By Esther Mann

Dear Esther,

I’m very concerned about my sister. She has a lot of tough issues to deal with in her life. Her husband is not a particularly kind, decent person. Her children give her a lot of heartache. And she has always had a tendency toward depression.

But to make matters worse, over the past few years, I don’t think a single day has gone by when she is not suffering from some illness. She’s had strange conditions that have led her to seek the help of specialists and required that she go for constant treatments. When one thing seems to be resolving, before you know it, she has bronchitis or pneumonia. After struggling for a month or so with that, when it seems as though she may finally be out of the woods, she falls down for no apparent reason and breaks her foot in two places.

If I didn’t know better and didn’t see with my own eyes that she does in fact have all of these conditions, I would think she’s making it up. How can one person be so consistently sick? She has not gotten a break in a very long time.

And of course, she’s always hopeful that her husband will come through and treat her nicely because she is suffering. Ultimately, he disappoints her and isn’t compassionate or even helpful.

I have to wonder whether all of these ailments are somehow self-imposed. A cry for help? A distraction from her “real problems?” Or maybe she is just so worn down emotionally that she doesn’t have the resistance to ward off physical ailments.

My sister is such a good person and my hearts aches for her. I don’t know what I can do to help her somehow get out of this loop of repeated illness so that she can get on with her life and not suffer constantly.

Should I encourage her to get divorced and distance herself from her selfish grown children? Should I even tell her what I’m thinking and suggest that she may be somehow bringing all of these problems upon herself? It’s just so hard to watch, and I’m not sure in what way I can help her figure out a better life for herself.

My husband thinks I’m making all of this up and that my sister is just not a particularly healthy person. He thinks it has nothing to do with her unhappy life, and that I’m being ridiculous even thinking in those terms. I disagree and believe he is thinking in a very simplistic way and missing the boat.

I am really very worried about my sister and wonder what might come next for her. At this point, nothing would surprise me and it’s pretty scary to think about.

What are your thoughts on my sister’s situation? Is there is some way in which I can help her get out of her rut so that she can begin living a better life?

Frightened Sister

Dear Frightened Sister,

Watching any person suffer so horribly and so consistently is extremely troubling. And when that person is your sister, whom you obviously love, it is that much more distressing. It’s natural for you to want to learn what you can do to help and also to understand why it is happening so frequently.

I disagree with your husband. There is a very close body–mind connection, and the fact that your sister has so much stress in her life can definitely be a catalyst for all that ails her. Maybe not in an absolute way, but when one is going through challenging times, one’s immune system can suffer and become compromised. Furthermore, our tricky minds can most definitely manufacture scenarios in which we create realities that give us permission to “not deal.” After all, being sick in bed is a perfect excuse for granting oneself a pass for interacting with families members who are painful to deal with. It can be quite amazing to observe the lengths to which our psyches can go to protect ourselves from torment.

I’m not stating with certainty that this is what is happening with your sister, but your theory could certainly hold weight and is worth considering. The question that remains is how you can explore your theory with your sister and possibly lead her in a direction that enables her to examine the quality of her life over the past few years and look deeply into her innermost thoughts and feelings.

I don’t believe this is something that she, or anyone else for that matter, can do on her own. I think it would do her a world of good to work with a psychotherapist and together delve into the details of her life. There is a great deal at stake and much to analyze.

I don’t think it’s your place to suggest she get divorced, distance herself from her children, or take any other harsh measures to protect herself from the people in her life who are clearly causing her stress. But by encouraging her to seek out professional help, you will be leading her toward the safety of an experienced professional who can not only explore the deep emotional components of her life, but also provide her with practical ideas regarding how best to handle the challenges she faces. As her messenger, guiding her toward this life-affirming opportunity, you will be giving her the best possible gift.

Meanwhile, whether all of her conditions are just coincidental or connected to her emotional state, I’m sure I don’t have to advise you to show up for her in any way possible. It sounds as though her husband is not pulling his weight — nor are her children. If you’re not doing it already (which, frankly, would surprise me), make sure to check in with her daily, visit, call her from the supermarket to see if she needs anything, and, in general, let her know that you’re just a phone call away. She must be feeling very alone, and a sense of support is crucial. And if there are others you can pull into your circle of relief, don’t be shy. Sometimes, casual friends and even other relatives aren’t aware that there is a crisis of sorts taking place and that they are needed. Most people respond beautifully to being needed and are happy to show up.

You sister is blessed to you have on her team. Hopefully, with your support, she will find her way to a happier and healthier place.


Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at or 516-314-2295.


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