The Stress: Two Brothers Living Together, Ill-Health, Aging Mother

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Reader’s Question

I have a brother who is five years older: I am 58 and he is 63. He is gay and has never had a relationship in the open. Now, I am disabled and live with him, but my duty is taking care of our 87-year-old mother, who has dementia and lives in the same house. His personality is very difficult to deal with because he talks down to me, always reminds me of the past mistakes I made in my life, and seems to think I am there to clean up behind him. Every morning there is poo on the toilet, the floor is soaked from his shower, the cabinets are open in the kitchen and I am cleaning up behind him. When I say anything to him, I am being high and mighty — it’s “Oh Mark, that’s enough.”

I have two daughters and seven grandchildren. I was going to move out of here to assisted housing last year, but he told me he had no one to be there for him when he is old. He said, “at least you have children.”

The point is, I stayed, and now I feel manipulated. I am no longer on the county rental assistance list, and I feel trapped. And, I am trying to recover from health problems. I don’t know what to do anymore. I actually get up most days feeling like I wish it would be the last; I feel so tired. I am not suicidal, I am just at a point where I see no direction to go to make my life better.

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like you and your brother are having a difficult time right now. As I read your post, it occurred to me that you are facing several stressors right now: an aging mother with dementia, who needs care; your own disability and health problems; ongoing frustration regarding the cleanliness in your home; limited housing options; and mixed feelings toward your brother, including guilt, frustration, and maybe even anger. Each of these on its own could be causing you distress. It does not surprise me that you are feeling fatigued, sad, and hopeless. Thank you for clarifying that you are not actively suicidal. Although it has not gotten to that point, I do hear that things look bad right now.

Often when people are feeling hopeless, a sense of being ‘stuck’ with no options can be a major contributor. When change seems impossible, bad situations can feel even worse. For you, this appears to be centered on the idea that you are stuck living with your brother and being mistreated by him. I understand that you are no longer on the list for assisted housing, and so you feel as if any opportunity to live elsewhere has passed. You expressed regret about that decision. My hope is that you can gain a sense of control and choice with regard to your own past actions as well as your future plans.

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Let’s look back. It seems that you made the decision to live with your brother out of a desire to care for and support him and your mother. My belief is that people make the best decision they can with the information they have at the time. Last year, when you decided not to move out, you were responding to your brother’s preference for you to stay. I imagine you felt compassion for him with regard to the difficulty he might have had being gay during an era when people were less open and accepting of same-sex relationships than they are now. At the time you made those decisions, you had good reasons.

I wonder if you are thinking differently about things now. Maybe, at this point, you have more information about what your daily life looks like in this arrangement (for example, daily negative interactions, less cleanliness than you would like, etc.). Living in assisted housing might seem like a better choice for the long run. Whatever the case, it seems as if at this time you are wishing you lived elsewhere.

My comment to you is, it is never too late to begin to take care of yourself. You have made some decisions to care for others at the expense of yourself, which can lead to frustration, anger, and eventually resentment and that sense of being ‘manipulated.’ I do not mean to suggest that we think of ourselves to the exclusion of others all the time, but it is usually a good idea to at least identify your own wants, needs, and feelings.

So what would it look like to begin to engage in self-care by making choices with your own best interest in mind? This could mean beginning to look for another living arrangement for yourself. Even if it took another year to get on a list or qualify or arrange for a living situation that works for you, it might offer some relief now to know that your current situation is time-limited. You might investigate other ways that your mother and brother could be cared for (by you or others) without you actually being there full-time. Again, an important piece of mental health is to feel as if you have control and choice in your life. If you research other residence options and decide that this is the best situation for you, then you will at least feel as if you chose for yourself.

Self-care could also mean that you choose to stay with your brother but begin to communicate assertively on your own behalf. It sounds from your post as if you and he are having trouble feeling heard and getting your needs met. He experiences you as “high and mighty,” and you feel as if he is inconsiderate with regard to respecting your shared living space. I wonder what it would look like to discuss these concerns with him. For most people, expressing feelings, needs, or desires to those with whom they are in relationship is a step towards reducing resentment, bitterness, and anger.

Irvin Yalom, a famous psychiatrist said, “strike while the iron is cold.” This means that it is sometimes more productive to discuss a problem when someone is removed from the problem situation, rather than in the heat of the moment when anger is at its peak. In your case, this would probably mean speaking to your brother about how you handle shared spaces at a time when you did not just finish cleaning up after him! Another communication tip is to use “I” statements to share your feelings or reactions, rather than using blame or pointing out what others have done wrong. For example, you might say, “I feel frustrated when I want to make dinner and the kitchen dishes are dirty” instead of, “why do you always leave dirty dishes when it is time to make dinner?”

Whether you choose to make change in your external circumstances (e.g. your living arrangements) or your arrangements and assumptions within your relationship with your brother, my hope is that you will find a sense of peace and satisfaction with the choices you make.

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