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#540: My sister is making my visits home a nightmare.

Jenny Mills from Sleepy Hollow

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Dear Captain,

I have a younger sibling who has a lot of mental health problems. She is still in school and living with our parents, while I am off at grad school in another state. She and I have always been very close, but things have gotten a little tough. Younger Sibling engages in a lot of very self-destructive behaviors, is constantly combative, and explodes at the slightest provocation. Whenever I go home on breaks to visit my family, I feel like I’m walking on eggshells constantly to avoid making her angry or causing her to self-harm. Our family is very supportive– she is in about seven hours of therapy a week, on medications, and has parents who are bending over backwards to get her all the help they can.

The problem is that her behavior towards me and the rest of the family is incredibly triggering to me. I was in an abusive relationship for a while that included a lot of emotional manipulation, and I’m fairly dedicated to staying out of relationships that include that component from now on. Younger Sibling is emotionally manipulative and quasi-abusive. If she were a friend, this would be the point where I would say “I love you, but until you figure some of this shit out I can’t be around you.” I feel really unable to do this with my sister, who clearly needs all the support she can get. My parents have acknowledged that I am being hurt in this situation, but feel that me withdrawing would do much more harm than good.

I am trying to stick it out, but at this point I just feel angry that I have a) lost a relationship with my sister that I really liked and b) wound up in the type of relationship I have been good at staying out of. How do I stay in this relationship and not feel like I’m getting emotionally beat up every time I go home? The last time I was there, I was in a constant state of panic for two weeks because the whole environment was just so hostile and shitty.

Sincerely,
Dedicated but Tired Sister

Abby Mills from Sleepy HollowDear Dedicated:

First things first:

Unless you are going out of your way to hurl abuse at her, there is no universe in which you are causing your sister to explode or self-harm. If you and your sister have some kind of interaction and then she self-harms or yells at you, you did not cause it. Even if it was contentious or involved conflict. Her brain is being a jerk to her and increasing the likelihood of a maladaptive reaction. You simply don’t have that much power over her reactions or coping strategies. If it weren’t you, it would be something else.

Your sister needs a lot of special care and consideration right now. She needs the kind of love that hangs in there and sees the best in her. I’m glad she has your parents and you to provide that! However, subjecting yourself to abuse without flinching or complaint will not cause her to get better. Again, you simply don’t have that much power, for good for or ill. Your suffering is not mitigating hers. I suspect that one of the reasons you are flashing back to your time in an abusive relationship is the illusion that abusers are so good at creating, the one that says “Stay quiet, just behave, don’t make waves, stick around, and I’ll be the version of myself that you love!

Your parents, understandably, are in crisis mode. Nobody knows yet what “better” looks like. Nobody knows yet what the new normal will be. They are taking all one day at a time and don’t have the perspective of distance that you have as someone who lives far away. So it’s tempting for them to think in very short terms – “Just hang in there through this visit and hopefully things will get better soon!”

“Better” is going to be a long process for everyone. Let me suggest a few baby steps that might make it marginally better for you.

Create a buffer zone. Next time you visit home, is there a relative or friend you can stay with? Or a motel you can stay in for at least part of the visit?

Will your parents feelings be hurt if you don’t stay with them? Yup. Especially if it’s the first time you haven’t stayed at home. It will get easier each time.

Will your sister probably feel super guilty and weird and then take it out on you or herself in some way? Perhaps.

Will you be more equipped to interact if you know that at the end of each day you have a safe, quiet space to go to where no one can yell at you? I’m pretty optimistic about this.

You are in grad school. Your vacations are times you can see family, but they are also times that it’s important for you to decompress. “Mom, Dad, Sister, I do want to see all of you, but it’s going to be much more relaxing for me if I can hang at Grandma’s for some of the time.

Level with your parents, if you feel able. “It’s hard for me to talk about, but I was in a relationship where there was a lot of yelling & explosive behavior. I managed to get free of it, but when Sister explodes, it takes me right back there. for my own well-being, I need to set limits and be around that stuff in small doses.” 

If you are staying somewhere else, you can be really present for your family during the time you see them even if things do get pretty contentious. You can tell yourself “It’s only four hours. I can do it for four hours.

And if things get really bad? You can tell your sister, “I want to spend time with you, but it’s hard when you yell at me and insult me.” Which is going to be really hard to say, you’re allowed to honestly call out verbally abusive behaviors! There’s always “I’m tired, let’s pick this up again tomorrow.” 

Spend some solo time with your parents. Take each of them to lunch or a movie. Spend some enjoyable time in each other’s company. Give them a break. Make it a rule that you won’t talk about your sister. Ask them lots of questions about work, friends, family, growing up, etc. and share your own life and stories with them. Take them out of the caretaker role and let them breathe a bit.

Spend some solo time with your sister. Your parents could probably use a date night. Your sister could probably use a movie or a play or some Thai food or brunch or trip to the art gallery whatever. She didn’t stop being a person with interests when her illness reared its head, so what would happen if you scheduled a sister-date or two? Maybe you can work on rebuilding your relationship with your sister without your parents as handwringing mediators.

Over time, I suggest you find a shared fandom or hobby and schedule short, regular calls or Skype sessions with your sister. You need some low-key, ongoing positive interactions around something other than Our Relationship and Your Health, How Is It Going? If you’re looking for ideas, the photos in this piece are from Sleepy Hollow, which has a contentious, beautifully-acted sister relationship at its core. It’s overall a pretty great time.

Mills sisters hugging.Don’t try to fix it. On these sister-dates, do NOT give her advice or suggestions or try to fix anything about her. Do not psychoanalyze her or try to come up with reasons for what is happening. Listen. Try to enjoy her company to the extent that you can. If something weird happens, as long as she’s not abusive, let it go. If she becomes abusive, say, “I think it’s time we went home” and cut it short.Be gentle with her but more gentle with yourself. You tried. Tomorrow is a new day.

Reset the clock. A lot. When you have a contentious relationship with someone, especially when that person’s emotions and reactions are not really under their control, one thing you can try to do is to call “Bygones” on stuff that happened yesterday.

I’m not talking about shutting down your feelings – you still may be hurt over something your sister said, or wary of setting her off – and I’m definitely not talking about messing with your own sense of safety. If you feel unsafe, or like you need a break, GET OUT. If the abusive behavior starts back up, GET OUT. You might find yourself just leaving the room a lot on the next visit, and that’s okay.

I’m talking about a style of interaction where you’ll be cool if the other person is cool. Your sister probably carries a lot of shame about her outbursts and the “walking on eggshells” feeling likely runs both ways. If an interaction goes south one day, but your sister knows that you aren’t going to immediately jump all over her for it, it might help her relax and trust a bit more. Demanding an apology or an explanation (even if you are owed one) is just going to transport you back to the fight. You can acknowledge that things are overall fucked up, but in the moment try to let yesterday go and try to make today good. If the verbal abuse starts back up, cut the visit short and go decompress at Grandma’s or wherever you are staying and try again tomorrow.

The message is: I will not tolerate being abused. I will not sit here and take it. I will set limits and boundaries to keep myself safe and take care of myself. But I love you, and you are not your best self right now, so neither will I shame you or blame you or treat you like this is the only thing you are.

I hope things get better for everyone in your family. You are not being selfish for looking for ways to take care of yourself here, and it is not wrong to want to minimize your exposure to verbal abuse. Only time will tell if things will get better, but hopefully this post  (& the lovely commentariat!) can give you a place to feel less helpless.

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94 comments
  1. Megay said:

    LW, I can’t add anything to this because I’m pretty sure it is awesome, but my brother sounds very similar to your sister and I just want to offer internet hugs (if you want them) and support. Hostile home environments are really really hard to deal with and I just want to send over lots of calming, non-anxiety inducing emotions. I go over to my previous home once a week and I generally carry tons of tension back to my current home. Anyway, I really really hope that things get easier. :)

    • marzykitty said:

      The internet hugs are much appreciated. :) Thank you.

  2. Nicola said:

    Long-time lurker checking in for first (I think!) comment. LW, I just wanted to send you some big love and say that I think you are being very brave in such a difficult situation. This letter really hit home with me because I have a very close relationship with my younger sister, and I have no clue how I would deal with this without exploding all over everything. The Captain’s advice is as always spot-on – it seems that you clearly want to be able to support your sister and your parents, and you will in a much better place to do that if you’re not constantly feeling trapped in a triggering experience whenever you go home. Good luck, and I hope things start to get brighter.

    • marzykitty said:

      Yeah, the whole “relationship has changed in a bad way” thing was not something I ever expected to have happen with me and Younger Sibling. I have only exploded to her once, and I work very very very hard not to do that.

  3. Excellent advice. I have mental health issues myself, and while it does hurt my feelings if one of my friends either cuts down the time spent with me (which is very little as is typically, since I am very private and like being alone) or stops contacting me altogether, I understand that some people just can’t deal with me when I’m having problems, and I’m sure that your sister, who is family and I’m sure loves you, can understand it too. If she wants what is best for you, she will understand that you can’t take her in too heavy of doses – yes, it may hurt, it may hurt a lot – but you can’t help her until you help yourself. You have to be able to take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else.

  4. Jae said:

    I agree with everything said above and again I am so very amazed at the thoughtful and sweet advice you give here.

    No matter who the mentally ill person is, none of us needs to tolerate abuse. In the contrary, you have your first obligation to yourself, and making sure you don’t suffer mentally as well.

    If your parents give around 7 hours of therapy per week to your sister, isn’t there a possibility of counselling for you and them? It could even be the same counsellor who can tell you how best to deal with the situation and the guilt you doubtlessly feel (but needn’t and shouldn’t feel).

    Good luck with all of that! Sorry you have to go through all this.

    • marzykitty said:

      I probably should have mentioned that– we’re ALL in therapy. Parents included. I think it’s making things marginally better, but it’s hard to tell.

  5. Anisoptera said:

    LW that sounds like a very hard situation. Last year my best friend started having serious mental health issues – he’s been a bit unwell for a while, but he ended up with a full blown anxiety disorder. It got so bad for a while that he would break down shaking and crying just because he wasn’t at home in his own house – even in my house which he has been visiting at least once a week for the 17 years we’ve known each other. Sometimes he couldn’t leave his house at all. All sorts of things could set him off and leave him unable to cope with normal interactions with friends. A lot of medication and CBT training and psychologist visits later and he’s pretty functional again, but for a while there it was very very hard.

    I mention this because being close to someone with a serious mental illness is not easy. I was walking on eggshells, trying to make our time together relaxing and safe and I was afraid to say anything negative. If I set a boundary about something, or was angry about something I was afraid he would break down, or hurt himself. I would feel unbelievably guilty if I had to draw a line and he took it badly (which he usually did).

    The thing is, I still had to draw boundaries and speak up for my needs. He became extremely unreliable and a very poor communicator for a while, and I had to have a bunch of unpleasant conversations around that to work out exactly what was going on and what he needed and could or couldn’t do, and what I was willing to put up with.

    I also kept silent about a bunch of stuff, because that was what he needed and he was my friend and I cared about him. Those things weren’t important enough to drop on his shoulders while he was having so much trouble. I let all sorts of things slide that normally bother me, and made a lot of compromises.

    It’s in situations like this where we need to know where we draw the lines, and actually stick to defending those limits. Work out what matters to you most, what behaviours you really can’t tolerate, and which you can just ignore. Then stick to it, even if it’s just to walk calmly away from something you can’t handle. Stick to it even if after you say “don’t treat me that way” she self harms. You need to take care of yourself in order to be able to be supportive. And limits on abusive behaviour still exist for the mentally ill, even when you’re making all sorts of other accommodations. I think the Captain’s advice to stay somewhere else when you visit is excellent – having a way to withdraw from the situation when you need to will help.

    The other thing that might help is learning about your sister’s particular mental health problems and how experts recommend dealing with it. I did a lot of online reading about anxiety disorders and it really helped me learn how to be supportive when he was suffering and what sort of behaviour to expect. There are support forums and information websites for family and friends of sufferers of most major illnesses – being armed with information is generally useful. It will also help you tease out which behaviour she really can’t help and which things are just abusive/manipulative, and where best to draw lines.

  6. Rowan said:

    People with mental health issues can be enormously self-centred, in that they cannot see outside their own demon-infested bubble. This isn’t a condemnation of the people themselves, but a part of their illness. I know because I suffer from mental illness and have close friends who do as well. The Cap’s advice is spot on. Loving someone and wanting to help them doesn’t give them carte blanche to treat you badly, no matter how ill they are. And y’know, this stress and anxiety is affecting YOUR mental health – you will be absolutely no support to your sister or parents if putting their needs first causes you to have a breakdown.

    I get how hard this is, for all of you. But give yourself permission to be a little bit selfish, ok? It’ll do you the world of good, I promise.

  7. Sarah G. said:

    Some of this is also great advice for teachers dealing with difficult (and, often, mentally ill) students. Thanks.

  8. Lee said:

    “I love you, but until you figure some of this shit out I can’t be around you.”

    This applies as much to family as it does to friends. A blood tie doesn’t obligate you to spend more time around your sister than you can cope with, and if it damages and affects you, you have every right to withdraw.

    My older sister has some very serious mental health issues. It started off with an eating disorder in her mid teens, but has escalated into something about as serious as it gets – voices in her head, hallucinations, violence, paranoia, you name it. For years it went untreated and it was an absolute bloody nightmare to live with while I was growing up. Thankfully now she’s on some (extremely potent) meds that allow her to function fairly normally but she’s still hard to cope with and I have to keep my interaction with her fairly minimal. It all got rather more difficult when our mother got very ill and subsequently died – she made sure my sister was OK, and this role has now (sort of) fallen on me. However, I’m responsible for raising three children, one of which is hers, and I can’t look after her as well. It made me feel very guilty for a while, but I absolutely can’t do everything, and I’ve left her care in the hands of our local mental health care team, because to be honest there’s nothing useful I can do, and I have too many responsibilities of my own. If I lost the plot, my wife and kids would be in deep trouble, so I do what little I can but I don’t worry about the rest.

    It sounds a bit heartless, but it’s not. Really it isn’t. Apart from anything else, my experience of growing up around a severely mentally ill person has made me very mental-illness-phobic, and I need to make sure I don’t get too freaked out by it all.

    • Somuchthis said:

      I don’t think that sounds heartless at all! It sounds like some good self-care to me. You have a marriage, presumably a job, a life and you’re raising three kids, one of which is your sister’s. I’d say you’ve done your share and then some.

    • marzykitty said:

      I totally, totally get this, and I’ve never been married to the idea that I have to stick it out because she’s family. I just really want to have a relationship with her, and I haven’t hit the point yet where it’s not worth it to keep trying. I really hope that point doesn’t come at all.

      • my sister's keeper said:

        FWIW, after my sister’s health started improving and she didn’t, you know, hear voices telling her to do bad things to me anymore, our relationship improved a WHOLE heap. We’re pretty much best friends again now, which is the main reason I don’t talk about that period much. So even if you have to back away completely and cut off contact, your relationship can definitely recover.

        • marzykitty said:

          You have no idea how much hope hearing that gives me. Thank you.

  9. Taiga said:

    “The message is: I will not tolerate being abused. I will not sit here and take it. I will set limits and boundaries to keep myself safe and take care of myself. But I love you, and you are not your best self right now, so neither will I shame you or blame you or treat you like this is the only thing you are.”
    That is such wonderful advice. Wishing you and your parents (and your sister) the best, LW.

  10. Darcy Pennell said:

    LW, I really feel for you. I could have written this letter. In fact when I saw the subject of the post I thought, “oh wow, the Captain printed my letter!” and then “oh wait, I never sent that letter.”

    The Captain’s advice is excellent, the only addition I would offer is that if you have solo outings with your sister, plan them carefully. When I’m with my family, I make sure not to ever put myself into a situation where I can’t leave immediately if necessary. My sister’s temper is so random and so explosive that it’s a necessary precaution. She’s hostile to treatment and has gotten a lot worse in recent years. To be honest I’ve given up on trying to have a relationship with her, and now just try to arrange things so I’m never alone with her.

    I’m really sorry that your parents aren’t more sympathetic to your needs. Their response sounds familiar to me: my parents will admit that my sister’s behavior is a problem, but they’re so focused on her all-consuming neediness that they can’t seem to remember that when one of their daughters mistreats the other, that means *both* of their daughters are hurting. I wonder if they’ve been conditioned by my sister’s extreme behavior, and if I’m not throwing screaming tantrums that means everything is fine? They’ve said to me more than once that they agree, the way my sister treats me is unacceptable. “But just put up with her abuse because it would mean so much to us if you two had a closer relationship.” How is gritting my teeth and silently tolerating abuse as a favor to them a “close relationship”? Still can’t wrap my head around that one.

    I think it’s a very good sign that your sister is in therapy. I hope she takes it seriously, sticks with it and becomes again a sister you can have a good relationship with. Until then, you don’t have to take abusive behavior. You can walk away anytime — for five minutes, for an hour, for the rest of the day, for the rest of the year if that’s what you need. I’ve gotten very good at abruptly saying “I’m feeling wiped out, I’m going to take a nap/go in the other room and read/take a quick drive do you need anything?” It feels rude, but you know what? When your sister is treating you horribly, that’s rude too. When the rest of your family expects you to pretend it’s not happening because your sister is the only one who’s allowed to make a scene, that’s even ruder. It’s okay to protect yourself.

    • boutet said:

      “How is gritting my teeth and silently tolerating abuse as a favor to them a “close relationship”?”
      YES! I really don’t get how keeping up the appearance of a relationship is somehow prioritized over actually having a relationship. This is a major problem with my family, particularly my mother. She’s so focused on polishing our appearance that she won’t deal with the shit that’s there unless it can be done secretly. And even then, probably won’t.

      • Season said:

        Wow, boutet, I think we may be related! My mother also places a whole lot of dysfunctional importance on appearances. I actually have a mental image of the woman sitting with a rag in hand, furiously polishing a turd that I pull out whenever I am gobsmacked by her need/tendency/drive/whatever it is that makes her so much more concerned with what other people perceive rather than what the actual problem is.

        Turd polishers, what CAN we do with them?

    • Solestria said:

      Agreed. it doesn’t really matter how much your parents think it might help your sister if you just took her abuse when you’re home–you’re still allowed to have boundaries and take care of yourself (and in fact, should do so, both for yourself and because enabling bad behavior is rarely a recipe for the future health of anyone). I hope your parents can back you up on this, LW. You deserve their support, too.

    • tired of something said:

      Darcy P. I could literally have written your post, my relationship with my sister is the same – I wish it were closer, but she has emotionally (and physically) hurt me so much that i just can’t. My father thinks that family comes before everything and really does not understand why I can’t just put up with her behaviour, but I need to take care of me – so I’ve taken a lengthy break from the relationship. I wish it were different. Somehow it is reassuring that I’m not the only one coping with this!

      • Darcy Pennell said:

        Tired of something, this whole thread has been a real eye-opener to me, to find out that so many families are having this problem and dealing with it in such a similar, bad way. I always assumed it was just my uniquely screwed-up family. You’re right, it is reassuring to know that you’re not the only one. Congratulations to you for taking care of yourself, and Jedi hugs if you want them!

    • Thneed said:

      > They’ve said to me more than once that they agree, the way my sister treats me is unacceptable. “But just put up with her abuse because it would mean so much to us if you two had a closer relationship.”

      Oy, this was my mother, only she was talking about me and her 2nd husband. (Not “my stepfather” because he didn’t come on the scene until I was 18 or 19 and all but living on my own.) We’re both stubborn and we’re both knowledgeable (in different areas) and we went loggerheads more than once, and she *always* came to me to ask me to apologize. She agreed with me on at least one occassion that he should apologize to me as well, but she also stated that he never would, so would I please? For her? And I did. For years. They’ve been married for 30 years or something now.

      He finally did something egregious and I said Enough. And I stopped dealing with him for awhile. Years. I called her only at work so I didn’t have to deal with him answering the phone. (Things eased up later, and then he blew it *again*, and bigger, and I cut him off forever, but now I can deal calling Mom at home even if he answers.)

      The thing is, I was like the family canary. I couldn’t handle his behavior pretty quickly and had no motivation to try. My mother took longer to become disillusioned, and my sister (who really wanted a Dad, and ours died young) only got there two years ago when he was truly outrageous and very classically said it was all her overreaction.)

      When my mom wanted me to make nice to him when a fight really was ALL his fault, it was a horrible betrayal. Realizing that I could make my own decision about how to interact with her husband was a wonderful moment in my life.

  11. I try to stay out of the internet arm-chair diagnosis seat. So, I’ll stick to: DAMN, that sound familiar!

    See, I had a borderline personality disorder diagnosis when I was younger. I, too, needed a lot of medication and a lot of therapy for a long time. I was also, to put it mildly, a fucking bitch to everyone close to me. I feel awful looking back and realizing how much I was hurting people around me. I am grateful for those who were too far away to get much exposure, and with whom I did NOT burn bridges as a result.

    Write a letter (or an email – either way keep a copy). It’s harder to eternally distort what you meant if it’s in writing. Tell your sister that you love her, that you have faith in HER recovery, and that right now for YOUR recovery and mental health you need some time and space. Tell her that you hope that you can keep in touch, and you look forward to the day when you’re BOTH healthy enough for more contact.

    Specifically if your sister might be a lot like me: Suggest regular phone calls and initiate them. Set boundaries and hang the fuck up. Start every call as if the last one hadn’t happened. Do what you can to support her progress, and remember that you can keep strong boundaries without strong criticism (if your sister is, indeed, borderline, she’s prone to splitting: all or nothing thinking in which she’s either good or evil… hearing that I’d made a mistake used to make me think I was worthless and unloveable… AND that was still MY problem, and not that of the person talking. But she’s your sister, and you clearly give a shit.)

    Also? After getting good therapy, I’ve had exactly ONE bad freakout where I couldn’t stop the spin pretty promptly (the wiring is still fucked, I just see it and go ‘oh, that’s my brain being dumb’ and wait for it to stop). In five years. Yes, I catch minor bits of it every now and then, stop and correct course in my conversations and relationships.

    [If LW or anyone else wants me to elaborate I'd be happy to. Recovery - and by that I mean I don't meet the diagnostic criteria now - isn't super-common, but the part where your sister realizes that SHE has a problem? Is 90% of that battle. If my guess is right and not me projecting!]

    • JenniferP said:

      You’re not diagnosing if you’re talking about your own experiences. Thank you!

    • marzykitty said:

      This sound eerily familiar. I know one of her therapists was tossing around a BPD diagnosis for a while, but ultimately rejected it, but she’s in DBT anyway, so I really, really hope that helps.

  12. Alexis said:

    I don’t know if this is applicable in your situation Dedicated, but when I was seriously depressed (which in my case seemed to be equal parts apathy, frustration and rage), I actually preferred people not coddling me. When people set boundaries without blaming or aggression, just as a way to care for themselves, it actually gave me a sense of freedom, safety and “permission” to care for myself in a healthy way.

    When people around me were being all concerned, worried and trying to “help”, I felt smothered and got pretty defensive. When people gave up their own wishes and needs to cater to mine, it seriously unsettled me and I felt pretty bad about being such an obvious burden/chore.

    When people instead said “I love you, but now I need some time to myself” or “Could we talk later? I’d like to finish this book.” or “I can see you’re hurting right now, but I really need to eat something, how about you?” I was somehow free to feel bad without being bad and that helped a lot.

    What I mean to say is that caring for yourself can be a way to care for her too.

    • anon//anon//anon said:

      Yep. Being around people who don’t set boundaries around my depression, felt like being lied to and coddled. And when some of my friends who chose that route finally got sick of keeping up that pointless charade + felt the need to “tell it like it is” at last, it was a pretty big explosion. We’re not friends anymore and I had to leave my old apartment. Not something that’s pleasant to deal with while depressed, actually!

    • meh said:

      God, yes, me too! Boundaries against my mental illness made me feel so much safer around people, because it meant I could trust them to take care of themselves against me, so they were safe people to go to for help, because I could trust them to say no if I asked too much, and trust that their yeses were genuine. It also helped push a bit against the mental illness worldview bubble when people set boundaries and didn’t fall into my narratives because they were trying to help. Or briefly sympathized and then moved on to I really need to eat how about you, their moving on helped me to move on.

    • Rowan said:

      The “trying to help” thing would sometimes really piss me off when I was very low. People would suggest perfectly rational things but depression ISN’T rational. I’d get resentful that they were trying to run my life / didn’t understand how hard everything was for me / obviously hated me so were trying to make me different (irrational, remember…). And, like you, the GUILT.

      And the flip side, dealing with a depressed friend who refused to listen to anything I (and other friends) said, carrying on down the same self-destructive path even though she knew it led to the tar pit of bloody doom. We ended up saying “I’m your friend, but we can’t talk about X any more cos it makes us both angry”. It was such a relief.

  13. Marvel said:

    I have been in your sister’s place: exploding, causing people to treat me like a bomb that could go off at any time, having people constantly worry that I would self-harm if they had to set a boundary or say no to something and it hurt me… it’s not a great place to be in and I think it’s good that your parents and you both recognize how terrible it is for her.

    But.

    One of the things that helped me THE MOST to get better was people going “you know what, this isn’t okay” and setting some minimum standards by which I was to treat them. No matter what your problems are, it’s not healthy to have people bend over backwards for you only for you to walk all over them in return. All it does is reinforce unhealthy behavior and encourage the same sort of manipulation you’re trying to prevent.

    You are 100% within your rights to tell your sister, “the way you are treating me is not okay.” You are 100% within your rights to set boundaries. You are 100% within your rights to say “I cannot be around you when you are [exhibiting abusive behavior/yelling/etc.]. I am going to get some air and come back later.” It will probably be hard and upsetting for both you, and it may make things worse for a time. But in the end it might actually help your sister more than you realize. It’s a horrible feeling when people have to walk on eggshells around you and you know it, and it’s made worse when you know the only reason they’re not calling you on your shit is because they think of you as a headcase who can’t handle being treated like an adult human being. Sooner or later, someone is going to have to stop walking on eggshells–or, more accurately, EVERYONE is. It’s part of the recovery process, and since these behaviors are so triggering for you, it might as well start there.

    • the invisible one said:

      It’s a horrible feeling when people have to walk on eggshells around you and you know it, and it’s made worse when you know the only reason they’re not calling you on your shit is because they think of you as a headcase who can’t handle being treated like an adult human being.

      Ow. Crap.

      You just put in words one of the things that hurt when I was dumped a couple of months ago. One of the things ex said, while telling me it was over, was that he felt he couldn’t ever say anything critical of me for fear of hurting me. (Until that point, I didn’t know he felt that way. He hid it.)

      I mean, yeah, I have some bad things in my past that make me react more strongly to some things than most people seem to expect, but that doesn’t mean I’m a fragile soap bubble who will be destroyed at the slightest hint of disagreement.

      • anon//anon//anon said:

        UGH. Yes I’ve experienced this too. I’m really sorry that happened to you!

      • Marvel said:

        I feel you. I am lucky enough to have a partner who was straight with me from the start about it (probably helped by the fact that it didn’t just hurt me–it hurt him because I lashed out in ways that were totally unacceptable). I worked on it, and it was so, so hard, but it got better and that’s not an issue anymore for us.

        I’m sorry that you ex didn’t give you the chance to work on it in that way. I hope things get better for you.

        • the invisible one said:

          Well, if there’s a next time/next person (seriously not feeling it’s possible right now, but it’s only been 2 months) I’m going to have to figure out how to handle it. Because I’m not going to hide part of who I am, but I also don’t want the other person thinking I’m going to be broken forever just because I have an intense initial reaction to something. I need time to process things and I eventually get down to a “normal” reaction.

          • Marvel said:

            I understand, and I promise you that there ARE people who are capable of dealing with that. My intense reactions used to scare the shit out of my partner, but we’re okay now. It can and does happen. I know that probably doesn’t make a difference right now, but I want to give you those words for when it will because I know how hard this can be to get through.

  14. duaecat said:

    Big ol’ warning for violent behavior here.

    One thing I will add as a small dissent, if it ever feels like you’re going to be in danger, or if even small boundary setting gets explosive results, I would draw a big dang line and just do a cutoff.

    Because I was in your position a few years ago, walking on eggshells around my mentally unstable sister. I drew a line “I will not come over when she is drinking or drunk.” My mother asked me to come over and visit, I came over, she was drunk, I explained to my mother I wasn’t going to stay and visit while she was drinking and went to leave, mom ran and told her what I was doing, she got angry and beat the tar out of me as I tried to leave. She hadn’t shown any violent behavior to me at all, previously. My mother was so deep in ‘hide, conceal, support her!’ that she told my father my fiancee did it, and threatened to tell the police that my fiancee did the damage if I tried to tell anyone.

    Before then it had been general vindictive but not violent behavior. I was also extremely lucky because while my father believed my mother at first and tried to force me to split with my fiancee, at some point my sister physically attacked him. After that he believed me.

    I want to add on here, the vast majority of people with any sort of mental illness will never, ever get violent because of it. I don’t want to sound like I’m furthering a harmful stereotype, at all. This is me looking back with 20/20 hindsight and wishing I’d listened to my gut. The Captain has talked about extinction events before, how when someone wants to do a bad behavior and you draw a line, they will have a short burst of increased escalated behavior to try and break the line. When the bad behavior is any sort of abuse, be very very careful that you put your own safety over enforcing boundaries.

    I would also really recommend that both your parents be getting therapy as well. In my own experience, they’re the adults dealing with your sister all the time and you are their little baby who’s off and could Never Truly Understand, so if they’re pressuring you to walk on eggshells then they’re unlikely to listen to you as much. You’re not the one who has to deal with the day to day and… it sounds mean, but human nature makes it easy to paint a villain. Mental Illness is a hard person to put a villain cape on, but the out of town child who can’t just ‘suck it up’ and ‘play nice’ when visiting is very easy to blame instead.

    • Erin said:

      I’m so sorry this happened to you. Hope you are well/better.

    • Anisoptera said:

      Yikes! That’s awful. :-(

      I’m kind of appalled that your mother would try to pin this attack on an innocent guy – I would suggest that while your sister is clearly not a physically safe person to be around, your mother isn’t an emotionally safe person. Because that goes way beyond keeping up appearances and well into scary gaslighting territory.

      • PM said:

        Not to mention it sounds like Mom set her up to be assaulted. Mom hears that she’s leaving and runs to tell Sis, prompting Sis to beat the tar out of her? That’s messed up. I hope Mom got treatment too and kudos to you for being a far more forgiving person than most could ever be.

        And, yes, it is very easy for the parents to tell the “out of town” functional child to suck it up and deal with the bad behavior. What’s worse is when the functional child is painted as the real problem because they’re objecting to the poor treatment and rocking the boat.

  15. boutet said:

    I wish I could have read this a few years ago. I was on eggshells with my Mom for so long that I just burnt out. I’m struggling now to find affection for her. We interact regularly but it’s just a job. A job I dread.

  16. my sister's keeper said:

    TW for (obvs) mental illness, suicide, abuse

    (I’m not sure how to obscure the details in this to make it completely anonymous so unfortunately if anyone who knows me IRL sees it they’ll know but I’m going to use a fake name otherwise.)

    Oh my god this was me nearly ten years ago. (Nine years ten and a half months, to be exact.) I had been living in Australia with my ex, who was abusive. Eventually I managed to leave and came back home. Literally on the way back from the airport, I was told that my sister was having mental health problems, that she thought I was trying to steal her life, and I had to make sure not to upset her. I got in trouble for things like saying hello to someone else in the room and then making a comment when they didn’t hear me and once she came after me with scissors trying to cut my hair off. I was honestly thinking about putting some low tech security on my door like cans on a string that would rattle if someone opened it, which my parents were completely dismissive of. I ended up moving out after something like two weeks and going back to work so I could pay rent, and even then when my sister started talking about killing me on social media I was told to just not read it. So I dutifully unfollowed her on everything, and when she tried to kill herself most of our mutual friends/family either didn’t think to tell me or figured I didn’t like her so it wasn’t super high priority. I got a missed phone call while I was at work with no message, from someone I didn’t even know that well, and ONE friend turned up at my house to tell me in person. Later that year I had a breakdown from not dealing with any of the emotional fallout of getting out of an abusive relationship or the crap going on in my family. At the time I was working two jobs to support myself which to this day I can’t list in my CV because they give terrible references, and I’ve missed out on at least one job solely because of that. (The interviewer was nice enough to tell me, she’d been pretty keen on me beforehand.) I’ve also spent the last several years off and on the sickness benefit and I’m only just now getting my life back together.

    So, yes, OP, looking after yourself? Really, really fucking important. Grad school is hard enough as it is without ignoring your own needs in favour of someone else and you need your holidays to actually be relaxing. Staying in a hotel or whatever over breaks is expensive but IMO your parents should help pay for it (this doesn’t necessarily mean they will, especially the first time when they’re having sad feelings). You aren’t asking for your sister’s needs to be ignored in favour of yours, you’re finding a solution that’s best for everyone, because working this out now is going to be a hell of a lot easier than trying to pick up the pieces after it all falls apart.

    • Somuchthis said:

      I am so sorry that happened to you. It’s really hard when you’re having to cope with your own stuff and your parents basically shun your issues in favor of your sister’s.

  17. EB said:

    WOW! Capt, again I wish I could transport you back to my childhood home and talk some sense into my family. I could have written this letter when I was five. I would have given anything to have a place and some time to escape the drama.
    You are such a treasure. Thank you.

  18. One of the things that happens a lot in families where one sibling is mentally ill/an addict/otherwise incapacitated is that the parents begin expecting more from the sibling who does not have the problems. This sets up a very unhealthy dynamic and creates massive problems for the sibling relationship and the parent/child relationship. It’s as though the parents say “Well, your sister is very ill and you’re not, you’re much stronger so you can handle her so please just do that.”

    Thing is, you can’t handle her outbursts in the way they would like you to do so, nor should you. CA has given great advice on dealing with this, but I just wanted to say that I get this dynamic having lived it myself as “the strong one.” I especially love the advice about taking your parents out sans sister and just having a conversation that doesn’t revolve around sister, her needs, her issues, gah please can we just live life without this cloud all the time…

  19. Wow, this conversation is triggering for me. I guess I am the sister in this situation. I try very hard NOT to take my issues out on my family and to be in control.
    Even when my own mother yells at me to pull myself together and get a grip, or lectures me on how I just need to find crystal healing/ kinesiology/ Buddha etc and my bipolar disorder will miraculously be cured!
    The same mother whose own verbal, emotional – and occasionally physical – abuse during my childhood and (although to a lesser extent) now is the cause of my problems. She can yell at me that I am a disaster, and when I dare to say that that was hurtful storm off – and *I’m* the problem??
    Even when my sisters don’t bother to ask how I am and just talk babies, knowing I can’t have any, and I DON’T show how much that kills me and love to see my nieces but go home and cry.
    Even when none of my family make any effort to acknowledge MY feelings
    I spent YEARS being the quiet one who was no trouble, my mother and sisters all had mental health issues too and I did my best to be supportive but is it returned? Is it FUCK.
    So can we actually see the sister as a human being, please, not a Difficult person and Problem. And cut the insults that people with mental health issues are selfish and difficult, thanks. I have enough of that shit flung at me by my family. I didn’t need to read this. Oh, how dare I have needs? I guess I am evil and the problem.

    • JenniferP said:

      This letter is not about you. And it’s not about being “evil” because of x condition, it’s about a person who loves her sister trying to rebuild a relationship while not subjecting herself to verbal abuse. I’m sure you would agree that having bipolar disorder does not mean you get to yell at people, for example, and if you did, someone would be within their rights to call hanging out quits for the day, for example.

      I’m sorry you are dealing with so much, and I’m sorry your family is not giving you the support you deserve, but I will say it again: THIS LETTER IS NOT ABOUT YOU, your sisters, their history, their babies, etc. The Letter Writer here is trying to find a way to support her sister but admitting some exhaustion with dealing with the feeling of walking on eggshells and being blamed for self-harm & emotional outbursts if she doesn’t do everything perfectly. You try to moderate the effect of your illness upon family members. The sister (who I think might be an older teen) doesn’t have those skills yet.

      If the discussion is triggering for you to read, I suggest you step away and read one of the many other websites on the internet. Because this is not about you. It’s not an attack on you. It’s not what everyone secretly thinks of you.

    • Marvel said:

      If you are able to continue this conversation (please prioritize your own mental health in this case, of course), would you maybe mind pointing out which comments you found dehumanizing toward the sister? I empathize with you, having been in the sister’s place before many times myself, but I’m just not seeing where anyone failed to treat the sister like a human being.

    • gmg said:

      I know this is hard, but I read back through the letter and the comments and almost all of what I saw was very compassionate comments toward the sister, LW, and her family, including from other people who have suffered from mental illness. I think when you’re really in the thick of figuring out how to cope with such an illness, it can become a “to a hammer everything looks like a nail” type thing. I went through a period of depression some years ago that had a lot of anger as a feature, and I felt that way. EVERYONE was in on it, EVERYONE was going out of their way to make me feel like crap about myself. I get why you feel like this, but I hope you understand that it’s your Jerkbrain talking.

  20. marzykitty said:

    Hello, LW here.
    I just wanted to say thank you for a lot of the advice I’ve gotten here, especially from the Captain. I pretty much cried the entire time I was reading it.
    It’s been really, really hard. The whole thing has just been… hard. I’ve been totally shut out of the life of someone who has been my best friend for years, I’m being triggered (sometimes deliberately) right and left, and I just want to help but there doesn’t seem to be any way to do so.
    I try to maintain regular, light contact– I send her a text every single day that simply says “I love you”, and I try to take her out for lunch at least once every time I’m home.

    • anon//anon//anon said:

      I send her a text every single day that simply says “I love you”, and I try to take her out for lunch at least once every time I’m home.

      This is really sweet of you. If she’s anything like me, she probably really appreciates the regularity of that. Even if she can’t quite tell you that right now.

      Best to you.

    • Marvel said:

      You sound like a really awesome sister, and that’s so encouraging for me, personally, to see (my older sister never attempted to support me through any of my issues, and in fact actually made them worse oftentimes). I’m so sorry you are going through this when you ARE so clearly trying your hardest to be there for her. I hope things get better for both of you.

  21. Groovy Biscuit Intervention said:

    “Unless you are going out of your way to hurl abuse at her, there is no universe in which you are causing your sister to explode or self-harm. If you and your sister have some kind of interaction and then she self-harms or yells at you, you did not cause it.”

    This. This-this-this-this-this. I used to self-harm (a LOT) in my late teens/early twenties, and really, once it got to be a habit, I’d do it for just about any reason at all. Someone looked at me funny? Self-harm. Lost my camera lens cap? Self-harm. Burnt a piece of toast? Self-harm. And never, ever was it about anyone beyond me. The toast was not to blame. It was a safety valve on whatever the hell was bubbling over inside me at the time, and if one thing hadn’t set me off another would have. There’s every chance that your sister is self-harming because that’s just what she needs to do to cope at the moment, and although it’s a crappy way of coping and hopefully in the fullness of time she’ll find a better one, it’s not something you’re doing or not doing that makes it happen.

    • marzykitty said:

      I think part of my problem with the self-harmy stuff is that in my last abusive relationship, self-harm and me-harm was used as a way to “punish” me for bad behavior.
      It is really hard for me to go “hey this is not about me in ANY WAY”, even though on some level I know that it really isn’t.
      Younger Sibling knows that one particular variant of her self-harm (there are many) is deeply triggering to me, so it’s really hard to not feel like she’s using it in the same way as the last dude when she does things to highlight it to me.
      As an example (TW: Self harm), over Christmas it was… I dunno, -30 outside? Definitely not shorts weather. Younger Sibling decided to wear shorts and then just come stand in my room, showing off the injuries on her legs. After I quietly excused myself to go throw up and cry in the bathroom, she changed back into pants and acted like nothing had happened.

      So it’s kinda like “I know this is not about me, but man it sure feels like you’re doing this to hurt me specifically right now.”

      • JenniferP said:

        That thing with the shorts….EEK! You are within your rights to ask her to leave the room or to leave the room yourself.

        And please, please, please think about staying somewhere else on your next visit!

        • marzykitty said:

          I am thinking very hard about where I can stay next time. I think that if things are not significantly improved by the next time I go home (and I mean really improved, not “we’ve all just adjusted to this new normal and forgot to tell you things are super shitty” like last time) I will get a motel room, despite the cost.

          • b said:

            If cost is an issue, you may also want to investigate places like airbnb and couchsurfing (and some others).

            I have had good experiences with both. Airbnb is paid, but often cheaper than hotel/motel, esp. as many of the renters will have deals for longer stays. For example, rent by the week for less per night than by the night.

            Couchsurfing is free, but often with less privacy.

            These are just a couple services you can investigate. They may not be right for you, but I hope you find the recommendation helpful.

          • sunnyside said:

            Is staying at school a little longer possible? My sibling took a job in janitorial at zir school bc things were too awful at home, just used “broke student” excuse. If family asks whyyyy you don’t rush home you can say work, special project, volunteer opportunity that will look good on resume…whatever works to buy a few days or weeks.

            Or is there a friend you can spend the roughest days with? I used to claim I needed time with bff, aunt, grandma for the weekends bc everyone was around/more intense those days.

            So, so sorry for your situation. My family had a perfect storm of mental illness, neglect, abuse, just plain selfish parents. I had escape routes, places to go, people to see, shifts to work – people were very willing to help with that, even people I never expected to help like my boss. Take care of yourself and don’t be too proud to ask your wider circle for help – just having plans to get out regularly helps.

      • Marvel said:

        Wow, that is totally unacceptable. Jedi hugs if you want them.

      • staranise said:

        If this makes sense, it’s AT you, but not ABOUT you. You didn’t somehow cause it, and they would still be doing seriously dysfunctional stuff if you weren’t there. It’s the same whether it’s self-injury, or abusive behaviour towards you. It’s always about the other person’s feelings and decision to act on those feelings in a certain way. You’re just the convenient target at the time.

      • another mary said:

        (Trigger warning–extended discussion of self-injury.) Just a +1 to GBI to reiterate that the self-harm is not your fault or even about you, evn when it is directed at you or seems like an effort to “punish” you. I’m really sorry it’s being shoved in your face–that’s a shitty thing to do, and you’re allowed to do whatever you need to to take care of yourself in that situation. OTOH, I will say that, for me, self-harm is insidious and insanely difficult to control. Even when I know that it’s distressing to other people, or that by harming myself I’m harming the people who love me, I do it anyway. So I find it easy to envision a world in which your sister feels badly about harming herself in a way that’s particularly triggering to you, but doesn’t feel able to help herself.* I also find it easy to imagine her injuring herself as a way to punish you simply for caring about her. Which is, as someone put it below, AT you but still not ABOUT you. Not sure whether this might be helpful, but that’s a way it can feel from the other side.

        I am not saying that she is, in fact, helpless, just that it can really feel that way.

  22. Jmm said:

    I don’t get how it’s good for your sister to accept her abuse. Isn’t that bad for her? Doesn’t it reinforce that abuse is acceptable behavior? I feel like healthy boundaries are good for everyone involved.

  23. OpheliaDev said:

    OP, I just want to say that your sister is not more important than you. And her needs are not more important than yours.

    I don’t love the Captain’s advice. First, it involves making yourself very vulnerable to people who have already shown they don’t (at this time) have your best interests at heart. I don’t blame them for that – your mentally ill sister is probably using up every emotional resource your parents have. They are in a very bad place and all they want you to do is soak up some of this misery. 2) It seems like a lot of involvement with a person who is actively and deliberately damaging you. Even if she’s in the throws of mental illness, your sister is psychologically attacking you.

    My question is – do you HAVE to come home for visits? Maybe it’s time to be so super busy that you just can’t get away.

    And honestly, I think the regular Skype and phone calls are a terrible idea. Perhaps regular emails? You can carefully go over every word before you send it. Heck, maybe you can just email your sister brief, cheery notes and links to funny LOLcats.

    You don’t need to lay yourself out on the altar of your sister’s mental illness to be cut open over and over again. It won’t help anybody.

    • marzykitty said:

      I don’t HAVE to go home for visits– but I want to. I’m very close with my family, and they are historically my biggest supporters throughout everything else in my life. I go there to re-charge and be with people that will love and support me no matter what is going on.

      I could stay at school, but it’s lonely here. My family makes me feel not lonely.

  24. Hi LW! I work supporting with adults who have special needs, some of whom have behavioral and emotional issues that include:
    -verbally abusing others
    -verbally abusing themselves
    -threatening others
    -threatening self-harm
    -engaging in dangerous behaviors like running across a street away from me without checking for cars

    It took a long time (and sometimes I fall into this) for me to recognize that if someone had an outburst, it wasn’t that I failed. Someone else having a challenging day isn’t a comment on you. I want to reiterate that you are not alone, and it isn’t your fault.

    It took a long time also for the people I work with to trust that when I set boundaries, (like “Please don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it.” [says more abusive stuff] “I’m going to give you some space until you can treat me appropriately [goes a few feet away and ignores behavior]“) that I would actually respond positively when their behavior changed. Over time, I have personally had great success with just flat out saying “I won’t let you treat me this way. I will be here when you want to be friends” and following through on that. Your mileage may vary, of course, and you will be the best judge of that.

    Do you think your sister would respond at all to very gently explanations of how her actions make you feel? You’d know better than I for your sister, so follow your instincts. Some folks I work with have responded with concern and care when I say things like “When you use that tone of voice, it makes me feel like you are yelling at me, and that makes me feel upset and sad, since I value your friendship.” You said above that it seems that your sibling is using some stuff she might know is deeply triggering to you to manipulate you, so perhaps not, but then again maybe hearing it explicitly might help?

    I’m so sorry you’re being triggered while trying to spend loving and supportive time with your family. You deserve a safe environment with the people you love.

  25. I have so much sympathy for the LW. I constantly wonder where the line is between mental illness and chosen behavior, and how (or even if) this changes one’s response.

    In my situation, my mother, who I am a caretaker for, is increasingly irrational and combative. Her behavior is bordering on emotional abusive…she’ll explode at the smallest thing, then tearfully apologize, then do it all over again less than an hour later. I can say “look, this is abusive and needs to stop” all I want, but her behavior seems to be beyond her ability to change. Understanding that doesn’t make it any less exhausting or painful, though. And there’s no possibility of a buffer, because I’m right here, and she WILL follow me around screaming at me all day long.

    She’s been repetitively telling me she wants nothing to do with me, then asking for help with her meds/understanding what the doctor said/routine things like turning on the TV. And honestly at this point I don’t WANT to help her, and that feels terribly shitty of me.

    Her behavior has been so bad this week I’ve spent much of it upstairs. I’ve been timing bathroom breaks and grabbing something to eat when I hear her go outside to smoke, simply because I don’t want to get screamed at/don’t want to deal with silent treatment/can’t take the tension. So I’ve spent much of the week half-starved because I can’t venture into the kitchen to cook for myself. It’s a ridiculous way to live.

    • Oh my god, Tired, are you my mother? Because she could have written this. You are not shitty forwanting a break, or needing a break. You are not wrong for wanting quiet and peace in your own home at least some of the time. I don’t have any solutions; I just know, from having lived in the same house as an intensely emotionally and verbally (and, to a lesser extent, physically and…sexualisedly….?) abusive grandmother, that it can be soul-destroying to be primary caretaker for an abusive and mentally ill (I really feel that those are two separate categories that can overlap) person. I’m so sorry, and Jedi hugs for you. All of them.

    • God, that’s awful. Is there any possible way that you and your siblings (who, I know, have been mostly useless so far) can pool resources to get her placed into a different living arrangement? I’m assuming such a thing wouldn’t be remotely simple, or you would have done it already, but what you’ve described has gone way beyond “new normal.” It isn’t okay for you to be treated this way. It isn’t okay even if the person doing it isn’t 100 percent blameless.

      • If it were up to me, she would have been in assisted living some time ago. The problem is that I have no legal power. Her husband refuses to seek medical power of attorney because he “doesn’t want to do that to her.” I’ve tried telling him that it isn’t something he would be doing TO her, but rather FOR her, but he seems to view it as a form of betrayal.

        • Erin said:

          I feel that there should be resources that can either help change her husband’s mind (where the hell is he in taking care of her?) or legally point out that this situation is not okay and she has to be provided with assisted living. (They are especially not okay for you, but people who are not insulted by her 24/7 will probably also be better able to handle the care because it doesn’t suck the life out of them.)
          Do any other commenters know which resources could be helpful here?

        • JenniferP said:

          I think the only way to negotiate with the husband at this point would be hardball, i.e., “Well, have fun taking care of her yourself, I’m out of here.”

          I know that opens up a big can of worms for you, emotionally and logistically, and may not be the right answer for you or for her, but it sounds like his head is pretty far in the sand. His ability to feel like the good guy is entirely dependent on your free labor.

          • PM said:

            So much of this. It’s wonderful that he can take the high road and say, “Oh, I just couldn’t take the steps those steps because they would make her upset, but you go ahead and deal with the consequences of my inaction, OK?”

            He doesn’t want to help? Because he doesn’t have to. Because you’re taking on the burden. She’s his wife. He pledged in sickness and in health. Let him deal with the sickness.

            I’m so sorry.

          • monologue said:

            Unfortunately I second this way of thinking. I don’t know your situation, Tired, so maybe this is impossible, but could you pull out partially if you don’t want to pull out fully? Would it be possible to not live with her but say “I could be there this time to this time on these days weekly” or something like that?

            My mom died a couple months ago and all 3 of us kids had to make a lot of scheduling changes to help her that were really not okay for us. It’s okay to love your mom but feel frustrated at your situation at the same time. You’re not failing her if you decide to make a change so that you can feel more like yourself. If there are other people in the family this shouldn’t be all on you in the first place.

          • Emotionally, I’m pretty much done. From a POV of the actual caregiving aspect of things, I’ll completely ineffective at this point anyway. Other than being chauffeur, I’m just not accomplishing much…I haven’t successfully gotten her to take any medication as prescribed for over two years. She’s intensely paranoid about medications because of “side effects”, and does this really strange pattern of behavior where she’ll insist the doctor treat her for something, then refuse to take the treatment, and then insist that whatever she’s been diagnosed with must be something else because she doesn’t want to take the drug that would solve it. It’s like if I broke my arm but didn’t want to get a cast because they’re uncomfortable, so I insisted the pain in my arm was actually caused by a chemical burn despite all of the x-rays (and conspicuous lack of burns.)

            It’s the logistics that are the issue. My car just gave up the ghost and I can’t afford to have it repaired. If I use their car for apartment hunting/job hunting, it’s going to involve a lot of screaming/panicking. Being a caregiver for so long has severely damaged my career path, so there’s that as well…I don’t even know if I CAN find a job that would let me completely support myself (though at this point I would happily live in a tiny studio.) I don’t have any local friends at all that I can stay with, and I’m pretty violently opposed to all of my local family. And frankly I’ve been so depressed lately that trying to figure this stuff out is really overwhelming.

            But yeah, emotionally I’m aware this situation is just not tenable. I’ve always felt that I could separate myself from what was happening in terms of not allowing it to affect me, but that’s not working anymore. I don’t even feel upset in the least, I just feel really, really tired.

          • One of my friends is looking after her nana post-surgery and talking about it on Twitter since it’s obviously a big part of her life at the moment. Apparently all the leftwing guys who are happy to support her when she’s doing Important Liberal Stuff (read: not gendered) have started unfollowing her all of a sudden. So easy for some men to ignore things like the burden of care placed on women even when they’re directly benefiting from it.

        • neverjaunty said:

          Tired, I’m so sorry you are doing this. I have seen friends go through this, with the stepparent saying “I won’t do that” ranging from well-meaning but in denial, to full-blown abusive asshole. If her husband is clueless rather than malicious, perhaps it would help to point out that he IS doing something TO her right now – he is letting her continue in a state where she can’t control how she behaves, in a way that is upsetting and frightening to her, rather than getting her the help she needs. The situation is unfair to you. It is also unfair to her, and he is making it unfair.

          Here are some suggestions to pick and choose from, as fits your situation and where you live:

          Talk to her doctor. The doctor can’t tell you about Mom’s medical condition absent legal papers, but you can certainly let the doctor know what’s up. If the situation is such that Mom is at risk – or worse, if she is being isolated/abused by her husband – the doctor may have an obligation to seek help from social services for her. At a minimum, the doctor can probably direct you to elder care and social services resources in your area. Doctors see this kind of thing constantly.

          Talk to social services agencies. It’s true that they are often overwhelmed and sometimes not helpful, but sometimes they are, or can offer just the right piece of information or help you need. For example, California has a whole state agency devoted to this. Search for something like ‘elder care help mystatename’.

          Talk to a lawyer to look into getting power of attorney for mome. know, I know, this can be expensive, but there are still pro bono and reduced-fee programs, even in this economy. The resources above may be a good pointer; also check with your county or state bar association, which often have referral services, where you can talk to somebody who is an expert in the area of law for free or very cheap. Sometimes city bar associations also have the same thing; for example San Francisco’s bar association has a whole program which assigns volunteers to help people with everything from family law to landlord-tenant issues. Try Legal Aid – even if you don’t qualify because of income they generally have a huge roster of referrals they can give you.

          • He’s definitely clueless, not malicious, but in a rather strange way. I can at least understand that her behavior is outside her control, and that she has severe memory issues. I can’t always control how it affects me, but I can separate between ‘things that can change’ and ‘things that can’t.’

            He very much cannot. He SAYS he understands, but he still gets pissy if she asks him the same question twenty times or forgets something he told her. He seems to think she can control her memory issues and is just choosing not to. He also takes her abusive actions much more personally than I do. So I think that’s part of his resistance to the idea…he’s just not getting that she’s never getting better, because she’s not just being mean or annoying, she’s SICK. She has an illness (and we don’t even know what it is exactly, since she refuses to go to a neurologist.)

            This also results in him refusing to take simple actions to improve things. Like we have a recycling bucket and a trash can set up on opposite sides of the back door. Both are black, but the trash can is significantly larger. My mother constantly forgets which is which, and will throw trash in the recycling bucket, which then has to be dug out. My father will then go lecture her like she is completely doing it on purpose. There are so many solutions to this issue…get a different colored bucket. Move one of the buckets. Put a damn sign on the damn bucket. But no…he’d rather do the whole cycle every week. It’s bizarre, frankly.

            Her primary doctors are aware there is a problem (it’s pretty obvious during appointments.) But all they can suggest is a neurologist, which she won’t do. It’s a situation where I’m being blockaded from all the useful things I could do…she flat out refuses, I have no power, and I can’t imagine the courts would let me overrule her husband so completely that I could take power of attorney over his objections.

            And to be honest, I don’t even have the emotional energy to fight that battle at this point. The thought of living in the same house while I’m actively trying to ‘betray’ her…if things are bad now, I can’t even imagine that scenario. If I’m going that route, I simply HAVE TO get out first.

            I will look into elder care resources though…I’m having a hard time working and caring for her, so any kind of financial assistance would be wonderful. I just got health insurance through the state (I think? I got a card, at least, which no information whatsofreakingever attached.) It would also help to know if there are aid programs that would help me with housing if I do move this year.

          • Erin said:

            Tired Caregiver, I wish you sooo much luck with getting out of this “arrangement”. It’s beyond unfair to you.

        • *sputter*

          Other people have already made good suggestions. Nothing to add here except …

          SHE HAS A HUSBAND? HOLY MOTHERFUCKING SHIT. WHERE IS HE?

          I didn’t think it was possible to be any angrier on your behalf. Jeebus.

          Romantic relationships involving caregiving are hard. Really hard. There’s a reason they break up so much more often than relationships where everybody’s healthy. If your mom’s husband doesn’t want to continue to be her husband in light of her issues and her behavior, I won’t judge him. I can’t. But he doesn’t get to have it both ways. He doesn’t get to decide that he won’t step up as the primary caregiver AND decide against assisted living.

          CAPSLOCKRAGE.

          • In a really weird way, thank you so much for that reaction…it made me genuinely laugh out loud. Her husband works long hours and leaves for work very early (and goes to bed very early.) During the few hours he’s home, he hides in his room. On his days off, he disappears for the entire day (mostly by staying with ‘his mother’, who is his first wife’s mother, and I think he’s a little in love with her.)

            If I force him into interacting with her, it ends up in him upsetting her, her screaming about divorce, and then later taking it all out of me. She’ll blame me for things I wasn’t physically present for, or attribute things to me that he said. So it ends up being easier for me to play buffer than to deal with the fallout, which makes it all the easier for him to put everything on my shoulders.

            They were never a good match…it was entirely a marriage of convenience undertaken in haste. I try to remind him when he’s upset after she blows up at him that he’s only dealing with it occasionally. She yelled at him once this week, but has been at me every single day, so I try to get through to him that if he thinks he has it rough, he really has no clue how it is to live in the thick of it.

            As long as I’m physically here, he has a ready-made excuse not to step up.

          • *laugh* … Well, happy to have provided something positive.

            I’m thinking back now to the letter you wrote a ways back, where either CA or one of the commenters recommended informing the Sibs of Uselessness that you were planning to take a job in another state, and they were free to work out the details of taking over care for your mom themselves. But hey, this is even better. Husband already lives there.

            I know I haven’t said anything you haven’t thought of yourself, and I know the reality of actually doing this is exponentially harder and more painful than how I’ve made it sound up there. But if it helps at all, you can add me to your long list of people who think it’s okay for you to do it. More than okay. It’s been your turn long enough.

    • boutet said:

      It’s not terrible of you as a person to see and acknowledge that you are no longer able to provide the proper care for a family member in need. There is no moral failure in making sure that that person is receiving the proper care, even if that means that the proper care cannot happen in you home or cannot be done completely by you.
      I don’t know what your options are or the finer details of your situation, but if you feel that you can’t provide the care that your mother needs it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed her. It just means that she needs care from people who are trained to provide that care. People who are supported by a network of other professionals. People who get sick days and vacations, who go home after their shift and stop providing care for others while they care for themselves. Even if it is care that you’re a trained professional in there is no person who can do the job 24/7 alone.
      Try not to beat yourself up over needing space and time and peace to care for yourself.

    • gmg said:

      So sorry you have to go through this, especially when those around you who could help, like your mother’s husband, simply refuse to. And of COURSE you don’t want to help her — why would you when she treats you this way? Easier said than done, but please know you shouldn’t be feeling any guilt about that.

      I think the longer-term advice here is unfortunately right, that you may have to give your mother and her husband an ultimatum … but in the meantime, if you have the time in your schedule for this or can make time, have you sought out a support group for caregivers in your area? Just a place to unload and share info about local resources could be so useful.

  26. Temporarili said:

    The phrase that caught my attention was “My parents have acknowledged that I am being hurt in this situation, but feel that me withdrawing would do much more harm than good.

    Harm and good for who? Because I think it’s pretty clear from LW’s letter that backing off is going to do a lot of good for her. And when you start getting in a position where you’re measuring how much harm you can take for another person or whose harm is more important… that is not a sustainable, healthy situation.

    • M Dubz said:

      Ugh yes a million points of this. I find myself in this situation all the time, and it’s not helpful for anyone.

    • popesuburban said:

      This was my thought as well. I’m never reluctant to send a bridge up in flames, which I recognize makes me pretty not-qualified to actually advise people who don’t want that or who wouldn’t have as easy a time with it, so I’ll just say that LW, you matter too. You are a human being with feelings and needs. Your needs aren’t less important. Your boundaries count. You deserve to feel safe and good. I hope you can get to a place where that is happening.

  27. hammersandnails said:

    De-lurking for the first time to say that I identify with you, LW. My brother was diagnosed with a serious mental illness last year and is now living with my parents, and my visit over Christmas was rough, especially since he has actually made a lot of progress and can be totally normal a lot of the time. Thing is, he cannot handle stress, at all, without having an episode. I don’t even have your history of abuse, but I know the feeling of walking on eggshells and having my parents ask me not to “upset” him–not that I can necessarily tell what might set him off, let alone stand up for myself when his illness makes him act like a Grade A dickhead. When I mentioned to my mother that illness isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, she disagreed and said he’s actually unable to access reality at times, but I’m just not sure whether it matters when I’m feeling scared and my brother is doing things that are cruel to my boyfriend. The captain’s advice is helpful, because it draws a line between being a doormat just because you’re the “healthy” one and asking too much of someone who is suffering terribly. I love my brother and want the best for him, but maybe my next visit will involve staying somewhere other than the family homestead.

  28. M Dubz said:

    Captain, I needed this one. This whole past year my sister has been through hell, and I really want to be there and be supportive of her, but what I re-remember after every time I spend a longer amount of time with her is that, ironically, my attempts to be sacrificing and ignore my own needs in order to support her leads to me being a shittier sister, because I get frustrated and angry and don’t want to deal with her, which causes me to get passive-aggressive. Our relationship has been really one-sided for as long as I can remember (she tells me about her stuff and I do my damnedest to be open and supportive, I tell her about my stuff and she gets judgmental and/or suggests REALLY unhelpful advice) and there needs to be a paradigm shift if I’m ever going to be able to support her the way that she needs me to.

    • monologue said:

      I can relate to some of your description about your relationship with your sister. I don’t have the problem you do where she doesn’t listen well in return, but I am kind of my sister’s dumping ground sometimes because I am one of the only people that she can honestly tell everything to no matter what. I’ve found it useful to give myself breaks sometimes. I’m on one of those right now. If she contacts me with a problem, then I definitely answer her, but I’m not initiating contact and I’m taking a 1 month break from seeing her in person. Basically I’ll still help with crisis stuff but I’m toning down the other socializing for a while to recharge.

  29. monologue said:

    There’s a ton of good stuff in this thread already, but I wanted to add that I really like CA’s fandom or other interest idea. My sister has OCD and I have some mental health stuff too but my sister is likely worse off. For a long time her stuff wasn’t getting dealt with (it is now yay!) because she couldn’t be convinced to go to therapy and my parents didn’t understand that she had a problem. I had to and still have to do a lot of helping with the management of her situation and her major life stuff.

    It was really useful for us that while all of this was in the really bad stage, we had shared nerdy fandom interests. First it was one thing, then another thing as years passed, but we always had that thing that we could talk for like four hours about, or videos we could watch together that we were really excited about. This was a huge help because it meant sometimes we talked about THE SERIOUS BADNESS OF EVERYTHING but other times we just lightly chatted about fandom stuff in a really engaged way. We maintained a really close relationship during the badness in part because of this.

  30. mehting said:

    Honestly, for me (and I am not everyone in this situation, and a lot of mental illnesses are very different) even though boundaries led to immediate misery responses from me, people putting up with boundary violations was much, much more frightening to me in the long term, because it was sane people skewing the world even more than it already was. And the message I got when that happened was, we love you, and so we’re going to let this happen because we think you’re broken, and this is what we have to expect from you now, you can’t do any better. The message I got when people set boundaries, then came back later without a grudge was I love you, I am here for you, and I believe you can do this. NOT that this showed in my initial responses to boundary setting at the time.

    It also really helped me that my family recognized and praised and bragged about the work I did to manage my mental illness. Not as in good, I’m glad you’re working at therapy and you are getting closer to normal, but as in, you are so brave and smart, finding ways to deal with this thing that most people never have to manage. Because it took a lot of courage to cope, and a lot of thinking to come up with functional workarounds, and having that recognized as an extraordinary thing when I did it made it a lot easier for me to get up again the times I failed

  31. DaybyDay said:

    I feel kind of ashamed to say this, but I have been the LW’s sister. Not in the abusive sense, but in the sense that I have depression and have perhaps unfairly relied on my friends and family. Particularly my roommate, which has been a problem, since some of her previous experiences have included dealing with a suicidal roommate in college, and it means sometimes that being around me is triggering for her. We’ve talked about this, and thanks to an intensive outpatient program, I’m doing much better at dealing with my own issues. She says that I’m not triggering for her anymore, and I hope that’s true. Her coping mechanism has often been to retreat into her room and close the door. I understand that desire to be alone, and I respect that, but it makes me sad because I like spending time with her, and I get lonely easily.

    But I guess what resounded most with me is that my roommate felt for awhile like she was walking on eggshells around me, that anything she said could make me “worse,” that she was responsible for me. And I entirely discouraged that thinking, but I can’t stop that, because they’re not my feelings. I hope that our relationship could go back to the way it was (we’ve been friends since high school). But I don’t know if that’s possible. At the very least, I’d like to help her to feel less responsible for me and guilty if I’m feeling bad. And I’d maybe like to get to a point where I’m not hesitant to tell her about the general problems in my life, for fear that I’ll be burdening her too much.

  32. There is a saying that goes “Kill them with kindness”. It doesn’t always work but it has for several friends that I know. Love is curing. So, if you could make that intent, everytime that you interact with her. You may find her chilling out and not being so much of a burden.

    Several years ago, I lived with a roommate. He was one person that I thought would be a great person to live with and learned that he was the total opposite. He became a nightmare and I wanted him out. When I decided to kill him with kindness, he became more considerate. While we never became friends, he learned to respect me and became more understanding. He was not the perfect roommate but he was more tolerable.

    My heart goes out to you and I hope the situation works out in your favor.

  33. In industrialized cultures , sibling relationships are typically discretionary in nature. People are encouraged to stay in contact and cooperate with their brothers and sisters, but this is not an obligation. Older siblings in these cultures are sometimes given responsibilities to watch over a younger sibling, but this is only occasional, with parents taking on the primary role of caretaker. In contrast, close sibling relationships in nonindustrialized cultures are often obligatory, with strong cultural norms prompting cooperation and close proximity between siblings. These cultures also extend caregiving roles to older siblings, who are constantly expected to watch over younger siblings.

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