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When Your Sister Becomes A Stranger

I live for her occasional likes on my Facebook page. Her method, perhaps, of saying "I love you" in the only way she can.

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illustration of two younger sisters holding each other and drifting apart
Allegra Lockstadt
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December marks the end of another year without my sister.

Last night I saw her doppelgänger. Blond, broad shoulders, contagious smile. She even talked with her hands the way my sister does, using them to emphasize every point. I knew it wasn’t really her, of course. How could it be? My sister’s alive, but she’s a thousand miles away from me, emotionally and physically.

It’s been 20 years since we had a conversation of more than a few sentences. Once upon a time, when we were kids, we curled up together, talking and laughing until our faces hurt. She was the person I trusted most. The person I exchanged secrets with. We made wishes on dandelions, swears on our pinkies, and promises that were followed by crossing our hearts and hoping to die.

Now, years pass without the opportunity to talk to her, to know her at all. My attempts to reach out are almost always met with silence. I have, admittedly, given up trying. If you’d asked me five years ago if I ever would, I’d have told you a sister never gives up. But time takes its toll on a heart, and I’m weary of rejection.

Siblings grow older, they change, they move away. But they work to stay connected. They’re the only ones who share a particular childhood. That makes them unique, and gives them a language all their own. There were times when the memory of that connection was so strong, I wanted to go and rescue my sister. Hold an intervention with the whole family, so we could be us again. But the truth is, you can't help an adult who doesn't want to be helped. And you can’t hold an intervention alone.

Something wasn’t right from an early age. Even when she was a teenager, even before I fully understood what it meant to have a mental illness. The same type of illness I believe our father had, as well. The extreme highs and the lows. The rage. The inability to hold a regular job. The delusions of grandeur. He's been gone for two decades, yet somehow I think if he had lived to see what’s happened to her over the years — the way her life has spiraled, the way she doesn’t stay connected — I think he might have finally talked about his demons, to save her from her own. To save our family.

My mother says he was just complicated and that my sister simply needs a break in life — then she’ll be fine. Parents play such an important role in how families deal with truths. They set the tone that everyone else follows. My mother’s inability to see both my father’s reality, and my sister’s, came at a cost to all of us. Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering how different life might have been if my father hadn’t been enabled — if he had been encouraged to find help and take medication. Where we’d all be now. Where my sister would be now. Would it have given her permission to see what was happening, and be open to assistance?

I thought for a while the distance was because of something I’d done wrong, but soon she pulled away from the rest of the family, too. I know in my heart that when she sees me, sees us all, she’s reminded of whatever she’s running from. Which is why she avoids close relationships, avoids triggers.

And so, until she’s willing to reconnect, another December will come and go. Another 365 days will pass without old memories shared and new memories made — without sisterly wishes, and swears, and promises. For now, I live for her occasional likes on my Facebook page. Her method, perhaps, of saying “I love you” in the only way she can.