“Late-Night Phone Calls” by Noriko Nakada

  1. Issue 14 / Summer 2018


My eyes were still adjusting to life in LA, to the void of stars in a navy sky, to the helicopter and airplane lights hovering above, to the brown haze always on the horizon, when the phone calls started.

The phone calls usually came late at night, disrupting the urban quiet, the hum of the air conditioner and the distant sirens in my lonely studio apartment.

When the phone rang, I knew it was either Laura (Yukiko), or my boyfriend (soon to be the ex-boyfriend) and his calls usually resulted in him coming over to spend the night and me not minding, because I was alone and lonely in this new city.

But when it was Yukiko (Kiko), those conversations jolted me wide awake, There was a frantic, frenetic, frequency in my sisters’ phone calls.

Kiko was recovering from a car accident. She’d borrowed Dad’s truck and was rear-ended. The soft-tissue damage kept her from working and the idle hours and months of inactivity created a version of my sister I didn’t recognize.

She talked too fast and sometimes her thoughts were disjointed. She talked about wanting to fly down to visit; to go with Dad and me on the trip we were planning to Japan. She asked how I was doing and I asked how she was doing.

We’d rehearsed, “I’m fine” for so long it had become an impossible habit to break.

As quickly as she called, she had to go. I turned off the lights and attempted to find sleep within the noisy chaos of my mind and the city.


In one of those late-night phone calls Kiko, who used to be Laura, who became Yukiko and was now Kiko told me her doctor gave her a diagnosis.

“I have multiple personality disorder.”

I was shocked. Even though my sister had three different names, even though she seemed off, different, frantic, and frenetic, she didn’t seem like many different people. She just didn’t seem herself.

Mom questioned this doctor and questioned his diagnosis. “It takes years to diagnose multiple personality disorder,” Mom told me. “He’s only been seeing Laura for a few months.”

Mom never got used to calling Laura, Yukiko.

The doctor prescribed meds and Mom wanted to look them up, but this was before the internet, so it took some time.

My sister had a diagnosis of dissociative personality disorder with a treatment plan of intense talk therapy to expose all of her personalities along with anti-psychotic and antidepressant medications.

I didn’t know what to say.

I was glad my sister was getting help and was under a doctor’s care. I was glad she had a husband who woke up with her every morning and went to bed with her every night. He knew her and could make sure she was okay.

But my sister seemed very far from okay.


Then came the trip to Japan. Dad came to LA just after I’d broken up with the boyfriend. I couldn’t talk to him about it. I pretended everything was ok. That was what our family did. Besides, we were leaving for Japan in two days and the best thing to do after a break up is leave the country.

Up until that last day before we left Kiko thought she could join us. She wanted to sell her car, buy a plane ticket, and meet us there. I knew it was impossible, but she still thought she could make it happen.

When the plane took off from LAX, I wept.

Maybe it was because I was leaving behind the ex-boyfriend, or maybe I knew my sister was in trouble, but once we touched down on the island of Okinawa, I felt like I was home.

Family greeted us at the airport and drove us to the hotel. I tried to sleep, but the quiet made me recall heartbreak and worry about what was happening in the world I left behind. I listened to Dad breathing on the other side of the hotel room and cried.

On the other side of the world, Kiko was manic, was frantic, frenetic. She was not reacting well to the combination of meds her doctor prescribed.  She was up, then down, and I was far away and completely unaware and unreachable.

The next day, we traveled to Kin-village where Dad’s family lived. We hiked down cobbled paths, and I wondered about all of those who walked there before me. What were their joys, their heartbreaks?

We arrived at the village well where my grandmother walked to get water. I was hot and thirsty. I watched my aunties pull handkerchiefs from pockets and wet them in these ancestral waters.

I washed my hands, made a cup with my palms, and drank like I was at mass.

I imagined my grandmother drinking this cool water as a child. I never met her, but somehow this place made her alive for me. And while I was visiting this other world, back home, the other shoe was dropping.


In Japan we met Dad’s side of the family. They were Nakadas and Ginozas and Ikeharas.

It was a small island. We drove its length in a couple of hours, and when we arrived in Kin-village to visit the old homes of the Nakadas, the Ginozas, and the Ikeharas, we met cousins, second cousins, and aunties and uncles.

But the same names kept recirculating: Nakadas, Ikeharas, Ginozas.

And when we visited an uncle in a mental hospital, with it’s sterile white walls and doors that opened and locked behind us, it didn’t surprise me. With all the mixing of the Nakada, Ginoza, and Ikehara blood again and again for generations, I could trace where the insanity might have come from, but that couldn’t help my sister on the other side of the globe.

She had been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. She had been hospitalized in a sterile white room behind locked doors, but I had no idea. I was in a hospital being told a different, much older story of our family’s DNA.


We flew home, and as soon I arrived at my single apartment in Los Angeles, I called Mom. I found out my sister had been in the hospital. She’d had a negative reaction to the drugs. She should be out soon.

I booked a flight to Portland.

It was spring and madness had found us again.

Laura was going to be in Portland. Yukiko was going to be in Portland. Kiko was going to be in Portland. Some version of my sister was going to be in Portland.

After so many hours on so many planes, even though I’d been living in LA for months, even though I’d grown up in Bend, even though I’d just felt at home in Okinawa, I flew into Portland, and flying to family was flying home.

Laura and our oldest brother, Chet, met me at the gate, and just like when Chet came home after being hospitalized, I tried to get a good look at my sister. I tried to look her in the eyes, but every time I did they filled up with tears.

We walked to the car, arm in arm like little girls, and I squeezed her tight.

I had no idea what she’d been through. I would never know, but I could see her and feel her right there next to me. Instead of just a voice on the telephone a thousand miles away, I held my sister close and hoped she would be okay.


I couldn’t talk with Kiko about what happened, so I talked with Mom and I talked with Chet. Mom and Chet had driven up to Seattle to see Kiko in the hospital as soon as her partner Damon had had her admitted.

Mom said it was tough for Chet, but since we never talk about what happened to him when he was in the hospital, that was all she said.

I couldn’t believe I wasn’t there for Yukiko, for Mom, for Chet. I imagined white hallways and mean nurses and crazy people walking the halls: all images from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which is set in Oregon and whose author grew up outside Eugene and went to University of Oregon.

I couldn’t imagine my brother and sister there in that kind of hospital surrounded by madness because when I did, I couldn’t help but imagine myself there, but Kiko’s hospitalization opened up a window of space when we talked about what happened with Chet and how he came out of it. It opened a window of space when we talked about how scared I was that I would be next. And in this conversation Mom was unable to assuage my fears and let me know she was scared, too.


A few days later, Yukiko and Damon drove back up to Seattle and I had to trust our phone calls again to let me know she was okay.

I stayed at Mom and Dad’s for a few days, and I felt like I was in mourning. My sister was the one I’d held on a pedestal. She led the way. If all of these years after Chet’s episode, Kiko had gone mad, was the clock still ticking for me? After all of these years of thinking of my sister as perfect, and strong, and invincible I had to get used to this new idea of my sister.

As I mourned my relationship, a break-up that cracked my heart for the first time, and a sister who was not who I thought she was, I was left reeling. I cried. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to fly back to LA. I wanted to just lie in bed in Mom and Dad’s house listening to the rain fall.

But two days later, I got out of bed and made my way back to a city where I was alone and sought solace in the sunshine.


After her hospitalization, Yukiko got her real diagnosis: Bipolar Disorder.

This was what they used to call manic-depressive disorder and Kiko told me about some books to read.

I picked up An Unquiet Mind and read this doctor’s account of her own madness in a manic all-night binge. It helped me understand what my sister was living through. It gave me the vocabulary to ask my sister about her manic states and her depressed states and the meds she was taking.

That was when I learned just how long this disorder had wreaked havoc on my sister’s life.

It was the first time I understood why I couldn’t talk to my sister in the morning when we were growing up. I understood how in those first hours after she woke up, when she refused to crack a smile, it was because she couldn’t pretend.

I understood the weeping I often heard through the walls and vents of our bedrooms late at night. I understood the string of boyfriends, although she never shared the details until much later, until after we lost Mom, until I tried to write this story.

And in every phone call, I tried to take stock of my sister’s state of mind. Was she maybe a little manic, a little down? Was it a normal, everyday up and down, or was it a swing? Was it something I needed to worry about?

We talked fairly regularly between check-ins, and after the conversations with Mom, I felt okay about how our Laura Yukiko was doing. Mom mostly agreed, and we thought she was ok. I hoped we were right.


Noriko Nakada’s publications include two book-length memoirs: Through Eyes Like Mine and Overdue Apologies. Her excerpts, essays, and poetry appear in Kartika, Catapult, Meridian, Compose, Hippocampus, Rising Phoenix Review, Linden Avenue, and elsewhere. She was also a finalist for the 2040 Books prize, sponsored by an imprint of Santa Fe Writers Project. Nakada writes, blogs, tweets, parents, and teaches middle school in Los Angeles. She is committed to writing thought-provoking creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Follow her on her website and on Twitter.


  1. Kim Sarubbi

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Noriko

      Thanks for reading, Kim!

  2. Angela Gervasio- Hewett

    Thank you for sharing. I went through a very similar situation with my older sister who I idolized. I’m scared that it will happen to me one day.

    • Noriko

      Those older sisters are our guides, right? Thanks for reading. I feel like we’re all waiting for crazy to find us.

  3. Jacquie Stricklind

    Your article hit home with me because I found out a few years ago that a family member had a mental disorder and I thought that i might end up the same way. People in my family are not into talking about it openly they just pretend it didn’t really happen. Thank you for sharing. I have read your two books and have enjoyed them.

    • Noriko

      Thanks so much for reading. I hope stories like this will help families start talking. My family still struggles to communicate about how we are really doing, but not talking about it gives it more power. Thanks for reading, Jacquie!

  4. Cheryl Emery

    Excellent read Noriko. I worked with Damon in China and got to know Kiko then. Thanks for sharing.

    • Noriko Nakada

      Thanks so much for reading and for being there with Kiko in China.

  5. Michelle

    Beautifully written! It’s so important that our stories get told with all the truth and love we can muster. You never know who it might help just to know we’re not alone in the mess of our own mental health issues. Thank you.

  6. Robert Flennaugh/ Dr Bob

    Thank you so much for this loving insight. She is my daughter-in-law, but I have always seen her as my own first daughter. I love Kiko very much.



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