My name is Elysia, and I’m mad at/about my sister

This fascinating thought traveled through my brain earlier today: the reason I am unusually aggressive and willing to engage in petty hostilities with one of my friends is because, in his personality as The Younger Sibling in our relationship, I have allowed myself to take out on him the emotions I have regarding my actual younger sibling.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to hurt my sister. Okay, sure, this is pretty standard; in general, siblings ought not to inflict harm on each other. Doesn’t stop it from happening. Anyways, Lily was so small and so medically fragile that my parents made rules about my not retaliating. Yes, that’s right – retaliating. Lily, as a child, already had impressive speed, skill, and strength. Particular talents: pulling hair and pinching. (Now she sort of favors biting, but that’s another story.)

I bet my parents intended for their rules to remind me that I was physically larger and more capable of doing certain things, like planning and like understanding my own emotions. I bet they just wanted to be sure I thought before I acted. In practice, I felt like I couldn’t touch her, even when she hurt me. And hurt me she did. She often pulled hairs out – not the loose ones that come out in the shower or hairbrush, but the hairs that you felt separating from you. And she did sometimes leave marks or scratches when she pinched. It took me a long time before I finally realized that a sharp whap with my hand could shock her into releasing her Death Grip Pinch. I pursued that tactic with gusto, and got the short-term result I wanted: she stopped hurting me. You know, until the next time.

You can see, perhaps, that my 30-year-old self might have trouble suppressing the instinct to dish back whatever might be served, even in jest, to someone who resembled her in any way. I do not have, did not have, any intellectual recourse when dealing with Lily and her misbehaviors. The closest any of us gets these days is to ask her if she remembers what pain feels like and to try to link that to what she’s doing to us. This has only been moderately successful since her pain threshold dropped, sometime after she hit puberty, and she had an unpleasant encounter with a nurse who failed to locate a vein for a pre-surgical blood draw. So when someone who is a younger sibling verbally pokes at me, drawing me into (typically) lighthearted verbal sparring, I think it’s a relief to be able to hit back. Mostly metaphorically, of course, although after a particularly insulting comment, I did let fly with a foam stress ball.

Having had this realization, I feel guilty. It’s not my friend’s fault that I am so mean. (I worry that he doesn’t see me as mean, although he has said he understands why people might find me scary.) It’s not Lily’s fault, either, that these things have happened. Her physical brain deformities have made it exceedingly hard for her to catch up to me intellectually. And I know it really bothers her that that’s the way things are; there are times when she tries to have sophisticated phone conversations with me and all she can do is make word-sounding noises that speak her emotions pretty clearly. But the truth is that she’s made me mad, in ways that all siblings make each other mad, and in trying to protect her from anything bad, I have kept myself from processing that emotion. This makes it even harder to admit when I am mad about her, about the unfairness for all of the family that her disability has introduced. There is nobody to blame for that, and you know what? It’s still okay to feel anger sometimes. As long as it doesn’t run my life, or last beyond the moment, it’s okay to feel it.

In the language of the 12-step programs, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Right now I am saying: my name is Elysia, and I am mad at my sister, and mad about her problems. In admitting this to the world, maybe I can learn to let it go.

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