This story contains the depiction of suicide. Viewer discretion is advised.
Once we had a middle sister, and this is where my story begins.
Our lost sister — let’s call her Julie*— is a subject hardly discussed in my family without a note of anger or hurt. Years ago, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) worked its teeth into her in the worst way. She was shaped into a master manipulator. Not that BPD always works in this way, but mental illness is tricky and this is what it did to her.
Julie, acting out her own story, made false allegations to Child Protective Services about the abuse she suffered at our hands. She crafted stories about a rough childhood and tried to bring us to court for a situation that didn’t exist. There was more, but after many failed attempts to bring some kind of legal action against us for the stories in her head, it seemed to die down. I don’t know where she is or what she’s doing now.
This story is not about Julie, and this is where we leave her. However, the shift from being three sisters to two had a lasting impact on my youngest sister — we’ll call her Kayla — and me. We were born five years apart in adjacent seasons, she the summer fireball and I daughter of the introspective autumn. Our age difference shaped our communication — we regarded each other as big and little sisters.
We were born five years apart in adjacent seasons, she the summer fireball and I daughter of the introspective autumn.
I was the oldest, and as the oldest, there are certain things you must do. You are born with the instinct to protect the younger, or maybe that was just an unspoken expectation. I was the safe kid who would double knot the laces on my skates before getting on the ice — she would rather sprint into the center of the rink. If she tripped she’d only rise up laughing, wiping the blood off, and embracing the thrill of it. I wanted to follow the rules and she wanted to break them. There was no judgment about it. It was just who we were.
Kayla was just beginning to battle the unknowns of adulthood when COVID-19 hit. She was living with family as a recent college grad, and suddenly having to navigate conversations about the future, relationships, everything in the ghastly shadow of a pandemic. And here’s the thing about the roles we had: we stuck to them.
I assumed I knew who Kayla was, tough and gritty, capable of anything, the kind of person who insults simply slide off of and who, when dared to do something, will only cock an eyebrow — you couldn’t come up with anything better? — before doing it, and doing it well. To an extent, she is this person. But she is also human, and at some point during the pandemic, she began to ask me for advice.
I had my own hardships to get through in 2020, my own fears, and challenges. In true perfectionist-older-sibling style, these manifested in symptoms of depression I’d seen in family members and friends.
When I realized my thoughts were trending towards the negative and fearful, I earmarked it in my head as something to work on. I realized it was really getting bad when a character in a TV show I was watching attempted to slit his wrists, and for the next few weeks, I was scared to handle knives — just in case. An important facet of my character is that I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and mild Tourette Syndrome, which can often feel like you have to do something (what people usually refer to as a ‘tic’ feels to me like an urgent compulsion). For me, the combination of depressive thoughts and the knowledge that I could take a knife to my skin was terrifying.
I realized it was really getting bad when a character in a TV show I was watching attempted to slit his wrists, and for the next few weeks, I was scared to handle knives — just in case.
(Two notes, here: one is that this is a story about siblings and family but also one about depression. It is something we should talk about, and keep talking about. I was lucky and able to recognize what I was experiencing before it got too bad, in large part due to society’s work to destigmatize mental health. Let’s keep doing it.
Secondly, I advise you to reach out to a therapist if you or anyone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression. This was something I chose not to do because of the financial challenges it would have caused, but something every professional I know recommends.)
Some things that helped: Alexi Pappas’ book “Bravey,” a story about depression in a way that I could understand, and a book called “Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks”. Talking to a handful of trusted friends, a few who had been through the same. Making sure I reached out and learned to manage my emotions.
There was also my sister, and in the worst moments it was her expectations of me, in that unspoken older-sibling rule, that mattered.
Much of Kayla’s trust in others had dissipated with our lost sister. I was still one of the people she trusted, and I knew the act of me going into that dark place would, by her logic, remove me from her trust. This was of huge significance to me — that big-sister protective instinct. So when she asked me for advice during the pandemic, I gave what I could, but I also began to lean on her.
Surprisingly, we shared similar worries and experiences. I had often assumed things simply rolled off her, the same kind of things that kept me up at night, but turns out she’d just pushed them further down, dealt with them differently. During COVID we talked about boyfriends and family, sending each other funny videos on Instagram. I helped her build a budget so she could figure out her finances. Texting back and forth as if I was in a secure, confident place made me feel like I could be again.
I was lucky, and what I call my dark phase didn’t last for more than a few months. I learned how to bring myself out of that dark place, to manage the fears and hopelessness that had pushed me there. I know now how to prevent it. But my sister is like a secret weapon, the ace up my sleeve in case I need it. In a dark mood, I ask myself what I would do if she was watching.
Maybe this is just how siblings age. The bonds that took shape in our youth solidify and create roots from which we are able to grow, but return to draw life from.
I think the people you love and those who love you are always motivating factors in dark times. There are other people who matter to me, who I could also think about to focus outside myself. But at the end of the day, I will always be the big sister to a little sister, and the number one rule in our sisterhood is to maintain trust. I will always be there for her, and that means I need to stay healthy.
Maybe this is just how siblings age. The bonds that took shape in our youth solidify and create roots from which we are able to grow, but return to draw life from. The pandemic could have torn us to pieces — we both hit many dark spots — but in the end, as with all challenges, I believe it only made our bond stronger.
*names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.