A Letter from R.H.

Wow, I didn’t realize this was 1. a thing and 2. I had shoved it so far down inside.

I’ve been on the journey of finding this out about myself for a few weeks now, after my girlfriend was trying to tell me I had intimacy issues. She kept pushing until eventually all my defenses came down and I started to talk about friendships I’d pushed away when I was younger. Finally I started to talk about the sister who had died tragically as a baby, a year or two before I was born.

Pen on Paper

I didn’t realize this had been such a big deal to me. I always thought it hadn’t had anything to do with me, given it happened before I was even alive. Talking about it made me realise how far I had pushed it down, and when I found myself crying even trying to say her name, I understood the enormity of it all.

That’s when I turned to the internet, found this PhD paper from the ’90s and emailed the author, who kindly pointed me towards the term ‘replacement child’. I’m currently reading Kristina’s book, and getting a lot out of it.

I thought I would write some thoughts about my experience, and how I feel this has affected me, good and bad, in the hope other people might find themselves in it, but also just for me to get these experiences out of my head for the first time at the age of 34.

The void

Something that hit me hard in Debra’s paper was the idea of the void that is created when a kid becomes a keeper of the secret. I hadn’t realized I had learnt this was my job as a kid. I knew there was something bad that had happened (even before I could talk, I’m sure), and I knew I couldn’t bring it up. I never wanted to, anyway. I knew it would only bring pain to my family, so I did a good job and upheld the silence. There were some photos around the house of her, and I would stare at them, wondering who this person was, but knowing never to ask. I’m not totally sure what effect this has on me still, I know I still have a very surface relationship with my parents. I know I can shove things down and never talk about them. I’m trying to be more open, and talking about this has been freeing – lots of other things are now being dealt with.

Golden child

I also knew it was my job (I now know it definitely is not and never was) to be the happy kid. My parents always talk about how happy and peaceful I was as a baby and a kid. Even now they joke about me being the golden child. I never liked it, but now I see it as completely toxic. After I started this journey a few weeks back I called my mum and told her I feel I can’t have problems around them. That was a big moment, and she went quiet for a while. I don’t know if the healing needs to come from them, or within me, or both.

Survivors guilt

When I first started reading about replacement theory, I thought the idea of survivors guilt seemed a stretch, until I saw myself in all the descriptions. I guess there’s a special kind of guilty feeling reserved for the replacement child who is the last kid in a family. If she hadn’t had died, I wouldn’t be here. This was the first thought I came to terms with on my own actually, about 15 years ago. At uni, the first time living away from home, I thought about what had happened, and this was the one thought to surface before I shoved it back down. It’s maybe the hardest thing for me to reckon with. This coupled with being the keeper of the secret has left me ping-ponging between feeling special and worthless.

Magical thinking

Linked to the survivors guilt is a problem I have with magical thinking. If she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here. If things were slightly different, everything would be different. I’ve been obsessed with this idea my whole life without knowing the source. I feel like a time traveler in a film, where I can’t touch anything in case I upset the timeline. This has manifested itself as magical thinking and OCD my whole life. Making the connection has helped me greatly. I was speaking about this the other day to a friend who tragically lost his dad as a kid. He suffers with the same problem.

Emotions

I find it hard to get angry, sad, whatever. I get frustrated or I’m calm, that’s what I oscillate between. I’m trying to work on it. The more I talk about this stuff, the more I feel I’m unclogging. 

Blurring memories

This is a weird thing I haven’t read about anywhere, but when I was thinking about the objects and photographs that belonged to my sister; a hospital bracelet, a photo of her and my brother – the memories would morph in my mind. I’d become uncertain who was in the photo, me or her. The name on the bracelet suddenly turned into my own. I’m still not totally sure as I write this what is true or not.

Individuation

This is such an interesting concept to me. I’m still trying to figure it out. I feel like I’ve always struggled with being a sponge around people. An old friend at UNI once said I was ‘like a cardboard cutout of a person’. That hit me hard, obviously, but I saw some truth in it. I feel like individuating is a journey I’ve been on ever since then. When I was younger I was afraid to give my opinions. I am more able now. When I was younger I was socially anxious. I am way less now. When I was younger everything would embarrass me. I am a million times better now. I still struggle with the feeling I have nothing to say, even when I am being interviewed about my own work. I guess it’s a process of transformation and learning and becoming, that I’ll be on my whole life. Noticing these negative traits has helped me to walk away from them over time.

Superpowers

Not everything from this has been bad. Some of these traits have come from trauma, and in their extremes are not good, but I don’t want to let some of these things go. I feel like I have some superpowers. I’m very empathetic and a good listener. I want to cut the bs and get to the real stuff as quickly as possible. I’m proud of my work. I’m independent. I’m calm under pressure. I’m creative and share that creativity with the world. Thinking about my childhood, I can see how these superpowers were formed.

Healing I haven’t gotten to this in Kristina’s book yet, but I’m wondering how to heal. I feel I am healing already by acknowledging this happened, and making the connections to the behaviors in my life until now. I’m wondering if mourning her existence and death will help. I wonder if I need to visit the grave and sit with the idea she was a person who died. I wonder if I need to talk to my parents, but I worry it will still upset them (doubly so to hear it affected me, too). I wonder if they can even offer me anything that would help. I wonder if learning more about the circumstances would help or make me feel worse. I wonder if I need to be kinder to myself. I wonder how this affected my older brothers. I wonder what else I have shoved down. I wonder if I’m making something out of nothing. I wonder what else this has done to me. I wonder who else this happened to who doesn’t know it yet.

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