his room. He was awake and talking to himself, laughing, and occasionally arguing. He never seemed to sleep. Which meant that I got very little sleep.

I was fed up with him, with not sleeping, with all the pressure I was under in my coursework. Mostly, I just wanted to sleep at night. I assumed that he was just acting like a jerk and purposefully trying to keep me up. One night, I went next door to my brother’s room and confronted him. I yelled at him and he yelled at me. It was the worst argument we’d ever had, and I don’t remember much of it. What I remember is that he stormed out of the house and left. The next day, he still had not come home.

This is what we were told by the medical personnel when we ultimately got the phone call: He was alive but in the hospital. He was in a single-vehicle accident on a rural road in a neighboring county. He was acting bizarrely and it was felt that he was high on hallucinogenic drugs of some sort, maybe LSD or PCP. He was flown in a helicopter or taken by ambulance [the details are fuzzy this many years later] to the major hospital in the region. A drug screen was done and was negative. He was not on drugs. He was in full-blown psychosis.

That was his first hospitalization for what became a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

People don’t talk much about schizophrenia. There’s a stigma attached to having a mental illness or loving someone with a mental illness. My family and I have been dealing with my brother’s schizophrenia for over 16 years, and WE never talk about it in public. I’ve never really discussed it here, even though I talk about other personal things that affect me profoundly. Only a few close friends know about my brother’s diagnosis. Our extended family know some, but not all, of what we’ve been through.

I don’t want sympathy. I just need to tell this story. Mental illness affects so many people – both those affected and the family members and loved ones of those with the illness. We should be helping each other more, supporting each other. We don’t talk enough about it.

I’m ready to change that.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

A few weeks ago, on Memorial Day weekend, we drove out to my parents’ home to have a cookout. My parents still live about 45 minutes away, in the very rural one-stoplight town I grew up in. My mom and dad live in an old farmhouse that they remodeled many years ago, after I moved out for good. My grandmother has lived with them since she was diagnosed with lymphoma about 15 months ago, and my brother – younger than me by 4 years – lives in a little house just behind theirs and connected by a deck my dad built.

I brought a homemade blueberry cobbler, made with the fresh blueberries we picked earlier that weekend. My mom requested the cobbler. She never asks for anything, so I had no intention of telling her no.

My mom has been a caregiver for the last 16 years, when my brother was diagnosed.  She became a caregiver for a second time when my grandmother was on chemotherapy and radiation for lymphoma. In January, she became a caregiver for my father, too.  She has the hardest job of anyone I know. It’s a physical, mental, and emotionally draining job. She never gets a day off. And she never asks for anything. Except blueberry cobbler.

So I delivered.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8.

Blueberry Cobbler

Ingredients:

Filling
1 cup packed light brown sugar
5 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
6 cups fresh blueberries (or 30 ounces frozen blueberries, not thawed)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon

Topping
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions:

Place oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

Make filling: Combine the filling ingredients - light brown sugar, tapioca, cinnamon, nutmeg, blueberries, lemon juice, and lemon zest in a bowl and stir well to combine. Place fruit filling in a 9-inch deep dish pie plate or a baking dish. Place the baking dish on the foil-lined baking sheet and bake until the fruit begins to release liquid (20-30 minutes if using fresh blueberries; 40-50 minutes if using frozen).

Make topping: While blueberry filling is baking, whisk the flour, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl. In a second bowl, whisk the buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla together. In a third, small bowl, combine the cinnamon and 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar together and set aside.

When the blueberry filling has begun to release liquid, stir the buttermilk mixture gently into the flour mixture with a rubber spatula, until the dough is just combined and there are no dry pockets remaining.

Remove the blueberry filling from the oven and stir. Pinch topping dough into 8 equal pieces and scatter evenly on top of the hot filling. Sprinkle dough with the cinnamon sugar. Return cobbler to oven and bake until the filling is bubbling and the topping is brown on top and cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let the cobbler cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes prior to serving.

Cobbler adapted from the recipe for Fruit Cobbler in The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.

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65 Responses to “a long overdue story, and a recipe for blueberry cobbler”

  1. Eva Canitano — June 22, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    Thank you for your honesty and transparency. Such a difficult subject to talk about but I would imagine you will help someone who has remained silent for too many years. In addition, I love the recipe and hope I can share that with someone who needs it as well.

  2. Nancy@acommunaltable — June 22, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

    Hi MJ!

    To be honest, I have never understood why we treat mental illness any differently than any other chronic physical illness – but we do – and as you said, we shouldn’t!!
    I am so glad that you shared your story – I think there is so much truth in the saying that “a burden shared is a burden lightened” .

  3. Jennie — June 22, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing this MJ. My sister has been on a variety of meds most of her adult life to deal with manic-depression. Before any of that was diagnosed, she attempted suicide numerous times and often found herself in bad, hurtful relationships, both mentally and physically. It was very hard for me to accept that chemistry played such a big factor in her behavior, and I still feel angry sometimes that my daughters don’t get to have a “normal” aunt like most of their friends.

  4. DessertForTwo — June 22, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

    Oh my lands, honey. This is such a beautiful story. I’m so glad you wrote it out. Thanks for drawing attention to mental illness and talking about it with such honesty. Your Mom is a Saint, but I’m sure you already know this 🙂

  5. Janis — June 22, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    Thanks for putting it out there. I am sure your story will make someone else feel less alone. I also now will crave blueberry cobbler and will think of your mom when I eat it :–)

  6. Jayne — June 22, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    MJ what a moving story. I do love the sound
    of your cobbler! I think I’ve just found my July 4th dessert!

  7. Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite — June 22, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    MJ – what a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing, I know that must have been very hard to write but hopefully you feel a little relief having it “out there”. I agree that mental illness affects so many people but it’s so hush hush. It needs to be more out in the open and acceptable to talk about. I hope your mum enjoyed this beautiful cobbler. Hugs to you and your family. XOX

  8. spiceblogger — June 22, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    It takes so much courage to speak of personal issues of this nature, and even more to write about it and post it for the world to see. So many people suffer or struggle in silence. I’m sure your story will strike a chord with someone and maybe offer a venue for open dialogue that they didn’t have before.

    Your blueberry cobbler looks divine. I’m sure your mother enjoyed it. 🙂

  9. Maggie at Eat Boutique — June 22, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    MJ, I feel for you and all the folks this affects. Thinking of you. There’s more than blueberry in that cobbler. There’s tons of love.

  10. Gail — June 22, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

    In this day and age, you’d think we’d be dealing with mental illness in a more enlightened way, but we haven’t. Even with so many of us dealing with it in one way or another in our own families, it’s still whispered or not mentioned.
    Hats off to you for telling the story and bringing the cobbler to your mother.

    xoxo

  11. Chris @ The Peche — June 22, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    I just love you, MJ. I can’t write much more without crying and I’m sitting in a crowded airport. Love.

  12. Macaroni Mama — June 22, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

    A very moving story, Merry Jennifer.

  13. George Samuelson — June 22, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

    Coming to terms with mental illness can often be as challenging for the family as it can be for member affected…having the courage to speak openly is pretty awesome… I thank you for sharing

  14. Ethan — June 22, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    Thank you for sharing. There’s so much we don’t know about each other and I think you connected all of us a little more today.
    I’m glad you delivered the cobbler:)

  15. I do appreciate your opening up to your readers and sharing some of those ‘family secrets’ with the world. I have great empathy but no desire to do the same thing, thinking that it’s a burden on readers. Yet once, when I mentioned as sparingly as possible the trauma of growing up with an alcoholic I was surprised at how much people seemed to identify and share. I guess it’s easy to be in that same space I knew as a girl; if I never say anything than no one knows because…well, everyone else has a perfect life and mine is not.

    As adults we know that is not true and that those commonalities we are willing to share, while not looking for sympathy, can serve to help others who might also feel alone with their struggles make a dialogue easier to start and allow them to feel less alone.

    I’m sure you’ve done that today.

  16. Kim — June 22, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    MJ – what a touching story. Bravo to you for sharing it. I agree with Nancy; a burden shared is a burden lightened. 🙂

    [K]

  17. Kimmie — June 22, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    Such a touching story. Mom’s rarely ask for anything, it’s such a blessing when we can deliver a slice of comfort to them! Thanks for sharing, MJ.

  18. LiztheChef — June 22, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

    You are one terrific daughter…

  19. Lori — June 22, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

    You are a healer in every sense of the word. Healing through your profession, your writing and through food. What a gift.

  20. Miss @ Miss in the Kitchen — June 22, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    I admire your openness, and what an inspiration your Mother must be. Food is such a great connection and comfort between us all.

  21. Audrey — June 22, 2011 @ 6:15 pm

    MJ, as you know, I’ve lived with mental illness for as long as I can remember. It is really a part of my everyday life and it sucks. I’m glad that you are able to talk about it. I’m sure that you feel some relief from being able to open up about things that I’ve only heard a small amount about. It is a shame that some people don’t want to talk or hear about it but I’m glad you had the courage to tell this story. <3 Audrey

  22. carolineadobo — June 22, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    Thank you for your story. Hoping your story will make others in the same situation to do the same and speak out.

  23. Sherry — June 22, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

    All of you have been so strong. I admire that. Love you.

  24. domenicacooks — June 22, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

    Beautifully written. I’m sure it was a difficult piece to write and even more hard to publish, so thank you for having the courage to share it.

  25. Barbara — June 22, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    We all know somebody struggling with some type of mental illness. It’s so hard for everyone involved. You mother is an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary daughter.

  26. Lana — June 22, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

    When I was growing up, I knew of a few “brothers'” who suffered from schizophrenia, all of them young, brilliant, and in most cases beautiful. My father was a surgeon, and we were raised to look at mental illness like any other illness. It hurts when people who do not understand start passing judgment.
    You are a brave and loving sister to share the story and your brother with us. We need more people like you to come out and stop being ashamed.
    A big hug for you from SoCal:)

  27. Kate @ Savour Fare — June 22, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

    Oh MJ, this post made me cry.

  28. Aimee @ Simple Bites — June 22, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

    What a brave post, MJ. I believe this will help a lot of people. And your mom sounds amazing!

  29. The Yummy Mummy — June 22, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

    I loved you before. Now I just love you more. xo

  30. Amelia from z tasty life — June 22, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

    Your mom stands out in this story as she deserves a cobbler of hugs, love and serenity. You seems to know what she needs. You are brave and strong and desere some love cobbler too…

  31. Rachel @ Not Rachael Ray — June 22, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

    Sounds like your mom deserves blueberry cobbler and more. Sounds like you do too. Thanks for sharing this, I’m sure it wasn’t easy.

  32. Renée J. (RJ Flamingo) — June 22, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

    Thank you for sharing, MJ. I know you touched a chord in many people with this post, and with that, shed more light on an illness that should be thought of as a medical condition, just like any other. I know that cobbler tasted sweeter to your Mom with every bite. {{{Hugs}}}

  33. Irvin at Eat the Love — June 22, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

    Thank you for this post. Too many people try to ignore or sweep under the rug mental illness. It’s funny how in this day and age, it’s such a taboo subject. I’m so glad you shared your story with us all…

  34. Amy — June 23, 2011 @ 12:18 am

    God bless you and your family.

  35. Helene — June 23, 2011 @ 2:08 am

    I loved you before but I love you even more now. You and your family inspire compassion and love.

  36. Jessica @ How Sweet — June 23, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. My husband and I both have mental illness in our extended family and it is something we deal with often. You are incredible.

  37. Brian @ A Thought For Food — June 23, 2011 @ 7:30 am

    You may not want sympathy, my dear, but it is inevitable. Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us (which was so beautifully written, it brought tears to my eyes).

    I have no doubt that you are a loving and caring sister… and your mother sounds like a saint.

    And is there anything that can make people smile more than a scoop of cobbler? I really don’t think so. A sweet note after a very touching story.

  38. Ken⏐hungry rabbit — June 23, 2011 @ 7:31 am

    Thanks for telling the story and let us into your life. Your courage is inspiring.

  39. Sanjeeta kk — June 23, 2011 @ 7:34 am

    Very touching and eye opening real life story indeed! Thanks for sharing a part of your life with us, MJ. It inspires a lot.

  40. Jackie Gordon Singing Chef — June 23, 2011 @ 7:35 am

    Thanks for having the courage to share this story. Revealing the family “secret” is inspiring to others who may have mental illness or some other challenge that they NEVER talk about.

    Your strength and the amazing fortitude of your mom have much more power revealed and acknowledged as a testimony to you and a message to other people that they don’t have to carry their burdens alone and suffer in silence.

    I don’t know if you mom is going to read this, but if she does, let her know that she’s an inspiration.

  41. Ilke — June 23, 2011 @ 8:05 am

    What a wonderful womam your mom is!! People like your mom make me realize that the daily things we complain are nothing and we should be grateful for what we have.

  42. It must have taken a lot of courage to hit “publish” and put that out into the world. Best wishes to you all–especially your mom, with the weight of the world on her shoulders. She deserves all the blueberry cobbler she can get!

  43. Snippets of Thyme — June 23, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    How very brave of you to share your painful experience with discovering your brother’s condition. The good that will come out of this is that we will all be more vigilant about our own understanding of this disease; perhaps some one out there will catch the symptoms/behavior you described and be able to help a loved one. I wish I could give you a great big hug!! You have a lot on your shoulders and are certainly more than capable of helping your family when they need you!

  44. amy k. — June 23, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    Such a moving story. Thank you for sharing.

  45. Paula — June 23, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    I’m so glad that you wrote and published this post and I only wish that more people who are dealing with schizophrenia within their families would do the same. Mental illness, while being more openly discussed in some circles still needs to be more in the mainstream. It’s the only way the stigma attached to it will be removed.
    I know what you and your family have gone through and are going through with your brother having had a brother myself with schizophrenia. My parents were as yours in that they would not discuss it outside of the family and rarely ever within it. They felt that people would believe that their son having schizophrenia was somehow a reflection on their parenting skills.
    I recently had an opportunity to bake cookies for a fundraiser for our local Psychiatric Hospital’s Mental Health Foundation and in doing so, I did a post about my brother. The response from some of the readers, while heart-rendering, just highlighted the fact that so many families are suffering with this affliction and while they know they are not alone, feel as they are. The more we openly discuss mental illness the smaller the *elephant in the room* will get.
    Your cobbler is beautiful! Best wishes to your family.

  46. les — June 23, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. As I was reading it, I could tell where it was going, as my 22 year old daughter just had a psychotic event a few months ago. We are just finding out now she is bipolar. I couldn’t agree more that mental illness needs to be treated like any other disease and talked about openly so people who have never gone through this understand and can maybe even recognise the symptoms in a loved one before they have a full blown psychotic event.

  47. Mary Constant — June 23, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    Merry, This is such a sad story about some very brave folks. Your family has been through some very hard times, especially your mother who is the ultimate caregiver, and your brother, who suffers from a terrible disease. Here in the Napa Valley, the Staglin family who own that winery put on a Annual Music Festival for Mental Health (Sept 10). Shari and Garen’s own son, Brandon, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been on the path to containing the disease. Happily , he is now able to live a “normal” life, even working at the winery. Three years ago, he married…an incredibly joyous occasion.

  48. Jen @ My Kitchen Addiction — June 23, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    Lovely post… Thanks for sharing! I know you are one of the strongest women I know, and it sounds like your mom is, as well. I’m sure she enjoyed the cobbler… Sometimes the small things really make a big difference. It looks lovely.

  49. Shirley — June 23, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    Thanks for sharing! I know that was hard but it was a lovely and tearful post. You do have a wonderful family and all the small things do make a difference.

  50. Carrie Fields — June 23, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    thank you for sharing. It is a beautiful and painful and hopeful story. I am part of a family effected by Bi-Polar disorder (I have it as well) and it is hard when there is a stigma attached to the person.
    (plus the recipe looks amazing) give your family a giant hug for me and make sure you get one too!

  51. Kulsum at JourneyKitchen — June 23, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    that’s such a powerful story. Thanks for sharing and bringing focus and awareness about mental illness which is so misunderstood even today. And i guess i know why your very special mom wants this cobbler! Its beautiful

  52. Jenni — June 23, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    You’re a great daughter. If you hadn’t had that argument w/your brother, who knows how much longer his diagnosis would be delayed.

    Interesting to me, as a psych major in undergrad, that you already were heading towards a possible career in psychiatry even before your brother was diagnosed.

    Cobbler can go a long way to soothing frayed nerves. I’m sure it was exactly what your mom needed.

  53. Macaroni Mama — June 23, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

    I have read all of the comments on your beautifully written post. I want to thank ALL of your friends who think I am a saint. I’m not. Caregiving is not a profession any of us wants, certainly after I retired after 46 years of teaching elementary school. Now I just take life one day…one hour…one minute of a time. The best part is having a wonderful daughter like MJ who obviously has friends across our nation who care about her. And by the way, I am a lousy cook.

  54. Cheryl Arkison — June 23, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    Thank-you for sharing. You’re right, sometimes the story just needs to be told.
    Being the caregiver, or the caregiver for the caregiver is a tough, tough job. We all deserve a break. May it come in cobblers or walks or phone calls or even vacations. Always thinking of you, and now I’m adding your family to the list.

  55. Kristen — June 23, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    Thank you so much for opening your life up to us and for sharing this. You have a strong family and a loving mama. Hugs to you all!

  56. Cookin' Canuck — June 23, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

    What a brave and touching story. I can only imagine how trying your mum’s job is and how much she appreciates having your strength behind her. Thank you for sharing your story.

  57. julieA — June 23, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    I can see the LOVE in that blueberry cobbler….

  58. Heather in SF @HeatherHAL — June 24, 2011 @ 12:19 am

    I’m so glad you wrote about your brother, my sister is ill too and hardly anyone understands what we as a family go through, and what I go through personally as the little sister. It’s so complicated and not pretty and frankly exhausting. Family gatherings are fraught with questions: is it a good week, when will things erupt into a scene, can I relax, can I pretend things are normal for a while. Sounds selfish but sometimes I just need a break when there isn’t one coming. And what do we do when our parents pass away? This is the question that I have been pondering the most. But I don’t have answers, I just go cook or knit something to not think anymore. Hugs to you and your family.

  59. Chez Us — June 24, 2011 @ 2:06 am

    I admire people who share such brave stories of their life; makes them human, makes me admire them even more. You are a wonderful daughter, and sister for your continued support and love!

  60. Kita — June 26, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

    First, Your mother sounds like one hell of a woman. Second, thank you. My mother lived with mental illness and I can sympathize with how trying it can be on every member of a family. I don’t talk about it outside of the very few people that understood her – and sadly – that is very few. Not even all of her family bothered to understand her struggle. It is courageous of you to share such a thing to the world.

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  62. Deborah Mele — June 28, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    Merry, I grew up with a Dad who was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia and refused treatment for most of my life. The few years he was on meds caused him to have strange side effects for years even after he stopped taking them. Life was a roller coaster living with my Dad, and NOT in a good way. My Mother thought it best if we hid the problem and we were told never to talk about it. I never brought friends home, and even had a hard time telling my husband about it. It is a disease however, and not something anyone would wish on themselves. We really need to have more patience and understanding for those with mental illness.

  63. Kay Tucker — July 3, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

    Bless your heart. My wish for you and your sweet Mom is for both of you to have the strength that is needed for these challenges.
    Thank you for sharing.

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