Avoiding Family Drama During the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Sarah Ratliff 06/09/20

When the pandemic broke out, for the first time since I left home, I felt conflicted between the need to learn my brothers are safe and my need to maintain a drama-free life.

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Woman looks to side as various hands reach towards her
I used to pray for my parents and brothers to get arrested, so I could raise myself. Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Several times since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, I have wondered whether my brothers were safe. Knowing whether John*, my middle brother, was okay was easy. Although we’ve not talked to each other in 12 years, I found out through two of our mutual childhood friends that he was not one of the more than 350,000 people in his state who have contracted the virus.

Finding out whether Marco* was okay took several weeks. Nobody in our family and none of my childhood friends can deal with him. He has bipolar disorder, and since his diagnosis 39 years ago, he has consistently refused meds. He’s verbally and physically abusive to most people he comes in contact with, especially women, which he came by honestly as the saying goes.

I never needed a diagnosis to know something was seriously off with Marco. Looking back, he exhibited all the signs: stretches of mania followed by equally long bouts of depression, calculated and well-thought-out verbal and physical assaults, and rage that seemed to come from nowhere.

When I was 10 (Marco is four years older than I) he planned out his first of two attempts to kill one of the neighbors in our Manhattan apartment building. He tied a thin wire across the top of the staircase. He then rang the doorbell and tried to lure this woman out of her apartment and down those marble stairs, where she would surely have fallen to her death. She saw the wire just in the nick of time and held onto the banister. Marco was hiding out of sight, snickering.

He told our parents he did it because the neighbor wouldn’t let him play with her daughter. Laughing as he retold the story was creepy as hell.

A few days later while staring out the window, Marco noticed the same neighbor climbing out of a cab. He had a 10-gallon garbage bag already filled with water, waiting beside the window. As she closed the car door, Marco dropped that 85-pound “water balloon” down 10 flights. It missed our neighbor by a hair and she did as anyone would do: she looked up and saw Marco looking out the window. He not only didn’t duck inside (as most people would have done), he yelled out to her, “Better luck next time!” Although none of us saw this happen, his version of events was identical to hers.

With me Marco had a trigger hand, like our father. If our father didn’t like something I said or did, I would get knocked across the room. Our father beat all three of us whenever he felt like it, which was probably three to four times a week, as did his father to him growing up. When I was 14, I paid $25.00 from my babysitting money to a neighborhood kid to install a lock on my bedroom door. I couldn’t control the world outside my bedroom, but I could protect myself in my own room.

And what was John doing as Marco was abusing his sister and trying to kill the neighbor? John has always been good at taking care of John and ignoring everyone else. Give him a substance and the world ceases to exist.

Forgive and Forget Because Nothing is More Important Than Family

Those who don’t know my family or think I’m exaggerating when I describe what it was like growing up usually say things to me like, “Nothing is more important than family,” “Whatever happened, just forgive him and move on” or “You’ll regret it when you get older.”

The last comment has some merit. We are all in our 50s, and I’m acutely aware there are fewer years in front of us than behind. Our parents are now deceased, so they’re non-issues in the forgive and forget department. But for the living, reconciliation isn’t always so easy.

It involves real work my brothers are too stuck to do. The apple rarely falls far from the tree, although the real mystery isn’t how one brother has bipolar and the other is an alcoholic. The question I’ve had my whole life is, why didn’t I become an alcoholic, have bipolar or both?

Depression, bipolar disorder and alcoholism run on both sides of my family. My mother struggled with depression and used alcohol to self-medicate. She was a functional alcoholic—so functional that she was an editor at a prominent New York publication for years. While she rarely hit me, my mother was the queen of belittling. To give you an idea how biting her tongue could be, when I hit adolescence and my body started changing, she told me, “I don’t know what I did in life to deserve a mother, a best friend, a husband and a daughter who are all fat.”

My father was a different variety of excrement. He just shit on everyone he knew and claimed to love. When he wasn’t confessing his mortal marital sins to my mother on a near-weekly basis, he was beating the crap out of us. He used whatever was handy: a book, a shoe, a belt, his fist, his legs to kick us, and when he was really frustrated, he’d throw things at us.

My mother used to say, “Parents give their children unspoken commands their children learn to implicitly obey.” Marco and John learned at a young age to throw weapons instead of using their words. Their weapons of choice included a skateboard, a frying pan, scissors, lamps, glass bottles and a hammer. It amazes me they’re both still alive.

Shorter and less muscular than Marco, John took up martial arts when he was 11. By the time he was 15, John was a black belt in three styles of Kung Fu. He was still shorter than Marco, but now his weapons became sharper, his hands and arms stronger, and he could inflict serious, life-altering damage. I lost count of how often I had to call the police because I wasn’t about to get in the middle of a fight between two rabid dogs.

I used to pray for my parents and brothers to get arrested, so I could raise myself.

Aleutian Islands: Same Name, Not Connected

After I graduated from high school at 16, I rented a furnished room in the apartment of a different neighbor. By 17, I was in therapy, where I was diagnosed with PTSD and a panic disorder. I would end up spending seven years with Barbara, working through the damage of my childhood. Together, we dismantled me so we could put me back together. I was 24 when Barbara and I decided I was ready to go out into the world without an attendant.

The first few years after I left home—especially while I was still in therapy—I hardly spoke with my parents or my brothers. I honestly didn’t know what Marco was doing, but I knew from various people he was fine and living with a woman in another state. Periodically, I’d run into John on the street. On those occasions we were cordial, but there was nothing to talk about. It was like seeing someone from my childhood I had nothing in common with now. We’d promise to catch up, knowing full well neither of us would make that call.

Weeks turned into months and eventually years between check-ins with my brothers. I spoke with my parents every so often because, no matter how much work I’d done on myself, I was also raised with a sense of obligation, and daughters aren’t supposed to just cut off their parents. While they were still alive, I controlled the direction of the conversations to keep them from touching on areas that could trigger me.

I once told Barbara in therapy that I felt like we were the Aleutian Islands. They were people I knew but had no connection to. I didn’t hate them; I felt nothing for them. My mother used to say, “The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference.” She was right.

I met my husband in 1996 and we were married in 2001 while living in Southern California. Although all of my girlfriends who had previously gotten married and who were getting married opted to keep their maiden names, I couldn’t wait to change mine. Despite being every bit as feminist as my friends, for them the decision to keep their maiden name was about maintaining their identity. For me, the act of changing my last name meant adopting a new one.

As important as leaving my home the first chance I got and staying in therapy for seven years (no matter how uncomfortable things got sometimes), changing my name allowed me to reinvent myself.

The beauty of having a different last name is that, unless I tell people my maiden name, nobody knows I have any association with those people. It helps that I have an amazing relationship with my husband’s family, who have been my tribe for 23 years.

Today, my husband and I live in Puerto Rico on an organic farm. We have rich relationships with people both in Puerto Rico and the States. When I think about the stark contrast between my life then and now, I’m reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou: "Family isn't always blood, it's the people in your life who want you in theirs: the ones who accept you for who you are, the ones who would do anything to see you smile and who love you no matter what.” 

Separate Lives in the Time of Covid-19

My husband and I have talked with my brothers a handful of times over the last 24 years we’ve been together. My mother died in 1994 and, after my father’s death in 2002, I was named executor of my parents’ estate. I had to periodically be in touch with both brothers for signatures on this or that document required to sell our parents’ home, which we did in 2008. Between then and now, I had no desire to contact them.

When the pandemic broke out, for the first time since I left home, I felt conflicted between the need to learn they’re safe and my need to maintain a drama-free life. Once I found John was alive, I felt I was halfway to feeling I wouldn’t need to expose myself.

It took several weeks, but I was finally able to confirm Marco is also safe from Covid-19. I remembered a nickname he used to refer to himself when we were younger and during times he was manic. I started googling versions of the nickname and eventually came across his Twitter profile.

He’s on his fourth wife, living somewhere in the Midwest. What I read were 75 tweets in rapid fire succession about everything that angers him that nobody reacted to or commented on. Based on my accelerated heart rate while reading them, I deduced he still isn’t treating his bipolar disorder. I got what I came for: I know he’s alive. Now that I know both my brothers are safe from Covid-19, and that I can continue to confirm it without reaching out to them, I no longer have to wonder and I can continue living my life.

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Sarah Ratliff is a corporate America escapee turned eco-organic farmer, writer and activist living in Puerto Rico. Much of her writing focuses on organic farming, addiction and mental health, racial equality, feminism and politics. For more about Sarah, please see her website: Sarah Ratliff or find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.