Dear Carolyn: My mom died when I was 10 and my sister, "Abby," was 6. My dad did the best he could, but life was hard. I tried to make it up to him by helping out and being a good daughter.
Meanwhile, Abby acted out in the worst ways possible, starting when she was about 8. She would set fires — she burned my homework, our lawn, newspapers, etc. She threw rocks at my dog, dumped water on my cat. She was always in trouble in school for hurting other students on purpose, and she'd say people were dumb and irritating and she didn't care if she hurt them. Therapy helped, but she would still have outbursts, ruin my stuff, say really cruel things to me. I was so grateful to escape to college, and I go home as little as possible.
Abby is 15 now and has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and receives several different kinds of therapy. Every year she has been getting better, but I still don't want anything to do with her. She put me through enough grief and made my poor dad's life hell. I intended on staying in my college town for the summer.
My dad, though, is asking me to come home, and one of Abby's therapists wants me to do some joint sessions with her. I asked my psych prof about BPD and he explained to me that a lot of Abby's behavior stems from trauma over our mom's death. I lost my mom, too, and I didn't hurt everyone around me.
My dad thinks these sessions will help us both, but the only help I really want is to never have to deal with Abby's drama again. Abby has been texting me begging me to do this and not "hate her" and I think maybe I should, but then I remember that saying, "Don't set yourself on fire to keep somebody else warm." Carolyn, what should I do?
— Done With My Sister
Done With My Sister: You lost your mom, yes, and didn’t act out — but you were 10, not 6. You had your emotional wiring, not Abby’s. You had your experience, not hers.
It is natural to compare, and it’s part of how we understand the world and the people around us. But it’s not entirely fair to use comparisons as the bedrock of our opinion of someone. To do so is to assume that our experiences and our reactions translate fully to theirs, but the variables from person to person, sibling to sibling, even identical twin to identical twin mean you can witness the exact same event standing a foot apart and still feel different and emerge with accounts that differ on crucial details.
I say all of this not to lobby you to indulge your dad and sister. That is a complicated decision you’re not ready to make.
It’s just that “I didn’t hurt everyone” is a profoundly flawed basis for judging Abby. You had the right idea asking the professor; keep on that path, please, and find a skilled therapist through or near your school. (Ask your dad to help you pay, if needed.) Sort through these terrible experiences and feelings before you choose your approach to Abby’s.
I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through.