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Dear Wendy

Sister woes

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  • #877932 Reply

    I am 28 and my sister is 25. She is a special needs young adult and has multiple physical disabilities as well as some mental disabilities (slow processing speed, learning disabilities). Our relationship has always been strained and I need advice on how to possibly salvage things with her. We both currently live with my father as I am going back to college and she cannot live alone. She is, in a word, mean. A few examples: we are currently on a family vacation together and sharing a bed/room. I made the bed and folded the spare blankets this morning and left the room. When I came back, they were crumpled in a pile on the floor. Recently, she received a phone call from her hospital regarding results from a CT scan. She locked herself in my father’s room and called my brother to discuss the results as a family, and I was left out. Whenever I make dinner for our family, she refuses to eat what I make and either doesn’t eat or cooks her own meal. When we were children, our grandparents gave us books with both of our names written in each cover. She used a Sharpie to completely black out my name in every book. There are more examples, but I get the feeling that she really doesn’t want anything to do with me.

    At times, she can be very sweet. She colored a nice Valentine’s Day card for me and bought me a candle. Sometimes when I get home from school, I am met with a smile and a big hug. However, these instances are rare. I have tried to talk with her about our relationship, and she is not responsive. By that, I mean she sits in silence and then locks herself in her room. The conversation is never brought up again. I try not to “blow up,” but I usually end up being patient for a few months, losing self-control, and yelling, and then the cycle starts again.

    I appreciate any advice you can give. I want a relationship with her so badly, but I’m afraid it’s not plausible.

    #877971 Reply

    This honestly sounds a little too complicated for these forums. I think you should talk about this with your father, and probably a counselor or therapist. Maybe there are support groups near you? Do you have access to a school counselor?

    How old was she when she blacked out your name in the books?

    I feel for you, because it does sound like your frustrated and that she’s sometimes mean…but blowing up on her and yelling every few months might actually be a huge part of this. That’s not fair. It’s understandable that you are frustrated, but this is who she is. She has multiple disabilities, including learning disabilities. Her acting out and not wanting to eat the food you make, etc sound kind of par for the course. And you are keeping score.

    It doesn’t sound particularly good for you to be at home with her, or sharing a bed. Could you live in a shared apartment? Could you afford to work a part time job and live in a small bedroom?

    #877972 Reply

    It doesn’t really sound like she’s a mean person, or that she doesn’t like you. Like you said, she can be nice and loving.

    Look, she is who she is. She’s got special needs. My brother has special needs, he’s 47, and while he’s made some small steps of progress since we were kids, his personality hasn’t changed. We’re not close. We’re just way too different, there’s very little common ground.

    I would say if you want to have a better relationship with your sister, you need to work on accepting who she is and not hoping/expecting for her to be different. Take the bad with the good and be patient. If she hurts your feelings, you can say your feelings are hurt. But really, lower your expectations of your sister and give her a break.

    #878004 Reply
    avatarOh no not again

    This is rough; I’m sorry WyoEmmy.

    I had a similar experience with my younger sibling “the Kid” (gender neutral, they/them pronouns; “the kid is what my older sister and I use when pronouns get messy—said with love and full approval from said Kid)) when they were a teenager and I was in my early 20s. Not special needs or physical disabilities, but we had a long string of years where their depression, bi-polar ups and downs, and ADHD spiraled out of control and their suicidal and self-destructive behaviors consumed our family. For most of those years, I had a gut-wrenching pit in my stomach believing that at any moment I would get the call they had succeeded in killing themself.

    We went to a lot of counseling those days, as a family, on our own. One family session, when they were involuntarily committed to a hospital after a particularly bad cutting event, I asked for a minute alone with the Kid. When the door shut, I asked point-blank if the Kid loved any of us at all.
    They said no.

    I know our situations aren’t the same, but neither has more value or less importance than the other. When you love someone so hard and they can’t love you or give you the same respect back, it feels like you’re swallowing a bullet. This must be hurting you so badly, and I wish there was a way to send actual hugs through the internet.

    I can tell you what I did, though, and how 15 yrs later the Kid and I have a whole new relationship. Obviously, not everything translates line to line, but hopefully I can give you some starting ideas.

    1. Give your sister space, and give yourself space. Allow yourself to step back from investing in the relationship. By continuing to put yourself out there, you’re setting yourself up to be hurt and possibly aggravating whatever issues your sister is harboring against you. This isn’t to say ignore her, be rude or dismissive, or try to make family members choose between you. This is giving yourself permission to step back and think of each other as acquaintances rather than people who “should” love each other. As an acquaintance, you can say hello, pass side dishes at the table, and ask basic questions, like how their day was. Taking away this sense of “we’re family so we must connect and love each other” will let you take a breath of fresh air and regain your clarity.

    2. Find someone outside of the situation to talk to. I was lucky enough to have a mental health program through my work at the time that gave me 10 sessions with a therapist. The woman I ended up seeing also had a background in social work, which helped make the sessions productive beyond venting. Besides talking through what was going on, we focused on what real world healthy actions and choices I could make. Meeting with someone who had never met anyone in my family or friend circle gave me a clear view of the situation and how my own behaviors and desires might be contributing to the problems.

    3. Let the little things go. I know it’s tough when they feel like direct attacks, but when names are scribbled out, sheets strewn, or sulking feels thrown in your face, look at it as though you’re an anthropologist observing practices from another culture. Rather than letting these things get under your skin, acknowledge it, but then give yourself the option to not emotionally invest yourself in her actions. Sheets come off the bed; they can go back on the bed. She took them off? There is nothing wrong with asking her politely to put them back on again. And if she responds negatively or aggressively to your requests, leave.

    4. Following up on #3, you do NOT have to stay in any place where someone is being rude, offensive, violent, etc. to you. We’re trained to stay and put up with abuse, that calling it what it is, drawing attention to bad behavior, or leaving when someone attacks you (verbally or otherwise) is rude, but it’s not. Protect yourself. If someone is yelling at you, you do not have to stay and take or engage. You are worth more than that. Regardless of your sister’s mental or physical health, you do not have to stay and be attacked.

    5. Practice good self-care and spend your time with people you like and love who like and love you in return. Take time to recharge yourself. Meditate, listen to music, go out dancing, whatever floats your boat. You’re an adult, and even though you might live together, you’re not restricted by this relationship. Indulge your own interests, follow your passions. Be kind to yourself.

    These might all seem like evasive steps, but what they’re really doing is taking the stress of *being sisters* off both of you. This isn’t a process that resolves things overnight or within months. It took about a good 6 years for the Kid and I to become friends-in-passing and another 2-3 years for us to become close. Even now, we have our boundaries, and my relationship with our older sister is very different. In our case, physical distance also made a huge difference, so keep in mind that your current living situation isn’t forever and that things may become easier when you move out. (In our situation, it took putting an ocean between us when the Kid moved to the UK, but it doesn’t have to be as far as that!)

    Last year, the Kid and their husband came back to the States for my wedding. They handmade the chuppah for me and took care of the music during the ceremony. The pictures of us are of real smiles and laughter.

    Change can come, it takes time and patience. Whatever your relationship becomes in the future is not just up to her; you have as much an equal say in it as well. Be kind to your sister, be kind to yourself.

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