They're back! Mom wants to show up, daughter wants to put foot down.
February 17, 2009 12:55 PM   Subscribe

How do I communicate with my difficult mom?

I've posted previously about high-drama during my stepdad's visits to my home. Well...the long, dramatic part I omitted relates to the difficulties I have with my mom. For years and years, and for reasons that are incomprehensible to my brain, my mom delights in mocking and belittling me in front of virtually any audience. "Remember that embarrassing thing you did when you were four? Well, let me remind everyone that..." When we are one on one, she's fine, but as soon as there is family, friends, or even just a line at the grocery store, she'll start in with some tidbit from years ago, painting me in a negative light. I've explained over and over and fucking over to her that this is very hurtful to me and I need it to stop. Doesn't matter. Stories continue. Friends and family are sensitive enough to apologize for her behavior on her behalf, so it ain't all in my head.

Secondly, mom requires amounts of attention I just can't give. There is a reason I am childless and that is because I do not have the requisite patience to deal with a two year old, which is pretty much the behavior my mom exhibits with me: constant shouting and demanding my attention (even when I'm on the phone or having a private bathroom moment), interrupting/overtalking me as I'm speaking, infusing herself in situations that require my intervention or run the risk of developing into worse conundrums (e.g., losing her medication, technological cluelessness in re answering phone, etc.). There's a sort of weird entitlement that attaches to her visits, along the lines of pushing my things out of the way to make room for hers, messes that I repeatedly indicate are troublesome, failure to follow 'house rules' I have.

Thirdly, within the past few years she has begun taking medication (Lyrica) that has altered her personality to the point it is very difficult for me to communicate with her - already a problem before the meds, but now worsened. She went from being super organized and lucid to being forgetful to the point of endangering her safety. Her thought pattern is such that I have a difficult time understanding her. I also admittedly tire of repeating and repeating and repeating, only to have her forget it again.

She's, as previously described, highly melodramatic to begin with and talking with her, both before and after meds, is really a challenge. Talking to her in person has resulted in virtually no change (the first two issues have been discussed ad nauseum for roughly ten years). Furthermore, she now claims to have no memory of these discussions at all due to her medication. Talking in person usually results in her crying, making dramatic statements, walking away, putting her head on the table, or, my personal favorite, her pretending everything is just hunky-dory and she has no idea there are any problems in existence.

So I've tried the email route, laying out my concerns and explaining, again, that the behavior really needs work if she'd like to visit me again. I thought putting things in writing might be better in light of her memory problems and also be less heated. The last two visits to my home were so unbearable I actually went and stayed with friends for a few days while she stayed at my place.

Now she wants to visit - and I've said we must find a hotel for her in order to prevent the above things that clearly aren't changing. This has led to major squawking on her part and full usage of The Parental Guilt Trip, a favorite from her arsenal. Fer real, guilt trippin' along the lines of "you're going to put me in an old folks home" and "you need to honor your parents." Yeah.

Where do I go from here? I explained that because we are not achieving positive results from our discussions (read: she's not changing her behavior), I need to change mine. I explained a hotel would be a good start and would help eliminate some of the problem behavior. In short, a hotel would be a good step to improving our relationship and eliminating some friction. She doesn't see it that way at all.

Have any of you been in similar situations and how did you make peace with them (or not)? Any suggestions as to how to move forward in this relationship? Part of me wants to salvage, but part of me wants to throw in the emotional towel because this is exhausting. Am I asking for unreasonable things from her?

Also, YANAD, but does anyone have any experience with Lyrica? Is extreme forgetfulness a common issue with this medication? (I ask because her mom has Alzheimer's and I don't know if my mom is headed down the same path or if she's just medication-induced.)
posted by December to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Talking to her in person has resulted in virtually no change

Stop doing this. My favorite mantra is "you cannot use reason with an irrational person." This has served me well in my interaction with my (bipolar) mother.

The Parental Guilt Trip

Just because she buys you tickets does not mean you have to board the ship.

In short, a hotel would be a good step to improving our relationship and eliminating some friction. She doesn't see it that way at all.

Of course not, she is getting what she wants because you are giving it to her.

Am I asking for unreasonable things from her?

If she is mentally ill, "normal behavior" is possibly beyond her reach. In any case, you cannot change her, you can only change yourself. Repeat as necessary. My mother is not nearly as difficult as yours, but I limit my time with her. I visit her when I want to. I do not let her stay at my house if I don't want to. Above all, I have extremely low expectations of her behavior. This keeps me from being consistently disappointed that I don't have the mother I wish I had.

You need time to grieve for that mother, the one you wish you had, and only this will allow you to accept the mother you do have. You don't have to love everything she does, or tolerate it, but it's fruitless not to accept that she is who she is, because, well, she IS who she is. Therapy has helped me to get to this point.
posted by desjardins at 1:08 PM on February 17, 2009 [9 favorites]

Up until I saw your last sentence I was going to tell you she's exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer's. If you're already aware that there's a family history, you need to take steps to make sure her doctor is aware of her behavior. It sounds like she's really going down that road.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:11 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your mother has a big problem with boundaries, and she doesn't care about your feelings. You're right that you're the only one who can change, and your requirement that she stay at a hotel is completely appropriate. You need to set boundaries/expectations/rules, and also tell her what the consequences will be if/when she fails to respect those boundaries. It's hard to do, it's hard to be consistent with it, and she will resist all along the way, but if you can do it, it will work. I know this from living it, watching my husband live it, and talking with a few friends about their own family situations.

Spending time with you is not her right. It's a privilege that you control, and you can (and must) withold it if she disregards your emotions and preferences. Otherwise, she'll drive you crazy for the rest of her days.

I'd like to recommend a couple of books that have been mentioned many times on AskMetafilter: Stop Walking on Eggshells and I Hate You, Don't Leave Me. Both books talk about people with borderline personality disorder-- your mother may have only a few of the traits described, but the guidelines for dealing with difficult parents are super helpful.
posted by wryly at 1:16 PM on February 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

I can't offer any real good advice since it sounds like a pending visit is unable to be avoided. Do you have other relatives that can step in our your behalf?

I think you should be commended for trying so hard to find a common ground on which to relate to your mother. It is unfortunate that she is not a healthy person for you to be around. You are compassionate enough to put with her and her behaviors when they are obviously so damaging to you.

My grandmother raised me and she was much like your mother - one person when we were alone, another person when there was even just one other person around. Children are so sensitive and that kind of behavior can just ruin a person.

If you haven't already, seek some counseling. I am in therapy right now, dealing with similar issues.

desjardins is right - you need to grieve for the mother you never had, the mother you wish you had. therapy can help this.

you must do something very hard and that is to not let her where she is not welcome. visit her on your terms. stay in a hotel when you go to see her. this will be hard. are there friends or relatives who can be there for you while you are on the phone with her and also afterwards when you are worn out and exhausted from standing your ground?

you are a compassionate being. this will be hard, but you can do it.

(on preview, wryly said what i said, but better! boundaries! boundaries!)
posted by sio42 at 1:22 PM on February 17, 2009

You're an adult, if she can't behave in a way you find tolerable, don't have anything to do with her. Lay down the law. If she doesn't abide by requests (e.g. to stop embarrassing you) make them conditions, don't go near her if she keeps doing things you've asked her not to. If you don't want her to visit tell her so. Don't debate, just say what is acceptable. You do not have to make yourself miserable over some TV driven societally constructed image of the relationship you should have with your parent. If your parents are arseholes then don't let them be arseholes around you.
posted by biffa at 1:22 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am sorry about your mom. I have written about my relationship with my wonderful-but-terrible mother elsewhere on the site. I think the basic advice is good

- assume she is irrational and you can't have a "mom please don't do that" conversation with her
- take care of yourself and set appropriate guidelines for how the two of you interact
- ignore her when she complains about these unilateral decisions you have made
- try to hammer out a decent relationship with her anyhow if this is what you want, but don't feel that you absolutely must.

So, to the visit

- she is staying in a hotel, non-negotiable
- have scheduled times to hang out and hopefully activities that you can do that you both enjoy. For me and my Mom this is going on walks and taking photos NOT sitting at home drinking coffee and nitpicking about me
- ignore her complaining
- if she becomes intolerable, excuse yourself politely and go do something else

The big deal is that even though she's technically the parent, she's not acting like one. You need to step in and be the adult and part of this role is not negotating [with some things] and just doing the right thing to keep the family functioning. Good luck I know it's not easy.
posted by jessamyn at 1:34 PM on February 17, 2009 [6 favorites]

Tell her if she won't stay at a hotel, then she can't visit you.
posted by Nattie at 2:32 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

By the way, I think that the key to getting past this is being able to trust that you're not being a big old meanie or an ungrateful bitch because you're setting boundaries. You need to trust who you know yourself to be, not who she tells you that you are. One of the things I had to come to understand is that my mother is not God. Not everything she says is true. This sounds obvious, but I had really internalized her criticism and her guilt to the point where I felt unable to defend myself, because what if it was true? What if I really was a selfish, ungrateful child? When you're a child, you think your parents are omniscient and that what they tell you is de facto The Truth. It does us a lot of harm as adults to subconsciously cling to that belief. Accepting my mother's fallibility brought me to the point where I can say, "Hmm, that's just your opinion" and really believe it.
posted by desjardins at 2:45 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

A therapist once told me something really valuable: Don't try to apply logical, rational thought to mentally unstable, irrational people. You have taken all the rational routes to try to smooth things over with your mother, and they haven't worked. They haven't worked, because your mother is not rational. Lyrica has made matters even worse. As I see it, you have two real options.

One option is that you continue your relationship with your mother, accepting that this is how she is, and that it is not likely to change, since she does not want to make an active effort to change herself or your relationship with her. The way you deal with this is by being absurdly laid back and calm. You will have to be able to quickly adapt to her melodrama, in order to keep your sanity. Roll with the punches, provided it causes you no real harm. You will likely need to stop telling her off for things, and be satisfied with that choice, because telling her off does nothing but add more drama to your relationship. Ideally, it would not be that way, but, again, she is not rational, and so you cannot expect otherwise. To expect otherwise is to bring disappointment into your life.

The second option is that you see her less and less and realize that there are other people in life that can be a mother figure for you--and a much better one, at that. Over in another thread, I told someone, "...I'm not really a firm believer in keeping ties with blood relatives if they aren't people you'd want to keep ties with, otherwise. It's just blood. You may get your genetic material from there, but that may be all you get." I stand by that.

The best, most rational and peaceful thing you can do for yourself is to logically, and as objectively as possible, evaluate your relationship with your mother and decide how you want to deal with that objective evaluation. From your post, we can already ascertain that she belittles you, does not respect you or your privacy, causes you to feel stressed, and seemingly doesn't value your opinions regarding any of this. This does not bode well for her evaluation.

Given that, would you have a friendship with someone of that nature, if they weren't a blood relative? If the answer is 'no,' think about what that means to you and for you. Also consider what having her in your life does to your friends and lovers, and what it will do to your future children.

We don't get to choose our parents, and often we don't even get to change them, or see them change for themselves, when we've been dealt a rotten hand. We do, however, get to make choices about our relationships when we become adults. A lot of us just forget this, when it comes to our parents. The guilt trip has worked on you, because you feel obligated to have a relationship with the woman who birthed you, but really, this is a social construct, or at least a norm. If she causes you this much pain and anguish, and since negotiating and acting rationally does not work with her, consider cutting yourself off from her greatly or even completely.

There is no reason you should be responsible for your mother, another adult, who chooses to make poor decisions or at the very least chooses not to try to change. There is also no reason that you should feel guilty for making a rational choice that will bring emotional peace into your life.
posted by metalheart at 3:58 PM on February 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Jesus that sounds like my mother.

One thing that helped me, is that one time I was sitting there unleashing this torrent of negative feelings about my mom to my therapist, and my therapist pointed out a couple of things.

My mother was one of the last children of a cold and deeply disinterested mother who had something like eight kids, a few in her early forties. My mother had a disabled twin sister, who she (my mom) adored, but who most likely took the tiny last shreds of attention my grandmother might have had for my mother. Basically, my mother's emotional snares and dingbat needy behavior is a quest for the attention and approval she never got, and add to that fact that I am a reserved and introverted person--maybe even a little like her own mother--well, there's a recipe for a horrible feedback loop for my mom. That's a recipe for crazy behavior.

Anyway, I've had more sympathy for her, in the year since I understood this. Maybe you know someone who can help you get an aerial view of your mom and how you fit into her life (as opposed to the other way around). I could never have come to understand this on my own, personally.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:06 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry. I too, have a difficult mother. It's exhausting. And mine doesn't sound nearly as bad as your situation. You have my sympathy.

That said: seconding the "hotel is non-negotiable". Also, I would try to find out who her doctor is and share your concerns about the dementia. There are tests now, and treatments.

As to the Lyrica: here's some google results on the side effects. I was prescribed Lyrica but didn't fill the prescription *because* of the side effects. (And the fact that it was, in my opinion, relatively untested and rushed to market.) That said, forgetfulness doesn't appear to be a symptom that appeared with statistical prevalence in clinical studies.
Other adverse reactions that led to discontinuation from controlled trials more frequently in the LYRICA group compared to the placebo group were ataxia, confusion, asthenia, thinking abnormal, blurred vision, incoordination, and peripheral edema (1% each).
However, any psychotropic drug is going to be different for pretty much anyone who takes it, so your mom may be among the 1% that suffers those side effects.

But *you* don't need to be a victim. Just because someone gave birth to us, for which we can choose to be thankful or not, does not mean they get to spend our entire lives making us miserable. We don't owe that to them. We just don't. It's a really hard thing to convince yourself...but you don't deserve to be treated that way. You don't. You're a good person, and you deserve to be treated like a good person.

Best of luck, and feel free to memail me if you need to let off steam with a fellow "wth mom?" compatriot.
posted by dejah420 at 5:33 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

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