Serenity Now! Help me calm down.
May 22, 2010 1:17 PM   Subscribe

I’m suffering a bad reaction to a family crisis. It’s either PTSD or a general freakout, but I need advice on how to deal with this. Long, sad, family drama to follow…..

My mom is an alcoholic and is living in HUD senior housing. Over a year ago, she allowed my youngest brother, also an alcoholic and possibly mentally ill, to stay with her after he lost his place to live. They’ve always had a co-dependent, enabling relationship, and this has only become more twisted with time. I’m the oldest, and the only daughter, and my role in this little drama has been the “fixer.” My dad severely physically abused my mom when I was a child, and later my stepdad was very emotionally abusive to her and to me. I’ve always been the one to wipe up the blood, get dad to drop the gun, get the brothers out of jail, etc. My mother calls me “mom.”

I try to stay away from my mom and youngest brother. Their interaction depresses me beyond belief. He has attacked her and stolen her money. She has come to me badly bruised, I have called the cops, she has faithfully made the report while I was present, and then dropped the charges and let him move back in when I wasn’t. It’s a well established cycle and I have kept my boundaries as well as I can to protect my own sanity.

Two days ago, my brother called me to tell me that my mom had fallen and hit her head in the night– that he needed to go to work, so could I come by and take care of her. (I don’t suspect that he hit her this time). When I got there, she was covered in blood, very groggy, throwing up, and suffering from bloody diarrhea. I found out that this wasn’t the first time she had fallen in the night and that she has consistently been suffering from dizziness and nausea in the morning. She looks 10 years older than her age of 71. My brother didn’t end up going to work that day – he instead stayed home and proceeded to drink a pint and a half of whiskey and become a belligerent asshole (which I have found out is a daily ritual). I stayed there for 10 hours, tried to get them to consent to let me take her to the hospital, and did my best to hydrate her and keep my brother under control. The next day, I went back, washed the blood out of her hair, and finally got her to the hospital where she was admitted with dangerously low potassium and pancreatis (brought on by chronic alcoholism). My brother was drunk at the hospital as well, so I stayed with her in the emergency room until she was admitted (another 10 hour day with the family).

So now, she’s safely in the hospital, my brother is civil and overly polite, and I’m a freaking mess. I’ve seen my mother covered in blood too many times in my life to calm down from this last time. My brother’s voice sends me into a shaking rage, and I’m having panic attacks every ½ hour or so. Even though I know intellectually that she’s ok, I can’t escape this recurring feeling of horror. My boyfriend has been incredibly supportive, but he’s at a loss as to how to help and I’m trying hard not to freak him out. I have a commitment to a friend to help with her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah at 5:30, and I need to find a way to come back to Earth. I realize I may still have a bit of PTSD from my childhood – I haven’t felt this way in a long time, but I realize that may be due to the simple fact that I stay the hell away from them as much as I can. I understand that therapy is a good idea (and I’ve gone before), but that won’t help me today.

So….any advice for the short term on how to snap out of this? I feel like I’m stuck in a nightmare I can’t wake up from. My adrenal system is in overdrive and I don’t know how to fix it. Advice for the long term is also welcome.
posted by The Light Fantastic to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Get rooted in the present, and do a physical reset: do you think you're up for some vigorous exercise right now (or even just something all consuming and exhausting in a good way, like swimming or yoga)?
posted by availablelight at 1:22 PM on May 22, 2010

Are you sure you really need to help with this Bat Mitzvah? The fact that your mother is in the hospital is more than enough to give you a free pass for you to get out of doing this if you feel it's too much for you at the moment.

I second doing some yoga. Also if you can get to a bookstore, pick up a copy of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron. And a cup of chamomile tea can work wonders.
posted by hazyjane at 1:40 PM on May 22, 2010

Response by poster: do you think you're up for some vigorous exercise right now (or even just something all consuming and exhausting in a good way, like swimming or yoga)?

Not likely to happen today (unless a trip to the laundromat counts) - I only have a few hours before I have to go help my friend, and the emotional crap brought on my period big time.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:40 PM on May 22, 2010

Immediatly, go outside, take a bunch of deep breaths, go for a walk. Being the "fixer" I am sure you will pull yourself through this mess and reestablish some semblence of control by this evening. Sorry you are going through all of this! In the longer term, you may want to call senior services in your area and get some resources. Adult protective services may also be able to help. It's super stressful to watch adults bring so many horrible problems on themselves. There is nothing you can do to make them all be "normal" so like you have already done, you need to distance yourself from the situation for your own sanity. Hopefully there will be some sort of community resources that you can take advantage of and help your family from afar. Other advice that you often see here--go to AlAnon, get therapy, etc.
posted by MsKim at 1:41 PM on May 22, 2010

Response by poster: Are you sure you really need to help with this Bat Mitzvah?

I already bailed on her yesterday while I was at the hospital. She only needs me for 2 hours and she's also stressed as heck - she's raising her two granddaughters after her daughter's death a few years ago - I don't think I need the guilt of letting her down on top of the rest of this stress.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:44 PM on May 22, 2010

Period as in auntie Flo? I think you should either
a) get that free pass out of the Bat Mitzvah because oh lordy do you have the get-out-of-jail-free card right now, spend your time doing yoga/bath's METIME mental calm down get back to planet earth things
b) DO laundry by hand. Wash sheets the old fashioned way with the big tub, scrub, beat, rinse and scrub again. You have every reason to get anger out of your body physically right now and I've honestly done entire bedroom-sets this way when pissed off. It'll work up a sweat, give you a sense of accomplishment, and hey, clean sheets. Not to mention, it's symbolic as hell.
posted by dabitch at 1:45 PM on May 22, 2010

sorry posted while you posting, I see A is not an option. Then do B.
posted by dabitch at 1:47 PM on May 22, 2010

I hope this doesn't sound like trite advice, but when my life was turning upsidedown a while back I dealt with some of my worst days by doing things that distracted me and things I just love to do. I went to the movies by myself and watched romcoms and ate popcorn. I spent time with coffe and books and magazines for hours on end. I went shopping for a new pair of earrings and got my nails done. Those kinds of girly consumer activities might not be your thing but I think what I was really doing was engaging in "normal" distractions long enough to trick my body into forgettig what was going on.
And just keep telling yourself you're going to be ok. You will be ok. A friend of mine encouraged me to egage in "self soothing talk". I would imagine someone I trusted saying "everything is going to be just fine". "you're ok". "this will pass".
If that fails, chocolate icecream? Pasta? A long walk? Hoping everything works out.
posted by madred at 1:50 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Short term, mute the cell-phone and do a half-hour of meditation and visualization, listen to soothing music or sounds like ocean waves and breathe a calming scent like lavender. Ask your doctor for a prescription of something like Ativan - you don't need the meds long-term, but for short-term use benzos can be a godsend.

Long term, do you have a support system besides your boyfriend? It's asking a lot of one person to be your sole prop and comfort when you are dealing with such a mess as you are. "You and me against the world" is a recipe for burnout long-term. If you have other relatives and/or close friends, now is the time to lean on them. Al-Anon, too, can be a place to find others in your boat.

Also, therapy therapy therapy. This is such a stressful situation that professional help for you and a therapist could help a lot.

As for your mom, call your local Department of Aging. Perhaps you or someone can be appointed guardian for your mom, or there might be some kind of help for her seeing as how she is elderly and might have diminished capacity.

Above all, take care of yourself. You are in a situation where you can't fix it, you can only cope. Good luck!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:04 PM on May 22, 2010

Response by poster: you may want to call senior services in your area and get some resources. Adult protective services may also be able to help.

I spoke to a discharge nurse at the ER yesterday (Kaiser, for all its faults has a GREAT E.R.) and gave her a rundown of the situation. She is going to have a social worker check in with my mom in a low-key way (any other approach will get nothing but lies and evasions from my mom) and she's going to try to get a health and safety inspection done on her apartment - which is where they come in and look for obvious safety issues such as loose rugs, crazy sons, etc in the home. My mom is going to take this as a MAJOR invasion of privacy and if she finds out I approved it, I'm in the dog-house big time, but it seems like a step in the right direction. As I told my mom and brother the other day, I don't care if I get them pissed off, I just want to make sure everyone is ok and I will do what is necessary regardless of how they feel about it.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:04 PM on May 22, 2010

Best answer: Something that helps me in the midst of freak-outs is labeling things mentally. Blue chair, purple flowers, red car. The kleenex is on the table. My shoes are under the couch. Black dog. Etc. In a state of total freak-outs, it helps me to label things to get out of my head.

My other freak-out go to is three part breathing.

Sit in a chair upright with decent posture.
Breathe slowly into the area below your belly button, and exhale.
Next breathe into your sides, like if you had your hands on your sides because you were mad at someone--that area. Exhale.
Breathe into the top of your lungs, imagine air filling to your shoulders. Exhale.
Then do a breath that encompasses all three: breathe deeply, filling your pelvis. Continue breathing in, let your sides push out; inhale to the tops of your shoulders, then slowly let it out.

Basically, you need to get out of the panic loop and the simplest way to do it is find something to focus on physically.

If neither of those are your speed, a long shower and shaving your legs, cutting your nails, whatever your regimen is to make yourself feel clean and in control.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:07 PM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I realize this is a little late as a response but maybe you can try a mindfulness meditation to relax your mind and reduce your immediate agitation and stress.
Here's a good online one
posted by boofidies at 2:14 PM on May 22, 2010

Ugh, so sorry you're dealing with this. If it were me, I'd find a TV series to immerse myself in and watch several episodes back to back just to get my mind focused elsewhere.

As a side note: Is your brother on the lease at her apartment? If not, she may be in jeopardy of losing her housing subsidy if she's not reporting his income. Consequences all depend on the type of housing she's in, as the regulations are slightly different for each type.
posted by chiababe at 2:25 PM on May 22, 2010

Best answer: When you start to get PTSD symptoms, focus on grounding yourself in the here and now. Start with some deep breaths and then go through each of the sense and and ask yourself what you are noticing. What is one thing that you see right now? Describe it. What do you hear? Describe the quality of the sound. What do you feel? (eg. pressure of chair against your back) What do you smell? Keep rotating through the sense until you feel calm. It is even better if your boyfriend can ask the questions and you give the answers out loud.

Whatever happens to your mother or brother, remember
- You are safe. You are going to be OK.

In the long run, you might want to consult with Adult Protective Services - they can get a social worker involved in your mother's case. Also, I know many people who have found Al-Anon to be very helpful in supporting your efforts to set appropriate boundaries. (And I knows who really didn't like them YMMV but it is worth a try if you haven't done it already
posted by metahawk at 2:29 PM on May 22, 2010

Response by poster: As a side note: Is your brother on the lease at her apartment? If not, she may be in jeopardy of losing her housing subsidy if she's not reporting his income. Consequences all depend on the type of housing she's in, as the regulations are slightly different for each type.

He has no income - but she is definitely putting her housing in danger by letting him stay there - it's not allowed. They have great "fun" pretending that he is just visiting and have put together a rather contorted ruse that explains why he's there so often. I don't think that too many people are fooled by this, especially the ladies who hang out in the sitting area outside her door, but so far they've been turning a blind eye to the situation. All this can change if he comes out in one of his drunken episodes and starts giving them crap (which I consider a high likelihood eventually). I'm really torn about this situation. On one hand, he's not in his right mind and potentially violent, but on the other hand he's there and has been there to help her in the middle of the night when she would have just lain there in the middle of the floor rather than "cause trouble." I can only imagine what would have happened this time if he wasn't sleeping in the next room.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:42 PM on May 22, 2010

Best answer: I'm so sorry you're going through this. If you're able, focus solely on what you're committed to doing right now and ground yourself in the reality of that. Look at people and situations that are grounded in love and caring, that you are doing the best you can do with what you have. One foot in front of the other, breath in and out.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 2:59 PM on May 22, 2010

Sorry this is happening to you. There is no quick solution, but I second the recommendations that mindfulness meditation might help you feel more calm. You can find free audio meditations at the USCD Centre for Mindfulness. The 10-minute Wisdom Meditation is particularly soothing if you feel as though life is collapsing around you.
posted by embrangled at 5:46 PM on May 22, 2010

If you're not really a meditation sort of person (I'm not) you might consider taking an hour between loads to back off from the obligations of your mother, your brother, your friend and the laundry and doing nothing except sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee and a magazine for an hour.

I often find that the pace of normal, busy people around me while at the same time telling the rest of the world and the 3,000 things I have to do to fuck off is very useful for re-finding perspective. Whatever shit is going on in your life, it's nice to just be a girl in a cafe for a while.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:02 PM on May 22, 2010

Detach with love.
Set boundaries.

You need a therapist to help you do these two things.

The book BOUNDARIES by Henry Cloud was a life-saver for me, and recommended by the best therapist I ever had.

Also, Al Anon meetings are every helpful.

It's not your job to save them. But it is your job to take care of yourself.
posted by kidelo at 6:05 PM on May 22, 2010

As I told my mom and brother the other day, I don't care if I get them pissed off, I just want to make sure everyone is ok and I will do what is necessary regardless of how they feel about it.

I am hereby awarding you a medal of honor. Wear it proudly. You have more than earned it, for walking through Hell and back and still having the will and strength to take care of business and lay down the law like that.
posted by Ys at 7:27 PM on May 22, 2010

Best answer: if she finds out I approved it, I'm in the dog-house big time

With respect, so what? You're either there to save her apparently despite herself, or you need to be backing away and tending to your own sanity a bit more. Seriously, your attempts to walk on eggshells is not doing you or them any good.
posted by kjs3 at 7:38 PM on May 22, 2010

Response by poster: You really need your boyfriend to be there for you. Not for what he thinks you're going through, but for what you're actually going through.

I read this to him, and he said "yeah, and tomorrow will probably by worse -we'll get through it." Thanks for the wake up call.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:42 PM on May 22, 2010

Response by poster:, be worse....
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:46 PM on May 22, 2010

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