My brother retreated to a basement apartment with his dog

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Cary’s classic column from

He’s had some tough blows lately, but I’m concerned he’s really losing it.

Dear Cary,

My younger brother, 40, is an anxious, depressed social recluse. He lives with his dog in a basement apartment alone. He never answers his phone. He only returns calls if it’s urgent. He is getting more obese by the day, smokes and hacks and coughs, may be drinking. He now smells, doesn’t cut his hair. He’s so anxious, he’ll do anything to avoid discussing real issues (his) and talks only about superficial things.

I’m in the unenviable position of being the one who can intervene — or not. Although we have an older brother who would support me, he’s not prepared to lead the way. I’ve had many talks with my younger brother, pleading with him to see a doctor to get help. I’ve had my own mental health and addiction problems over the years, and I’ve shared my experience with him, including how much better I’m doing as a result of an SSRI I’m taking. I’ve offered to go with him to the doctor, to get him the names of people who can help. I’ve even told him I’d have to have him forcibly removed from his place if I felt he was becoming suicidal. He laughed it off. He still seems rational to talk to, but his life is crazy.

He lost his job about a year ago. It was a media job, pretty high profile. He’d been working at the same place basically since finishing college. He’s talented and attractive, but not proactive in the least; he got as far as he did mostly because others pushed and made opportunities for him. In his first serious relationship (with someone from work, a “star”), he allowed himself to be treated with a lot of disrespect and completely deferred to her needs. In the end, she ended it and got married to someone who could provide what she needed. Soon after that, my brother rebounded with another woman, also from work but not a high-profile girl. Instead, she was a sweet but impulsive, gregarious, high-energy party type. Within six months, he’d proposed and they soon married.

From almost the day after their marriage, my brother seemed to abdicate and begin retreating. He didn’t seem to worry anymore about putting effort into being positive, energetic, doing things. He became a lazy, withdrawn and bitchy guy who saw his work as his main obligation. True, his work required a lot of social energy; it required interacting with a lot of people; but he didn’t seem to have anything left for his wife. After years of this and a general decline that saw him more and more withdrawn — never returning calls to family or friends, so that eventually he had no friends left — his wife left him. A week or two later, our father, whom he also neglected over the past years, died; months later, he was fired.

I don’t fear that he’s suicidal at this point. What makes me angry is that I know, in one way, where this will end up, and it means I’ll be cleaning up for him because he’s refusing to take my help now. He’ll run out of money and become destitute, and I’ll have to either take him in or otherwise “solve his life” for him. I get exasperated often as I wonder how someone who is being served up help on a platter can be so damned stubborn and insist they’re “not ready for it” — knowing it’s going to get worse. On the other hand, I guess he might make some change once he hits the real rock bottom — who knows? I’m torn about whether I should intervene now or whether he should be left to go through this?

Big Sis

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Big Sis,

What strikes me about your brother is that within a matter of months he lost his wife, his father and his job. That would be a setback for anyone. Some people would bounce back fairly soon. They would get another job and work through their loneliness and grief on their own time. Others might be seriously shaken, but would at least maintain their standard of living and basic hygiene. He went into a tailspin. I wonder why.

It could be that he is clinically depressed. If at all possible, have him examined. The stress of events may have triggered an episode. But I must be careful with such speculation; not only am I unqualified to diagnose, but as a writer, my bias is toward meaning, not pathology. So perhaps this is not illness at all. Perhaps it is a kind of journey.

What kind of journey could it be? You say that he is talented and attractive, but not proactive, and that his success at work was largely due to the favorable actions of others. You say that in his first relationship he deferred to the needs of his partner. That leaves the impression that he is affable and charming but somewhat passive. Perhaps in the past whenever he faced adversity he would give up until someone came along to rescue him. This time there is no one to help him to his feet — not his dad, not his wife, not his co-workers — only you, big sister, only you.

I always look for signs that the soul is seeking knowledge. The soul seeks knowledge through adversity. Sometimes that adversity is self-generated. People break the law and get locked up; we call it acting out; we call it antisocial, as if in a perfect world none of it would happen. We do not often pause to consider the value of our dark journeys, the priceless material we carry back with us when we return, shaken but sobered by what we have seen.

While we are sometimes too quick to assume that abnormality is illness, that deviation is pathology, as I say, I am no kind of doctor. (If I were, I would be a crazy doctor crawling in the muck, a scary bearded banger of bells, a gonger, a shouter, a vibrating and unreliable sage. I would be applauding the insane as they are led away in wagons. I would not be the kind of doctor you want to mend an arm or fix a tooth.) So, again, you should have a real doctor find out if he’s clinically depressed, if he needs to be treated. If he is physically in danger, if he becomes suicidal, then perhaps to save a life a doctor has to intervene.

But perhaps he is struggling to accept adversity on his own. Perhaps, stricken by grief, alone in the world for the first time, he is trying to find out what difference it makes if he smells bad or not, if he answers the phone or not, if he succeeds or just sits alone in the dark with his dog. Perhaps he is on a twisted journey toward self-reliance. Perhaps in this way he is trying to become a man! As much as I want him to be OK, I also want to honor his decision to descend into a kind of funky, ugly madness.

In the meantime, what is your role? If you determine that he’s not in imminent danger, you stand by. You stand by like a tug when a ship is in distress, like a spotter for a gymnast attempting a difficult flip. Do not assume that simply because he has chosen to retreat to the basement with his dog that he is irretrievable. After he has gone where he has to go, he may emerge one day, blinking in the sunlight, looking strangely radiant, saying, Look, look what I found, I may have paid too much for it but look how it shines!

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7 thoughts on “My brother retreated to a basement apartment with his dog”

  1. I’m going out on a limb here – gently ask your brother if he was ever molested as a child. His behavior is pretty classic.

  2. Good analogy to “Touching the Void.” It was Joe Simpson who had broken his leg and knee, and Simon Yates who cut the rope and thus saved them both. Fantastic book, well worth reading even if you are not a climber.

  3. I was in a situation like this. Actually 2 of them. Nobody could get my mother to stop drinking when she desperately needed an operation. (They cannot operate if your blood alcohol level is high.) So the whole family pressured me, because I was the only only she would listen to. And I did get her to stop, using dire threats of never talking to her again. But when she needed a different medical procedure later, I declined because I knew the same threats would no longer work — they had been used up. So my brother tried, and made no progress whatsoever. He even kidnapped her and deposited her at the hospital, but they do not take patients who refuse treatment and alcoholism is not illegal. He did not speak to me for 2 years because I had “not even tried to help”. Both of them are dead now, and I sometimes reflect on their lives. Neither had the life they deserved, the life they imagined. And both were passive, both were alcoholics. Did the alcohol create the passivity, or was it there anyway? I myself once had a life threatening illness where my quality of life was greatly diminished. As that happened i wanted to live even more than when I had been healthy. Surgeons cured me and all was well. But my mother and my brother never had a reaction like that — they embraced their downward spiral.
    My father suggested that each of them wanted to die but was too passive for suicide. He said alcoholism of that degree was a cowards suicide. I cannot say, never having been in their situation. But I did learn that you cannot rescue people who basically don’t want to be rescued. You can rescue stray dogs, you can rescue accident victims, but you cannot rescue people who are embracing death.
    Cary is right that it is a journey. Do they return to the living after reaching the lowest point? Not necessarily — it depends on where their journey is heading. I have know people with much more severe disabilities than my mother and brother — they were both golfden children — but the other people had a life force that my mother and brother did not.
    If you decide not to help, be very clear in your communication and do not allow yourself to be guilted into reengaging. If you cannot do that, they you too are in danger of a downward spiral. Did you ever read stories like “into the void” where Jon Krakauer’s climbing partner had to cut the rope because otherwise they both would have fallen? It is like that — holding the rope when it is no longer feasible does not make the situation better.

  4. PS: I think the Classic posts can be a great jumping-off point for interesting discussion among us readers. I hope it catches on. (Unless, of course, reader comments are mostly about the joy of us telling others how to live 😉

  5. This is one of those where it would be great to know how it turned out. I hope brother is all right. I agree with Cary that what we, in the western world, hasten to call pathology, is mostly simply the dark journey of the soul. Of course it has a bright one, as well, but, increasingly, we don’t allow each other to undertake the journey into the underworld. The myth of Persephone may have been useful reading material for Big Sis to read and suggest to him because it casts the descent as an epic soul path, rather than an epic fail.

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