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On Being the Sibling of a Child With Trichotillomania

For years, it felt like my sister’s illness made me invisible

When Lynn* was diagnosed with Trichotillomania, it turned my family upside down. What makes a nine year old girl begin pulling her hair out?

As her seven year old sister, the mystery of her illness should never have been my problem to solve, but it took years before I stopped holding myself responsible for her malady. By that age, I already had my own problems, but they were repeatedly pushed to the side as everything in life became all about accommodating my sister. I loved her very much, and it seemed selfish to so much as think about myself when she was clearly in pain.

When Lynn’s illness first took hold, I knew something was wrong because she stopped playing with me. Next, my parents began to notice bald spots on her head that coincided with constant phone calls from her fifth-grade teacher detailing changes in both behavior and grades. The teacher reported that she was pulling her hair in class, and when mom and dad subsequently inspected her bedroom, they found clumps of hair lining the floor. Our parents blamed each other for her illness, and they began regularly fighting about Lynn’s health.

This was the beginning of how I began to hate my sister.

According to both of my grandmothers as well as my aunts and uncles, it was my job to “take care” of Lynn. As my own turmoil took over, this additional responsibility loomed and made me incredibly resentful. Why was it my job to keep my older sister happy? What about me?

Was I a brat? Maybe. Of course, no one knew that every single weekend that we were sent to spend time with the big extended family at grandma’s house, I was being sexually abused.

As the family member who molested me groomed me more and more with each passing weekend, I was punished for leaving my ill sister out of our games. When my abuser locked the door behind the two of us and barred Lynn from playing, it led to a situation where the adults would unknowingly scold me for time in which I was being held down and inappropriately touched.

To say the least, it was awful. My sister (like everyone else) had no idea that I was being molested — she reasonably believed that I was outing her for being different and was deliberately excluding her, perpetuating her isolation. Not only was she alone at school and living in a home with two constantly clashing parents and two little sisters who were still into playing the childish things she’d grown out of, but now it seemed like she was also being kept away from family, too.

What made me hate my sister more than anything else was that in a world where she was rewarded with therapy and medicine for acting out her compulsions, I was punished harshly when I acted out in my own unique way. This mostly consisted of loud outbursts of crying and screaming that would last for hours, like temper-tantrums on steroids. I was “attention seeking”. I was a “cry baby”.

Because I always loved the affection that came with being coddled, Lynn’s embarrassment at participating in wellness rituals and being the recipient of extra attention confused and angered me. For many years, it seemed as though us ever coexisting in a loving way again would take a miracle.

By now you may be thinking, Jesus Christ, this family sounds horrible.

I can assure you that the resolution to this dramatic childhood lies in the fact that I began thinking the exact opposite and stopped blaming my family — especially my sister— for my suffering. I stopped blaming the adults for Lynn’s suffering, too, which was hard considering the circus that my family often put on in order to cope.

After years of forcing her to go to a specialized therapist that she wasn’t comfortable with, my parents stopped. All of it stopped — the herbal supplements, the forced hour of meditation before bedtime, the dramatic lectures about how if she didn’t stop pulling her hair, she’d never have a normal life — and things slowly got better.

For a very long time, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with my older sister. Any parallels between us irked me, and I always felt that I needed to prove that I was better. Eventually, like all childish habits, I had to stop doing this in order to grow. Yet over all, something a bit deeper had to happen to me in order to let all of this baggage go.

From my side of things, reconciling my sexual abuse was a key step in beginning to love my sister again. I began to recognize the fact that the adults in my family were just reacting to the reality that they saw, and that it wasn’t their fault that they were blind to my sexual abuse. (I myself didn’t admit to any of it until I was 18). It wasn’t their fault for choosing to worry about Lynn instead of me. In fact, it makes perfect sense to me today.

They saw me as strong and hardy and believed that if I cooperated and maintained to be a well-mannered shining student, I’d make my parents’ lives easier. While I know that this burden shouldn’t have been placed on me, I can see the rationale behind it and can forgive their flawed approach to our tricky situation.

Ultimately, time heals all wounds. I didn’t start to love my sister again overnight. I slowly learned to stop being scornful and obsessed with the past, and I gradually began to see her for the charming, funny person she really was — and she often became my favorite person in the room. If I wanted to be seen for more than my trauma, I’d have to afford her the same kindness.

There was a time when I couldn’t even stand to be in the same room as Lynn. Now, I adore her as a friend as well as someone I look up to in my studies as she makes her way to PhD candidacy while I pursue my teaching degree.

My sister and I each have separate recovery journeys that we both have learned to respect. I could never fully understand what her journey is like, and I don’t know if she could ever fully comprehend mine, either.

And that is okay.

There were some difficult things that came with being Lynn’s little sister, but I believe that those things turned me into one of the most resilient people that I know. I believe that even though my family isn’t perfect, they did their best under the circumstances that the realities of childhood illness could afford them. Having lived through this specific hardship is a huge part of a blessed life where I went from being a miserable child and teenager to a joyful adult.

I hope that you too can find peace in some of the baggage that made you who you are today. It takes a while, but it makes all the difference.

To learn about Trichotillomania and other body-focused repetitive behaviors, click here.

*Names have been changed to maintain privacy.

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I write about all kinds of human experiences big and small.

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