Can I help my sister?
December 26, 2006 3:58 AM   Subscribe

My sister is in her late-30s and a single mother of one little girl. She's stuck in an endless series of crummy jobs, severely dependent on our mother, and she is incredibly defensive and vitriolic about pretty much everything. I'd like to help her somehow.

I don't know, really, if it's selfish of me or what to think that I need to "help" her, but it is something I think about pretty often when I'm home, like I am now for the holidays. I hate to bring such a question to AskMe at a time like this, but it always gets me thinking about family.

I love my sister. She's just very, very deeply dependent, and despite a few stops and starts along the way, I don't think she's ever really found a good direction for her life. She's had a string of ultimately-failed relationships with men who she's fallen head-over-heels and then some for, she's never lived very far from mom for long (her dad, my mother's first husband, died a year or two ago). The father of her (very cute, very intelligent) daughter is not a topic that really ever gets discussed, but as far as I know she doesn't really know who he is (my assumption, though I ended the discussion at that point, was that there are many possibilities.) I am pretty sure she had a daughter not because it was a good idea at the time, but because she was lonely and wanted some sort of direction (see above) and felt she was running out of time. She works at a pretty boring downtown office job with (as far as I can tell) not much room for advancement.

This is all okay, really, so far, it's not fun but it's stuff that can be dealt with. The part that is so difficult, for me, is that so much of her life centers around her relationship with our mother. My mom is very resilient, and totally selfless, and she has many many things she'd like to do with her life now that she's nearing retirement age, but she's here, because she wants my sister's daughter to have absolutely every opportunity and the healthiest childhood she can help her have, and so whenever my sister needs the slightest little thing, she's right there.

But my sister, who has gone through all of these things she's gone through, has been clinically depressed at (I think) more than one time in her life (there was some hospitalization involved, though I don't know all of the details), etc etc etc, has developed a personality that is completely corrosive. I try to be nice and understanding, but the slightest suggestion or correction or lack of agreement sets her off into this amazing level of passive-aggression that I've never seen before, and it isn't just because I'm her brother. The tone of her voice instantly changes into this horrible cold hatred, though she seems to act as though nothing's wrong, she gets louder, she snaps, ... it's more than that, it's hard to explain properly. I have never been very good at describing emotions although I've always been pretty good at picking them up, and it just feels like hatred. If you're out in public with her and someone does something she disapproves of (e.g. is fat, is loud, whatever, despite the fact that she is neither skinny nor quiet herself, though I think she used to be) she will very loudly announce to you how much she disapproves, very much within earshot of said person.

There's more; I don't really know how to boil it all down for an AskMetafilter. It's nothing explicitly horrible, she's not on drugs, she doesn't stab people. She's just become seriously painful to be around or talk to, she has very few friends and the ones she has are miles and miles away, she obsesses about this one love interest who moved on months ago, and she leans on my (willing, though increasingly privately unhappy) mother for so very many things, emotional and otherwise.

I'd really like her to be more positive, I'd love for her to meet new people her age, and go out more, and all sorts of things, but I don't even know where to start, or how to approach it without being yelled at or cried at or just completely ignored. I don't live at home anymore, or even in the same country as home, but even if I were here I don't know what I could really do. I don't even know what to tell my mom, other than to stop letting herself be my sister's crutch, but that won't happen.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have had friends, relatives, coworkers, significant others, etc. like this. What can you do? Its so hard.

...typed a lot of stuff here then came to a different conclusion....

You know, typing this I realize even more pointedly that you can't really help people who don't want to be helped. It might be too late or she might come to some amazing epiphany all on her own. Just be supportive and kind and hope for the best. I have a brother in a similar situation except addicted to food and anger. I have worried that he would drop dead for over a decade. Any mention of anything would send him into an ungodly fit. But lo and behold he somehow wrapped his mind around everything and is having a lap band surgery after the new year.

Love your sister, love your mom, love your niece, in the end things will work out.
posted by stormygrey at 9:02 AM on December 26, 2006

It sounds like your sister has some pretty significant mental health related problems. It is very difficult to figure out the right thing to do when a family member behaves in such a corrosive way, particularly when a young child is part of the picture.

Obviously your sister needs help, but you also need help to figure out what your role and responsibilities should be. As you've discovered, many people with emotional problems don't take well intentioned suggestions in the manner we'd like them to. Even though you don't intend it, it sounds like your sister hears you as being critical and attacking, which means you need to find a new way to be with her if you want to continue to have a relationship with her and your niece.

Anonymous questions don't allow us to know where they live, but if you live in an area with these, I'd suggest you check out a support group for family members of people with mental illness, for example those run by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is also an organization that many family members have found helpful.

You don't mention anything related to alcohol and/or other drugs, but if it might be that your sister's behavior is in some measure associated with these, Al-anon is a *great* place to start. Even if you're not sure if this is the case, I'd encourage you to check out an Alanon meeting, as this is the place where family members learn how to live their own lives while having a family member who is poisoning themselves and others with abusive behavior.

Also, these days there are also many self-help books and websites out there for family members who's sibs have mental illnesses. In addition to "depression," search subjects with terms like "bipolar," "borderline," "narcissism," "recovery," etc. I'm not diagnosing your sister, obviously, but just suggesting you cast your net wide. My general suggestion with self-help books is to go to a bookstore with a good selection and just page through them til you find an author who you feel speaks to you.

As far as your mom is concerned, she sounds like she's doing her best to give her grandchild a stable, loving relationship in the middle of the chaos. This is a heroic thing and your mom is to be commended. You might want to consider finding a positive way to connect with your niece also. Having a favorite uncle who she can rely on and turn to without fear could make a *huge* difference in her life later on.
posted by jasper411 at 9:42 AM on December 26, 2006

I think stormygrey has got it. Your sister is miserable, and her hostility makes it clear that she's not ready to let someone help her.

Tell her, once, how you feel. Let her know that you're concerned for her and her daughter. Suggest she get help. In the likely event that your suggestions are met with more hostility, drop it. From that point on, do what you can to discourage your sister's behaviour when she is around you: end the conversation or leave (or whatever would be feasible) when she turns hostile. Make it clear through your actions that you won't tolerate it.

Your mom seems to have made her choice -- and as painful as it is to watch her make it, it is her decision. If you're close enough, perhaps you can suggest to your mom that she is enabling your sister, but be prepared for her to respond that she doesn't agree or doesn't want to change. Again: suggest it once, then let it go.

To a lesser extent, I have a sister who is taking advantage of my parents. It hurts to watch them have to put things they've been wanting to do on hold because they choose to clean up after another one of my sister's reckless mistakes. But my parents have decided that they'd rather sacrifice than let my sister take the fall for her actions, and after a while I accepted that it is their choice, that on some level they do realize the things that I do, and that after I've discussed it with them one time, I need to let it go.

It takes some time, but try to accept that you can only change how you respond to the situation. Your sister may yet come around, but she has to do it for herself.
posted by AV at 9:51 AM on December 26, 2006

I had to read that twice just to make sure I had got the full scope of what you had written and what jumped out at me is that you state repeatedly that all you have written is subjective. You don't seem to know much about her (sister) personal history but you have still painted for yourself what amounts to a full picture even though a lot of the finer details are missing or you are not fully informed about.

You can't possibly be that close to her so I can't imagine why you would feel you are in a position to be of help to her. Why would she accept help from you? I am guessing that you also seem to have a issue with her relationship with your mother, the only birth parent you share, but you also state that you live far away so how do you know just how 'severely dependent' your sister is on her mom.

You don't mention what sex you yourself are or how old you are but I imagine there is a huge age gap between you and your sister. I think this, the physical distance between you and only sharing one parent only acts to literally distance you further from her.

I know you say you love your sister but I am sorry to say that does not come across to me in your post. You just sound like you are a very judgemental sibling and that is a destructive trait in itself. Should you disagree with this statement of mine then I implore you to re-read you OP. Why don't you deal with your feelings in relation to your sister and in so doing that you will be helping her the best way you can. Start liking your sister, that's the first step in helping her.

Lastly, maybe you should tell your mom that you do not feel comfortable with having her moan about your sister to you when you phone or come home as it is impairing your relationship with your sister. If I have any of this wrong please feel invited re-inform me.
posted by mycapaciousbottega at 10:10 AM on December 26, 2006

Your sister sounds unhappy and lonely. In addition to what others have suggested, you might consider talking with her about just the daily things in life, and then listening to what she says. For example, you are not sure if her father died one year ago, or two? Ask! I bet she'd like to talk about her feelings about her father's death. tells you what she was thinking. She's been hospitalized, and somebody's told you at least that much - but why do you not know or remember the details? You don't know much about the circumstances around her child's conception, because she was telling you and then you stopped the conversation? Maybe pick that back up again - and really listen when she talks about it. You don't know if she was once skinny or quiet??

I'm not suggesting that you pry, but instead that you be a friend and let her know that you are here to listen when she needs somebody to talk with.
posted by Houstonian at 10:11 AM on December 26, 2006

(Please ignore my weird "tells you what she was thinking" sentence in the middle of my post.)
posted by Houstonian at 10:14 AM on December 26, 2006


I empathise with your situation. It would be very difficult to sit by and watch anyone you love deal with the issues you've described.

In my opinion, patience is not only a virtue - it is a tactic and a necessity in situations such as these.

There are two books which I would like to recommend that I am hoping might help you deal with this situation:
  1. Dificult Conversations by Stone, Patton and Heen. ISBN: 0-14-028852-X
  2. Any collection of the Dialogues of Plato - My Personal Favorite
Firstly, Difficult Conversations is a book which accompanied a negotiation course I took at Harvard. I've had a great deal of training and experience but this was one of the most useful topics I ever studied when it comes to dealing with people that don't exactly want your input, perhaps like your sister.

This book teaches you how to approach a topic with a person that you know is going to be volatile, and how to keep things positive. Often we know the right things to say, but we just need a little training on exactly how and when to do so.

Next, I recommend the Dialogues of Plato, but specifically the dialogues Crito or Euthyphro, because I believe that Plato's account of Socrates should be studied as a model for how one can help people examine their lives by "leading" them through a series of questioning.

You can only help others if you have the wisdom, and patience to do so.

I have found that you will encounter extreme resistance if you try to tell someone what they should be doing, but I've also learned that you can help people change if you approach them at the right time, ask the the right questions, and dish out digestible chunks of advice a little at a time.

It sounds like you need to have conversations like this with both your sister, and your mother, to let her know that her constant intervention ultimately hurts your sister more than it helps by failing to allow her to develop into a strong independent woman.

Good luck,

posted by jpozadzides at 10:33 AM on December 26, 2006

You think, more or less, that your sister is an miserable person who is wasting her life and dragging your mother down with her. You believe that she does not know the identity of the father of her child and that she had no business having the child in the first place. Is that more or less right? There is nothing in the world to be gained from telling your sister how you have been feeling. I hope you will give it some thought, and work on feeling differently.

Think of an enemy -- a bitter ex-girlfriend, an old coworker who hated you. Now, imagine your life story as that person would tell it at his or her most venomous -- complete with all the details that person could not possibly know filled in to make you look as bad as possible. Imagine the enemy telling the story to a current (new) girlfriend, a boss, anyone who likes you but doesn't know you well yet. You find out. Would you argue the details and refute the enemy's slander point-by-point, or would you expect that the girlfriend or boss would know enough positive about you to assume the really bad stuff was lies and the merely unflattering stuff was understandable? Wouldn't you and the person told agree that the slander was more of a commentary on your enemy than on you, even if there were grains of truth to it?

This is your sister. You have told her story it a way that makes her seem to be without any redeeming qualities at all. If you don't know enough positive stuff about your sister to make you charitable, maybe you want to look within. If this is how you think of her, you can't really expect that she would be anything but hostile and defensive... to you. The enemy who slanders you may well have lots of truly helpful ideas for your improvement -- but are you going to listen?

If you want to help your sister, you need to find a way to love her, to accept her as is. Doesn't she have a pretty smile? Didn't she used to sneak you a cookie when your parents weren't looking? Doesn't she have good taste in music? Something? Being loved always helps, in itself. That will also give you standing to help her more practically, down the road. If you just can't do that right now, keep your distance and your silence. You know that making her -- and your mother -- feel judged won't help. Even if the judgement is 100% correct.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:42 AM on December 26, 2006

There's pretty much nothing you can do for your sister. Let that go.

If you're feeling the need to do something famiial, start helping your mother with your niece. Be her penpal, have her come visit you, send her a postcard once a month -- whatever level of involvement is right for you. Let her know that a) she is loved unconditionally, and b) there are people close to her that live very different lives than her mother.

Your mother will appreciate your support.
posted by tkolar at 10:46 AM on December 26, 2006

mycapaciousbottega hits it on the head. You sound successful, well educated, and traveled, and your sister is none of those things. You don't sound like you have any sort of relationship except for one of distant disdain. You are the sibling your mother goes to for advice, and who your sister probably only hears about in glowing terms. Your advice to her mother, the one constant in her life, is to cut the strings. You couldn't concoct a more perfect recipe to make your sister hate your guts.

Most of us have that sibling or cousin or somebody in our circle who is lost in their own misery. If there's anything I've learned from such a relationship, it's that you have absolutely no power over anything but your own relationship with that lost soul. And you know, even the lost have uncanny powers at detecting contempt -- in fact they often have a peculiar genius for seeing it when it's not even there, much less when it's crystal clear. She knows exactly how you feel about her, and unless you are able to develop actual feelings of love for affection for her, her alienation from you will not change, and she will reject even your well intended advice because it comes from you.

You also can't change what goes on between your mom and sister. No one is totally selfless. I've seen this dynamic between two people I'm relatively close to, and for all mom's complaints, there's a part of her that definitely likes that her daughter doesn't make a move without her advice and never ventures far from home. In fact, her daughter sounds quite a bit like your sister -- fairly steeped in hostility and misery, the outcome of a crippled, unfulfilled life. Whatever your mother and sister have wrought between themselves doesn't sound like it's been good for either of them, but they are the only ones who can figure out a better way for themselves.

Bottom line: unless you are willing to make a genuine commitment to being much larger and more loving part of your sister's life, you are just going to have to be like the rest of us who have fled from that particular kind of family toxicity for our own happiness. You can't change anything but your own relationship to it. It's saddening, it's maddening, but it's out of your hands.
posted by melissa may at 11:03 AM on December 26, 2006

There is a kind of disappointment particular to women who have had a hard time matching their long-cherished fantasy scenarios to how their actual lives are unfolding. Suppressing it (because you have to in order to raise a child or keep your job or ask your mother for help) turns it inward into rage, and as time goes on, bitterness. So I daresay she doesn't hate you, precisely, or the people she rudely dismisses, but the way things have turned out. Check out Frances McDormand's performance in Friends With Money (a forgettable film otherwise) and you'll see female bile brilliantly presented.

And I'm with Melissa May -- your mom is participating, and only she can disengage.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:40 AM on December 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

even mild depression can cause irritability and anxiety like you describe.

however, you obviously don't think very highly of her, and i think she picks up on that, which is why she's hostile to you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:00 PM on December 26, 2006

Your sister, and possibly your mother, need therapy for this (likely given the info) codependant relationship they have formed.

You can do nothing for this situation, for either party. Don't drive yourself batty trying.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:08 PM on December 26, 2006

Most people are going to respond defensively when you try to give them "suggestions" about how to live their life or what choices to make. Rather than trying to tell your sister what to do, you might try asking her what you can do for her. A conversation starter might go something like this...

"Gee Sis, you seem unhappy/frustrated/dissatisfied with your life right now. I know that I am living far away from you right now, but is there anything I can do to help you..."

Draw her out. As someone mentioned earlier, leave judgement out entirely.

Another reading suggestion is Critical Response Process. It is a process for soliciting and giving constructive criticism developed by the choreographer Liz Lehrman. It may seem totally from left field here, but she has incredibly insightful things to say about how to give truly constructive criticism.

And finally as many people have already said, don't go into this with high expectations. You can only help people who want help and are ready to accept it. Your sister may not be one of those persons.
posted by brookeb at 1:36 PM on December 26, 2006

I've known a few miserable people who express their misery by being toxic. It's frustrating to care about such a person. In the case of an immediate family member, I am also much closer to the mom who exhausts herself caring for a daughter who makes poor choices. So I get your frustration.

But: You're not going to be able to give your sister the magic suggestion that turns her life around. It's nice that you want your sister's life to be better, but this wish is out of your hands.

* Show her some kindnesses that are non-judgemental, like always remembering to send her and your niece birthday cards, and a holiday card if appropriate. To top off my sympathies and personalization of your question, I was a kid who 'lost' aunts and uncles though arguments between family members. At 33, I absolutely remember which family members sent me a card every year, even though I didn't see them. Even if they weren't speaking to my parents.

* Do whatever you have to do to NOT comment when she complains about her life. Sit on your hands and bite your tongue. Just nod. There is nothing that you can say that is not going to sound pat, trying-too-hard, or like a confirmation of her own insecurities.

* Help your mom however you can, but don't complain about your sister or her choices. Parents tend to feel responsible for how their adult children turn out, ya know? Too much concern over your sister being an emotional/time mooch is just going to make your mom feel worse.

* Your mom is going to bend over backwards for her grandchild. Duh. Even to the point of making sacrifices. I doubt highly that your mom considers her a burden, because she's her grandchild. Be the girl's uncle and aim for the greater good.
posted by desuetude at 2:04 PM on December 26, 2006

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