I grew up as an object of ridicule and scorn to the male members of my family. I am still not at a place of perfect understanding for the reasons behind this, and it has taken a lifetime to come to the realization that there is a good possibility that I am not, in spite of what they have led me to believe, worthless.
My brother and I are estranged. If you asked him why (if he even admitted there was a problem), he would probably suggest it had something to do with the events surrounding the death of my father. Which might even make a certain amount of sense if our estrangement represented a change in the status quo, and it doesn’t. My brother seemed to have been born hating me.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments in our childhood where we played together or tolerated each other. It’s hard to keep that kind of resentment going and we only had each other to play with a great deal of the time. But there was an underlying tension for me, always. He was prone to regular acts of cruelty for no other apparent reason than that I wanted to do something or go somewhere. When quite young, he would bar my way to going upstairs and bite me if I tried to get past him. He would go into my room when I was out and take things. I remember being particularly devastated to discover he had stolen my penny collection (I had collected pennies from every year going back to the 1800s). In our teens, he held a knife to me because I decided to eat the last mini pizzas. In the struggle to defend myself, he nearly sliced through my finger. The amount of blood scared the hell out of him, I think.
I was angry at him too. But my overwhelming emotion was hurt. I did not retaliate. I didn’t do things to antagonize him. If anything, I tried to avoid him because I thought maybe he would just calm down and stop resenting me so much in my absence. I decided maybe he resented the attention I received for my accomplishments: I was a mostly A student; whereas he struggled in school. So I stopped over-achieving. And it seemed to work: He started to thrive at school. He was now the good child. I was the black sheep.
But even though he got more attention, he still seemed to hate me.
The stress of his constant personal attacks and his relentless anger pushed me to the breaking point not long after the knife episode. I was severely depressed and anxious. In a fit of nervous exhaustion I ended up at the hospital ER. I saw a child psychologist who listened to my recounting of my mood issues and the conflicts with my brother. They said they couldn’t do anything for me and sent me home.
As we got older and moved out on our own, he ended up moving to Toronto and spending more time with my father. And they seemed to feed off each other in their disdain of me. I’d hear about conversations behind my back. I’d come across snarky references about me on Facebook. Together or alone, neither of them could be in a room with me without ridiculing me or criticizing me and making sarcastic remarks.
I stopped talking in my father’s presence much, because he would always find some way to twist anything I’d say. I remember visiting him once with my second husband and my son and getting caught in this dialogue:
Him: “So are you still working for pennies at home?
Me: “Actually I had an interview at the hospital last week. It would be full-time, probably at the hospital, but they might let me work from home.”
“They’ll never let you do that.”
“Well actually, they do have a number of work-at-home positions.”
“It probably won’t pay much.”
“Actually it pays XX dollars.”
“Even if you do get it, you’ll probably just get pregnant and have to quit.”
“Uh… If I did get pregnant, that would be by choice, not by accident, and it would be my choice.”
“Well don’t expect your mother or I to support you.”
“Um, I didn’t ask you to. You did just meet my husband, right?”
“It’s not like that will last.”
I got up and left the room. We cut our visit short by a day and went back to Ottawa. I found out later that he called my mum and told her we left early because he wouldn’t give me any money. Since we had paid our own way the entire visit and in fact turned down his offer of cash when we were headed out to the museum one day, I have no idea what version of reality he was operating under.
It took a long time as an adult to realize that I didn’t need to accept the abuse. It wasn’t until I had my nervous breakdown that I started speaking up for myself about it and being very clear to both of them, that it was not okay. That they would have to treat me with respect or not speak to me at all.
My dad chose to ignore my requests, so I had to mostly stop interacting with him, because it was too painful and too destructive to my psyche.
My brother chose to stop speaking to me. I’ve tried on many occasions to reach out to him to figure out where the resentment comes from and even to apologize for whatever it is I’ve done, to no avail.
There is loss from having to cut people out of your life. Even toxic ones. Because you always hold on to that part of them in your brain that is the person you wish they could have been. But part of my coming to grips with reality and my struggle for mental health has been accepting that I cannot control what other people bring to our relationship. I can be open and understanding, and do my best to mend fences, but ultimately I have to take a stand against forces that serve only to do me harm.