When I was thirteen, my twenty one year old sister was sitting on my bed and casually talking with me as I put away my clean laundry. But when I placed my boxer shorts into a drawer and closed it, she drew up in a rage: “No, Caden you can’t just shove them in there like this!” she shouted. Pushing me aside and ripping my underwear out of the drawer she waved them around and demanded to know where the rest of them were. Before I could even answer, she started digging around through the rest of my drawers, through my closet, pulling things out and throwing them, and insulting me when she found a pair that was dirty. I felt shame, embarrassment, and fear as I was being violated, invaded by this intimidating, angry adult who then demanded that I ask our mother for more underwear. And indeed, later on when we were in the living room with the rest of the family, my sister confronted me by saying, “Caden, don’t you have something to ask mom?” and forcing me to say the words.
I only had three pairs of underwear because my parents didn’t buy me clothes. They did all of the laundry in the house, and sorted out everything into neat piles for each person, so they knew very well how much clothing, socks and underwear I had and what poor condition they were in. I shouldn’t have had to beg for such basic essentials, and it was gross for my sister to act like it was my fault for not asking when I had been trained not to ask, trained to be fearful and anxious of the rejection and abuse likely to follow. This traumatic situation only increased that shame, fear, and dissociation I was experiencing about not having my needs met. It was none of my sister’s business where and how I chose to put my clean clothes away, and throwing a fit over my underwear, insisting on touching it and telling me what to do with it was yet another sexual violation.
Since I was so often sexually abused as a child, every one in our incest family knew I had a habit of not wearing underwear around 5-6 years old. And they would constantly point it out, pull back my waistband to “check,” make fun of me for it…That was sick and degrading, and so was this later incident when my sister communicated she still had a “right” to be up in my business, that she could confront me about such a personal topic in my room and then in front of the rest of the family. If she was angry at my not having enough clothing, she should have directed that anger and that confrontation at our parents, who were actively, aggressively neglecting my needs. I was still a child dependant upon their care, which to me signifies that they had responsibilities to care for me properly, not the right to humiliate and shame me.
Fast forward another six years and I was 19, she was 27 when I went to visit her across the country. One day she came home from work and seeing that I was wearing a new sweater, demanded to know what size it was, and when I told her, she threw a fit, screaming at me about how stupid I was, that I “wasted mom’s money,” forcefully pulling out the tag and demanding I return it despite the fact that it fit very well. That was insane, wrong, and stupid. A year and a half before this, I remember she asked me, after I had lost one hundred pounds, what size shirt I wore and when I said small, she shouted back at me “Caden, NO! You’re too tall for that!” But actually, I’m not exceptionally tall, and while it depended on the shirt, small is what usually fit best at that point in my life. I don’t know why she would ask me a question like that only to loudly refute and put down my answer. But her insane outbursts only contributed to my body dysmorphia.
My sister was always piling upon me with intrusive questions, and would attack me if I refused to answer. I remember at 14 she once asked me if I slept naked, and when I quickly said no, she dug in; “why not, it’s more comfortable?” When obviously what I was really saying was ‘that’s none of your business, I want that detail to be private in the context of this relationship.’ When she was at home, all the way up through my teens every time when I was in the kitchen she would yell out at me “Caden, What are you eating?” And then act like it was so ridiculous when I would say nothing or give some vague response. As if I should appreciate having to arbitrarily ‘report’ everything that I ate to her and have it monitored and often followed up by her reactive, judgmental comments, which continued via instant message even when she wasn’t there. When I was 11 she tried to force me into a diet and exercise regime against my will, complete with nagging, shouting, and slammed doors whenever I deviated from the diet. She didn’t shout at our parents or my brother for sexually, physically and emotionally abusing me to the extent that I started compulsive overeating to cope, but I heard endless comments, even after she knew I had an eating disorder, about what I ate, how it was wrong, too little, too much, and how I should be jogging and doing sit-ups and pushups.
Today I can’t really say which of my siblings was more abusive. Which is really big for me; I spent the majority of my life in this narrative of how great my sister was. And so I felt such deep internalized shame when she abused me, I thought it must be my fault, and I had no one to validate my feelings; we were supposed to be close, she was the closest person I had in my family. But it can’t possibly be my fault. I don’t have some magical ability to draw out intrusive, humiliating treatment from every person I come across. That abuse existed deep inside my sister, and she chose to express it towards me in this cruel, controlling, and intrusive way. I can’t control what situations other people find stressful, or how they react to that stress. I’m not to blame for her abuse, and of course I wasn’t her only victim, the only person who she claimed “made” her act that way. And since she did it to most in her life, it couldn’t possibly be something about me, something that I caused.
What she did was so wrong. She humiliated me, stole away my dignity and made me feel small in the moments when I most wanted recognition that yes, I was developing as a human being and deserved different treatment. She worked hard, instead, to establish power over me and she took glee in exercising that power to show me that she could still treat me as a child to be pushed around. My mother did this too, but just because I was living in her house did NOT give her a right to inflict all manner of abuse upon me.
Likewise when I visited my sister she insisted on arbitrarily controlling me on so many levels with demeaning treatment. In her defense she later shouted at my mother, “he invited himself!” Which no I did not, the whole trip was my mother’s idea and instigation, and my sister could have just said no, instead of having me come and then throwing fits, giving me the silent treatment, calling me names, making me buy really long shirts, shaming and humiliating me about spending money and eating, about accidentally cutting myself with a knife, and just existing. Actually she acted like this on the times when I visited her and was definitely invited, and she acted the same way towards me when she was visiting our family home, so it has nothing to do with that. Once I was there, thousands of miles from home, I was her captive audience; I didn’t know anyone else in the area, and couldn’t just leave whenever I wanted if she treated me poorly; I was not empowered to do that and my tickets were non-transferable. She knew she had me right where she wanted me.
My mother and sister shouldn’t have been treating me that way when I was 5, and definitely didn’t have a right to do so when I was older. Growing up in an incest family made my need for privacy and space as I entered puberty and adolescence all the more potent, and it was shocking and traumatizing for me when I was denied that. After all of this devastating intrusion and abuse, it became so difficult to let anyone else in, to feel comfortable anywhere, especially because I felt so ashamed, like it was my fault. But it wasn’t, and today I’m no longer embarrassed about the way I was treated; and I can see that despite their self-righteous tirades, my abusers are the ones who should be embarrassed about this. I don’t owe them anything, not my company, my respect, or my silence, and today they don’t get any of it.