A Spoonful of Shadows- Experiences of 'Well Sibling Syndrome'
Our society likes to label experiences. The experience of growing up with a ‘mentally ill’ sibling, and its effects, is sometimes referred to as ‘Well Sibling Syndrome’. But I think of it less as a ‘syndrome’, and more as a Complex…
In this article, ‘Well Sibling’ is a term used to describe people who have grown up with a sibling who either:
has long-term mental health challenges;
has a condition that means a neuro-typical society frequently tries to disable them, such as autism spectrum condition;
has completed suicide.
I am a therapist and consider myself to also be a ‘Well Sibling’.
Well siblings particularly, can feel they have no right to speak their truth. The experience can leave us with the overwhelming feeling that our problems are not serious enough to warrant attention, validation, or professional help. After all- we are the one who is OKAY. We are the one who is ‘Well’. And we are often very aware that our sibling is struggling through no fault of their own.
The thought of seeking such validation may feel like self-indulgence, and elicit shame.
We love our sibling, not out of some misguided sense of duty, but because they bring something precious to our lives that no-one else can ever bring. Because we share experiences unique to the sibling bond. And for a hundred little reasons only we and they might ever know.
We know that they would like the situation to be different, as much as we would, even though sometimes their actions (and our own) might strongly suggest otherwise. We want to support them, and empower them, and defend them. We want them to feel good. We definitely (most of the time) do not want to add to their feelings of self-doubt, powerlessness or negative self-concept.
There are many inner conflicts and opposing emotional forces for a Well Sibling to absorb. The shadows of complex emotions can slowly form a wall between ourselves, and the love we have for ourselves, our sibling, and our parents, leading us to feel cut off from our own emotions and our family, and this can lead to mental health issues of its own. By understanding ‘well sibling syndrome’, we can become more compassionate to ourselves first, and our sibling and family. We may also gain the added resilience needed to support ourselves, our sibling, and our family through tough times.
What is described in this article is not just a simple case of ‘sibling rivalry’. I think this distinction is where the term ‘Well Sibling Syndrome’ might be helpful.
Studies have found that as well siblings, we worry more than usual, about our parents. We are keenly aware of their high levels of anxiety for our sibling. In the cases of sibling suicide, we are also keenly aware of our parents’ loss, unbearable heartbreak, and grief. Sometimes we are aware of their strength in the face of that grief, and can feel emotionally weak or selfish in comparison.
Many of us have felt at times, that our sibling has depleted the emotional, financial, practical or spiritual resources of ourselves, and of our parents, until there is none left for us. We may feel at times, that the rhythms of our lives are dictated by the rhythms of a sibling’s ‘illness’: a feeling that we are going to be needed to support the family through the emotional aftermath of the difficult experiences our siblings go through. Resentment can grow from this, putting distance between us and our sibling, and this can lead to more guilt, more isolation.
But we may also feel that expressing this to our families will stop them from feeling able to lean on us for support- which is a situation, paradoxically, we don’t want; so we are stuck in a perpetual Catch 22.
I think we also know (but can forget sometimes in equal measure), that our parents desperately wish they had the resources to support all of their children equally. These factors can make for very complicated family dynamics.
In my experience, things became no less complicated as an adult well sibling, as I reflected on what it is like to be a parent. Or wondered when my sibling would be able to cope independently (practically or emotionally). And perhaps as I slowly came to the realization that they may never do so in a way that fits any preconceived notions.
This can lead to a sense of enraged resentment, shadowed by guilt. And a reluctant acceptance that you’ll never receive the support you want or need. You might find yourself putting distance between you and your family, physically, emotionally, or both, but not really ever be able to explain to them why.
I think that for a long time, to explain this phenomenon, in my family, the narrative we co-created, was that I was ‘naturally independent’. Some of this is true. But I used to try to swallow down this narrative whole, and undigested. And something never sat right. It choked me somehow. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
I’ve had well sibling friends who grew with the narrative that they were rebellious trouble-seekers who didn’t want support. They too, swallowed this story whole.
You see the narrative may be serving as a painkiller for the whole family. As the saying goes, ‘we are the stories we tell ourselves’. And although the narratives for other well siblings may be different, many of us well siblings, in my experience, have used drugs or alcohol, food or other substance, even ‘success’, unwittingly in an attempt to help us swallow down such narratives. Such ‘negative’ coping strategies were also revealed in studies. And as some woman with a flying umbrella said once: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”.
The studies point out that being a well sibling has its positives: we may develop more compassion for others who have a mental illness or disabling condition. We might develop more self-awareness, empathy and resilience. We may choose to enter into a ‘helping’ profession such as youth work, teaching, or therapy. (Then again, we may not. Instead, at times we may have less patience and compassion for others, feeling we need to keep what little compassion we have, for ourselves). Both of these things, believe it or not, can be true at once.
Even the agonizing complex grief of suicide can sometimes be channeled with positive consequences for others: many channel their grief into advocacy. But for this too, there may be a shadow: we may wonder with shame, why we are able to empower others to heal, but are unable to do the same for our sibling or our own family.
As a sibling survivor of suicide, it can feel like we have to be extremely careful who we speak our truth to, as if that truth is too explosive and would only serve to cause our loved-ones further damage.
We may feel that the space to make relational mistakes (as we all normally do, in the course of a normal life, mostly unintentionally), has been stolen from us; because the results would be more catastrophic than we would ever want them to be; because they carry with them the weight of hurt, that our sibling left behind as well. So we may feel like there’s a part of us, (the imperfect-but-needed part), that we were forced to bury along with our sibling.
All these negative emotions may lead to us doubting the love we have or ever had for our sibling. It may leave us questioning what love is, and feeling incapable of loving the way other people do. We may conclude that this is an unacceptable, irreparable fault with us; that the thing that’s ‘wrong’ with us, is not an illness or a condition, like our sibling’s, that we hope could be ‘managed’, ‘cured’, medicated, or accepted by society, but a fundamental personality flaw: we are a bad person, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Our coping strategies; the sugar we used to swallow down a spoonful of shadows, can be fed by this self-destructive narrative.
We might feel all these things and more. And yet we might be so detached from our feelings, that we don’t even recognize it.
The temptation is to find fault, or lay blame. Fault and blame both suggest that the situation is (or was) changeable, by you or by someone else. But in the end, we’re all just human, trying our best to be as human as possible, and failing more often than we succeed. Because the most difficult thing about being human is, accepting that there’s so much we can’t control; holding all opposing truths in both hands; accepting that not all things will ever make sense, and deciding to live good anyway.
The well sibling complex can feel like a struggle for equality. For the equality of your sibling in a world that frequently disables or disempowers them. For the equality of emotional, psychological and practical resources within the family unit. For equal understanding of the well sibling’s situation alongside their brother or sister. And a fight to maintain some equilibrium between the positive and negative emotions and thoughts that the well sibling’s life entails.
All of these thoughts and feelings, longings, denials and fantasies are okay. They are allowed. We are not alone in thinking them. Our experience is valid. The 'Well Sibling Complex' needs attention. It’s important to remember that negative feelings are not permanent states; they are just that- feelings. They don’t make us a ‘bad person’. Well siblings can find a safe, confidential, shame-free space to speak our truth.
And although it might be hard to let go of the pain- especially if we feel like it’s all we have left of our sibling relationship, we can detoxify ourselves of those self-destructive, once-needed narratives that we may have been trying to swallow whole, when we’re ready. We can begin to supplement the negative coping strategies for more positive ones.
We are much more than a ‘Well Sibling’, just as our sibling is much more than their condition, mental health issue, or suicide. That is only part of who we are. We can learn to let those thoughts and feelings come and go in waves. Over time, therapy or sibling support and social groups can help us do that. And enable us to gently rekindle, or maintain, a loving relationship with our sibling. Even if only in memory.
NeuroTribe UK CIC is a specialist talking therapies and arts therapies practice for children & families with special educational needs and disabilities, and their well siblings.
If you would like to find out more about our forthcoming Adult or Child Well Sibling Support Groups please contact us, stating Sibling Support in the subject bar.