Almost a year ago, I woke up at dawn to a phone call from the Leon County Prison. My then-19-year-old sister had been somewhat-mistakenly arrested for a minor infraction on her way home from her nightclub job.
I was sleep-hazy, but unsurprised. Part of me always suspected I’d eventually be my little sister’s “one phone call” from jail.
There’s a lot more written in creative non-fiction and personal essay about being the “black sheep” of a family than about being “the good girl.” It makes sense. My sister’s story is probably way more fun, twisty and relatable. (See: David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Tobias Wolff, Susan Jane Gilman. You get the picture.) Being good isn’t very good for memoirs.
As kids, my sister was the more difficult, rebellious “bad kid” to my reserved, well-mannered “good kid.” While she was prone to earth-shattering temper tantrums, I tried to melt into the wallpaper. In high school, she was the center of more friend-drama than Lauren Conrad and I spent a lot of time alone on the Internet. She dealt with learning disabilities; I was an overachiever. At my prom, my act of rebellion was wearing a pair of silk elbow-length gloves in an attempt to be quirky, which no one appreciated. At hers, she was caught with a bottle of vodka and my parents had to come pick her up early.
Even so, our labels are misleading. Sure, I was generally the Abel to my sister’s Cain, but I definitely had my nights of sneaking out, going to parties, experimenting with drugs and sex, etc. I had issues with my parents and fights with my friends. I self-injured with a razor blade. When hiccups of growing up happened, I felt inordinate amounts of guilt. Wasn’t I the good girl? Wasn’t I my parents’ easier child? Shouldn’t I perfectly fit the part carved out for me?
Similarly, my sister isn’t all “bad.” She’s fantastically witty, talented at handling people and social situations and a lot of fun to be around. Calling her “the bad kid” doesn’t give her the credit she deserves. It’s just a way to simplify our roles.
After her arrest, my parents and I sat around the kitchen table and talked about my sister. I’m often called in as my family’s mediator, or “the third parent.” My parents told me they didn’t plan to ask my sister to repay them for the bail money they’d fronted. I was angry. Once again, I felt they were giving my sister a new doll to end a tantrum, metaphorically speaking.
This “reward” system between my parents and my sister is reactionary. She’s handed attention, money and mollifying presents for causing problems, and I’m generally left alone because I don’t “need” it or because I can “handle myself.” Hence, I work so hard to garner some imaginary, magical praise that will put me in the spotlight and shift focus from my sister’s bad behavior.
“Don’t worry about her broken curfew, Mom and Dad! Look at my A+ spelling test! Look at me!”
Or as my mom, exhausted from my sister’s latest crisis, simply put it: “You’re our ray of sunshine.” My dad was dismayed.
“It’s not fair to put that kind of pressure on Gaby,” he told her. He felt naming me as such would make me reluctant to share any negative feelings and cause me to hide my problems. It was way too late.
Being “the good kid” means I feel responsible for my family’s fragile balance. My anxiety manifests in a never-ending echo in my brain that I’m not doing enough, not working enough, not achieving enough to fill my familial role. There’s a constant fear of falling from grace since so much of my self-image is wrapped up in being “good.”
I try so hard not to cause trouble that, like my dad suspected, I sacrifice a lot emotionally: I feel constantly guilty for not being perfect and I struggle to confront my (normal) feelings of anger, disappointment, selfishness or laziness. I find them unacceptable rather than facts of life. Every time I misbehave or make a mistake, it threatens my identity as “the good kid.”
My therapist thinks I need to accept that my sister is not part of me. It’s no longer — and never should have been — my job to compensate for and/or to clean up after her. We’re our own people — both good in our own ways and bad in our own ways — just like everyone else.
The thing I have to realize is: I am “good” without all this extra white noise — and so is my sister. We’re both good, and we’re both bad. Most people aren’t all or nothing. Siblings can’t be, nor should they be, limited so simply.