Julie has now finished her course and has moved back in with our Mum who is supporting her and giving her a weekly allowance. In return she barely speaks to her. She has said she doesn’t want to get any job at all and has no interest in being a makeup artist. I moved out several years ago to pursue a PhD in another country and only had contact with my mother through Skype. I thought Julie’s behavior was bad enough when I first heard of it, but mostly I was just sad that she had stopped replying to me on Facebook and was upsetting Mum. Then things became more complicated when our Mum was diagnosed with cancer; I came back for her first round of chemotherapy and Julie didn’t even visit the hospital for the entire two weeks. I had to go back to work to sort out a leave of absence, and after a few weeks I came back home again to take care of Mum. I was appalled to find out that Julie now lives in Mum’s room, speaks in aggressive mumbles to my mother and ignores me point blank, except for when she tells me I’m “really mean,” and “such a bitch,” and “I hate you! Why are you even here?”
I’ve never done anything (that I know of) to make her hate me. I have a leave of absence from my PhD program for a few months and it’s such a good opportunity for Julie and I to get to know each other as adults, but she wants nothing to do with me. Instead, she spends 18 hours a day watching TV. She won’t go out anywhere, and she has no friends other than a boyfriend she’s had for two years. She eats very little and is very thin. She told my mum she “doesn’t feel right” and hasn’t for years, but she won’t go to the doctor to change her medication or go to therapy. If she needs help, then I’d be happy to help her get it. If she needs different medication or therapy, I’d pay for it out of my stipend. I tried to say we could go to hot-yoga together in our local town and I could pay for it, but I just got cursed out. If you or any of your commenters have any advice on how to handle her, I would really appreciate it. — A Very Worried Sister
Let’s look at things from your sister’s side: her father left when she was 15 — a formative age for anyone and probably more so for someone who may have been predisposed for depression or other mental issues; she has an older sister who left the country shortly after their father’s deserting them to pursue a PhD program; and that sister, after she left, only stayed in touch through periodic Facebook messages (I’m making an assumption here. Is that right?). Those are the things we know. What we can infer by Julie’s behavior is that she felt very lost, depressed, and like her family was falling apart. She may have felt like she couldn’t compete with you, the prodigal daughter who left for another country to pursue a PhD. She may have felt like you had more important things to do than keep up a relationship with her. She may have felt like she wasn’t getting enough attention and that behaving badly was a way for her to get noticed. She may have felt like her mother’s solution was to throw money at the problem (paying for a makeup course, sending her away, giving her an allowance while letting her mope about all day watching TV).
She may have felt all those things BEFORE your mother got sick, so imagine how she may have felt when you, the prodigal daughter, finally waltz on home to save the day by taking care of your mother and helping out around the house while she’s in the hospital. Imagine how she may have felt when, after deserting her like your father did and staying in touch through periodic Facebook messages, you suddenly want to use your leave of absence to build a relationship with her and get to know her “as an adult.” She’s probably thinking, “Where have you been the last few years?”
I’m definitely not saying that this is reality, but I’m trying to paint a picture of your sister’s version of reality. She says she hates you, but the truth may be that she simply resents you. She resents that you got to escape your broken home when she still had to finish high school. She may resent that you took off when she needed a sister most. She may resent that you get to be the ace student — in a PhD program! — while she struggles in school. She may resent that you don’t seem as screwed up by your Dad’s swift departure from your lives as she does. She may resent that you haven’t been around to deal with your mother on a day-to-day basis and that you get to waltz in now and take credit for being there when she got sick. She may resent that you think a trip to a hot yoga class is going to make up for the years you weren’t around.
This isn’t a full picture of reality, I know. But again, it may be the reality your sister sees. It may be the only reality she understands because she’s 20, she’s been through a lot, she’s kind of screwed up, and she’s got a chip on her shoulder. And, unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do right now to make things better. Pushing her to get help or pushing for a relationship is going to make things worse. So, back off. Let her be messed up for a little while and trust that with a safety net of living at home she won’t fall too hard or too far down. When you do have a chance to talk to her, focus on stories instead of instructions or advice for her. Share stories about your life. Tell her about some of the mistakes you’ve made and struggles you’ve had. Let her know you aren’t perfect. Invite her to come visit you some time. When you go home, make more of an effort to keep in touch. Ask to talk to her when you call/Skype. Even if she says no every time, keep asking. Just because you have a leave of absence for a few months doesn’t mean this is your only chance to get to know your sister as an adult. SHE isn’t even an adult yet, after all. Hopefully, you have many, many more years, so just remain available and keep trying without being pushy.
Honestly, the best thing you could do is to stop trying to help your sister. She doesn’t want your help. And by positioning yourself as the helper and her as the needy victim, you will only continue to alienate yourself from her. Instead, try to level the playing field between you. Ask HER for help. Ask her to do your makeup some time. She spent a year studying makeup artistry, so she probably knows more than you do. What else might she know more about? Think of something and talk to her about it. Give her opportunities to be better than you at something.
I can appreciate how worried you must be about a sister who seems so depressed and refuses to get help. But it’s not your job to fix her. And if she’s resistant to your support, there’s not much you can do but focus on creating a better relationship with her so that eventually she’s more open to receiving your help.
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