Recovery, bit by bit

I invite you to watch a video of my sister’s clip file while listening to the audio file (written out below). The audio is nine minutes, the video less. This is a bit of an experiment. It might not be possible to do them at the same time without more than one device because the audio link opens a new window.


It helps to thank my sister’s things as I toss them: thank you for being a place my sister could record her thoughts; thank you for gracing my sister’s walls. I left a trunk load at the donation center this morning: more clothes and books and a framed picture of Ganesh. She loved Ganesh.

She doesn’t get to hurt me anymore.

Mantras emerge. Two days ago, I struggled to remove a twisted wire from a matted picture of the atrium at the Isabella Stewart Gardner. It’s a keeper. The wire wasn’t cooperating. I knew how it might jab me, so I wrapped my fingers in a towel, not a precaution I would normally take. But I heard these words in my head: she doesn’t get to hurt me anymore. All day, I repeated it: “She doesn’t get to hurt me anymore.”

I don’t have to be burdened by her anymore.

Yesterday, picking up a heavy bag of her books sent a twinge up my shoulder. I adjusted the bag and heard the next mantra: I don’t have to be burdened by her anymore. This mantra is especially helpful sorting through her belongings.

She caused this misery.

At the donation center emptying the trunk, I thanked all the things. The second mantra came, but with a footnote. “I don’t have to be burdened by the misery she caused anymore — the misery she unequivocally caused.” Haaah. I could let go of all her bullshit about how everything was my fault. I could forgive myself for ever reacting to that bullshit. My failed poise. My lack of grace. I can breathe now.

There was a recurring question during the years of care: what was the source of her problems. When did things go so badly wrong – or was she damaged from the start? Did her problems arise out of epic, persistent self-destruction or was she so innately impaired that she couldn’t function as an adult? The answer probably didn’t matter. It certainly didn’t matter when she unleashed her fury in a vitriolic tirade.

It’s worth noting that her ability to use intimate knowledge of me and the family to launch personal and savage attacks survived her lengthy cognitive decline. I’m still washing it off.

When she essentially stopped moving and had to wear diapers, I leaned more into the theory of her lack of capacity. Simple goal setting was impossible for her, simple organization, beyond her capacity and had been for quite some time. Her anti-social nature and paranoia may have been hard-wired, too. At some point it became clear that my sister didn’t have the inner or outer resources to be an adult. Even very simple stuff was beyond her.

She can’t do better vs. she won’t do better.

It’s worlds of difference. Judgment lodges in one and falls away from the other.

Remedial reasoning? Perhaps — especially if you met her lately when all she was, really, was a bunch of conditions. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, earlier on she had a little more going for her. Deemed ‘brilliant’ in school, full of promise. She could talk a good game. Back then, you had to converse with her more than once to see she was off her fucking rocker.

Relating to my sister was so pervasively negative, so damaging to my sense of self, so at times, invisibly costly, that I had to rely on certain mental exercises to serve as reminders.

One exercise was to try and isolate her various conditions and consider how it would be if ONLY that one thing afflicted her. So for instance:  how would it be if she were solely physically handicapped? Okay, that would be a nightmare. Clearly, certainly, a nightmare. Pushing her in a wheelchair for appointments, debilitating. Watching her eat, demoralizing. Replacing her furniture when it gave way? Looking for things rated for more than 350 pounds? Tiring, endless.

On the other hand, if she’d only been aggressive, paranoid, and unreasonable, would that have made it easier? Of course not.

Had there been a choice, I’d have taken the physical incapacities over the mental any day. Her oppositional nature alone was so illogical and enraging, that it often had me exiting her apartment to walk around the building a few times, exhaling like a snorting bull.

What if it had been just her executive function that was shot? Still a nightmare. She expected to use me as a Rolodex. I wasn’t supposed to worry when she missed doctor’s appointments. The anxieties imposed were regular, with high stakes. For instance, all those times when she couldn’t call the Department of Transitional Assistance because she couldn’t find the phone number, when she forgot she had access to the Internet, and when she’d lost the form that was due back last week. The psych piece would come in if I offered to help. The rage would be unleashed if I suggested it was important that she keep her benefit, that maybe it was unfair to our brother to let it lapse.

And this was what? (there’s the question again) out of laziness? ineptitude? insufficiently developed frontal lobe?

Well, who the fuck was I, etc.

Then there was her ‘more is better’ philosophy, which made it hard to sit and have a meal with her. Her supposed gluten allergy went out the window every single time I bought us lunch – even at a Chinese restaurant where it’s possible to eat really well without it. At the all-you-can eat buffet, she’d pile her plate with fried chicken wings and dumplings. Not vegetables. Not rice. We’d need to sit at a table because booths couldn’t accommodate her size.

In other words, just her eating disorder would’ve been hard to be around.

And the pleasantries? Even non-triggering, non-combative exchanges were full of her weird assessments, her blindness to me as a person, and insufferable hypocrisy. They were awful and hard to take.

Those assertions and opinions alone were hard to take.

How many times did I have to listen to her strenuously recommend that my husband and I go on a cruise? Why was she incapable of processing the idea that a cruise is not anything I’ve ever wanted to do and probably would never want to do, no matter the frequency of her recommendations? A trivial matter, sure, but that didn’t prevent it from getting annoying. How many times did I have to listen to her tell me to use Epsom salts in the bath?  I bathe daily. I use Epsom salts almost daily. Why could she not remember this simple fact?

She used to be well-versed in astrology (I guess), but in her last years, astrology was a crutch. Oh, it was the new moon, she’d better take it easy. Oh, it was a full moon, she’d better lay low. She was often wrong about what phase we were in, but clearly, it didn’t matter. She’d pronounce, “It’s the full moon, everyone’s going nuts.” I wanted to ask, “Based on what? You’re a shut in.” or “How much lower can you set the bar?”

We could talk about TV and food fairly well. But even there, she was hard to take. My sister had violent objections to certain spices, devoted attachments to certain others. If I heard her utter her disgust about cilantro once, I heard it 5,000 times. She dismissed certain actors because of their foreheads or noses and routinely dissed my current favorite show for no reason whatsoever, simply asserting, “Oh, I can’t watch that.”

I quickly learned not to talk politics with her, but once in a while the topic bled in. Why was I listening to the news, she’d ask sharply, didn’t I know better? And then she’d offer an opinion because apparently she felt entitled to dominate a conversation about politics even though she was spectacularly uninformed. These conversations would be peppered with gob-smacking questions like, “Who’s Mike Pence?” or “Who’s Robert Mueller?”

On the hypocrisy front, my sister offered housekeeping tips. She criticized my methods in a kind of recurring, minor torture. Why was I kneeling to wipe the floor? Didn’t I know about mops and here’s the best one to buy. Have I told you about Alice’s trick with Murphy’s oil? Okay, I’d think, if you’re so keen on mopping, tell me why your kitchen floor looks like a crime scene every time you make spaghetti?

Imagine me at her apartment, kneeling to wipe up a pool of grease — not in judgment but out of concern for her stability — and being roundly condemned for being disrespectful or compulsive or for using Windex and why wasn’t I using a mop?

“I get exhausted just looking at you,” she’d often say.

These exercises served to clarify why I felt overwhelmed and powerless. There was a reason my energies were depleted and depression hovered. They also reminded me why it was so impossible to relate to a friend how things were going with my sister. Where did I even start?

My brother got it, of course. But I couldn’t regularly vent to him out of fear that he might punish my sister by withdrawing financial support. That would’ve been catastrophic for her, and by proxy, me. In all the nine years that I shelled out a little cash for lunch and gas and put my emotional and physical health on the line, it was my brother who supplemented her meager income. Month in and month out, without complaint. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. Recall: kids in college. And more: if I’d had a financial stake in the expensive consequences of her wastefulness, disorganization, and profligacy, I would’ve lost my freaking mind.

My husband knew her growing up. He was terrified of her. Unfortunately, he bore the brunt of my venting. Poor guy.











27 thoughts on “Recovery, bit by bit

  1. Jen

    I can’t get the audio to jive or the video to play, but I’ve got my eyeballs and reading what you’ve written is just so strong. You’ve really processed a lot of crap and come to some very healthy realizations. She doesn’t get to hurt you anymore!

    1. deemallon

      Hi Jen. Uploading the audio and video was problematic so I’m not surprised it’s not working. I wonder why, though. And yeah. Still processing.

  2. Anonymous

    Writing it all down helps so much, I know, I’ve done it. She doesn’t get to hurt me anymore; I know that one too. My mother died last year without telling me who my father was. I only found out by accident when I was 58 that the “ father” I was afraid of and didn’t love or connect with at all was not really my father. Every time there is something about people wanting to find their birth parents I want to cry. This is only a small part of what I went through in a dysfunctional family and yes, it does still hurt.
    Thank you for all you’ve written. It does help to let it all out, but how many times can one let it out to the same few people? I’m seriously thinking of a little more therapy just to be able to cry it all out. AGAIN.
    Thanks for listening, Dee
    Email thingy is not working , from Sue B in Aus

    1. deemallon

      Thanks Sue. Interesting about your father — how the hurtful omission turned out to make sense, once discovered. As someone recently said to me, nuclear families are an experiment that didn’t really work out. I hope you get the answers and solace you need.

  3. Tina

    You have the most amazing way with words .. the way you combined her actions and your reactions. It all is heartbreaking but your words “she can’t do better vs. she won’t do better “ that is something I have asked myself a thousand times. My daughter will be 45 years old this year and although her living with us is not near what you have shared here. My frustration and anger and resentment shared here is so totally relatable. Next week we will be moving and although I am excited and looking forward to a new beginning .. but no matter how much I try i know that .. somethings will remain the same.
    Thank you for sharing your journey ..

    1. deemallon

      Will your daughter be moving with you? And if you don’t have time to answer let me wish you the best of ease in the transition to your new place!

      1. Tina

        Yes she will be moving with us .. really it will be Ok. I just love that you have this wonderful way of being able to put your thoughts on paper .. a real healing process for sure. The comments from this post have all been so heartfelt ..
        Blessings to you always ..

  4. Anonymous

    My first thoughts were how opposite her clippings were to her personality. It’s a shame they couldn’t be flipped.

    I know all too well about psychotic family and the damage they cause. It’s what they live for. Seriously. What would their lives be if they’re not able to dig in the screws?

    I’m sorry for all the pain you went through. You didn’t, don’t, deserve it… but it will be hard to shake off.

    No water off the dog here. That shit sticks like glue. You’ll be peeling it off your skin for a while. Keep venting. And writing about it. Creativity cures all.

    1. deemallon

      I wanted that contrast between my narrative and her clippings. This isn’t the most elegant way to get that across.

      Thanks for your comment. And, I’ve re-learned of late how common problematic family members are.

      And yes, it will be some time before I feel free of it all.

        1. deemallon

          Thanks Liz. Wanted you to know that I wore your stitched date (June 17, 2015) to the showing of Emanuel in Monday evening. I was reminded of us.

        2. Liz A

          Dee – the Emanuel documentary wasn’t on my radar … thank you for letting me know. One of our local libraries has a documentary night … if they show this one I will certainly go … it would be hard but good to see this in good company

        3. deemallon

          It was especially meaningful having spent time learning about the victims and their families. One of the highlights was to learn that one of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton’s two boys was recruited by a professional baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. Chris Singleton. A baseball complex was recently named in his mother’s honor. You can read about it here.

  5. Michelle Slater

    ‘Ganesh’ is the remover of obstacles and he might be emblematic of what this wonderfully open hearted post is about. It is only by seeing the obstacles fully that one can choose an action in response. So well written and deeply thought that I am with her (you) every step of the way. In another Hindu tale the peacock is featured. They eat the thorns of a certain bush and it is that nourishment that gives them their fabulous plumage-It is called ‘Turning poison into medicine’. You’re doing just fine it seems to me.

  6. Joanne

    I think this might be a book that so many of us (survivors of an ugly family relationship-or two) could relate to and see more clearly. Your words gave me some sliver of hope in dealing with past memories and hurt. These things come back at me when I am thinking I am finally happy.

    1. deemallon

      I remember someone telling me that healing is a spiral. When things come back we are at a different point in the loop, so our vantage has changed.

  7. RainSluice

    I think it is amazing how you write about these horrible [snap shots of] years with absolute sane clarity. It breaks my heart, and yet your writing allows me to stay with you… I could not stop reading once I started. I felt like I was with you and your steadfast steeled heart, you resilience and fortitude becoming my strength to keep reading. I’m not surprised that you can do this, because it is your way, no matter what. You bring it it all to such a pitch of the truth of mental illness vs. sanity and you are both stuck on your sides. The pain is so palpable. It is quite.something great.

    1. deemallon

      The writing of it comes naturally almost without thought. It’s a week since you made this thoughtful and flattering comment and I’m thinking I want to leave the topic (at least here) for a while.

  8. ravenandsparrow

    I have had to read and come back to this post a couple of times, thinking about it and trying to articulate to myself why it touches me so. It has to do with the power of family, which I feel strongly in my own life. The way both you and your brother combined to support your unhappy sister reminds me of the way my siblings respond when someone needs help….the sadness of a brother’s struggle with alcohol and its causative demons or a sister-in-law’s descent into suicide….the weight of it on the family….the doing what can be done….the fear of some final break that will break the family as well….the resentment….the helpless love. In your sister’s case (and my sister-in-law too) I see a blighted bud, laden with promise but fated never to bloom. This is tragedy in its most personal form. It is impossible to avoid the question why and the tangle of feelings that never release us completely. I wish you eventual peace and the perspective offered by time. May the loving memories be the strongest.

    1. deemallon

      And like you, I will need time to take in the full import of this comment. Mostly right now I’m struck by the generosity of it. Not just the well wishing, but in what you were willing to reveal.

  9. Hazel Monte

    Dear Dee, This is good deep processing. I admire your ability to put such clear words to it all. Six months later, I’m finally feeling on the other side of the bulk of grief, but there are moments/days still…
    “can’t vs won’t” a continuing struggle for me. Love to you.

  10. Nancy

    I was going to speak to the fact that the audio wouldn’t work, or how varied and interesting her clippings were and perhaps they are a small window into her mind (or not), or your bravery for sharing and progress in processing or how, due to my own life, these sister posts really hit heavy…
    But really I just want to say that I love cilantro and I love you Dee.

  11. Saskia

    the audio did work for me, but I did have to open the post again on a new web page to watch the video at the same time
    more importantly, as always I was captivated by your ability to put all of your thoughts and emotions into words that offer an insight, almost an experience, of how it has been for you, the almost unbearable weight it must have had on your life, but you did bear it! ….I think most families have to deal with difficult family members, although few as extreme as your sister; I know mine has; on my mother’s side there was a schizophrenic uncle, her twin brother, their mother died way too young, and so the siblings, young adults at the time had to take responsibility for him, whilst starting out their own, it impacted not only their lives, but my generation’s as well; fortunately for everyone he sort of healed as he grew older and this was healing for the entire family of course; on my father’s side we have had our fair share of alcohol and depression related issues; my dad suffered from two episodes of extreme depression these past ten years and my brother has suffered from depression since his early twenties….not that I want to compare my experience with yours, as I have in no way had to deal with my family members as you have had to take care of your sister, nor has any one caused me any amount of grief, but it hurts to see loved ones suffer, and I have often felt helpless and my lack of having been able to help remains a source of frustration and pain.
    I don’t quite know what to say Dee, but life just isn’t easy
    as I have stated in previous posts, I think you have given so much to her and even if she didn’t appreciate it, I do (I guess we all do here) and on top of everything you have the guts to share the gory details in all honesty with us, without sparing yourself

    1. deemallon

      you’re so right that many families struggle with pathology of some kind or other and that’s part of why I’ve gone into such nitty gritty here — there is relief, I think, in recognizing the universality of these issues. The uncle’s problems sound severe. And possibly complicated by genetic concerns, being a twin of your mother’s? Depression and alcohol often go together — perhaps the alcohol serving as a stand-in for medication, in some cases. Anyway, lots to unpack here but let me close by mentioning how much I appreciate your generous spirit and fortitude and creativity.


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