Can I help my brother?
June 7, 2011 7:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I help/support my self-destructive brother?

My brother is 19 years old. I'm a few years older. For whatever reason, he has had a much harder time dealing with life. He has grown increasingly more angry and depressed as he has gotten older. My parents are divorced and are unable to effectively parent or support him. My brother has been in trouble with the law a few different times for shoplifting and pot. No one is quite sure what's going on with him because he keeps all that stuff as secret as possible. He has been involved with a girl for several years and she has cheated on him and dumped him over and over and he keeps taking her back and trying to make it work. He has a pattern of trying to "save" people and is usually supporting at least one of his friends, who all tend to be unemployed drug addicts with troubled families. He has decided not to go to college and works two dead-end jobs.

Despite all of this, he is extremely smart, hardworking, passionate (when he wants to be), loyal, creative, handsome etc. He has no health problems and nothing holding him back other than himself and now, his record. He has so many talents and could accomplish great things if he could free himself from his self-destructive rut. I am pretty sure he is suffering from depression. He is usually high on at least one substance and he freely admits it is to diminish his pain.

I have tried to talk to him, but he won't participate. He is more a stony and silent kind of guy, at least for the past few years. I have encouraged him to use our father's health insurance to go to therapy, but he has shrugged the suggestion off. The whole family has tried to encourage him, and discourage the hurtful, destructive aspects of his life, but it seems to just push him away. I think we are all afraid of him in a certain sense.

It hurts me to watch him suffer, and see how much of his personality has been lost. He is like a zombie when I remember him as a funny, energetic, vibrant kid. I want to help him get and feel better. But I'm just his older sister and he won't accept help. He is extremely stubborn and guarded.

Will he just grow out of this? Is there anything I can do other than wait it out and support him unconditionally?

I can be reached at
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I was formulating a response in my head until you said you're his older sister. In my experience, those self-destructive, stony-silence-type guys tend to listen to other men more often than women. Since his own friends and your Dad seem to be fairly unreliable (according to your question), do you have a mutually-respected male relative or friend who could have an intense one-on-one conversation about where he is right now?
posted by xingcat at 7:45 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Some of it could well be that lingering teen angst, mixed in with the idiotic male (lack-of) communication pattern we occasional suffer from.

As to what to do for him. That's... tough. Ultimately you can just offer support and it is his choice to accept or reject it. Outside of immanent harm to self or others we are free to screw up our lives.

It's hard, I know, I have sisters I wish took better advantage of their skills rather then never-ending waitressing jobs.

Keep offering from time to time, he may surprise you one of those times.
posted by edgeways at 7:50 PM on June 7, 2011

It's up to him to get his life in order, not you or his family. If he doesn't want to or is unable to change, you can't force it. Let him know you're there for him (if you are) and then back off. It's his life, and he gets to make a train wreck out of it or not - you have to respect that or he'll just resent you more.
posted by smoke at 8:05 PM on June 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you could find a male role model type to talk to him, he might be more willing to open up. It sounds like he could use a change of location, get him away from the friends and girlfriend. Military might be a good fit ( they are more accepting of minor transgressions) , fishing in Alaska, college in another town, anything to get him working towards a new life.
posted by wrnealis at 8:30 PM on June 7, 2011

Wow, it sounds like you have the same brother as me. In my brother's case, though, his life has improved gradually over the years. He is still depressed and working dead end jobs, and still has the same woman troubles. But now that he is 29 instead of 19, he has developed other areas of his life that I think help balance out the problems. He has some friends who aren't the lame duck type. He has a couple of hobbies that seem to make him happy when he's engaging in them. He has developed more of a network of support people away from our own family (who are more like 'lack-of-support people' anyway).

I expect things will gradually get better for your brother as he matures too. 19 is a difficult time even for people in better situations.
posted by lollusc at 9:16 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Part of this is going to be an age thing. I think generally though you should let him know consistently that you're there for him but not push yourself or your views re: his life onto him. Resentment is really the last thing you want to breed. I agree that it is his life - you be there in his life as a present and willing participant in it and let him know you're there for him if he ever needs it.

Eventually that need to help others may come around in a way that constructively helps him financially (career-wise) and personally (to develop boundaries, to feel fulfilled), but you can't push anything onto anyone.
posted by mleigh at 10:01 PM on June 7, 2011

He has no health problems and nothing holding him back other than himself and now, his record.

Hate to break it to you, but depression is a health problem that can hold you back considerably.

I know you say you've encouraged therapy, but he's going to have to accept it in his own time, if he sees fit. He may be legally an adult right now, but I think you should cut him a bit more slack and wait and see a bit based on his young age. I was a mess at 20, and it took some big changes of circumstance and perspective to come out of it. Just let him know you're concerned and always there for him. He'll probably figure it out.
posted by sunshinesky at 9:30 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are me ten years ago. In addition to the casual drug use and legal trouble (pot, graffiti), my brother was also doing truly self-destructive things, like drinking and driving, fighting. Once he got high with a loser roommate and didn't know the roommate was also on meth, and they got in a fight and the guy stabbed him in the gut then fled the country. ER trip ensues. Few weeks later, he was drunk at a party and fell off a three-story balcony onto concrete. ER trip ensues. Broken collarbone. ER doc said he could have died from the fall... had he not been so drunk.

This was the part I also wrestled with: "He has so many talents and could accomplish great things if he could free himself from his self-destructive rut."

*I* could see all this wonderful potential in my brother that he apparently refused to see. And I was convinced he was going to end up dead. (At the time, I thought he was maybe convinced of the same.)

But what I did wrong was nag and push and set out my expectations for him constantly. I thought I was giving the tough love of an older sister. I thought it was my job to ride him until he changed for the better.

But in his eyes, I actually was trying to parent him. He didn't want that—and because he was an adult, he didn't have to take it. There were long phases of us not speaking to one another or seeing one another, because I couldn't deal with being around him while he was throwing his life away. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that he needed me to love him no matter what, and not to try to change him. Of course he was barely 21-22 and I was not that much older or smarter myself, so live and learn.

smoke is dead right that all you can do is be there for him but not try to interfere, and his life will be what he chooses.

What you can do is sit down with him, not intervention-style but maybe over a meal. Talk about things that aren't the success of your life, the failure of his life, or anything related. Toward the end of the meal, tell him that you love him, but that you do worry about him sometimes. Tell him you want him to be happy, healthy and safe—and that you know you can't make his choices for him but you will always love him no matter what.

Life will steer his path in a way that you can't. For my brother, it came down to one night. I had finally backed off a bit, and decided that I'd rather have a loser brother in my life than not have him in my life at all. He went to a concert with me, and met a girlfriend of mine. He decided he wanted to hang out with us so he could chat her up, rather than go meet up with his buddies at some garage party. His best friend drove home drunk from that party, passed out at the wheel, drove into oncoming traffic and was killed instantly in a head-on collision.

When he got the news about his buddy, my brother decided it was a sign and he cleaned his life up and never looked back. He went back to school, paid off his bench warrants, stopped dealing nickel bags and hot electronics.

He's now a successful executive with specialized knowledge in a thriving industry. The girl is now his wife and the mother of his children. They just got back from a fifth-anniversary trip to Napa.

He needed me to be his friend, not his parent, while he finished growing up. Once I figured that out, I was in a position to provide the only support he would accept: my unconditional love.
posted by pineapple at 9:43 AM on June 8, 2011 [10 favorites]

He needs someone who AMAZES and INSPIRES him right now..., and I think... at this point, in all humble honesty that might not be you... being his sister... It probably will be some guy who like, discovers aliens or something.. who knows... and I'm sure he will ..... but, he'll soon realize, it was you guys that are really the ones he should be valuing.

He'll come back... but, let him be. He knows you're "trying" and that's a bit of an insult.. will make him more stone cold. He wants a sister, not a shrink telling him he's wrong.

To him, he's right.

It's a crooked path, but the path he needs to take.

You're telling him his path is wrong. There's a bit of guilt he feels because as much as he hates hearing that, he worries you actually may be right-- but only if he fails.. but that's why he helps others..... because in all his inner stone cold egoness, there's a small voice saying "I might be wrong..." and so by helping others, it keeps him a bit grounded.

That's a big sign that he has a reasonable inner voice...... smart creative 'handsome' guys as you describe him usually end up naturally straightening out just like a bike going really fast, the balance just comes...

Bit of a sad statement on our society but we value smart creative handsome types. Just sayin'... heheh...

But the fact is, because our society is this way, those guys early on feel on top of the world a bit... like they just "know" they'll be a success... and so can "get away" with a bit of self absorbed rebelliousness early on.

People basically "bore" them and that's why they seek someone who AMAZES them.... But one day, life will give him a dose of reality. Maybe a girl will leave him. Maybe that amazing person will become disappointed in him. That's what will knock him down..... and he'll come back, probably taking your path the next time.
posted by Like its 1997 at 2:29 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was younger and very angry/depressed for good reasons, I never took it well when family members who tried to be encouraging were the same people who'd let me down and treated me badly in the past when I needed support the most. I'm not saying you did! But maybe he feels that other family did and doesn't know how to express that. Encouragement from some of my family just made me angrier - like now you're trying to give me all this helpful advice and say complimentary things, but in my formative years you were horrible and/or absent, so I know better than to believe any of it now.

I feel like a helpful thing to do is to just be his friend and be reliable and supportive, and don't judge him. He probably does that enough and is certainly smart enough to know when he's messing up. And if he brings up some of the things from the past that make him angry and depressed, well, he has a right to be angry about those things and it's normal to feel that way. If he grew up with parents who didn't care enough to parent or support him it's no wonder he is looking for relationships with people who will treat him the same way. That is what he understands because that's the environment in which he was raised; from the way his parents behaved he can probably relate to people who are unreliable, distant, don't treat him well, etc. If I were to talk to him about things instead of saying "you're self-destructive how can we help you??" I might say, "your girlfriend is treating you like crap and you deserve better than that."
posted by citron at 10:46 AM on June 11, 2011

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