From Resentment to Resolution
By Adam Radwan
Let’s be honest for a moment – we’ve all experienced resentment at some point in our lives. In fact, it’s likely that you’re experiencing it to some extent right now. You may be resenting your boss for not approving your request for a raise, your partner for never helping around the house, or your public transportation service for never, ever running on time. Resentment is a natural component in our emotional development as human beings, and its ability to manifest in a variety of ways renders it a phenomenon that is simply inescapable.
The phrase, “you can run, but you can’t hide” captures it perfectly.
My younger sister Semia and I are no strangers to the throes of resentment. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since a sibling relationship is in theory (and in practice) the perfect breeding ground for resentment, especially for those very close in age. Our brothers and sisters are our playmates and personal bullies, our confidants and tattletales, our role models and objects of jealousy. In other words, opportunities for resentment are plentiful. The science writer Jeffrey Kluger reinforces this notion when he states in an interview with Salon that “siblings are the only relatives, and perhaps the only people you’ll ever know, who are with you through the entire arc of your life.” The 18 months that separated Semia and I made us excellent candidates.
Growing up, I resented her for how naturally talented she was as an artist (stick figures were all I knew) and for how much attention she received as the youngest in the family. At the same time, it was clear that she resented me for my social skills (she was extremely shy) and for the privileges granted to me only because I was a boy. Our parents, both working-class immigrants, were traditionalists at heart and created a home with very rigid gender roles. I could hang with friends outside the house for long periods of time and hold a job throughout high school, but not Semia. Her time was limited and oftentimes supervised. Dating, however, was definitely out of the question for the both of us, which naturally meant that our parents would regularly get a taste of our combined resentment.
These may seem like petty hang-ups, and they certainly were. In no way did they stop us from developing a very close and unique relationship. We were both born into this wacky world together, and it was by our own volition that we would always have each other’s back. We were each other’s best friend and partner-in-crime. We had an “us against the world” attitude, and together we felt unstoppable.
Things took a turn for the absolute worse when Semia’s eating disorder entered our lives seven years ago. Her disorder began as anorexia, later developed into bulimia, then eventually into a deadly combination of the two, all while she dealt with severe bouts of anxiety, PTSD, depression, and alcoholism. I loved her to the core and knew I had a duty as her older brother to save her life. But at the mere age of 20, I truly had no idea what that really meant or looked like.
Her eating disorder forced me to grow up a lot earlier than I had planned. I ditched being an older brother and took on being a third parent for the bulk of my twenties. My parents were extremely supportive and did everything and anything they could to get my sister the help she needed, but they ultimately looked to me to take the lead with her recovery. They had a point – I could get through to her in ways they simply could not, and if we wanted to give this eating disorder a fair fight, I really had to step up.
Before I knew it, I was doing it all: facilitating phone calls with therapists and doctors, planning trips to visit different treatment centers around the country, constantly checking up on her to ensure she was sticking to her meal plan and later wondering whether she was telling the truth or not. Doing it all, while trying to finish and enjoy my last two years of college. Doing it all, while hoping and praying every day that the vicious cycle of relapse would end, that the new treatment center would really do the trick this time, that she would finally wake up and realize the hell her eating disorder created for everyone around her.
Doing it all, until I just couldn’t do it any longer.
Four years into Semia’s recovery, I completely crashed. I was physically, psychologically, and emotionally spent. In hindsight, I contribute my overwhelming exhaustion to the heavy bag of unspoken resentments I carried around with me. Unspoken resentments bring out the darker side of sibling love, and it’s precisely this darker side that no one really talks about. The rage I had against my sister for continuously relapsing and destroying our relationship burned so brightly that it felt impossible to feel any bit of love or compassion. My anger, passive aggression, and deep resignation were spilling out into all areas of my life. I wasn’t motivated to find a job after graduating college. I blamed my parents for putting me in this position, and I resisted any type of solace from friends because “they just didn’t get it.” Unless you were in my shoes and caring for a loved one with something as sickly twisted as an eating disorder, your advice meant nothing to me. I was enraged, and the world knew it.
If being a caretaker will teach you anything, it is that you can’t get rid of the disease. There is no such thing as “fixing someone” or “fixing it.” You can’t cure it, control it, correct it – these are worthless endeavors that will only blow up your face if you try.
What does work, however, is showing forgiveness and compassion in spite of the circumstances. I came to this realization after multiple hours of therapy, yoga, personal retreats and other spiritual endeavors. Constantly complaining and blaming my sister for not getting better only dug deeper into the hole that her eating disorder started in the first place. The only benefit was feeling bad for myself, and trust me when I say that self-pity becomes exhausting after a while. By not allowing Semia’s circumstances to control the way I lived my life, it became possible for me to share my resentments with her from a place of love. Contrary to popular belief, love and resentment are not mutually exclusive even though they elicit very distinct emotions.
None of this was her fault. Semia was not her bulimia; not the pizza, sushi, chocolate, or handle of vodka she would consume only to purge later; not her ever fluctuating weight; not her depression. She was – and continues to be – my sister, a beautiful and talented young woman who makes me laugh uncontrollably, who can light up a room with her presence, and who is desperately fighting to get her life back.
I had to take responsibility for my unspoken resentments. I shared my feelings with Semia through a series of honest and open conversations, all of which ultimately helped to revive our relationship. I renewed my support for her and with the help of others. She recently completed an intensive 7-month treatment program that has empowered her in remarkable ways. This December, she will turn 26 and celebrate one year and six months of freedom from her eating disorder. I couldn’t be a prouder brother.
With the holidays and new year upon us, we find ourselves at an opportune moment to clean up any unspoken resentments we’ve been holding against our loved ones. I invite you to take that on. Approach your resentments as an opportunity to breakthrough a barrier that’s been holding you back from what you really want. Remember that letting go of resentment is more a gift to yourself than an act of surrendering to the people you resent. It may not happen overnight, but when you’re finally at that point, the experience is life altering.
 Jeffrey Kluger interview on Salon.com, “Why we can never escape our siblings.” September 10, 2011.