A few months before I told on my sister, I paged through the current Teen Magazine. There was an article about anorexia and bulimia, and what to do if you—or someone you loved—suffered from them.
Tell, the article said. Tell.
My sister, Katie, had gotten the stomach flu over Christmas. Except I noticed, sharing a bathroom with her, that it never went away. A few weeks went by, and then I read the article, and my wheels started turning.
One day I added up the plot points. Katie was bulimic.
I was the kind of kid that followed directions. So I told our mom.
I was scared, yes. Terrified for Katie. But alongside that, I felt special and chosen, because I was the one who was going to save my sister’s life. I was the kid with a good head on her shoulders, coming alongside someone who was falling apart. I was the one who’d fix things.
Not long after, my mom took Katie to a hospital for evaluation, which is also what the books said to do, and after they evaluated my sister’s case, they recommended that my mom enroll her that day, that moment in their residential program.
I was in the kitchen when my mom returned alone. She came in and set her purse on the counter.
“I left her there,” she said. “They said I had to or Katie could die.”
When my mom is about to cry, the skin around her nose turns pink, and she purses her lips. I watched her face start to crumple, and I felt like throwing up myself.
What have I done? I wondered.
You see, Katie had already been institutionalized most of her life. She spent a few months in a psych ward as a nine-year-old, and six years at a children’s home.
Every visit, she would ask me why we were separated, saying, “What did I do that was so bad?” and honestly, I never quite knew what to say. I did not quite comprehend our parent’s desperate choices, then or now.
And now, I had gotten her institutionalized again, less than six months after she had come back from the children’s home. I had opened my big fat mouth and told, and gotten her locked into a place she could not escape from.
I had followed the instructions in a book. They seemed so clear, so straightforward. I had wanted to believe instructions would save the day, that my goodness would fix things.
What I didn’t take into account, though, was how following directions would feel. I didn’t realize that doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily guarantee unicorns or rainbows.
The day I saved my sister didn’t feel like salvation. It felt like treason. Because I knew that if her eating disorder didn’t kill her, being institutionalized again just might.
Not long ago, our grandmother died, and I flew back to Michigan for the funeral. I stayed with Katie in Detroit.
The day before I left, she and I started talking about her eating disorder.
She reminded me that it began when she was nine, after the first of three sexual assaults she endured in her childhood. She told me how awful and terrifying it was for her to get institutionalized again. How the experience plunged her into years of deep darkness. The longer I listened, the more I wondered afresh whether I’d done the right thing.
So I took a big breath and asked her.
My sister didn’t hesitate. “You did,” she said. “I could have died.”
I started crying with relief, with gratitude for her generosity and forgiveness. Because I still feel torn about telling, even if it kept my sister alive.
Sometimes, redemption is slow. Sometimes it is glacial. Sometimes, 25 years after a fateful decision, you still wonder if you helped or hurt the people you love most. Often, doing the right thing feels like betrayal.
Sometimes healing has sharp, unsheathed claws.
I no longer think I can save anyone, whether I’m good or not. I believe it wasn’t my truth-telling, or even the program my sister was in that saved her, though God absolutely used both.
No, over and over, in my life and my sister’s, I see that healing is more than the sum of its parts. It is always a miracle, even when everyone follows directions.
This is why I’m so desperate for Jesus, for His justice, for His wholeness, for His take-no-prisoners resurrection. Because on my own, my power is not enough. My truth-telling is flawed; I tremble every time I say hard things out loud.
Hard as salvation is, glacial as redemption can be, I see it come inexorably, with the power of glaciers promised by its majestic arrival.
Image credit: Matito