Balancing care for yourself with mental health issues of a family member
May 26, 2015 6:36 AM   Subscribe

Recently my sister came over from the UK to stay with us here in Sydney for 3 weeks, and it was tough. She was extremely critical of everything down to the smallest detail and often condescending and rude. This is not my first time being treated like shit by a guest in my own home and I'd really like advice on how to stop this/react in future.

My sis is struggling financially with two low-paid jobs and has suffered from depression all her life. She's wanted to visit Australia for about 7 years but couldn't afford the flight + accommodation. Staying with us made it financially possible. I was looking forward to it because now my grandad's gone she's the only person left in my family who's not awful and we'll need each other when my mum/brother are being horrible or violent.

She's always been a bit spiky and quick to snipe so I was expecting some difficulty but not to the extent presented when she arrived. 'Jokey insults' that were barely concealed real insults delivered harshly started immediately - things like mocking or mimicking my laugh/voice (I don't think they're weird, FWIW), my clothes (I have some fashionable clothes therefore am vain and superficial), overreacting with nasty laughter if I did something clumsy like drop cutlery when eating etc, calling me my husbands 'dependent' like I'm his kid (I'm a housewife), asking me what the point of my life is if I don't have a job, asking me why anyone would study my degree subject because 'what fucking use is it to anyone in the real world' (literature), telling me only selfish and vapid people live in my old city (London) where me & husband spent 10 years etc.
Knowing that this is how she's always been (but slightly worse now), I just laughed along or redirected conversation, as did my husband when she tried to denigrate me 'jokily' to him. I was trying not to take it personally but was a bit shocked and hurt.

She lost her phone on the flight, so was initially sticking with me to get around. On the first day I had to see my lawyer so she came along. During the meeting she talked over me to him and was making enquiries/demands about the specifics of my case. She has a job loosely related to law back home so OK, but I was still a bit stunned. I maintained composure and just signed the papers. When lawyer left the room to make copies she turned and [really condescendingly] said, "(everydayanewday), do you even UNDERSTAND what (legal document) IS?'. That's when I cracked and said 'OH MY FUCKING GOD, do you know how patronising you're being? Do you think I'm a child or a moron? Why would I not understand this simple thing?!!!' she then accused me of shouting (which I wasn't as we were in public) and spent the rest of the time we were in there giving me a pointed 'what is wrong with you' stare which for the sake of propriety I had to ignore. I was glad to have reacted and told her in very definite terms to stop this.

The other issue was food. She refused to eat most of our food (in fact she'd only eat white bread and baked beans). I'd got some cakes from the nice bakery in town for her and she made a big deal of picking the icing off one of them and putting the rest of it in the bin, wouldn't eat our bagels because 'that's jewish food', informed us she would refuse to eat sushi/chinese/vietnamese/malaysian (when I asked 'don't you like it' she just said 'I've never tried it') which meant that whenever we were out she dictated where we ate and what. This was tough because I want to respect boundaries and don't want to pressure people to eat stuff they don't like. But it did feel like more insults.

I should mention that during her stay she never said anything derogatory to my husband, even in jest, and was perfectly nice to him and most other people we encountered.

My issues with all this are:

-After this visit from my terribly-behaved friend a few years ago, I thought I'd have a better handle on this now. I know it all sounds petty and I should probably not be affected by it. She's my sister and I don't want us to have bad relationship. She was here for 3 weeks so there wasn't time to have an overhaul of communication style. Plus me upbraiding her would have ruined her only holiday to Oz probably ever and she works so hard and finds it even harder than most people because of her depression. But this was hurtful and caused arguments between my husband and I.
-I realised I'm horribly unprepared for bitchy/insulting behaviour and people that think decency makes you weak/stupid/naive. Woefully so. I'm just not expecting it and don't do the witty rejoinder thing. I need to be able to defend myself from these attacks, so any tips on that would be appreciated because I'm obviously not learning them on my own.
-Is the very critical type of lashing out a feature of depression or is just bad behaviour? (our old horror-guest also did it and she said she had untreated depression) Maybe part of my shock with my sister was being underprepared for how serious depression really manifests?
-How would you deal with the food issue? We catered explicitly for her and didn't eat in her list of 'will not eat that' places but it did get quite wearing when I'd eat something while we were out and she'd spend the whole time looking disgusted/make a crappy comment about it/picking at food in our house and then binning-it thing.

I know I should've dealt with this better and earlier and I have real problems confronting hostile people. My normal tactic is to just cut them off but I don't have a strategy in place for times when that's not possible. I also want to be sensitive to people's problems, especially mental health issues, in a way that doesn't leave me vulnerable to them. I'd be very grateful for any advice you have.
posted by everydayanewday to Human Relations (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: Enough is enough! Make yourself a new rule: any guest that you even suspect will be this awful has to stay in a hotel at their own expense, no ifs ands or buts. Good manners and politeness doesn't dictate that we accept crap behavior.

And that goes for Dear Sister, too: insults and name-calling were understandable (if still rude) when you were little kids, but you're both adults now, and if she can't afford to stay in a hotel then she can't visit.
posted by easily confused at 6:49 AM on May 26, 2015 [34 favorites]


If this were my sister, every time she said something rude I would ask, "why are you being a jerk?" But it sounds like you have a walking-on-eggshells relationship with your sister so I'm guessing you would feel awkward being up front about it.

I do think depression and insecurity can cause this kind of behavior, but not every depressed and insecure person is like this, and having a clinical diagnosis doesn't give someone license to be an asshole. I think you can head off future issues by just not inviting her back to your home, because surely there are not many people in your life who would behave this poorly to someone providing them with a free place to stay.
posted by something something at 6:55 AM on May 26, 2015 [12 favorites]


she's the only person left in my family who's not awful and we'll need each other when my mum/brother are being horrible or violent

She may not be at the level of your other family members, but she still sounds pretty awful, to be honest.

I know it all sounds petty and I should probably not be affected by it.

Nope, sounds utterly infuriating. Give yourself permission to be infuriated.

I need to be able to defend myself from these attacks, so any tips on that would be appreciated because I'm obviously not learning them on my own.

"Please don't speak that way to me." Being clever, cutting, or sharp won't do much. Set a boundary and stick with it.

Is the very critical type of lashing out a feature of depression or is just bad behaviour?

Could very easily be both! It doesn't matter; your sister is responsible for her behavior no matter her mental state. I suffer from depression and when I feel crappy about myself I might insult other people to make myself feel better. THAT IS ASSHOLE BEHAVIOR. So is hers.

How would you deal with the food issue? We catered explicitly for her and didn't eat in her list of 'will not eat that' places but it did get quite wearing when I'd eat something while we were out and she'd spend the whole time looking disgusted/make a crappy comment about it/picking at food in our house and then binning-it thing.

Point her to some local grocery stores and restaurants. She's an adult. If she doesn't like the food prepared for her, she can find her own.

There's a middle ground between cutting her off and letting her walk all over you. She's not staying with you again. If you go to see her, give yourself escape routes. If she starts talking trash, "Please don't speak that way to me." If she continues or gets defensive, leave.
posted by chaiminda at 7:03 AM on May 26, 2015 [26 favorites]


Is the very critical type of lashing out a feature of depression or is just bad behaviour? (our old horror-guest also did it and she said she had untreated depression) Maybe part of my shock with my sister was being underprepared for how serious depression really manifests?

IME, yes. Definitely.

Also, I think people get used to behaving that way and even when they're medicated and technically not in a depression anymore, they may continue behaving that way.

I have no advice on how to fix it or even deal with it, aside from developing a very thick skin -- but it's not just your sister or your friend who do this. IME, depression can make people very nasty/angry/domineering and self-absorbed, and that's a long-term problem.
posted by rue72 at 7:03 AM on May 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Can I just ask how likely this is to be an ongoing issue? I mean it sounds like she won't be returning any time soon.

Also, FWIW, I had a visit from a sister who was in a similar period of dysfunction and I seriously thought I was going to hit her with a frying pan if she said "Ewwwwwwwww!" one more time. Something about being with family seemed to reduce her to childlike behaviour. It was infuriating. We buckled down knowing there was an end date to this on which she was going home but it was straight up legit awful.

In retrospect, I wish I had taken the tact of "We're going to X tonight. Here is the menu. If nothing is suitable for you, I'm happy to help you eat beforehand with a trip to the grocery store and maybe you'd just like to come along for the drinks or desserts."

And also: "Why would you think that is an OK thing to say?"
posted by DarlingBri at 7:12 AM on May 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


Let's say all of that horrible behavior was due 100% to her depression. That still doesn't mean you have to spend extended time with her, or let her be a guest in your home. Giving her the impression that people should let her off the hook for her horrible behavior is not going to help her at all, and setting boundaries is not the same as lacking compassion.
posted by jaguar at 7:14 AM on May 26, 2015 [11 favorites]


Best answer: After looking at your past questions: Sometimes, adults who were abused as children can grow into bullies who still think of themselves as victims, as if their lashing out is defensive even when it's not. Adults reacting from that victimized-child place can often benefit from being calmly treated as responsible adults (e.g., the suggestions of "We're going to X tonight. Here is the menu. If nothing is suitable for you, I'm happy to help you eat beforehand with a trip to the grocery store and maybe you'd just like to come along for the drinks or desserts." or "Please don't speak that way to me."), while on the other hand, sniping back or "witty rejoinders" just keeps the interaction at the bullied-child level. Even if the person sulks and refuses to make an adult decision, it at least puts the responsibility back on them, as an adult, rather than catering to their "You have to make me feel better!" childlike demands.
posted by jaguar at 7:21 AM on May 26, 2015 [49 favorites]


You said she wasn't rude to your husband, which means she was was able to control herself and choose her own behaviour. Depression does not excuse the behaviour she choose to inflict on you. AS you have trouble advocating for yourself in the face of rudeness (I am the same way - so no judgement implied) I would pre-emptively to have houseguests or plan long visits with people you do not have intimate familiarity with on a recent, daily basis. Good luck, you sound lovely and I am sorry your sister is causing so much pain to to so many others.
posted by saucysault at 7:24 AM on May 26, 2015 [16 favorites]


I would use her vulnerable position as leverage, quite honestly. "Listen, you can change the way you act towards me, or we can change your flight back to tomorrow, or you can find somewhere else to stay during your time here, get it?"
posted by xingcat at 7:31 AM on May 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Best answer: You said she wasn't rude to your husband, which means she was was able to control herself and choose her own behaviour.

Yes, this precisely. She knows her behavior is unacceptable and therefore only does it to people with whom she knows she can get away with it, like you.

On the compassionate side of the argument, she seems incredibly miserable and unhappy, and it's a sad situation that you feel like she's the only good person left to you in your family. However, she really is treating you abominably, and it seems that she's doing so deliberately, to lash out and maybe get some kind of release from the pressure of her unhappiness. So while depression certainly may be the cause of her pain and unhappiness, the only thing causing her to treat you, personally, and no one else, terribly is her own choice to do so.

Either way, the fact that she has struggled/is struggling with depression by no means requires you to be her punching bag. Now that your 3 weeks of torment are over, I think your best bet for the future is to simply be unavailable for any further visits.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:52 AM on May 26, 2015 [13 favorites]


Why are you still talking to your family?
posted by jbenben at 7:56 AM on May 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: jbenben - she was the only member of my family I was still talking to.
posted by everydayanewday at 7:58 AM on May 26, 2015


I skimmed your "horrible" and "violent" links and learned that in your family you and your sister are scapegoats: you were supposed to cheerfully pitch in, pay for things, keep the family gears greased by being faultlessly generous yadda yadda ya, all while putting up with insane abuse, and all of it so that your brother could prosper. Your sister's illogical behavior makes it pretty clear that dynamic is still in play for her. You have prospered in spite of it, she hasn't done as well. Let her know that in your case the old rules have expired. You're grown, you make your own decisions, you do what you want, and you have a new, sane, chosen family, all of which means you will no longer take punishment for breaking the demented rules of your original family. It could be like that for her, too. She could do what makes her happy and not feel bad about it. She can put away childish things, grow up and have a relationship with her loving sister, or she can stay a miserable envious child and not have a relationship with her sister. Her choice.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:03 AM on May 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Sorry, but the old "I have depression, so I just can't help being an 18-carat prick" thing is bullshit, here and everywhere else. And yep, I suffer from depression too; won't say I don't occasionally lash out at my husband when I'm feeling awful, but I don't insult and abuse him as a matter of course, as your sister did you, and I certainly don't do things like imply he's stupid, etc.

As others have noted, she seemed to be able to control herself around your husband, so it's not that she can't help it. Maybe it's that she feels more comfortable with you so she feels as though when she interacts with you, she doesn't have to exercise control over herself and her behavior; that's fine, but you know, that still makes it a choice. Being sensitive to people's mental health issues does not include letting people treat you like shit, full stop.

For the same reason, there's no reason in the world for you not to "take it personally." She was deliberately directing insults at you; it was personal. There's no reason for you to feel as though you're being irrational just because the person insulting you implies it's beyond her control, especially when it's clearly not beyond her control.

As for how to deal with it, I would simply not allow her to stay with you anymore. If she's nasty to you at other times, like over the phone, I would simply say something like, "Excuse me, I'm not in the habit of allowing people to speak to me like that. You can be as decent to me as I've seen you being to other people, or I hang up the phone. Your choice." And it is her choice -- it really is. You don't have to put up with insults and nastiness just because they're coming from your sister. (And frankly, you were a lot nicer to her than I would have been; if someone made racial and ethnic insults in my house, it would have been aloha on the steel guitar, no further discussion, and I wouldn't care how the person was related to me or how she had to pay for the hotel.)
posted by holborne at 8:23 AM on May 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


You said she wasn't rude to your husband, which means she was was able to control herself and choose her own behaviour.

The other side of this is that, much like with children (and she may be one of those people who gets stuck, emotionally, at a very young age because of abuse), she trusts you enough to be horrible with you. You're the one she can let her guard down with.

That doesn't mean you have to like it, or take it, but if you can reframe it through that lens you may be able to approach her more like a toddler and less like an adult who ought to know how to act. With a toddler, you don't make jokes of their bad behavior because that reinforces it. When she's insulting, you can say, "we don't talk to people like that" and when she's horrible in a restaurant you can get your bag and pay the check and leave, and leave her home (at her hotel, preferably) with a sandwich. When she says something awful, you can just look at her blank-faced or say "why would you say that?" and wait all day for an answer if you want.

If you want any sort of relationship with her it's going to mean that these issues are not going to go away, and the best control you're going to have is not so much making her be a different person but just putting up a line and refusing to cooperate when she crosses it. If you don't want to or just can't have a relationship with her, don't.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:45 AM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Be the bigger person and forgive her for her awful behavior. Who knows, maybe it *is* untreated depression, or maybe it's jealousy, or maybe ...

At the same time, be nice to yourself and promise never to have her as an extended house guest ever again. You don't need the negativity and aggravation in your life. Be "really busy". Or just "unavailable".

And then guess what, you're in sunny Sydney - who cares what the rest of the far-away family is bitching and moaning about? Go have tea at the QVB and then take the ferry out to Manly for the day.
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:26 AM on May 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


A: You said she wasn't rude to your husband, which means she was was able to control herself and choose her own behaviour.

B: Yes, this precisely. She knows her behavior is unacceptable and therefore only does it to people with whom she knows she can get away with it, like you.


Thirded. When I found myself in a dynamic like this with a close friend, nothing improved until I stopped allowing her to treat me badly.

I tried being compassionate and laughing off the insults or redirecting conversations, as you did. This only diminished her satisfaction at having "burned" me, and encouraged more extreme attempts to get an upset reaction out of me.

One evening, after a particularly nasty remark, I got up and said calmly, "I have to go, thanks for having me over." She was so stunned that I was literally standing up for myself that she had nothing more to say. After that, I refused all invitations to hang out with her alone (she only showed this side of herself to me, when others were around she was sweet as pie). I know I could have been more direct in confronting her, but she got the message in any case. I haven't been the target of her spite in years.

As your sister is, my friend was in an unhappy situation in her life and I have no doubt that's what caused her to lash out so severely. Rather than facing her own disappointment in herself, it was easier to focus on what she perceived as my faults and failings, and I was the perfect, safe target. She believed she could speak to me this way under the guise of honesty within our friendship, and she didn't expect me to bite back.

Depression or not, it's no excuse for your sister to single you out as a target for her abuse, and you'll do both of you a favor by not allowing it. By putting up boundaries, you'll be encouraging her to become a more self-aware and less hateful person, and you'll have a shot at saving the last familial relationship you both have.
posted by keep it under cover at 11:41 AM on May 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


Rather than figuring out why these people treat you so poorly and how to handle it, figure out why you are choosing to hang around these people at all when they are so clearly abusive. Bering related or old friends is just not a good enough excuse. There is no good excuse to put up with being treated like that. Stay away from these people--it sounds like there more than a few people who treat you quite badly, why are you doing that to yourself? Choose freedom!
posted by waving at 12:34 PM on May 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Read Stop Walking on Eggshells. Don't let her stay with you again; she's mean and unpleasant. be a friend to her if you can, avoid drama, but don't subject yourself to that again. You deserve better.
posted by theora55 at 3:17 PM on May 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Plus me upbraiding her would have ruined her only holiday to Oz probably ever and she works so hard and finds it even harder than most people because of her depression. But this was hurtful and caused arguments between my husband and I. "

Ruining her "only holiday to Oz ever?" Not your problem.

You deserve a peaceful home. You DESERVE A PEACEFUL HOME. Your sister does not get to ruin that.

No one in my family is allowed to stay at my house anymore, the end. Frat boys are, but they're easy.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 3:51 PM on May 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


She's my sister and I don't want us to have bad relationship

This is as much on her as it is on you, and she's putting the entire burden on you and also being mean. As other people have said, that she can control herself around other people means she's choosing not to control it around you. That depression may be a factor isn't the issue - lots of us (including me) have depression, and it can be awful. But part of being an adult is addressing your mental health issues and getting appropriate care and making sure you can function socially, which includes not treating the people you love badly.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:25 PM on May 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think you just need practice addressing the elephant in the room in general. Most of those cases with your sister could probably have been solved with a:

[record scratch sound]
WHAT is WRONG with you? ... You know 'what.' You're a guest in my home and if you like it that way you need to knock it off.

Don't be specific, it's a trap. You don't have to enumerate what exactly you don't like so they can do something different next time. They know. This approach is uncomfortable and might make her mad temporarily. But it feels amazing, and you don't get very many repeat offenders.
posted by ctmf at 8:09 PM on May 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


I didn't read your past questions, but to be completely honest? It sounds to me as if she's jealous of you, your life situation, and probably your relationship with your husband. It seems she has very little, so I feel that it's enviousness and covetousness talking, which is why she is the worst around you: She criticizes everything about you to take you, and your life, down a peg, so she can feel better about herself, and the way her life is lacking compared to yours.

For example, her looking down on you being a housewife-- she's forced to work, and she resents your situation, and thus makes a point to make you feel bad about that, as if her way of living is 'right' and your way of living is 'wrong' and 'dependent'.

That and she's probably very judgmental and black/white about things.

My ex sister in law was similar, and did a similar thing, all the time-- and ultimately it was a manifestation of her own self loathing. She hated herself so she constantly needed to belittle everything everyone else did. To become lofty, she had to look down on everyone- their way of life, their way of doing things. Invalidate anything 'different' and validate her own way of doing things.

Unfortunately there really wasn't a lot we could do to make things better. You probably already know that being docile is her cue to go for your jugular, and won't work. And standing up to her resulted in indignation and an argument and more snark. It is kind of lose-lose. She doesn't do it with others because she knows you're the easy target, and sometimes people like this prey on what they perceive is weakness-- kind-hearted people, which I'm assuming you are one of.

You know what? Some people just have ridiculously terrible personalities.

Not a lot worked on my SIL, but we did find some hacks. After a while, we got used to saying, 'Oh dear, that's a shame for you,' when she complained or, 'I understand you don't like X, there's no need to be that way about it,' and walking off. Literally leaving the room any time she said anything incredibly hostile. At other times, being overly cheerful and kind to her, and deflecting a lot of hostility and vitriol. Like, for example, "Why on earth would anyone eat X?" "Why on earth wouldn't everyone! X food tastes so awesome!" If someone she respects/looks up to takes your side as well, like your husband, 'Oh yeah cream cheese is the bomb,' then it will make her look silly. In my case, I sometimes made it kind of a game, where the more she pouted and scowled the more cheerful I became towards her. It didn't make her scowl less, but it was pretty fun seeing her squirm, knowing she wasn't getting to me.

Just remember, whenever she (or people like her) make you feel bad: There's a good chance she's insanely jealous of you in general. She feels worthless and inadequate and is unable to articulate it except by lashing out at you. That doesn't make it right, but it does make her a creature worth pitying more than being angered by.

Good luck.
posted by Dimes at 11:41 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


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