My mentally ill sister

I can't invite her to my wedding, but I feel bad about her kids. Should I try to explain?

Published June 2, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

I'm so happy to report that the  June 2012 issue of The Sun features a generous excerpt of "Citizens of the Dream," my book about creativity.

It’s deeply gratifying that The Sun saw fit to showcase the book.

Dear Cary,

I am getting married in one week to a wonderful man. I come from a large family, and there is quite a history of alcohol and drug abuse throughout many generations. My fiancé and I are both sober, he has 20 years and I have 14, and to avoid family drama we initially planned to elope. However, my dad died unexpectedly in September, so our feelings changed, and we decided to include family so that we all have something hopeful and fun to look forward to.

The issue is that one of my sisters is undiagnosed mentally ill and has harassed me by phone for many years. I have told her not to call or leave messages because I do not listen to them. I have blocked her email and have had to block her texts. By harass, I mean she will phone bomb my phone with messages that are rambling, abusive and full of self-pitying statements that she is the victim of my horrible treatment. She will leave anywhere from three to six to ten messages in a row, and they become increasingly aggressive and mean. According to her, my non-existant responses are abusive.

I used to think I was a bad sister, but recently I found out that she was arrested for stalking an ex boyfriend, and that information made me think that I am not the only one she harasses. I Googled her name and found the arrest and another past arrest in the local police blotter. I also found out that my mother and other sisters recently blocked her from their phones. Which is what I did, as well.

Needless to say, I did not invite her to my wedding. But I feel bad about [not inviting] her teenage kids. We were close when they were little, but now they live mostly with their dad. I don't think there is time to try to contact them before the wedding because I don't know their dad's address, but I am wondering if I should reach out at all? Even though my sister is sick, I don't want to get in the middle, and I am afraid they don't understand why they were not invited. Also, my sister — in one of her nasty calls — said that if I try to contact her children she will get an order of protection from me.

Wanting to be the Best Aunt Possible

Dear Aunt,

When one is a teenager and one's mother is mentally ill, there are certain family functions to which one simply won't be invited. One may try to be stoic about such things, but they sting.

Later in life, when her teenage kids are adults and begin having their own problems adjusting to work and relationships and feeling anxious and depressed themselves, they'll get into therapy and start talking about their mother. Perhaps this wedding to which they were not invited will come up in conversation, and they will see what happened — why their mother could not be invited, and by extension why they could not be invited either — and maybe they will begin the long process of building compassion for everyone involved.

But you know, as I write that -- and I thought I could be steely and objective about this! --  I really wish you could get a message to the kids now, before the wedding, if that can be done discreetly, and just explain, however such a thing can be explained, that you love them and think they are great kids and wish they could be there. You know? Just to say you love them and you're sorry they can't be there? Is that crazy? I just think, imagining how it will feel years later, if you could do this, it might eliminate some future bad feeling. I am no expert in manners, and weddings seem to be full of manners, so there may be some transgression or unforeseen consequence in what I am suggesting. It's just that if I were one of those kids, I would appreciate knowing how you feel. It would eliminate some of my confusion and fear about where I stand in the family, what with my mother having all these conflicts with others.

These kids have feelings. Don't they deserve to know something like the truth — maybe not all the grisly truth, but something like it — to know that they matter and that they aren't being ostracized because of their mother's unpredictable and disruptive behavior? It's not her fault she's mentally ill. Her kids may feel the whole situation is grossly unfair.

In their filial loyalty, they may turn against you for a time no matter what you do. If so, you will have to accept that. Remember what you have learned living soberly, that in protecting ourselves from certain evils, in making healthy boundaries, we will hurt people's feelings now and then, and not everybody will think we're swell, and sometimes all you can do is try to be kind and hope for the best.

Let us hope when you see your sister's children one day, you will be able to talk as adults, and that you can say to them how much you wished they could have been there and how difficult the circumstance was. And let us hope that they are able to give you some signal that they understand and do not hold it against you, that you and they all know how hard it is to live in a family in which alcoholism, addiction and mental illness travel like colds among the members.

But for now, you are planning a wedding and doing your best to make it come off smoothly. For now, you are one of the survivors. Make it a good day. Rejoice in your good fortune.

By Cary Tennis

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