Los Angeles

Fitting Together the Puzzle Pieces

It’s always interesting to me when we interview sibs who are both incredibly positive and reflectively negative about their experiences growing up with someone who has a developmental disability. I think something I have been looking for this whole trip has been the perfect combination of solidified good and bad. I think on our last day of interviewing, in LA, I found a woman who exemplifies these traits. We spoke with Liz in LA about her experiences growing up with her brother who is two years younger than she is and on the autism spectrum. She says she wouldn’t describe him as high functioning, but he is verbal, has had part-time jobs, and has a girlfriend.

We've found that the best word to describe the sibling relationship is usually just "complicated" and we talked a lot about that with Liz. "There are a lot of mixed feelings...Complicated is probably the best word for it."

Growing up, she played many different roles in her family. She was the protective, motherly role but also the role of the sister who had a completely separate life from her brother at home. Liz’ reflection on her role in the family was intriguing and very self-reflective. Her parents consistently told her throughut her childhood, “you are his sister, not his mother.” The issue was, Liz didn’t know how to be a sister to her brother.

“I don’t know how to be his sister. I know how to be his parent because what that meant was to take care of him.” She told us bravely about her confusions about her role in the family because she really didn’t understand what being a brother to hers was supposed to look like, as opposed to a parental role that she could easily emulate from her parent’s actions. “What do brothers and sisters do? I have no clue.”

For example, Liz opened up to us about an intense memory she has from elementary school. She told us that she once told her brother that she loves him. And he remained silent. After a while, she asked him if he knew what love meant and he told her ‘no.’ Liz took this moment with her for the rest of her life. . “As a child, that was just profound for me. I am going to grow up making sure that people feel love.” Aside from proving to be the best friend she could possibly be to all of her friends (and she still has friends from childhood and college, to prove her point), she took her brother’s lesson with her in her professional career. Liz is a casting director and she told of the direct impact her brother has on her work. It’s a “great way to connect with people daily and to help people realize their dreams and realize what they want to be doing…the audition is always important to me to make it a safe space…even if they don’t get the job, they go home knowing that they did their job today.” She also spoke on the arts world as a whole, a world she has been a part of since childhood.

The theatre is “a place where there are all these people are feeling things and acting and doing theatre and traveling around the world and that saved my life as far as being able to deal with my insecurities and shame and getting so deep into ‘what are we going to do about my brother?’.” She talked with great warmth about how impactful the world of performance has been on her life. On sibs: “We don’t have that place to freely express ourselves. We don’t have a place to say ‘I hate this. This is embarrassing. I am full of shame. I don’t want to carry this around anymore...I feel so guilty for wanting to be free of this.’”

“When I think about the things I love the most about myself, they are directly contributed to [my brother]. I am absolutely a people person” She went on to speak about her job. “I’m a cheerleader, I’m an interpreter, and all of that is directly because there is this person in my life that I had such a hard time reaching. That was my focus. I am going to be able to reach people. I am going to be articulate. I am going to talk to people about their feelings because here is a person that I can’t really talk to.”

For me, the most touching and inspiring parts of Liz’ interview were when she spoke, eloquently and passionately, about how difficult life with her brother was and is and how awful she feels about feeling that way, something I truly resonated with. “When he is easy, it’s easy to be with him. And then there’s the other side,” the side where he is not an uncle or a brother-in-law, but a brother. A brother who has embarrassed her, given her anxiety about both of their futures, and pushed her to extreme limits emotionally. She told us that as a child, she struggled to talk about him. “It’s not even in our make up to make people feel bad or uncomfortable,” and she didn’t want to “burden” anyone with the unnecessary, especially since she was “fine,” as we have seen many other sibs describe themselves. “I know what he is doing… but I don’t know how he is doing”. She said that she feels a lot of guilt about the disconnect but is not sure how or if she wants to change that. “I should be doing more but do I want to be doing more? It’s always challenging.” She told us that she once heard someone liken having a disabled sibling to having a superpower. The superpower? Being able to read people. “What is the word that it is? It’s just so raw. It’s such a fundamental thing. A part of your growing up, this person”

I’ll finish off this long post with our last portion of our conversation with Liz. We always end each interview by asking the interviewee to pose a question to any other, ever. Liz’ question was unique. “What was your darkest thought?” Though I have suppressed over and over the reality that my sister has affected me in more ways than I can count, Liz’ last question assuaged my own feelings and the feelings of many sibs that we have spoken with about the dichotomy between a sibling relationship and the actualities that are bequeathed within it.

Ellie

Cosmic Injustice

A topic we haven’t talked specifically about yet over the past few months has been sibling amiability. In some of the interviews that we have conducted, there is this notion that the sibling that will be taking on the caretaker role later in life does not actually have an amicable relationship with his or her sibling and yet takes on the role regardless. We spoke with a young man, George*, in LA about this struggle.  George is a philosophy PhD candidate as well as a J.D. student at UCLA. He is eloquent and reflective and was a pleasure to speak with about his younger brother.  George’s brother is one year younger than he and has an intellectual impairment. In the beginning of our interview with George, it appeared that he and his brother had a pretty decent relationship. He said they fought a lot as kids, but most brothers do, and that he doesn’t think he was “traumatized” or “burdened” by the experiences he had growing up in his house.

Here is where his story gets increasingly interesting. George talked a lot about how he doesn’t think that his brother really likes him. He told us that if something were to happen to his parents and his brother had to move in with him, he would be okay with that situation but he doesn’t think his brother would be too happy.  He even told us that his brother has connected more with his friends and girlfriends and if his brother had to move in with him, he might have to use one of them as a mouthpiece while he acted as a “man behind the curtain.” He told us that his brother is “really good with people, just not me or my dad.” We tried to dissect this a little bit more. George told us that growing up his dad was always the disciplinarian in the house in comparison to his mom who focused more on providing a loving, calm household. George confided in us that he often sided with his father's view that manners should be stressed and healthy regimen should be implemented when possible. He believes that his brother is high-functioning enough to have had more responsibility than he did have growing up.

What’s fascinating about George’s story is not only how much of his life George is willing to alter in order to take care of his brother should that have to happen but also how hard George is going to have to try to gain some of his brother’s trust and try to make a relationship with someone that is clearly not interested in making a relationship.

His philosophy student self came through by the end of the interview when he concluded that the whole situation is really a “cosmic injustice.”

Ellie

*name has been changed

Ciara

Ciara is a wonderful, intelligent, and aware 14 year old. She's the middle child and has two siblings with developmental and physical disabilities. Her older brother has autism and she describes him like a "big, gentle giant"  and a "teddybear." Her younger sister is 12 and has epilepsy. She is closer with her younger sister than she is with her older brother, explaining that she and her sister "just click". There's often a newfound sense of annoyance towards immediate family that comes with being a 14-year-old, but Ciara didn't exhibit any of that. Instead, she makes time every week to spend with her siblings, watching TV with her sister and a Disney movie with her brother.

As a young child, she had moments when she felt embarrassed to be around her siblings in public. Despite that and other social challenges, her friends know and appreciate her siblings. Here she explains how they have affected her socially: 

What stood out the most to me was Ciara's ability and willingness to be an advocate for her siblings. This isn't unusual to sibs, but Ciara exemplifies such passion and charisma at such a young age. She's thoughtful, well-spoken, and educated about how best to campaign for the disabilities community.

"I've always been a big advocate for special needs because a lot of people don't know about it". When she was younger, her motto was "If you stare at them, I glare at you."