Brokeness (Photo credit: TheMarque)


I was discussing with a friend of mine our mutual frustrations with our families and she pointed out something that someone had told her: We are all broken.

All of my life I have felt that something was wrong with me, even before I developed bipolar disorder. The wrongness I felt had nothing to do with mental illness, it had to do with something more basic than that. It had to do with being imperfect, being held to a standard that I could never attain. Now I want to make it clear that I am not saying that I didn’t deserve discipline from time to time. It was my mother’s over-the–top reactions that was the problem. Even though she never abused me physically, her words cut me to the core. The difference between constructive criticism  and emotional abuse is that the first addresses your behavior and the later attacks your character.

As an adult I still have trouble differentiating between the two. I have a tendency to beat on myself about every little actual or perceived  mistake. It doesn’t help when my sister chimes in and does the same thing to me.

I have been hurt so much by my sister and yet I need to acknowledge that she has suffered from the same perceived need to be perfect that I have. That isn’t apparent at first glance because she never received the harsh judgments that I did from my mother. In fact, she was held out as the example of how I should be, and I was constantly told “Why can’t you be like your sister?” This in spite of the fact that I was a different person, with different needs and a different personality. Also I was three years younger than my sister and my mother had no concept of age-appropriate behavior. Whenever she said this to me I felt an extreme sense of shame and also confusion and the question that always came up in my mind was “How can I be like my sister? I am me!!!” In fact in my immature reasoning I felt like my mother was telling me that I had to be my sister, not just follow her example. Not literally of course, but the basic idea was that there was something fundamentally wrong with who I was and not just my behavior.

That must mean that my sister had a better time of it than I did, right? Well, yes and no.  She was never subject to the verbal abuse that I was but I really don’t see was spoiled in any way either. She was expected to tow the line too and yes she was punished from time to time. One time she put off doing a school report until the last minute and she was forced to stay up all night to finish it. I consider that appropriate punishment.

Surprisingly one of the few things that my sister and I do agree on is that she was the favorite (although both our parents denied this).  So I have learned a few things about her perspective of what went on.  While I was expected to be like her, I was also held up to her as an example of who not to be. I was the “bad” kid and she was the “good” kid and while that provided a certain sense of self-esteem (which I argue was not true self-esteem because it was not based in unconditional love) for herself it also created anxiety. She was expected to take on the responsibility of being a good role model. To a certain extent that is fine, but I get the impression that she was expected to take this on at a very young age, possibly when I was a toddler. In a sense she was robbed of a normal childhood and held to an unrealistic standard just as I was.

She has never gone through a lot of the normal development that kids have growing up. She never went through the teenage “rebellion” stage which is necessary to building a sense of self-identity.  She is extremely dependent on other people’s opinions, and belongs to an extremely controlling church that tells her exactly what she should do at all times.  I have always been wary of this church, and although I have heard that it has changed, I am still not convinced. One of the many things that I was worried about years ago is that every member of the church that was single was required to go on a “Saturday Night Date” (with only church members of course and always in a group). Eventually this was supposed to lead to marriage. In other words it was wrong if you just wanted to be single and enjoy your life on that basis! This was labeled “New Testament theology” but to be quite honest I have never found anything in the New Testament to support this kind of extreme control over its members.  Eventually their own leader got expelled from the church because he broke one of his own (ridiculous) rules! He had a rule that anyone who was a leader in the church had to control his own family. If one of the family members left the church then the person could no longer qualify to be a leader. So the mighty emperor was defrocked when his own wife left the church!! Sweet justice!!!

This kind of environment is extremely attractive and yet also very toxic. It is seductive because if you have all the answers handed to you then you can believe that you can never be wrong and thus it relieves anxiety. It is toxic because the people who claim to have all the answers usually don’t. Advice turns into abuse and you are locked into a certain mindset where if you question anything then you are questioning God himself and you are in danger of going to hell.

Even as I am writing this I realize how much of a victim my sister is and how impossible it is for me to expect her to change. She has created the same environment that she grew up with where if things are not perfect she flips out. I have a hard time understanding why a small change in her plans (which she expected me to magically know) would cause her to get angry and throw me out of her house. But here is the thing, I don’t think she was reacting in anger alone. It is hard for me to see this when she is being sanctimonious towards me. But I think she was panicked because she thought our father would get mad. Of course this was never the case.  Our dad is not like that and for him it was a non-issue. It was a non-issue for everyone involved except her.

As wrong as she was I can definitely identify with the fear of not being perfect. In that way, we are the same although we deal with it in radically different ways. I have always wanted her to be something that she can’t be, a nurturing and unconditionally loving sister. But she is as trapped in her role just as I have been in mine.

Should I have compassion towards her? Yes. Should I accept her improper behavior? No, because I can’t take on the responsibility of trying to heal her. That is her responsibility alone. I have the right to be treated with respect and when I am not then I have the right to separate myself from that person.

I do miss her and in my better moments I have prayed for healing for both of us. I have trouble with this as I tend to nurture my anger, however I keep having to remind myself that her journey is different than mine. We are both wounded and in essence I cannot expect her to be anything other than who she is.