Help me deal with my mentally ill father, who I still need to talk to.
October 3, 2009 1:27 PM   Subscribe

How should I go about handling my (very) mentally ill father who goes through (primarily) emotionally/psychologically abusive phases with anyone he holds a relationship with? Completely cutting off contact is probably not a solution for a few reasons.

Sorry for a long post, but...

History: My father is mentally ill, diagnosed as having a number of issues. He does not properly take his medication, and I'm not even sure that he bothers taking it at all, any more. It shows. I have been out of my (now divorced) parents' household for many years, but he calls me frequently--once a week--and tries desperately to keep tabs on what I'm doing, where I'm going, etc. as he likes to try to gain control over people, so he can manipulate situations. It's a taxing relationship that would normally not be worth having, other than there are some issues at hand with cutting all ties. That's where I'm hoping to get some advice.

I thankfully haven't seen my father in about two years, but he's called me and known where I lived, which wasn't an easy place for him to travel to...intentionally. About a month ago, I began a big move, selling a bunch of my stuff with the idea of starting afresh and getting better stuff. I've graduated college, so it is a bit of a new life.

Before leaving where I was, I told my father that I was in the process of moving, but was going to drive around and find a place before settling down, which I have done; I said I'd have trouble getting in touch with him, as I'd be busy, which was/is true. I've only just gotten into a place over the past week. (Maybe it's worth noting that the place is much closer--several hours' drive--and more accessible to him now, which is a slight concern.) My father's been going crazy, though--no puns intended--as he only had my last landline number, so he hasn't been able to speak to me or keep up with what I'm doing. I emailed him a couple of weeks ago, but that wasn't enough, and now he's sending me emails saying I haven't gotten in touch with him for three months. That may be one of his occasional delusions, and I have no way of calculating whether he's reacting angrily or otherwise to it all. Overall, this isn't my problem.

My problem is that...well, really my problem is just that he's crazy, and I'm not (no more so than most!), and there's not really anything either of us can do about it, particularly if he's not going to take his medication and/or consistently go to therapy. When he calls me, he wants to act like he's never treated me badly. He wants to be all buddy-buddy, as if I've never had to keep him, a very large man, from chasing my mother; as if I've never had to call the cops on him; as if he's never verbally disowned me or threatened me to my face in one of his fits. Despite all this, I would still be more than happy to keep a distant relationship with him, where we send cards at holidays and we speak over the phone a couple of times a year. Being mentally ill, though, and pretty damn unapologetic, he can't seem to understand any of this, and he'd even somehow be offended if I tried (yet again) to get him to understand it.

Core Question: With all of this baggage and the issues that still exist, his latest email accusing me of not talking to him for three months (again, untrue) and the fact that he doesn't know where I am / doesn't have an easy means of contacting me leaves me wondering how I should handle it. I have options, but I'm just not sure which I should choose. Should I just cut ties? Should I tell him where I am? Should I give him my phone number? Should I see him again? Is it safe for me to? And on and on and on. I drive myself batty dealing with this.

"So, why are you still in touch with him at all? Why would you even consider it?" you might ask. There are three primary reasons:

1. This is the biggest reason, and it is a material one, but one I care deeply about, nonetheless. There is a lot of land somewhere that, as his only child, will go to me, unless he outright denies me from having it in his will. Some of that land is already in my name, but only a very small portion of it. I want it all, when he finally keels over from all his bad decisions, as morbid and vulturistic as that sounds. I grew up on that land some, and it means a lot to me. I am concerned that cutting contact with him would mean I would never see all of it again. On a lesser note, where he lives is where my parents lived for a long time; it is also the place my mother fled from, finally, a few years ago. A lot of my childhood keepsakes, that I desperately want, are locked up in that home with him.

2. He gets frantic and does some wild things that might affect my life. My father has been known to wiretap, hide recorders, hire private investigators, etc. He currently doesn't know where I am, but if he ever got into the frame of mind where he wanted to know, he could actually easily find out. He would even know if he looked on my Twitter account, but he's too lazy. He loves spending money, though, so if he decided he wanted to track me down, I'm sure he'd hire someone. Doing things like that seem to give him a feeling of importance. Clearly, for my own sanity, I don't want to be tracked down! It seems that minimal, but existing contact is the only way to eliminate this possibility.

3. One of the few ways my father has always tried to "apologize" to both my mother and myself is by spending money. He paid for my college tuition, and a very small part of me is a little bit afraid that if I piss him off, he'll try to come back some sort of way and get that money from me. He'd not have much on his side, as I've got emails from him which don't state I have to repay anything, but I don't want to go through the hassle or heartache of any of that. My father is "lawyer-and-sue happy," so this is a possible scenario, even if small.

So, yes, hopefully you see why I'm hesitant to completely cut ties. I feel like both material/financial and emotional things are at stake here.

Two final things:

Please note that "talk to a therapist" is not the answer I'm looking for, so I'd appreciate it if no one went that route. I have spoken to therapists and guidance counselors in the past, as recently as this year. They all recommend I distance myself from my father, if not completely cut ties. This is good advice, but it doesn't take into account some of the things I have at stake here, which counselors always seem to overlook for some reason. That being said, therapy to help me process all this crap probably is in order, and I'll see to that at some point, when I've got time and a steadier income.

The law is not on my side, really, other than in emergencies, so you shouldn't assume that it is. Restraining orders do little good, other than to rile up the mentally ill party, and it is incredibly difficult to institutionalize someone, even when they have emotionally and even physically abused people. Most of the time you can only get someone locked up for a few weeks; my father has been locked up for that amount of time in the past, only to be released, because of legal reasons concerning how long mental health patients can be kept under certain circumstances. I'm probably not looking for a way to deal with all this, law wise, but if you know of something I don't, I'd appreciate your sharing it.

I hope someone can help me figure out how to communicate with him, but still stay safe and get what I want in the end. Thanks, everyone.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
From what I gather in your post, you are trying to maintain as distant as possible a relationship, for primarily monetary reasons.

Which I don't agree with, but that isn't my business.

As to how to do it, it sounds like making proactive contact with him on a periodic basis, on your terms, is your best bet. Email him or call him, blocking your caller ID, with as much frequency as you seem to need to.

I will say though, that if your dad is as crazy as you say he is, there is a chance he's going to leave everything you want to his cat, some random charity, or whatever. As it does belong to him, that is his right to do. So I still say you shouldn't base your behavior on what you're trying to "get" but that's your business.
posted by mazienh at 1:41 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is lying to him an option?

Spin the old guy a line that keeps him happy and quiet, and keep him at arms length. Don't give him your phone number and certainly not your address, but email him more frequently to give him more of an illusion of control.

If he's happy and quiet, he's less likely to try to track you down. And if he does, well, it won't make much difference anyway.
posted by Solomon at 1:46 PM on October 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

1. Being nice to him will not guarantee you get that land. Maybe contact a local real estate agent and let them know you want to buy the land if it ever goes on the market. If he dies still owning the land and the will says someone else gets the land you can always dispute the will based on his mental instability.
2. Fake address/phone number. If he feels he has information about you (although incorrect) he won't need to track you down. Stop making it easy for anyone to follow your electronic footprint.
3. Giving money to children for school is normal - he would have to have proof the money was a loan not a gift as he had stated previously in email to you.
posted by saucysault at 1:52 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're determined to maintain contact, the only advice I can offer is... ignore the crazy. When he sends an email claiming you haven't contacted him in three months, ignore those parts of the email. Reply with something like, "Hey, thanks for the email; it's always good to hear from you! Things are going well for me in the new home/apt. Lately, I've been..."

Don't rise to his bait. That's the best option I can see.
posted by browse at 1:52 PM on October 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

I'm sure you have reason to know this better than I do, but the problem with trying to manipulate, predict, or simply deal honestly with a crazy person's* behavior is that they have no levers. There's no behavior you can exhibit that will reliably influence theirs, in the way that we can all be relatively assured of sowing some goodwill by polite and friendly behavior to others, or vice versa. If you want to keep a relationship with him, you are going to have to take everything you do as a chance -- a pure chance.

We can't tell you what's safe to do, although of course some courses are more unsafe than others. I would err on the side of firm, friendly boundaries with him, a Miss Manners-y artificiality. But every time you bring him into your life, remember that, in the words of the old story about the scorpion and the frog, you knew what he was when you picked him up.

* I use "crazy" reluctantly, because you don't give a specific diagnosis. Unpredictable, sentimental by turns, and physically dangerous; that's all I can tell.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:54 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't imagine why you'd think that he could ever sue you to repay him for college tuition. If this is really of concern to you, go talk to a lawyer and explain to him why you think your father would do this, so that your lawyer can explain to you the immense unlikelihood of a judge ever ordering repayment.
posted by Mr. Justice at 2:04 PM on October 3, 2009

If he's computer literate, why not get a skype account specific for him and video/skype him every now and then. It might keep him happier than phone calls and he'll think he can tell every time you're online... which he wouldn't because it would be an account that you only logged in to whenever you felt strong enough to deal with him.

I had a toxic parent once, and no amount of land would have kept me in contact. I would have felt it besmirched by the toxicity. But best of luck anyway possum.
posted by taff at 2:07 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Could you get a pre-pay cell phone or VOIP number just so you have a number to give to your dad? He'll be the only one to ever call that phone and you can choose whether or not to answer and talk to him (or just turn the phone off entirely). Or maybe call him from Skype. That'll just show up on his phone as 99999 or Private Number or something like that, and you can call on your terms, not his. Or get a Google Voice number and route all his calls to voicemail for you to listen to later. I like the phone number just for him, personally.

Beyond that, I think browse is on the right track. If he's doing or saying things you don't like just flat out say "Dad, I don't want to talk to you when you're doing XYZ, saying hurtful things, berating me, whatever," (be specific) and if he continues just say "I'll talk to you another time" and hang up. Teach him you're not going to put up with unacceptable behavior. You probably won't ever have an easy relationship but hopefully you can make it less frustrating for you while giving him some of the contact he wants.
posted by 6550 at 2:16 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're going to maintain any sort of relationship with your father, you have to remove the monetary issue from the table. There is absolutely no guarantee that he'll leave that land to you, and otherwise perfectly "sane" people make rash decisions about inheritance all the time. So if what you want out of this is mostly based on what you'll get when he dies, just cut ties right now.

I think that, if you remove the idea that you have to play nice with someone who's actively abusing you (verbally or otherwise) because you're going to get a reward sometime in the future, that may clear up some of the ways you deal with him. You can't put the safties in place that it seems you need if you're tempering that with the idea that he has to be happy enough to leave his estate to you.
posted by xingcat at 2:19 PM on October 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

The thing that you mention once but might want to think about in relation to your longer-term plans here is your safety. If someone is delusional, you don't exactly know how details about you will or won't get integrated into their thinking. (My story on this point is here.)

I can imagine the pull of land, particularly land you visited in childhood and associate with your family. That said, it sounds like he controls you through money, and I want you to be free of his control. Also, how bitter would you feel if he put up with his shit for two more decades and then at the last minute he changed the will?

I wonder whether you could just start giving up on that particular piece of land now, grieve the loss, and then start figuring out how to buy another piece of land that could be truly your own. Then nothing you do will have to be on his terms and you won't be held hostage to a hurtful relationship by a wish that may or may not come true. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 2:39 PM on October 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

To build further on my idea upthread of giving him a fake number/address. I meant a working number in a different area code than where you currently live. I way to make it "real" would be to enrol in an online course and give your new location (area code and/or email address) at the town the university is physically located. This would hide your real location, distance yourself emotionally, and give yourself something to talk about that is true (since you obviously don't want to mention where you are really working etc).
posted by saucysault at 2:44 PM on October 3, 2009

Maintain an illusion of connection. Get a pay-as-you-go phone just for his calls. Get a mailbox someplace safe, esp. if it looks like a street address. Call him at least some of the time, so he doesn't feel you avoiding him.

Talk to a lawyer. If he's documentably crazy, possibly you can challenge a will that disowns you. Also, is he safe? If not, is it possible for you or someone to become his conservator?

Try to find a little bit of compassion. People don't choose crazy. It's hard to have a parent with a mental illness, but someday you may wish you had some kind feelings. I don't mean that judgmentally. I have some experience of this.
posted by theora55 at 8:07 PM on October 3, 2009

It sounds like you want to maintain or manage this relationship, but you need to protect yourself from your father.

Do whatever you can to keep a low profile. Don't own a landline. Use a post office box rather than a street address. Avoid broadcasting info via social media.

Continue to have regular phone conversations with your father. Make sure you conduct it by cell phone, because cell phones are not as easy to trace.

If your father fixates on something that he claims you haven't done, just ignore it. Don't get drawn in. Change the subject.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:24 PM on October 3, 2009

You're talking about your father as a man who has considerable resources, and the willingness to employ them to suit his own ends. If you imagine, in this day and age, that you can live in relatively normal circumstances, such as at least a semi-permanent address within a few hours of your father's domicile, while managing the frequency and terms of your continued contact with a such a person to your own satisfaction, you have no idea what can be had for money in this day and age.

His money generates a large, continuing power imbalance, that you can only negate by getting in very close, and being so clever in handling him, that he hardly realizes he's being handled, or by getting a lot farther away, and remaining much better hidden. If you want the land, engage. Stay close. Work the crazy. Master the crazy. Take care of the man, as best you can. Be his son. Coldly put, there's no reason land transfers to your benefit shouldn't happen prior to his demise, and many reasons from the standpoint of preservation of family wealth, that they should. You really need an estate lawyer to lay out the practicalities of all this, for both you and your father.

If you want absolute safety, run and hide. Farther and deeper than any hound he can hire can find, to be explicit.

Trying for a sane middle ground, unless you can get him back on meds and working with you in the real world, isn't a likely course of action. It's just something you want, not something he wants. And he already thinks you've been dodging him for three months.

Personally, I think your best bet, and his, is for you to get in close, and try to help him. I quite understand if your view of your history with him negates considering this as a suggestion.
posted by paulsc at 10:54 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you want to inherit his land and his money, you'll have to be his son. If you can't deal with your father, you don't really want his money.

I hope he sells it all and has a good time burning up all the money doing flat-out crazy stuff in far-off places. Build your own pile.
posted by pracowity at 2:18 AM on October 4, 2009

Go to the library and get the book Stop Walking on Eggshells. It's about how to live with Borderline Personality disorder. I don't know if you dad has BPD, but I think the advice in the book will be helpful to you.
posted by RussHy at 5:24 AM on October 4, 2009

Take care of the man, as best you can. Be his son.

If you want to inherit his land and his money, you'll have to be his son.

I didn't see anything in the post to indicate that anonymous is male.
posted by miskatonic at 5:58 AM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

FWIW, late in the game, I see nothing dishonorable in wanting to inherit the land as long as you behave with honor and integrity. Define the relationship you want with him--what works for you and maintain it consistently and honestly. I can guarantee you there is nothing you can do to assure you will inherit or not inherit the land. If "crazy people" behaved in a consistent and predictable way they may well not be crazy. I have spent a life time watching the children, parents and other loved ones fruitless trying to change the thought process or behavior of one who is mentally ill. Maintain a consistent communication strategy and send cards using optimal anonymity in written and telephonic communications if you wish. There is a strategy in AA called detached love--you can call it detached caring if you wish. Give it a try. Google it if you wish. Good luck and I hope you inherit the land in an honorable way.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:06 AM on October 4, 2009

Do not assume you will ever inherit the land. He's CRAZY and crazy people will come up with all kind of shit in their own heads. He'll probably get offended at your neglecting him, or some other thing you "did" (but didn't really) to hurt him, and eventually will write you out. I mean, odds are HIGH that if he's as crazy as you say, he'll more likely disinherit you than leave it to you. I'd grieve the loss of it, like the other poster said, and assume that even if you kissed his ass odds are not good that you'll stay in his good graces enough to get it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:08 PM on October 4, 2009

"I didn't see anything in the post to indicate that anonymous is male."
posted by miskatonic at 8:58 AM on October 4

"He wants to be all buddy-buddy..." isn't a common way of females describing their fathers. Fair inference, I think, and it doesn't change my advice, even if the inference isn't correct.
posted by paulsc at 9:22 PM on October 4, 2009

from the original poster:
Maybe I should have mentioned what my father's been diagnosed with (I tagged it, but didn't write it.): bipolar disorder and, yes, borderline personality disorder. He's become more psychotic with age and goes into "rages" that he later says he had no control over and that he can't remember his actions. (No way of knowing the truth, of course.) He has issues with addictions (mainly porn, overeating and excessive spending into debt). He is a chronic liar.

As comes with the territory, he does unpredictable things, and I agree that you can't pinpoint how/when/why any of it will happen, and that's part of the fear. When I was in school abroad, he actually randomly showed up unannounced in the other country (no small feat), so not giving him my address is definitely of top priority. He basically stalked me in that time, but I had few options of what I could do about it, being off and alone. I didn't give him my new address when I moved two years ago into my last place; that did help, and I kept to it, even in the face of all the questions kathrineg talked about, but I couldn't have kept it going for much longer, and he'd sense something was up with a P.O. box, I think. Just as a side note, hiding my entire location online, while a good idea, is not completely feasible, either, as my husband and I are in the freelance web business and will be so in our new city. I see no issue in giving out my city online (nothing more local than that, though), and as I said, he won't find it, except if he goes to even more extreme trouble/measures. The latter does enter my mind, though, as written previously. It's a bit of a scare, but I can't hide in a hole because of this man, even though I'd sometimes like to.

When it comes to my reasons for maintaining contact, sometimes it just feels like the lesser of two evils... The issue is that I don't want to have to choose any "evil," so to speak. In all, personal actuality, I just want it to be over, but I don't see how it ever can be, either because of (some of) my wants or because of the way he is. I talk to him and live a small, little hell, or I don't and I probably have to deal with him, anyway, eventually. Since my mother left him, he's put more of his focus in his "relationship" with me, for the most part, because it's all he has left to control.

Paulsc's response is the kind of practical reply I'm looking for...and yet not sure if I want to hear! The land is important to me not only because of my childhood; it's been through generations of my family, and it really bothers me that it might just end because of one person. It is also worth a lot, more than I will probably be able to buy in my lifetime (or it would be a non-issue to let it go, really). It's that much land. It is a huge, huge investment, and I think I would be crazy to let it go easily, without some serious thought into what it's worth to me and what I'm willing to do to get it. I'm still figuring that out. So yeah, the grief of letting that go would be both sentimental and monetary, make no mistake. As I mentioned, some is in my name, but it's only a small portion. Keeping contact with him also does ensure I keep it at this point. He does not have a will, probably because he doesn't really think of himself as old (despite a plethora of weight-related health issues from his bad lifestyle), so currently it will just go to me.

As for his suing me, I know he has no legal recourse. It is more that my father likes to pursue things through lawyers, and so I can imagine myself in a situation like that. It took my mother over a year to get through her very nasty divorce with him; he loves complicating things and feeling like he's top dog, even if the ultimate ruling will not be in his favor. (He doesn't care.) He's put himself in extreme debt before, pursuing clearly frivolous lawsuits, and he's even laughingly admitted that he just wanted to "cause trouble," "annoy" the other party or just generally fuck with the system. I don't want to have that happen to me is all I'm thinking, but I can't tell if keeping him close (fight) or if running away (flight) will keep it from happening. The unpredictable nature of things makes it hard to...well, predict what the best course of action is.

Thanks for all the responses so far. I am taking it all in, and it's helpful to get lots of different replies. It's incredibly difficult to deal with this. I'm trying to balance safety, my own sanity and a life-enhancing investment that has many returns.

A few other things:

- Asking my mother isn't an option. I wish it was. He physically abused her badly (read: marital rape that she never reported fast enough to do anything about) before she left, and just bringing him up in a conversation upsets her. She deals with [diagnosed] PTSD because of him.

- Perhaps an interest in land suggests I'm male in our world, but I'm actually female, which may or may not change the dynamics a little, so maybe it's worth mentioning. I don't know.

- I'm not financially dependent on him now that I'm out of college and have no tuition costs. This is purely a matter of what's the safest way for me to communicate/not communicate with him, with the added interest of a very huge and valuable piece of property in the bunch.

- Responses like pracowity's are not helpful and make painful and extreme light of the abuse I've had to live with, as well as the abuse others have had to deal with because of his "flat-out crazy stuff in far-off places." If this was just a "dealing with dad" issue, not a "dealing with mentally ill, potentially dangerous dad" issue, it wouldn't be nearly as confusing, upsetting or difficult.
posted by mathowie at 3:18 PM on October 12, 2009

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