Sister is Driving Me Nuts. Help!

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

Q. My sister lives across the country, but we both have unlimited long distance and talk a lot. She has had a lot of issues lately. For years now she has had PTSD because her ex beat her a lot and now she also has stress and depression. She don’t have much $ and is in her late 60′s. She has health problems such as pain management because of arthritis, her hip (replaced), shoulder(needs to be addressed), knee, BP, diabetis, thyroid, mental issues and weight, and others I am unsure really exsist. Last year – 2007 – in January (cold) she was living in her vehicle or shelters for a month due to some issues with her secition 8 housing. Now she has a small apt but is complaining that the landlord said she has the only 220 line there, and her utility bills are huge and she thinks they are stealing electric from her in spite of the electric co sending out someone who says there isn’t a problem. She sometimes goes without some of her meds (when she runs out of pain meds or zoloft) or food because she don’t manage her money well. Or she goes to social service agencys for utility bill help and food banks. She feels descriminated against, that everyone is against her. It has gotten where every time we talk, she can’t stop telling me over and over every time about 20 minutes or an hour of details of all of these past and present problems her landloard, housing, her ex, her health, her other ex husband and his drinking problems, her kids not having anything to do with her or helping her or whatever other latest newest problem she has. I have tried a lot of things trying to get her to quit belaboring all this. I have listened to her endlessly, tried to help her deal with things, tried to change the subject, getting another call on call waiting, my doorbell, avoiding her calls and not calling her for a few days. Nothing helps. She seem obsessed and I am really getting tired of dealing with her. BUT, I love her and I really wish things were better for her and that I could help her. She just isn’t the same person she once was and I am not able to fly 3000 miles to help her. I don’t know how to deal with her anymore. I have suggested she get help, and she don’t want to hear it. She just don’t seem to realize that all of her negativity and continuous repeating this crap is effecting me, too. I mean, hey, I have problems of my own! Can someone there help me find a way to handle her before she drives me nuts? BTW, she vents to me because everyone around her is sick of hearing it and won’t talk to her.

A. There is not much that you can do in this situation except limit the time you spend talking to her or stop talking to her completely. As you are beginning to recognize, she is likely not going to change. Based on how you describe your calls with her she is not interested in your advice and does not seem to want to listen to your suggestions. You cannot force her into doing what you think she should and you cannot handle these situations for her. Therefore you are only left with a few limited options, namely boundaries and limitations.

You can set up boundaries and limitations by literally decreasing your calls or restricting the time you spend with her on the phone. This is one way. Another way to set up boundaries with her, when you are on the phone, is say things like “we already discussed this and I already told you how to handle it. I do not wish to continue discussing this.” Or saying “I will no longer discuss these issues with you since we have already been over them.”

The idea is to be firm and assertive with her about how you want the call to go. Apparently others have set up boundaries and limitations with her and maybe others have simply told her to stop calling. Perhaps she is calling you because you are one of the only few that she can still call. If you want to get off of the phone, then you need to simply say that you have to go. She might not like this new way of dealing with her but if you do not do this, you will continue the nature of your present phone conversations.

Also, try not to feel guilty about wanting to get off the phone with her. From your letter, it seems like you do try to help her and advise her and she apparently completely ignores you. It is good and kind to try to help her and you should continue to do this but stop when it becomes apparent that your best efforts are simply not working. You need to recognize when you reach the point where you simply can do nothing else which will be lead to a positive outcome.

The only way to change this situation is to change your behavior towards her, take control, be firm, define how the conversation will go and limit the time you talk to her. Do this without feeling guilty. There is nothing to feel guilty about. You can still love your sister without being held hostage to her calls and negativity.

The simple question becomes: are your phones calls helping her? In cases like this, the answer is almost always—no. The nature of the mental health system in America is such that if she doesn’t want help or doesn’t recognize that she needs help, unless she is homicidal or suicidal, she can not be forced to get help. Be proud that you have tried and continue letting her know how much you love her. Best of luck… to the both of you.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Mar 2008

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2008). Sister is Driving Me Nuts. Help!. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/03/07/sister-is-driving-me-nuts-help/