I’m no stranger to therapy.
I’ve had a Quaker therapist sit sweetly in her rainbowed office and suggest veganism as a cure for my sudden depression. I saw a palliative care psychotherapist for many months of grief counseling after my partner died. When my third infected knee replacement had to be removed because it almost killed me, I spent five months with my painful kneeless leg propped up on the couch. In fact, I was such a hot triggered mess from health care trauma my friends collected money to send me to EMDR therapy. It was a good investment for all of us.
And because I am a coastal urban-dwelling queer person, every romantic relationship that has lasted more than three months has involved some kind of moderately helpful couples therapy.
My sister Beth and I are the last of seven children in a large, stoic Germanic Midwestern farm family. As everyone from a large family knows, the more children brought into the situation, the more a family functions like a boarding school. By the time I came along, our parents were outnumbered by children at a ratio of 3 to 1 and were only 12 percent of the family mass. Each kid’s day-to-day experience at home was in large part governed by the sibling immediately older than us.
For me, that was my sister Beth.
When I was somewhere in the neighborhood of old enough to read but apparently not old enough to understand that snooping makes you a first-class jerk, I crawled under Beth’s bed and pulled out a red spiral notebook that she used as a journal. The inside cover read, “This is the personal property of Beth Dunham, if you are reading this you are violating my privacy. It should be read after my death, and then it should be my sister Kelli.”
This may well have been the extremely clever ruse of a preteen raised in a huge family who desired just the smallest bit of privacy. But reading it made me feel, well, relevant. If I was important to Beth after her death, I must have been important in life as well.
But I was a difficult, sensitive, chubby queer kid in a time and a place and a family that had few resources and even less patience for a difficult, sensitive, chubby queer kid. And our dad was a difficult man in a time and a place that almost revered men for being emotionally shut down. He often brag that he’d never seen his own father smile.
Part of his emotional shutdown manifested in picking a favorite kid and a less-than-favorite kid; he had done this with his two oldest daughters as well. And the difficult, sensitive, chubby queer kid is obviously not going to be the favorite.
Our dad also had an anger management problem (such a surprise; a guy who never saw his father smile would have trouble dealing with his own feelings) so not being the favorite could suck sometimes.
When Beth and I were both preteens, our dad died. I felt relieved by this change in our family structure; Beth seemed mostly sad. My mom moved us to Florida where she started dating again.
By the time we were teenagers, we were the only kids at home as our mom ― struggling with her own issues ― brought through a collection of interesting characters. We’d hide in our shared bedroom, giggling at their strange quirks and playing the soundtrack from “Yentl” over and over.
“Where does she find these people?” my sister would ask.
I found that question comforting. It meant that even though my mom might be engaged to a dude who looked suspiciously like Captain Kangaroo (we were forbidden from mentioning this) and would only attend a drive-in church (later we were told this was because he was possessed with demons), it had nothing to do with us. We had our own culture in our bedroom and we argued about stupid stuff and sighed a lot and lived normal teenage lives.
When Beth moved out, I cried for 24 hours. Later, when she was at Messiah College and I was at Mid-America Bible College, she would read to me from her copy of Shel Silverstein’s hilarious and sarcastic ”Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book,” both of us on pay phones in our student center lobbies. That was in the days when there was no internet chat and people paid for long-distance by the minute.
In time, both of us ended up living in Philadelphia only 20 blocks apart. And that’s when our relationship began to unravel.
Some of this was because we were both stressed and dealing with broken relationships. But while most adult siblings play some version of the “I don’t remember that” game when talking about childhoods, for us the differences were major.
“Yeah that happened in Florida, not Wisconsin. It was five years later.”
“Oh mom didn’t actually marry that guy. They were never married.”
“No, that’s nuts, I never took you to the emergency room.”
We realized we needed to make some changes or our relationship wouldn’t survive. We were both adults in somewhat tenuous situations, she as a single mom and me coming out and starting a new career. Rescuing the relationship seemed essential.
I called a therapist who had been helpful to me when I was dealing with family trauma. I explained the situation haltingly into her voicemail. It sounded weird.
When she called back, she said, “No, I think I get it. The sibling experience is an important part of resolving childhood issues.”
And then she added, “And I am a sister. And I have a sister.”
She did get it.
So twice a month, we would get off a little early from our day jobs, find a sitter for Beth’s kids and make the trek to Horsham, a far suburb of Philly, and talk to RA. RA was not a crunchy granola therapist; there were no dream catchers in her office or weird conversations about aura massaging. She was straightforward but kind, which was lucky because we had no idea how hard it would be.
For us, sibling therapy ― especially since we were trying to overcome patterns established in childhood ― essentially consisted of talking about all the hardest parts of our pasts and then adding a witness.
There was no place to hide, no way to minimize what happened or to explain away our feelings.
But we kept going. Through a Christmas season. Through the spring. As we worked through our collective issues (mostly centered on my dad’s extremely disparate treatment of us), something beautiful happened. Our attitudes toward each other began to shift. And we became able to change our patterns of relating that worked in childhood but didn’t work as adults. And we began to see our childhoods from the other’s point of view.
We don’t live in the same city now, but we’re in daily contact and we support each other in extended family interactions and we call each other on our shit.
Queer people often experience our families of origin ― our biological relatives ― as very different from our family of choice (the friends and ex lovers that become our communities). Beth is my biological sister and so that makes her my family of origin, I suppose. But something happened when we worked so hard to be in a relationship ― she became, in the truest, purest sense, my family of choice.
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