real life

'My boyfriend had a fight with his sister. It sent me spiralling into an emotional breakdown.'

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend Kevin had a fight with his sister. Not something you’d think would send me spiraling into an emotional breakdown. Well, allow me to introduce myself then: I’m Dani, and sometimes I lose my mind over things as banal as sibling spats. 

I spent a week doing the following:

  1. Alternating between crying and tending to my spasming neck.
  2. Not eating.
  3. Meddling and making things worse.

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Because, if I’ve learned anything over the course of my lifetime, it’s this: I can see the future.

To give some context as to why a fight between a brother and a sister would rile me up so much, I need to say a few words — three in particular: cornucopia of dysfunction. 

That’s what someone once called my family. For reasons about which I’m writing an entire memoir (*shameless self-promotion), my family’s been fractured for years — here are the cliff’s notes: mental illness, addiction, and financial ruin. 

We are not a family that gets all warm and fuzzy at holidays, and over the last 10 years, that fact has filled me with a sadness I thought I wouldn’t survive. I did.

So when I ended up with a man from a big Irish Catholic family, I thought, "Score!" I’ll finally have a holiday-card-worthy family amidst a fun-loving (if rowdy) group, and all the fear and sadness of the last 20 years will be wiped away in an instant. 

My first instance of knowing the future. What could possibly go wrong?

The details of the fight are not mine to share, and quite frankly don’t really matter. What matters is that the morning after the fight, I called his sister and tried to make her see his side.

I talked with Kevin and did the same in reverse. I pushed and I pushed, only making my dear, stubborn boyfriend dig in more. I even turned us into that horrible couple who argues in front of their friends. 

A day after the fight, we stood outside a restaurant with another couple as Kevin relayed his version of the spat. 

Thinking I was out of his sight line, I began shaking my head, rolling my eyes, and mouthing the word no.

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"Oh, that’s not how it is?" he asked. "Do explain your great insight into 50 years of family dynamics." Dissatisfied with said insight, he then proceeded to walk home — a mere 11 kilometres and over a mountain from the restaurant. (It wasn’t long before he reconsidered the journey and returned.) 

In my defence, though, I’m sure I can take credit for a little extra gratitude felt by our friends, because at least they weren’t us.

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As the week continued — in the void of the much-needed breather the siblings were taking — the future unraveled itself in front of me, as real and certain as any other fact of my life. I am a writer and tutor. I live in New Jersey. Kevin and I will be isolated forever.

So, what do you do when you are powerless and left waiting? Waiting for a fight to be over. For an agent to write back. For a pandemic to end. What do you do when something happens, and it fits so perfectly into grooves worn down by past experiences that you are certain you know exactly what will happen — and that certainty makes you desperate and stupid? 

When your knuckles ache from clenching your fists so tightly around a situation, when what is called for is channeling your inner Lebowski: The Dude abides.

I hope you weren’t expecting any answers from me.

What I know is this: Acceptance can be one of the saddest experiences you ever go through. 

There was a night seven or eight years ago when I found myself alone in my parents’ apartment. 

I’d come for a holiday meal, having recently reconciled with them after a rift of our own, but a bad ulcer had landed my father in the hospital. 

When he’d stabilised, I returned to their apartment, and as I walked in the smells of the aborted meal smacked me in the face, chicken soup and apple pie that was still warm. 

And I realised that I’d unknowingly come to the meal with the expectation that somehow — despite the knowledge of who we all were — I’d walk in and it would be just like when I was a kid, warm and safe, filled with a relief I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for. 

But as I sat down on their couch, this palpable — almost physical — feeling overtook me. It was like bumping into a wall that I’d been trying to walk right through for years, suddenly seeing it for the first time. 

Oh right, I thought. Coming to my parents is not going to fill any void; I don’t have a picturesque family, and I won’t find the safety I’m seeking here. 

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It was something shifting, ever so slightly, as a bubble rising to the surface of water. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was what acceptance feels like: gritty and nauseating and entirely relieving.

I think about that moment in my parents’ apartment a lot. 

I think about a thousand others like it, when Kevin and I were having problems and almost didn’t make it. When I sent my manuscript to an agent. When I stood outside the front doors of a rehab on a cold night. 

All the times I wanted something so badly that it felt like a razor blade to my throat that would surely slice me open if I didn’t get it, and all the times that blade never touched my neck. 

All those times I thought I’d die if I didn’t get what I wanted. And all the times I didn’t die.

Kevin and his sister made up and my Nostradamus-like skills have once again been proven faulty. 

As the holidays peek out from around the corner, it is not likely we’ll be squatting in some dark room by ourselves. 

But now, after the dust has settled, I’m left with the memories of a full week of my own madness — the exhausting, bleary-eyed madness of planned manipulations and forced reconciliations. 

In fact, I can now say honestly that the impetus for writing this essay was a hope that Kevin’s sister would read it and then be convinced of something.

Exactly what, I don’t know. For someone who loves to eat and doesn’t cry all that often, the week drained me of everything. And for what?

That week of madness was its own revelation. I’ve been looking to Kevin’s family to fill the same void I’ve been trying to quench forever — the one that drugs never quite did, the one that my parents can’t. 

The void that, perhaps, no external thing will ever be able to fill. Which is not a nihilistic submission, but rather a statement of fact. 

Perhaps I have to be the one to fill that void, because every other thing has been like styrofoam in a wound. It holds the space but does no healing.

I still spend my time wanting all kinds of things: for my family to be different, for the pandemic to end, for the world to right itself. 

But that’s okay. All that wanting is okay. Because here’s the thing I keep learning and then forgetting. Acceptance isn’t about not wanting something you want. 

It’s about accepting the fact that you might not get it.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission.

Feature Image: Getty.

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