Roommate sibling. Something is weird. Not sure why.
February 2, 2017 8:52 AM   Subscribe

My only sibling is also my roommate. We are very close. In recent months I began worrying that she is either depressed or have some form of disordered eating. We fight when I express worry. Her behavior is triggering for me. Please share your perspectives. [TRIGGER WARNING]

As children, my sister (let's call her S) had always been the skinny one, and I the fat one. Our parents were overly controlling, so I grew up with lots of shame about eating too much, and she about eating too little.

Then we both grew into normal sized happy adults. I spent most of my teenage years and early 20s struggling with negative body image, depression, anxiety, and a complex relationship with food. I eventually got out of that, but boy was that a shitty time of my life.

My sister is my rock. She was the brighter counterpart to my darkness-- except for not finishing her meals, she has had a very happy childhood and grew up confident about her appearance. A few months ago we went to visit our parents and relatives, and people were pretty rude with comments about her weight gain. She's still a very petite person- just not the scrawny baby they remember, that's all. I was livid at those people, in part because I felt like it was happening to me all over again.

After we came back I noticed that she started making pretty harsh comments about her own body, and would sometimes get upset looking in the mirror. She bought a scale, and often leave unfinished meals lying around. We both work from home and have flexible hours, and I noticed that she started sleeping through multiple meals. She grazes a lot, but if I pay attention her snacks hardly amount to 1000 calories in a day. She constantly complains about fatigue or minor discomforts (headache, upset stomach, muscle aches). She's always cold and cranks up the heater in the apartment.

I've expressed concern and talked to her, and each time we just fight. She assures me that she's not depressed or intentionally dieting and doesn't have an eating disorder. This has gone on for about four months now, and at this point has turned into a sore spot for both of us.

I am worried about her health, both mental and physical. I miss my happy sister who laughs, eats, and goes out for pizza. I think if nothing else, she's caught in a cycle where she doesn't feel great because she's not taking very good care of herself, and then she can't take better care of herself because she's not feeling great. She isn't willing to change. I recognize many of the behaviors from my own days of struggling, and I am angry and sad that this is happening to her, and angry that I can't seem to stop it.

In addition to concerns, I am also struggling with a lot of shame about myself and resentment toward her, and I am deeply embarassed about these feelings. Part of me is resentful and angry because I feel like the fat-skinny dynamic of our childhood will be at play again, especially to our family, and that after a lifelong of struggle I will once again be the fatty that everyone hates on. I find myself feeling incredibly ashamed and guilty when I eat healthfully and in the proper amount, on a day when she sleeps through breakfast and lunch and leave her dinner plate half full. I am resentful that she can f- around all day like this, while I've been under tremendous stress at work and can't work if I am starving.

Realistically we were about the same size when all this started, and right now maybe at most five to ten pounds apart. We are in our late 20s/early 30s. I am incredibly embarassed about how I feel regarding this whole situation, so much so I can't talk to anyone about this.

I would seek support from our parents and family, but we are both adults, and our family has played such a huge part in our respective complexes, I would rather just not. I am also quite resentful toward the family who made those comments. I don't know what else to do, and frankly I am losing perspectives. I don't know how much of this I am projecting.

When we were children, our parents once told me that I wasn't allowed to get into a fight with my sister, because it would negatively affect her appetite. So I was this fat child bottling up, and then getting yelled at for eating her feelings. It was f-ed up. I feel like this is all happening again, and it's a nightmare i can't wake up from.

I would love to hear any thoughts, perspectives, something that would maybe shedlight on an angle I haven't thought of, etc.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know you said you don't want to seek support from your family - but do you (and/or Sister) have friends? Therapists? Do you attend religious services? Do either of you have significant others?

Just reading between the lines, it sounds like maybe the two of you are wrapped up in each other and don't have much outside of your sibling relationship? That would be something to work on. I definitely recommend therapy for you, and for your sister if she is willing to go. Sometimes, in dysfunctional families, there can be an "us against the world" mentality which discourages forming bonds or confidences outside the immediate family. That's not healthy, especially if your family is dysfunctional (and those are the kind of families that form fortresses, anyway! Double bind!)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:02 AM on February 2, 2017

I spent most of my teenage years and early 20s struggling with negative body image, depression, anxiety, and a complex relationship with food. I eventually got out of that, but boy was that a shitty time of my life.

With respect, I'm not sure that you did. From my perspective as someone who has struggled with my weight and body image all through my life, her actions and eating habits don't seem that abnormal to me. Maybe there is more there that you are not telling us, or I'm not seeing, but I would suggest you focus on getting some counseling around your own feelings and thoughts about your food, weight and your relationship with your sister/family and let her take care of herself as she sees fit.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:07 AM on February 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Therapy for you. You need to shore up your boundaries and distinguish your identity from your sister's.

You cannot go to therapy for her, and you cannot fix her. Your sister, if she has a problem, can't be forced to be helped, she has to want it. You can't want it for her. But you can shore up your own well-being and figure out how to manage the relationship with her so that you can get out of her way, and out of your own way, and have some objectivity around the situation.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:10 AM on February 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

To be direct, I wonder if you might not be the best person to talk to your sister. It sounds like you've both been finding ways to deal and think about similar issues in different ways, and talking to your sister won't be well received, both because she might not receive it well, but also because you might not be communicating well either.

It sounds like your communication patterns set up an antagonistic pattern between each other, where you're worried about her, and she has to defend herself from your worries.

Outside of recommendations of therapy (which are good points) - what activities that could you do together that put you together on the same team, rather than on different teams? Can you have a weekly movie night? Go hiking together? Go for a walk around the neighborhood? Plant a garden together?
posted by suedehead at 9:21 AM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Please back off her weight. It is not helping. Her weight is her body, not yours, and she has already amply demonstrated to you with her words and actions that a) she doesn't want to discuss this with you b) if there is a problem, you are not the right person for her to confront this with because A + basically all of your post.

The best you can do when she complains of heaches or stomach aches is to empathise and suggest: "I'm sorry your stomach hurts, that's such a crappy thing when it happens. Do you want to see a doctor?" Do not allow the word "food" or "eating" or "weight" to pass your lips.

Your feelings however are yours to manage and if you are struggling (which is very fair given your home life) you may want to join a support group or see a therapist for a few sessions.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:32 AM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I don't feel qualified to give advice but I do want to point out a "one of these things is not like the others" you shared.

The behaviors you describe in your sibling do seem concerning, especially the lack of good self-care/nutrition, but you said the two of you were 5 to 10 pounds apart. Is that actually true? Because if your own weight is healthy, a 5-10 pound difference is not significant. It is normal for someone's weight to fluctuate by ~4 pounds within a single day. A doctor would generally not be concerned by any short-term weight change of less than ten pounds. Now, weight doesn't equal health, obviously, but that one thing stood out to me and is worth considering when trying to evaluate how warranted your concern is.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:34 AM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

Do you have to be roommates? That seems like it might be intensifying this dynamic for both of you.
posted by vunder at 9:38 AM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I grew up in a family with a lot of dysfunction around food as well. Weight and looks were always commented on; appearing to have lost weight was rewarded with affection, while appearing to have gained weight brought down criticism. And there was lots of other fucked up behavior too.

Aside from all the body image, shame, eating problems, my sister and I experienced (and continue to struggle with) this dysfunction has also made it very difficult to talk about the issue of weight, healthy eating, exercise at all. We do talk about it, but boy is its hard.

Not talking about or acknowledging some kind of dysfunction is oftentimes as damaging as the dysfunction itself. And I think this is really your issue. It's hard to carry on life in a shared living situation when there's this giant elephant in the room that no one is allowed to talk about. And while you can't make your sister change her behavior or go to therapy; you also shouldn't have to bottle things up or ignore problems or lie.

As others have said, you should seek some counseling for yourself. In therapy I think you need to find a way to say to your sister that you see her behaving in a way that is not normal and troubling to you; you don't know exactly what is going on, but you cannot ignore it. You aren't going to force her to do anything to change her behavior, she needs to want that for herself, but you are there for her if she needs help making changes.

And to be perfectly honest, I also think you should start thinking about and making a plan for changing your living situation. As much as you love your sister and want to be there for her, it's not good for your health to have to spend your life pretending everything is fine and that there's no dysfunction going on just because your sister isn't willing or able to talk about the situation. You may need to move for your own well-being.
posted by brookeb at 9:44 AM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree that there is concerning stuff in there (sleeping through meals, feeling cold, aches/pains) - but now there's a wedge between you that makes it very difficult for you to discuss this from the POV of concerned sibling. Back way off the weight angle, just don't even go there. Talk to someone else about your own feelings.

With some time, your sister might trust you enough to be open to e.g. a suggestion to see a doctor to look at some of those issues (again with zero mention of weight or your personal diagnosis, focusing only on her stated complaints). There is not anywhere near enough info here for us to be able to pick projection apart from the real story. For sure, though, if you want to be helpful to your sis, you have to regain trust - coming down on her harshly (with your concern) is not going to lead to her wanting to get help if she does need it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:45 AM on February 2, 2017

I'm so sorry you're going through this, and that the scars of your childhood are being made fresh. I hope you know that your childhood was abusive. Any family that makes you feel like less a person due to your weight or who seeks to control your autonomy to feed yourself is disregarding your humanity and you don't have to get over that or forgive them. It doesn't matter what your weight was, it's nutrition 101 that a parent's job is to provide healthy, nourishing food to their child but it's always, always up to the child to decide how much to eat. This is because taking away food autonomy from a child has lifelong ramifications. (Not saying you must cut them out of your life, as many parents fail this basic parenting skill, but I want to validate that what you're feeling right now isn't because you're overly sensitive because of something that happened to you as a child, that "something" was significant. )

I agree with others here that the only thing you can do here is get therapy for yourself and shore up your boundaries. Be an example for your sister of an adult who can find self-soothing behaviors that are healthy and don't revolve around controlling food. You must put on your own oxygen mask first and come to terms (maybe not peace) with the idea that you have zero control over what your sister does with her body.

Normally I would tell people that other people's weight isn't their business, because that is basically the entire tenet of my life as someone who believes humans all have dignity regardless of size. But. Eating disorders are deadly. Please seek out some advice specific to how to support your sister, most of which boils down to: be the person she knows that she can reach out to when she is ready for help. Don't lecture or scream or cry or hold an intervention. You said your sister has been your rock — now you can return the favor! You're strong, it's obvious from your question that you've overcome a lot of toxic family situations to get to where you are now.

Focus on living your life free from food obsession. Again, model the behavior you'd like to see. Your sister has a hard path: the love from her parents and from, honestly, most of society was dependent on her being the 'good' one, the skinny one. Don't be another person who only offer love and support if she eats or weighs a certain way, even if you're aiming for her to be healthy. (It doesn't sound like you're doing that, but just make sure she knows that your love is not conditional on what she looks like or what she eats.)

Be kind to yourself. A lot of answers here may project something onto you that is incorrect. You are not a bad person for asking this question and for trying to help your sister. Unfortunately, the answer to "how do I help this person" is almost always "help yourself and accept that you can't change anyone's behaviors even when they're going to kill them." Which means that loved ones can always break your heart and that is why therapy for yourself is essential.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 9:51 AM on February 2, 2017 [13 favorites]

I may be totally projecting, but I'll offer up my perspective in case it resonates:

I was a very skinny girl who didn't eat much as a kid. I was pretty viciously shamed by peers and strangers for being thin; it wasn't until my early 20s that I learned to stop being actively embarrassed by it. I wasn't dieting and didn't have disordered eating, I just had a quick metabolism and just didn't naturally carry a lot of weight on my (quite small) frame. When I hit 31ish and I started putting on a few pounds (and curves!) without "trying," I was pleased, but it was also profoundly weird to be putting on weight in different places in unpredictable ways.

As you may imagine, ain't nobody wants to hear a relatively thin woman trying to make sense of not being able to button her size 2 pants all of the sudden. Instant return to the shitty meangirl things people said to me when I was younger, with an extra helping of schadenfreude. It wasn't so much that I was worried about suddenly being overweight or that I thought I was overweight or that I though anything was wrong with anyone's weight or size -- I wasn't comparing my body to others' bodies at all -- it was that my body was behaving in ways that didn't feel normal for the way my body works.

(Fair warning to your sis, it usually happens again around 40. Damn hormones.)
posted by desuetude at 9:56 AM on February 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

You say you're feeling shame and resentment and worry about food and your relationship with your sister right now. Those are absolutely things you can work on and work through. However, you can't solve those issues by changing your sister's behavior. She's is the only one who has the right and the ability to change her own behavior -- those things are not under your control, and trying to control them will only make you and your sister more miserable.

Disordered eating can be a serious problem, and it's the thing you're trying to solve in both yourself and your sister. However -- being closely monitored and controlled by your family members, even in your most personal decisions (like what you choose to eat or not eat), is another problem that you've both suffered from, and it may be that you haven't fully recognized how it's affected you yet. It sounds like you may be replicating this dynamic by monitoring and attempting to control your sister's eating. Calculating the calories of the snacks that your sister is eating does not sound like healthy boundaries -- that's way beyond the line of the things that are her business and her business only.

Given your family experiences, it's no surprise that you are both sliding into a painful dynamic -- it's not because either one of you is a bad person, it's just part of what you may have learned from your family without realizing it. This kind of thing can get really difficult really fast, and it's hard to get perspective when you're in the middle of it -- right now, it's like you're both walking around a quicksand swamp with blindfolds on.

Here's what you can do:
1. Get to therapy (or if you're already in therapy, talk to your therapist about this situation). Having someone to help you who is not part of the family dynamic, someone who is not wearing a blindfold, can be incredibly helpful.
2. Stop monitoring your sister's eating. If you feel able, you might consider telling her something like this: "I've been feeling a lot of shame and worry about food stuff lately and I think I may have been getting all up in your business about it. I am going to do my best to stop trying to tell you what to do and just deal with my own feelings on my own or with a therapist. I love you."
posted by ourobouros at 10:00 AM on February 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

Please don't let any of the answers here make you feel bad. I'm always surprised by how insensitive people can be on Ask. I have to put it down to people being fortunate enough not to experience abuse as children, especially in cases where one child is treated very differently from another.

You sound like a very intelligent, caring, woman, who had a pretty fucked up family. I know that you will see the sense in the advice that says to get some therapy for yourself. You need and deserve someone who is invested in your best interests, who can be captain of Team OP. This is heavy stuff you are dealing with and its a huge load to try to carry alone.

Also, I know you will see the sense in the advice that the best help you can give your sister is to model a healthy lifestyle yourself, without judging her life and choices. Therapy should focus at least partially on helping you do that. Express that as goal when you initially meet with a therapist.

Mostly, treat yourself with love and respect. You deserve it. I know it sounds kind of lame and woo (or at least it did to me at first) but in situations like ours, you literally have to be your own parent, literally speak the words of love, encouragement, acceptance and support to yourself that you should have been hearing from your parents all along. It will help. Good luck to you.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 11:44 AM on February 2, 2017 [14 favorites]

except for not finishing her meals, she has had a very happy childhood and grew up confident about her appearance.

This line kind of jumped out at me, because it seems like some of your feelings towards your sister are clouded by a feeling of resentment that may be fueled by a false premise. You say that she had a very happy childhood, but is it really possible that she escaped the kind of scrutiny and pressure that your parents applied to you? Probably not, and the evidence is right there - she actually refused to eat a lot of the time. A lot of abusive behaviour in families happens behind closed doors, it's intended for the specific target and no-one else. Your sister was getting the same harsh treatment that you were; the way it was applied and her reaction to it was different, but it was there all the same. As a child, it's easy to not notice what's happening to the people around you. Now that you are both adults you have the opportunity to re-evaluate your feelings about the differences in your upbringings, and realize that they were not so different. Especially now that you have seen your family in action criticizing her:

people were pretty rude with comments about her weight gain

Your sister is your rock, and you can be her rock too - If you are worried that she's not eating properly, you can help her out by being supportive - do you think she looks good? - tell her that! If you think she is avoiding food, find out what she does still like and try making that, maybe she'd eat a really good salad? If your family has made her feel lousy and fat, it's totally possible that a lot of foods don't seem appetizing right now. Your controlling parents may have treated you differently as kids, because divide and conquer is a thing, but now you two get to rise above that. You are now team "we are awesome!" and nobody gets to say mean things to either of you anymore.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:56 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

If your sister is not seriously underweight this has nothing to do with her weight or her eating habits.

Her eating habits sound normal to me. She eats when she is awake and because she is inactive she only eats a bit, not full meals. Yep. There is no evidence that sister has any kind of eating problems.

Now sister may have a problem with depression making her sleep a lot, or something making her sick so she has low energy. But eating? Sounds like her calorie intact is reasonable for her activity level. She may be eating less than she did a couple of years ago because for many women the metabolism changes in the late twenties, which for some of them translates into weight gain, but for some of them into a reduced appetite.

You wrote: "In addition to concerns, I am also struggling with a lot of shame about myself and resentment toward her, and I am deeply embarrassed about these feelings. Part of me is resentful and angry because I feel like the fat-skinny dynamic of our childhood will be at play again, especially to our family, and that after a lifelong of struggle I will once again be the fatty that everyone hates on. I find myself feeling incredibly ashamed and guilty when I eat healthfully and in the proper amount, on a day when she sleeps through breakfast and lunch and leave her dinner plate half full. I am resentful that she can f- around all day like this, while I've been under tremendous stress at work and can't work if I am starving."

It seems to me that this is on you. There's not a lot of evidence that she has an eating disorder, but there is a fair bit of evidence that you have strong feelings about eating, and about your past roles in your family of origin. I'd be more inclined to think that you have started to allow unresolved issues to come to the surface. Your account indicates that she was the favoured one, the one who got away with everything, the one who got special treatment, that your parents sided with her against you when they told you not to upset her - basically they ordered you to lose every conflict with her because her feelings mattered and yours didn't. So perhaps part of what is happening is that you were really angry at her in the past and now that anger towards her, mixed with concern and love is coming to the front. It used to be you weren't allowed to get her upset. Now you are deliberately opening and re-opening a subject that makes her upset, telling her that you think she has an eating disorder.

I'm afraid you may be modeling your parents behavior concerning her eating habits. Do you sound at all like them? Unless you are seriously underweight she is not underweight, yet you have the same preoccupation that your parents did, that she is not eating enough. Perhaps the only way you can express negative feelings towards her is by fussing that she is not eating enough. When jealousy and worry spills out you can turn it on her and upset her by telling her she is not eating enough, as you are doing it out of concern. It may be that making her upset any other way is simply so taboo, so anxiety provoking that this is the only way you can share your distress with her and talk to her about your feelings.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:20 PM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

My sister was quite seriously ill around the age of 27 and lost a dramatic amount of weight. During her recovery; she began to display very uncharacteristic behaviour. Commenting about dieting to stay so thin. Literally counting calories, avoiding anything fattening. Which seemed crazy when her weight was unhealthy and she looked heartbreakingly gaunt; it was frustrating because she desperately needed to recover from her surgery.

I didn't give her shit despite being very worried. Instead I was super loving. I'd ask her what she fancies to eat. I'd bake cakes and even if she it ate one, I'd consider it a win. I'd basically be someone to hold her hand and ask if she wanted a duvet day. We'd do what we used to do when I was a kid, eat dairy milk whilst watching Labrynth, eat tomato bread at midnight and bowls of hot bananas and custard instead of dinner, not everyday obviously - but the idea was to make eating this shared positive thing again. She eventually got back to normal, I have no way of knowing if I helped with that, but clearly I didn't make it worse.

She clearly was having some stuff happening that meant the last thing she needed was someone trying to control or shame her.

I'd try this with your sister. You're obviously close and I do think it's a mistake to nag, shame or gripe when she displays signs of depression or disordered eating. She seems to not be feeling so hot so find ways to do small things that remind her she is great and loved. Easy things; bowling, wine tasting, cinema, board games. Make snacks, cakes, eat popcorn, whatever. And let her eat what she wants within that. One bite - fine, ten bites - fine. Don't comment. What does she love? How might she feel to wake up to her favourite cupcake by her alarm clock? What about a delicious smoothy....I have a recipe for one if you need inspiration! She might be quite sad/unwell so be as compassionate as you can be.

I also think it is worth considering that recent comments about her weight were enough to make her slip into a negative headspace....This implies that like you, she has quite a toxic attitude to her own body image. I'd image it is as others have mentioned; you are likely to not be the only one that was made to feel crap by your parents.

I hope you can get back to being close with her and hopefully see her get back to her happy self.
posted by TheGarden at 7:18 PM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Give yourself credit for what you are doing right in your question: you are being incredibly honest with yourself. That kind of honesty is necessary before you can work through your difficult emotions. As others have suggested, taking your honesty to a counselor or therapist, who will help guide you, is an excellent idea. As a human being, you are allowed to have difficult emotions, no matter where they stem from. Acknowledging them is the first step in resolving them, and you are already there.
posted by Mr. Fig at 6:12 AM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

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