Am I My Brother's Keeper?
March 29, 2011 7:03 AM   Subscribe

My brother is on the brink of homelessness. I know no one but him can improve his life, but he doesn't seem to understand the gravity of the situation. How can I not enable him in this situation and still live with myself?

My brother is almost 30 years old. He is morbidly obese, chronically underemployed, lazy, phobic about a lot of things, and a hoarder.

What's gotten him into trouble with his landlord is his lack of general maintenance of his basement apartment. My mom helped him clean it for three days at the beginning of the month to prevent the landlord evicting him. (The notice of eviction was verbal, not on paper, which I doubt would hold up in a court in my home state.)

She told me she spent 18 hours on his apartment and that barely touched the problem. (Mom also told me not to let on to my brother that I know what's going on... I'm fully aware that my mother is a master enabler.)

The landlord told my brother he would come back early in the month, but my brother hasn't seen him since. I spoke with my mom last night, and she said she feels conditions have deteroriated back to unacceptable levels, and she would be back at his apartment tomorrow to clean again before April 1.

So he's not out of the woods yet with his landlord. My mother said that if he were to be evicted, my parents wouldn't take him back in. He lived with my parents for three years after college and made no moves to try and move out until my parents found this apartment for him in our hometown.

I'm married and live three hours away in another state. My husband has said if this eviction comes to pass, we could take my brother in, but my brother would have to make some BIG changes to his life for me to agree to this. I love my brother, but I don't want him to just exist in my basement for years on end, which is what I see happening if he lived with us.

Is he depressed? Probably. He refuses to get therapy. He had his thyroid removed 9 years ago, but is not taking replacement thyroid hormone and refuses to get his TSH and T4 levels checked. (I also don't have a thyroid and I know that going without thyroid hormone hurts one's motivation.)

He refuses to do a lot of things, citing his finances, but can find the money to buy a video game system, pay for cable TV, or buy a book. He works, on average, less than 20 hours per week as a security guard and substitute teacher. He's been a security guard for 8 years and a substitute teacher for 5.

I'm at my wits end with him. I've tried to help him, I've tried not speaking to him, I've tried being honest with him, I've tried being mean, I've tried being nice. I don't know what to do.

(tl;dr: My brother is facing eviction from his apartment. My parents have said they won't take him in. I live 3 hours away and don't want to take him in either. How do I live with myself as he faces a scary situation?)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (36 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes the loving thing to do is to let people fail. Most people do this early enough in life that they learn their lesson before these failures come with lasting consequences. Some are unlucky and get the lasting consequences early on. Others are unlucky and go straight to the really bad stuff later in life, never really having had the opportunity to learn from the sting of prior mistakes.

Either way, there's a lot of water under the bridge here, and though people can and do change, no one else can do it for them. You can feel compassion for your brother, who has gotten himself into a terrible life situation and seems to be about to start paying for that, but that doesn't make you responsible for him. If I were in a similar situation, where a sibling had the tools and resources to avoid a particular outcome but simply refused to use them, I'd probably just let things work themselves out. It would hurt, but trying to avoid that pain for me probably wouldn't wind up being good for anyone in the long run.
posted by valkyryn at 7:10 AM on March 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

Look up shelter and therapy programs in your area. You'll be able to present him with the resources available to him instead of feeling like you're leaving him with nowhere to turn--but also underline the point that he's at a very real risk of homelessness and the family can't/won't bail him out this time; he'll have to deal with how NOT fun it can be to stay at the YMCA.
posted by availablelight at 7:13 AM on March 29, 2011

My mother said that if he were to be evicted, my parents wouldn't take him back in.

Her tune will completely change if he does in fact become evicted. I'd put money on this.
posted by hermitosis at 7:25 AM on March 29, 2011 [16 favorites]

I think taking your brother in would be a very bad idea. You have to think of your marriage first and foremost and it sounds like having him live with you, even though your spouse is supportive, could be seriously toxic.
Have a list of resources ready and available to him should he actually get evicted. Other than that I'm not sure what you could possibly do since you have already tried a myriad of other approaches.
posted by teamnap at 7:27 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't enable. Give him the resources he will need when he is evicted and tell your parents to do the same and not take him back in. He is 30 years old. If there are mental issues, then there are state resources that you can provide him with.
posted by TheBones at 7:31 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your mother is prepared to go there every month to clean for days at a time she will not let him become homeless......
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:33 AM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

valkyryn and availablelight have it. Do not take him in, that is enabling and will prevent him from making any positive changes for himself. So point him to the resources that he needs to get help, but make him go get those resources. Do not arrange housing for him, he has to do that on his own, and maybe taking that step will make him start to take responsibility.

Moreover, the cost of taking him in (strain on your marriage) is enormous and not worth it. "but I don't want him to just exist in my basement for years on end, which is what I see happening if he lived with us." Tha is exactly what will happen. He will not change - he hasn't in the past, and your exhortations to change will not make it happen.

Let him experience the consequences of his irresponsibility. It's the only way he might learn that he has problems. You can be compassionate by supporting him emotionally and showing him what steps he should take next, but you cannot fix him by ordering him to change or be taking those next steps for him.
posted by Tehhund at 7:33 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your parents should take him in, not you. They chose to have children and its their responsibility to take care of them when they aren't well, even if they're 30. The whole idea of "let 'em live on the streets" is ridiculous. Mental illness doesn't respond to tough love, if it did, every homeless person would be made sane after a week on the streets.

Most likely your brother has years of some kind of therapy ahead of him before he can start living in a hygenic way or taking care of his health. Also, part time works don't generally get health insurance. The cast price of getting your thyroid levels checked, pills, etc is very, very high. You should start talking to your parents about proper care, getting him insurance, getting his health back on track, getting him mental issues checked, etc. The ugly truth about life is that a lot of people won't ever be 100% independent or healthy or normal.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:44 AM on March 29, 2011 [15 favorites]

Because your mother is the person helping him clean up, Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding would be an excellent resource for her (You might want to read it as well).

He is definitely depressed and unlikely to be able to arrange for housing, medical and mental health services on his own. I would be very careful about "letting him fail" as some here suggest. Eviction is a traumatic experience for Hoarders and it would be awful for your brother to be evicted with no one in his family to turn to.

I think it is admirable that you are thinking of taking him in and that you should do so, and as your husband suggests there need to be some big changes.

You should be working with a social worker to figure out the details, but I think a written contract in which your brother understands in return for living in your house he must be in treatment (and compliance) for the depression and Hoarding and seeing a doctor for the thyroid issues are starting points.
posted by mlis at 7:47 AM on March 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

He had his thyroid removed 9 years ago, but is not taking replacement thyroid hormone and refuses to get his TSH and T4 levels checked. (I also don't have a thyroid and I know that going without thyroid hormone hurts one's motivation.)

It does more than hurts one motivation. Untreated hypothyroidism causes depression and slowed mental functioning. Thyroid myxedema can kill. A human being cannot live normally without either a thyroid or thyroid replacement hormone. The inevitable results of trying to do so include severe mental illness. Your brother needs to be committed to a hospital, if that's what it takes, because he is endangering his life. He must be forced to take his thyroid pills until he recovers enough to realize how much better he feels with them. He will never again be a normal functioning human being without those pills.

Don't even bother with anything else until you get this man the medical help he needs. Untreated hypothyroidism is an emergency situation. Hoarding is not the real issue here. This is not a question of enabling poor behavior. This is like watching your diabetic brother not bother to get insulin.
posted by Ery at 7:51 AM on March 29, 2011 [46 favorites]

He is very likely acutely aware, and unable to cope with, reality. If he is evicted, he will deal with reality in some manner. The more urgent issue is that he has an untreated serious medical condition. I take supplemental thyroid meds, and can't imagine having no thyroid, and not taking meds. Maybe if he were evicted and homeless, he'd start changing? He must feel really awful.
posted by theora55 at 8:10 AM on March 29, 2011

If your parents won't take him in I really don't see why you should feel remotely obligated to do so. There is probably help that you can give him, but this doesn't sound like it's it.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:13 AM on March 29, 2011

I would never do it to my future children.

Seriously, windbox, don't judge before walking a mile in someone's shoes.

Neither the OP's parents nor the OP is a mental health or social work professional. Having him live at home is allowing him to fall through the cracks by providing a way for him to avoid receiving the appropriate medical and social care he needs. Part of social services is tenant/rent-aid for people on the brink, which I believes comes with social services to address the underlying issues. Those would be the first people I'd get in touch with.
posted by deanc at 8:25 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

This answer's going to be a bit different from the 'don't enable him' answers.

A friend of ours was chronically unemployed and had to sell his condo. His parents, who helped him finance the mortgage, took their 'share' of the proceeds of the sale and refused to let him stay in their home. The mother often cleaned his condo and cooked for him. but she still let him potentially become homeless, possibly because she thought the same thing as many others ('helping equals enabling').

Based on what we learned from our experience of letting him live with us:

1. If your brother lives with you, you must make strict, specific guidelines re: your expectations. And then make sure he adheres to them. Our friend was unemployed for so long that his days had no structure or routine, he had no self-discipline, and enforcing a kind of structure was the way to go. We told our friend that he could stay with us but he HAD to put real effort into looking for work and a small apartment. Bagging groceries, security guard, whatever. Put a firm date on things, e.g., find a job by (month), save (amount of money), and find a bachelor apt by (month). Otherwise, he'll just coast.

2. Your brother IS depressed. His thyroid problem may be the root of it--did his depression start at that time? Depressed people usually just don't want to do anything at all--it's not laziness per se. Our friend was depressed: his self-esteem was obviously shot (I'd bet it's true of your brother too), he felt useless, and was unmotivated.

We tried to get him help--we gave him numbers/addresses for social assistance and other counselling services, but he wouldn't try them. It's true what they say--people have to be willing to help themselves. I used my EAP at work to get numbers and addresses; perhaps you can try the same.

3. If he lives with you, you and your family are going to be affected by his presence. It doesn't sound like you have kids, so this may not be an issue; but it was disheartening for our son to come home everyday after school to the vision of his 'uncle' being depressed and sitting in front of the TV. Not to mention the impact that your brother's presence may have on your relationship with your husband.

Like someone said above, you sometimes have to let people fail. I'm not saying this is what has to happen with your brother, but no matter what does happen, you have to also think of yourself and your husband. You love your brother and want what's best for him, but just remember: you didn't put him in his current situation. There are many things you can do to help, without having him live with you.
posted by methroach at 8:41 AM on March 29, 2011

No offense to your mother but what kind of fucking parent would rather their very clearly mentally and physically ill son sleep on the fucking street before letting them stay under their roof? I don't think I'll ever understand this is as my parents would never do it to me and I would never do it to my future children. Maybe I'm just really spoiled that I have parents who would, I don't know, not let their son go homeless?

Severely mentally ill people who won't seek treatment can make everyone's life hell. There are some people it is not possible to help, even if they're your children. I know people who have lived through having their adult child become homeless rather than accept help. I hope you are never faced with this kind of heartbreaking situation.

OP: I recently read a book about hoarders, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. It was a very thoughtful, compassionate book. It contained many descriptions of what it is like for family members to live with a hoarder; depending on how serious your brother's problems are, having him in your home could mean seriously reduced quality of life for you. I'd be hesitant to let a hoarder into my home (though, with the caveat: I actually have lived in the past with a close friend with hoarding tendencies; he has been evicted from an apartment because of it. He didn't hoard garbage or food, and when we lived together, contained his stuff to his own room, so it was do-able. If your brother does the kind of hoarding that can attract vermin, I'd never consider it).

You could consider letting him live with you under certain conditions: he gets his thyroid levels tested and begins medication, for instance, or works at least 30 hours a week, or begins and stays in therapy. The risk is that it can be surprisingly hard to remove someone from your home, and if his problems are really intractable, he may make promises or token gestures and not be able to follow through. The author of Stuff says hoarders can be very hard to treat, even when they are participating in their treatment.

Another option: you could offer to pay the first month's rent and security deposit on a new apartment, if he is really in danger of homelessness. You could help him through this transition without making a longer-term commitment, or make any additional help dependent on conditions.

Sometimes we have to live with unsolvable problems. Your brother may be yours. It's quite possible that there is no solution to this; he may never improve or be willing to take care of himself physically or mentally. It's OK to help him, if that's what you want or feel you need to do. It's OK not to help him, too, if he won't at least try to help himself.
posted by not that girl at 8:42 AM on March 29, 2011

[Comment removed, please less what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-third-parties-not-present type stuff. This is not the place to have an argument by proxy.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:50 AM on March 29, 2011

I should add: our friend found a job and moved out after about four months of living with us. He could have found the job sooner (he admitted later that he did about 4 days' worth of job hunting the entire time he was with us--lack of motivation/depression caused that, I'm sure) but the most important thing is that he is now self-sufficient again. It's not a great job, and he has a small bachelor appt, but even those things have helped with his mental state.

Our household expenses grew when he was with us (he had no savings), and his presence was just weird at times, but in the long run the money is less important than his well-being. I hope that being with people he knew well, who were stern but were ultimately looking out for him (especially when his parents rejected him) helped him in ways that living in a shelter could not have done.
posted by methroach at 8:56 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have more or less been you. It was a long time ago. I made significant sacrifices to rescue my brother when his life went sideways. I love him and felt that it was the right thing to do. In the intervening ten years, he has bought and lost two homes due to foreclosure, been evicted five times that I know of, had two cars repossessed, had cars impounded due to unpaid tickets at least three times. He has a decent job, actually. He's just a fuck-up. He's undoubtedly mentally ill on some level, but he wouldn't accept treatment even someone could actually diagnose him. At some point on this tortured road, my parents and I decided that our continued efforts to bail him out weren't actually helping him and we stopped doing it. It was agonizing for all of us, but in the end it didn't change what happened to him much. He still gets in jams and muddles through. I don't know where your mom is on the continuum, but I will say that all the people who say they would NEVER cut off the flow of aid to someone they love probably has never lived through it. I've bailed him out of more messes than I can count and I keep track of his situation and if it got bad enough, I'd do what I could again, even though I tell him I wouldn't. But it would have to be pretty damn bad. People who want to judge your parents harshly have no clue.
posted by Lame_username at 9:14 AM on March 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Age isn't a predictable measure of maturity. A 30 year old may need the same kind of help an 18 year old needs. A 30 year old missing a fucking thyroid and can't get his medicine is closer to a helpless toddler than the "tough love" crowd is willing to admit.

Not to mention, nothing magically happens when you become an adult. Even adults need help, especially sick ones.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:14 AM on March 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Lame_username, was this brother missing his thyroid and unable to get medicine? Because if not, these are very different situations. It may be that this guy just needs access to affordable meds. He doesn't sound like the "reckless gambler" in your story at all. In fact, he holds down two jobs.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:16 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

damn dirty ape, we don't know that he is *unable* to get medication. OP is saying that he is *refusing* to take his medication. He is allowed to not take his meds, even though it is a very poor choice. His mother cannot go over there and shove it down his throat, no matter how much she would probably like to.
posted by crankylex at 9:20 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

damn dirty ape, we're not advising against having the OP's brother live with his parents or with the OP for the brother's own good. We're advising against it for the OP's own good. The best way here is to arrange for some assistance and aid for the brother that does not involve him living with the OP or the OP's parents.
posted by deanc at 9:25 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thought: if you don't currently have kids and are planning on having them, this may be the last chance you have to really go out on a limb for him . . . just something to consider.

"He refuses to do a lot of things, citing his finances, but can find the money to buy a video game system, pay for cable TV, or buy a book."
That's a classic symptom of hopelessness -- he's in so much pain he can't conceive of investing his meager cash into anything but instant 'happiness'.

On the upside, if he is evicted, it will be the landlord's job to get everything out of the apartment. The idea of having to go through all his stuff & clean in preparation for him moving horrifies me.
posted by MeiraV at 9:44 AM on March 29, 2011

Lame_username, was this brother missing his thyroid and unable to get medicine? Because if not, these are very different situations. It may be that this guy just needs access to affordable meds. He doesn't sound like the "reckless gambler" in your story at all. In fact, he holds down two jobs.
I am quite certain that my brother also has some kind of untreated chemical imbalance, although almost certainly not hypothyroidism. I'm not sure where the "reckless gambler" conclusion came from, but my brother is an electrical engineer who has worked at the same place forever. The parts of the story that especially resonate with me are a refusal to do the obvious things to help himself and treat his psychological issues and the notion that he can somehow manage to secure cable and video games, but not make rent and car payments.

Its not about "tough love." Its about learning to accept the limits of what you can do to help people who refuse to help themselves. The mother in this story has taken her son back in at least once and at a minimum comes over and completely cleans an apartment that has degraded to a point that the landlord threatens eviction. Its not like she's some disinterested mom who doesn't give a damn. If she says that she isn't taking him back in, I'm guessing she is in a better position to judge than those of us who are getting this story third hand. I don't know if cutting him off is the right or wrong decision, I'm just trying to say that people who say it is cruel and heartless may not have a great foundation to make that judgment.
posted by Lame_username at 9:57 AM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I once had a friend like your brother. He was a genuinely good person, but he could not or would not take care of himself. He had no money, yet whenever he managed to get any, he used it to travel for fun. He, too, was morbidly obese. Eventually, he didn't have a place to live, either. He'd had a girlfriend for a while who would have taken him in, but he broke up with her (for good reasons, actually), and he had very few friends locally - none who could have helped him. Eventually, he wound up homeless. But! Not for long. That experience shook him up severely, and he soon got himself a job and moved into a hostel. After that, he was able to get his own place again. He doesn't ever want to go back to the way he used to live.

The scare tactic isn't guaranteed to work for your brother if his issue is medical, but it seems like the best chance. Perhaps you could help him by giving him information and guidance. Definitely include some therapy options in there despite his past refusals. He probably won't take your advice right now, but he'll know what to do when he hits bottom and realizes he's really and truly on his own. And you could try to keep contact with him if it really does get that bad so that you can at least make sure he's okay.

Letting him face the consequences for his actions and inaction is not the same as abandoning him.
posted by katillathehun at 10:05 AM on March 29, 2011

What's gotten him into trouble with his landlord is his lack of general maintenance of his basement apartment. My mom helped him clean it for three days at the beginning of the month to prevent the landlord evicting him. (The notice of eviction was verbal, not on paper, which I doubt would hold up in a court in my home state.)

She told me she spent 18 hours on his apartment and that barely touched the problem. (Mom also told me not to let on to my brother that I know what's going on... I'm fully aware that my mother is a master enabler.)
Honestly it seems like the solution is right there in front of you, just let him get evicted. That way, all the stuff he's hording will either get thrown away or he'll be forced to deal with it. He's not going to become homeless so much as he'll be required to find a new place to live. (although he won't get a good landlord reference, I would imagine)
posted by delmoi at 10:13 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Anon, my heart goes out to you. There's one bright spot here, which I mention only in case you didn't know. Thyroid meds are CHEAP. Like, REALLY cheap. And that's in the U.S. ... you can get them for almost nothing from overseas pharmacies. This is a country where people can die from not being able to afford their expensive medicines, but thyroid replacement hormones are not those meds. Good luck to you.
posted by cyndigo at 10:28 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't believe the extent to which most of the commenters are underplaying the thyroid issue. As far as I can tell, this question could have been:

He had his thyroid removed 9 years ago, but is not taking replacement thyroid hormone and refuses to get his TSH and T4 levels checked.

Years ago, I had a manager with a trashed thyroid, possibly because of a course of chemotherapy in his late teens. The difference between my manager on thyroid hormone replacement and my manager off of thyroid hormone replacement was night and day. Seriously, two different people. Without it, he gained 50 lbs and rarely made it through a week without a screaming fit (and daily moaning about how awful everything was); on it he went to the gym every morning and was a perfectly nice guy. Address your brother's thyroid issue. Help him pay for it if he's not insured.
posted by pullayup at 10:34 AM on March 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

(Sorry, I forgot to note that the turning point for my manager, if I remember correctly, was that he married and was covered by his wife's insurance. He hadn't been taking his medication because he was uninsured and broke.)
posted by pullayup at 10:36 AM on March 29, 2011

Well, if the problem is the maintenance of the apartment, what about hiring a cleaning person?

Yes, it's enabling, but it might be the cheapest way to keep your brother both housed and not-living-with-you--clean the place completely once yourselves, then hire someone to come in twice a month and knock things into shape again.
posted by Frowner at 11:01 AM on March 29, 2011

Cleaning firms won't work for hoarders.
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 PM on March 29, 2011

If he refuses to get help for his thyroid... well, um, you might be stuck there. It doesn't sound like this guy has motivation for anything whatsoever right now, though.

I wouldn't recommend taking him in unless you are totally okay with him living in your basement and not doing anything forever. Saying, "you can move in, but only if you do X, Y, and Z" has never struck me as being a great idea, because once he's in, it's a lot harder to move him out if he doesn't jump through the hoops, inertia kicks in, etc. It's a lot easier to not let him move in than it is to attempt to throw him out later. And why would he want to jump through any hoops?

Sadly, he might very well need someone to warehouse him for the rest of his life, or to end up homeless and then you see if he ever becomes motivated enough to do anything. If nobody is willing to warehouse him, then he may just have to learn the hard way.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:44 PM on March 29, 2011

Don't forget that your mother also needs your support. If push comes to shove, she might not have the strength to do the things that she needs to do for her own welfare. She knows better but her instinct may be to sacrifice herself for her son, and she might need someone to help her stay what could be an extremely traumatic course for her.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:28 PM on March 29, 2011

[Once again, now is a bad time to start arguing about the right way to be a family member, please take that stuff to email if you're not directly speaking to the OP, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:44 PM on March 29, 2011

How about if instead of cleaning, your mom helps your brother with his thyroid medication?

All of the symptoms you describe are characteristic of depression, and the nasty thing about depression is that by its very nature it virtually incapacitates people from helping themselves out of it.

Given the known link between uncontrolled thyroid conditions and depression, the thyroid condition sounds like the logical place to start.

It sounds like your mom is going to want to do something to help your brother. I think most people in her situation would. If she helps him obtain/pay for/monitor/etc. his thyroid medication, she is doing something, and rather than enabling (like the cleaning) she's actually helping him have a fighting chance of improving things for himself.
posted by AV at 4:41 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

How do I live with myself as he faces a scary situation?

I'm going through something similar with my mother, thyroid and all. Try some counseling, for yourself. Whatever you decide to do, a good counselor can help you set up boundaries. You're not a terrible person, and this is stressful.
posted by shinyshiny at 8:58 PM on March 29, 2011

« Older happy + neurotic = ?   |   Should I quit now or quit later? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.