Too Close for Comfort

Medical labels don't grant us permission to lean away from intimacy.

My older sister Laurelyn started planning my wedding long before I cared about boys. At 8 years old, I wore mismatched clothes and avoided showers. I’d spend all day climbing trees, catching lizards, and Laurelyn would come up to me, sketchpad in hand, to ask which design I wanted for my wedding dress. There in pencil was a meticulously drawn comparison of three dresses with sweetheart, princess, and Victorian necklines.

The task had likely taken her at least two hours, but when Laurelyn fixated on something, time was just an imaginary construct. Over the years, she employed this method until my entire wedding was planned, from ceremony to reception. This tenacious commitment—which some might call stubbornness—was one of many traits we would later discover to be associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

It wasn't until Laurelyn began failing a class in high school that my parents finally took her to see a counselor. And by the time she dropped out of college, she had been diagnosed with OCD, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. With each new label, I remember trying—but failing—to compute those terms in relation to my sister.

The author, Stefani, on the left and her sister, Laurelyn, on the right.

Up until then, the only thing that had separated us was a 17-month age gap, and the space between our bunk beds. Practically inseparable, we were the librarians of our bedroom bookshelf; dealers of handmade art, sold out of a little red wagon; co-conspirators who once built a fire in the backyard and suffered due penalty.

Those were our homeschooled years—a childhood shielded from the outside world. But as we grew, she began to feel foreign to me in public spaces. I still remember one day in my freshman year of high school, standing in the cafeteria with my new friends. Laurelyn came up to me and I suddenly felt self-conscious, acutely aware of the way we interacted. I had watched my friends with their big sisters—they made plans together. They were friends.

Laurelyn wanted me to go shopping with her, not just to spend time together, but because it made her anxious to go alone. Whenever we watched a movie, we had to rewind if she missed a single word of dialog. And we always sat on opposite ends of the couch, so I wouldn’t accidentally brush her arm and make the hairs go the wrong way. The closer we were, the more her disorders affected me—and the less grace I had for them.

But over time, I got used to doing her chores when she couldn’t get out of bed on the weekend. I was relieved when she stayed home from church, because it meant our family wouldn’t have to sneak up the aisle halfway through the sermon. I was content to spend most of my free time with friends. And when I started attending college nearby, I chose to live on campus because our bickering brought so much tension into the house.

 

Two years after college, I had moved to Atlanta and was living with roommates, when I met my husband at church—a steady friend who eventually won my heart. We weren’t dating long before, one balmy May evening, he knelt down with a ring in his hand and looked up at me with those twinkling brown eyes.

I had always imagined Laurelyn would plan my entire wedding—but when the time finally came, I asked her to handle only the flowers. After weddings and babies, they were her favorite. And indeed, finding the perfect DIY floral arrangement became her full-time job. She spent hours online poring over flower selections, cross-referencing prices and quantities on different distributor websites. She wrote pages of notes on a legal pad, drew diagrams of bouquets and sent me dozens of links. My sister and I talked more in those six months than we had in the three years since I’d moved away.

Jesus drew near to disorder. The closer He got, the more pain He endured—and only at the cross did He express the fullness of His love.

We spent long phone calls talking through the exact shade of purple I imagined, the textures and shapes I loved—or hated—and the precise feeling I wanted to have when I looked at them. There were countless moments where I raised my voice in frustration and she’d patiently suggest a solution. During this time, I remembered all the best things about my sister: her fierce loyalty, her determination, and her caring heart.

I was also reminded of the worst things in myself. In the past, I had tried—but more often failed—to be gracious with her disordered behaviors. But a month before my wedding, I grew anxious—the flowers were still not ordered. Hardly restraining the irritation in my voice as we spoke on the phone, I was surprised when she thanked me for being so patient and kind with her. With genuine appreciation, she said she’d never felt so honored by me.

Tears filled my eyes and shame washed over me. I thought back to all the years I had held her at arm’s length. Familiarity with her disorder had bred contempt in my heart—and intimacy seemed to hold up a magnifying glass to that contempt. It was safer to maintain relational distance; to lean away from the tension between relating to her as a sister and treating her like a disorder.

 

But maybe that’s the beautiful opportunity God has hidden for us in loving someone with a disorder. Disorder exposes in us the conditional love we would otherwise perceive as sufficient, and reflects back to us the ugly glint of our own inadequacy. It requires the most sacrifice—and therefore has the most potential to sanctify all that is unholy in our hearts.

Jesus drew near to disorder. The closer He got, the more pain He endured—and only at the cross did He express the fullness of His love. We must remember that, when we feel as if we’ve come to the end of ourselves—when we’ve offered every last bit of kindness and extended all the grace we could muster. One day, we will all be seen in the light of eternity. And when our mortal coil is shed and our souls are exposed, will we celebrate our choice to draw near despite discomfort—or regret our instinct to self-preserve?

 

The flowers arrived a few days before the wedding, and we all sat in my living room, furiously assembling the bridesmaid bouquets under Laurelyn’s direction. She spent hours crafting corsages and boutonnieres, and stayed up all night to finish my bouquet. When she showed it to me the next morning, my jaw dropped—it was even more beautiful than I imagined.

Laurelyn paced tirelessly around the church venue, inspecting the bouquet at the end of every pew and working with the volunteers until each one was perfect. When they protested her OCD insistence, I stepped in diplomatically. That night at the rehearsal dinner, I was in tears after her toast—a perfectly tender yet humorous recollection of our childhood together.

When our mortal coil is shed and our souls are exposed, will we celebrate our choice to draw near despite discomfort—or regret our instinct to self-preserve?

Looking back to when we were girls, it wasn’t only my wedding Laurelyn planned, but her own, too. And even now, being a wife and mother remains her deepest desire. Yet on my wedding day, none of that seemed to be on her mind. There was no hint of self-pity as she stood next to me as my maid of honor. I saw only gleaming joy in her eyes, the pride of an older sister watching her younger sister walk down the aisle. At the altar, she gracefully smoothed the ruffle in my veil—timing it perfectly between picture snaps—and was there to hand me my bouquet before I stepped off the platform.

 

It took weeks, I later discovered, for Laurelyn’s body to recover from all the energy and effort she had expended on the flowers. Suffering from stomach pains and sleeplessness, she sounded weak and weary over the phone when I called her one afternoon. Someday, she told me, she’d look back on these years of her life as a momentary affliction and be free—if only in eternity with Christ. My heart sunk with the weight of her words, but I tried to respond with positivity.

I desperately want to hope all things for my sister, to see her thrive and succeed this side of eternity. But my heart grows sick every time that hope gets deferred for yet another year, through one more season of life. The hardest part of loving someone through disorder is learning how to celebrate their “ups” without cynicism and mourn their “downs” without despair. It’s about holding onto hope—with them and for them—no matter what.

Only God knows the future He has in store for us—my sister, you, and me. But if I know anything about Him, I know He’s up to something good—something worth the wait—even as we walk in the dark night of our present circumstances. I believe that one of these days, maybe when we least expect it, He’ll be there to guide us into that bright, beautiful day we all long to experience.

Related Topics:  Sickness  |  Family

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