I’m the eldest of three, but I always always wanted a big sister. It felt exhausting doing everything first, going to university, passing exams, traveling alone. I was always the test so the other two knew what to do. I was never a role model though. I didn’t want my siblings to be anything like me. And I was very clear about that. “Do everything I didn’t do!” I’d say, and so far they are and have, maybe too much sometimes. Like many neurodiverse women I struggled with the concept of being “good enough” and what this actually means. Often obsessively comparing myself to others, and, convincing myself that their strengths were my flaws. Deep down I was racked with the guilt of being the difficult (otherwise translated as “different”) sibling, the one that needed more attention and support, the sister who at times wasn’t like a big sister at all. Sibling guilt is something that A) I’ve recognised to be a thing as part of my life and B) I’ve heard mentioned very little within the neurodiverse community. It is, like most experiences, hard to talk about and even harder to understand. So growing up I craved a big sister who wasn’t like me or maybe was like me, that bit is unclear. Someone to look up to, someone to guide me and someone who had already done everything first.
I spent my teens until my mid 20’s looking up to mainly older women, idolising them and wishing I was like them. I hung onto their every word, I wanted to be less like myself and more like these women who seemed to have it all. I felt the buzz when they chose to speak to me, I was always there to answer their calls. I liked that they had done everything before me, and seemed to know things I didn’t. So, slowly I started divulging parts of my life to them, I offloaded things I hadn’t told anyone before. I leaned on them, I wanted support. But I forgot they are human too, and friendships if they are going to work need to be a two way process. And most upsetting of all, I neglected my real long term friends, or I reflected my insecurities brought on by my relationship with these older women, onto my friends, who tried to piece together the jigsaw, often leaving them pretty baffled. I was pleased to have an older female figure in my life, more than once. When I became too much and one friendship fizzled out, or it ended dramatically, usually after unpleasant words that to me felt like an awful break up, I went onto the next person. I didn’t recognise the pattern. And I didn’t understand what I was doing until now, over a decade after the first time. I recognise who I am, and more importantly was, because I am now that woman. I have transitioned from the person who needed a lot of support and to lean on other people, to someone who is doing that for others. I am literally standing in these older women’s shoes, who I had so much admiration for then. I have also learned from myself, that it’s okay to be direct and honest, it’s okay to look after yourself and more importantly I’ve realised what a healthy friendship looks like.
I remember vividly, I was sitting in woman A’s car, we’ll call her Emma, outside university. I was about to go into a meeting with my tutor to discuss strategies to prevent me from failing my degree. She had come along for support. I was in tears and she just turned to me and said bluntly “Alice, are you on anti-depressants?” I wasn’t, but felt like I should be. I didn’t recognise at the time that this was Emma’s way of saying, “I’m at capacity now, I don’t know how to support you.” A few months later I did get that prescription, just before my finals. Months passed and Emma was still in my life, we went away together, her whole family took me under their wing, I felt that she was the big sister I never had. My life revolved around her, even at my lowest, she suggested the day after my friend died, I go camping with her and her family, that included two small children in tow. “I’ve known people who were too young to die too,” she told me. But she didn’t understand my grief, and I was too broken to argue at the time. I went along, desperately not wanting to be there. I didn’t read that with every interaction I had with her, she was trying to be nice and hoped that one day we’d drift apart and I’d get on with living my life. It didn’t and never would resemble a friendship. We had very little in common really, and she was trying to support someone who came into her life, who was vulnerable and slowly the “friendship” was doing more harm than good. It was becoming unhealthy. I became reliant and at times obsessive. I put her in a very difficult situation and now a decade on, I totally understand that situation.
Boundaries are key and as we grow into ourselves, we learn what is and isn’t okay to share, and with whom. Both in person and online, we set our own boundaries. I spent most of my 20’s trying to work this out. A few months ago I experienced trolling online, to the extent that I didn’t want to share online again. I wanted my whole online presence to vanish. I’d had enough, and my boundaries felt invaded. Especially as the trolling continued over DM’S, away from the public. I started to lean on friends when this happened, and rightly so, I needed people to be there. And they were. At times my mind harped back to when I was younger and much more vulnerable, when I’d talk to people about my problems and it would continue for much longer than was healthy or neccessary. I’d forget that friendships, if they are to survive, need to involve support and empathy for the other person too. I needed to listen too. I didn’t listen for years. I now know when to stop talking, and listen. Or allow space to breathe.
Recently I had a very honest conversation with a friend who knew me then, and still knows me now. I talked about my reliance on people, and constant need to be reassured. “I think I might have looked up to you,” I blurted out. “I can’t believe you looked up to me,” he jokingly responded. “No in a different way, it was different with you, than these older women,” I clarified. And it was, he was a friend, who I used to explore my feelings around difficult friendships. I didn’t expect to be so honest in that conversation and later apologised in a text saying so. The conversation did if anything help me to process my feelings towards who I used to be, and as someone who needs to verbalise events or write them down to move forward, it was a useful exercise. I recalled in that conversation a friend telling me to “make sure you tell us the good things too”, and I tried for years to recount the things people also wanted to hear about my life. And at the age of 31, I think I’ve worked out that balance. I know I still need more reassurance than most people, but I am aware of it, making me more wary of the bonds I make and appreciative of the friendships I value most, that do make me feel “good enough.”
Finding the space and appropriate moment to apologise to those I relied on years ago but didn’t listen to, might be useful, or counterproductive. Just simply saying “I get what I did then,” feels like a conclusion. Recognising myself and who I used to be has been powerful. Powerful to know I now know and understand. It doesn’t yet provide a conclusion, but as time goes on and I ruminate more it may do, and as always writing about it is a start.
(Really interested to hear from anyone with similar experiences…)