Leap Vine: February 29, 2012
I have a question regarding what to do about a depressed adult.
Backstory: My mother died of breast cancer three years ago. She was the stronghold of our family: the sweet, kind, funny, loving parent. She had her own problems, of course, but she was the solace for my sister and me. My father was angry, depressed, and for the most part not much fun to be around for the entire time before she died. I moved out the hot second I turned 18 (I am 32 now). My sister is 8 years younger, and still lives with my father.
My mother's death was crushing to me. The worst thing I've ever been through. I know this has to be the same for my sister, but her reaction was much more introverted. She did not cry, at least in public. I am all for everyone grieving in their different ways, but as time passed I had the sneaking suspicion that she was avoiding dealing with the loss in some way.
My father was snapped awake by my mother's death. He has become less angry, more emotionally available, more interested in life. His lows are low, but his highs are high and we have formed a relationship that is mostly good. It is still hard to trust him, however, and I know that my sister and he had a much more volatile relationship. I tended to shut down when he yelled at me; she yelled right back and their arguments were horrible. She doesn't really like him at all, and he doesn't fully understand how awful he was and thus doesn't understand why she isn't nice to him. They are still housemates, for the following reasons.
My sister is depressed. She stays in her dark, crowded room all the time, or is on the computer. She has very few friends. She has an on/off boyfriend who has emotional issues of his own, I think they see each other rarely nowadays. She has gained weight. She has always been a little socially awkward, and has often made good attempts to make more friends and get more comfortable, but in recent years it has not been going so well.
She is an extremely messy person. She house/dog sits for my husband and me when we go out of town once a year or so, and this last time when we came back the dishes were crusted over, there was rotten food in the sink, and fruit flies buzzing around. She likes staying at our house and loves our dogs, but appears to pretty much just hang on my computer the whole time she stays. She has dropped out of two colleges (one private, and quite expensive), and has had a lot of trouble holding a job. For the past six months or so she has held a full time job at a bakery, but despite having no rent or real bills to speak of, hasn't saved any money to move out of my dad's house (something she says she wants). My dad had to be very pushy to get her to apply for and accept a full-time job at all.
My dad and I just spoke on the phone about this and are at a loss. She doesn't really respect either of us (we have an odd dynamic, where I am some mix of parent/sister/friend because of the age difference, and there is a sisterly mix of admiration and animosity), and while she will sometimes agree that changes need to be made, she makes no effort to change anything. We love her very much and both feel helpless about her future. She seems to have no goals, no desires, and freely admits that she is depressed. Bad conversations end with her balking at suggestions; good ones end in agreements with no follow-through on her part.
I want her to be a healthy happy person, but how do you get someone else to make a move to handle their depression? I feel like she needs fresh air, structure, routine, chores that are not given to her by her father, limited time with a computer…and then I feel like, fuck, I'm not her mother.
This is long. Please feel free to edit anything you need to. I'm hoping you and/or your readers can give me some advice on helping a person out of a dark, long depression. Thank you so so much in advance.
PS I realize I should mention that she has gone to therapy for well over a year and it appears that not much is happening with it. It seems like she maybe isn't being clear about how bad the situation is to the therapist, probably because she herself doesn't quite realize how bad it is?
You know what jumped out at me when I reread your letter? "I feel like, fuck, I'm not her mother." That's exactly right: you aren't. I absolutely understand how you've stepped into a semi-parental role here, between the age difference, the fraught relationship you share with your father (even though it manifests itself differently with each of you), and the absence of your actual mother. I understand how it's automatic, I understand how it can chafe (on both of you; more on that in a sec), and I understand that when you snap off a line like "this isn't even my job, for fuck's sake, so how come I feel like I'm doing it wrong and nobody cares," you might feel guilty afterwards, or like you have to justify getting annoyed.
You really don't. This isn't working for you, and yet, it's normal; even under less difficult circumstances, this is how siblings sometimes get stuck in their relationships as adults. Mr. Stupidhead and I occasionally devolve back to it. The trick is to become more aware that you have this parental relationship with Sister that isn't functional, and then to try to stop yourself when you find yourself in that place with it, and do or say something different.
"But how do I get her to get help?" Yes, that's what you actually asked, and I agree that something has to change, and that her current therapist is perhaps not pushing her hard enough to get to the other side of some ugly feelings. But you can't control that, and trying is making you crazy. You can control the situation as far as how you deal with it — but that's it. "Should" she change therapists and start exercising? "Should" your father say, "Look, get a full-time job or finish school, or you can't stay here anymore"? Yeah, probably. But that's on them. You can only address your own shit.
So. Stop having her house-sit; she leaves the house in revolting condition, and anyone else, you'd have called the Better Business Bureau, so generally speaking, if she's fucking up in her relationship with you, call her on that. Encourage your father to do the same, to set some boundaries — require that she pay rent and keep her room clean, tell her she can't live there if she doesn't finish school, something. Tell him your opinion on that once, and drop the subject. His house, his problem.
But beyond that, as frustrating as it is, as much of a waste as it seems like, just keep reminding yourself that it isn't your job, and stop making suggestions or trying to parent her. She's an adult; at a certain point, she has to want to help herself, and you have to give yourself a break.
You can make it known that you're there for her if she wants to talk, or ask advice about her c.v., or have a wingman to visit apartments, or whatever. You can try to lead by example by talking about difficult subjects, or opening up about your mother. I don't know how close you live to her, but when you hang out, try to make it something active — a trip to the dog park or a short hike or something.
But she knows. She knows she's flailing, she knows you think she's flailing, she knows you have 101 suggestions, and for whatever reason — arrested development, negative attention is better than none, misery seems preferable to the unknown — she's content to flail right now. Let her know you love her no matter what, and if she wants a hand, you'll give it; then, as weird as it will feel, back off. She has to figure her life out; you have to understand that it doesn't make you a bad sister to let that happen.
Tags: the fam