I don't know how to support my mentally ill mother.
July 26, 2010 7:43 AM   Subscribe

How can I best support my family in a situation involving domestic turmoil and mental illness? This is an abnormally long question but I tried to include everything.

I'm a disabled adult living in a house with my parents. My mother is disabled and has bipolar disorder. Over the last four months she has been in a manic state getting steadily worse. She had been under the care of a psychiatrist and therapist but her insurance changed and they weren't covered anymore. She was looking for new doctors, but in the meantime her mental health started to slip more and more. I don't think we noticed at first. She has been spending large amounts of money and her attitude has been rather self-righteous and mean-spirited if she didn't get her way. Her bank account was overdrawn by nearly a thousand dollars (I used my student loan to pay it back). She would stay up all night "cleaning" and everything would be worse than it was before. Then she would be tired and this even caused a car accident (the car has been in the shop going on 7 weeks now). She also decided to act on some big ideas, including promoting jewelry parties so she could have more money.

The business became the focal point for a lot of family arguments. My father and I finally realized she was in a manic state, but my mom did not really agree. She just wanted to make more money so all of her spending wouldn't cause a hardship. We wanted her to stop spending money and to go to a doctor ASAP, and starting the business interfered with all of that. Things came to a head about a month ago. My brother had offered to pay so she could go back to her doctor, but the appointment wouldn't be until August and this was June. My mom thought she was well enough and could wait. No amount of pressure from me or anyone changed her mind. My father didn't want to give her more money to invest in the business. She went off on what had become a typical rant, about how when she made money it would be all hers and she would never help my father with anything. She started tearing him down more and more and finally he pushed her hard into a closet door and she fell. She snapped, went to the top floor and tore everything apart. My father calmed down and was apologetic but she was in a full-on manic rage. We called friends and relatives but she physically attacked them, as well as attacking me. After 6 hrs she agreed to go to the mental hospital.

She came home after a few days, and believing herself to be the victim of domestic violence. A small argument ended up in another rage during which she attacked me, my father, and my brother (who doesn't live at home but was there to try to help the situation but made it worse by physically restraining her). We had her involuntarily committed. It wasn't like it was an easy process, it was very hard to have done and I've never done anything like that before. Once she was in the hospital they kept her for two weeks because the doctors thought she was paranoid, manic, irrational, and because for a long time she refused to agree to any aftercare. The rest of us started attending support group meetings for family members of the mentally ill and we started learning about not pushing her buttons by arguing and whatnot.

Once she "stabilized" she came back home. That was last Tuesday. Every single time she talks to either of us it is filled with hate. She says she hates me because I let her abused and am not taking her side and helping her get away from my father. Even though she agreed to stay home and go to aftercare as conditions of discharge, on Friday she stole the rental car and went to a luxury hotel. She overdrew her bank account by 700 dollars that night. We could have tried to have her re-committed but we let it ride and she came home. The money is one thing. But the hatred and nastiness is something else altogether. My mother has never ever treated me this way. I've never seen the likes of this (usually she has depressive episodes, not so many manic). My mother was repeatedly raped and may have post traumatic stress. When my father put his hands on her that might have been what sent her over the edge. If so, then she might not come "out of this" just because she's back on her psych meds (and she hasn't been completely compliant anyway).

I don't know how to support her when she wants me to take her side. She's still not acting right, but she says it is because she feels so hurt and betrayed that she is going to hurt and betray us every chance she gets. If I help to put her back in the hospital for her noncompliance I don't know if that will make it worse by making her more resentful. We thought being in the hospital would help before but it just seems to have solidified her hate. Now all the apologies in the world don't matter. To me this is a mental health crisis, but not to her, so she isn't really being all that determined about getting care.

I don't know how to communicate with her anymore. I hide in my room as much as possible. Last night I cried for an hour after she stood in my doorway and tore me down. I do feel like I have failed to help take care of her. I feel like I am failing every time I don't do something, and then when I do act (having her committed) I feel like I made things worse. As for my father, his blood pressure is through the roof, he's losing massive amounts of weight, and my mother treats him like dirt and calls him the devil and me the child of the devil. I KNOW a lot of it is mental illness, but now I feel like at least some of it is legitimate feeling of betrayal because we utterly failed to care for her and instead were angry with her spending money, nagging, being mean. We reacted with exasperation and anger when we should have deescalated and been caring. And now it feels like it is too late. I mean, my father was wrong to put his hands on her (something I have never seen before but she says also happened before they were married), I understand her being angry about that. But I can't support her wanting to leave in this state. Am I mistreating the victim of abuse? That's what haunts me. I have no idea at all what to do and reaching out to AskMe is really a last resort. Sorry it was so long.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if it's possible to put this strongly enough, but your mother is seriously mentally ill.
Your treatment of her has nothing to do with her illness.
Your father's arguing and shoving her, while troubling, while abusive, has nothing to do with her illness.

You cannot make her better by treating her any differently.
It sounds like she needs consistent medication and consistent pysch support and counseling.

I know you are concerned about your mother, but I, as a random internet stranger, am most concerned about you.

I assume you are young adult living at home because of your disability. Are there any other options for you? Do you have support networks? Friends? A counselor? Are you on a disability income that is your own that provides you with some other living options? Is there a social worker or someone who has you as their primary concern (not your mother)?

Clearly you want to help your mother, but this situation seems like it's at a crisis point where you need to put on your own oxygen mask first.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:58 AM on July 26, 2010 [13 favorites]

Am I mistreating the victim of abuse?

Uh, no. You ARE the victim of abuse. I agree with pantarei70 that you ought to be seeing to your own safety (both physical and emotional) first.
posted by jon1270 at 8:05 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am familiar with individuals like your Mother. I agree with pantarei70, her illness is not your fault and you will not be able to help her.

Individuals like your mother become adept at convincing you that you are the problem (or your father, or your brother).

Seek the help you need to survive this, and begin to find a route to a new living arrangement.
posted by HuronBob at 8:11 AM on July 26, 2010

None of this is your fault. Your mother is behaving this way due to her illness. You know this is not how she normally is. When she is doing better, she'll recognize you did what you did because you love her and want her to be healthy. You know your mother loves you. She will come out of this.

It really sounds as if she might need more time in the hospital. She isn't taking care of herself, she is still behaving in a way that is consistent with her manic episodes, and she is still treating you and your family terribly. She needs more help than she is getting at home.

At this point, she is unstable. If there is a part of her, aside from the illness, that feels betrayed, she won't be able to heal from that while she's in this state. She needs to be properly treated to get to a point where she is stable and feeling better. Talk to her doctors and see what they recommend.

Please do take care of yourself! If you need to get away, do you have friends or other family to stay with (your brother?)? Take care and best of luck to you and your family.
posted by SugarAndSass at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2010

anon, I am sorry you have this situation. Honestly, it has to be weird to watch this drama unfold and not feel equipped to stop it--it had to feel like a runaway train.

Your Mom has to feel very persecuted...and who can blame her? Your Dad assaults her and she is the one who winds up incarcerated?? Maybe if someone got on her side (emotionally) her behavior would improve. This would require talks with her and if no one is talking...that's tough to do!
I am certain most people here are going to advise counseling where you all meet together to sort out this recent event. It is a good idea and maybe the facility (the one you committed her to) could help you determine how and where to do that.

Your question reads a little like you want us to say that you and your Dad had to do what you had to do...(you want validation) and I agree, you probably did have to do what you did. However, if I were your Mom, I am sure I would also be REALLY torqued that you have that much power and control over ME. Your Dad pushes her, she reacts with violence too...but then she is the one sent packing. Everyone wants her to "comply" and she will do the opposite in order to exhort some control over things. This is human nature.

You have not said how old you are. You could definitely look to other living arrangements. It is a colossal strain on all involved when people of other generations live together. Think about your own future and how much brighter it could be if you had your own life elsewhere.
posted by naplesyellow at 8:22 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're mistreating her, even if she is a victim of abuse. You are doing everything you can, trying to do your best. You must be terrified about what will happen next.

You don't have to support her leaving. I don't think that trying to protect her from herself is mistreating her.

On the other hand, I don't see what is helpful about her staying in this living situation. It sounds incredibly stressful for all of you.

You must be completely overwhelmed and hurt, and now a thousand dollars poorer. Please focus on yourself for a little while, if you can, and get yourself help from a mental health care professional.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:22 AM on July 26, 2010

Sometimes all you can do is extract yourself from the situation. It's clearly hurting you to be living in the same house with your mother at this point in your life. If you were able to move out of your parents' house somehow, you might be better equipped to (a) recover your own life, and (b) eventually be more of a help to your mother.

Distance can be very helpful in these situations. Boundaries, too. And, at some point, you have to recognize that your mother is an adult who has the right to make her own decisions about her health care. Even bad ones.

Having said all that, I think sometimes a bit of diplomacy can go a long way. For instance, if you and your brother tried to hook your mom up with a therapist -- not a psychiatrist, but a good psychologist -- you could frame it not as, "Mom, you're being crazy, so you have to talk to this person," but as, "We think you have the right to a therapist who can hear your concerns about abuse and about wanting a divorce, someone who can help you figure out what steps you need to take next."

Once she gets in the door, and feels she has found a person who (a) will listen to her, and (b) is on her side, she might be in a better place to recognize her own mental health problems. Plus, therapists are trained to help patients recognize irrational thoughts and behaviors. So when your mom starts talking about abuse, the therapist may ask how long this has been going on, how long your mom has been married, how your father has treated her otherwise. A skilled therapist should be able to ask these questions without invalidating your mom's feelings.

If you're in the NY area, feel free to MeMail me if you need recommendations. Or anything else, really.

IANAD, just a person who's been down this road before.
posted by brina at 9:18 AM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Anon, I sympathize. This is very parallel to my family situation, though imagine that there are 3x as many people involved and they all have some sort of serious mental issue. AND they are all psychiatric specialists so they are all diagnosing each other. Meds definitely help, but they are no good if they create "stability" by stopping dialog and mutual understanding, if someone feels stigmatized and shut away--socially and meds/chemically. Then things just fester.

The fact of whether or not your mother is mentally ill is one thing, and there are objective measure you can take to stabilize and "help" her. But on a deeper level there are things going on that facts and pills can do nothing to help... you need to have a dialog of interpretations... that is difficult nigh impossible when someone is manic. But it doesn't mean that the depth of their feelings and perspective has gone away just because they are acting "normal" or "medicated".

I think you are doing the best you can re-your mother. Be supportive but setup limits, seek 3rd parties that can mitigate the nuttyness and give perspective. You all are too close to this so there is nothing you as individuals can do when the tidal wave of insanity hits. You cannot rescue someone from the chaos of insanity if you are drowning in it as well.

So perhaps focus on yourself. And doing this may help your mother. Is she resentful that she has to take care of you? Maybe finding your own independence, both materially and emotionally (spiritually if you are inclined) will help. It will certainly make you feel better and then you can be a stronger support for your mother. Also, try to listen to what she says. 99% of this is pure mania-induced-evil that is NOT HER... it is just rage getting out saying whatever is convenient. She wants to share the pain of herself and is flailing around hitting whatever she can get her hands on.

BUT... don't discount all of it, are there threads that you can hear that do sound like her? something in the past? something you feel guilty about? Don't fall into her black and white, all or nothing mania self destruction, but come to terms with those things on YOUR terms, talking out with your family. Remember and treat your mom as she IS, the person you love, NOT as the person she appears (falsely) at this moment to be. If you cannot do that, if you say "she is and always was nutz" then she is lost, she will have nothing to come back to.

Love with firm but compassionate limits (no one has the right to emotionally assault you, not even your mother, but you also can't feed into it with retaliation). Provide expectations of who she is and was and the person you love and who you want her to return to... and then you can dialog with her and be open to her view of who she sees herself (when she is more lucid) then perhaps you can all grow.

Its hard, it sucks, you may all fail, that's life. Enjoy the ride.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Thank you for recommendations. I wrote the askme, decided I don't feel ashamed of it and it might be easier if I didn't have to speak through the mods.

I know that I badly need to leave and want to leave (I have always been happier on my own), but I can't until I feel like things have stabilized at least somewhat with my family. I don't have anywhere to go, no one I can stay with, no friends in the city and no extra money. I also pay a lot of the bills at home, all the utilities and other bills too. It's really not so bad until a crisis hits.

My mom doesn't really trust me at all anymore. Yesterday she didn't even believe me when I told her what time it was. Whatever I say, she says "oh really?" But I don't let that anger me or make me defensive because then she'll start with the litany and I just don't want to hear it anymore. I understand why she can't trust me. What I don't know how to do is talk to her when it's like this. I don't think I am objective enough.

I think sometimes a bit of diplomacy can go a long way.

Your recommendation is helpful brina, and I will try that. I know she still trusts her old therapist and we have no influence over him. The hospital made an appt for her to see him this Friday. But now I will try not pushing her to "take care of her health" or to do what I see as "the right thing".

naplesyellow, you really articulated what is bothering me so much about what happened between my parents. One of my greatest fears is being gaslighted and made to think I'm crazy when I'm being abused. At first it was much easier to empathize with my father than with my mother. Now tbh I don't want to take anyone's side, I want to take my side, which is why I have been avoiding the situation as much as I can. But that doesn't seem supportive to my mother and it's not really possible. My father has plenty of friends who have been supporting him, I just now realized that.
posted by Danila at 10:16 AM on July 26, 2010

I badly need to leave and want to leave (I have always been happier on my own), but I can't until I feel like things have stabilized at least somewhat with my family.

Have you considered that on some levels your presence is helping to keep things as they are? After all, if you're bailing your mom out of her financial missteps then you're facilitating more of the same, protecting her from the consequences of her actions and making her less likely to seek help.

On the other hand, irrational people may not seek help even when they suffer the consequences of their actions, if they don't see the connection. That's tragic and sad. But you have to think carefully about what's actually possible here, not just what you wish for; you could easily throw away years for no good at all, simply because the situation is beyond your powers to repair. (And it is -- it is beyond your powers to repair.)
posted by jon1270 at 10:59 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are so kind and generous to want to be supportive, but the reality of it is that you can't be supportive if you're this stressed out and pressured. It's like trying to give someone a ride when your car is out of gas. It is the right impulse but in the end, it is counterproductive. To help her and help your family, you have to get yourself into a position of relative stability. You have to have enough for yourself in order to have something to give. What that means for you, specifically, I can't say (an hour or two a week outside the house? a lock on your bedroom door and lots of time alone? a regular session with a therapist? your own place?). I do know that you need to fill up your tank before you can offer someone a ride.

Best of luck. I'm rooting for you.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:13 AM on July 26, 2010

My mother is bipolar and we went through a recent manic episode so believe me when I told you I've been there. Here are my suggestions:
(1) Get some counseling for yourself. That will give you someone who understands to listen to you. Having someone who is not involved in the situation to just listen and make suggestions is immensely helpful. During my mom's recent episode I called my dad every day and talked to my husband and if I hadn't had people to just talk to about it, I would have gone insane. It sounds like you don't have anyone to talk to which is why I suggest this.
2) I know you are disabled, but is there any way for you to get a place of your own? I could never ever live with my mother when she is manic. The constant screaming and abuse is too much. You'd probably be in a better place to help her if you had a place to get away from it.
3) My mother would normally take a bullet for me. She loves me as much as one human being can love another, and yet during a manic episode she has said some of the meanest nastiest things imagineable. You have to learn that whatever she says is her disease talking and not a reflection on you. You did the best you could in a tough situation and you have to learn to forgive yourself. Be angry at yourself for doing what you thought was best for your mom at the time, won't help you and it won't help your mom.
4) you or your dad or brother should consider guardianship of your mom. I have guardianship and it was immensely useful in allowing me to talk to doctors and control finances during the manic episode.

Good luck.
posted by bananafish at 12:03 PM on July 26, 2010

Quit paying for her spending. Period. You are enabling her.

She is ill, and all the crap is the illness talking. Ignore it.

You guys need to get her back into the hospital or other arrangements pronto before she hurts herself or one of you. Don't give a rip how she sees it. Once she is stabilized and is thinking more clearly she will understand. Don't expect her to NOW.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:10 PM on July 26, 2010

When I read naplesyellow's suggestion that perhaps with someone on your mom's side I flashed on the old "good cop, bad cop" ploy. But I'm not sure it's best or necessary that you have a role in that. Your first priority must be your own well-being, and I really don't see how you can be well in this home. If you're started school yet is there a teacher or advisor you've clicked with whom you can talk to? I didn't take advantage of that when I was in school and ended up leaving school due to a rough situation at home. Don't let your other's illness consume you.
posted by Mertonian at 1:40 PM on July 26, 2010

Nothing you do is going to affect her mania. You can't cure it with love or diet or reason it away. There is no magical combination of saying and doing the right thing that will make your mom stop acting crazy. Only meds will do that and if you want to help her focus all your efforts on getting her back under medical supervision ASAP.

And don't judge your father too harshly, he is in a very, very difficult situation and he's still there trying to take care of all of you.
posted by fshgrl at 1:46 PM on July 26, 2010

I'm still having trouble figuring out how I am supposed to be communicating with her. I'd rather not have to talk to her at all, but I figure I have to reject that for practical and moral reasons. She has been wronged by us and I have been wronged by her but she's the one who is the most sick so how do I balance it? I think that's what it comes down to right now.

Tonight was an example of the dilemma. She demanded (she does not ask anymore) something to eat. I got her something to eat. She says there is more that she needs done but "not if you're doing anything important". I say I need my personal time to myself right now. She says "I haven't bothered you all day" and I ill-advisedly respond "you just did, I just got your food for you" (not to mention how much I had to struggle to get her up, dressed, and out the door for her doctor's appointment earlier). Already I have foolishly let myself become irritated because I want to be alone, and now I have set her off. She picks and picks and picks at me and I get angry, say I can't take it anymore and I need to leave I need to get out of here all of that.

I cry for 20 minutes and feel like I'm losing my mind. Then I go and apologize for the mean things I said and my mean attitude. She says "it's okay it's nothing new". I feel like I have died just a little bit more inside. I cannot say or do the right thing here. I feel like everything I say is going to hurt her more. I feel like I am taking out my frustration over this situation on her. I can't help but to make excuses for myself and then to condemn myself and there is no middle ground. Now I think I am realizing that it is more about me than it is her. I really don't want to post this. I've called and hung up on the crisis hotline, written and erased messages and now I have typed this out but I don't want to post it because it is self-pitying. But maybe someone can see through that or knows what it is like or something and can tell me something.
posted by Danila at 6:34 PM on July 27, 2010

Danila, you are not whining.

And you don't have to respond to her passive aggressive whining either. Just tell her you need to be alone. (PS is she physically incapable of getting herself something to eat? I didn't think so.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:25 PM on July 27, 2010

Why are you apologizing to her? Ignore her. Is she capable of making her own food? Then she can do that or sit and sulk and be hungry. You can't tear yourself up over her screwed up brain chemistry. It's not your fault.
posted by crankylex at 3:30 PM on July 29, 2010

You are hurting because you are expecting rational behavior from an irrational person. As long as your mother is in the throes of her mental illness, she is irrational.

how do I balance it? I think that's what it comes down to right now

You can talk to your mom all day until you are blue in the face, and you can continue to tally up every bitter jab in hopes of it somehow "balancing" out. But you already know that on a good day, your mother might only slip 1-2 bitter jabs. On a bad day, her mental illness will rear its ugly head and it'll be 100+ and counting... There is no point in keeping score - you will never treat any person this badly to "balance it out" because you are a rational person.

So, in order to stop keeping score, you need to remind yourself that your mother is extremely mentally ill, which means you need to STOP PERSONALIZING her illness. I repeat: stop taking so rationally the irrational ravings of someone who is 100% diagnosed mentally ill (and currently overrun by her illness). From your end, this is the work you need to focus on so that you can continue to rescue your mother without drowning in the mental illness yourself.

Once you can accept that it's not personal, and that your mother would tear down any willing volunteer within a 10-meter radius (family or not), THEN you can effectively resume getting your mother the help and support she requires.

P.S. If there's nothing to take personally, then there's nothing to really apologize for either. Just tell yourself, "wow, her illness is bad today," and continue on your way. On rough days, get out of the house, give yourself a break from dealing with someone's illness ALL DAY, and do something to re-build your battered self-esteem. IMO mental illness, like any biological disease, can be contagious. So limit your exposure and remedy toxic doses accordingly.
posted by human ecologist at 11:29 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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