Do I Let My Sister Live in Her Car, or Do I Intervene?

Dear Neil: My sister has been unemployed for many years, even through she has a masters degree. Any job suggested to her, or opportunities for an interview, she has not followed up on. Her current reason for not working is that she doesn’t want to have to pay taxes. Friends and family have allowed her to live rent free, or nearly rent free, for about 15 years. Health care expenses have been paid on her behalf. Her only obligations were to provide food and gas for herself. She has used up the welfare provided by the government—and by others—and now lives in her car because no one will take her in, and she refuses the shelter pass provided by her church.

For years, I have felt that all of us have been enabling my sister’s behavior. I am angry at her, at others who have enabled her, and at myself, because she has not been willing to help herself.

No Longer Willing to be My Sister’s Keeper

Dear Sister’s Keeper: Your sister sounds as if she has low self-confidence and self-worth. It could be that living in her car and scrounging for food is all she feels she is worthy of. She may not feel like she is capable of succeeding at a job—and that’s why she no longer tries. In essence, it sounds as if your sister has lost all hope in herself and in her future.

It could be that she feels entitled to be taken care of, and she’s going to put the burden on anyone who will respond. She might also have a closet addiction to some substance that is substantially effecting her behavior and her mental attitude. It could be she is punishing herself for something she did in the past that she can’t forgive herself for. Whatever her reasons, here’s what you could do if you haven’t given up on her.

First, if I’m right that she has lost all hope, one way you could be a good friend to your sister is to help her regain a vision of how her future could be different. Invite her to envision the (realistic) future she would like. Would she be married? Working? (Doing what?) Where would she be living? What would she be doing for fun? Expand this idea as large as you can, and write (or have her write down) all her answers.

Then you could invite her to look at what the first steps would be in order for her to create that future. You could, help her with the first several steps in creating a better life for herself. (Not doing them for her, but perhaps doing them with her—and lavishly praising her for any and all effort she makes.) In this way, step by step you might be able to help her out of the emotional quicksand she has been living in. You could also invite other family members or professionals to contribute their help and encouragement, so the burden is not solely on you.

You could also do what’s called tough love, cutting off all assistance for her until she gets her act together, but it doesn’t sound as if your sister has the inner resources to get herself out of this predicament alone.

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