When a Sibling’s Abusive Behavior is Breaking the Heart of the Family

Dear Liz,

I am a college student having serious family problems centered around my high school aged sister. I don’t say this lightly, but my sister is basically an extremely narcissistic and manipulative person who has hurt me time after time. She has stolen from me more times than I can count, puts me down in any way she can, lies to me, has stabbed me in the back, and has basically taken the attention away from me, and my parents give all of their energy to her. She suffers with anxiety and depression which I completely understand contributes to why she acts like this to me. My parents also say to me that the reason I’m the target of her terrible words and actions is because she’s always been jealous of me and I understand that too. However, my parents always excuse her behavior because of her mental illness and that really hurts my feelings because they’ve always held me to a higher standard than her, even when I suffered with serious depression in high school. She never gets in trouble for her language or behavior, or even seriously abusing drugs in the way she does, but if I came home five minutes past my curfew in high school, I’d be grounded for a week. This has made it extremely difficult to come home from school ever and be in my house, and it sucks because I want to spend time with my parents, but this is making me resent them and especially my sister so much. I’ve completely lost hope in repairing my relationship with my sister (at least for now) because I don’t feel as if it’s my job to do so anymore, but how can I save my relationship with my parents and get to a place where I can enjoy coming home again without letting this affect me so much?

Dear Friend,

What a devastating family situation—I can feel the depth of your grief, and I am so sorry. Let me say this: You are clear regarding what is going on in your home. The chaos around your sister has hijacked the family sanity; all this pain you feel, all this resentment, is a very normal response to a very toxic situation. Your parents seem to have a blind spot, or perhaps they are in “survival mode” (or denial mode/co-dependency mode?) as they attempt to navigate your sister’s behaviors, to no avail. If these patterns continue, the toll on the entire family will be tremendous.

There’s a lot going on here, which I will get to in a moment, but I don’t want to brush over the fact that you suffered with serious depression in high school.

Depression is always about loss, and it is also about being stuck—stuck at the point of loss, because there was never the opportunity to grieve the loss (grieving is feeling). The missed opportunity to grieve happens because the loss(es) often overwhelm our ability to cope with the feelings, so they get pressed down far and away, buried and ignored, setting us up for depression in years to come. Repeated incidents of loss and/or incidents we cannot cope with can walk us into adulthood not only depressed, but with very few coping skills, which can lead to other problems, such as dissociation, self-medicating, and even addiction.

Even if we are willing to grieve, we often need help identifying what it is, what it really is, that we’ve lost. Only then can we grieve. If we fail to go back and locate our loss(es), if we avoid the grief process, depression can become so consuming that it becomes the thing, when all it really is is the messenger. If we only treat the messenger, we won’t attain health and well-being. If drug use is in the mix (self-medication, as a means for coping) then that symptom must be addressed first, before addressing the depression.

What was going on for you in high school? How did you respond to your depression? How did your family respond? Were you encouraged to get help? Did you feel it was “safe” to be depressed? I’m concerned that attention to your wellness has been on the back burner for quite some time, given the profound needs of your sister. So please allow me to offer you this gentle reminder: prioritize your emotional well-being. Love yourself. Bring your attention to you—discern what you need, and then bring it about. If it’s space from your family, take it. If it’s journaling, do it. And if it’s finding a therapist or support group (which I do think is important at this juncture) don’t hesitate.

With respect to your sister, while I can’t say with certainty that your sister is an addict, she is certainly presenting as one. The narcissism, manipulative behavior, chronic deception, her abusive behavior, the loss of her moral compass, and the way your parents are running circles around her…this is what having an addict in the family looks like. Depression and anxiety co-present with addiction, as does narcissistic behavior. Until she is sober, there is no way to discern the state of her mental health, because addiction can look a lot like mental illness. No one can force sobriety on anyone, though your sister is a minor, which does give your parents options around intervention.

I imagine your parents experience fear colliding with powerlessness every single day. They chase her, desperate to recover her, at the end of the day they are right where they’ve been for years. It must be exhausting for them, and exhaustion that will persist until they, too, reach out for some help. With the right support, they can find a way to parent your sister and reclaim their self-presence, so some semblance of balance can be reclaimed by your family.

It seems you will need to take the first step. Please seek out a counselor and invite your parents into a session with you, when you feel ready. I think this would help each of you tremendously. Perhaps allow your letter to me could be your calling card–you expressed the crisis in your home eloquently.

And please hear what I am about to say: you don’t need to be in your home for the duration of your winter break—you don’t even need to be there for every hour of holiday celebration. It’s very healthy and self-respecting to protect your emotional and psychological well-being, and you should not feel guilty about doing so. You may be met with great resistance, but that will be because you are taking a step outside of the dysfunction, and that step will shine a light on the dysfunction. Do it anyway. Perhaps a friend or extended family member can host you for part of your break?

That I am sorry for your suffering goes without saying—that I will hold your family close to my heart and hold each one of you with the most loving intention, is a promise.

Love, Liz

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