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I Can't Save My Sister
It breaks my heart to see my twin follow our mom’s path.

Names have been changed.

My fraternal twin sister Tammy was my best friend growing up. Though she doesn’t look like me, I felt like she was the other half of my coin.

We were born premature and I had more developmental problems than Tammy. I still have a difficult time expressing myself occasionally. I don’t know how she does it but when I talk to Tammy, she gets me and can somehow rearrange my words to have the exact meaning I want. When we were kids, she stood up for me and could help explain what I meant to other people. She understood me in a way that no one else ever has. I love her so much.

It was just us and my mother growing up; my father died when we were young and I don’t remember him. When my father died, my mother started drinking. Though she was affectionate and supportive when sober, when she drank she became verbally and physically abusive.

Tammy was my protector. Tammy would tell my mother she’d done whatever bad thing my mom was angry at me for, so Tammy would get the beating instead of me. She’d stand up for me if my mom was screaming in my face and I couldn’t respond fast enough or in the way my mom wanted. She knew how to phrase what I wanted to say so that my mom wouldn’t hurt me. I’d be close to peeing my pants, stuttering, crying, and mumbling, and Tammy would swoop in and tell my mom what I was trying to say.

My mother would fly into a rage over tiny offenses we’d commit as children. She’d threaten to put us into foster care when we were “bad,” telling us about how she was molested and raped by her foster fathers when she was in foster care as a child. She stopped beating me after I told a counselor in elementary school why I had a bruise on my face and then she only beat Tammy, mercilessly.

Though my mother stopped physically abusing me, the emotional and psychological abuse got worse. I was forced to watch in horror as my sister screamed when my mom hit her with a horsehair belt.

“I brought you into this world, I can d-mn well take you out of it,” my mom often repeated, and I had no doubt about it when I listened to Tammy scream in agony, begging and whimpering.

I always cried when Tammy and I talked about my mother’s abuse. After one bad beating, we even planned to run away together. “I will never let you go, Betty boo. I love you. Let’s run away together. We’ll be safe and we’ll take care of each other,” Tammy would say.

A Sick Bond

Mom didn’t have many friendships because of her alcoholism, so she made Tammy into her drinking, pot-smoking buddy when we were 14 years old. She picked Tammy because I was “the good one.” My mother called my sister evil and so it was OK for her to drink; my mother would say how Tammy was just going to mess up her life anyway. As bad as it sounds, I was envious of the closeness between my sister and mom.

Though my mom drank throughout my childhood, I never realized it could get so much worse until we lost the house she’d been in for 25 years, my father’s home. When we lost the house, Tammy and I were 15 years old. We moved into a much smaller apartment, and we all became depressed. We dealt with it in different ways. My mother drank even more. I isolated myself and devoted myself to the only thing I felt could change my life, my schoolwork.

Tammy, on the other hand, entered her rebellious phase. My mother had introduced her to drugs and alcohol, but she didn’t want to drink and smoke with my mother anymore; she wanted to do that with kids her age. She started pouring vodka into her water bottle so she could drink in math class. Then she started cutting school to smoke pot with her friends. It was frustrating for me to watch, because Tammy had adored and excelled at school up until this point.

Returning the Favor

When Tammy and I were 17, my mother finally abandoned us and we were forced into foster care. It was our worst nightmare come true. Within two days of being placed in care, I was robbed on the bus to my foster home in Canarsie, a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Though we were placed in the same foster home, my sister rebelled more than ever. She hated “the system” and continually ran away. She hated that we couldn’t live alone even though we were only months from turning 18. She didn’t believe she had to follow the rules of “some b-tch that’s getting a check to keep us.”

image by YC-Art Dept

As soon as she turned 18 years old, Tammy signed herself out of care. I knew she wasn’t ready—she had no plan, no secure place to live, not even an identification card. Shortly after that, she officially dropped out of high school.

We’re both almost 20 years old now. I just finished my first year of college, while she’s moved through at least 25 homes in the past two years. She’s an alcoholic, a drug user, mostly unemployed and uninsured, and she has no GED or high school diploma. She’s what they call a “disconnected youth.”

Just last month my sister was kicked out of her last home due to her drinking and subsequent blacking-out. I thought she had hit bottom and learned her lesson, but the very next day I heard that she started drinking again. I spent three or four days trying to get one of my friends to let her stay with them until she could get on her feet, because none of her friends were willing to take her in anymore. In the meantime she wouldn’t tell me where she was sleeping. But I know that in the past, she’s had to stay up all night in a park because she had nowhere to go.

Luckily, a week or so later, she got a job through Craigslist as an at-home attendant for an elderly woman, rent free with a weekly cash payment and free food and Internet.

The Booze Controls Her

We don’t see each other very often. This summer I’m working two jobs and now that she’s employed, our days off and our sleeping schedules rarely align. So I was happy when she agreed to meet me at the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, Brooklyn, with one of my friends.

But Tammy was with us for no more than 10 minutes when she asked me for money to buy beer. I said no. She said that if I didn’t give her the money for the booze, she’d go home and not come back. It disturbed me how she could want to start drinking so soon after losing her home because of her drinking problem. I felt sad and angry at the same time. I also felt insulted. I felt like her booze meant more to her than me.

My friend who was with us didn’t know about her problem, so he gave Tammy the money. She bought a 40 oz. In an attempt to bribe her into staying with me, I took her and my friend to an expensive restaurant nearby. During our dinner, she went outside every few minutes or so to swig from her beer or smoke a cigarette. She spent maybe 20 minutes of our two-hour dinner actually inside with us. She doesn’t acknowledge that she has a problem.

When I got home that night, I sat and worried, like I do every night. Tammy’s at-home attendant job provides her with a paycheck and a room. She has almost lost that job several times due to her drinking, and she’s only had the job for a few weeks. I worried about her getting raped (again) because she blacks out when she drinks. Over the years, her situation has prevented me from sleeping and I have panic attacks. I’ve had to hear stories about how she’s had sex with strangers on a bench on a public boardwalk while she was blacked out and the horrible things she’s done to get money for booze or other substances.

That night after the Mermaid Parade I was once again sick with anxiety. I cried for two hours.

I can’t keep feeling guilty when her behavior results in bad things happening to her. I still try to support her and console her when unfortunate things happen to her. I still try to show her that I’ll be there when she needs me, but nagging her to stop doesn’t work. I’ve directed her to three different inpatient treatment programs, but she didn’t want a paper trail documenting her drug use.

I realized that my attempts to help her were destroying my physical and mental health and that I have to take care of myself. Besides therapy, I’ve taken stress management, anger management, and mental health classes. It’s really, really hard, but I am starting to realize that whether I’m there to try to stop her or not, she won’t stop drinking until she’s ready. There’s always going to be some idiot who’ll support her drinking. I can’t control that.

Not My Fault

There’s not a happy ending here. I’m still very much hurt by her struggle. I feel guilty when she suffers, because I want to be there for her the way she was there for me when we were kids. I never got the chance to support her the same way she helped me and now that she’s hurting, I feel like it’s my turn to be the all-loving, omnipresent caregiver and protector that she was for me. I rip myself apart inside because I can’t be that for her.

When she keeps drinking and putting her job at risk to spend time with the wrong people, I feel like I’ve failed and I beat myself up about it. Friends who don’t understand my situation have made it worse at times, asking why I don’t do more to help when they hear that she’s gotten herself in trouble.

But I’m trying not to take it so personally when she doesn’t take what I say seriously. It’s not my fault if she continues to be an alcoholic, because I’ve given her all the help I can. I’m the same age as her and I can’t act as her mother. I can’t make her decisions for her or punish her when she behaves badly.

I give her as much support as my health and sanity allows. The rest she has to do for herself.

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