I come from a dysfunctional family. My father was in a small plane crash when I was 11. I believe he had a frontal lobe injury. He had been a lawyer, and was exceptionally intelligent. He started verbally abusing me after his accident. He perseverated for hours, attacking me for lying to him, even though I hadn’t. My mother was an alcoholic. She and my father were verbally abusive to each other as well.
My father died of a heart attack when I was 16. I took the call and told my mother. My brother, 2 1/2 years older than I, joined the military within a few months. I became the sole caretaker of my terminally alcoholic mother. She had a sister who was kind to me, but my mother refused to allow her sister anywhere near her. I left for college when I was 17. When I was in college, my mother was diagnosed breast cancer, which she treated in the most minimal manner (her parents had both died painfully of cancer).
Eventually she told me she thought it was spreading and asked me to get her pills so she could kill herself. She thought I was a drug addict (I had briefly experimented with drugs in college, but stopped and was never addicted.)
The last time she entered the hospital was two weeks after I finished college. She had cycled in and out of hospitals for years. I called her doctor from a phone booth in the hospital lobby, and he asked me what I wanted to do: try everything, or make her comfortable. He said her odds were 50/50 if he tried everything. I told the doctor simply to make her comfortable. My brother was overseas at the time. I made the decision alone.
My mother left a will that favored my brother: he received disbursements, I did not; I was not allowed money for my education until he finished his, etc. I had $650 when she died, and her car. I stayed in her apartment for a few months, until the estate lawyers told me I had to leave, which I did. I was 21.
Five years later, in 1976, I was living in New York. One summer Sunday night, I took a subway home after a night out at my neighborhood bar. A man followed me and molested me in the subway. I went up onto the street and called 911, but was too embarrassed to request a squad car. The man, a stranger, raped me on the sidewalk. There were three passer-by witnesses, one of whom chased and caught the man.
I did the hospital post-rape exam, pressed charges in court, and told and re-told my story to the police, the assistant attorney, and the grand jury. The man was indicted for rape, but was offered a plea bargain (without my knowledge) and was sentenced to a lesser charge, sexual intercourse without consent. He was sent to jail for 2-4 years.
I was working in publishing, a low-paying job, and after I was raped I was often late and was being docked, so my income was even lower than it had been before I was raped.
My brother and his wife had returned to America not long before this happened. I told my brother I’d been raped, but not much more.
Apparently I asked him to lend me some money. He remembers the year to be around 1976 or 77, which would have been when I was still dealing with court matters related to the rape.
He says he simply asked me what I wanted the money for, as any lender would, to protect himself and his family (his wife, they had no children). Apparently, I completely lost my temper with him and told him to f*** off. I don’t remember any of this. I suspect his didn’t calmly, simply ask me what I wanted some money for. He often berated me for being irresponsible, for not dressing professionally, for wearing my hair long … for being a hippy-type. Which I was. But maybe he was nonjudgmental, I don’t know.
I had gaps in my memory of the rape, I dissociated immediately after it, I began sleepwalking (something I’d never done), I was very jumpy and startled easily, and apparently I got angry easily. I saw a very good therapist for a number of years, but neither she nor I had ever heard of PTSD, which was only recognized in 1980. I only began to suspect I had it in the 1990s, and was finally diagnosed about 3 years ago.
I was attacked twice again in 1979. One man, a stranger, punched me unconscious and tried (but failed) to rape me; he was never caught. Another man, an old friend from college, pushed me down, broke my arm, kicked me, and spread untrue rumors about his wife and me. This man also beat his wife. He’s dead now.
I was diagnosed with autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease in the late 1990s. When I called my brother to explain the diagnosis and asked him to get an ultrasound to see if he had it and help confirm my diagnosis, he started to scream at me: Who’s going to pay for this? How much is this going to cost me? Why should I pay for your diagnosis? He did eventually do it, and he’s ok.
I had a preemptive kidney transplant in 2006. A very dear friend was my living donor. We’re both fine, but my mood was a little depressed after the transplant. My hospital experience was not a good one, I had some complications, and the recovery dragged to 8 months. I was back at work after 3 months, when I really wasn’t quite well.
About 2 years ago, there were a lot of changes where I work, and I realized I was severely depressed. I sought treatment, and am now doing well on an antidepressant (SSRI) and seeing a therapist for a spot-weld.
I try to call my brother from time to time, just to keep a line open, and I try to avoid conflict. He’s often angry and verbally abusive. He lost his job recently, fired with no benefits after 35 years. I think it may have been his truculent manner that got him fired. I think he’s been drinking a lot, and I know he’s smoking a good deal. I worry for his health.
We had a recent exchange of emails about wills and his estate. It was during this exchange that I first I learned he’s been furious with me for decades because I yelled at him in front of his wife back in 1976 or 77.
“No one does that to me in my home, in front of my wife, when asking me to lend them money. No one. Ever. If you’d bothered to take time to explain yourself to me, you’d have met with a sympathetic ear, but you didn’t. You’ve built a wall between us. You have my empathy, but no sympathy. ”
I tried to explain that I wasn’t adding insult to injury, I had no idea I had PTSD, I didn’t understand the rage it can cause, I thought I just had a bad temper. Still, he says he’ll never forgive me.
He doesn’t remember the exact year I offended him, 76 or 77, he doesn’t remember how much money I asked him for. He says he’s not mad at me. “This is just a consequence of your action.”
My question: may I please be excused from this relationship?
My brother’s been verbally abusive, angry, unkind, and sometimes cruel to me for decades. I don’t think I’ll be able to help him or mend this relationship. I tried to help my mother, I forgave my father, the men who attacked me, and I forgive my brother, who seems to be a very sad, angry man. But I really don’t want to be exposed to his abuse any more.
I’d like to leave this in the past, and step forward into my own future without feeling that I should somehow fix him and our relationship. I think it’s time I looked after my own well-being, and let him handle his.
Thanks for wading through all this.
A: As much as I might like to give you permission to “divorce” your brother, it’s not my place. I have neither the moral or legal authority to do so. It would be arrogant for me to assume that responsibility but, more important, it would deprive you of an important moment of personal self-respect. I’ve long been of the opinion that it takes more than biology to determine who should be in a family. Respect, trust, kindness, and mutual care are the basis of love, not DNA. In my opinion, it is absolutely within your rights to decide what kind of relationship you want with this man who also happens to be related to you.
The “wall,” as he put it, can’t possibly be about one outburst in a lifetime of doing your best to maintain your own emotional balance and yet stay connected to him. He’s put far, far more bricks in that wall than you have. Although his treatment of you may be a way he has defended himself against his shame for his failures as a brother, it’s not an excuse. You did your personal work to heal from repeated trauma and to become the person you are. He has the same opportunity.
I think he excused himself from being brotherly toward you a long time ago. You can’t fix it unless he will meet you at least halfway. I suggest you take your distance and give him room to decide whether he wants a sister. Once you stop trying, he may understand what he’s lost – or not. Meanwhile, attend to your friendships and love the people who love you. Now that you’re in your 60s, time is more precious than ever. I think it’s okay to spend it with the people who reciprocate your caring.
I wish you well.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Sep 2010
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2010). My brother is still punishing me for a PTSD outburst in 1976. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 25, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/09/14/my-brother-is-still-punishing-me-for-a-ptsd-outburst-in-1976/