It happened very late in my mother’s life and not so early in my own life when I was visiting her from California in her new home, a place that offered assisted care to seniors. My father had recently died so I would have been in my early 50’s and my mother in her early 80’s. So now many years later let me address a past ugly side of myself that took much time and inner pain to heal.
As a child growing up, I was in the middle of three boys during the early years of my childhood. Later, when I was 9, my older brother 13, and my younger brother 7, my baby brother was born, and with his birth I was no longer a same sex middle child. I remember being unhappy before he was born and really wanting my parents to have another child. How the mind of a child works. As a middle child I felt stifled, that is caught between my older more important brother and my younger more helpless one. A feeling of being left out, not being noticed for who or what I was, yet very much wanting to have another sibling, that if anything, might lead to even less attention. The more compelling need for an addition to the family was my strong desire to escape this dreaded sense of being stuck in the middle. The addition of another family member would create change and any change was more desirable than the status quo.
Perhaps it was simply jealousy toward my younger brother who was stealing my mother from me. Or perhaps it was my tortured sense of self that drove me to take out my frustrations–in growing up–on my younger brother. It may have been the implicit pain I felt as my older brother would be gaining accolades for scholastic achievement while I struggled very much in school to do well. To hear it from my parents, everything came the hard way for me in contrast to my older brother who had the capacity to learn things, simple or complex, much faster than I and most others.
Right or wrong I had this perception of being left out. I was the youngest only for a little more than two years before being replaced by my younger, and at that time, youngest brother. Suddenly, this younger brother was the cute one, the one that would get all the attention. Because he often dribbled, he was christened with the name “Dew Drops” that led to more attention as this unintentional habit of his came to be endeared by everyone in the family but me. Did I mean to be a bad child? I daresay not initially. In fact, in school I was well regarded by my teachers and peers. I had a desire to be friends with everyone, a trait that may have originated from my perceived lack of attention at home. No one at school would have believed that I carried this inner pall so different from my behavior among my peers.
And so, he the cute one, the youngest, and perhaps the neediest of the three of us, in receiving the attention that he did, I sadly admit, became a target for my aggression. The fights would come on of which I’m sure, I mostly initiated, resulting in my mother screaming at me. Unfortunately, much of the attention I received in my early years was of this negative sort. I had this obnoxious urge to hurt my younger brother that would result in a nasty pattern of behavior. Soon I found myself playing the role of a bullying brother that became reinforced by other family members seeing me as the “problem child.”
Once I had established my reputation as the initiator of all evil, I could not resist the temptation of maintaining my position. I may have become more and more sensitive to being overlooked further evidenced by my constantly having to hear my family and relatives lauding over how cute my younger brother was. Soon it became much easier to perform the behaviors expected me rather than to alter my conduct. When you have an established reputation, change becomes incredibly difficult. Once my parents more and more expected me to behave in a certain manner, it became extremely difficult not to fulfill my duties. I now was locked into a cycle of jealousy and hostility that actually caused me to have a deep sense of guilt and regret. When the perception of blame became reified in my mind, my role in the family as bullying brother became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My more humane side emerged when I entered high school. When I was a senior in high school and my brother a sophomore, I remember defending my brother when he was being criticized at a group meeting that, at the time, I led. The teacher in charge of the group acknowledged what I had done and complimented me. Perhaps I was beginning to feel more comfortable in my own skin as my older brother had gone to college so I was now the oldest brother at home. It now may have felt more natural to be the responsible helpful one with my older brother out of the picture.
But it took many years for my younger brother to stop reminding me of the way I had treated him when we were younger. Furthermore, he would make sure to remind my mother how I had treated him, almost blind to the effort I had put forth in changing our relationship.
After I had completed my first year in graduate school at Purdue University, this same brother and I arranged to meet one another at Purdue with the intention of us both driving to California. Before we left, my mother, as had been customary in earlier times, became protective of my brother by pleading with me not to hurt him in anyway. Although my mother and brother would not let the memory go, I refused to get caught in the morass. I handled it as maturely as I could by telling her not to worry inasmuch as several years had passed since I had behaved cruelly toward him. Needless to say, it took many years of my behaving like a “good brother,” never relapsing into former behaviors, to alter the reputation I had as a child. I would not allow myself to fall back into the pattern of behavior that had haunted me for many years during my childhood.
Then the surprise came. My mother, in recalling her early parenting years and my childhood, told me that she realized how difficult it must have been for me to be in the middle of two brothers. She said that my younger brother had been regarded as the weakest of all of us and had a tendency toward victimhood. She recognized that I was not entirely at fault in the way I treated him insofar as his personality had triggered much of my behavior. Wow, I said to myself, after all these years perhaps my behavior was not really as bad as I had imagined it was as a child.
As a therapist, I have learned that negative patterns of behavior become strongly embedded in family and/or marriages. Once the pattern or cycle is identified the objective is to change the way members within that system interrelate. In doing this, the problem is not the individual within the family or marriage, but rather the toxic cycle that all members of the system create. The pain I experienced as the “bad child” may have been alleviated much earlier in my life by a competent family therapist who could have taken me away from my role as “identified patient” and reframed the problem in a more holistic fashion.