DEAR KELLY: Recently my parents let me go to Utah for the weekend to visit my sister, who graduated from college last year and has her own apartment and lives there for her job.
When I got to her apartment, it was so disgusting. I’ve never seen anything like it. She has a cat, and I don’t know the last time she had changed the litter box.
There were piles of clothes all over; she still had Halloween and Christmas decorations up; and nothing was clean. There were tons of stacked pans in the sink, and I couldn’t find a glass to drink from that wasn’t dirty.
I don’t know a lot about what hoarding is, but I’ve watched the show and I think she’s a hoarder. When I told her we needed to clean it up, she got mad at first and then she cried and begged me not to tell our parents. I spent the entire weekend trying to clean up and help her throw things away.
I had to make her drive me to the store so I could get dishwasher soap because she didn’t have any. Her car was the same way. I had to throw away tons of water bottles, wrappers and old mail. She had so many bags in her car of clothes or shoes she had bought, then wanted to take it back and never did.
She moved there in October, and I don’t think she’s doing well. She tells our parents she’s happy, but she didn’t introduce me to anyone and doesn’t seem to have friends. I asked her if she wanted to go on a bike ride or hike or do something fun, and she never wanted to do anything but hang out in her apartment and hold her cat.
Before I left, she made me promise I would tell our parents that it was great and that we did all kinds of fun stuff and I met all her new co-workers, all lies. When I got home I did tell our parents that, but now I feel weird about the whole thing. Our parents would freak if they saw how disgusting her apartment was and how messy her whole life seems to be. She texted me and said thanks for lying and that she’s going to change and try to keep her house better.
What do I do? I’m kind of scared for her, but then I think maybe it’s not my business, and I don’t want to get her mad at me. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this? Do you think she’s a hoarder, or just a messy person?
DEAR DEL: It sounds like your sister is depressed and hiding more than just her messy apartment from your parents. Perhaps she feels like a failure if she tells them she is unhappy or doesn’t like her new job, so she has created a false face for them that everything is peachy-keen. Even though your sister asked you not to tell, you need to share with your parents how the weekend really went so they can get your sister some professional help if she needs it.
Starting in a new city is tough, and it’s really common for people to experience change around a transition like that. I’m not convinced your sister is a hoarder, but I feel pretty confident she is depressed and overwhelmed with all her feelings, so simple tasks such as cleaning up or taking clothes back to a store seem too big for her.
Having depression feels like a full-time job, and it’s hard to find the energy to do anything else besides just waking up and going through the day. She may be in the beginning stages of having obsessive-compulsive disorder. If this is not promptly and properly treated, her condition could escalate.
One of the biggest concerns is the quality of her life seems to be diminishing. She hasn’t made friends; she doesn’t like to go out and do positive things, and she would probably not be comfortable having people over. She is living a lie and asking you to go along with it, which means she recognizes she has a problem but doesn’t know what to do to help herself.
The clutter and disorganization are symptoms of a bigger issue. Your sister needs to see a professional counselor. If she is anxious or struggling with depression or OCD, she needs a professional evaluation to determine the best course of treatment.
Go talk with your parents and tell them the truth about what you saw and how she lives. They don’t need to say you told them what happened on your weekend there. There are other ways for them to address the issue without saying you spilled the beans. They can go visit her themselves and get a pulse on how she is doing from their visit. Or if you are OK with it, they can share that you didn’t think she seems happy and offer to pay for her to go visit a professional counselor in Utah.
Don’t feel bad for sharing this information with your parents. You are actually helping your sister. Let your parents intervene and gently guide her during this difficult time in her life. As difficult as your visit was to see her, perhaps it was just what she needed to get on the road to mending her life. Your sister is hurting, and you can be her voice by speaking up when she is unable to speak up for herself and allowing your parents to walk with her during this challenging time.