Learning to Say No

Carolyn Hax’ advice column here

“If you’re done being suckered, pick more mature friends…

“But you’re in control — of you, your time, your phone, your car, your definition of crisis and your availability to help with one real or imagined. All you.

“Slide a peek over at Alex; I’m as confident as I can be about a complete stranger that Allison doesn’t badger her for anything because her hysterics don’t work on Alex.

“When Allison accused you of being selfish, that was manipulation 101. Do you see it? Allison spun her neediness into your fault.

“Until you do see it, you’ll be dogged by Allisons. They spot people more worried about losing their friends than about losing themselves, and they latch on. The powerlessness you feel is what losing yourself feels like.

“It’s not uncommon, but fix it now, please — with a counselor at school if need be — while your Allison is just Allison and not your boss, child or spouse.”

All true, and excellent advice.  Except in my case, it was my siblings.

And eventually, after a lot of hard, emotional work —  I found out that losing my siblings was not actually the worst thing that could happen.

The journey of finding that out started with the absolute worst moment of my life, and it led to a lot of other bad ones as I confronted the fact that I was not and never had been fully accepted into my own damned family, nor loved by the ones who, after the deaths of our parents, anointed themselves the arbiters of what our family was now:  of what would and would not be allowed, who would get to be mean to whom, who would get to behave badly and who would be blamed, who would be allowed to talk to whom, and who would even be allowed to exist.

I still miss parts of my extended family:  mainly the parts that were never tainted by the resentment over my birth and the circumstances that surrounded it.

But I do not miss the anxiety I experienced every year in preparation for the annual trip to see them (never a trip out here solely to see us; always there was another, better reason to go along with it.  Not even my 40th birthday was celebrated).

I suppose the one saving grace here is that while I lived nearly 40 years under the illusion, I started figuring it out pretty quickly once the reunions started:  from the first draft I wrote about feeling like an outsider in my own family, in 2007 (after only 3 get-togethers), to fighting back in 2012, only took about 5 years.  It took a few more years to come to terms with the grief and the loss, and some of it will never go away completely.  But every year brings more peace.

I now have friends who I consider family, and vice versa.  I spent a long weekend in New York City with three of them this fall, and it was a ton of fun — better than my own wedding, better than any family reunion.  Because they truly WANTED me to be there.  One of them made the trip from Canada basically just to meet me.  <3

It was a great feeling, but there were moments of the weekend where I still felt a little weird — and I could tell it was because I was on a par with everyone else in the group — even though half of them are the age of my older siblings, they still somehow managed to treat me as an adult and a friend and yes, A SISTER.

I’m still not quite used to that, at least not from the older women in my life.

Now some of us are thinking about planning another trip, to — of all places — CHICAGO.

One friend works for the FAA and travels a bunch, and she recently spent a week in Chi-town for meetings.  It looked like she had a blast.  She posted photos of public art and architecture that I’ve never seen, despite having “family” in Chicago for practically all my life.  She went to the Bean at night, which I’ve never done even though I love the Bean.

She didn’t get to the art museum to see one of her favorite paintings, though — which was the seed of the idea that maybe the group should plan a repeat, and all go to Chi-town for fun.  (And one prominent friend of the group lives in St Joseph, where my sister’s lake house is.)

Well, naturally this got me thinking about what I would do if I were actually back in Chicago.  Would I contact my BIL and nieces and nephews, whom I miss?  I thought about it all afternoon.  Would it be better to suggest a lunch or a dinner?  Wouldn’t it be fun to get to see my great-niece and great-nephew?  And maybe there are more of them than the two I know about!  Would I maybe get to meet spouses whose wedding I was not invited to?  What kind of news would I hear about my siblings’ health and circumstances?

But then,

Would anyone even want to come?  If they did, would it simply be an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy, childless aunt?

(After all, it’s not like my nieces and nephews have made much effort to keep in touch with me and my husband.  To be fair to them, I know that my sister has forbidden my BIL to contact us, and I can only assume the same dictum was handed down to my sister’s children.  And it’s tough to go against your mom, and I can guess especially tough to go against a mom that got trained by OUR mom.

And it’s also true that I have blocked all my relations on Facebook, even the ones I don’t have an issue with — because for several years it proved to be too hard to see happy, laughing photos popping up of a family I was not (ever) a part of.  I learned that one the hard way.

Also, I don’t send our annual New Year’s newsletter to any of my nieces or nephews, because I know there’s a good chance it would get shared with people I don’t want it shared with.  That has happened before with emails I have sent to them, which my sister actually asked to see, and was shown.  My sister has also shared my emails around the family (in order to show that she’s the “good guy”, of course) without including me or asking my permission.  See?  No boundaries.  So, no more newsletters.

It may well be that these stances I have taken to protect myself are interpreted as stances of rejection — probably because they’ve been framed that way to them, by people who would prefer me to be seen as unreasonably rejecting them all, rather than as reasonably taking a position, based on evidence and experience, to protect myself from further harm.

OTOH, this is 2017, they are almost all in their 30’s, and everyone still has email and texting, or even just the traditional holiday card.  So they are adults and can make their own choices, and keeping in touch with us is clearly not one of them.)


Would such a meeting devolve into a fight or an attempt to get me to be “reasonable”?  Worse, would they bring my sister and try to force some kind of fake reconciliation, as my BIL tried to do with her and our father?

Or would it just be supremely awkward and sad, something no one really wanted to do, and felt guilty about?

I finally, sadly, reluctantly came to the conclusion that no, I would not contact them to say, “I’m coming to Chicago, and I would love to see you again.”

I miss them, or at least I miss the people I used to know.  But we’re strangers now.

With my sister, that’s my choice (although technically, initially, it was her choice to reject me, and to foist her choice on everyone else.  Me going no-contact is just me following through with my own choice in response to hers).

But with her kids and her husband, well, that’s at least partly their choice as well as hers.

We’re not family.

Or rather, I’m not family.

In fact, that simple sentence is what all of this — ALL of it — ends up coming down to.

I’m not family, and that means I’m not important enough to take risks for, to stand up for, to care about, to remember.

And while intellectually I know I never was family, deep down my heart is stupid enough to keep hoping.

Learning to say no to that hope is painful.