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Another question about an insane mother
December 28, 2011 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I have a great deal of contempt for my mother, which fills me with guilt. She has had serious psychiatric problems for her entire life. Although I know that she loves us, she is quite mentally ill, and I don't know how to cope with it. I need help learning how. (This is long, I apologize.)

Background:

I'm a 30 year old woman in the United States.

My mother subjected my brother and me to intense emotional abuse for our entire childhoods. Sometimes, physical abuse. Her rages were unpredictable and unstoppable. The themes of the abuse were “You betrayed me”, “You're worthless”, "No one will ever love you but me", “You're a whore/you follow your dick around”, and “You aren't allowed to love your father or his family.” The first time she ever physically punished me, she pushed me down our front stairs because I came home late after playing with a cousin.

My father's side of the family is pretty stable, so no problems there. My parents divorced when I was 7, and I don't believe he or his family were aware of the abuse.

As a result of my mother's insanity, I developed my own psychiatric issues as a child. Depression, anxiety, OCD, self-mutilation, suicidal gestures, and selective mutism. I was punished for my illnesses, and told to "quit doing this" to her. As an adult, I have anxiety, OCD, and PMDD. I was in therapy several times when I was kid, but none of them believed me when I told them about my mother's behavior. Worse, they would tell my mother what I said, resulting in extreme punishment for “embarrassing” her.

The funny part of all of this, is that my mother made her career intervening in abusive households, and rescuing other children. So we've had to spend our lives pretending she didn't do all these horrible things, and that she's not crazy. Because she's an Upstanding Member of Society.


As the years have passed, she has improved a lot. But she's still not a healthy person. Here are some examples:

1) She flirts with my husband, and boy, is it terrible. She's always blurting out how it's “not fair” that he's “so beautiful”. A few weeks ago, during one of her patented hysterical phonecalls, she sobbed apropos nothing, “I think I'm falling in love with him!” He is not alone in receiving her inappropriate flirtation. It's kind of a way of life for her. You should see her fellate a margarita glass. She also shit-talks me to my husband, and tells him I'm irrational and incompetent. But she's done that with everyone I've ever dated, so.

2) She's not afraid to act like a total child in public, if she feels betrayed in any way. She threw one of those most bizarre tantrums I have ever seen, because I hugged my stepmother at my brother's college graduation. She approached me at our wedding to concoct a tale that my father and father-in-law were badmouthing us. Because she hates my dad, and can NEVER let that be forgotten, even 23 years after their divorce. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence for her.

3) Pressurized speech, all of the time. Incredibly exhausting to deal with.

4)She has a coughing issue. The illness that causes the coughing is real, but the way she deals with it is a power play. She refuses to cover her mouth when she coughs, and seems to get a kick out coughing on people or their stuff. She gets offended if we aren't willing to ingest food or drink after she has coughed on it. If you've witnessed this kind of thing, you know what I'm talking about.

5) She doesn't view me as a real person. She thinks I'm an extension of her. Example: She told me for years that I was going to develop her heart condition because, in her eyes, I AM her. And that thrilled her. She WANTED me to be sick. I had to have an ECG to put an end to that, and she was disappointed as hell when it came out clear.



As a consequence of her lunacy, she knows very little about my life. She is the main reason I don't think I can ever have children. And I deeply fear the time when she can't take care of herself any more. I think having to care for her all of the time would break my will to live.

I have contemplated calling her doctor to explain my concerns about her psychiatric health, but I don't know how well it would go over. She's pretty good at snowing doctors into thinking she's just the most delightful, warm, harmless person ever.

My husband pointed out yesterday that my OCD/health anxiety issues flare up dramatically when I have to deal with her for any length of time, in any capacity. He's right. It's been a long, hard slog to being my own person who views myself as powerful in my own life, but I'm almost there. Except no, because one visit can short-circuit me for a week.

I have been very direct about most of these issues (except the flirting with my husband thing), but it doesn't make a whit of difference. She's not going to change. I can't cut her out of my life, so I must learn how to manage my reaction to her. I was in therapy, but we had to stop because we can't afford it. I don't want to take medication, either. My anxiety/OCD issues have always responded best to therapy, sadly.

I want to learn coping mechanisms. I would deeply appreciate anyone's suggestions about how I can make this situation tolerable, and how I can keep it from causing me such intense meltdowns. Thank you in advance.

I'm terrible with throwaway emails, but let's give it a whirl: guiltandcontempt@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (51 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Her mental illness and resultant unwillingness to deal with her own health issues does not give her a pass to treat everyone else like dirt. I know you say that you can't cut her out of your life, but you can certainly reduce the amount of contact you have with her until it is near zero, and I can almost guarantee you your mental health issues will improve.
posted by crankylex at 10:37 AM on December 28, 2011 [13 favorites]


"I can't cut her out of my life, so I must learn how to manage my reaction to herI can't cut her out of my life, so I must learn how to manage my reaction to her"

This is probably the most concerning thing I read in your present situation. Why can't you cut her out? I feel this is very important to be able to give you an answer.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 10:40 AM on December 28, 2011 [23 favorites]


I can't cut her out of my life, so I must learn how to manage my reaction to her.

Why not? I finally reached a last straw with my dad about 5 years ago, and have not spoken to him since. I don't hold any animosity towards him and I do love him, I just could not deal with him any longer. I cannot tell you the psychic and emotional relief of having made this decision. It took shockingly little time for me to be able to say I virtually never think about him. It's fucking ace.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:42 AM on December 28, 2011 [39 favorites]


Why can't you cut her out of your life? It seems like the best option here. Plenty of people have done it, and I can't imagine anyone faulting you for it. She sounds like an absolute nightmare.
posted by chowflap at 10:43 AM on December 28, 2011 [9 favorites]


I can't cut her out of my life, so I must learn how to manage my reaction to herI can't cut her out of my life

I know this flirts with not answering the question, but like Justice, I really have to wonder why you think you can't. Yes, mental illness is an illness, but so is alcoholism - we don't cut a parent any slack if s/he abuses children and says "oh, well, the booze did it" while continuing to drink; mental illness is no different.
posted by rodgerd at 10:43 AM on December 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


She's not going to change. I can't cut her out of my life, so I must learn how to manage my reaction to her. I was in therapy, but we had to stop because we can't afford it. I don't want to take medication, either. My anxiety/OCD issues have always responded best to therapy, sadly.

I have a very similar mom to yours. Not exactly the same, but similar. And at some level I always look at these questions with an eye to being helpful but also particularly looking at what is "not an option" because the obvious suggestions to you are limiting contact with your mother instead of cutting her off entirely, getting on medication for OCD/anxiety [which, yes, will totally get worse when you're stressed, whatever is stressing you out] and/or going back to therapy. And finding a therapist who doesn't know your mom and will believe you. This is crucial.

So I guess I'd try to play these off the other. If you can't get to therapy now, and you know it's helpful, make not being around your mom your therapy alternative until you can find a way to get low/sliding cost help.

One of the hardest things about having a person like this in your life, is having to constantly be asking yourself "Is this fucked up, or is this just normal people being different?" It sounds like you have a good, supportive reality-check partner. Now it sounds like you need to start setting boundaries that give you more of a general level of comfort in your life. Because it's totally okay to limit interactions with your mom to those that do not ruin your own life. Truly.

So, a few things that have helped me. And these are not without downsides. My mom makes up in her own head reasons for how I am behaving that are not "I was an abusive crazy mom and am still a verbally abusive erratic adult and my daughter is just protecting herself from me" but at some level she is a crazy person and I can't control what she thinks. We have had all the conversations we are going to have about how and why things and I can not have a rational discussion with her about them and so I've moved on to self-preservation.

- make phone calls short and end them if your mom goes into something inappropriate. You don't have to fight just something like this
-- "I think I'm falling in love with him!"
-- "Mom, that's totally inappropriate, we can talk about something else, or I'm going to hang up"
-- "But it's NOT FAIR"
-- *click*

- limit visits and especially staying-at-the-house visits. Stay in a hotel if she lives far from you, have a scheduled amount of time you will stay and no longer

- maintain your own boundaries
-- "No, I will not eat that food that you coughed on and you shouldn't ask me to. We can change the subject or we're going to leave"
-- "But it's NOT FAIR"
-- *leave*

- Your husband doesn't necessarily need to do this with you, but sometimes the united front approach is best, especially if she's weirdly plying for affection from your husband
-- "Ms. A I'd really appreciate if you wouldn't touch me in that way. It makes me uncomfortable"
-- "Quit being uptight bla bla bla"
-- " Check , please" *leaves*

She is no longer in a position where she can be abusive to you without you having adult options to get out of the situation. I'd suggest you start limiting interactions to ones that are perfunctory and where you enforce boundaries much more stringently. She can either get the picture and maybe ease up, or maybe she won't. Either way it's okay to take care of yourself and your family at her expense. Truly.
posted by jessamyn at 10:45 AM on December 28, 2011 [93 favorites]


I have been very direct about most of these issues (except the flirting with my husband thing), but it doesn't make a whit of difference. She's not going to change. I can't cut her out of my life, so I must learn how to manage my reaction to her.

Your mother is hurting you. She does not want to change. If you keep her in your life, she will continue to hurt you.

I had a mother like this. Technically, still "have", except I cut her out of my life. For a while I tried "managing my reactions to her". Boundaries never worked, she stomped all over them. Therapy only made her worse (she learned new tricks). Cutting her out of my life has been the best thing ever.

Why can't you cut her out of your life? If you start "managing your reactions to her", trust me, she'll find new ways to hurt you. She sees it as a war to destroy you, who dare to have a life outside of hers. If you show independence, she will make new moves to continue trying to destroy you. The only way you can "manage" this sort of person (who does not want to change; it's different if they genuinely do) is by getting away.
posted by fraula at 10:47 AM on December 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


Ha, everyone else touched on cutting her out, so I will leave that be.

Can you control contact? Get yourself a new telephone number/email and give it to everyone but her. Keep your existing telephone/email and check your voicemail/txts/emails once a week (or longer). Respond to her then. It would be probably fair to let her know that because of her behaviour you will only get your messages from her once a week. Let everyone else know about the limited contact so she doesn't end run you by using other people (if she does, let them know you do not want messages relayed from her and keep firm about your boundaries).

Journal before you read her messages and after. Also reward yourself (spa day, afternoon in the bookshop) after with something because you survived a another interaction with her.
posted by saucysault at 10:51 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]



So I guess I'd try to play these off the other. If you can't get to therapy now, and you know it's helpful, make not being around your mom your therapy alternative until you can find a way to get low/sliding cost help.



I agree with this. Please make your own mental health a priority. Look into whatever low cost/sliding scale help might be available in your area, and once you have that you can have your therapist help you manage your relationship with your mother. I think this is WAY too much for you to try to handle on your own.
posted by sweetkid at 10:51 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I cut my mother out of my life for 17 years. It was not fun, exactly, but day-to-day my life was perfectly fine (and hers was as good as it ever was going to get, with or without me.) Unless you have some truly extenuating circumstance that means you have to deal with her, my advice would be:

A) Cut her out of your life completely.

B) Absolutely under no circumstances, accept responsibility for caring for her, at least not directly. Unless when the time comes, you can afford to put her in a nice facility, then do that. (But don't sacrifice your retirement money or your possible future kids' college funds to do so.)

You do not have to sacrifice your life and happiness for her. She is not more important than you, mental illness or no.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:53 AM on December 28, 2011 [11 favorites]


You can't control her behavior, but you can control your reaction to it.

You say that you won't cut her out of your life (and I agree with others that it's the best option). You say "can't," but unless there's a law requiring you to interact with your mother, it's actually "won't." You've decided not to cut her out of your life because you've decided that the bad consequences of doing so are not as bad as the bad consequences of dealing with her. I can respect that. I've made similar decisions. But you should know that this is a decision that you're making, and you're in control of it.

If you're going to interact with her, you have to set a hard boundary. That means that every time she behaves inappropriately or tries to hurt her, you leave. If she says she's in love with your husband, hang up the phone. If she throws a temper tantrum, excuse yourself and leave the room. If she coughs on your food and then screams at you for not eating it, leave dinner. If she tells you you're going to get sick like her, end the conversation. You don't have to tell her why you're doing these things (and given her histrionics, it might be harder to have that conversation than to not have it). But right now, she behaves this way because it gets her what she wants: attention and control. If you respond by refusing to be controlled and cutting off all attention to her, she'll likely cut back on the insanity. But even if she doesn't, you won't have to deal with it, because you won't be there.

Again, if my parent behaved this way and hurt me this deeply, I'd probably cut her off. But I'm not you, and neither is anyone else here, so we can't tell you what you should do in your situation. But if you decide to have a relationship with her, it doesn't have to be the relationship she wants, in which she rages and you passively accept it. You don't have to cut her off permanently in order to cut her off each and every individual time she tries to hurt you.

I wish you all the best, and feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk. I have a bit of experience with this sort of thing, and I'm happy to help any way I can.
posted by decathecting at 10:53 AM on December 28, 2011 [10 favorites]


I can't cut her out of my life, so I must learn how to manage my reaction to her.

I'm echoing the chorus here...why not?

Let me be clearer: I come from a happy, healthy childhood, one that actually made me feel guilty when I read the recent Mefi thread where many others shared their own abusive childhoods. I have no desire to distance myself from my parents, because the minor annoyances we have with each other are inconsequential when viewed in scope of that Big Picture.

But for you...what are you actually holding onto here? A hope, maybe, that your Mom will change? You know that won't happen. The idyllic childhood you should have had? If I could give it to you, I would. I wish you hadn't endured what you did. But you know that's not possible now either.

Your husband sounds like a supportive guy, and the two of you can build something healthy and strong together, as long as your mother isn't around to sabotage it. I urge you to concentrate on that positive relationship and let go of this negative one with your Mom, which can only hurt you in the long run.

Everyone has issues. Anyone who parents knows that their issues will affect their kids. They may not be able to cure themselves, but they can sure as hell make a choice about getting help or not. Your Mom made the wrong choice, and rather than getting herself well to be the best Mom (and woman) she could, she took her illness out on her kids and made their lives hell. You should not, after all this time, still be paying for that. You should never have been subjected to it in the first place. Your Mom is an adult, and she needs to take responsibility for the consequences of her actions.

You gave up a happy childhood for her. You DO NOT have to give up your adult life, too.

If you cut her out of your life, what is the worst thing that can happen? You may have some regret about what might have been, but please do not let yourself feel guilty for taking charge of your life and making the RIGHT choice for you.
posted by misha at 10:55 AM on December 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Here's the deal: you absolutely can cut a parent out of your life. Say it with me. Sometimes that is literally the only way to ensure that you will be healthy, maintain healthy relationships and be happy. It's not a guarantee, mind you, but it can really help. People like your mother are very much like my mom's mom, and I never met that woman and can only assume I'm better for it. Cut your losses. Don't expose your significant others to it, or risk exposing any potential kids to it. Beyond that, I empathize and I wish you the absolute best.
posted by littlerobothead at 10:59 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why you can't cut her out of your life, either; I suspect -- and I'm not saying this at all critically, so I apologize if it comes across that way -- that the reasons you can give as to why it's not possible are in fact just factors that would make it really challenging. But just because something will be (very) difficult doesn't mean that it's actually impossible. This may be a hard distinction for you to make because of the negative self-talk/narratives that you have running in your head, given that your mom did so much to sabotage your self-esteem and sense of agency from an early age. Again, this is not to be critical but to maybe suggest a new way of looking at what you think you can and can't do.

That said: Jessamyn's suggestions are all excellent. I would also suggest taking a look at Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, which might have some helpful insight and strategies for you.

Finally, if you are so inclined in the Buddhist direction for these things, you might want to consider giving Pema Chodron's Getting Unstuck a whirl. It may give you some additional strategies in terms of learning how to break certain habits of reacting in certain ways to your mom, so that you can help yourself from going down the same path (even if only in your own head!) time and time again.

She also makes a wonderful point -- specifically in response to a question about severe abuse from a parent -- that setting appropriate boundaries is really the most compassionate thing you can do, both for yourself and the abuser, because it helps to prevent the abuser from inflicting further harm. This is something to keep in mind as you consider what your boundaries really are, and as you go about setting them.
posted by scody at 10:59 AM on December 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


It is ok to protect yourself from abuse, even when it comes from someone who is related to you, even if they are ill. Sometimes you need to worry about yourself.

Try a trial separation. Next time she does something horrible, just tell her that you've had enough, and resolve to not contact her for, say, a month. She will probably harass you at first, leaving messages (don't listen to them) and the like, but she'll settle down. You'll know what it's like not to have that kind of abuse in your life for a while, and you'll probably feel guilty. Then you can decide whether you want to trade that guilt in for more abuse from her, or keep your newly quiet life, and learn that protecting yourself is ok.
posted by Garm at 11:08 AM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I suggest you find another way into therapy. I don't think you should have to just grit your teeth and sort this out on your own, particularly if you feel you can't just cut her off.

Depending on where you are located, there may be a nearby university with a mental health clinic that offers low-cost or free sessions led by supervised students or recent grads, who need to build up a certain number of clinical hours before they can be licensed.

There may also be local nonprofit organizations that offer counseling or support groups. Search for your location in the Mental Health America directory.

The Psychology Today Therapist Finder lets you search by price and also lists whether or not the therapist accepts payments on a sliding scale.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:16 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Holy crap, did I write this? I mean, your details are different, but the song is the same.

I have no money, but I'm still in therapy. I'm going to pay them what I can, and negotiate with them for a sliding scale. I'm going to do that because even if I have to pay every spare penny I have, I know that, given that I've tried everything else, therapy is the only thing that will help me address the shame/guilt I have regarding my upbringing.

Also, limiting contact is important. I have not cut my mother out completely, but I talk to her at most every two weeks on the phone. And since I live eight hours away, I've managed to limit visits to once or twice a year for a limited time. If she fucks with your head, leave at least temporarily to allow a reset. If there is no reset when you're gone, then it's time to go home.
posted by RedEmma at 11:17 AM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Small correction--the Psychology Today Therapist finder lets you search by location, area of focus, modality, etc. and then you can sort by price.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:19 AM on December 28, 2011


I am so so sorry. Can you forward her calls to a google voice number, so that you at least have control over when and if you listen to them? Maybe something similar for email. Hugs to you.
posted by cyndigo at 11:24 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Others have addressed the core issues very well. I wanted to comment on this:

And I deeply fear the time when she can't take care of herself any more. I think having to care for her all of the time would break my will to live.

She is an adult and is responsible for arranging for her own care as she grows older. Rest homes and assisted living facilities are available, and some aren't too expensive. It sounds like she'll be more than capable of arranging for care, should she see fit.

Even if she weren't as toxic as you've described, it would still be up to her to decide when it's time for eldercare, not up to you. Either that or the decision will largely fall to healthcare professionals.

Short story: you do not have to be responsible for her eldercare at all even if she is still in your life at that point. Or, if things have gotten a bit better, you can do as much as you're capable of: not all of us are born caretakers. Therapy might help you assess your capabilities better.

For now, just know that you aren't responsible for her wellbeing. At all. That's up to her.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:33 AM on December 28, 2011 [9 favorites]


you say you have a brother, anonymous: how does he deal with her? how does he interact with her? i am curious as to how he handles her.
posted by koroshiya at 11:38 AM on December 28, 2011


If she was hitting you with a brick, you would find a way to make her stop. This is just as bad, if not worse, and there is really no alternative but to walk away.

I bet you can find sliding-scale therapy for the cost of cutting your cable and cell phone. Apart from rent, utilities and food, look at what else you can cut, because your mental health is worth it.

You don't need to suffer.
posted by desjardins at 11:47 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I had EXACTLY your mom, very similar career choice as yours, too.

Cut this woman out of your life and move on. I hope your brother follows you to the land of stable mental health, because mine didn't come a long for the ride and it's been a tough life for him.

There is only one right answer to this, IMHO and positive experience - ACKNOWLEDGE TO YOURSELF THAT SHE'S AN ABUSER AND STOP REWARDING HER ABUSE WITH "DUTY."

I did this because (a) I wanted her no where near any potential husband or kids, and (b) a lifetime of abuse was too long. I also have no interest in caring for her when she's older. My mom's a good manipulator, she'll find someone who enjoys being her victim when the time for her to be cared for in her old age comes along.

My brother didn't join me and he has a lot of problems. I hope your bro joins you in being truthful. Be true. Choose TRUTH.

Keeping on with the charade is killing you. I know.
posted by jbenben at 11:50 AM on December 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Check your throwaway email.
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 12:06 PM on December 28, 2011


Try to find sliding-scale therapy. Reconsider your blanket opposition to medication.

The best option by far would be to not be around this person. She's obviously completely toxic. If you can't do that, you have to change your behavior, as others have said.

If you think that coping means learning how not to get mad when she abuses you, you're not getting it and you're going to continue to suffer. You have to learn how to stop taking her shit, and it's going to really suck for awhile because it goes against all of your training. This will be a million times easier when you find someone who's not crazy to back you up. Could be a priest, could be a therapist, could be a friend.
posted by facetious at 12:21 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, is your husband on board? A normal response to having your mother in law inappropriately hit on you would be something like "please don't talk to me that way, it's extremely inappropriate" followed immediately by leaving the room. It would be great if you and your husband can be 100% united around the idea of not taking any mentally ill shit from your mom.
posted by facetious at 12:41 PM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I thought we had the same mother, but I don't have a brother, so I guess we're just members of the same club. My mother vacillates between wanting to be my best friend and telling me things like, "Thanks for ruining my life!"
She's not going to change.

You nailed it here. This, for me, has been the hardest thing to accept. What I've tried to do to mitigate my feelings of guilt is remind myself that regardless of my actions, my mom cannot or will not change her behavior. That means that I don't feel bad when we go months without speaking, because I know that not being in contact with me isn't the cause of her illness. The same goes for the instances when we are in touch regularly - I've seen that I can't "fix" her by being there. My actions don't matter as far as my mom's behavior is concerned. I do have enormous compassion for her: she is sick, and and her illness manifests as acting like a total childish ass most of the time. I haven't cut her out completely, but it has been massively liberating to realize that I could do so if I wanted, and it wouldn't be my fault.

She's not going to change. Nothing you do, positive or negative, will change her.

Hang in there.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 1:12 PM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


To the extent it is possible, move as far away from her as you can. Or at least start planning it. If you and your husband can start looking at the want ads in a city you think it would be great to live in, that will give you something to look forward to. It may never come to fruition, but dreaming about a move will help get you in the mindset that there is a potential end to all this.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:17 PM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I second Scody's recommendations and suggest another: the website and especially the forum of Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. It sounds like you are dealing with some very complex but also very familiar issues as the members of that forum. Please have a read and see if anything there can help.
posted by the fish at 1:41 PM on December 28, 2011


I want to learn coping mechanisms. I would deeply appreciate anyone's suggestions about how I can make this situation tolerable, and how I can keep it from causing me such intense meltdowns. Thank you in advance.

Hi.

MeMail me--I'm just finally finding my way through the abusive mother thing.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:09 PM on December 28, 2011


You're so right, she's not going to change. Ever. But you can change and reclaim your power from her. It will take the help of a therapist. The process can be a painful one, but you will survive it and become the woman your mother won't let you be.

I needed to cut ties from my toxic mother to give myself time to heal from her abuse. I wrote a letter telling her and my father that I needed them out of my life. I gave no time limit, but I couldn't imagine ever wanting contact again. After 8 years, I initiated limited contact with them. At the first sign of her inappropriate behavior, I ended the phone conversation or visit with a calm but firm, "I won't tolerate xyz" and I said goodbye and left. Period. It didn't matter what her reaction was. I had set very clear boundaries to protect myself and my children. At first I was shaken after these encounters, but soon I could feel the strength I had developed.

You can do this. She's not going to like it, but she doesn't like anything you do anyway.
posted by Linnee at 2:23 PM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


" ... I know that she loves us ..."

I'm sure she does, in her own warped, narcissistic way, and I think that somewhere behind the (entirely understandable) contempt and anger and guilt, you loved her too - that's what makes it hard, and heartbreaking, to contemplate leaving her behind. But you have yourself and your husband to think of, and that's more important. I bet you've been a really good daughter, trying to do what she wants and to support her and explain her away to others and to yourself - but it's so tiring and sad and ultimately impossible to mend her. You're not the parent here and she hasn't been one to you.

You have no obligation to her, you know - you might feel as if you have but she has long since spent that currency and more besides, so while I know that it's difficult to break the bonds of filial duty no-one could blame you for doing so.

This person doesn't sound like a mother - she gave birth to you, but doesn't fit the description of any mother I can think of who's worthy of the title. You said she saw / sees you as an extension of herself - that sounds about right, as she doesn't seem to care about hurting herself as well as those around her. In treating you so shockingly, she is thus causing herself pain - she probably sits there wondering how she got to have such a painful and unfulfilling life without actually being conscious of her own self-immolating role in it. It's the ultimate vicious circle and sadly for her she doesn't even register she's sitting at the centre of it. You've done well to minimise her cruelty and get it in perspective.

In terms of dealing with it, you say you don't have problems with your father and his family. Have you tried talking to him / them about her? He will know what she's like as well as anyone (he obviously found it all too much too if he left her and remarried) so he is probably a good resource and at the very least he'll be another ear to hear you and understand. I'm sure you already do this, but if not, it might be worth a go. Otherwise, I assume you don't contact her? Can you let the machine pick up calls if you know she's going to ring, so you have time to prepare yourself to speak to her when you're ready? Your husband sounds like a good man so although I understand you probably want to shield him, I bet he'd be more than happy to run interference - "Oh sorry Anon's mom, Anon is a bit under the weather so she's lying down and I'm off out just now - was it anything urgent? No? OK gotta go."
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 2:36 PM on December 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Here's an update from the OP, who asked me to post this to the thread:
You are all so great. I can't express how much I appreciate all of these answers, and the emails I've received. It depresses me that so many of you have had the same problems, but I'm getting a lot out of your insights. A special thanks to jessamyn and decathecting.

I agree that the reason I haven't cut her off is a “won't” more than a “can't”. A big reason I “won't”, is my maternal grandmother, who lives in a nursing home. Last year, I had to intervene to prevent my grandmother's savings from being plundered. My mother was not a part of the financial plundering, but as the executor of Grandma's estate, she was about to sign the paperwork to let it happen. My grandmother's support fund would have been lost had I not thrown a GIGANTIC fit when I found out at the 11th hour. I worry about what will happen to her if no one is there to act rationally. Both my sets of grandparents salvaged my childhood, and I won't let them down now.

My mother's health is pretty bad, too. It would be hard for me to leave anyone that sick without help, no matter how shitty they act.

koroshiya asked how my brother handles our mother. That started my gears turning, because she behaves pretty well for him. He doesn't let her get away with much. He has walked out on her crap enough, that she knows she shouldn't push him. In high school, she was making his life hell over a harmless girlfriend, and she played the time-honored “GET OUT OF MY HOOOOUSE” card. Unlike I've ever done, he totally called her bluff, and he left. He didn't come back for a month or so, and he wouldn't come back until he had a mediated session with my mother, my father, himself, and the principal of our school. That was a major turning point in their relationship. She respects his boundaries in a way that she does not respect mine. He's been overseas for a few years, but he'll be back in the states soon.

facetious asked if my husband is on board. My husband is a sweet, gentle person, and very non-confrontational. He'd be okay with excusing himself immediately when my mother tells him how hot he is, but I don't foresee him telling her off. Nor do I think he should have to. :\

And JohnnyGunn, I am so fine with moving across the country. I think that my brother took the position overseas in part to put distance between himself and our mother.

My mother has been on antidepressants a few times. When she's well-medicated, she approaches normalcy. That's why I've thought about contacting her doctor. She is my mother, and I can't help but be concerned for her. As self-defeating as it may be.

And I wouldn't say I'm against medicating myself. It's just that I've been through so many different psychiatric medications, and they've never worked out well for me. Therapy seems to do something to my brain that medications fail to do.

I'm totally willing to limit contact with her, and to “punish” her when she pulls this garbage. I guess I just needed permission to do so, and a plan for how to do it. I'm drawing inspiration from everything that's been said so far.

Thanks again, everyone. I'll keep reading this thread, and I'll reply again if it seems warranted, and I get a chance.

And thanks Brandon Blatcher for posting this for me!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:10 PM on December 28, 2011


I'm one of the ones who emailed you (in case you were wondering who that person who said "MeMail me" who didn't tell you her username was.) Someday I will have a phone that can open more than one webpage at a time and do coding easily. Alternatively, a job where I can visit MetaFilter during work hours.

This, Stop Walking on Eggshells, is the book I was recommending. I second the "Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers" book, and also recommend Toxic Parents. I just bought that one for a friend last week, actually; her mom's awful, too.

To find NAMI classes and support groups for families, go here.

As far as punishment goes, there's a reason I told you in the email to treat your mother like a misbehaving two-year-old: that's the level she's operating at. The only "punishment" that makes sense is to deprive her of attention - anything else will perversely reward her. It's clear, for example, that negative responses don't affect her: she's amused when you make faces and don't want to eat what she coughed on, right?

Your plan (if you want one) is to do as follows:

1. When she does something transgressive in person, say "What you just did is unacceptable, Mom. Good-bye." It'll be most effective if you can manage to immediately remove yourself from her presence - like getting the toddler in the naughty seat right away - so in a restaurant, go ahead and leave the dinner table, go to the host stand, and ask to pay your check there.

2. When she does something transgressive over the phone, say "What you just did is unacceptable, Mom. Good-bye." Then hang up. Don't answer the phone from her for at least a few hours - preferably a few days - and don't call for at least a few days, preferably a week or more.

3. When she does something transgressive over email, in a letter, puts flaming poop on your porch, whatever, say nothing. Make absolutely no indication you even noticed.

4. If she asks why you left, or hung up, say "what you did is unacceptable and I don't want to be around that."

5. The reason in my plan (unlike Jessamyn's) you don't give her a warning like "if you do that again we'll leave" is because she already knows what she's doing is wrong, and knows you have no boundaries at all. The first warning is useless in this scenario, as far as I'm concerned: there is a 0% chance she'll believe you, so you're just giving her permission to abuse you another time. No freebies. How many times did your brother give in to blackmail before calling her bluff? I'm betting not often.

For my anxiety and OCD and depression (and stuff) I need both medication and therapy. Therapy works better with meds, for me. And therapy is something which is much easier to get in alternate ways - journaling, books, web forums, talking with your husband, writing really angry letters and burning them - than medication is. I know you've got access issues, but it's something to keep in mind. Meds have really helped me, my sister, and (when she was bothering to take it) our mom.

I don't think there's any harm in writing her psychiatrist or therapist or GP a note, but be mindful that they'll probably tell her you sent it, and odds are they'll let her read it. I wouldn't mind at all if my friends or family sent my therapist or psychiatrist a note, but a narcissistic, unmedicated, kind of insane person might feel differently.

Last, as far as grandma's welfare is concerned: document, document, document. Write down every last person involved in that plundering scheme, the dates and times of phone calls, print out the emails you sent, whatever. Keep a diary of the random crappy stuff your mom does and the names of witnesses. You don't need a decent relationship with your mother to get a judge to challenge your grandmother's guardianship or PoA, you need evidence. My own PoA (in case I'm incapacitated) calls for a group of agents who have to agree (majority rules) before decisions are made - that might be something to consider if you get to the point where you're asking the court to change things. Look up your state's elder abuse laws and keep the relevant hotline number handy (it'll probably be managed on a county level.)

(A diary of the wacky things she's done - specific times and dates and locations and context and witnesses - would also bolster your case with the doctor. They probably won't look at it in detail, but it's nice to have and makes it harder for her to say "oh my kid is just overreacting, she has depression and makes a big deal out of the silliest things.")
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 4:04 PM on December 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


1. See a lawyer to find out if there is any way you can be named your grandmother's guardian.
2. Set AND HOLD firm boundaries with your mother; since he's apparently managed to do it successfully, talk to your brother and get his advice.
3. If she refuses to respect those boundaries? Cut her out of your life.

You are not required to take care of your mother, now or in the future, and lord knows: she really hasen't earned any such consideration. Having given birth to you does NOT give her ownership of your life!
posted by easily confused at 4:14 PM on December 28, 2011


My mom is the same way, but not as bad as she used to be. Just cut her out of your life. She's done enough damage.

Also, read this book.
posted by empath at 5:09 PM on December 28, 2011


You have my deepest sympathy and respect. I have a very similar situation with my own mother, right down the the "executor of the estate of the grandmother who basically helped save me and is now living in a nursing home."

I have to limit my contact with my mother. I know that it would be healthier to cut her off entirely, but I have reasons which I would prefer not to share here - just don't want to make this about me. But I have increasingly limited our contact, our conversations. I do not visit. I end phone calls when she starts going *there* and I have not lived in the same city as her in 10 years.

Medication did not help me - OCD and anxiety. Actually, therapy didn't help me either, so I am ill-suited to really give you advise on how to cope with all this beyond nthing that I have and am right there with you.
posted by sm1tten at 5:12 PM on December 28, 2011


That started my gears turning, because she behaves pretty well for him. He doesn't let her get away with much. He has walked out on her crap enough, that she knows she shouldn't push him. In high school, she was making his life hell over a harmless girlfriend, and she played the time-honored “GET OUT OF MY HOOOOUSE” card. Unlike I've ever done, he totally called her bluff, and he left. He didn't come back for a month or so, and he wouldn't come back until he had a mediated session with my mother, my father, himself, and the principal of our school. That was a major turning point in their relationship. She respects his boundaries in a way that she does not respect mine. He's been overseas for a few years, but he'll be back in the states soon.

I literally just had a blow up with my mother over christmas, not realizing that she had already fought with my sister a little bit before that. My father and mother tried to lay a guilt trip on me and my sister about 'whether we loved her unconditionally the way she loved us.' My sister emailed me and asked what to say, and we had a long conversation about it. Apparently my sister, who has two kids, gets it way worse than I do, and it's interfering with her marriage. She said I was lucky that my mother doesn't bother me too much.

I told her that she doesn't bother me because I don't put up with the manipulation any more. When she throws a tantrum, I just leave. And I never apologize and never smooth things over. If she tries to lay a guilt trip on me on the phone, I hang up on her, and if she tries it in person, I tell her I don't want to talk about it, and if she keeps up, I leave.

Unfortunately for my sister, that means all of that rage and need gets directed at her and her family and my sister doesn't say ever say no for whatever reason.

Long story short, we both told my dad that what my mom needs is therapy, and that we're not responsible for her happiness.

I think the only thing you can do is set boundaries on what is acceptable to you and to be willing to cut her out of your life, no matter what she says.
posted by empath at 5:17 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Basically it kind of sucks that I have to be cold and emotionless to my own mother, but it also sucked growing up with a monster with your mother's face.
posted by empath at 5:20 PM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Everyone upthread has addressed this beautifully.

I'll pipe in to say that as your mother ages and can no longer manage her own life, it is your responsibility to make sure she is cared for. That's humane. There is no reason you have be one doing the caring for. That's masochism.
posted by space_cookie at 5:20 PM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Seconding the suggestion to contact a lawyer to see if there's a way you can become your grandmother's guardian.

Also, regarding your brother: I think it's absolutely worth emulating his way of setting and enforcing boundaries (and maybe explicitly asking for his support/guidance as you do so). At the same time, understand that parents with personality disorders like your mom's often put their kids into different categories, usually in a sort of "golden child vs. scapegoat" configuration. Sometimes this might be based on gender (narcissistic mothers very often treat their sons differently from how they treat their daughters), but it can also be based on other factors (birth order, how "good" you were as a baby, whatever). I say this because your mom may be predisposed to "behave" for your brother in a way that she'll never behave for you, totally regardless of what you do (or don't do), so don't beat yourself up for that.
posted by scody at 5:30 PM on December 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've had to put very strict boundaries on my mentally ill mother. I refuse to take responsibility for her mental health, so I'm not willing to intervene and have her committed to a facility or other mental health care. I feel like a real piece of shit for feeling this way, but I just can't see any other way for me. All I can do right now is establish a few rules for myself.

- No telephone calls. While this sucks as far as communication goes, I just can't deal with the volume of sick phone calls from her. Nothing is worse than missing an important call and having to wade through dozens of crazy-ass voicemails from her. She would call 20-30 times a day if I let her and the only thing she would have to say for it was that she was sorry.

- No visits at my home (or the homes of my friends/girlfriend) This used to be one of her favorite tactics, just showing up unannounced somewhere. She's refused to leave before, showed up with the police (who were like wtf? Has she been drinking?). She's come to my house and gone through my mailbox, talked to my neighbors, etc. I know I'm eventually going to have to get a restraining order on my property, but I guess the pain for me will have to get great enough in order to have the willingness to do this.

It doesn't leave us with much and because of this I haven't seen her in a few years. It's not very motivating to see her for the sole purpose of watching her wail and cry about why 'I am doing this to her'. It hurts and I'm always questioning my decision. It's hard to talk about this with anyone IRL because it sometimes feels like they are judging me for it, trying to impress their beliefs and values on my situation.

If you're going to have any relationship with her, you make the rules 100%. Not 50/50 or 80/20. All of them! If not and you allow her any control, then you're going to have to take responsibility for her actions. That's how I see it at least.

Good luck and hang in there. It's honestly not your fault and you're not alone.
posted by neversummer at 5:40 PM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


One thing to take note of: your mother's doctors can't make her take medication she doesn't want to take. Without some kind of legal order (it varies by state, here's Illinois as an example) they can't do much unless she cooperates. Talking to her doctors is a bit like giving a middle-school kid good advice about personal responsibility: it's not a bad idea, but who knows if it will do a bit of good.
posted by SMPA at 6:36 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


My husband was divorced from a woman very much like your mother before I met him. These books have been very enlightening for us:
Divorce Casualties and Beyond Divorce Casualties by Douglas Darnell, Ph.D.
Adult Children of Parental Alienation: breaking the ties that bind by Amy J. L. Baker
Please know that you don't have to avoid having children to break this dysfunction. You can be free and happy. A therapist specializing in parental alienation would be a great support.
posted by summerstorm at 7:41 PM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hey, this describes my mom too - I tried cutting her out but if I dropped contact, she'd do crazy shit like show up on my front door pounding and screaming for over an hour at 3 a.m. holding a puppy who wouldn't stop barking or something similar. One time when I didn't let her in, she drove her car into a tree at the end of my street and I ended up riding in the ambulance with her to the hospital, shoeless and in my pajamas.

I was terrified of what she'd do if I ignored her for very long, because she'd end up finding some way to act out that hurt more people than just me. And I didn't have the money/ability to move cross-country then, either.

I told my therapist about this issue and she suggested sending postcards once a week, always the same day, saying I loved her and one positive update about my life (or something similar) to keep her at a safe distance but still in regular contact.

Amazingly, it worked. Establishing this kind of distance helped me get some perspective and kept things non-confrontational between us; she's since gotten therapy and we're on our way to a "normal" relationship (as much as anyone's is normal). But I had already made peace with having no relationship at all with her in the future by the time I mailed the first postcard, and it really, really helped me stick to my resolve not to cross that boundary myself.

This is really my only concrete recommendation as everyone above aptly covered the rest; just trying to help you with a short-term coping mechanism that might keep the verbal abuse/confrontations at bay.

Take care of yourself; don't let her make you suffer if you don't have to out of a sense of obligation because she's your mother, and accept that her mental illness is exactly that - an illness. Confronting her, using logic, or any emotional manipulation of any kind is not going to turn on some magic switch inside of her that reverses her lifelong behavioral patterns. There's no magic catch-phrase you can say, in private or in public, that will make her have that "a-ha! well, never again and I'm sorry" moment with you. Or anyone else. Try to accept that it may never come, and work on finding ways to be happy and healthy that don't involve interacting with her (including talking about her with family, because I bet just discussing shit like this riles you up, right? so don't).

Good luck!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:04 PM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


What healthy people with normal or happy childhoods don't get is the deep sense of loss that comes with losing these connections.

You could be me. I feel enormous guilt when I'm overwhelmed and snap at my mother, making her cry. She's only a mild shadow of the towering beast of childhood, and it shames me to realize I could never take care of her in my old age.

The way I've managed over the years was to cut her off for a year. I moved cross country and didn't give her my address or phone number. A year later I called her periodically but didnt give her my number for another year. That let her know I was serious when i asked for certain types of the worst behavior to stop around me.

We never discuss the past.

When she talks shut about other people I ask her to focus on something nice(perhaps your husband could do something similar?).

And, for me, part of the solution is that I haven't introduced her to anyone I've dated for 15 years. I talk about who I date, of course.

The last thing I do is visit only once a year or so, and confine conversation to three or four absolutely "safe," neutral topics.

Good luck.
posted by thelastcamel at 12:23 AM on December 29, 2011


Talks shit. Damn you iPhone autocorrect!
posted by thelastcamel at 12:25 AM on December 29, 2011


If you cannot cut her off you can at least reframe the situation.

Think for a moment - what if your mother does not love you - what type of relationship would you have with someone who does not love you and yet you had to be around?

You behave professionally and detached. Any time she does anything that crosses a boundary or is inappropriate you, in a detached manner, acknowledge it and tell her to stop.

"Don't cough on my food."

"Don't flirt with my husband."

"Slow down, I can't understand you."

"I will not talk to you when you're behaving like this."

You limit your encounters with her and you hold her accountable for her actions if they are negatively affecting you. Beyond that, you cannot do anything, nor should you spend time thinking you can save her or change her.
posted by mleigh at 1:01 AM on December 29, 2011


It seems to me that you can learn to emulate your brother's behaviour, which seems successful. It is not too late to learn to create and enforce boundaries.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:02 AM on December 29, 2011


I've been thinking about this.

As a result of my mother's insanity, I developed my own psychiatric issues as a child. Depression, anxiety, OCD, self-mutilation, suicidal gestures, and selective mutism. I was punished for my illnesses, and told to "quit doing this" to her. As an adult, I have anxiety, OCD, and PMDD. I was in therapy several times when I was kid, but none of them believed me when I told them about my mother's behavior.

OCD/health anxiety issues flare up dramatically when I have to deal with her for any length of time,
Therapy and medication sure sound like a critical support for you.

1)She flirts with my husband. Grandiosity, lack of connection to reality, narcissism, selfishness, and lack of internal (unable to separate her own sexuality from affection for a family member) and external (flirting w/ s-i-l? wtf?) boundaries. Your husband should walk away, change the conversation, and assertively ignore this behavior.

2) tantrums This NPR story on tantrums was really good. She tantrums to get her way, and to get attention. Walk away and assertively ignore this behavior. Do not give in.

3) Pressurized speech. I hadn't heard this term before. It really sounds manic. You could try saying to her "Mom, you sounds really manic right now. Is there anything I can do to help you get centered/grounded." Don't say 'calm down.' People can't respond to that when they're in a tizz. You can use this as a marker for how manic/confused/ill she is, and if she's in bad shape, get yourself to safety.

5) She doesn't view me as a real person. She thinks I'm an extension of her. Example: She told me for years that I was going to develop her heart condition because, in her eyes, I AM her. And that thrilled her. She WANTED me to be sick. I had to have an ECG to put an end to that, and she was disappointed as hell when it came out clear. You're reading a lot in here. I share this exact scenario. I inherited a specific heart condition. When my Mom had an episode, it was a family emergency, with lots of emotional baggage I'm obviously ill and dying, you'd better be nice to me or quilt and misery will haunt you forever. sigh. It's turns out to be somewhat serious if ignored, but eminently manageable condition. But I'm not sure it means she doesn't perceive the separation. What I really hear, and it's very valid, is "I need some distance from the overwhelming emotional intensity and need." Yes, yes you do need and deserve distance from your giant black-hole-of-emotional-need mother.

She is the main reason I don't think I can ever have children. She had you. You may be damaged by your disastrous upbringing, but you have the knowledge that this is mental illness. Big difference. Treatment is so much better than even 25 years ago, and it's getting better.

Your anger is pervasive and reasonable and justified, and absolutely no use. Bring it out into the light, recognize it, allow yourself a week or a month of being righteously pissed, and then shelve it.

Your Mother has a disease. She didn't choose it. She didn't grow up in a world that understood it. She probably had a really scary childhood that she is unable to recognize or deal with. Is she a substance abuser? Cigarettes, alcohol, pills? So many people have used substance abuse to deal with organic mental illness. Your Mom deserves pity, understanding of her illness and treatment. You can give her some pity, carefully expressed as concern for her well-being, and you can understand that she is genuinely suffering from a disease. Bi-polar, personality disorder, whatever the real label is, she is a sick person. Read up on the symptoms of mental illness, and report to her doctor if you think it will help.

I had an eccentric uncle. Here where he lived, people tolerated all sorts of shenanigans that indicated genuine mental illness. Then, while traveling, he acted out, as usual, and was committed. He had to take his meds, live in a regulated environment, and follow rules, and he was happier than he'd ever been. Don't accept it if her doctor doesn't listen; document in a way that will be heard. See a psychiatrist with her, if at all possible. My Mom didn't want to take her anti-depressants. I went with her to her doctor. She went on about the (not very horrible) side effects. Doctor Paul said to my 85 year old Mom "Suck it up, M" twice. It was all I could do to refrain from embracing him.

I want to learn coping mechanisms.
Set AND HOLD firm boundaries with your mother; since he's apparently managed to do it successfully, talk to your brother and get his advice.

You can learn this. If she says mean things, say That was hurtful. I'm going to get off the phone/leave now. Don't participate in manipulation. Mom, we love you, but we're not available to go to dinner with you this evening. .. Yes, it does have to do with the big scene last week at Chez Bistro Cafe. We decided to take a break. Then, Don't discuss it further. Act on your decisions and your best interests, and give 1 polite response, then no more discussion. Have a list of topics for conversation-changing - Say, speaking of food, do you put nutmeg in your apple pie? She won't learn from what you say; she will only learn from your actions. Unkind, violent, manipulative, hurtful, attention-grabbing behavior results in no attention, in fact, results in negative attention - people go away from it.

Reward good behavior. She calls you and is nice. You have a short pleasant conversation. Then you say, It was nice talking to you this evening; I really enjoyed it. Now I have to get off the phone, and go do some task. bye, Mom. I love you. Took me ages to recognize my Mom's good behaviors because I was so defensive about the rest of her behavior.

See a lawyer to find out if there is any way you can be named your grandmother's guardian. Excellent suggestion.

She's not going to be the Mom you want. Sadly, she is too ill. You can mourn the loss of a regular Mom, June Cleaver, Claire Huxtable, Jill Taylor, Laura Petrie, etc. Your refusal to give up on her does you credit; and you can enforce boundaries that make it work. Over time, try to develop compassion, and have a relationship where you accept whatever good she can give, and don't accept the bad. It was always a struggle, but my Mom and I ended up having a meaningful relationship. Here are some links to Mom stuff I've posted.
posted by theora55 at 3:16 PM on December 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


You are so not alone. Read this article about the book Mean Mothers, by Peg Streep. It's been a while since I read the book, so I can't remember what kind of suggestions for coping are in there. But I hope reading the book will help somewhat.
posted by foxjacket at 10:51 PM on December 30, 2011


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