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Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Sister’s Mental Health is Damaging Our Relationship”

From the forums:

My 23-year-old sister has OCD, the kind that comes with crazy intrusive thoughts and anxiety. I am three years younger and have been with her every step of the way since we were kids. Recently, she’s gotten mean, and although I think (and understand) it might have a lot to do with her mental health, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed when she said that the only reason she has to live is her new friend.

I feel betrayed because whenever she needed something or someone, I was there. She met her friend, a 42-year-old man, a couple months ago, and he doesn’t know about the state of her mental health. I was glad she had made a new friend until I was slapped with the accusation that no one (my other siblings and I) have ever been nice to her. One day she complained that I don’t ask her how she is. Then I asked her, and she said she had had to beg for it and could do without the attention. I asked her again, and she brushed me off.

I have an insane schedule, but I make time for her every day. Maybe she’s right that I don’t ask her enough how she is, but I thought she would be able appreciate my actions if not my words.

She finally says she wants to end it all, but her friend is the only reason she keeps going. Now, I don’t know where I went wrong or how I neglected her, but that really hurt me. Like: “I’ve been with you for years, but nothing I ever did was good enough.” I would really appreciate some advice on what to do or how to make sense of this situation. — Sister in Crisis

I can imagine how hurtful your sister’s words must be and what a slap in the face it is for her to credit this new friend, and only him, for basically saving her from suicide instead of for her to show you appreciation for always being there for her. It’s important to remember though that her words and actions are a reflection of the state of her mental health and not her true feelings for you. And like everyone, you can’t control her behavior; you can only control your reaction to her behavior.

So how do you react in a way that continues to support her while also honoring your needs and the boundaries that are important for you to have in place? I would say something to her like, “It’s hard to hear that you think I’ve neglected you as I have actively worked to support you. Obviously, my actions have fallen short in your eyes and I’m sorry to hear that. I can’t promise to be perfect, but I want to support you and it would help me if you could articulate how I can better do that.”

Her calling you out or being passive aggressive in naming this “friend” as her one true savior is really just a call for help, so when she does that, try to separate your own hurt feelings from her mental health. Put them in a little box to be dealt with later, and continue to assert that you want to support her, and that you believed you were supporting her, but that if she has needs you aren’t meeting, then you want her to express what they are and how you can better meet them.

The likely case is that your sister has needs you simply cannot meet. It’s not your job to be her therapist or her doctor or to help manage her mental health. You’re 20 years old with limited life experience and a future of your own you’re pursuing. It’s ok – it’s healthy and necessary! – to create some boundaries when it comes to your sister. It’s ok for her to say she needs X, Y, and Z, and for you to say, “I can happily do X, but Y and Z are beyond what I can offer. But I love you, and to the best of my ability I will help you find the resources to address Y and Z.” And if that’s not enough for your sister, you can feel confident that this isn’t your failing. It’s not your failing because it’s not your job to be all things for her and to meet all her needs.

I hope that you can give grace to both yourself and your sister. It’s not her fault she lacks the ability right now to maintain healthy boundaries and relationships any more than it’s your fault for feeling hurt by that. You are both existing inside limitations that make fostering a close sibling relationship challenging. Those limitations may change or they may remain rigid in the place they are now. But your happiness and well-being should not be dependent on your sister’s well-being or on the relationship you’re able to foster with her. You need to continue pursuing your own joy, your own fulfillment, and your own friendships so that YOUR needs can be met. Because your needs are just as important as hers.

Sometimes, when we love someone whose mental health is unstable, it’s easy to make that instability the center of our relationship. I hope that in time you can find (or remember) connections with your sister outside of simply meeting or failing to meet her needs. I hope there’s a space for her in your heart where love can thrive. This may mean actively making that space with strong boundaries that are built with “no’s” and deliberately shifting energy from defending yourself to pursuing your own happiness. Even if this space isn’t one she actively or readily wants to share with you, it will be a well of love you can access when you need it and when you want to connect with positive memories of your relationship.

***************
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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

28 comments… add one
  • Kate March 9, 2022, 10:49 am

    I would also add to this, you probably don’t realize you’re doing it, but be conscious of using terms like “crazy” and “insane.” Try “wild” instead to describe your schedule. Or “severe” or “serious” or “significant” or something like that to describe someone’s symptoms. We have a lot of DEI efforts going on at work and it makes me aware of these things.

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    • Hannah00 March 10, 2022, 2:16 pm

      Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Kate. I’m going to substitute those words 🙂

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  • anonymousse March 9, 2022, 11:30 am

    I think you should look into therapy for yourself if you can. You’re taking on a lot of the emotional needs she has, you are very closely tied to someone unwell who says hurtful things and it’s affecting you. Focus on yourself for a little. Take some distance if you need to. Her mental well-being have little to do with you and much to do with her. Is she getting help? Where are your parents in this? Why are you taking on so much of her emotional load? She needs more help than you can give her healthily.

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    • Hannah00 March 10, 2022, 2:21 pm

      It’s just my mom, and she has a heart condition so I didn’t tell her about this . We try not to put any stress on her. My sister is getting therapy, but she’s been resisting it lately, saying she’s tired of telling strangers her problems and that they don’t understand. I tried to make her understand that they’re here to help and they are the last people who would judge her. That’s another issue that’s worrying me.

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    callmehobo March 9, 2022, 12:18 pm

    I think we need to address a big red flag in this letter. Your young, mentally ill (vulnerable) sister becomes close friends with a significantly older man, who starts whispering in her ear about how her previous support system/family “doesn’t care about her” and “doesn’t have her best interests at heart”. She says that he’s the only thing keeping her from “ending it all”?!?? This man is not a friend. He’s a predator who is laying the groundwork to isolate your sister so he can trap her in an abusive relationship. Your sister is EXTRA vulnerable due to a medical condition!!! Please, please do NOT sever your ties with her. She is being manipulated.

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    • anonymousse March 9, 2022, 12:29 pm

      Yes, I noticed this too. He sounds like a creep.

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    • LisforLeslie March 9, 2022, 1:39 pm

      I agree that the age difference is on the creepy side. But the whispering in her ear is a pretty big leap from what the LW writes.

      My take, as I’ve noted below, is that this is in the honeymoon phase. They’re getting to know one another and everyone’s issues are neatly tucked away for the time being. This is new and new can be fun. And I”m leaping a little myself, but I think the sister probably likes talking to someone who has never seen her meltdown or talked her off the ledge. That distance can be very appealing – the sister can recreate herself (or try to). The OP and rest of family know who the sister really is.

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    • Hannah00 March 10, 2022, 2:26 pm

      He doesn’t know about her mental health. At least, that’s what she told me. I do think that she’s very vulnerable and should not be this close with a much older man. I’m not going to sever ties with her. She’s my sister and I love her very much

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  • LisforLeslie March 9, 2022, 12:27 pm

    I know you love your sister – that is very clear from your letter. A couple of things that may provide some perspective:

    Sometimes emotionally immature people lash out at the people they love the most because they are the safest. The people who have always been there, always will be there (that is conditional of course, I don’t expect anyone to put up with sustained emotional abuse or any physical abuse). It sounds like your sister expects you and your other sibling to always be there and love you unconditionally, while she is allowed to love you conditionally. Not fair but again, I’m assuming that she’s emotionally immature. I’m assuming that if you call her out she would not react well. Again, emotional immaturity and possibly some other emotional challenges in that mix.

    I also think that this new friend is still in it’s honeymoon period. She’s keeping her shit together for the time being, but at some point, her issues are going to seep through and her friend may have very different boundaries than the ones you and your sibling have established with your sister. That friend may or may not want to put up with whatever you’ve decided is acceptable.

    So you have a couple of choices and you need to put your own well-being front and center. You are allowed to say “You know what, I’ve tried my best but I’m never going to be 100% what you need, never going to be perfect and if you need that from me I can’t give it to you. If you need something, ask for it. I’ll determine if I can do that and let you know if I can’t. I can’t read your mind and won’t try to – so you need to communicate your needs to me, and accept the boundaries I lay down.”

    Don’t set yourself on fire to keep your sister warm.

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  • peggy March 9, 2022, 12:31 pm

    I disagree with callmehobo. The L.W. says the older “friend” does not know about her sister’s mental health issues. He may be operating only off of what the sister tells him. Maybe she, purposely or because she is messed up mentally, is manipulating him. Who knows?
    Agree with everything Wendy says.

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      callmehobo March 9, 2022, 1:18 pm

      I don’t think that a man with almost 20 more years of life experience needs to explicitly know a young woman’s diagnoses to be able to ascertain if she is vulnerable or not. But her having a mental illness makes her more vulnerable to partner abuse. (It’s pretty well documented that people who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence). I find it troubling that her intrusive thoughts (including suicidal ideation!!) have increased significantly since meeting this friend. Is she still medicated?
      I REALLY resent the implication that because the sister is mentally ill, she’s probably manipulative. Does a lot of mental illness manifest in unhealthy or hurtful behaviors? Sometimes. But that doesn’t mean she deserves to be written off, especially since it seems like out of character behavior for her. But Wendy is absolutely right that boundaries are important, and the LW shouldn’t set herself on fire to keep herself warm. However, I think that there is a lot more at play than simple emotional immaturity.

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      • anonymousse March 10, 2022, 11:02 am

        He’s 20 years older than her. I can guarantee this guy doesn’t have great intentions. I’m not even 40 and I can’t imagine befriending a 20 year old person and isolating them from their family. Her sister might be volatile and horrible to handle, but she is also vulnerable.

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  • Peggy March 9, 2022, 1:08 pm

    I see now your sister is 23. I thought wrongly she was 28 or 29. The age difference could lend itself to him being creepy. Still, we don’t know what he does or does not know.

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    • anonymousse March 10, 2022, 11:02 am

      He knows enough that a 20 year old woman is not his peer.

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  • pamplemousse March 9, 2022, 8:02 pm

    I agree that it is imperative for OP to see a therapist to cope with this if she is not already. Don’t let your sister’s suffering overshadow the fact that something is happening to you too. You didn’t choose this but it will have a lasting impact on you nonetheless. It is natural to want to focus on your sister at this time but I urge you to make your own wellbeing a priority first.

    In terms of how to relate with your sister right now – and this will likely come up in your individual therapy – it can be really difficult to accept that no one person can “support” another out of mental illness. It is especially hard to accept this when that person is literally telling you the opposite in such a heartbreaking way. But it is the truth. Listen to her when she needs to talk, let her know you are always there to take her to get whatever help she needs, but draw boundaries when she starts blaming or berating you.

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  • Tui March 9, 2022, 11:00 pm

    From experience, no one can push my buttons and upset me like my sister can. And vice versa. You know she is suffering but as the others have said, you can’t fix that and sometimes you will never be able to say the right thing or be there at exactly the right time. It’s ok to have boundaries and not want to be responsible for how she is feeling. The illness is causing her thoughts, and these are leading to the feelings, not you.
    I couldn’t tell in the letter if you live in the same house or not, as that can make things a lot harder for both of you.

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    • Hannah00 March 10, 2022, 3:13 pm

      We live together. I guess I sometimes feel as if I’m responsible for the way she feels, which should not be. Wendy and the others are right. I should seek therapy.

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  • Daisy March 10, 2022, 10:49 am

    I also found it a little weird that your sister’s new best friend (are they JUST friends?) is so much older than she is. What if you invite her to talk to you about her friend and about how he makes her feel, what he does that encourages her to keep living. You could say something like, “You mentioned that your friend is the only reason you want to live. I’m so glad you have him in your life! Will you tell me more about your friendship with him?” or something like that. Then just listen. Don’t judge. Don’t argue. Just ask open questions and let her talk, even if she says things that hurt, even if she says things that you think are silly or even worrisome.

    This guy might be an abuser taking advantage of someone vulnerable, but if you suggest that there’s a good chance she’ll just pull away from you (abusers are very good at convincing their targets that everyone is out to get them). But you can demonstrate that you’re a safe person to talk to about anything so that she will come to you if things get really bad. Or maybe he is just a genuinely awesome person, and you can learn from how she talks about him what kind of support she is looking for that maybe she doesn’t know how to articulate directly. Remember, you aren’t in competition with this guy — all the support your sister can get is a good thing. By asking questions and listening fully, you’ll also make her feel heard. Sometimes people need that much more than any advice or material help, and maybe that’s what she means when she says you never ask “how she is.” Not that you don’t ask her that specific question, but that she doesn’t feel heard.

    But all this with the caveat of what Wendy said. You can’t be her therapist, doctor, parent, life partner — you can’t fulfill all her needs, you can’t fix her problems, and it’s okay to set boundaries to keep yourself healthy even if she doesn’t like them.

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    • Hannah00 March 10, 2022, 3:48 pm

      They’re more friends with benefits. I know that he wants a relationship with her but she believes she’s not ready for that.
      Regarding talking to her about him, she came to me when they first started talking and told me about it, how they met, etc. They communicate long distance because he’s in a different country. They’ve pretty much only seen each other via FaceTime and pics.
      I thought the difference in age a warning bell but I didn’t say or show any disapproval because I don’t want to scare her away. I think they mostly talk about anything and everything, and she enjoys his company.
      It’s a good idea to ask her more, especially “how he makes her feel, encourages her to live.”

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      • Daisy March 14, 2022, 2:47 pm

        Thanks for the added info. You were smart to not show disapproval, as that would likely just make her stop talking about him. Good luck with this situation!

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  • ron March 10, 2022, 4:16 pm

    “They’ve pretty much only seen each other via FaceTime and pics.”

    That makes them very close pen pals, not friends with benefits.

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    • Hannah00 March 10, 2022, 5:05 pm

      I said that because some of their messages have gotten quite steamy.

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  • PurpleStar March 10, 2022, 9:00 pm

    I work in Mental Health – I am not a clinician. But, if your sister is having suicidal ideation then you need to tell your mother and her therapist. Everyone on this thread has offered you amazing insight, so I will not repeat what they have said. I do think it is a good thing that the new older man is in another country. I would try and pay attention to that situation in case he is a financial predator.
    Please do see a therapist for yourself – I understand that you do not want to burden your mother but you do need support for yourself. Also, if your sister is taking medication for her OCD you may want to ensure that she is taking it. In many cases it stopping medication is a part of the mental health cycle. And not wanting to go to a therapist – I get that – she is tired of being different. She does not want to be defined by her OCD – she wants to be “normal”. This man, he treats her that way – doesn’t see her illness and she likes that reflection of herself. Right now, you and your family “remind” her that she is not like everyone else so she is lashing out. Hugs to you and yours.

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    • Kate March 11, 2022, 6:01 am

      Adding to this, these online things with guys in other countries don’t end well. They tend to be shady dudes who are in other relationships and messing around online to satisfy a need for attention, validation, variety, whatever, I don’t know their pathology, but eventually he’s going to ghost her or fade. She thinks he’s her everything and she can’t live without him and that they have this profound connection. Trust me they don’t. These online things feel incredibly special, but theyre based on fantasy, and they fall apart. That IS going to happen here, it’s just a matter of time. So I agree with the above to start dealing with this now so that she has the support she needs before the inevitable happens.

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      • Kate March 11, 2022, 6:04 am

        He could also be a “romance scammer,” that’s becoming more and more common. Is he supposedly a handsome wealthy guy who works in oil and travels internationally for business? Widowed with a kid?

        But he could also just be your run of the mill asshat who strikes up sexytalk with girls online.

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  • anonymousse March 11, 2022, 11:21 am

    Or possibly worse, he convinces your sister to come to him. That should also be a concern, quite honestly.

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  • Hannah00 March 12, 2022, 7:46 am

    Thank you all for your insightful replies. They’ve really helped me put things into perspective. I now understand the reason I’ve been feeling very exhausted lately.
    Hugs all!

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    Guy Friday March 13, 2022, 10:52 am

    I want to add to everything everyone else said — and to echo what you’re realizing about potentially needing therapy of your own — that secondary trauma syndrome is a VERY real medical diagnosis, and it’s one of those things that it’s easy to develop without even realizing that you have. I’d read some articles about that and see if how you feel matches what it describes; I think you’ll be very surprised with how connected it is. For me, it took me having to almost have a total breakdown to realize that “No.” is a complete sentence, and that no one who truly loves you would demand you harm yourself to help them before I could take steps to recognize when it was happening in my own life and job.

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