Caroline West-Meads: 'I'm worried about my sister'

Caroline West-Meads: ‘I’m worried about my sister. On the outside she seems OK’

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Q: I’m worried about my sister. On the outside she seems OK. She holds down a senior job ‒ even though she finds it stressful ‒ but her home, which she lives in alone, is full of clutter to the point where there are several rooms that are no longer usable. 

I went to stay with her for a couple of days recently and, in order to get to the spare bed, I had to move boxes and bags full of stuff ‒ things she has accumulated over the years and that she can’t bring herself to throw away. Everything was covered in dust. She has suffered a lot of loss in recent years. 

Her husband (who was older) died six years ago, having been ill for some time. On top of that, both of our parents have since died. She misses our dad particularly. We finally sold their house about six months ago. 

My sister and I went through all our parents’ things together but she found it very distressing to get rid of anything so most of their furniture and possessions ‒ even Dad’s paperwork ‒ have ended up in her house. 

I went to stay with her for a couple of days recently and, in order to get to the spare bed, I had to move boxes and bags full of stuff ‒ things she has accumulated over the years and that she can’t bring herself to throw away (stock image)

She said that she would sort them out gradually. I have tried to help but I don’t live nearby and I have my children and a new grandchild to see as well.

A: Your poor sister; what a great deal of loss. It must be hard for you too because you have also lost your parents and a brother-in-law and it must be so tough to see your sister unhappy. 

Her behaviour sounds like ‘hoarding disorder’ ‒ a mental health condition where people develop an over-sentimental attachment to their possessions (or an obsession with acquiring things they don’t need). 

This problem can be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder or it can be in response to traumatic life events. Your sister is trying to hold on to precious memories and is probably scared that if she throws anything away she will forget things about her husband or your mother and father. 

It’s irrational, of course, but understandable. It is lovely that you want to lend a hand, and you have done the right thing by going slowly. If someone tries to help a hoarder by organising things for them ‒ including throwing stuff away ‒ it can be more distressing. 

You could perhaps assist her tidying process via video call, tackling one small area at a time. Ask her to take photographs before and after so that she can see the results and share her sense of achievement with you. 

Also, encourage her to reach out to the charity which offers advice, decluttering tips and can help her find cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). She might be reluctant at first, so gently explain that you are worried about her safety – she could trip or fall, or there could be hygiene problems such as mice.

Q: I am 63 and I recently got divorced for the second time. My first husband was a waster – I finally left him when our children were teenagers. My second husband turned out to be a huge mistake, critical and controlling. The marriage lasted a year. 

Looking back, I realise that I have always made bad choices in men, perhaps because I never expected much from a partner. My father was an alcoholic who died many years ago. My mum often made excuses for his awful behaviour, so I didn’t have much of a role model. 

A friend of mine has suggested that I should have counselling ‒ it helped her after her divorce ‒ although I wonder if there’s much point for me because I don’t want another relationship. But I admit I’m not happy and feel there must be more to life.

A: As a counsellor myself, I would advocate counselling, though sometimes talking things through with friends can be enough ‒ depending on the skill of the friend, your own levels of self-awareness and the extent of the problem. But I think therapy could help you. 

You have made a great deal of progress already; finding the courage to end two marriages when you realised that you should expect more from a relationship is an important strength. However, there will be some trauma from your childhood following the neglect and violent outbursts of your father. 

Also, it must have been hard seeing your mum miserable and unable to stand up for herself. I agree that life can be challenging but it’s a shame to give up on love. While happiness is a slightly nebulous concept, you deserve to be happier.


Relationships counsellor CAROLINE WEST-MEADS answers your problems, including a young son who is cheating on his girlfriend 

Our relationships counsellor answers your problems: My husband has become a grumpy old man 

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Contact Caroline Write to Caroline West-Meads at: YOU Magazine, PO Box 5332, Dublin 2, or email [email protected] Caroline reads all letters but regrets that she cannot answer them all personally. DON’T forget: BEL MOONEY’S ADVICE COLUMN appears exclusively in Femail EVERY Thursday – only IN THE IRISH DAILY MAIL.

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