My identical twin and I spent our first birthday apart in 19 years because she was in jail.
Having a sibling who is incarcerated is an unexplainable heartbreak that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. My sister was by my side my whole childhood, through every up and down imaginable, and I couldn’t accept that once she was sentenced she wouldn’t be there to give me advice, listen to my complaints small or large, congratulate me on any achievement, or just let me talk about my day. That wasn’t what upset me the most, however; it was the fact that she would be all by herself in a dangerous place that I couldn’t save her from.
Sam (left) and Abby.
"I hated feeling so helpless towards the person I was so used to helping the most."
My fear of her danger cut so deep I considered options on ways to take her place; maybe telling the judge that I was to blame instead of her. I concocted a whole plan to stand up at her trial and take all of the blame. Believe me, I know this sounds ridiculous. But this is where desperation took me. It warped my imagination into these delusions of reprieve. Anything was better than seeing the terrified look on her face while she was waiting to be handed down her sentence.
Abby at Sam’s high school graduation.
Having an incarcerated sibling brought never ending feelings of guilt. I went to bed every night feeling terrible that I had healthy eating options, a comfortable bed to sleep in, clean clothes to wear, the ability to attend school, and most importantly the ability to contact my friends and family whenever I desired. I felt guilty everyday and wished something terrible would happen to me too so that she wasn’t the only one suffering. I know that statement is filled with so much privilege, but I would have done anything to not make her feel alone. I remember the night of graduation, I began to think about what it would be like to live in a dorm and make all new friends and I started to cry. She will never get to have those experiences, and what makes it worse is that she’ll have to watch me live through every new milestone. I felt terrible.
"I was stuck between enjoying the life I was able to live or putting it on pause so that I could wait for her to live it with me."
The first time I visited my twin sister was on our birthday. It took everything in me not to cry when I first saw her. It was our first birthday apart in 19 years. The guilt only grew larger seeing her in a dirty orange jail uniform trapped inside bleak cinderblock walls when I was able to spend our birthday like a normal 19-year-old. I could go out to eat with my mom and my grandma, open presents, and eat a birthday cake. On the other hand, I wondered if I had any room for self pity in this situation. All of my friends spent their birthday with their family at a nice dinner or with their friends at a party thrown just for them. I spent mine choking back tears looking at my sister behind bars. Was I wrong to be upset because my birthday was spent so differently from my friends? Personally, I think the answer is yes. My twin missed out on all of the typical birthday fun, and my mom didn’t let me forget it. My mom and I spent most of our birthday making sure Abby had a good day, too. I didn’t really have much to celebrate anyways, so focusing on my sister was perfectly fine with me. I just wanted her to be okay.
I never shared how helpless I felt because if it wasn’t obvious, my sister had a lot more on her plate at the time. Who was I to complain about hurt feelings when my own twin sister spent everyday feeling unsafe and alone? As her sister I tried to be as supportive as I could, and so did my parents. They spent every waking moment making sure she was okay, and I am very grateful for that. As time went on, their attention towards my sister and her well being grew larger and larger, while their attention for me and my well being was on a sharp decline. I tried not to complain because my sister was suffering an unimaginable pain. What could I even tell my parents, “Hey Mom and Dad, watching my sister be sad is making me sad”? It almost felt selfish of me to be upset and to need my parents at a time like this, because if I told them how I really felt I would be taking their time away from caring for my sister. How far could their attention really stretch? I could never really tell what was right or wrong in this situation, if I should have spoken up or continued to stay silent as I had been. I don’t blame my parents at all; I set so much aside to focus on my sister as well. So I stayed quiet and never mentioned how sad I was to my family or friends.
When the day finally came to drop my sister off at jail, she asked that I not tell anyone where she was going. I felt that this was the only thing I could give to my sister; not her freedom or comfort or even taking away her fear. I could only give her my loyalty. However, my loyalty and silence resulted in me having absolutely no one to talk to about what I went through. Looking back, I have truly never felt more alone in my entire life.
Abby catching Sam at a high school volleyball match.
On the day my sister was sentenced, I wished the judge could’ve realized he was sentencing me and my family, too. I wish the judge would know that I refused to sleep in my bed while my sister was incarcerated because if she couldn’t be her in own bed than I wouldn’t be in mine, either. I wish the world would know that second hand trauma is real. You can’t watch someone you love suffer and come out unscathed.
I am still on the path toward healing. The losses suffered by me and my family feel ongoing and never ending, but they help me acknowledge all there is to appreciate the world. My sister is home now. We will never be the same, but at least we have each other.