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I have a younger sibling who has a lot of mental health problems. She is still in school and living with our parents, while I am off at grad school in another state. She and I have always been very close, but things have gotten a little tough. Younger Sibling engages in a lot of very self-destructive behaviors, is constantly combative, and explodes at the slightest provocation. Whenever I go home on breaks to visit my family, I feel like I’m walking on eggshells constantly to avoid making her angry or causing her to self-harm. Our family is very supportive– she is in about seven hours of therapy a week, on medications, and has parents who are bending over backwards to get her all the help they can.
The problem is that her behavior towards me and the rest of the family is incredibly triggering to me. I was in an abusive relationship for a while that included a lot of emotional manipulation, and I’m fairly dedicated to staying out of relationships that include that component from now on. Younger Sibling is emotionally manipulative and quasi-abusive. If she were a friend, this would be the point where I would say “I love you, but until you figure some of this shit out I can’t be around you.” I feel really unable to do this with my sister, who clearly needs all the support she can get. My parents have acknowledged that I am being hurt in this situation, but feel that me withdrawing would do much more harm than good.
I am trying to stick it out, but at this point I just feel angry that I have a) lost a relationship with my sister that I really liked and b) wound up in the type of relationship I have been good at staying out of. How do I stay in this relationship and not feel like I’m getting emotionally beat up every time I go home? The last time I was there, I was in a constant state of panic for two weeks because the whole environment was just so hostile and shitty.
Dedicated but Tired Sister
First things first:
Unless you are going out of your way to hurl abuse at her, there is no universe in which you are causing your sister to explode or self-harm. If you and your sister have some kind of interaction and then she self-harms or yells at you, you did not cause it. Even if it was contentious or involved conflict. Her brain is being a jerk to her and increasing the likelihood of a maladaptive reaction. You simply don’t have that much power over her reactions or coping strategies. If it weren’t you, it would be something else.
Your sister needs a lot of special care and consideration right now. She needs the kind of love that hangs in there and sees the best in her. I’m glad she has your parents and you to provide that! However, subjecting yourself to abuse without flinching or complaint will not cause her to get better. Again, you simply don’t have that much power, for good for or ill. Your suffering is not mitigating hers. I suspect that one of the reasons you are flashing back to your time in an abusive relationship is the illusion that abusers are so good at creating, the one that says “Stay quiet, just behave, don’t make waves, stick around, and I’ll be the version of myself that you love!“
Your parents, understandably, are in crisis mode. Nobody knows yet what “better” looks like. Nobody knows yet what the new normal will be. They are taking all one day at a time and don’t have the perspective of distance that you have as someone who lives far away. So it’s tempting for them to think in very short terms – “Just hang in there through this visit and hopefully things will get better soon!”
“Better” is going to be a long process for everyone. Let me suggest a few baby steps that might make it marginally better for you.
Create a buffer zone. Next time you visit home, is there a relative or friend you can stay with? Or a motel you can stay in for at least part of the visit?
Will your parents feelings be hurt if you don’t stay with them? Yup. Especially if it’s the first time you haven’t stayed at home. It will get easier each time.
Will your sister probably feel super guilty and weird and then take it out on you or herself in some way? Perhaps.
Will you be more equipped to interact if you know that at the end of each day you have a safe, quiet space to go to where no one can yell at you? I’m pretty optimistic about this.
You are in grad school. Your vacations are times you can see family, but they are also times that it’s important for you to decompress. “Mom, Dad, Sister, I do want to see all of you, but it’s going to be much more relaxing for me if I can hang at Grandma’s for some of the time.“
Level with your parents, if you feel able. “It’s hard for me to talk about, but I was in a relationship where there was a lot of yelling & explosive behavior. I managed to get free of it, but when Sister explodes, it takes me right back there. for my own well-being, I need to set limits and be around that stuff in small doses.”
If you are staying somewhere else, you can be really present for your family during the time you see them even if things do get pretty contentious. You can tell yourself “It’s only four hours. I can do it for four hours.“
And if things get really bad? You can tell your sister, “I want to spend time with you, but it’s hard when you yell at me and insult me.” Which is going to be really hard to say, you’re allowed to honestly call out verbally abusive behaviors! There’s always ”I’m tired, let’s pick this up again tomorrow.”
Spend some solo time with your parents. Take each of them to lunch or a movie. Spend some enjoyable time in each other’s company. Give them a break. Make it a rule that you won’t talk about your sister. Ask them lots of questions about work, friends, family, growing up, etc. and share your own life and stories with them. Take them out of the caretaker role and let them breathe a bit.
Spend some solo time with your sister. Your parents could probably use a date night. Your sister could probably use a movie or a play or some Thai food or brunch or trip to the art gallery whatever. She didn’t stop being a person with interests when her illness reared its head, so what would happen if you scheduled a sister-date or two? Maybe you can work on rebuilding your relationship with your sister without your parents as handwringing mediators.
Over time, I suggest you find a shared fandom or hobby and schedule short, regular calls or Skype sessions with your sister. You need some low-key, ongoing positive interactions around something other than Our Relationship and Your Health, How Is It Going? If you’re looking for ideas, the photos in this piece are from Sleepy Hollow, which has a contentious, beautifully-acted sister relationship at its core. It’s overall a pretty great time.
Don’t try to fix it. On these sister-dates, do NOT give her advice or suggestions or try to fix anything about her. Do not psychoanalyze her or try to come up with reasons for what is happening. Listen. Try to enjoy her company to the extent that you can. If something weird happens, as long as she’s not abusive, let it go. If she becomes abusive, say, “I think it’s time we went home” and cut it short.Be gentle with her but more gentle with yourself. You tried. Tomorrow is a new day.
Reset the clock. A lot. When you have a contentious relationship with someone, especially when that person’s emotions and reactions are not really under their control, one thing you can try to do is to call “Bygones” on stuff that happened yesterday.
I’m not talking about shutting down your feelings – you still may be hurt over something your sister said, or wary of setting her off – and I’m definitely not talking about messing with your own sense of safety. If you feel unsafe, or like you need a break, GET OUT. If the abusive behavior starts back up, GET OUT. You might find yourself just leaving the room a lot on the next visit, and that’s okay.
I’m talking about a style of interaction where you’ll be cool if the other person is cool. Your sister probably carries a lot of shame about her outbursts and the “walking on eggshells” feeling likely runs both ways. If an interaction goes south one day, but your sister knows that you aren’t going to immediately jump all over her for it, it might help her relax and trust a bit more. Demanding an apology or an explanation (even if you are owed one) is just going to transport you back to the fight. You can acknowledge that things are overall fucked up, but in the moment try to let yesterday go and try to make today good. If the verbal abuse starts back up, cut the visit short and go decompress at Grandma’s or wherever you are staying and try again tomorrow.
The message is: I will not tolerate being abused. I will not sit here and take it. I will set limits and boundaries to keep myself safe and take care of myself. But I love you, and you are not your best self right now, so neither will I shame you or blame you or treat you like this is the only thing you are.
I hope things get better for everyone in your family. You are not being selfish for looking for ways to take care of yourself here, and it is not wrong to want to minimize your exposure to verbal abuse. Only time will tell if things will get better, but hopefully this post (& the lovely commentariat!) can give you a place to feel less helpless.