Why Breaking Up With My Sister Was The Only Way Out

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woman thinking

I desperately wanted to make it work.

She was my sister, after all. But no matter how hard I tried to please her, it was never enough.

It took me 45 years to finally break up with her.

The caretaker

I used to take care of everyone.

It started young. At the school cafeteria, I sat next to the bullied kids, so they didn’t feel left out. I avoided cliques because I didn’t want to isolate those with no friends.

At home, dad was prone to fits of anger. I was rewarded for good behavior and beaten up for bad behavior. I learned that to survive, I have to please my dad.

My life revolved around his validation. I became who he wanted me to be — a good girl who loved him unconditionally no matter how much he terrorized his family.

I didn’t know it then, but this pattern would manifest itself in my life across relationships — family, friends, and even romantic ones.

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My shiny, older sister

At school, my sister was an all-star athlete. She won numerous trophies in varsity basketball and volleyball.

She was also voted class president four years in a row and eventually the student council president.

When I joined her school, I basked in her glory. A flock of girls smiled warmly around me, curious to get to know me.

But at home, my sister was dismissive. Her room was off-limits. She lived in a cocoon and no one, not even my parents, dared disturb her.

It was as if the home was her dressing room before going up on stage. And we were the backstage patrons who knew the scandalous secret — the actress was nothing like her beloved lead character.

The big confusion

In 1998, I went through a divorce and planned to move out of San Francisco to live with my parents in Nepal. I needed a place to stay for a month. My mom encouraged me to stay with my sister, who also lived in the city.

I hesitated at first, but then I figured she was family. Well, this would turn out to be a big mistake.

I brought one big suitcase and myself. The problem started that night with the sleeping arrangement. I could have easily slept on her couch, but she insisted I sleep with her.

I could have insisted too, but I didn’t want to upset her. Too scared to talk back, I obliged.

As predicted, I slept poorly, trying not to move my body because every time I did, she would sigh loudly, clearly indicating her annoyance.

The next day, I woke up sore and tired. I didn’t want another sleepless night, so I bought a foldable mattress. I thought my sister will appreciate it since she would have more room for herself.

But it was the wrong thing to do.

When my sister returned home from work, she glared at the white rectangular mattress on the floor, raised her eyebrows, and proceeded to the kitchen.

We never talked about it again. She didn’t say much throughout that night. The silence cut through me like a knife.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

I confided in my friend, and he suggested we go to Oregon to visit his friends. But then as we drove to the airport, my sister called me, furious that I had left my suitcase open.

Half an hour ago, she hugged me and wished me a safe trip. Now she was demanding I return to tidy the suitcase. I obviously couldn’t or I’d miss my flight.

That wasn’t acceptable to her. She continued screaming over me. I finally had it and hung up on her. My short trip was overshadowed by the fear of facing her when I returned.

I figured she would have calmed down. I was wrong.

On the doorknob of her apartment, she left a message. My stuff was in the community basement, she wrote. I was kicked out of her apartment, forcing me to find a place for the night.

I still have no idea what I did that was so wrong. I stayed in a hotel for the next few weeks before I left the US for good.

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The big slap

In 2010, my mom died from cancer. Then three years later, my dad died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s.

My parents left one house each in Nepal for the three of us, with the one meant for my older sister being put under my name for safekeeping.

A few years later, I was supposed to go and sell it for her, which meant traveling all the way from Germany to Nepal. It wasn’t an easy feat since I had fibromyalgia, a chronic wide-spread muscle pain. My then-boyfriend (now husband) said he would help me.

We thought a two-week stay would be sufficient as we already had a buyer lined up. But in Kathmandu’s thick smog, I got bronchitis and had to spend several days in a hospital.

At the same time, sorting the belongings in the attic was a significant undertaking. My parents had more or less stored their past 20 years there. To add insult to injury, the prospective buyer eventually flaked at the last minute, too.

We scrambled to find another one in the short time left. Out of sheer luck and tenacity, we managed to sell the house finally.

I asked my sister to reimburse me for my expenses, given that I had traveled all that way only on her accord, worked tirelessly to empty out a house that didn’t belong to me and even ended up hospitalized.

Her response came like a slap on my face. This was the drop that made the barrel overflow.

She scolded me for even asking. She said she had done one thing or the other for me in the past, which should be enough of a payment.

Not even a thank you.

The smoked mirror cleared up, and I saw what I’d been putting up with all my life. Entitlement was the role she played well, just like caretaking was mine.

I’ve been enabling her. I’ve been putting myself last and helping everyone else around me, including those who didn’t deserve it.

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The final farewell

I decided to send her an email. I told her how I tried in vain to get along with her. How she hurt me. Why I’ve decided to cut her off. That it was time I put myself first.

I told her the house was sold and the money had been transferred into her bank account.

My finger hovered around the send button for a long time. When I finally clicked send, I burst into tears.

I felt like a part of me vanished with her. And that’s because it did.

I’ve known her since I was born. We were together in our formative years. Cutting her off meant letting go of my childhood memory.

It also meant going against every notion that you’re supposed to love your family unconditionally. The guilt and shame were overwhelming.

In addition, I didn’t know what to say when others asked me about my sister. Like when I got married, my sister’s absence was felt strongly. I made up some excuses about why she couldn’t come.

She’s alive, but in a way, she died four years ago.

The rebirth

You see, it doesn’t end when you decide you want to end it. Just like a romantic break-up, there’s the tedious work of sorting out your complicated emotions.

Breaking up with a family is a lonely process, mostly for fear of judgment. It’s worse when being a nice girl is your modus operandi.

There was anger, mostly directed at myself, for putting up with my sister for so long. Then it hit me that my friends were no better. When I needed them, they disappeared, yet I was always there for them.

This awareness helped me examine my circle of friends. How do I feel around this person? Am I people-pleasing or do I really want to help them?

As I felt more confident in honoring my feelings, I realized that putting myself first is a choice. It comes with resistance, but that’s the only way forward.

Now when I consult my heart, she’s grateful. She thanked me for putting her in the driver’s seat. In the quiet hours, when I close my eyes to listen, there’s a knowing between us.

A knowing that I may flounder, but I’m on the right path.

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June Kirri is a freelance journalist and personal essay writer who writes about culture, parenting, and mental health. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.