Thursday, October 17, 2013

So Much Guilt

  The closer I get to my sister's memorial, the more jumbled up my emotions are. I keep thinking over our strained relationship, and I realised something. One of the reasons for the distance, besides feeling resentful that I practically raised a child 13 months younger than I, is survivor's guilt. For the past 10 years, I feel guilty because I survived our childhood and she didn't.
   I'm not just talking about the suicide. It was evident in high school that Stef would turn into our alcoholic father. And I have always wondered, what made me so different?
    Was it my memories (as missing as they are)? Stef had a bike wreck when she was 8. Her helmet shattered; she had hit the ground so hard. She had brain damage, and doesn't remember much before 8. Even her memories after 8 are shaky. I've always felt like I've had to carry all of the memories of our childhood.  Yes, she remembered some things. I wonder if those things she remembered caused her issues. In her journals, she wrote that she remembers me calling her fat, and lazy.  In one of our last conversations, she asked where I heard that; because I had to hear it to call her that. And I couldn't remember the first time I was called that, or by whom. It's just always been a part of my internal monologue.
   More specifically, did I turn out differently than our dad because I remembered him?  My earliest memories are fear and hiding. I remember his drunk rages. I remember being 4 and waking up in the middle of the night. My mom worked nights, and my dad was supposed to be watching us. Instead, he left us alone and went to a bar, or a girlfriend's. I remember walking around the house, walking outside, walking on the porch, screaming "Daddy, where are you?"  To this day, I have insomnia, and a pathological fear of abandonment.
   Part of me wonders even if she didn't actively remember him, her subconscious did. Maybe that's why she was always running, always trying to cloud her head. With pain, with drugs, with food.
   Did I turn out differently because I was the eldest, and so I felt it was my job to take care of her? And then I wonder, did I screw her up? Raising her and resenting her at the same time? I helped her with her homework, I fixed her dinner, she told me about her day at school, and the boys she had a crush on. Mom bought us things, and spent time with us when she could, but up until 6th grade, I was her confidante.
   And then mom got remarried. To a man who said he never wanted kids. They got married in June, and sent us to stay with dad for a month. He didn't let us leave until August. He and my stepmom worked all day, so it was me, Stef, and a step-sister home alone. We were told to never leave the apartment. We did, on occasion, and got in trouble for it. He monitored our phone calls, read our mail, stole our journals. He took the phone cord with him when he left, so we couldn't call mom while he was out.
   This was the last time he would see Stef; this was her only memory of him; that horrible summer.  After that, things changed between us. I fought constantly with stepdad, fought a mental illness I wouldn't be diagnosed with until 15 years later.  I was the brighter star, burning hotter, taking all the energy. And she was the forgotten one. Not as talented, not as loud, not as noticed.
   I wonder if the person she turned into in high school was her way of getting noticed. I was Homecoming candidate, debate goddess, 1st chair in band, and star of the Science Olympiads. I got along with everybody. She wrote in her journals that she always felt she was in my shadow. I regret that now, but I can't change it.
  So I sit here today, feeling guilty because I escaped. Even though I'm plenty screwed up, I escaped. I have a stable life, stable marriage to a non-abusive man (literally a family first, on either side). I am diagnosed and medicated. I'm strong, and I'm assertive.
   But still I wonder, why me?  Why not both of us?  What could I have done differently?  The logical side of my head keeps telling me it's not my fault. I shouldn't have been responsible for raising a kid when I was just a kid myself. I did the best I could with what I knew, and what I knew wasn't healthy.  The logical side keeps saying that she made her own choices.
   And yet I sit here and wonder if it was my fault. I tell myself I should have been a better mother, shouldn't have tried to protect her from everything. Maybe then she could have been protected from herself.
   One of the last things she said to me was that she finally realised what I did for her. She wondered if the reason I couldn't get pregnant is because she had been my baby. And she was. And I resented her for it.  And now she's gone, and I feel...


  1. Oh Aletha I wish I could just give you a big hug. You did not fail Stef. Your parents failed both of you on so many levels and none of that is remotely your fault. Have you ever heard of the Hothouse Theory of child development? It's basically a metaphor that many psychologists use to describe the relationship of nature/nurture in child rearing. Basically everyone starts out as a seed. The type of seed is determined by genetics and it is fixed. A daffodil bulb will never bloom roses no matter how it's cultivated and parents can't rewrite a kid's personality. However, it's the environment that determines whether a plant will flourish and bloom or sicken and wither. Some people are like marigolds who can grow almost anywhere and overcome a variety of setbacks. Others are like Orchids who yield spectacular blooms but will only grow in a carefully controlled environment. My guess is that you and Stef were simply different types of plants. Both of you were planted in shitty growing conditions. You had zero power to change that. You grew anyway because you were wired to be more independent, more driven to survive. You didn't steal that from Stef. Your being different wouldn't have changed who she was. I'm so, so sorry for your loss, but you are absolutely not to blame.

    1. I'd never heard that before. Now that I've had a few days to think it over, it really makes sense. Thank you for sharing this with me!

  2. Hugs and support. What a difficult realization to make and it will continue to be difficult to process. Hugs hugs hugs!

    1. Thank you so much. I appreciate greatly your support.

  3. I hurt personally and internally in a very real and physical way for your sufferings. My wife and her younger sister grew up dealing with an abusive, controlling and neglectful alcoholic father. Her sister died riding with a drunk driver, to whom she provided the alcohol. She was just 21. Over the last decade, many of her sorrowful musings have touched the same notes as yours. However, her sister was the popular one in whose shadow my wife lived.

    As a child from a home with three boys where I'm the only child to make it out without drug abuse issues, and I was the focus of the majority of the abuse in the home, I can tell you that family dynamics definitely play a role in how people choose to live their lives and cope with the sufferings inflicted upon them, but such things are not the ultimate decision maker. By all rights, I should have been the one with addiction issues from my home. I had every reason. By all rights, my older brother should have been the over achieving care taker who got an athletic scholarship and went off to an ivy league school. He had every reason.

    In sharing these things with you, my desire is for you to see that family dynamics, abuse, addiction and ultimate life decisions are so very complicated. You cannot blame yourself or truly know. It's one of the more painful realities we have had to accept about our tragic loss of Amy. But it has helped us find a way forward.

    I don't know you, and you are a unique individual, so maybe your answer will involve coming to a satisfying conclusion. I have never experienced that in my own life, or those around me who I've helped walk through tragic loss, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I am one drop in the sea of humanity.

    As someone who does counseling therapy to get through and go beyond all of the screwed up stuff done to me as a child, allow me to recommend it to you. I really like the insight therapy method, which works especially well for those with PTSD (like yours truly).

    Whatever you do, whichever direction you go, I'll be praying for you. If scholarly studies can show it works for sick patients in hospital to heal faster, regardless of the religion of the one doing the praying, it must have some real value apart from religious exercise. I'm pulling for you.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. It's nice not to feel so alone sometimes. Thank you for your prayers and kind thoughts.
      Though I have never heard of insight therapy. I will have to Google that.