Reading real life stories on the website you can see for yourself how family dysfunction plays out in a situation like yours. We balance the benefit of these stories with everyone’s right to confidentiality, and have removed all identifying details.
More than a Sister: Angela and Carlos
Angela was 6 and her father long gone when her mother met and moved in with a new boyfriend. They didn’t marry, but wanted to start a family so within a year Angela had a little brother, Carlos. As his older sister, Angela was very protective of him and enjoyed caring for him and teaching him things.
As the relationship between her mother and the boyfriend deteriorated, Angela’s protection turned into a responsibility rather than a joy. Sometimes they hid together in a closet when words and objects were flying in the other room. When Carlos was 4 and Angela 10, Child Protective Services came to their home and removed both children, putting them in foster care when the children’s mother was unable to come up with an arrangement the Agency felt was safe.
The children were adamant that they wanted to be together, and they were fostered together for several years until Angela was adopted. The two were separated for the first time, and after the adoption, rarely had contact with each other.
Angela spent her teen years in her adoptive family, got a nursing degree, married and had two children of her own. When she decided to divorce the children’s father, she looked to a nearby domestic violence agency for advice and support. While she was not experiencing the same kind of upheaval she had known as a child, her healthcare education and personal growth signaled her that her husband’s sarcasm, heavy-handed discipline, and financial secretiveness were making home unsafe for her and her young children. The DV agency helped her navigate Family Court and custody arrangements, and she came to appreciate attending free support groups where she met other women who understood her.
Fortunately, her ex-husband settled into the new arrangement with a minimum of stalking, harassment, or revenge. Angela wondered sometimes if he was almost glad to be rid of the responsibility of his young family.
Then, just when she thought things were settling down, she got a letter from Carlos. He was in jail, had a drug problem, and had burned bridges with his bad behavior. He was writing Angela to tell her he was getting out in six months, and that she was now his only friend. He wanted to come and live with her when he was released.
Angela was horrified by the prospect of Carlos, whom she no longer knew and who obviously wasn’t doing well, coming close to her vulnerable little family, let alone living with them. She was distraught in support group about the letter and the way contact with Carlos brought back all the fear and memories of disorganized home life she had worked so hard to put in the past.
Talking about the letter in group, Angela added that she felt she couldn’t say yes to Carlos, but she couldn’t say no either. They had bonded like little soldiers during the battle for survival in their childhood home, remained bonded in foster care, and Angela had always felt guilty about being adopted and leaving Carlos behind. She promised herself that he would be ok, and now it was clear that he was not making a success of his life.
Support group members noticed her ambivalent feelings and brought up the possibility that she and Carlos had not had a normal brother/sister relationship. Instead of big sister, she had been a protective parent, a job way beyond her years at the time, but a common survival strategy for siblings in unsafe, unstable homes.
Angela had never considered this possibility, but it made sense to her that the incredible responsibility for Carlos she was feeling traced back to the hard times they survived together.
The group suggested that times had changed. Both Angela and Carlos were adults. Perhaps she could have a letter or phone exchange with Carlos talking about the realities of life for each of them as adults – Carlos perhaps needing the support of a rehab community, and Angela needing to keep her small family on track after the divorce. They could acknowledge the past, but she didn’t have to continue the protector/little brother dynamic anymore.
In a later support group, Angela expressed her relief that she had options, and a sense of peace that both had survived a difficult childhood, and could now be connected in a more normal way. While Carlos’ letter called her his only friend, he had other, more appropriate options to rebuild his life. Enjoying visits with Angela and her children could be something to look forward to, but she was not obligated to take care of him.
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