It’s time to talk honestly about mental health. Historically, medical treatment for mental illness has often been harmful, though well-intentioned and unfortunately, such a history is largely ignored. This dynamic combined with the continuing stigma against speaking openly about mental illness only worsens the problem for those suffering from it.
In Letters from the Last Pope, Phoebe Sisk shares the heartbreaking story of losing her mother to suicide, along with research on factors contributing to America’s mental health crisis. Sisk encourages claiming the power of personal transformation to triumph over painful pasts while also leaning into the comforting wisdom of our ancestors to help us heal.
Her story invites readers of every generation to embrace the wounds that unite and strengthen us, claim ownership of our own painful stories and reframe the past through the lens of love and grace, for in healing ourselves, we step into the sacred space of healing others. Here’s my conversation with Phoebe Sisk.
Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast, I’m your host Benji Block and today, I’m excited to have Phoebe Sisk with me, she’s just authored a new book titled Letters from the Last Pope: A Journey Home, and Phoebe, thank you for being here with us today.
Phoebe Sisk: Thank you, it’s a pleasure and a privilege, Benji, thank you.
Benji Block: So, this book takes a look at mental health, there’s some discussion around suicide and is a heavier book that it hits very close to home for you. I want to just start with context, Phoebe and the story of what leads to this book if you would.
Phoebe Sisk: So, I ended up actually writing the book, it was at the very beginning of COVID, which I think was a pivotal time if you will, for a lot of people. I had recently lost a sister-in-law, we didn’t know it was COVID, we thought it was flu, which was a wakeup call and prompted me to pursue this recurring urge to explore my story, and I also had a friend who was – so everybody seemed to be launching into new areas as COVID came, it opened up some time and just I think, different relationships with ourselves.
So a friend of mine was pursuing her life coaching degree and she was going to give me a couple of sessions pro bono, so she needed some hours for her certification and we’d been friends for like, 11 years, 14 years, something like that, but she began to ask me questions at the very beginning of the sessions about my early life and so I knew that I had really not shared that at all.
So after I was born to a really large family and it was always chaotic, busy, lots of people coming and going but after my mother passed away, we kind of just closed the doors on everything and I think, literally, no one came to our house until we were in high school, the youngest of us and so, as I left for college and went on to pursue a career and you know, friendships, kids, I just never really looked back.
I somehow avoided the subject and became pretty artful at not telling the story until this session that we had and we were, you know, one-on-one and she asked me very poignant question about earliest childhood memories, and I couldn’t run anymore. There was nowhere to go. No one at the table besides me to avert the question to.
I actually was very nervous as she asked me that and I became very emotional, and as I told her some of the things that I had never shared with anyone, she was literally incredulous and she said, “Phoebe, you have to tell people your story” because this idea that you know, me, being sort of a stronger person and being able to set goals and succeed and she said, “People need to know what you’ve gone through, so that they know they can do it too.”
So that was the first time I felt—Benji, I don’t know your story but it’s pretty common that we don’t, yeah, we have shame around our stories for whatever reason. I think, yeah, it’s pretty common for us to feel like, “Oh, we’re the only ones that ever experienced that” and it’s easy to walk around with a secret, thinking that you don’t want to expose yourself or that no one else would understand.
I think that is really one of the biggest gifts of me finally moving into this process of writing the book, is just telling my story and hopefully giving others permission to do the same. We’re meant to share stories.
Benji Block: I love that, I totally agree and I’ve been thinking actually a lot. So this book was timely for me but I think so many of us, we want deep relationships with others. Obviously, it’s something that we crave at a heart level, yet, the fear of being honest becomes like the barrier to actual deep relationships with people, and so you have this weird situation where you want deep relationship but you also don’t want to be honest.
Phoebe Sisk: It’s so true. We’re so afraid, terrified and I would tell you, I was actually terrified. Terrified that I would ever cry in front of other people about my mother. From the time when I was young all the way up until adulthood, you know, I literally, yeah, you’re absolutely right, there’s a fear there that goes deep.
Finding Value In Your Story
Benji Block: So it’s interesting because you go from, “All right, I’m doing these sessions with a friend that I trust” and even if it’s hard in that room, I can’t imagine what it’s like to put it on paper and release it in the book. So what’s the transition there from, “Okay, I’ll tell my story to the people that know me and are close to me” to “Okay, I’m going to put this in a book” that you know, we’re talking on a podcast right now that really, anyone could access and the book will be on Amazon as well.
Phoebe Sisk: So true and I think I had a few key people that I was fortunate to have in my path that allowed me to see that there was value to my story. So I think, besides being afraid of exposing myself which was huge, number two was, I think this is pretty typical for all authors if you were talking about your own story, you look at it and you read it and you think, “Who in the world would ever want to read this?”
Because I think it takes you back to, you know, some of those negative associations. It’s hard to find the meaning or the uplifted message within all that, but I had a few people that I respected very much, artistically, some successful persons, authors, et cetera, and one of them, she actually edited my work and I had tremendous respect for her but she said to me, “Phoebe, I’m prouder of this work than I am of anything I’ve ever done.”
I think, that was the movement where I finally stopped questioning that it was worthy of sharing because honestly, sometimes, every time I went back to read a chapter, it was hard. It was hard and that voice would come up again like, “My goodness, how could this help inspire or otherwise, for anyone?” So there were some people that definitely encouraged that and again, my friend, Mary-Ann, who was a life coach.
She’s an artist herself and she’s incredibly, you know, left brain, right brain, emotional intelligence an she just said, the way she put it was just like, “Phoebe, no, you have to” and so, it was like, I needed that. I needed that from her, I needed to hear from my friend who edited and then I realized that the story becomes not about me at some point after I’ve written it and released it.
When a reader reads it, it may start off about me but very quickly, it will trigger whatever is within all us that needs to be healed. We have different stories, but universal dynamics and wounds and so, what I realized too is as people started to read some of the finished chapters. It was transporting them to their own journey ad that’s, I think, the beauty of it.
Benji Block: Absolutely. Well, I want to talk about just a piece of the mechanics of this book because they’re still called chapters but you’re essentially writing a series of 26 letters. I also loved the poetry that you include throughout, I think it adds a nice touch as well. You called it the 26 letters like, they’re addressed to the most important teachers in your life. So let’s talk about why you thought this format was important and then some of who you chose to address.
Phoebe Sisk: Okay, it is a great question. So here’s the thing about me. I am left brain-right brain. I’ve studied business but I’m also very much an artist and my memory is not linear or chronological. I have a husband who could recall everything that ever happened probably in time sequence and for me, I think, a lot of my memories are emotional and so for me, it was actually kind of daunting and I felt like it was not going to be a success if I try to tell it from start to finish and what I realized is, I had written some letters to my kids, to my husband.
Just very heartfelt letters about you know, our relationship and the journey we’ve been on and I realize that that was the most comfortable delivery for me to delve into talking about the relationship and the growth and the beauty and the love and the pain and whatever had transpired, and so it just came about as a very natural solution of how to address the book and I had also done paintings of loved ones and I had written poems.
There were things that I already had, you know, from my notebooks and so it made sense that if I had a chapter for each of these people, there was a place to put those things. There was a place to put whatever art had spawned as a result of that relationship.
Benji Block: I like that, as a way also of when the topic is heavier, you have like this built-in way of getting through the writer’s block because you can imagine the person and your mind, you can imagine like, the situations so it’s a very different way of writing. I want to throw a quote at you from the book and let’s have you expand on it.
The quote is, “Our children will always show us the way home, show us the way to heal. My children certainly do. I find that in the same way that they look at me as a model for their lives. I learn from them to grow past everything I’ve taught.”
Phoebe Sisk: So, kids are, my goodness, my own kids, the kids that I’ve taught, I’ve always said, they keep you on such a spiritual path. They come from such a place of purity and innocence that so, if we have been with a certain issue and we’ve sat with it for our entire lives and there’s been emotions and memories and things, it sometimes gets clouded and then somehow, these little ones allow us to see things with fresh eyes, whatever it is, you know?
It may not be that instant directly but they give us wisdom. They help us remember of, I guess, the real spiritual truths, they are not distanced yet from any spiritual truth and so they’re an amazing reminder of what really is and what really is important and so I’ve always found that it’s the purity of – I think we lose our way sometimes as adults, you know?
We were good people but we’re removed sometimes from that source of purity, and in a sense that exists so strongly when we were little, and so I find that kids are also a wonderful barometer for our own energy, and I had a friend say once that she gave a device to someone who had just a baby and she said, “If your baby’s not smiling, look in the mirror” and it’s true.
I mean, they’re just a reflection of what they’re taking in and so, yeah, they’ve been, they’re definitely the wise ones. I think maybe we all come into the world-wise and then we forget a little. So that’s how it is for me.
Benji Block: I wonder if we could go a little bit into, in chapter three, you were addressing your mom and so I want to go into that, the story. If I can get this right, you were six at the time of her death, is that correct?
Phoebe Sisk: I was five and I came across a letter at six that she had written to my father about how she couldn’t bear to be parted from her children and so yes, she committed suicide when I was five. She was not living with us and at six, I found a letter saying that she couldn’t bear to be parted from us and so I think at six, I had concluded that I had caused her death in reading this letter and so—
Benji Block: Yeah. So take me into that a little bit because I think for – and maybe this is just me, Phoebe, admitting I don’t have a great memory from my youngest years.
Phoebe Sisk: Yeah, yeah, sure.
Benji Block: We all have those distinct memories so obviously this is going to be one of those pivotal moments for you that you always remember, but that’s also an age where you don’t have a lot of language for the things that you’re feeling. So how have you now, with hindsight and looking back and all this work that you’re doing, how do you think of that time and what do you really remember about it?
Phoebe Sisk: So my memories of her, I think are even earlier than that. She left our home, that my parents divorced because of her mental illness, she was doing certain things that were, could have jeopardized my father and her, both having custody of us. My father loved her but he came to appoint where he had to make a decision to divorce her or possibly lose custody of us, and she was an amazing woman up until her mental decline, but there were some things that were happening that were not kosher.
So my memories and my father, I’m going to say, he was also an artist, kind of a lone wolf but an amazing guy, and what I realized most about him is I’ve been a parent and lived through a lot of emotionality. He was so responsible with his words, there wasn’t any things that he said that I had to later undo or ponder on. I mean, unfortunately, we didn’t talk about my mother’s death after she died.
That was an unfortunate thing but all during those difficult times, he did not lay a lot of words on us younger children that we would later have to struggle to figure out or undo or even in the moment. So my memories of her were very good when I was really little. She was extremely maternalistic, she had birthed 10 children, almost 11, she lost one. She was a teacher, she was an English professor.
She was head of children’s theater at Casa Manana. I mean, she did a lot of things, she had a school in the basement of I think, the Scot Theater in Fort Worth, a Montessori school back when it was a brand-new notion. So I have wonderful memories, very, very early memories of, just, you know, feeling very loved with her and the world was complete when I was with her and then, you know, the problem started.
I don’t recall a lot of probably, some of the more intense things that happened that caused my dad to have to leave. I think there was things he told me about later that he found me by myself as a toddler, you know, abandoned on the kitchen floor, asleep and I do remember, she used to kidnap me and take me away in the middle of the night and because you know, they were having difficulties.
So there as some crazy things, you know, she put me on a bus, it was a bus bench, you know? Where you wait for the bus. I don’t think it was probably four years old and left me there for a little while and she came back for me but there was obviously some things not right with her, so I have really great memories of her in my very early years and then there was a lot of memories before she passed of her just being gone.
She’d had to go into a mental institution, they had given her electric shock, you can just imagine, you now, there was visits back home but they were infrequent, those were intense but a different emotional intensity than my very young memories of her, which were all pretty complete and wonderful.
Benji Block: You talk about a lot of years of loving and missing her so much and then, obviously it’s like, that’s compounded a bit by just not talking about it, right? Like, dad’s not saying anything bad about her but also, not saying anything at all. It is going to create its own wounds. So with that, I wonder, then you’re in this life coaching session and this is just like my imagination playing it out.
So just tell me where I’m wrong but like if you haven’t talked a whole lot about it, where these memories distinct in your mind the whole time? Has it come back the more you’ve talked about it and you have started to like realize certain things or how has that worked in your mind Phoebe?
Phoebe Sisk: Yes, so there were some very vivid things that were always there but unspoken, and then I think what has revealed itself is other incidences were similar wounds to her death. I didn’t see the connection with and so those, it is kind of the secondary events that were also profoundly emotional and sometimes traumatic that I wasn’t at all cognizant of until I sat down to write the story, but yes, the memories of her when I was young were vivid and then literally, my friend asked me, “Tell me about when you were young?”
I got no more than two words out of my mouth before I completely broke down. I didn’t anticipate that but it was just what happened. It was like, I think there was just this momentary realization that I had artfully navigated around this conversation, you know usually at a table, there’s many people and it is easy to turn the conversation to someone else and at that moment, it was almost this, “Oh my goodness” you know?
I got no place to go but I have to step into this, you know? It wasn’t extremely conscious at the time but it was just you know? So here’s the thing, yes, it’s a huge thing to carry around. My brother and sister were twins. We were the last three. We were all on the same grade because I skipped a grade. So we were the three Pope’s. We had older siblings that had moved on out of the house.
One thing that was good is that we talked a lot among ourselves and we talked you know, some with the other siblings and so we weren’t interacting with my father or other people out in the community, and honestly I am not so sure we talked a lot about my mother among the three of us but we talked about pretty much everything else, but yeah, I didn’t realized just how weighty or how buttoned up I was from walking around because this is about your mother.
It is an elemental truth but it became also this separation physically between us and the world, because we were in a house that nobody came in to, you know? That’s huge, it’s like then we talked about dreams about the body and then the shame dreams that we have and what it represents. It’s like, you almost get to a place too where you realize you’re hiding your physical self somehow and it’s really interesting.
Yeah, so finally we had friends come into the house when we were in high school and it was terrifying but it was also a big relief, you know and of course, high schoolers are, they like real – the things that were mortifying for us about the house being falling down and dilapidated, they were drawn to because it was real and so that’s the irony there too but –
Benji Block: That’s a really good image just for life and how vulnerability works.
Phoebe Sisk: It’s true.
Benji Block: Those parts of our stories I think that’s, yeah, as an artist, I’m sure you appreciate that a lot looking back and knowing that, but I wanted to go to also how you think of your relationship with your father, there’s some really kind words in this book that you speak about him and I found a few things, very beautiful, specifically and I’ll get to this in a minute but a couple of lines from the poem you wrote from him.
But you talk about him as being both a mother and a father to the 10 of you and then you say, when you were sad, you wrote beautiful poems, which obviously that has carried down to you. There is all these things where he taught you to cultivate your gifts and play in your work. Talk a little bit about while maybe he was quiet on what all happened with your mom, how he was this mother and father like figure to you growing up.
Phoebe Sisk: It’s a great question. So my dad was, he was very much man. He was strong and he built his own home when he was in his later years, physically very strong but he was also very, what I would say, a lot of emotional intelligence and definitely did not shy away from what people would consider maybe the female aspect of ourselves, which is emotions, and there is no, bravado or that sort of thing with him at all but he could be very gentle.
I remember sometimes when I got hurt, I mean, just the most gentle person in the world. So in those ways, he manifested that beautiful, maternal, caring, gentle energy, you know that we needed sometimes and of course he was stressed out raising kids and he also could be pretty fair.
Benji Block: Of course, yeah, of course.
Phoebe Sisk: My father never spanked, I remember one time. I think I had to hold out my hand and he tapped it, you know, that was it and I remember just feeling all this shame. You know, that was like, you know it’s so interesting, I’ve talked to my sister a little about this because it’s what he said and what he didn’t say. He was very responsible with his word. He never criticize my mother especially after she passed away.
It was amazing to me how disciplined he was in terms of his expressing his emotions and the words that he chose because he had to be hurt, he had to be upset, he had to be angry about a lot of this. There was other scenarios that had to be so difficult and he just bore it independently and didn’t, I would say, deposited it to anyone. So he was super gentle and he was an artist and so he did all of these beautiful things about exposing us.
Of course, he gave us like pocket knives and taught us to widdle and all kinds of things, you know, with art, he would sign us up. We didn’t have much money and often times didn’t have a stove or refrigerator, hot water, no air conditioning. He took jobs that were good for a person to have with young children. He worked at the Museum of Science and History in Fort Worth. He became like the graphic artist at the Fort Worth Zoo.
So there was money, he would sign us up for ceramics classes as the museum and so he seemed to somehow find money for those sort of things even though, I do remember on several occasions there was no funds for dinner, and it is not that he would have done the classes over dinner but I am just illustrating the point that it would have been a stretch. Yeah and then for sure, perfect people that would be a misconception.
But I think that the thing that I knew with certainty about my father is I knew he was honest. I knew who he was, true to his self, and I knew exactly who he was, and I knew that he would not deviate from that sense of decency that he was, and so, it gave me I think an enormous amount of confidence to know unswervingly who he was, his behavior was always very consistent, he believed strongly in the principles of honesty and truth and not harming others and he lived that out.
He didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it but it was evident in who he was, so I think that gave me a lot of confidence and he believed in us. I mean, he’d somehow again, he never asked us to do our homework. That was just not even a – that would never be a conversation, but what he did do is he treated us as intelligent learners and it wasn’t in a superficial way. He saw himself in a certain light and he saw us in that same light and we never gave a name to it.
But it impacted a relationship with ourselves and our love for learning and our confidence I think.
Benji Block: It’s interesting. I want to ask one follow up question. This was not on my notes but it touches on something you were saying a minute ago, because now as an adult you can look back in hindsight and you can honor things that you maybe couldn’t know as a kid, it was just the reality we’re living in. So you start to like unpack things and deconstruct things and go like, “Okay.”
You probably also put yourself in the situation of like, “Oh this is how my parents handled this, this is how I would, this is what I would have change” like there is all of that going on. So I wonder, when you think of if it is definitely beneficial to not talk bad about your mom but there is this other part where it’s like, “Okay” but by maybe not processing it, what was held inside that your dad could have released in a better way or a different way?
As you think about that and now being an adult with kids, how do you think about how you talk to your kids about hard things and how did it change you as a mom?
Phoebe Sisk: It’s a great question. Well, I think that what it did for me and not talking about it with him is I remained a child in many ways and that emotional self. I mean, that part of myself that related to my mother was that same age until I finally had that courage to sit with the story. I think there was, yeah, not an opportunity to really process to allow myself to be able to grieve, number one and to certainly, to show anyone else that I was hurt.
It had stunted that ability tremendously and so I think that with my kids, I have not been as artful about and efficient with my words but definitely the communication channels are, there is no question that all is spoken in constructive ways, you know, there is not an avoidance of anything.
There is always an imitation to express that which needs to be said, whether it’s positive or negative and especially that which would need to be healed but yeah, not talking about it all was maybe that was for us and maybe that was for him too because it was too big, too painful it was – but yeah, not the best scenario in terms of being able to process it but I will say that you know, there is things that went on that would have been hard not to trigger on I think as a person.
I remember the way he said to us, “Your mother didn’t do anything to try to hurt me. None of that was against me.” That was like, wow, you know? As an adult, I think about that because you know, she had relationships with other people. Yeah, it would be hard to – I mean, my father was thoughtful and intentional but we were all just doing the best we could. It’s not as if I am sure there was no great deep analysis or time to do that. You know for him, it was just more of like this is my instincts of what’s past, yeah, so.
Benji Block: No, that’s good. I just always think it is interesting and you obviously in this book as readers dive into it, you are going to see some talk on like generational wounds and things that like just working through all of that, and we all know that none of us have perfect home situations, parent situations and choosing to see both and still honor those that raise you is really important.
Okay, so when I was prepping for this, I was writing my notes in a coffee shop and there was two lines from the poem that you wrote for your dad that definitely made me tear up, probably look like a fool in the coffee shop but I wanted to read them here because I think it’s just so beautiful in the way that you honored him.
You say, “I did not question the terms knowing only that your promise was good and forever and I knew deep down that even if a door had been opened, you never would have left” and I think that’s just that version of knowing someone’s love for you is so powerful and was so beautifully put, and so I just wanted to highlight those couple of lines as we start to wrap up here.
Phoebe Sisk: I appreciate that. Those are two that I had not read over that poem in a while and I coincidentally, I had shared it with a person yesterday. Those two lines that you mentioned are the ones that brought up enormous emotion for me.
Benji Block: It is what you needed as a kid, right? Those are the things that you want to feel and sometimes we have the biggest fears around as children growing up.
Phoebe Sisk: It’s so true, yeah. You zeroed right in on that.
Benji Block: Okay, so the last thing I want to do is just end with like I know I am thankful for the development as it pertains to mental health. There is still so far to go, right? But it is becoming something we can talk about. As we wrap up, what would you invite us to do as readers, as listeners to this podcast Phoebe, as ways that we can continue to walk towards wholeness and to take on this idea of like, “Okay, we are responsible for our own mental health for continuing this journey you’ve been on” right?
Where you are looking back at your childhood, you did some of these life coaching sessions, what would you invite people listeners to do to continue to walk a path towards wholeness?
Focus on Mental Health
Phoebe Sisk: That is such a great question and I think people have been waking up and showing so much emotional intelligence in these areas. It’s also been an area that has been a growing concern. I think that for me, one thing is on in terms of the way we talk about it, the language we use and it’s so well-intentioned and don’t mean to say that all listeners out there would be capable of taking their own lives.
But what I would want to say is that we often talk about, we tend to use the phrases of, you know, we and them and there’s a delineation between strong and not strong, perceived and again, not intentional but I do think that mental health is something that belongs to all of us under certain circumstances. Maybe it is a medical practice that’s gone wrong, maybe it is a wrong prescription could make any person, the strongest person with the most healthy brain, with the most healthy emotional physiology could put them in a vulnerable place to the point of maybe feeling like they don’t want to be here.
So I think one thing is just realizing that the conversation has to expand and I think if the statistics and what I’ve read are true. Pretty much every person on the earth at one time has felt unworthy of being here. It is not to say what they would choose as a result of that but those are emotions that visit all of us. We need to know that they are false emotions and that you have to wait them out that they will pass.
I’m talking to people that are professionally dealing with this topic of suicide and that, but I do think that being able to just show our authentic selves and be able to show others that we’re not always the strong person or what we’re really feeling, and inviting others that you would like to hear that, you know, from them to be able to be there for somebody. So I just think those real conversations and when we share something vulnerable or something that we wouldn’t normally maybe be prone to show in a public way, it gives others permission to do that.
I think it is super important. I recently and this is also to wrap up in a very quick but I was recently – within the last year I was in an environment where having been in the Marine corps and served in the Texas State Guard, I have been around military persons and I was in an environment where everyone was feeling a lot of emotions and it was around a particular event that it had occurred.
What was so wonderful is there was persons in the group that were considered, if you will, you know, the strong alphas and they showed their vulnerabilities very transparently, and later I heard from persons about how healing and profound it was for them and so I said, “You know, maybe what’s been missing is that maybe we need to be willing to cry in front of each other” and I say that for myself as well. So anyway, that’s what I would have to offer.
Benji Block: Well, this is a book that is an example for what you have laid out for us choosing to be vulnerable and I think sometimes what you know, the courage that’s needed is found when you read other people’s stories, when you hear other people’s stories and that puts some wind in our sails to do the same. So thank you for leading by example and as we wrap here Phoebe, what are ways?
Obviously, we’re telling people go buy, Letters From the Last Pope, on Amazon. Is there a website for the book or what other ways could people maybe connect?
Phoebe Sisk: Yes, absolutely. So there is Letters from the Last Pope, the website itself. There is the Amazon site, I am on Facebook, I am on Instagram. I am under my first and last name and I love connecting. I actually have also started a Facebook page, Letters from the Last Pope, so all of those are avenues and I know that my email is circulated. I am always open to hearing from anyone in any shape or form.
I am a big communicator, so I love to hear from everyone and I know some articles that are coming out that I will share on Facebook. I have some other things, some other interview scheduled in the mental health arena and also just on some radio station here locally. So I will make sure to share those things as well.
Benji Block: Perfect. Well, thank you for discussing the book, for being vulnerable and for taking time to be with us on Author Hour. Again, the title, Letters from the Last Pope: A Journey Home, it is going to be a fantastic read, a great resource for people to continue to tell their story in a courageous way. So thank you for putting this book out and thank you for spending some time. It was great chatting with you.
Phoebe Sisk: Benji, thank you so much. You are very good at what you do and you put me at ease on a very tough subject and I picked you because you have the same name with my brother, who I love dearly.
Benji Block: I love it.
Phoebe Sisk: Thank you.
Benji Block: Fantastic.
Phoebe Sisk: Take care.