The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Duty to disabled brother keeps her close to abusive mom

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
4 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: When I was a child, my mother told me over and over again how dumb I was and how ashamed she was to be my mother, and how the day I turn 18 she wants me out of the house and never wants to see me again. This affected every choice I made when I started out in life: I went to the inexpensive state school near home and took the first job locally I could find. But she was also wrong about everything: I graduated summa cum laude and went back for my master’s. Today I am making a great salary doing work I am deeply proud of.

My mom’s life took an unexpected twist: My father died and my younger brother, whom she adored and doted on, developed schizophrenia and is now totally dependent on her care. As a single woman in my 20s and 30s, I assumed I would take over my brother’s care after she died.

But now, in my 40s, I have met and married a wonderful guy from the Midwest, and he is feeling a pull to go back there from the East Coast. I have a feeling I would love it, too. Finally I have started to realize how wrong my mother was about me (and how wrong she made me feel about myself), and I feel such an urge to move away, thrive with my husband and “find” my real self. But my brother would have no one after my mother is gone.

I don’t even know how to begin making a decision to go or stay. Or have I already cast my lot?

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Wait — your mother is still caring for your brother? Move, thrive, find! My goodness. Go live at 100 percent. Deal with the future when it comes.

You made no mention of therapy; please consider it for your recovery from your mother’s abuse. She did an unspeakable thing.

Readers’ thoughts:

· As the mother of a severely disabled child, I would NEVER expect her siblings to make huge sacrifices for her care after I am gone. Relying on professionals to provide day-to-day care can work very well, because they are trained to do it best and will encourage independence — something families can be afraid to do.

· I stayed out of relationships for many years because of similar care expectations. Now I am in a wonderful relationship with someone who says, “We will figure it out when it happens.” You are under no obligation to stop living your life for your sibling. You can help them or you can find them help.

· Finding care for him in the Midwest might be more affordable, and you could still be involved. And if you’re happier there, you would be a better caregiver. As the mother of a child with a schizophrenia-like disorder, I would not expect siblings to care for her when I’m gone.

· Look into some contingency plans for your brother, just to ease your mind a bit. Does he qualify for disability? Are there group homes near where he lives now, or where you’re moving? Given all you have overcome and accomplished, I am pretty sure you will be able to handle whatever comes your way.

· My son with schizophrenia lives in a group home in my city, and relatives visit and take him out for a few hours (all he can manage), but his brother is not expected to take care of him.

Carolyn: Thank you so much. I have never said the words, “It’s okay not to be my brother’s primary caretaker,” out loud to myself, so these messages from parents and siblings hit me like a shot of lightning. This is exactly what I needed to start thinking about this.

— Anonymous again

Anonymous again: You’re so welcome. Big hugs and good luck.