Am I Morally Obliged to Care for Possibly Depressed Sister?

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Reader’s Question

I am the youngest of three daughters. Our father was terminally ill with a rare cancer 10 years ago and didn’t tell us he was dying until weeks before the end. Three years later, my mother was diagnosed with a rare cancer as well. After a valiant 4-year fight, she also passed away. All this was incredibly painful for me, and I sought counseling to heal.

I tried to get my family to seek counseling, but my middle sister felt it was pointless. But after graduating high school, she spent four years literally sleeping in late until she felt inspired to go to pastry chef school. We had to drastically downsize our life because of our parents’ illnesses, and we were all living in a basement together. I admit it was very depressing.

When my mother was diagnosed, my sister would sit in her room all day sleeping or on the internet and not even talk to my mother, which we regarded as due to her depression. Still, when my mother was terminally ill, my sister stepped up and took care of my mother’s physical needs. After my mother died, she went back to sleeping in a lot. I tried to empathize with her because I knew I had lost my best friend when my mother died, and I felt like she and I were both going through a process you have to go through when something like that happens. But months passed where she was working only on and off and not taking care of herself — eating sweets, not bathing, sleeping in, watching TV and not interacting. We had a big argument when she accused me of abandoning her because I took a 3-day business trip.

I helped my sister find a job, which lasted almost two years, but she quit it two weeks before I was laid off my job because she couldn’t stand the people she was working with. I don’t have the financial resources to keep paying the larger portion of the rent and have tried to impress on her that each one of us must become responsible for our individual lives. My sister has now stopped talking to me (in the same household), and she confides only sporadically with my other older sister.

I am still unemployed/underemployed and to be frank, I’m sick of living with both my sisters and the unspoken expectation that I have to put up with everything (pig sty apartment, paying the majority of the rent, buying things when they run out, etc.). I know they might be depressed, but they’re not doing anything about it. Any attempt I make at self-preservation makes them portray me as an uncaring, selfish person.

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Am I really bound morally to tend to a sister who refuses to go to counseling, get help, and make a life for herself? I’m tired of just giving and feel like I want to run away.

Psychologist’s Reply

Rebuilding a life after significant trauma and loss is always a challenge. And such a challenge can be particularly daunting if one is also struggling with depression.

While it’s not possible to accurately assess your situation remotely or to make reliable recommendations, it seems clear that you owe yourself a firm pat on the back for seeking your own counseling and doing your best to get your own life on track. You cannot make decisions for others. And while you are right to empathize with the fact that depression may be playing a role in their problems, you certainly don’t have any moral obligation to take their responsibilities upon yourself.

Unless your sisters are in such an impaired state that they pose an imminent danger to themselves or others, you don’t have the power to force the issue of treatment. You have only the power to encourage and to lead by example. Keep encouraging your sisters to do what they need to do to reclaim their lives. Naturally, you care for your family members. But caring is one thing and “enabling” is quite another. You can extend a hand and an open heart, but you don’t have an obligation to carry the rest of your family on your back.

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