The Elder Sister Struggling
This piece has been made anonymous and names have been changed to protect the identity of the writer.
TW: Eating disorders / emetophobia / suicide
I have one sibling, Rosie; she is almost exactly two years younger than me. I am incredibly lucky to have a close relationship with her and she is, without a doubt, one of the most important people in my life. A tape recording of me tunefully warbling my rendition of ‘Five Little Ducks’ (which until right now, I believed was named ‘Three Little Ducks’?! I clearly did not see the point in the first two verses…) to Rosie the first time I met her in the maternity unit, became family famous and was an iconic start to our unbreakable bond.
As young children we had a fairly normal sibling dynamic - my mother recalls me consistently complaining that Rosie had disarranged (or more accurately “ruined”) my plastic toy kitchen, as well as “destroyed” my wooden farm set which I had meticulously laid out across my bedroom floor. Despite the narrow age gap between us, from recent discussions, Rosie has indicated that she has seen and continues to see me as a motherly figure in her life, who she is more inclined to listen to or take advice from than her parents. Looking back, there are blatant examples of this in our lives.
"This transparency between us is unique to the role I play as an elder sister."
Last summer she was knee-deep in a classic festival spectacle. Rosie has an unimpressive history of having unprotected sex. The ‘morning after’ this time was a bank holiday and so some sexual health services were not operating business as usual. Consequently, I was tasked with proposing a more innovative plan; I also advised her to tell her actual mother what she had first trusted me with. Of course, she backed out of that duty too and I was the one who had to break the news to our mother, and as expected, mum panicked (but was eventually proactive with the situation)! Here, the clear moral of the story was: do not have unprotected sex but also, tell someone if you do. I do wonder what the outcome or moral of the story would have been if I was not there as Rosie’s elder sister. Would she have told anyone else what had happened, or would she have hidden it from everyone, as in previous situations? I think that the biggest difference between this attitude and one which many parents have with their children is the latter part of that story’s ‘moral’. I see parents setting countless inflexible ‘rules’ which can often lead to their children rebelling or keeping serious secrets. This transparency between us is unique to the role I play as an elder sister.
However, when I embarked upon my teenage years, I started developing symptoms of mental illness. To name a few, I had an intense addiction to self-harming behaviours, a negatively declining relationship with food and increasing suicidal ideation. Throughout my ongoing journey with mental illness (and as with most illnesses), I have gone through periods of acute struggle, as well as more stable times. Because of these acute periods of struggle, my relationship with Rosie has not been ‘textbook’ as my illnesses have put an atypical pressure on our bond, and at times, caused a reversal of our roles.
"she trusted me enough to think that she was doing the right thing."
The most painfully prominent examples which come to mind when I think about this is through my struggle with Anorexia Nervosa. Typically, eating disorder (ED) patients are given strict meal plans which are to be followed as closely as possible by having others supervise the patient’s meal and snack times. Very occasionally our mother would leave Rosie to supervise the latter half of breakfast, or a snack while she was out. Anyone who is recovering or has recovered from an ED will understand just how invasively they can infiltrate your every thought, forcing you to let them win. My ED had a sly way of manipulating others. At the times when Rosie was responsible for overseeing a feeding time, I would lie to her or persuade her that I did not really have to eat all that I had left. As a younger sister who spent years looking to me to help her differentiate between ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ she would often give-in to my ED’s ‘logic.’ I would make her swear to never tell our mum. She acknowledges that, to this day, she never betrayed Anorexia who was disguised as me. Not only did Rosie become a slave to Anorexia by covering for me, but also, she trusted me enough to think that she was doing the right thing. As an older sister who feels an intrinsic need to protect her, this hurts me and makes me feel as though I let her down by allowing my ED to lie to her.
Like many children, when she was very young, Rosie struggled with eating; she frequently, unintentionally vomited, particularly when in public around mealtimes. From approximately age ten this evolved into a lower-level fear of eating in restaurants which did not induce vomiting; for years, she had a just-less-than-normal relationship with food. However, Rosie recently confided in me telling me that through the worst parts of my battle with Anorexia, her bouts of vomiting and disordered eating had returned. I felt terrible. My diary entry from the day where I found out contained the following extract.
“I’ve literally never felt so guilty. I had no idea. I’m literally the biggest burden. All I want to do is protect and teach her how to be the best she can be…and I’m out here triggering her. I’m so angry at myself.”
I think that this extract clearly shows how awful I feel about how my illnesses have impacted Rosie.
"the roles of elder and younger sister had been drastically reversed due to how helpless I was feeling."
Another example of the pressure placed upon my relationship with my sister was my most serious suicide attempt. Before the attempt itself, I was struggling to look after myself. I went days without brushing my teeth and could not unless Rosie was there to pass me a ready-made toothbrush under the bed covers. Here the roles of elder and younger sister had been drastically reversed due to how helpless I was feeling. Although I have no memory of this, upon seeing me after I was blue-lighted to A&E, I am told that Rosie could not walk or talk. I was told that her body froze-up crying and staring at me in a resus bay as I was being held down, pricked and prodded by numerous healthcare professionals. Despite not having an accurate memory of this, a picture which I have mentally painted scars me. To think about the pain which she must have been feeling in that moment, not knowing if her sister is going to live another hour, destroys me. After a tedious hospital stay, I returned to my family home where I slept beside Rosie while holding her hand for many weeks - partly to help me settle, but mostly to reassure Rosie that I was still there.
In many ways, Rosie has lived through some of my worst and most clinically acute moments. As the diary entry states, I do feel guilty for this and do wish I could have done a better job at protecting her from some of the things she has had to experience. No matter how cheesy this may sound, I do also believe that our life experiences together have made us stronger and certainly closer as sisters.