In 2004, as Glenn Close was saying goodbye in the driveway of her sister Jessie’s Wyoming house, Jessie pulled her aside.
“I can’t stop thinking of killing myself,” Jessie told Glenn.
The actress was stunned. “My first reaction was shock, then relief, then sadness that she was in that much pain,” says Close, 67, who opens up alongside her sister in the new issue of PEOPLE about how their family has coped with – and bonded over – mental illness.
For Jessie, who hadn’t revealed to her family the severity of the mental illness she was struggling with, it was a desperate last chance.
“There was a voice saying ‘Kill yourself, kill yourself,'” recalls Jessie, 61. “But I knew if I told her I might not do it.”
Glenn put her arms around Jessie and let her cry. Days later, she met her at the Boston airport and drove her to McLean Hospital, where Jessie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 51. “I thank God Glennie was there,” Jessie says. “She saved my life.”
Early Warning Signs
“I always knew my sister was different,” says Glenn. “She was incredibly imaginative and funny and unexpected.”
Still, there was another side. “I remember seeing my sister rub between her thumb and forefinger until it was raw, and she was really little,” says Glenn. “Hurting yourself like that wasn’t normal behavior. But I was only 11.”
As Jessie grew up, her mood swings grew more drastic and her behavior more erratic. There were five marriages, affairs and lots of drugs.
“I started drinking when I was fourteen,” says Jessie. “I self-medicated with alcohol and cocaine and LSD and whatever else you could imagine. I was a mess.”
An Unusual Childhood
In those years, the Close family didn’t have a lot of contact. After their father, surgeon William Close, joined the Moral Re-Armament, a cult-like religious movement, in 1954 and uprooted the family to the group’s headquarters in Switzerland, they were often separated from each other.
“I never knew where my sisters were,” says Jessie. “They had different rooms and were moved a lot.”
From there, her parents moved to Zaire as missionaries and lived there for 16 years after William became the personal physical to leader Mobutu Sese Seko.
“Our family was incredibly fractured,” Glenn admits. “We weren’t like a family on a daily basis. We were all living separate lives. Letters were our form of communication. There was no internet or iPhones.”
The Genetic Component
The Close family had a long history of severe mental illness. Glenn and Jessie had an uncle with schizophrenia; another uncle committed suicide.
“There was lot of depression, which led to a lot of alcoholism,” says Glenn. “It was something that families were kind of ashamed of and hid.”
It took years before they connected their history to Jessie’s problems. “We were clueless and silent,” says the actress. Jessie’s son, Calen Pick, 33, has also been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar with symptoms of schizophrenia).
In 2010, Glenn cofounded Bring Change 2 Mind a foundation to counter the silence and stigma that surrounds mental illness. “One in four people are diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime,” she says. “So why in the hell don’t we talk about it?”
To get the word out, Bring Change 2 Mind recently partnered with philosophy’s hope & grace initiative in their mutual support of community-based mental health efforts. Glenn is also excited about initiating a campus-wide program with Indiana University to raise awareness and educate students about what mental illness is and is not – and, she says, “creating a stigma-free zone that is really peer-driven.”
Facing her family’s past has been painful and healing at the same time. “I remember once reading a study how many creative families have mental illness,” says Glenn. “And Jessie said to me one day, ‘Well, I guess I am the sacrificial lamb.’ And you know, that’s hard. It’s sad and it’s a struggle.”
Still, she adds, “I do think it has brought us closer together as a family.”
Pick up the new issue of PEOPLE for much more from Glenn and Jessie about their bond, their childhoods and how Glenn supported Jessie through her harrowing struggle to get healthy.