Note: I wrote this a while back, hesitated over whether to publish it, ran it past my family – all of whom, to their credit, responded reasonably and thoughtfully and gave their permission – and so I’m publishing it for the sake of completeness. But whilst I’m very interested in other people’s experiences and would love to discuss family dynamics in general, I’m very much not interested in in condemnation or criticism of the events or persons depicted herein. It was a very long time ago, and besides, the wench is dead.
‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
‘We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view; tangled up in blue.’
This post changed under my fingers while I was writing it. It started out as a reflection of my relationship with my brother set against my friends’ relationships with their siblings, and some sort of lament for a perceived trust and dyadism I’m not sure we ever had. And then it became about family, and the roles we take on and how they shape us, and then it became about madness and its echoes, and now…I’m not sure quite where we’ve ended up.
Where to begin?
Here, maybe. Now.
I have a little brother. He’s a few years younger than me, happily married to a lovely woman, a successful early career academic insofar as such a thing exists these days. He’s very funny, very clever, mildly eccentric, a bit goth. Film and metal geek. You’d probably like him. Most people do, me included. We’re not very close, which I (and I suspect my mother) sometimes find sad. I remember vividly the absolute incredulity and shock with which a beloved friend (who’d lost their own incredibly close sibling to cancer in their early twenties) reacted when I told them that he’d never come to visit me while I was in hospital. It hadn’t occurred to me (nor, I suspect, to him) that he might. He was at uni, as I should have been, and we don’t have that kind of relationship.
We were closer when we were younger, at least insofar as my somewhat ana-shattered and overly-narrativised memory can gather. We never had the kind of dyadic intimacy that some siblings do, but I remember us playing games together as children and hanging out as teenagers. Surviving the various playschemes and awkward all-day-stays at other children’s houses that were the lot of dual-working-parent families in the 80s. We went to different schools for the most part, so he was spared the spectacle of my various social failures and occasional triumphs. We got on well, though, mostly. He was – is – good-natured, always entertaining, very much a buffer in the complex emotional dynamics and occasional open warfare of our little family. My friends liked him. I helped him with his homework. There were silly jokes. Yes, in contradistinction to my fairly expressive and troublesome and socially involved adolescence he spent a lot of his early teens locked in his bedroom watching movies, but then I was out or self-absorbed a fair bit of the time, and his then-girlfriend was and still is a good friend of mine. For all that I grew up with cries of ‘why can’t you be more like your brother?’ ringing in my ears, I never felt entirely unwelcome or useless to him. That I can remember, at least.
Then I got ill (glandular fever, and then ME) and went mad (anorexia, plus the psychological echoes of some stuff that’ll become apparent) and stuff started changing. I was 18 when chronic illness set in, and 23 when I finally crashed into hospital with anorexia. By the time I emerged, we’d both left home for good. He was 15 or 16, and 19 or 20. I was an adult, just. He wasn’t, quite, at least to start with, although I’m pretty sure to the external eye (and very definitely to the internal familial one) the apparent maturity was assigned the other way round.
Some more background.
My mother is – or so the stories we tell each other go, which is almost the same as being true – a lot like me. She saw a lot of herself in me when I was growing up: I was ‘hypersensitive’, ‘highly strung’, ‘overemotional’, bright, articulate, perfectionist. Took things to heart. Became overly involved or intense. My father was – although he has changed now, and we don’t tell these stories so much, which in itself is telling – very rational, mistrustful of emotion or instinct, a firm believer in intelligence as meritocracy, bewildered and alienated by the easily upset, emotional, clingy daughter he had so inexplicably produced, especially since I combined those qualities with the intelligence and verbality he could understand and respect. Frequently convinced my mother was somehow to blame for my inexplicable and awkward unhappiness, for ‘indulging’ me. There were issues in their relationship about values and ways of being in the world that were – maybe – almost in abeyance until I came along and highlighted them. I became the ground on which they played out their differences, and it took me a long time and a lot of nearly-dying to stop blaming myself for being unable to resolve them.
These are truths my family tell each other: I was an unhappy, troublesome baby. I didn’t eat or sleep easily and I cried a lot. Just before I turned three, my brother was born. He was a placid, easier, happy child. Friendly and easy-going where I was demanding and insecure.
I think we can all see where this is going.
In my head, I have always been unlovable. Not so much now, but in a sense, it’s too late. Growing up, I was always the difficult one, the awkward one, the one causing trouble. Everybody, including me, blamed me for this. My father berated me well into my twenties for selfishness, self-absorption, being inconsiderate, not being more like my brother. My mum and I were very close, and she talked to me, sometimes about the really obvious relationship conflicts in which we were enmeshed. I spent a fair bit of my adolescence trying to support her unhappiness, and wishing – occasionally audibly – that she would leave.**
I don’t think anyone else remembers this, my brother included. We certainly don’t talk about it, although when I was doing my PhD I did talk a fair bit to my parents about how our family dynamics fuelled my eating disorder. I don’t know if my brother even realised it was happening at the time; I don’t know whether his adolescent withdrawal was in part a response to these same dynamics, or whether he’s even considered it. Possibly he’d say he just liked music and movies, which is fair enough. But the question comes with a side order of the unspoken assumption that when I refer to family unhappiness growing up, even tangentially, even to someone else, I am making it up, being melodramatic. Our family narrative has me as the crazy one, the awkward one, the overemotional one. Even now, writing this, I am pretty convinced the visceral reaction I expect from my family is that I making a fuss about something that I’m pretty sure nobody else sees as an issue. Yet again, I am being self-absorbed and oversensitive and melodramatic.
I could not blame him for thinking that. We both absorbed it as we grew up, and of course, it is a version of the truth.
And then, obviously, I proved such assertions correct.
I had glandular fever – or a virus like it – when I did my A-levels. I never got better, really. My brother was 15-ish when his high-flying, troublesome sister basically stayed in bed and stopped living, and (not coincidentally) stopped dealing with her emotions in a healthy or functional way. (There is another blogpost in this, but it’s not this one.) If I was a different kind of psychologist I would point to my illness as a physical manifestation of my inability to free myself from – my feeling of responsibility for – the toxic situation at home, but fortunately, I’m not. But now, I *was* trouble. I had a gap year, ill at home. I scraped through my first year of university by the skin of my teeth, supported by regular visits home where my anxious parents would provide food and concern before dropping me back. I required care and attention. By the time I came home from my first year at uni, I was also (along with my brother’s girlfriend, although they broke up not long after) severely anorexic. I was crazy, and I stayed crazy – self-absorbed, irrational, unhappy, conflicted, outspoken, suffering – for something like the next 5 or 6 years. No wonder we don’t really have a close adult relationship. We never really had the chance to build one.
I needed anorexia – and these days I miss it – because it provided a buffer between my overwhelming and difficult and ungovernable emotions and the rest of the world. But by that same token, it shut the rest of the world out. Out of hospital, I just-about maintained my pre-ana weight and finished my degree and went to Oxford to do an MSt; and there’s nothing like Oxbridge to find and nurture and swell and burst your crazy. When I left, barely functional and weighing some 35 kilos (I’m 49-ish now, give or take, and that gives me a bmi of roughly 19) I went to live with my brother and his now-wife over the summer, before I found a place to live. They were kind and welcoming and tolerant, and it breaks my heart now that I was then too broken to appreciate it, or to build something approaching a bond of equals.
But then, have we ever really been equal? In the complex mess that is my head – as opposed, obviously, to his subjective reality, about which I have no real idea – my brother has always been okay. A good person. Acceptable and lovable. I never have, and I can’t help feeling he knows this, which is why we have never been close. And while I can to some extent blame my parents – or rather acknowledge that the primary responsibility was theirs rather than mine – for the ways in which their differences and conflicts impacted upon me and my self-image and the narratives we built as a family when I was a child, I cannot really blame my brother in the same sense. He grew up from those narratives into my being variously crazy for, well, if you include the ME, ten years, ish. I was fairly shitty as a sister for a long, long time. A third of our lives. And under those circumstances, I can’t blame him for the intimacy we don’t have; rather, all I can do is appreciate the way in which he and his wife have continued to be kind and welcoming in whatever way they can.
There’s a happy ending, of sorts. My parents get on much better now than they ever did when I was young. My brother is happy and successful. I’m happy, mostly, if not successful in the same sense. And from this I have my inability to look away, or to ignore the bad things, my insistence on honesty and openness, my inability to deceive or dissemble, my directness. I wouldn’t change, really. I have built a life that works. But sometimes, when I see friends with really close families or sibling relationships, I wonder how different things could have been – or, even, where we could go from here.
** To this day, I have not and will never date people who resemble my father when I was growing up. I date sensitive, communicative, intense, emotionally and intellectually aware, often androgynous people who’ve had their own traumas and questioned themselves and come through. Ironically enough – or not – I, and my collapses, along with his mother’s death, were part of the trauma that helped my dad deal with a lot of this stuff.