About 10 years ago, not too long after 9/11, and suffering a serious health problem, I decided to move my family from the West Coast where I had lived for 25 years, to the East Coast where I was born. My wealthy, older sister had just purchased a "fixer" home along with a two-bedroom cottage in a toney town. The idea was that we would rent out the cottage while I recovered, our children would attend wonderful local schools, and the cousins could get to know each other a little better.
At first, the situation was ideal. My sister and I would often cook together and share meals, while her workaholic husband worked his typical 18-hour days. Because my husband and I were paying a below-market rental rate for the cottage, we agreed to fix it up, to make up the difference. After work, my husband and I put in a new kitchen, a new bathroom, and flooring in the cottage, and I landscaped the property. After two years, however, and just shortly after all the renovations had been completed, my brother-in-law announced that he was putting the property up for sale. Unknown to us at the time, he had shrewdly predicted the housing bubble crash, and so it had been his intention all along to sell. Needless to say we were shocked. When the property sold one month later, we scrambled to find another place to live, but all the rents in the toney town proved to be too expensive. We tried to find something cheaper farther out, but the places that we could afford turned out to be little more than slums, with schools that were truly awful. Eventually, we decided to settle in the South, close to a well-known IT corridor, where we reasoned my husband would be able to find work in his field, and the homes were affordable. What a mistake! After living here for seven years, we have absolutely no social life. Our neighbors, after discovering that we were from California and don't go to church, totally ignore us. I have had some of the worst experiences I have ever had here, so much so, that I no longer work, and rarely leave home. In the meantime, my formerly uptight, and patrician New England, sister has moved to the West Coast, has had several cosmetic surgeries, has dyed her hair blond, has gotten green contact lenses, and calls herself an "artist." I might add that although I have never had a face-lift, I do have blond hair and green eyes, and used to (before I moved to the South) enjoy creating artwork. On a weekly basis, my sister tells me about all her new friends, how much fun she is having, and how "Southern" I have become, which is so not true. She also tells me all about California, and tells me I don't understand West Coast culture, even though I lived there for 25 years and am still married to a laid-back California guy!
Cary, I am so angry! I'm angry at myself for being manipulated and duped by her and her husband, angry at being stuck here, angry at having my physical looks and the core of my being co-opted by my sister. Angry, angry, angry! She now says that she wants to come for a visit! How do I keep from exploding?
Dear Unhappy Ex-Californian,
You can get through this. You can move back to California and get back on track. But it's going to take some work and some coming to grips with what happened to you in a practical sense and also what has been happening with you, emotionally, over the last decade. Your sister's husband did something cruel that harmed you economically and undermined you emotionally. I think you need a wise ally to help you sort through this. I suggest you consult a psychotherapist skilled in working with family systems.
With some insight, you will be able to decide whether to pursue a relationship with your sister. It's possible that she is untrustworthy and potentially dangerous to your well-being. It's also possible there were elements in this situation that could be termed misunderstandings. Her husband may be a sociopath. She may be a narcissist. Or they may both be hard-nosed businesspeople who expect others to look out for their own self-interest with the same cold, calculating zeal with which they themselves look out for their interests. These are hard questions I suggest you explore, so you can come to a decision.
But let me speak from the heart, from my hotel room in Santa Barbara, where I am enjoying the gorgeous California landscape, and all the promise that is here, and all the craziness and beauty: You have to come back to California! You belong here in California!
I don't know how you will do it but you can do it! You know what it's like here. You have to come back!
It's unclear what your future relationship with your sister will look like. Perhaps the bond can be repaired. Or perhaps she is too dangerous to you.Perhaps you and your sister can be mutually helpful to each other. Maybe what her husband did was a betrayal of her as well. Maybe she is caught in a bind. A therapist could help you sort this out.
Family connections can withstand a lot. Maybe you can patch it up. You ended up in a bad place. You need to get out of this deadly environment and get back to the place where you belong.
Get back out here! Come back to California!