My sister is in perpetual crisis -- should I give her $5,000?

I know you can't change people, and yet, if it would help her go to school ...

By Cary Tennis

Published June 25, 2007 10:19AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My sister is in perpetual crisis. What is my accountability to her and to her children?

Our lower-middle-class parents raised us Catholic and sent us to Catholic schools -- which they afforded only by scrimping and doing without. My mother and I are both recovering alcoholics. Mom got sober the summer after I graduated from high school, when my sister was 13. I've been sober three and a half years. As far as I know, my sister hasn't had an addiction flare up yet, but the family pattern of addiction and codependence is flowering for her as well.

At 15 my sister had her first child. Mom and Dad raised her daughter for five years and my sister was able to finish high school. She got married at 20 and has had two more children with her first husband (FH). FH was a terrible money manager, not educated, but with an overarching sense of entitlement. He also feels that the boys are old enough to make their own decisions (they are 12 and 8), so doesn't impose any discipline or order of any kind on them. They filed bankruptcy after five years, which bought them a little breathing room.

Three years ago my sister fell head over heels for a married man quite a bit older than she, who is an active alcoholic and gambler (AB). He's also a very nice man but has been unable to get those divorce papers signed. My sister divorced FH about one and a half years ago, and didn't fight for her rights or for money to help raise the boys.

AB and my sister live together and are very, very poor -- poor to the point of debt collectors calling 13 hours a day, seven days a week. His family has given him tens of thousands of dollars over the years because he's incapable of managing his money. He drinks and gambles it away. When the stress gets too great, he goes off on a big drunk and either ends up in the hospital (last time for pancreatitis) or in a treatment center. I've encouraged my sister to go to Al-Anon, and she did it for a little while, but got scared. I know that the good people there would be of great support, but its the hard work that she just can't face. AB is not supportive of her going to Al-Anon, either (big surprise).

My sister has no higher education and has worked many low-paying, life-sucking jobs over the years. They also live 600 miles from us in a very poor northern town, as far out as possible to make sure no one gets into their business. Those poor boys are neglected and have become hellions. No one wants to be around them. My husband and I have offered to take them in for a year or the summer just to give them some breathing room and to give the boys a more stable environment to grow up in. Of course, this goes nowhere. I can't push it, nor do I feel that I have the right to contact child protective services. The boys aren't abused -- it's just that their parents are in such a crisis all the time that they can do little other than yell.

Here's my question: My sister has recently asked me for money (less than $5,000) to pay off her debts. My husband and I are well-educated professionals who have scraped and saved for what we have. I myself have money issues to the point of making sure that we have at least one year of living expenses in savings because I'm afraid of losing what I have. I know that if I were to give her money, I would feel like I owned her. This is not the relationship I want to have. I also know that AB has been encouraging her to ask me for money. He has been to our house and has seen that we are comfortable.

They cannot afford their lifestyle. If I give her money, it will be gone and in six months they will be right back where they started from.

I've told my sister that I would pay for her to go to school and get a certificate as a nursing assistant or some other practical degree that would enable her to make enough money to live on. She appreciates this but, being in crisis, can't even think of another way. She is sick and miserable and has no health insurance. I'm worried for her. My inclination is to give, not lend, her the money to get out of debt in exchange for an assurance that we will work on getting her into a certification program, but even this seems like a stretch.

What is my obligation? What can I do? I know that my ability to control others and outcomes is nonexistent, but I feel like I need to do something.

Driven to Do Something -- but What?

Dear Driven to Do Something,

It's true that you have to do something. Fortunately, it will not cost $5,000. It will take much effort, though. It will be harder than it looks. It may work and it may not. There is no guarantee of success.

What you have to do is nothing. You have to do nothing so hard it can be heard for miles. You have to do nothing so hard that you drop from exhaustion.

And then you have to keep doing it.

I am not a tough guy. But I surrender to tough reality and in doing so I become on occasion the strangely steely drill sergeant of surrender.

So get down on the ground, sister, and give me 50 invisible gestures of utter detachment! Now, sister! Now!

Get down on the ground and give me 50 more nonreactions! Give me 50 more refusals to take her phone calls!

So your sister is in a world of trouble! What are you going to do about it?


What? I can't hear you!


Louder! I can't hear your disciplined silence! What are you going to do about it?




And why? Because otherwise you dabble in impossibility.

This is between your sister and her fate. Do not get between them.

It's tough indeed. It's very tough. It's sad. It's sad and tough. It's sad and tough and dangerous.

I suspect that you know this to be true and simply need to hear it said. So I will say it: Do not give her money. Do not lend her money. Do not give her money on conditions. Do not give her conditions. Give her only the detached but unconditional love that she deserves.

If she needs an operation to save her life, you may have to pay for it. She may show up at your doorstep in the rain late one night and you will naturally take her in and nurse her back to health. But do not bargain and do not hope for too much. She will only wander off again. She will only break your heart. Likewise the kids may show up one day, needing what you have to offer. If so, you can give it to them and perhaps they will turn out OK after all.

There are many ways that this could turn out just fine. Perhaps the tide of her crisis will ebb and she will have a vision of some far shore. You know these things happen. We do heal.

But meanwhile, maintain radio silence. Wait out the storm. Wait as long as it takes. It may take years. It may take forever. But there's no choice. It's out of your hands.

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