When Doing The Right Thing Feels Like Betrayal



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

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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Heather Caliri


  1. There are times when you do the right thing and people won’t like it. They won’t ever see what you did right. But do good always anyways.

  2. pastordt says:

    Wow, Heather. Your stories about do me in. So much pain and struggle in your family. I love the way this one resolved, though I wonder how the work of redemption is continuing in Katie’s life. And in yours. I hope the glacial part is in the past and that you are seeing shafts of light with increasing regularity, both of you. Thanks for telling this so very well.

  3. What a terrible responsibility. Thank you for your courage.

  4. Bev Murrill says:

    I love that you can see her generosity in acknowledging that even if that further incarceration was so terrible, it still saved her life. I agree with you… redemption at times is glacial… and God help us, we all need redemption so much.

    I love that you are working through so much, so honestly in front of this community. Emmanuel.

  5. Roos Woller says:

    Thank you so much for being so brave and authentic! This is life changing and it is so good to talk about this, there needs to be more honest conversations around this. I had a very close friend diagnosed with it.

  6. Holly says:

    Heather, your truth telling is busting open windows long shuttered. Your willingness to keep walking forward, even straight into the face of doubt and deception, is shaking loose strongholds. The Spirit is swirling in the space before you and I am convinced that redemption rides high upon its wake.
    Feed that roar, friend. Continue to give voice to what has been hidden.
    The world NEEDS it. The world NEEDS your words.

    • Thank you dear Holly. I need that prayer. Every time I post, I have this little voice that says “No one wants to hear about this. It’s too depressing.” And yet it’s kind of a compulsion. 🙂

  7. Nicole A. Joshua says:

    Such courage and vulnerability! I’m amazed at the depths you share, and stand in awe of your passion to be authentic, despite the rawness. Your posts always leave me feeling uncomfortable because of what it triggers, but I’m so drawn to your honesty, that I can’t help but read them. Thank you Heather for another hard beautiful post.

  8. **POWERFUL.**
    So much to think about in here, Heather.

  9. Donna-Jean Brown says:

    Oh Heather, this is so true: “Healing is always a miracle, even when everyone follows directions.” From cut fingers to dying marriages, healing is indeed a miracle. For our own wounds or those of others, we can do our best but in the end must wait and hope. Thank you for this story, and I’m so happy you received reassurance from your dear sister.

    • My sister is the BEST. When redemption does come, it is so incredibly sweet. To know her and love her after all we’ve been through together more than makes up for the uncertainty I held close to my chest.
      Thanks for this, DJ. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say with this (kinda grim) post: it’s not always easy, it doesn’t always end with a slick bow, and it might not make you feel at all comfortable. That does not mean it isn’t meaningful and right.

  10. Woomf, what a painful post, Heather, yet one I resonated with a ton. Thank you for sharing and allowing us to carry and share some of you and your family’s pain.

  11. Anne-Marie says:

    This one feels heart heavy, Heather. So glad you got to talk with your sister about that. My sis and I, coming from a pretty crummy situation, have had to talk over some really tough moments. I’m so glad we did. Where I assumed a hardness of heart over one instance, there was deep sorrow and regret and I never would have known but for a chance comment. Your courage blesses me, and I’m sure so many. Love to you.

    • Oh, this resonates so much with me, Anne-Marie. Yes, my brother and sister and I all have made assumptions about each other that were only possible when we didn’t talk about the hard stuff. It is amazing what happens when we approach each other humbly and seek to know another person’s heart.

  12. Oh, Heather. What pain for your sister, and a burden you’ve carried, too. Our only true solace is in knowing that He will set all things right at the end of days. This is the redemption we can count on, yet it truly does seem arduously slow when we wait in pain. Healing is a miracle indeed, and by His stripes we are. Thanks for urging us to see it.

    • We CAN count on it, Kirsten, Amen! I hope by sharing a hard story, one that did not wrap up easily at the time, it can encourage others to wait and keep hoping. Too often, I think we want healing to be on our timetable, but in my experience it’s rare for it to happen that way.

  13. Helen Burns HBurns says:

    Thanks for sharing your heart and story. SO helpful for many, I’m sure. xo

  14. What heart-wrenching words about the slow power of glaciers. Isn’t this often the case when we do the right thing — the hard thing — that feels like gravel in the mouth?
    We wait.
    And I’m so thankful that your sister and you have come to an understanding of the rightness of your brave action on her behalf.


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