I myself haven’t seen a therapist since college, and at the time, I was diagnosed with depression. But I never addressed it. I’d like to now, but I am having a hard time making myself follow through.
Can I tell her to limit how much she puts on me? Or should I accept that in order to help her through her mental-illness journey, this is what is required of me? How can I balance that with my own needs?
These are challenging times, and you, like so many, are doing your best to cope with the coronavirus outbreak. Even so, I can imagine that feeling obligated to manage your sister’s anxiety only adds to the difficulty. The good news is that living through this moment might help you see something about your relationship with your sister that was harder to see during normal times: namely, that your sister was never the only one struggling with her condition.
What I mean is this: Mental-health conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, addiction, and schizophrenia shape the dynamics of an entire family. Sometimes the person with the condition is a parent, and this affects not only that person’s partner, but also his or her children. Other times the person with the condition is a child, and this affects the child’s parents as well as any siblings. Each family member will feel a range of emotions that might include worry, anger, helplessness, dread, or resentment, and each will respond in his or her own way. One person might try to “save” the struggling family member, another might avoid getting too close or even completely disengage, while another might stuff down her own needs and feelings in order to be “easy” and not add to the family’s collective stress.
Read: Dear Therapist’s guide to staying sane during a pandemic
To improve your relationship with your sister in the present, you’ll need to consider what role you took on in the family dynamic, because these roles tend to persist into adulthood in some form, and when this happens, the now-adult sibling gets stuck. Any of these roles may have been adaptive while growing up—a child finds a way to cope—but they constrain the person as an adult. That might be why you’re asking whether you have a right to set boundaries, a right to protect your psyche, a right to consider your own needs—in short, a right to live your life and not your sister’s life for her. The child who felt like she had no alternative (she didn’t choose to live in a house with this particular sibling) grows into an adult who has trouble seeing how free she has become.
To see the freedom you have now, start by exploring how growing up with your sister affected you and continues to do so. For instance, when she had “aggressive outbursts,” perhaps you felt scared, or angry, or unsafe. Maybe you felt invisible or neglected if your parents paid more attention to your sister because she took up so much air in the house, and if much of their energy was spent trying to help her while also managing their own complicated feelings toward her. Maybe whatever was going on in the house left you teetering between resenting your sister and feeling responsible for her well-being. And maybe all of this led you to question, even when you were diagnosed with depression, whether you deserve to be the focus of your own attention.