My sister triggers my rage

I know we had a difficult childhood, and I'm over most of it, but when I see my sister I start to get a little crazy!

Published October 15, 2007 10:40AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I thought time (and therapy) heals all wounds. After a decade of living away from my chaotic family I am a lot stronger, happier and calmer. But when I'm near one of my sisters, I feel intense anger. It's as though I can see the edge of what's happening, yet I can't seem to not take her behavior personally.

Without getting into too much of the story, my mother raised eight children (the older kids helped raise the younger ones) after our unstable dad hit the road. Mom was overwhelmed, yet incredibly strong and courageous to be able to keep us together, fed and clothed. We all turned out OK, most of us making it to college, and several seem to have good, stable marriages. Now Mom lives in another state with the sister who bugs me.

The other night when I phoned my mother (it had been a few weeks since we had talked), within the first minute of conversation the sister interrupted the call four times (I could hear her in the background)! On the third distraction, with a slight bit of irritation creeping into my voice, I said, "Mom, want me to call you back, is this not a good time to talk?" To which she replied, "No it's OK, June just had something to tell me."

"June" is chaotic and I experience her as extremely manipulative. When I'm near her she flits chaotically, acts happy to see me, but her exchanges seem false. I often feel a deep sense of not being loved when I'm around this sister. I guess she's competing for our mom's attention -- or maybe we both are, although I just usually end up shutting down or feeling angry when I'm around her. When I see or speak to my mother away from this sister, we actually manage to connect (we've come a long way), unless Mom is too distracted. I can always tell when she's not being real and I've learned to be compassionate with her and just accept her how she is. Why can't I seem to do this with June? I've tried to be compassionate and patient with the sister in question, but I really feel like she enjoys ignoring me or trying to make me feel like I don't matter.

She seems to get attention by being sick or overwhelmed, or making like her life is so difficult -- which is really a joke, since her husband is one of the wealthiest people in the country. I know that with great wealth can come great stress -- I see the dark underbelly of the überwealthy through this family. But they also have some good, great and fun qualities (for being so wealthy they are fairly down to earth). They do take care of my mother, which I appreciate. I have to give June credit for sticking with her husband for more than 20 years -- there have been major challenges, as in any marriage. However, I'm sick of this sister's drama.

I know we can't change anything but our own reactions, so how can I lessen the trigger of this family member?

Lone Ranger (My Sister Is Trigger)

Dear Lone Ranger,

You say you can see the edge of what's happening. That word "edge" is telling, somehow. It's like the edge of consciousness. You can see up to this edge, and then it becomes blurry, lost in memory, or lost to that other world, the world of the child.

I like to use words as a ladder down into the well. The words are unexpected steps. So this edge that you mention, it sounds like the key. There is conscious awareness, and then there is this edge, beyond which is the trauma. "Without getting into too much of the story," you say. Without getting into too much of it, your mom had eight kids and your dad was gone. He was unstable and life was chaotic. Those are nice words; they are neutral, drained of emotion. But the story is still vivid and powerful. How you feel about your father is still there, and how you feel about the situation is still there. Saying your father was unstable is nice. But you might feel that your father was, say, a dick, or a jerk, or worse, a threat, for putting you at risk, for screwing with your life and the lives of your mom and siblings. It's OK if you feel that way, or if you felt that way as a child but found too much conflict in being angry at your father. That's a difficult conflict for a kid, to feel so angry at her father. So he was unstable. Yes, he was. And that probably made it very hard for everyone. Likewise you can say that life was "chaotic"; you might also say it was a living, raging hell for you personally, that it was terrifying and hateful.

It's helpful to do both things -- to find neutral words to describe our past, but also to admit occasionally, or to remind ourselves of, the extremity of the emotions we felt about it, and to remember that those emotions linger. All that emotion is still there. Of course you feel rage toward your sister. Of course you do.

I'm not sure that we ever erase these things, however profoundly we reexperience them. I mean, think about what it was like to be competing with seven siblings for the attentions and help of an overwhelmed mother -- when we're kids, it really can feel like the end of the world, like we literally are not going to survive unless we fight with everything we've got. As a kid, you haven't got much. To be elbowed aside from your mom by a stronger sibling, when you are hungry and suffocating and terrified: That can make you hyperventilate into your 80s. So what you are experiencing with your sister sounds like that very primal, childhood survival thing, of being kept from food, kept from protection, kept away from survival. Like, just beyond that edge of consciousness is a primal life-and-death experience you are repeating.

I mean, from therapy you're aware of the mechanics of this. But being aware of the mechanics and the meaning doesn't solve the problem completely. Now, I'll bet you have reexperienced some of this in therapy, that breathless, panicky feeling when you reexperience childhood trauma, the feeling of suffocation and rage. And then think of the feeling afterward, the feeling of lightness and calm, of clarity and relief: You've been through something and it's over now. Think of the whole cycle, from being led into that experience by a trained therapist, gently guided into it, and then Wham! it takes over with unexpected force and you are in it, crying or grieving or whatever. So you do this, and you get through it, and you think, aha, I'm over that now! Glad that's over with!

But I don't know that reexperiencing trauma cures us of it. It helps, yes. It helps to be reminded: Wow, that was intense. No wonder I'm feeling a little crazy sometimes. But then we put it back in the blurry world where it belongs and try to forget about it. But it's still there. One look at your sister, or the sound of her voice, and there it is again, back from the blurry world! And when it comes back, we're not in the therapist's office but in our sister's house, and we're not ready for it. Nobody is there to guide us through it.

Maybe through repeated work you can desensitize yourself to it. Maybe a clinical psychologist with experience in post-traumatic stress, and EMDR techniques, maybe somebody like that could help you. Given how deep and primal the source of it may be, why not try to find somebody who could treat it as a habitual-response-type thing, and take an experimental approach. If you have a psychologist who can work with you in this way, maybe approach that person. I think you know pretty much what it means, but you just want to get rid of it.

That's fine with me. I mean, I am very interested in how we experience our childhoods as adults. It's fascinating material. But knowing and thinking doesn't always change our behavior. So enough with the self-knowledge already. Let's make some tangible progress!

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Family Motherhood Psychology Since You Asked