Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The rest of the family

An incident that happened at my sixth-grader's school last fall prompted me to write a piece about the effects of eating disorders on the rest of the family, which appeared in yesterday's New York Times. (Sorry, I can't do links when I'm blogging remotely, and right now I'm sitting at the airport waiting for a flight that's been delayed 6 hours.) The URL is

But truly, this kind of fallout is true whenever one child in a family is desperately ill, particularly if the illness has a chronic or potentially lethal component. Having a sibling with cancer, diabetes, autism, developmental delays, and other conditions always creates a difficult situation for the other sibling.

I was an other sibling when I was growing up. Today, no doubt, our family would have wound up in family therapy, but back then my sister was the one who got the diagnosis "emotionally troubled," whatever that was supposed to mean. I now understand that she was most visibly acting out many of the feelings swirling around our little family. Even so, her behaviors and condition dominated the household.

I remember what it was like to have to stuff my feelings so as not to upset the teetering balance of our family dynamic; to resent the attention she got even though it was mostly negative attention, and clearly she was miserable; to wish that her problems, whatever they were, would just go away. This perspective was much on my mind last year and now as I watch my younger daughter struggle with the fallout from her sister's illness.

I have enormous respect for both my daughters, for the pain and difficulties they have both suffered, as well as for all children living with chronic illnesses, whatever they are. And I'm grateful that we now understand a lot more about how illnesses like these change the family, and what to do about it: Get the best medical care possible and then love the heck out of our children, and ourselves.

Maybe that's not so different from what our parents did.


Maddy said...

People joke a lot about dysfunctional families, so much so that the term is virtually meaningless today.
But I empathise with the difficulty of 'getting the balance' right. I don't know how you do it, and I suspect that it's a constantly moving target as everyone grows and changes.
Best wishes

Carrie Arnold said...


I wish my brother was willing to learn about anorexia. As he is not, he blames me for my illness and has said some absolutely horrid things to me (including, I wish you were've ruined the family...etc). Though I know the AN affects everyone in the family, you can't educate someone who's not willing to learn.

I'm so glad both of your daughters have come through this stronger.


Harriet said...

Sounds like your brother has to work through some of that anger. It can take a long time. Don't give up on him--it may happen yet, in his own time and on his own schedule.


Fiona Marcella said...

Sorry about your brother Carrie. I guess he is just acting out how frustrated he is. Have you seen the video clip on Laura Collins' blog by Dr Xavier Amador - he's a professional, sufferer AND sibling and although that's not what his lecture is about his own anger at his brother's lack of insight is very illuminating.
Good luck to your younger daughter Harriet. Mine turned 18 this week. She's a wonderful, together, thoughtful, selfish young adult. Her sister's illness has affected her enormously and continues to do so but it has accentuated some of her positive qualities as well as harmed her.

Carrie Arnold said...


I did try to watch the video but I couldn't get the volume up on our speakers quite loud enough and I got a sore neck holding my ear up to the speakers!


Thank you for the kind words. I am quite aware that my brother's issues go quite beyond my ED, however, it hurts all the same.