Life Matters: Suffering

Editors Note: Terri and Ann, the Bartender and the Priestess, are back after a long hiatus with a change in focus. We’re no longer responding to events in people’s lives, but rather exploring the cultures and philosophies that undergird the problems of today. Welcome to Life Matters: Suffering.

Terri: Early in the film Steel Magnolias we meet Annelle, an aspiring glamour technician who takes a long walk to Truvy’s Beauty Spot in search of a new job. Truvy assumes that Annelle must live close by because she doesn’t have a car; instead, Annelle tells Truvy she’s living at Robeline’s Boarding House, across the river and quite far, for a walking commute. Truvy waxes poetic about Annelle’s landlady.

“Ruth Robeline. Now there is a story for you. She is a troubled, twisted soul. Her whole life has been an experiment in terror. Her husband got killed in World War II. Then her son got killed in Vietnam. When it comes to suffering, she is right up there with Elizabeth Taylor.”

And there it is. There is the glamorization of suffering, the glorification of suffering, the admiration, even, of suffering. Who better to look to when we feel like life is kicking us in the teeth, than someone who can get kicked in the teeth, beautifully? Someone who can face that which plagues them with a spine made of steel…

Oh, wait. Elizabeth Taylor broke her back like five times and had scoliosis and osteoporosis. There’s a pretty good chance she actually DID have steel in there. Moving on.

Ann: I grew up as Pollyanna. I still struggle with perky. Everything is wonderful! And if it’s not, then it’s not fair. Because life is fair. Or so you think when you’re growing up insulated, white, and middle-classed. Turns out that death comes for even your friends, so you begin to notice suffering. When you encounter this pain often enough, you may begin to notice that suffering is far bigger than simply personal pain.

The concept of suffering took a long time for me to understand. Partially because I grew up in a religious tradition that talked in horrible, unrealistic ways about suffering — celebrating life only after death. It took me a long time to embrace the suffering that accompanies life, but that is also side by side with joy. For me life is really about finding the balance. Pursuing the joy and accepting the sorrow and suffering. Suffering is not noble; it is just a fact of life — we are not redeemed by it. We live with and through it.

In our own lives why not make time to celebrate Life? In the world, let’s notice where suffering is. If we can be helpful, we should be. So much of suffering is institutionalized. There are systems set up to keep people in abysmal situations. We call them their fault and think it’s fine that they suffer. It is not.

Terri: We like to tell ourselves stories. We like to think that our behavior goes into some celestial meritocracy, and when things go deeply and tragically south—the spouse leaves, the loved one passes away, the prognosis is bleak, the jobs have dried up—that these things happen for “a reason”. Or, that the sufferer “deserves” it. And we particularly want reasons if we’ve led a decent life. When we’ve jumped through all the hoops, played all the correct games, made responsible choices, paid taxes on time, we get this idea that we insulate ourselves from the bad things in life and so we want to know why. Why did I always follow the rules if I don’t get to “win”? Why didn’t my good behavior—or God, fate, karma—protect me? Why do I have to carry this burden? What did I do to deserve it? It’s why books with titles like When Bad Things Happen to Good People can be in print for 38 years (and still going!).

The hard point is, you probably don’t deserve “it”, whatever “it” is. No one deserves cancer, or to be hungry, or homelessness, or to endure the daily grind of suffering + life-goes-on-even-though-I-can-barely-lift-my-head-off-the-pillow. And chirpy pseudo-feel-good-statements generally fall far short of helping. Look at this one: “God won’t give you anything you can’t bear!” So…if I truly can’t handle this, then on top of it all, I’m weak AND letting God down? Or how about: “I know this is hard, but things can be worse!” As though looking at the un-ticked boxes in the misery checklist will make current pain subside, somehow. Or even more to it, that looking at someone who’s checked the boxes you haven’t is somehow…better? Is wiping your brow and uttering “Whew…at least that’s not me!” really helpful? Let’s call that dynamic it what it is. That’s not coping. That’s gloating.

Ann: We have a cult of suffering. I was flabbergasted the other day. I saw a video on FB where a marathon runner fell and broke her leg early in the race. She then crawled to the finish. The subtitles read… although in agony, nevertheless, she persevered.


Could that have been good for her broken leg? Or how about the knees she plodded across concrete on for miles? That’s not noble. That’s stupid and self-destructive. There will be another marathon next year. Or not. That’s not pulling children or the elderly out of a raging river, that’s endangering yourself for no good reason and looking for prizes and head pats.

Terri: I have to interject here. We congratulate people who eschew help because they’re “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”. Which is nice and all, if the problem is not so big that you can’t handle it alone. But sometimes, the problem is systemic and can’t be resolved by stick-to-it-iveness. Or problems stack and become overwhelming (we’ve all heard the stories of how a marriage crumbled after the loss of the child, creating suffering upon suffering). Sometimes, we need to gather in support of our friends and neighbors. Sometimes, we have to admit we can’t do it all alone, and help ourselves by asking for help. Why do we form communities if we don’t make use of them?

Ann: There is so much work to do in this world. We will all encounter pain. There may be times that we will have to work through the pain. And that’s life, as hard as it is to acknowledge. Or at least part of life.

I believe very deeply that we must cultivate Joy and Justice. Our personal sorrow is a measure of how well we love our lives and the people we encounter.  Our passion for Justice should cause us to put our hearts and hands to dismantling the causes of institutionalized suffering and easing, as best we can, the hearts of those caught in the cycle.

Make life simpler. Grieve the hard parts. Make the other parts joyous, for you and for others.

Terri: And celebrate what is good in your own life, NOT what is bad in someone else’s.

Ann: May we make it so.

Having It All vs Having a Choice?

Dear Bartender and Priestess:

Last night, I worked until after midnight, and I did so the night before, and at least two times the week before that. And so on, and so on.

I love my job. I’ve been an entertainment news producer for the last six years and I love the challenges that every day brings. But in two weeks, I am going out on maternity leave, and I’m trying to make sure I have enough of my assignments in the can to keep my name fresh and relevant to my bosses. Things move quick in this industry, and being away from it for twelve weeks means I will be gone for practically a lifetime.

Of course I know there are laws to protect me from losing my job while I am out on leave, but that doesn’t mean I will come back to the plum assignments I’ve earned. And also, of course, I hear the whispers: Will she come back? I realize that’s an option available to me, to stay home with this amazing creature my husband and I have created, but I don’t know if I’m ready to trade my briefcase for some diaper bags.

I’ve grown up believing in things like a “work-life balance” and that women can “have it all”, but I feel like I’ve put a big part of myself and everything I’ve been working toward for the last six years up for grabs to my colleagues with different obligations. I don’t understand how this is “having it all” if my professional advancement has to stall and/or get winnowed away from me. I’m even considering cutting my maternity leave short so I can get back in the saddle and on track ASAP, and my friends with children are “mommy track”, so they’ve cut back their work hours or accepted less taxing assignments at their jobs…or are “taking a few years off”…so they don’t understand my perspective at all. None of those options are acceptable to me. What should I do? How should I look at this? I can’t wait to meet my little girl, but do I have to lose other parts of my life to do it?

Signed, I want what’s mine

Bartender and Priestess: Sigh. Well, we knew this was coming, sooner or later. Let’s see if we can sort out our responses.

P: It’s hard to know where to start with this. Is it the notion that everything you can conceive of can fit in a day (Time), that everything is of equal value (Priorities), that people have ever done this (History), that the physical body is capable of this (Limitations), that you are somehow deserving of having everything you’ve ever wanted (Entitlement), or that this is somehow good for the world (Civilization).

As the Priestess, I’m going to start with your priorities. Being good at either work or raising children requires tremendous discipline and sacrifice. I wish you had thought to ask these questions before you conceived. Children are not something you check off a list. Humans, especially tiny ones, are frail little creatures demanding an enormous amount of time and attention. And in the beginning they’re not only endearing — they are fretful and demanding. When they don’t sleep, my dear, you don’t sleep. Even if you’ve hired a nanny whose job it is to get up and have those middle of the night screams and snuggles, most babies I know have a voice that rivals a fire bell. Now there’s nothing that says that you have to be the primary parent, your partner can be, but that is a delicate dance you should have worked out before, because a child is going to interrupt your busy lives and require sacrifices.

B: There’s a long-standing joke-y meme that’s been around for decades: imagine a woman, enthusiastically chirping out the message: I CAN have it all! A baby AND a career! Some version of this probably lives in some corner of your head, doesn’t it? Moreover, it sort of informs your opinion on how you should be able to manage your life, right?

I want you to stop that. Why? Because it turns your life into a list. Like Ann said, a baby isn’t something you check off when you accomplish it. Washed the windows, check. Had a baby, double-check. Do you think the best way to judge your life is by the number of tally-marks you’ve scratched on a scorecard? And no matter what structure you try and put into place, a baby will find a way around that and make things unpredictable and messy. In a conversation I had two days ago with a good friend and mom of two adorable munchkins, she said, “The thing about parenting is—and every parent I’ve spoken with has, at some point, reached this conclusion—it is NEVER what you expect it to be.”

Realign your life’s expectations. Checkity-check-check.

P: If you want a happy, healthy child who will eventually grow to become an active and contributing part of society, you’re going to have to contribute to that child. And the needs don’t stop with babydom, they just change. Neither Terri or I chose to have children. My choice centered on the fact that I thought I would be better at what I did, that I didn’t have what it took to be good at both work and raising children. Are there times I regret that? Of course. None more than when my sister’s two children died, and I couldn’t give her mine to love. But it was a decision based on my analysis of my ability to provide a child what was needed. Because child rearing is incredibly important, not just to us, but to our world. I worry about how we build a better world.

When your sentence starts, “I can’t wait to meet my little girl, but…” you’ve already clarified your priorities, and yet, here you are pregnant. Who is going to raise your child?

B: I assume you have some kind of child care in mind, though you don’t mention if it will be a nanny or day care or grandma’s house or if your husband is going to be a stay-at-home dad. All of these options are OK. But I want to point out to you that while you may not know how to juggle “having it all” in terms of baby and career, what you DO have are options. A tremendous number of them, and this is my plea to families everywhere: please stop looking at “having it all” as meaning that you can keep everything on the table in front of you and that it will hold equal weight. It won’t happen. It doesn’t happen, even without a kid to consider. Have you ever made a decision? Have you ever chosen to go to your husband’s parents’ home for Thanksgiving instead of your brother’s? Then you’ve been presented with two options on the table, given one more weight than the other, and let the less important one roll off the table. You physically can’t split yourself in two and be at both your in-laws’ and your brother’s homes at the same time on the same day. And, you can’t physically split yourself in two and be a full-time mom with a full-time career, and take care of both things at the same time.

And please, don’t point to people like Marissa Meyer, who’s CEO-ing Yahoo! while taking care of her baby. She’s not. She has a full-time nanny, and a nursery built onto her office. She has no work-life balance. Her office IS her home; she just has another place where she sleeps at night. Usually. Is that what you’re looking for?

P: Historically, we lived in villages. Children ran in packs and grannies and aunties and neighbors all mothered our children. For anyone who’s been part of the Mother Grapevine, you knew you were being watched: it meant you could get a cookie occasionally at someone’s house, it meant you could use the toilet, and it also meant if you misbehaved, you got yelled at by your friend’s mom who then got on the phone and called your mom. And if the behavior was egregious enough, the other moms might chime in. There was a village to raise the children and you played a part in it. Your job was critical to the village as well. Everyone’s was.

We don’t live in villages any more. We don’t live in extended families. And I know a lot of grandparents who, even if they live next door, have active and involved lives and are not available and or interested in raising your child. They’ve raised their own children already—you. They aren’t being selfish if they have their own lives. No one ever promised you that you could have children and not parent them.

B: So, going back to the options before you. I want you to take a moment to consider what a lovely and enviable position you’re in. There are plenty of parents who don’t have the resources available to make these decisions—they have kids, they have to keep them housed and fed. I grew up in a home with two parents who both had to work to support the family. There are lots of families who just have one working parent, which often means more than one job at less pay than she or he deserves. Child care is expensive, summers home from school are a challenge, and the question of whether or not the mother can stay home to be with her baby is often laughable at best.

I’m not asking you to feel bad for the single parent or the working-class struggle. What I am asking you to do is reconsider the idea of “It All”. What you have, which is ironically fueling your dilemma, is the luxury of choice. And you want to keep it all on the table in front of you and make it all equally important. You can’t. Decisions have to be made. You have the ability to decide the what and the who and the how of your daughter’s upbringing in a way that’s unencumbered by dire need. You’re comfortable with your and your husband’s capacity to provide, and you can be discerning about which things fall off the table, in ways that other families simply can’t. You have resources, ability, and the power to use them accordingly. You have “It All”, even if “It” isn’t on the checklist in front of you. You’re just not seeing it.

P: I’m sorry, you were probably coming to the two feminists looking for a different kind of support. I spend a lot of time looking at families. I spend a lot of time looking at society. Both of these need a lot of loving attention. Where are you going to be in creating a family — which is what a child needs to thrive? How will you be contributing to society? Who are you that the world should arrange itself around you?


Off Our Chests: Gabby Douglas

As the Bartender and the Priestess are women of chests, we just needed to get this off ours: Gabby Douglas.

Both the Bartender and the Priestess have been outraged by the treatment Gabby Douglas has received.

Ann: Perhaps it is a good sign that much of the back chat about the games has been about the rampant sexism in the coverage of the games. Go here and laugh as you weep at the long road we still have to travel. The list seems endless. But, maybe we’re just becoming more aware; I must say, I don’t remember another time that we’ve seen the pushback we have at these games about the archaic women-as-decoration notions.

The people who make it to the Olympics as commentators seem to be missing the point. S.E. Smith in “xojane” wrote: “A recent study from Cambridge took a look at the way people talk about women and men in sports, finding that men get described in terms of what they do, while women get described in terms of who they are.” There are a lot of years of not taking women seriously behind us; but it needs to come to an end. I’ve heard people saying the dinosaur is dying. Well, it’s certainly taking its sweet time. But maybe the paradigm is changing, and these are the last stupid gasps of dinosaurosity! But the Gabby Douglas story that we’re looking at takes it even farther than most of what we saw, combining sexism, racisim and flat out mean nastiness.

There has been example after example of women and particularly women of color being disrespected and sidelined. And, no. We are not just sensitive. It’s come from the crowds and the media. This is a dirty, ugly fact and it’s time for us to come to acknowledge it — and it’s time to demand it stops. How dare people diminish the very hard work, athleticism, and artistry of Gabby Douglas while they giggle at the same time over the “cute” boyish (read boorish) behavior of some men, even men who are breaking laws.

Terri: It’s particularly telling in light of the (legitimately) shameful display put on by Ryan Lochte and friends, though honestly, I don’t feel we need to talk about him too much. I really want to focus on the treatment Gabby Douglas received for no legitimate reason whatsoever.

Ann: Terri, when this all happened, I felt like we were in Middle School, or what we’re told Middle School is all about since I went to a plain ol’ Primary School.

Here’s a beautiful, talented young woman, who four years ago won a gold medal (as a 16 year old) for best all around gymnast — the first Black gymnast to medal in the Olympics, and it was gold, to boot. The entire time, she was perky and charming and oh, so talented. America’s sweetheart in the making.

Fast forward four years, she’s back at the Olympics, doing incredible work — not quite enough to be one of the two who was able to contend for individual medals but nonetheless quite wonderful. And a bunch of mean girls made up a bunch of stuff and stuck it on twitter. It was ghastly. What is up with people?

(Note from Terri: it wasn’t all mean girls. There were plenty of guys saying terrible things about her, too, though saying “mean girls” is an interesting dynamic in light of how men and women are portrayed in media, and are being discussed in this very column. But I digress.)

Ann: She won a gold; we don’t like her hair. Her teammates said she supports them; the public says they’re sure she didn’t. She had a grumpy face — hey, even you might have been disappointed if you had missed your chance to compete, but did anyone SEE Michael Phelps’ face? Did anyone criticize him? No, he might have been grumpy; he might have just been concentrating. Fact is I can’t tell you; I don’t live in his head. They? Don’t live in Gabby’s head either, but that didn’t inhibit them from talking smack.

And the last one? They savagely attack her for not being a patriot, for standing as people have often stood (well, ever since we gave up what is now known as the “heil Hitler” salute) with her hands respectfully at her sides. A friend looked up the requirements for standing at attention during the anthem. Here they are. They were passed in 1998. So if anyone on the Olympic team didn’t stand with their hand over their heart, I blame the Olympic Committee. All the money we spend sending these athletes to Rio, we might instruct them in proper ways to watch the flag rise and hear the anthem. So, if she had known, I’m sure she would have had her hand over her heart.

Terri: Here’s the thing—and I know this is going to piss people off, but—I don’t care if she had her hand over her heart or not. I don’t care what the rules say. I don’t care about any of it. Gabby Douglas spent the better part of her twenty years on this planet training to be a nearly godlike athlete, all for the greater glorification of the US in global competition. She didn’t win the gold for Exxon, or NASCAR, or any other sort of private enterprise. She went out and competed so the US, her home country, could put on their big bold bragging pants and tell the world how great we are because we can turn out the caliber of athlete like Gabby Douglas. She didn’t show respect? The hell with that, she’s been showing respect for twenty years, winning medals, working through blisters and injuries and illnesses and doubt. And she has shone, until the one time she let her guard down. And the media ate her alive.

I asked this before, and I will ask it again: she showed her respect by winning medals for her country. To her detractors: What did you do while she was busy winning?

Ann: And you know, when Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovaks (US Shot Put Gold and Silver) stood at attention, hands at side, nothing was said. Oh, they’re white men? Well, then, never mind.

She has said she was thrilled to represent her country. I’m going to believe her on that. Why would she lie? Why would you presume to know what’s going on in her brain?

Terri: I don’t know what’s going on in her brain. I just know what she’s done for the better part of her life. Which is train, and train, and win, and train some more. Where’s the joy in any of this? Where’s the love for the sport, where’s the honor that should attend upon a lovely young woman putting her heart and soul into a performance on one of the toughest stages in the world? Where’s the recognition of Gabby Douglas’s achievements, grace, relentless skill?

Ann: I am dead tired of listening to people, often other women, pick apart another woman’s body. Gabby has grown up in the public eye, and has done so on the world stage since a very young age. As with most women, her body changed. So now the public is wondering if she’s had breast augmentation.

Terri: AGGGHHH! People, people, people. It’s called puberty. I wonder more at the people who aren’t alarmed that most female gymnasts’ careers are over by the time they’re 20, because their hips and boobs develop and make balancing extra-challenging. Hey, try facing the reality that at 20, you’re done. (Note: male gymnasts don’t excel until AFTER puberty, when their upper bodies develop and they can do all those holding poses…another interesting example of the male/female dynamic in Olympic sport. And again, I digress.)

Ann: The people who make it to Olympic competition are athletes. If they delight our eyes, it’s with their astonishing prowess. Certainly some of them are beautiful; Gabby is one of those women. And you want to tell me that her hair wasn’t right as she was spinning around like a top? I don’t think they make hairspray strong enough to withstand that velocity!

Terri: What should have been her opportunity to go out as the champion she is has been robbed from her by the tsunami of negativity that burst forth when she didn’t make the “proper” gesture during two minutes of song. The haters can’t take away what she’s accomplished, but they can steal joy. For what? Because they didn’t like her hair? Because she didn’t hold her hand correctly? Because she looked disappointed when she didn’t get to compete in the individual competition? In the Olympics? Which she’s been training for her whole life? For shame, people. I’m so disappointed in the soul of the US in light of this collective social event. We think we are civilized, but we have so far to go.

Ann: There are some things I do very well. However, I’ve never spent the kind of time Gabby Douglas and her fellow teammates have, becoming proficient at anything, let alone balancing on a tiny, little beam. And you, you Gabby haters? Are you proficient at anything other than being spiteful and, well, stupid? Feh. #Love4Gabby happening right here.

Step Away, Sister!

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I have a real problem with my older sister, and—finally—I’ve gotten to the point where I am over it. When we were little, my sister “Ethel” constantly insulted me. She would call me names, make fun of my weight, point out every pimple, tease me that the boys would never be interested in someone who looked like me. Ethel would come into my room like it was her own and rifle through my closets, helping herself to my clothes and shoes, or she would take my CDs and “lose” them, or she would slip my favorite lip gloss into her purse and “forget” to give it back to me.

Ethel has since moved several hours away. I still live in the town we grew up in, and I only see her when she visits our parents. Now that we are adults…well, I want to say we get along better, but we don’t, not really. Adolescent teasing has given way to adult nagging, as though she can make me thinner/smarter/wealthier/with the right guy.

I’m in my early 20s, live independently, have a nice career underway, own my own house, own a car, have a good group of friends who support me instead of trying to tear me down. I like who I am and what I’ve achieved so far, but my sister thinks I can do “better” and won’t hear it when I tell her I’ve had enough, so I keep my distance.

My parents, of course, wish we were closer and have asked me to try, try, try. They don’t hear me when I say I’ve had enough, either. I have no interest in being her friend and having girl-dates with her when she’s in for visits. I certainly don’t feel like I need to go see her and be alone with her on her turf. But I don’t want to be disrespectful to my parents. Should I suck it up and keep trying with Ethel? Or is it OK to keep her at arms’ length?

Stepping Away Sister

Dear Stepping,

B&P: Before we say anything else we want to say, congratulations for getting your life together at such a young age. You’ve made good plans and grown into them. Whether or not your sister and your family can acknowledge your accomplishments, be very proud of yourself and keep building a community of friendship and support even as you build your dreams.

B: Ahh, family. Despite the Norman Rockwellian images of family we like to conjure up—gathered around the turkey, bright smiles, warm gestures, no drama—it’s often a minefield. These are the people who have known you the longest and, ironically, may not know that much about you. They may not know your political affiliation, your current job title or your favorite ice cream flavor but chances are they are intimately acquainted with your emotional triggers.

There’s a profoundly sad moment in the movie Home for the Holidays, that I think will help explain your feelings. The two sisters, constantly at loggerheads through the film, finally have the conversation that gets to the root of their problems. It goes like this.

Claudia: You don’t know the first thing about me.

Joanne: Likewise, I’m sure. If I just met you on the street… if you gave me your phone number… I’d throw it away.

Claudia: Well, we don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.

And therein lies the problem. You’re family, and you’re stuck with each other. And it can be hard to continually justify why you’re spending your valuable time and energy with someone who does everything she can to make you feel bad about yourself when your carefully cultivated, friendship-based, supportive urban family who genuinely likes you is just a phone call and a quick escape out the back door away.

P: Oh, this is so difficult, I’m so sorry. It seems that not only is your sister toxic and has been for a long while, but your parents also seem to have been indifferent toward the pain this causes you — and the disruption this ugliness causes in the family. Their expectation that you, who are picked on, should be the person who can, never mind should, make the situation better is a sad indication of their cluelessness. I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not actively mean, but they have certainly been passively mean.

B: Normally, I am an advocate for cutting one’s losses and stepping away from any sort of toxic relationship—partners, friends, co-workers if you can manage it (though that does get more difficult). If they’re bad for you, develop an exit strategy, and go. However! Family—and one’s nuclear family in particular—does have its own set of rules. Cousins? Cut ‘em out, let ‘em go, how often do you see them anyway? Aunts and uncles? Easy to create distance. But a sister…

Yeah, that can be tricky.

I’m not saying it’s tricky because I live in some kind of rose-colored ideal that one day, one day, you’ll both come to realize just how important the other is, and years of pent-up anger and dysfunctional interactions will fall away. I’m not saying it’s tricky because some day you may need a kidney, and she’s your best bet. But it’s tricky because you have parents you want to respect and honor; in your letter, it sounds like your parents are the only thing keeping you from kissing her goodbye forever. Chalk one up to yourself for that.

P: Terri and I talked a lot about how you didn’t focus on your sister, but rather on your desire not to be abused by her. Congratulations. Because you can’t fix her; I’m not sure you’ll be able to talk to her about this. You’re doing the work you need to be doing for yourself: you’ve got work you like, you own a house, and you have good friends. You’re building a life. If you read us, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of getting the support you need. If you don’t have it in your social circle, pay for it. You need to figure out what role you play in your family and the ways you are and are not willing to keep the family working. If you want to maintain relationships with your parents and sister, or create new ones, talking to a professional who can help you determine a course of action is a good thing. Maybe that person will have suggestions for new tacks to take with your sister, or your parents. There’s nothing like a little rehearsal before you try new tactics. Afterwards, with your therapist, you can even allow yourself the opportunity to debrief.

If I were you, I would also be disappointed in my parents’ response now and over my lifetime. In a way, it sounds as if they see you as capable and mature, but it doesn’t sound as if they see her as mean and hurtful.

B: UGH! Pet peeve alert! It’s almost as though you’re being punished for being strong. Why do you have to take her abuse? “Because you can” is not an acceptable answer. Sorry. Had to interject.

P: They are not protecting you from her abuse. From your description, your sister’s actions are verbally and psychically abusive. Your parents’ failure to stand up for you deepens that abuse. This is another place a counselor can help you. You don’t want to confront everyone and everything too early as your work on this because that can really blow things up. You need to figure out how to make your family hear you, because so far what you’ve tried has not served you well, but you also have to guard against them becoming defensive and turning on you. You don’t want to let any of your family members tarnish your life and your very real accomplishments.

B: You never mention whether you spend any time alone with your sister when she’s in for her visits. Have you ever, one on one, sat her down and told her how you feel about her behavior? Or have your exchanges been more like: dinner table à she insults you à you eyeroll and tell her to knock it off? That’s an adolescent pattern reasserting itself, and if I were your parents I’d have a hard time seeing it as anything other than the behavior you’ve always engaged in. Maybe you should try taking her out for a cocktail, or inviting her to your house—alone, no parents—to have a long-awaited chat. And tell her, without drama, that her criticisms hurt you deeply. They make you put up walls against her, which then hurts your parents. Try saying, “I expect you to treat me like the adult I am, because I feel like you still address me as though I am 12 years old and you’re the big sister who knows better, instead of the peers we’ve become.” Try NOT to say, “Knock it off, Ethel! You’ve always been so bossy.” Those two sentences are worlds apart in terms of gravitas. Because people, and women in particular, are notoriously bad at actually asking for what we want (because who wants to make waves?), you may want to practice saying what you need to say to your sister in a mirror. Practice makes perfect. Then, the next time she’s around, actually say it to her.

If that doesn’t work and she doesn’t let up…at least you’ve had your say, and can claim that you’ve tried to build a bridge with your sister. If she continues to harass you over your appearance or what the heck ever, don’t engage in that conversation. It’s a common mistake people make, thinking they have to comply or reply to the questions put before them, instead of saying, “I’m done having this conversation, and am moving on.” Give yourself some control of the conversation. Simply remind her that you’ve already asked her not to badger you any longer about personal issues, but you’d be happy to talk to her about the latest movies playing at the local megaplex. I’ll back you in saying that it would be fine, after that, to maintain your arms’ length relationship with Ethel. Be polite, pleasant even, when she’s around, and then slip out the back door as soon as you can to meet up with the friends who support and nourish you emotionally.

P: Whatever you do, remember that you have choices and that exercising those choices will give you power. She may continue to bait you. But you don’t have to play. It’s a sad thing if she does, but that will be her choice. It might be helpful to plan some fun things around necessary family visits — channel yourself some good old Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar — not only does it give you something to look forward to, it also gives you a time when the visit is over. One thing you want to be sure about though, as you reduce your sister’s influence in your face to face conversations, you want to ensure that she begins to take up less time in your life with friends. She is who she is. I’m not saying you don’t get to tell stories, but you don’t want to waste your time reliving the discomfort.

stepping away sister napkin

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