Walking on eggshells
July 26, 2009 4:46 PM   Subscribe

Walking on eggshells? How to deal as an adult with a parent who has borderline personality disorder.

I don't know if it is full blown BPD- but she at least exhibits some of the classic borderline personality. My mother is a wonderful person in many regards, but at times her verbal and emotional abuse becomes unbearable. Then she blames me or even my S/O for not taking her seriously when we ignore her. If I don't ignore her, and express my anger or opinion, her verbal abuse often escalates; name calling, devaluing, etc. A day or a week later, she is totally fine and acts like nothing happens; or she sometimes just forgets. Strangely, I have a great relationship with my father. They are still married, but her behavior, is totally bewildering and I literally feel like I have to put my foot down. From what I read on BPD though, boundary setting is much more difficult with BPD. Anyway, whether or not it is BPD, bipolar, or just really strange behavior (meaning= she acts like a 2 year old, she feels abandoned and engulfed all at the same time and you have to just sit there while she throws a tantrum about her "feelings"). I have attempted to set boundaries, and have recently blocked her emails completely because I'm sick of the BS that is in them, but since I can't change her, what should I do?

I'm basically sick of it, even though I love her, and wish to have a relationship with her. And my father. I'm also pissed off at my dad for rationalizing her behavior as "quirky" or "intense" for so many years. It's ABUSIVE! Ah! Anyone else had a loved one who has BPD? anything work to save yourself beside total cut off?

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I've been there. I didn't know my mother (now deceased) was a likely BPD sufferer until my therapist handed me a copy of I Hate You, Don't Leave Me and told me she thought it might help me understand my mother. It was an eye-opener.

It is difficult to cope with someone with BPD. Growing up with my mother, I spent a lot of time thinking my memory or even my concept of reality was warped because my mother repeatedly insisted she never threatened to kill herself, divorce my father, or abandon me when she was in a severely stressful state as I remembered. Mom's reality was severely edited by the fact that she couldn't accept she had done anything wrong or else her severely fragile self-concept would come crashing down again. The book gave me a lot of insight to what had happened to me, and what my mom was experiencing. People with BPD have severely overwhelming emotions and no tools to deal with them. The "two-year-old" you describe when your mother is once again overwhelmed sounds to me like a pretty accurate armchair diagnosis of BPD.

The thing that preserved my relationship with my mother (which became pretty good in the years before she died) was some of the advice in that book, such as setting boundaries and communicating in the SET format -- which stands for Support, Empathy, Truth. In this communication pattern, you identify what your mother is feeling (support), empathize with the fact that she is feeling that way (because she really IS feeling that way), but state your truth to set the boundaries.

Such as, "Mom, I understand that you are feeling really scared about the fact that I am driving on my own to Kansas City. It must feel awful to be scared. However, I am an adult and adults are expected to handle two-hour drives on their own." (Although the example is fictitious, it is only slightly so. My mother had a lot of time dealing with severe irrational fears that someone she loved would end up dead in a ditch somewhere, and so she would try to control others' behavior so she didn't have to worry.)

The other thing I am going to suggest, though, is that you get some therapy. If you grew up with a mom with BPD and a dad who defended her, you are likely to feel feelings of anger, abandonment, betrayal, and the like because every episode Mom has pulls up a childhood of similar memories. I think working with the therapist on my own childhood abandonment issues made it possible for me to use the SET method with Mom rather than falling victim to a tide of my own feelings.

I really came to empathize with her, because I learned about the events of her own childhood which, in combination with the pretty severe anxiety she suffered, blew up into likely BPD. Mom got somewhat better when she got older mostly because antidepressants cut back some of the "intensity", but when she started having complications from cancer in her brain which included hallucinations, the BPD came back full-bore. I didn't get the brunt of it because I could deal with her using the SET communication and she actually felt somewhat reassured when she spoke to me.
posted by lleachie at 5:06 PM on July 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

The appropriately-named book Stop Walking on Eggshells saved me from a lifetime of misery.
posted by The Deej at 5:20 PM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Understanding the Borderline Mother is the best book I've ever read on the subject. And Susan Forward's Toxic Parents can give you tools for dealing with both your undiagnosed BPD mother and enmeshed, enabler father. I would also strongly suggest finding a qualified therapist to help you through this process, as it's immensely painful and confusing to realize that something is terribly wrong with your family, and it isn't you.

After years of trying everything imaginable, from just silently taking the abuse to using validation techniques to trying to just accept the mental illness as something I am duty-bound to tolerate, I've found that the only way I can successfully coexist with my parents is by completely detaching from them. It was a deeply painful decision, but since cutting them off completely I've finally been able to start healing from the abuse and starting a life of my own. It's a whole lot happier out here, away from the madness and chaos.

Good luck. Feel free to MeFi message me if you ever need a friendly ear.
posted by balls at 5:32 PM on July 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

I've got a mom with classic BPD who errupts into irrational verbal and emotional violence and loves drama. She has pitted her children against each other to the point where none of us really interact with each other because we don't know what is true and what isn't. My dad and one of my sisters are fiercely protective of her and defend her behavior and have become entirely alienated from extended family and social contacts because of her. My mom is threatened by her adult children being married and having a "family" other than her. She sees her married children as traitors and despises our in-laws and is suspicious and/or hateful towards our spouses.

She's obsessed with the idea of "knocking" me off my "high horse" and will dredge out a litany of my pre-teen antics or things I did and said 20 years ago in a discussion to make me feel bad or validate her behavior. She was verbally, emotionally and sometimes physically abusive to me when I lived under her roof. When she was upset, she was always threatening to surrender me to a children's home or make me live in the cockroach infested basement with no clothes and a bare mattress. She used to tell me that she was going to leave us and let me be the "mommy" and that "if it wasn't for you damn kids, I'd be traveling the world, living out of a suitcase!"

When I have confronted her about this, she defends herself by saying that I was not an easy child to live with and that I deserved everything. I have attempted to get her into therapy and she is full of rage at the suggestion. In fact, she is currently not speaking to me because I asked her to get help. She told me to "find a new mother."

What really sucks is that a lot of BPD people can be very charming when you meet them. I used to have major family blow outs and then talk to my friends about it. When they'd meet my mom, she'd be so delightful and sweetly behaved that my friends were sure I was lying or exaggerating. It is really hard to explain what is wrong with her to other people. I'm currently having a really hard time trying to tell my husband's (very normal and traditional) family about my mom and why we don't have a close relationship.

What worked for me: Reading all of the books listed above. The best book I read was "Understanding the Borderline Mother." Reading that was a huge revelation and I saw myself and my mother in the pages. I got LOTS of therapy and learned some coping techniques including setting boundaries. What was particularly hard for me was that I had a lot of learned behaviors from my mother that I had to unlearn. Particularly how to deal with conflict in a relationship and interpersonal skills. There used to be a couple of good message boards online about dealing with family members with BPD, so you might want to check around for those. I think it is helpful to read other people's stories about similar situations, if anything, to not feel so alone.

I frequently go through long periods of not communicating with my parents (ie, "limited contact"), but if there is a family emergency, etc., I am available to some degree. This sounds horrible, but it is the only way I can remain sane and mentally healthy as an adult.
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:36 PM on July 26, 2009 [14 favorites]

Do read the recommended books; they're all helpful, though they do have some of the usual self-help bloat. Then you'll want to plan some 'rules' as to what you will and won't tolerate from your mother. Enforcing the boundaries can be super hard at first, but it absolutely does work if you're consistent.

You'll read things about borderline personality disorder people: They're manipulative, selfish, attention hogs. But it's important thing remember that they experience hideous anxiety, and their behavior somehow makes them feel better. Pay no attention to the negative characterizations; just concentrate on making your relationship with your mother more manageable.

My husband's mother creates drama and turmoil, complains whenever she can, gets attention with hysterics and made-up stories, fabricates health emergencies, and wants to call each of her adult kids several times a day. When my husband put his foot down, he explained that he understood and was sorry that she's very anxious, but that his needs and feelings deserved respect, as well. His rules, just as examples:
-You may call once a week, to home phone OR cell, and leave one message if there's no answer. If you don't hear from us within 24 hours, call again (once) and leave a message if need be.
-Complaining isn't allowed. Ideas for solutions are welcome; otherwise, no talking about problems.
-No conversation about health matters. If something is important, ask the doctor to call us.
-No talk about how unfair we are or how we don't talk with her often enough.

When she calls twice in one day, she gets a one-month time out. (This almost never happens.) When she brings up unwelcome topics, we riefly express sympathy about the anxiety and then remind her and/or change the subject. If she persists, we say, "Talk to you next week, bye," and hang up. This, too, is rarely necessary -- though in the beginning it happened a few times.

Be very specific. You don't need to impose all the boundaries at one time. Be very consistent. And keep reminding yourself that you need to be fair to yourself as well as to her.

I really wish you well.
posted by wryly at 7:01 PM on July 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

My DD#1 has BPD and refused meds for years. She's been taking a medication for about 1-1/2 years which is classed as 'something to help with anxiety' but it is also prescribed to those with BPD. She's a totally different person. Perhaps you could con your mum into taking something similar. It's not a regular downer type thing as those are dangerous for people with BPD. If I could find my note with the drug's name, I'd add it, but I can't. Reading the above makes me dizzy as it brings back all the horrible stuff of DD's growing up. Perhaps your mum has been rerunning some of the things she heard growing up as, truth be told, it's almost impossible to raise an undiagnosed/untreated child. It's like having a wild animal in the house who morphs into an angel. It's exhausting and frightening (for what will happen to her and her future.) I'd say your father is just trying to get through it all, to get by as the woman he loves is hell on wheels to live with. My dad did the same to the point he'd break out in nervous rashes. My mum has either undiagnosed BPD or Narcissisticc Personality Disorder so I've seen this from both sides. I saved myself by walking away for years while I built myself a life and dealt with the abuse. Given that it's your mum and not your child, and that she has a support system, I'd gently withdraw to a point where you are comfortable/can bear it. Your father, mother and sister have a circus going in which they are comfortable. Leave them to it. Nthing the reading. The more you know, the less distressed you may become. BTW, brain cancer can make a person's personality change dramatically or, like Alzheimers, bring out the absolute worst.
posted by x46 at 8:14 PM on July 26, 2009

anonymous..I had a very tumultuous relationship with my Mother. It is not overstating it to tell you that it was 110% awful. Like your Mother...mine also had very good qualities mixed in with the bizarre unpredictable ones. My Mother has died (at age 85) ..and I am pleased to report that things finally improved between us toward the very end of her life. Even then, however, I was never able to feel that we "solved it"---no, we didn't.
One thing I put together is that my Mother had been abused sexually by her own father (we never talked about it, but I am certain of it). BPD doesn't just fall from the sky--something major happened to your Mother to have her become the way that she is. I'm not saying what happened to my Mother also happened to yours--but it would be smart if you could keep your antennae up about your Mother's pathology. No need to analyze her--but it would be exceptional for you if you could empathize with her over her unsettled past. I don't hold out much hope that you can fix her..but I hope you will continue to see that she does have positive qualities. My Mother was a very funny (humorous) woman who could have had a career in comedy! She used comedy to get through her hard life. I cherish that about her...especially now that she is gone. I think people like you are very special with a very large life assignment. Don't let your Mother abuse you--but always remember --there are reasons she has BPD...big reasons.
posted by naplesyellow at 11:56 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I too have a BPD mother — she was professionally diagnosed by a psychiatrist. The books recommended by others have been helpful for me too.

My mother has been in therapy off and on for as long as I can remember... I wish I could say otherwise, but it's only made her worse. Apparently this happens with some (many) BPDs. Instead of using the tools she learned in therapy to help herself and gain some perspective on her behaviors, she absorbed it all and then used it to psychoanalyze my brother (K) and I. This meant being armchair "diagnosed" by our own mother with everything from psychosis to schizophrenia to sociopathy. It all boiled down to K and I not having the right to exist as individuals. Whenever we did assert our individuality, out would come the psychoanalysis: "rebellion", "Oedipus complex", "pathological lying", and when she got tired of that, it was the more down-to-earth "ungrateful bitch, how'd you feel if I put you up for adoption/abandoned you?" (I was 7 years old when she threatened adoption. I smiled with immense relief and said, "Mommy, if that would really make you happy, I'd be happy too! Maybe I can have a mommy who really loves me, and you won't be burdened with me any more." She used the word "burden" often enough that I knew what it meant. Her face turned purple with rage... she never threatened adoption again. Abandonment, yes, but not adoption.)

Due to her therapy, we all knew what she'd been through in her childhood (she used me as her confessor after therapy sessions and when she wasn't in therapy), and it certainly did help to explain how she became BPD. Physical and mental abuse, probably sexual too, though she'd never say so. Her obsession with accusing me of improbably obscene escapades I'd never even conceived of is one reason I think it's highly possible; she has a lot of other tell-tale symptoms as well. As others have said too, when around non-family members, she can be sweet and charming. Very few people believed my childhood complaints. Now that she's older, though, she's lost many friends and can't keep new ones.

I ended up having to stop all contact with her. That said, I'm 33 and she's 56; reading the responses of others here gives me some hope that perhaps once she's older, she'll be more open to respecting boundaries. I did set them with her... unfortunately, as mentioned, she's had so much therapy herself that she sees them a mile away and takes great joy in respecting them for a while, then stomping all over them and cackling (yep, she really cackles) at how incompetent I am at boundary setting. It was after she got her own therapist license (yeah... sigh) that she became so manipulatively hurtful that I told her I was never speaking to her again. It's not just for me; I hope to have children someday, and there is simply no way in hell I want them to be treated the way she treated my brother and I. It's been three years now since I last spoke to her, and I've never felt better. She does still try sending the odd (and I do mean odd) email occasionally, but I ignore them.

Since no longer speaking with her, it's been like finally coming all the way out of a dark, dank cave to relish the sunlight for the first time in my life. It seems like every day I discover something new about myself, and honestly like who I am. I told my mother in the email in which I cut her off, "it's amazing that you could know me from birth for thirty years, and not have any idea who I am" — well, that was somewhat true for me too, I'm a new person now that I no longer have to carry the burden of dealing with my parents.

You'll notice I've never mentioned my father. My mother has been married to the same man since they were 21. He has no real existence of his own apart from saying, "don't you have any respect?! Listen to your mother!!" I can't help him until he helps himself, and haven't spoken to him since then either.

Try boundaries if you haven't already, and give it time. Also please remember to respect and love yourself as much as you do others. If you want to have children, keep them in mind too — my grandfather (yes, mother's father) was abusive and I so wish that my mother had kept me away from him.
posted by fraula at 12:59 AM on July 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

My Mother and I both agree that she is BPD. Unbelievably, my Mom will deny major, documentable events but will own up to having BPD. She'll even admit she is incredibly awful and abusive at times. I feel better when I have no contact with her and only until I moved out did I begin to feel good about myself.

However, I love her very much. And she did take herself to therapy and tried very hard to improve herself. She took me to therapy too because she knew I needed help to cope with my home life. (I'm not going to go into specifics here.) I love her like I can't love anyone else and the worst is she doesn't quite believe me because of her insecurities. Reading Understanding the Borderline Mother was incredibly helpful.

I kept her away for a long time so I could establish a sense of myself without her perspective coloring it. I also kept her from my husband while we were dating so I could establish a healthy connection with him without her crazy advice for relationships clouding my head. Eventually he would have to know her and I tried to prepare him for what extended time with her would be like. It was impossible to prepare him but one weekend with her and he has a much greater understanding of my childhood.

My strategy with my Mom, which she actually suggested, is for us not to spend more than 3 days in a row together. After that things explode for us. As further strategy, she has to stay at a hotel, not in my house so we have some downtime. I also only see her with other people around (to minimize outbursts and crazy talk) and avoid having alcohol present where we go. Also, I enlist someone to drive us because she is so distracting to me I can't drive without getting lost. Those are the basics. Beyond that, I try to stay on my toes and not get snared by any of her triggers or baits to get me alone, bring up emotional topics or get into an argument with her. I try to indulge her whims and preferences if they are small.

It's incredibly difficult and it doesn't always work. I'm terrible at maintaining boundaries with her. I do my best and I honestly think she does too. Sometimes victory is counted in shades of how bad it didn't go. Our last visit ended with not speaking to her for an hour while my husband drove her back to her hotel. We barely said goodbye as I hugged her at the curb. I got back in the car and said "That went pretty well." I meant it because it was much more civil than most of our other goodbyes.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 9:10 AM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

I am so, so sorry that you have had to put up with her abuse. You must be so hurt and confused, and frightened. I have some advice for you which I hope will help. I have personal experience with this situation so memail me if you want to talk more, or you can email me from an anonymous address.

I'm not an expert by any means but I have done a lot of research on this subject. My advice is obviously not comprehensive but I think it could be a good road map.

--She often has difficulty with impulse control, so she cannot protect you from herself. You do not have to sit there and take her abuse. Nor do you have to argue! Arguing is just acknowledging that there is something to argue about, but there is not. You can learn and practice the skill of just walking away. Go Nancy Reagan on her and "Just Say No." Blocking her email is a great first step, so good job! You can also block her incoming calls so she can't call you, but you can call her.

--Expect other family members to try to get you to restore contact with her and do what she wants. Refuse to discuss your relationship with her with anyone who is not 100% supportive of you. She probably treats different people very differently so they might not be able to sympathize with you. To some people I'm sure she seems normal, good for them, they can talk to her whenever they want and don't need to interfere with you.

--She should know exactly what to expect and how she is expected to behave in order to get the "reward" of talking to you. Call her every week at the exact same time and talk for exactly 15 minutes and then say goodbye. She will probably try to get you to talk more, set a timer if you have to and be firm. She might avoid your calls to punish you. If she becomes abusive, hang up. If you block her calls, she can't call you back so you can walk away. Plan for something distracting and labor-intensive afterward so you don't sit and stew about whatever mean thing she says.

--Avoid intimacy, avoid talking to her about your emotions, relationships, vulnerabilities, or anything that you or she feels strongly about. Intimacy often brings out the worst in her and the typical mother/child relationship is a very intimate one. You can transition from a mother/child relationship to an acquaintanceship. This will minimize her ability to abuse you although she will probably strive to become intimate with you again, which will then cause her to lash out...it's a losing game.

--Even an emotion as simple as boredom can overwhelm her and she will do anything to relieve it. Even if that means harming you, gossiping, spreading lies, fake illnesses, etc. So "walking on eggshells" is pointless. Better just to avoid being her target so that she will find another one.
posted by kathrineg at 10:41 AM on July 27, 2009 [6 favorites]

wryly's advice on boundary setting is great, by the way.
posted by kathrineg at 10:44 AM on July 27, 2009

Thank you for posting this on AskMeFi -- I hope that you know that you are immeasurably helping the readers of your question, too.

This is *totally* like my mother, although I wonder if pluckysparrow and fraula are the siblings I never had -- every A I got in school was sneered at ("You're too smart for your own good. But don't they give A-plus? Why didn't you get an A-plus?") and I, too, was regularly threatened with the orphanage, foster care, etc. I was told I was "anti" everything.

What helped me: Extremely limited contact with my mother (it helped that we lived on different continents for eight years). Ignoring her PA e-mails and phone calls, but responding brightly and briefly to the "normal" ones. This will help you to set boundaries that you control.

Also, recognizing that my mother was a classic Mean Girl when she was young, and that she got married at 19 to get away from a cold, controlling father and probably still internalizes a lot of her own childhood. I understand her better now, but that took a whole lot of time and distance.

Good luck.
posted by vickyverky at 12:49 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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