Fat Girl Wearing Thin

Life beyond the loss.

   Dec 09

Extended post on mental illness within a family

I’ve been sitting here lately reflecting on some upcoming posts for the Hate-Loss Challenge that I’m beginning in January.  Specifically the question, ‘What makes me the way I am and why do I still struggle with self-esteem issues, shyness and negative thoughts in my life?’ Something I wrote in a previous post kept coming back to me over and over again:

Chances are if you have an issue or problem that you can’t figure out, look to your childhood and you’ll generally find all the answers you need.

I began to identify some of the baggage that I carry around as an adult as unresolved issues I had when I was younger.  Many people use the phrase, ‘It’s best to just forget the past and move on.’  I believe this is true if you’ve come to terms with it and have accepted it for what it is.  After all, you can’t change it, right?  But what if parts of the past have been ignored or shoved deep back into the corners of your mind where you can’t get to them?  Are they really gone?  No.  And I can’t leave something behind when it’s still taking up unwanted space.  It’s time for me to begin cleaning house.


During my Reinventing the Holidays post I shared a bit of information on a family member who is mentally handicapped.  I was touched by the comments and email I received from people who either know of or are part of families similar to mine.  Those of us who celebrate holidays with challenging people tend to become more anxious this time of year.  Additional stress on top of the already fast-paced season can wreck havoc on our physical health as well as our emotional health, both of which need to be protected more than ever if we’re also trying to keep healthy food habits in check.    This is a very delicate subject, and one that is not discussed very much, but with the holidays in full-swing and tempting food at every table, I think it’s a topic that is very appropriate for a weight-loss/healthy living/maintenance blog.  If you happen to be dreading the holidays and a loved one is part of the reason why, then this post is for you.

When my brother was diagnosed with various mental disabilities, there was very little community support.  He was born in the fifties, and at that time doctors were quick to coax parents into sending their handicapped children off to mental hospitals and told to forget they exist.  There has been so much progress since that time, it staggers the mind.  Not only have many state hospitals closed their doors allowing intellectually disabled people the choice of living in group homes or with their families and personal caregivers, but many carry jobs and live very fulfilling lives.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. 

Growing up in a household with a handicapped sibling is extremely challenging for any family, no matter how dedicated the parents may be to the family as a whole. Not only have I experienced this firsthand, but I’ve spent years working with families who have chosen to keep their children at home instead of utilizing other services such as group homes.  Trust me when I say, I’ve seen things that makes my story look like a fairytale.

My siblings and I grew up in two very different homes.  The one in which my sister and brothers grew up was one where my oldest brother had periods of extreme rage.  When he reached puberty, he became uncontrollable, both verbally and physically.  He would frequently walk the streets at night, spitting on neighbors’ front doors while cursing at the top of his lungs.  He was unable to listen to direction or do things that were asked of him. 

I was two years old at the time of the incident.  My sister vividly remembers the family sitting at the dining room table; I was in my high chair.  As my father made a comment about slowing down as he ate, my oldest brother grew very angry and threw a fork across the room which almost struck me in the eye.  My sister who was 12 at the time,  asked my mother, “How much longer do we have to live like this before he really hurts one of us?”  It was shorty thereafter that my brother was transferred to a state institution. 

Before I was ten, my other siblings were adults living on their own.  My oldest brother came home to visit many times during the year including holidays.  His behavior varied from visit to visit.  Sometimes he would be overly-medicated and often sleepy and lethargic, then suddenly get a rush of excitement and go into the kitchen and eat uncontrollably until he’d vomit onto the floor.  I’d watch as my mother cleaned the mess, begging him to stop as my brother began eating all over again.  Other times he would arrive so agitated and hyper that if I happened to ask him a question or simply be standing in his path, he would hit and/or push me to the ground.  I became afraid of him from an early age, and to this day still find myself on guard within his presence. 

Birthdays have always been a very tender subject for me.  My brother’s birthday happens to be two days before mine so to save time and money, my parents celebrated our birthdays together every year.  Because of his violent mood swings and attention seeking behavior, I usually spent my birthdays hiding away, leaving my parents tending to my brother.  Within the last 5 years I’ve tried having a discussion with my mother about feeling neglected on my birthday.  The conversation did not go well. 

Stories like these may shock those of you who have never dealt with mental illness, but I’m guessing that there are more of you reading who are nodding your head thinking, ‘Yep.  I can relate to that.’  Personally, I think this type of thing isn’t discussed because we feel ashamed if we express how difficult it can be.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, ‘You have it easy compared to him.  You have nothing to complain about and should be grateful.’   But how could I learn to be grateful when everyone around me, including my brother was absolutely miserable?    It’s true, I am not a mother of a handicapped child. I don’t know what it’s like to see that child sent away as you are left to deal with the guilt you feel about not being strong enough to parent him. I am also familiar of the stigma attached to needing but refusing to seek therapy back then in order to deal with feelings of inadequacy and frustration. It just wasn’t done. And so, life carried on as it always had. Back then there was no outside intervention, no therapists to talk to, no one to intervene and take some of the pressure off of my parents.  They did the best they could under the circumstances.  

I’m going to share something else with you.  When I first mentioned my brother, that was the first time I’ve ever discussed it in length with anyone who wasn’t extremely close to either me or the situation.  In other words, I’ve always kept it within the family.  I’ve since come to realize that this is a subject that begs to be discussed more often.  If I hadn’t first addressed it with my therapist and then with all of you, I don’t know how many more holidays would have passed before realizing that I deserve Happy Thanksgivings and Merry Christmases and wonderful birthdays as much as he does, they do, or you do.   I may be my mother’s daughter but I am not a child anymore.  Being an adult can be freeing but it can also bring on some serious backlashing.  Unpopular decisions aren’t easy and someone always gets hurt.  I am preparing myself for some people to become upset and overwhelmed.  When we quiet conformists do things that are unexpected, especially if our job as Peacekeepers is being compromised we have to anticipate some resistance. 

I’m not saying that we should all ditch difficult people and forget they exist.  What I am saying is that it’s easy to feel as though we have no control when it comes to tender situations.  In lowering my inch thick wall of guilt, I’ve found that I’m mourning many lost birthdays and holidays.  I can’t undo the past but I can agree to give myself the gift of control over Christmas this year, which I am doing.  My husband and I have decided to forego presents for each other, instead giving ourselves new traditions.  I will be seeing my brother on Christmas Day, but with the understanding that when things become too stressful, we will excuse ourselves and spend the rest of the day at home with our dogs and enjoying each other’s company. 

I’m leaving this post wide open for discussion.  Here, you can share your stories, tips on dealing with stressful people over the holidays, or post questions of your own.  I’m sure someone will have words of wisdom (I get a lot of those around here).   😉 I have one lucky blog. 

Thanks for reading today, everyone. 




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  1. Thank you for sharing from the depths of your heart. I’m a bit speechless.

    It sounds as if you have some good boundaries in place.

    The holidays are very stressful when we have stressful people in our lives. I can relate to that feeling of “having no control” over my holiday .

    Thank you for sharing

    • Ellen says:

      Julie, I thank you for commenting on such a sensitive issue. Everything is a learning process, isn’t it? Thank goodness we never (hopefully) stop learning. Take care.

  2. Sharon says:

    Ellen, this is a subject I am thankful to say I have little experience in or around others affected by it, so I wouldn’t even think of pretending I understand. But I do know this – there is much truth in your writing about difficult relationships in general that can be guidance for all of us and I do fully appreciate your willingness to open up and share. I hope that it is cathartic for you and speeds healing. I also know it further causes me to be certain you are someone I’d like to know IRL.

    As you know from the earlier post, my issues with Christmas are on a totally different realm and certainly do not involve memories of physical violence, only emotional, but I strongly encourage you to establish and cling to those new traditions for all your worth and then never let them go! I promise it works!!

    • Ellen says:

      Sharon, thank you, as always – for being so supportive. You have always been my hand to hold when I create a post that’s bordering on the line of ‘publish or not publish’. Your words always make me glad that I did. Thank you for that.

  3. Cindy says:

    Ellen, I follow and enjoy your blog as much as I do, not just becuase of your wonderful insights, but because we seem to have much in common: anxiety issues, golden retrievers, love of zombie TV/movies, art and, of course, weight loss battles. It now appears that, in addition, I am one of your readers who can say, “yep, I can relate to that.” I also have a brother, born in the fifties and ten years older than me, with mental health issues that have had a similar effect on my family. My other brothers and sisters are also a bit older than me and gone by the time I was ten, but my brother stayed behind. Since my parents were divorced, it was me, mom and my brother. I was so happy when I moved away to college, but guilty that I left my mother behind and then guilty for thinking that my brother was someone I didn’t want to be around. Like you, I have recently learned that it is so very important to create my own life and traditions. There is nothing easy about the situation and options are limited. I completely agree that boundaries must be drawn as you and your husband done. I’ve done it too. All the best to you.

    • Ellen says:

      Cindy, I had to read your comment twice. I could not believe the similarities in our stories. Almost mirror images of one another. Reading the word ‘guilt’ in your comment is also something that we share. Getting rid of that feeling is one of the most difficult things to accomplish, I think. Everyone has problems. I keep trying to emphasize that; no one gets a free ride. Are some people blessed more than others? Yes. But our lives are what we make of it and we shouldn’t have to feel like we have to sacrifice just because we weren’t the one with the affliction.
      Wish me luck. These boundaries are very new to me and I am already feeling anxious about it, but am refusing to give in to that feeling.
      Thank you for your story. You don’t know how much that means to me. Big hugs to you!

  4. Thank you so much Ellen. What you have done here is give yourself and others permission…permission to feel what they feel without recrimination or shame. And THAT is what it’s all about.

    And this: “When we quiet conformists do things that are unexpected, especially if our job as Peacekeepers is being compromised we have to anticipate some resistance. ”

    Oh my…when I decided to step into the light and do something for me, it cost me my relationship (however tenuous and, to be honest, toxic, it was for me) with my mother. But that’s about her, not about me.

    What I have come to realize is that the mental illness with which I grew up was not as obvious as say, your brother’s. But it was just as damaging. Being able to talk about it without feeling guilty has been so very healing.

    This quote says it best:

    “Evil is like a shadow – it has no real substance of its own, it is simply a lack of light. You cannot cause a shadow to disappear by trying to fight it, stamp on it, by railing against it, or any other form of emotional or physical resistance. In order to cause a shadow to disappear, you must shine light on it.” – Shakti Gawain, teacher and author (1948- )

    As for the whole health/weight/food issue, I have truly come to believe that this kind of honesty is what heals us.

    • Ellen says:

      Mental illness within a family is a very difficult issue to discuss – even with family. It always seems as though each child grew up in a ‘different house’ and have different ways of looking at the way things were. In fact, it’s just that each child processes these things differently. Many families are torn apart because one person refuses to believe that things were perceived to be a certain way when in their eyes, they weren’t that way at all. So many layers to conflict within families. I’m so glad that you’ve gotten to the point of being able to let go of the guilt and see your mother’s problem as HER problem – not yours. That is a huge step in healing. Thank you Karen for your insight. Much appreciated!

  5. Thanks for sharing, Ellen. It means a lot that you trust us with this, and that you’re willing to open up so much about it. I hope that this Christmas is a less eventful one for you, one that brings you some measure of peace and happiness.

    • Ellen says:

      I’m coming to find that blogs are funny things. First, I take great measures to keep my personal life as far away from what I write as possible; then I find that I can’t run a blog I’m comfortable with if I don’t put my whole heart into it. Thus these random ‘you’ll never guess what….’ posts that sometimes come out. I have to say, it makes it much, much easier to write about these things when I have such fantastic people who are willing to hold my hand through the process 😉 Thanks, Greg.

  6. debby says:

    So well written, Ellen. I have had difficult relationships (not as difficult as yours) for years, that were so stressful at the holidays. For the last few years, I took refuge in work (there’s some advantage to nurse’s having to work holidays!) this year I made plans to spend Thanksgiving with my best friend, and for Christmas I will go to visit my brother. I will see my more ‘difficult’ relatives on days other than the actual holiday. This is what is working for me this year.

    I wonder if you should not be more proactive, and just PLAN ahead of time that you will leave in the early afternoon, and not wait until things get ‘difficult.’ Just a thought.

    • LauraJayne says:

      I completely agree with this sentiment! Therefore, if you find yourself wanting to stay, do it! But if not, you’ve already prepped yourself (and even your loved ones) and can preempt any self-imposed guilt!

    • Ellen says:

      Debby, I think your mention of not waiting is an excellent thought, and one that I hadn’t even considered. Why end on a potentially foul note when I could end the day on a good one? I will take this into serious consideration and appreciate you offering it as a solution. Thank you for that.

  7. Grace says:

    What an insightful and well written post. Thank you, Ellen.
    I know the feeling of mourning that you describe, due to my mother’s mental illness. I often spend whole sessions with my therapist grieving for what I feel I lost in my childhood. But the more I express these feelings of loss and grief, the better and better I feel. I don’t cry nearly as much in therapy now, I am able to focus on getting better and learning good ways to deal with my emotions. I am more grateful for what I have NOW because I am learning to accept what happened THEN.
    Thanks again for writing this.

    • Ellen says:

      Outstanding point, Grace. Really, very insightful. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to work though this. I feel so badly for those who cannot get past the things that have happened in their childhood – so much so, that it impacts every outcome in their adult lives. Accountability for our own happiness is such an important key to living the life we deserve. Thank you for sharing your experience. Big hugs!

  8. Ellen, thanks for your post. I’ve been surfing the blogs on Google, looking for other people like me who have siblings with mental illness. I’m the only family caregiver my sister has as the rest of the family refuses to believe she has bipolar disorder. They believe she is a substance abuser and while there is a history, I’m convinced that’s not her primary issue. When I stepped in to help her after about 22 years of basically no contact, my parents stopped talking to me and wrote me out of their will. Probably a blessing in disguise. My situation is different from yours in that Jerri and I are only 18 months difference in age and her illness didn’t kick in until she was 15. At 16 she dropped out of high school and moved out of the house. Still Christmas is a particularly difficult time and I was blogging on that yesterday (http://trophydaughter.wordpress.com/). Control over your holiday destiny is a priceless gift – my husband and I are also giving ourselves that gift this year. Best wishes!

  9. Munchberry says:

    I wonder how hard it was to put this post together. Thank you for it. The good thing about being an adult is that we can choose for ourselves what will happen, come and go, how we react to things we cannot change in our lives. Past and present. We can toss away things as silly fiction that were told to us as fact when young (or now). We can listen to advice or tritisms and decide for ourselves if it applies.

    I say forgetting the past? Pfft. Maybe putting it into perspective and accepting it as something that shaped you – good or bad and then deciding how you will move forward from it. How you will move forward in your own best interest. That is NOT selfish. Sometimes it is healing or protective or freeing or giving. Sometimes it is baby steps (meaning you make small steps, comfortable steps) toward living a life you want despite the past.

    So spending Christmas with your eldest brother, but giving yourself permission to go if there is stress. That is a baby step. A comfortable step. You can be loving towards your mom, but keep your own boundary to keep your own sanity. How about setting another tradition for Christmas? Something to celebrate your steps towards peace and not hate. Something that reminds you that you are not forgetting, but you are taking control of your own happiness. What would that entail?

    I admire you. Of course you know that. For so many reasons, but most of all I think you are probably the most thoughtful and kind person I know. Outside of Mr. Munchberry of course.

    Big hug.

    • Ellen says:

      Such a kind comment I’m not sure what to say. I have been mulling this post over for quite some time but know now that I’ve graduated to the deep end of the pool by publishing it. It’s all out there – the good, bad and ugly. But strangely enough I feel better because through feedback I see that I’m not the only one. We each have our own stories; and we each need to tell them when/if we’re ready. I like your idea about celebrating steps towards peace. Like that very much, and the positive energy you’ve attached to it. Sounds like a splendid idea to me and I’m going to consider that long and hard.

      • Munchberry says:

        I read your update on moving mountains. About how you declined to do something that was not something good for you. Isn’t it something the decisions you have made for yourself. That first time you act on your own behalf – Sorta scary, but GOD the empowerment.

        And PS – Most everyone has weird shit in their life. I am guessing it will draw your friends reading your blog closer. But of course there will always be the twisted. You are not unkind so there is little harm.

        • Ellen says:

          It really WAS empowering to say no. I could hardly believe it came from my own mouth. lol I was asked to stay longer and I politely but firmly said that I was unable to. My answer was met with a heavy sigh (oh, how I can read those sighs!) but I didn’t hesitate, and in the end I didn’t feel guilty, either. Progress!!
          Thank you for your kind words. How soothing they always are.

  10. The wisest thing to do is just what you have planned — excuse yourself when you need to. In fact, I’d suggest this extends far beyond the holidays into our entire lives.

    I hope you’ll have a wonderfully relaxing, joyous Christmas.

    • Ellen says:

      Thank you, Michele. I intend on doing just that. Part of me feels sad that it’s taken me this long to make this decision, but better late than never, right?

  11. auntiekim says:

    Ellen, so many swirling through my head right now I know I’ll forget most of them before I can write them all down :(

    Bravo to you for using this as your safe place. I wrote a few posts about my bipolar sister but removed them. They were not negative about her, but were about how her illness affects everyone else in the family and how stressful it is. I was terrified she’d find them somehow and it would cause WWIII so I pulled them. She definitely would have been upset if she read them because she’s so defensive.

    I’m so sorry that your birthdays were comingled. I think it’s a shame when parents do that in general – every child deserves their own special day – but it’s even more egregious in a circumstance like this. Obviously nobody meant any harm, but harm was done. I hope everyone in your family is getting the healing they deserve. It sounds like there are a lot of wounds there.

    Completely different circumstance, but my dad died 2 days before my birthday 20 years ago. Every birthday since then has been tainted. All I can think about is him and how I felt on that very first birthday after his death. I hope one day I’m healed from that. I deserve to have another nice birthday before I die.

    I look forward to reading what everyone else has to say. I hope you’ve opened up a can of worms, so to speak.

    Here’s to a peaceful holiday for all of us.

    • Ellen says:

      Oh, I sympathize with you on whether to publish or not to publish. It is easy for me to forget sometimes that this is NOT an anonymous blog. I’m sure there are plenty of people that I used to know who consider this blog the equivalent of uncovering an acquaintance’s private diary. Still, I don’t regret posting it and am expecting any and all responses from those who think it a terrible thing that I’m airing dirty laundry about my family in a public forum. In your case, if you felt compelled to remove that kind of material for your blog, then your instinct was obviously kicking in and you did the right thing. Don’t second guess it for a second.
      Ah, birthdays. Just when I get to the point to where I can actually control what happens on them, I feel too old to want to celebrate them! We can never win, can we? My heart aches for you regarding your own emotional trauma associated with your birthday. I too hope one day you are able to take your birthday and turn it into not only a celebration for you but for your dad’s life as well. Nothing but joy could come from that.
      Thank you for sharing your story. It means a great deal to me.

  12. Roz says:

    Hi Ellen. I feel very honored to read this post. I wish you and your family nothing but peace over the holidays!!!

  13. Ellen, thank you for sharing such an honest and thought-provoking post. I can’t imagine the burdens you have carried through the years and the work you’ve had to do to get to this place. Nor do I truly know the difficulty you’ll have as you try to reclaim the gift of peace, at holidays and throughout the year. But I do know you can do it. Of that, I’m certain.

    Our family’s “situation” is a more recent thing, and the “perps”, for lack of a better term, have tearfully proclaimed their gratitude that they have my unconditional love. I assured them that that was true, but that my willingness to be in their presence did have conditions. :) We’ll see how the holidays go; so far, so good.

    Wishing you a peaceful holiday season, Ellen!

    • Ellen says:

      Cammy, rest assured that I will be thinking of you during the holidays. Although I don’t know the details of your situation, my hope is that everything goes as smoothly as possible and with as little drama as possible. You are one of the strongest women I know, and for you to have set boundaries already, shows just how strong and smart you are. Thank you for your kind words and for reading.

  14. Ellen – wanted to correct the blog address in my previous post. It’s http://www.trophydaughter.wordpress.com. I’m new at this :)

    • Ellen says:

      Thank you for that, and know that I made the appropriate corrections on your behalf in your first comment so that everyone can find your blog easily. Thank you again for stopping by. I really appreciate reading your story.

  15. teresa says:

    I’m so glad you are giving yourself the freedom to leave if the situation on Christmas becomes too stressful.
    We’ve had our own issues in my family, though not as severe as yours.
    Still, there has often been screaming, crying, someone locking themselves away to escape or as the dramatic move. We’ve had drugs, mental illness and generalized asshole-y behaviour.
    My oldest sister (who you know now from my post about Rita’s Rainbows…) after she lost her daughter, there was really no going back into the insanity of family crap. Survival is never certain for a parent that loses a child and one thing she knew without doubt was that she couldn’t live with the “lie” that is making the ill appear well. She has no room in her life for anything that isn’t real and true or for people who aren’t taking care of their own stuff.
    I agree with her conviction and it’s been a process for me as well. I had to say, well, why would I put up with it either? And if i “put up with it” aren’t I part of the problem as well? Plus, by then I was married and it wasn’t just me I was taking into the belly of the beast. My husband didn’t have the ability to “disappear” that I did.
    oh, see how I can go on…
    I can’t imagine what you grew up with. Although there is a horrifying book by Doris Lessing called “The Fifth Child” that you would probably relate to (if for any reason you wanted to read about such a thing.) All I know is that it still haunts me sometimes.
    I have no good way to end this comment….
    kisses and hugs will have to do.

    • Ellen says:

      tree, thank you so much for this comment. Such is the way of life that it takes a major life-changing event to happen before we ‘wake up’ and take notice of our surroundings. I completely relate to your sister and commend her for deciding on what she’s willing and not willing to accept in her life. Although I did not lose a child, I did watch my mother almost die in front of me last year in that tragic accident. That is when I truly began (and it was a slow process, even then) seeing things differently and realizing what I wasn’t willing to put up with anymore.
      You are a wonderfully supportive sister and I’m sure that your sister is grateful every day for you. I know I am :)

  16. Hanlie says:

    I truly admire your courage in reclaiming your life and your happiness. You’ve come a long way and you are shining a light for the rest of us to do the same. Bless you!

    • Ellen says:

      Hanlie, you have done some pretty major work there yourself, you know. You serve as your own beacon of light for the rest of us, and I for one, have learned so much from your blog. We are lucky to have such a supportive network here, aren’t we?

  17. Joan says:

    I am so grateful for your posting and for your blog. Our 21 year old daughter has been diagnosed as bipolar too recently for her to have accepted this yet and the past few Holiday seasons have been difficult to say the least. I know she is just at the beginning of her journey, as are we, but it is such a relief to find that we are not alone. Light is a wonderful, healing thing.

    • Ellen says:

      Joan, thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and to read my post on this tender subject. If you have read some of the other comments, you realize that you are not alone in dealing with a relative with bi-polar disorder. A disease that can at times be masked is a different beast altogether, as opposed to having a relative who is obviously severely mentally handicapped. My heart goes out to you and I’m grateful that you were able to take some refuge here on my blog. Support is out there; we just need more people willing to discuss it. I wish the best for you and your entire family this holiday season and beyond, and hope that your daughter is able to find the peace that she deserves.

  18. Jacqui says:

    I think that you wrote about this with a lot of concern for others feelings, but with a new appreciation that your thoughts matter. There is something to be said for honesty about the way things really were and are, and the way it made you feel. Maybe there other people who “have it worse”, there always will be, but that should not belittle your own experience and grief over loss. There are people who would say that there are more important things that a birthday, and that it’s not that important, but to a young girl, it was important!! It wasn’t necessarily about the birthday, it was symbolic of a bigger need. I appreciated your post :)

    • Ellen says:

      Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful words, Jacqui. That was very kind of you and greatly appreciated. It’s been said that every child lives in a different household than his/her siblings. In a way I find this to be true. Each child takes in what he/she sees very differently. I am fortunate in that I’ve been able to discuss my eldest brother with my brothers and sister and share with them my thoughts on the past.

  19. I absolutely agree with you about dealing with those deep seated issues from the past before “putting it behind you”…some people never get the chance (or have the desire) to face their past hurts and continue to carry baggage (whether they know it not) into their present life. It isn’t about placing blame or finding fault, even though everyone seems to get defensive when we search our past, but about an awareness of WHAT in our past shapes our NOW. Only in that way can one truly reveal, accept, heal and move forward….at least in my opinion.

    As you know, Ellen, I am finally delving into my relationship with my late father by reading his journal and a book he was working on. I feel very lucky to have a few of his most secret feelings available to help enlighten me on his mental health issues (he was an alcoholic and bi-polar, suffering from deep depression and self-hatred at times wrapped up with PTSD) and how his inability to find help or be diagnosed properly affected our entire family.
    Strangely enough, my sister, who is only 2 1/2 years older than me, has a completely different take on our childhood. It’s almost as if we grew up in different households! She is soooo much like my dad that she is no ready to do what you have done here…lay it all out, admit the disappointment and hurt, accept that the past cannot be changed yet still find the strength to love those ‘involved’ while giving yourself ‘permission’ to make sure you are happy and safe.

    • Ellen says:

      I could not have said this any better myself, Lynn. You are so correct, and I feel very honored to bear witness to this chapter that you’re in the process of laying to rest. It is SO important for you and I know that you are ready to face it head-on. You are doing the work now so that you can carry on with your life with no regret. I only hope that your sister eventually learns from this. What you’re offering should also be considered an invitation for her to do the same so that she too, can lead a better life, free from the strain of this pain.

  20. Jan says:

    Thank you so much for opening up. I can’t imagine how hard that might have been for you. While I don’t know what it’s like to have a handicapped person living in my household, I do know the extreme opposite and honestly wish everyone could have had the childhood I had. It was far from perfect, but I was loved and birthdays were made super special (due to both of my parents never having birthdays be special in their homes). Hearing their stories (and yours) makes me sad (almost guilty) for having the childhood I had. I agree that people do the best that they know how to at the time. I also agree that if you want things to change, you have to be the one to start the change and I’m so proud of you for doing so. I love that you have a plan of action already in place for Christmas. That you aren’t shutting yourself off completely from family, but going with certain intentions and expectations and knowing when it’s time to leave. You truly are an amazing person, bettering yourself every day, making your own kind of happiness. Thanks for being an incredible example to us all.

    • Ellen says:

      Nothing makes me happier than to know that you had a fulfilling childhood. You deserve nothing less than that, Jan. And I know that you will provide your child with the same, wonderful memories, which he will in turn provide for his own children. See what a wonderful, beautiful thing that is? Life is hard enough; treasured memories last forever and I’m so grateful that you have these to share!

  21. Oh Ellen, how I so want to give you a huge hug and a high five at the same time! Thank you for trusting us enough to share this part of your life. I know it is very difficult right now emotionally for you to start new traditions and set firm boundaries with your family, but when you look back at this moment a year from now you will be as proud of yourself as I am right now.

    *HUGS* + *HIGH FIVE* :)

  22. vickie says:

    be very proud of yourself for this post.

    I know how hard it is to talk about these things.

    to be honest, I had a tough time leaving my comment on your original post talking about many of these same issues. A tough time because I frequently am such a lone voice.

    not only did you do a very good job with this post, you have done a very good job with your boundaries and your communication and your understanding of this part of your life.


    Very good job to you and your husband.

    • Ellen says:

      Vickie, your comment means a great deal to me and I’m grateful to your EVERY word on my blog. I’ve done a lot of growing up over the past year, and this was a huge step for me. Thank you for reading about it.

  23. Marion says:

    Hi Ellen! Well, I also grew up with a brother who scared the hell out of me for about 10 years of my life. He shot my brother with the BB gun. He tickled me until I choked. He beat me up whenever he wanted. I got slugged in the gut and pinched and poked and berated every day.

    My mom also had a similar attitude of my life was just fine and brother wasn’t that bad, how was I wanting in any way. Well, maybe you and I needed to be princesses or little missys, but there was never time or patience for sweet talk. Everyone was focused on these scary brothers and what they needed.

    I have discussed my childhood at length with close friends and I now have mother-y friends who think I’m *extremely adorable* and say it a lot and hug me a lot. And I hug back a lot. It is never too late to get that kind of attention. You deserved it as a little girl, but get it right now. It still counts just as much. :-) Marion

    • Ellen says:

      Thank you Marion – especially for sharing your own story here. Your comment about finding that motherly kind of love in others is something I’ve experienced as well, and you’re right – it’s never too late and you’re never too old to experience it. Big hugs to you :)

  24. Ellen,
    Wow~ I felt such powerful grace and wisdom flowing through your post and all your comment responses. I have no where near your experience and still I feel I want to take what I read here and use it in my life. Perhaps I still can, with people and situations that tend to cause angst. Thank you for sharing this. I have learned something valuable.

  25. didi says:

    This was a very moving post. Thank you for having enough trust to put this on the internet.
    It’s hard for all of us to expose and reveal the painful pieces of our past. It is especially tough trying to discuss it with people who would prefer to sweep it under the rug. When I confronted my mother about things that had gone on during my childhood she immediately became defensive and upset. The message she put out went something like this, “Please don’t bring up anything that I am not ready to deal with. It hurts too much. Forget about it.” I wasn’t told that I had it easy, but I was reminded about all of the bad things that had happened to my mother. Our parents do their best. This is something that I truly know and understand at this point in my life, but that doesn’t mean that the pain we experience during our upbringings isn’t real.
    You didn’t have it easy compared to your brother, and it is unfortunate (and frankly, pretty crappy) that your mother cannot understand that and validate your feelings. Having to go through what you went through with your brother must have been upsetting and confusing. Being written off and told that you should be grateful (for being second best on your birthday, and never being able to have a pleasant holiday) has to sting.
    You deserve to have fantastic birthdays and holidays. We ALL do. I think it is fantastic that you are trying to create your own traditions, so that you can finally enjoy the season.

  26. […] may remember this post in which I discussed at length about my handicapped brother and my realization that I needed to to […]

  27. vickie says:

    I am leaving this note on 3/18/12.

    I came back to find this post and re-read it.

    It helped me at the time you wrote it and it helped me again today.

    Last year I tried to repeat the same actions (as in my past) expecting a different outcome.

    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Albert Einstein

    and when the same thing happened, last year, I over reacted.

    A year later what I now really understand and can apply is the fact that if I do not set good boundaries for myself, I get stuck.

    To be really effective I would have needed to start setting these boundaries at birth, with my family of origin, but that of course is not possible. I have other boundaries that I tried to establish at various ages that were also not possible.

    So, as I try to set them now, all of that history, all of that pent up emotion, comes up. I am not reacting to the current situation. I am reaction to all that came before it.

    I can’t change the past. But I can change my future. And I do not have to be difficult/ugly in doing it.

    You wrote:
    I can’t undo the past but I can agree to give myself the gift of control over Christmas this year, which I am doing. My husband and I have decided to forego presents for each other, instead giving ourselves new traditions. I will be seeing my brother on Christmas Day, but with the understanding that when things become too stressful, we will excuse ourselves and spend the rest of the day at home with our dogs and enjoying each other’s company.

    and I think you took this further to travel with your husband for some holidays.

    this was very meaningful for me.

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