Advice: Step Away, Sister

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I have a real problem with my older sister, and—finally—I’ve gotten to the point where I am over it. When we were little, my sister “Ethel” constantly insulted me. She would call me names, make fun of my weight, point out every pimple, tease me that the boys would never be interested in someone who looked like me. Ethel would come into my room like it was her own and rifle through my closets, helping herself to my clothes and shoes, or she would take my CDs and “lose” them, or she would slip my favorite lip gloss into her purse and “forget” to give it back to me.

Ethel has since moved several hours away. I still live in the town we grew up in, and I only see her when she visits our parents. Now that we are adults…well, I want to say we get along better, but we don’t, not really. Adolescent teasing has given way to adult nagging, as though she can make me thinner/smarter/wealthier/with the right guy.

I’m in my early 20s, live independently, have a nice career underway, own my own house, own a car, have a good group of friends who support me instead of trying to tear me down. I like who I am and what I’ve achieved so far, but my sister thinks I can do “better” and won’t hear it when I tell her I’ve had enough, so I keep my distance.

My parents, of course, wish we were closer and have asked me to try, try, try. They don’t hear me when I say I’ve had enough, either. I have no interest in being her friend and having girl-dates with her when she’s in for visits. I certainly don’t feel like I need to go see her and be alone with her on her turf. But I don’t want to be disrespectful to my parents. Should I suck it up and keep trying with Ethel? Or is it OK to keep her at arms’ length?

Stepping Away Sister

Dear Stepping,

B&P: Before we say anything else we want to say, congratulations for getting your life together at such a young age. You’ve made good plans and grown into them. Whether or not your sister and your family can acknowledge your accomplishments, be very proud of yourself and keep building a community of friendship and support even as you build your dreams.

B: Ahh, family. Despite the Norman Rockwellian images of family we like to conjure up—gathered around the turkey, bright smiles, warm gestures, no drama—it’s often a minefield. These are the people who have known you the longest and, ironically, may not know that much about you. They may not know your political affiliation, your current job title or your favorite ice cream flavor but chances are they are intimately acquainted with your emotional triggers.

There’s a profoundly sad moment in the movie Home for the Holidays, that I think will help explain your feelings. The two sisters, constantly at loggerheads through the film, finally have the conversation that gets to the root of their problems. It goes like this.

Claudia: You don’t know the first thing about me.

Joanne: Likewise, I’m sure. If I just met you on the street… if you gave me your phone number… I’d throw it away.

Claudia: Well, we don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.

And therein lies the problem. You’re family, and you’re stuck with each other. And it can be hard to continually justify why you’re spending your valuable time and energy with someone who does everything she can to make you feel bad about yourself when your carefully cultivated, friendship-based, supportive urban family who genuinely likes you is just a phone call and a quick escape out the back door away.

P: Oh, this is so difficult, I’m so sorry. It seems that not only is your sister toxic and has been for a long while, but your parents also seem to have been indifferent toward the pain this causes you — and the disruption this ugliness causes in the family. Their expectation that you, who are picked on, should be the person who can, never mind should, make the situation better is a sad indication of their cluelessness. I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not actively mean, but they have certainly been passively mean.

B: Normally, I am an advocate for cutting one’s losses and stepping away from any sort of toxic relationship—partners, friends, co-workers if you can manage it (though that does get more difficult). If they’re bad for you, develop an exit strategy, and go. However! Family—and one’s nuclear family in particular—does have its own set of rules. Cousins? Cut ‘em out, let ‘em go, how often do you see them anyway? Aunts and uncles? Easy to create distance. But a sister…

Yeah, that can be tricky.

I’m not saying it’s tricky because I live in some kind of rose-colored ideal that one day, one day, you’ll both come to realize just how important the other is, and years of pent-up anger and dysfunctional interactions will fall away. I’m not saying it’s tricky because some day you may need a kidney, and she’s your best bet. But it’s tricky because you have parents you want to respect and honor; in your letter, it sounds like your parents are the only thing keeping you from kissing her goodbye forever. Chalk one up to yourself for that.

P: Terri and I talked a lot about how you didn’t focus on your sister, but rather on your desire not to be abused by her. Congratulations. Because you can’t fix her; I’m not sure you’ll be able to talk to her about this. You’re doing the work you need to be doing for yourself: you’ve got work you like, you own a house, and you have good friends. You’re building a life. If you read us, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of getting the support you need. If you don’t have it in your social circle, pay for it. You need to figure out what role you play in your family and the ways you are and are not willing to keep the family working. If you want to maintain relationships with your parents and sister, or create new ones, talking to a professional who can help you determine a course of action is a good thing. Maybe that person will have suggestions for new tacks to take with your sister, or your parents. There’s nothing like a little rehearsal before you try new tactics. Afterwards, with your therapist, you can even allow yourself the opportunity to debrief.

If I were you, I would also be disappointed in my parents’ response now and over my lifetime. In a way, it sounds as if they see you as capable and mature, but it doesn’t sound as if they see her as mean and hurtful.

B: UGH! Pet peeve alert! It’s almost as though you’re being punished for being strong. Why do you have to take her abuse? “Because you can” is not an acceptable answer. Sorry. Had to interject.

P: They are not protecting you from her abuse. From your description, your sister’s actions are verbally and psychically abusive. Your parents’ failure to stand up for you deepens that abuse. This is another place a counselor can help you. You don’t want to confront everyone and everything too early as your work on this because that can really blow things up. You need to figure out how to make your family hear you, because so far what you’ve tried has not served you well, but you also have to guard against them becoming defensive and turning on you. You don’t want to let any of your family members tarnish your life and your very real accomplishments.

B: You never mention whether you spend any time alone with your sister when she’s in for her visits. Have you ever, one on one, sat her down and told her how you feel about her behavior? Or have your exchanges been more like: dinner table à she insults you à you eyeroll and tell her to knock it off? That’s an adolescent pattern reasserting itself, and if I were your parents I’d have a hard time seeing it as anything other than the behavior you’ve always engaged in. Maybe you should try taking her out for a cocktail, or inviting her to your house—alone, no parents—to have a long-awaited chat. And tell her, without drama, that her criticisms hurt you deeply. They make you put up walls against her, which then hurts your parents. Try saying, “I expect you to treat me like the adult I am, because I feel like you still address me as though I am 12 years old and you’re the big sister who knows better, instead of the peers we’ve become.” Try NOT to say, “Knock it off, Ethel! You’ve always been so bossy.” Those two sentences are worlds apart in terms of gravitas. Because people, and women in particular, are notoriously bad at actually asking for what we want (because who wants to make waves?), you may want to practice saying what you need to say to your sister in a mirror. Practice makes perfect. Then, the next time she’s around, actually say it to her.

If that doesn’t work and she doesn’t let up…at least you’ve had your say, and can claim that you’ve tried to build a bridge with your sister. If she continues to harass you over your appearance or what the heck ever, don’t engage in that conversation. It’s a common mistake people make, thinking they have to comply or reply to the questions put before them, instead of saying, “I’m done having this conversation, and am moving on.” Give yourself some control of the conversation. Simply remind her that you’ve already asked her not to badger you any longer about personal issues, but you’d be happy to talk to her about the latest movies playing at the local megaplex. I’ll back you in saying that it would be fine, after that, to maintain your arms’ length relationship with Ethel. Be polite, pleasant even, when she’s around, and then slip out the back door as soon as you can to meet up with the friends who support and nourish you emotionally.

P:  Whatever you do, remember that you have choices and that exercising those choices will give you power. She may continue to bait you. But you don’t have to play. It’s a sad thing if she does, but that will be her choice. It might be helpful to plan some fun things around necessary family visits — channel yourself some good old Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar —  not only does it give you something to look forward to, it also gives you a time when the visit is over. One thing you want to be sure about though, as you reduce your sister’s influence in your face to face conversations, you want to ensure that she begins to take up less time in your life with friends. She is who she is. I’m not saying you don’t get to tell stories, but you don’t want to waste your time reliving the discomfort.

 

Time for big sis to step back, or little sis is stepping away.

Time for big sis to step back, or little sis is stepping away.

THE BIG SISTER recipe

  • 2 1/2 oz (70g) Cranberry Juice
  • 1 oz (28g) Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
  • 1 oz (28g) Ginger Beer
  • 1 1/2 oz (70g) Citrus Vodka*
  • 1/4 oz (7g) Simple Syrup**
  • A few drops of fresh lemon juice
For the Garnish
  • 3-4 Sugared Cranberries, skewered, or a slice of lemon
METHOD
  1. To a cocktail shaker, add a handful of ice, cranberry juice, orange juice, ginger beer, vodka, simple syrup and a drop or two of lemon juice. Test to see if it needs a bit more simple. If so, add just about a 1/4 tsp more at a time.
  2. Shake 3-4 times. Pour over ice.
  3. Garnish with Sugared Cranberries.

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Advice: Surprise! There’s a Camera in my Bedroom

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I was raised Catholic, and my parents and I go to church semi-regularly. I am 19 years old and in college, and still live with my parents. Recently, I learned something that’s kind of freaking me out and I don’t know what to do.

Our house was broken into several years ago, and after that my parents installed perimeter cameras. I didn’t know they had installed any cameras inside the house. Surprise, surprise. Suffice to say, when I’ve been alone in the house I have occasionally done things to relieve certain urges, and I sometimes walk around nude in my room after a shower.

On the one hand, I want to confront my parents about this, but I don’t want them to have a reason to go into their video archive and watch anything for themselves. I suspect that since they haven’t said anything they haven’t watched anything, but that’s the problem. I don’t know what they know. On the other hand, I feel like I should just let it drop. I mean, they’re my parents, right? It’s not like anything bad has come of this.

I’ve been hearing all about the sins of self-love for my entire life. I don’t totally agree with the way the church talks about it but I still don’t know how I would feel about confronting my parents about it.  What should I do?

–Not As Alone As I Thought

P: Pssst… Set ‘em up, Terri, we need to steady our nerves if we’re going to talk about parents who spy on their kids when they’re grown ups. Yikes.

B: Imma answer this as soon as I’m done beating my head against the bar.

Dear Not Alone,

It seems like paranoia runs in your family. Your parents are paranoid that someone might be manhandling their little girl, and you’re paranoid that your parents might know that all the manhandling in your room is being done by you.

What’s a Catholic girl with burgeoning sexuality to do?

There are a few things happening here. One: you’re going through an enormous growing pang. Two: you’re an adult now and need to set down some new parameters. Three: your parents are, unfortunately, a little bit creepy, and need to stop.

The first thing I want you to do, regarding growing pangs, is to start calling things by their real names. Whether you’re “doing things to relieve certain urges”, or tickling your taco, or flicking the bean, what you’re actually doing is masturbating. Say it at least once before returning to the more adorable-sounding bean-flicking. Masturbate. See? It’s just a word, and an adult one, at that.

I also want to take a moment to redirect your focus. This isn’t a letter about whether or not you should masturbate (because oh, honey, you should get to know yourself in every way possible, and this is simply an avenue of your blossoming sex life) or what your parents might think if they know you do it. It’s a question of adulthood and privacy, and where boundary lines need to be drawn. It’s also…not really…a question of what they have or have not seen, because you’ve done nothing to be ashamed of (walked around naked in your own room? Played the flesh fiddle?) and besides, what’s been done is done, what’s been seen is seen. Do you need to know exactly what they saw and when? Because…why? Your issue ought to be more that they respect the privacy you deserve.

P: Not that I think it’s particularly relevant to your parents’ spying, but since I’m the priestess, let me address the whole masturbation thing from a religious standpoint. There’s only one mention of what we think of as masturbation in the Hebrew Scriptures. You can look it up (Gen. 38.9). When Onan’s elder brother died, O was forced to give the brother’s widow a child so she had a way to claim a livelihood. He did not, and his babyjuice hit the dirt, which then became a sin. It had to do with wasting “seed” which at that point was considered to “belong” to the patriarch, who decided where wombs were impregnated and seed was spent. So it was a flouting of responsibility that had nothing to do with his having a great time on his own.

But worries about masturbation are ways to control people, and in particular women. Although in my youth, there were plenty of “worried” jokes about boys growing hairy palms — which come to think of it, might have added some welcome friction… but I digress.

If you read the literature, the worries are more about your knowing what you want, and anticipating a good sexual relationship with your future partner. Can’t have that.

It also conflates masturbation with obsession rather than natural urges. Sigh. Glad you’re taking care of yourself. Hope your fantasies are lovely and not demeaning. If because of your training they’re not great, you might want to work on redoing your fantasy life. Because as the Bartender says, and she hears as much of this as I do, exploring yourself and your sexuality is a wonderful, important step in your life.

P: If in fact there’s a camera in your bedroom that is active. this is creepy. It’s also weird. Be very sure it’s an active camera before you talk to them. But …

The fact that the first thing you think about when you say your parents are looking at you is masturbation probably means you’re not doing hard drugs, so it’s not as if there were any reason for them to be suspicious, even if it weren’t still furtive and icky.  And yes, I’d be completely weirded out if I thought my parents were watching me walk around naked in my room or watching me “take care of urges.” Because this? Is spying. Or even creepier, voyerism.

B: You don’t specifically state in which room you’ve discovered this unwanted gaze, but since we’re talking about masturbating then I will assume it’s in your bedroom, since a camera in the bathroom is far too disturbing for me to contemplate.

If the camera IS in a public space, like the living room, then all bets are off. Stop wanking off in trafficked areas! And rewrite this letter so we can discuss your secret desire to get caught.

So you have a camera in your bedroom. Ick. One that your parents never told you they installed, double-ick. And it needs to be un-installed, or at the very least, blocked.

You can do one of a few things. You can cover the camera with a T-shirt and wait until your parents say something to you. This is passive, but you can at least feel comfortable knowing you aren’t being filmed in your down time. Or your get-down time. And if your parents do mention something, then you can tell them you don’t appreciate being filmed without your knowledge or consent, and you consider it a violation of the general principles of privacy that a parent ought to bestow upon their child.

You might want to practice saying that part until you get used to it.

You can address the issue straight on, and tell your mother and father that you discovered there is a camera in your bedroom. You can tell them you don’t think it’s right, that it violates your privacy, and that you expect them to remove the camera tout de suite, or you’ll pull it out of the wall yourself.

Can you disconnect it yourself? Because if you can, that’s a possibility. Leave it on the kitchen table with a note: Hey, you must have left this in my room, because I know it’s not mine.

Or you can leave the camera where it is, and walk around resenting them for being intrusive.

Because a camera in your bedroom IS intrusive, and it robs you of your autonomy and your sense of well-being. Have you felt “normal” since you discovered the camera? Or have you felt freaked out and vaguely guilty, even though you’ve done nothing wrong? My guess is “freaked out and vaguely guilty”, because otherwise, you wouldn’t be writing to us. And you need to understand: NOBODY ought to be permitted to make you feel like that. Especially not if it’s you granting the permission. And if you don’t take any course of action and leave the camera as-is, then you’re giving tacit permission for them to continue to make you feel bad. Inaction is an action. Bonus! The negative feelings will stay, too. This is a major test of your status as an adult. The problem with being an adult is, often (and for me as well), figuring out how to act like one.

Now, it’s possible your parents will push back and offer up the “If you’re living in my house then you’re living by my rules”, which once again invalidates your status as an adult. If that happens, then you’re at another crossroad (and believe me, the crossroads never stop appearing in front of you, no matter how slick you think you are at organizing your life). It will be up to you to decide if you want to move on campus, or move out, or continue as you are in their house—camera and all—until you graduate from college. Because of your age they can absolutely withhold your ability to get financial aid (and can do so until you’re 24) so if you intend to stay in college you probably don’t want to alienate them entirely.

I wish I had an easier answer for you, because the question really isn’t about whether or not you—like pretty much every other human being in the world—masturbates, and whether or not your parents know. It’s about whether or not you deserve the privacy a closed door ought to signify. I say, of course you do. The trick is getting your parents to see it that way too.

P: Privacy. Yes. They don’t believe in it. And sadly, what comes up is that whatever your parents have taught you about honesty… they don’t believe. They have chosen lying over honesty so that they can spy on you. And how did you find out? Have you been sneaking around? This is not a family trait you want to take on…

I understand that it’s nice to live at home and inexpensive. And you may be going to school and pursuing dreams. And I want you to have dreams and pursue them.

It is not good for a 19 year old to be under secret surveillance. They’re saying, whatever they think they’re saying, that they think you’re going to run off the rails. We internalize what people think of us. So we start thinking about running off the rails rather than pursuing our dreams.

If you think they’re open, and I have my suspicions, you can talk with them about stopping it. You can say you’re aghast, you feel invaded, that you’ve never given them cause to be suspicious and this is a terrible way to relate to you. Do you have siblings? Because if you do this is information they need and they may want to join you in this intervention.

But siblings aside, I think you’d better be prepared to move out. Which means you need to prepare. Do you have a job? Get one. Doing anything. Until you can afford to move out, you might start paying rent. Get a contract with them that precludes their spying on you. If you think they can be trusted. And so far, they haven’t shown you that they can.

I know it’s easy to have them pay for things. But they’re stealing your independence. Even for love, that’s too big a price to pay.

Bottom line: it's time to start standing up for how you want to be treated.

Bottom line: it’s time to start standing up for how you want to be treated.

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