Arm’s Length

Arm's Length

My psychiatrist has asked me numerous times how my sister has handled my parents differently than I have? How has she protected herself? How has she kept herself from being so enmeshed in the family dynamic?

The answer is that my sister says no. She keeps my parents at arm’s length. She didn’t answer the phone whenever my mother called, letting it go to voicemail instead. She didn’t let my mother pry and control her. And, she never identified with them.

I, on the other hand, was a member of the first-born club. My mother, father, and I were all first-born. I was repeatedly told that I was like them in that I, too, was first-born. I, like them, was a type-A personality, an overachiever, a workaholic.

I shouldered higher expectations. I was to be a doctor or a lawyer. My goal was to be a neurosurgeon. In high school, I almost got straight A’s, ranking 3rd in a class of 450. I assumed that I would go to an Ivy League school, and was devastated when I didn’t get accepted.

My parents graduated at the top of their high school classes and were high achievers in college. My mother was captain of her college debate team. My father got two bachelor’s degrees in five years – one in chemical engineering and one in humanities. Years later, living off savings while supporting a wife and two daughters, he attended Harvard Business School.

I expected to out-achieve them. I didn’t. I failed. I fell apart. I couldn’t withstand the strain, the expectations, the speed of being a UCLA honors biochemistry major.

I wanted a well-rounded education and to have fun, so I dropped out of the second quarter of honors chemistry. Physics and biology, too, I only took one semester each. Honors calculus, though, I loved and took for the entire year. Math was always my favorite subject and I regret not continuing my math studies.

Bottom line: I must say NO. I must STOP identifying with my parents. I must learn to hold my parents at arm’s length. I must learn to be a “good enough” daughter, and not try to live up to any real or perceived expectations.

Friday Was Tough


I’ve received feedback that my delivery in this video is too clinical and offputting. Forgive me. I’m trained as a psychotherapist. No doubt I use my training and jargon not just to understand, but to defend myself, to distance myself. Plus, I just like big words.

Edited Transcript – “Ums” Removed

Yesterday was really intense. We had gotten, or I had received, a call from my parents’ memory care that my dad was… my parents were very upset because they were separating them into separate rooms.

There’s a good reason for separating them. When together they isolate and don’t let caregivers take care of them and don’t participate in activities and don’t socialize, and their health deteriorates. When they’re separated, which we’ve had them separated at different times since my mother’s had a stroke, they both participate in activities in their separate facilities. They actually do better. Both of them.

So, the idea was to have them in the same facility, but in separate rooms with same sex roommates. They can still visit each other. They can still see each other, but they have to sleep separately to try to see if we can break their co-dependent relationship. It’s a dynamic that’s not unusual. Problem is they take care of each other and don’t let other people take care of them. And, they need help. They can’t. They’re not really up for taking care of each other. They’re not up for taking care of themselves or each other.

I know that they love one another deeply, and we want to respect that. And, they still have the opportunity to have private time. That’s respected, as well. But in order for them to get the most out of the program that we’re paying for they have to participate in it. They have to let caregivers come in. They have to do things that exercise their brain, rather than deteriorate.

If we were to just let them isolate, then I would get the cheapest care possible and just… But I’ve already seen what that results in – which is unfortunately violent behavior and at times, even now, psychotic behavior – for which I’ve had to have my mom hospitalized a couple of times since her stroke.

The stroke has damaged not only just the part of her brain that handles language, but the part of her brain that handles impulse control. So any psychiatric illness that I may be heir to, and I am, is exacerbated by the brain damage.

So anyway, I just wanted to put that out there. I have writing that I’ve done, very scattered, and I want to touch on and that I haven’t really talked about, which is about… I’ll just go into it… My sister’s going to hate me for this. Which is about what it’s like growing up raised by raised in an alcoholic family. How challenging that is. What it’s like being raised by a parent who has no insight into her own illness or behavior. How it affects those who love her and who she loves.

There’s no doubt my parents loved us. Very well. Very much. But it was very hard for… I’ll speak for my own behalf.

I am thankful very much for my sister for being my reality test. When things seemed really crazy, we’d look at each other and go, this doesn’t make any sense. And, that, that’s huge. That’s huge.

But it’s a part of mental illness, not realizing that you have it. Not everybody has insight. Not everybody seeks help. Not everybody gets help. It has a devastating effect on those who love and are loved by someone with unacknowledged, undiagnosed, untreated mental illness or unacknowledged, undiagnosed, untreated alcoholism, dual diagnosis. It’s really tough.

Sometimes children raised in such an environment try desperately to please, thinking they can control behavior they can’t control. Hoping that they can earn love and avoid the emotional abuse that may come with behavior that is unpredictable, and that you can’t understand what you had done to bring it on because you hadn’t done anything to bring it on.

There you go.