Who are you and what have you done with my mother?
February 9, 2011 11:28 PM   Subscribe

Over the past two years or so, my mother has undergone a complete, total and sweeping personality shift. She's gone from June Clever to Lizzie Borden. Can I get my real mom back?

Growing up in my house was a bit of an ordeal. My dad was a domestic tyrant who's fits of rage would terrify both my mom and us kids. Eventually my dad got sick and died last June (he was a raging drug addict, something we didn't find out about until recently), but my mom was the "shelter in the storm" of my childhood. She protected us kids from my dad, kept us safe and was the stable adult presence that we craved.

My mother is a deeply conservative Evangelical Christian, so she never drank, swore and barely raised her voice in anger for the first 20+ years of my life. Alcohol was not permitted in our house, so dad did all of his drugging and carousing elsewhere. She made the best of an awful situation and us kids were all extremely grateful for it. She was always gentle, kind, warm, friendly and loving towards us.

About a year or so before my dad died (while he was laid up and bedridden), my mother started having random sexual encounters with men on the internet. Don't ask how I know, it's a long and heartbreaking story. Just trust me when I say that this is a fact.

This was extremely odd for us. I didn't believe it at first because it went against everything that we knew about our mother (conservative Christian, faithful wife and mother), so I just ... ignored it? for lack of a better word? Towards the end of my dad's life her behavior became more erratic -- violent mood swings, destruction of family property (smashed windows, doors, antiques, etc.), swearing like a sailor, rude and inappropriate sex jokes and most of all, drinking.

She began drinking heavily -- heavily enough to not remember her worst episodes. During this time period, tucking my mom into bed and cleaning her vomit from the floor became a bi- and tri-weekly experience for me. One of the weird things is that she would get raging, fall down drunk from (say) two glasses of wine. Two glasses of wine makes me mildly relaxed, so I have no idea how this is even possible.

My dad died and I assumed that all this would stop. I guess I figured that once his presence was removed from her life, some of the bad feelings would fade and she could get on with her old normal self. Although my dad had mellowed out quite a bit in the last few years before he died, some of the bad feelings remained, so I could understand if my mom was dealing with that in some subconscious way.

But things have only gotten worse since my dad died. About six months after the fact, my mom married one of the men that she was seeing on the internet. Her new husband is terrified of her. She is perpetually drunk now, constantly accusing him of cheating on her and accusing him of being involved in elaborate conspiracies against her. She recently stole his cell phone and started calling up all the female names in his contact list (coworkers and acquaintances) and telling them to "get the fuck away from my man", etc.

A few nights ago the police where almost called when she viciously assaulted her new husband after a particularly bad bender.

She no longer speaks to her extended family, or even to her own father and siblings. Her children and her new husband are all that she has left, and she is quickly alienating us as well. My little sister and brother still live with her (I live 200+ miles away) and they are terrified of their mother. They remind me of how I felt when dad was alive.

And she remembers none of this. Every "episode" of drunkeness and violence is followed by a morning amnesia and tearful regrets. "I don't remember what happened last night but I sure am sorry if I hurt your feelings, kiddo." she'll say. I can see traces of my old mom in those moments, as she seems genuinely remorseful and caring, but before long New Crazy Mom comes back with a vengeance.

My 15 year old sister just lost her father (whom she adored. She was too young to remember his bad days. She only remembers the mellower, happier guy that he became later in life), and she is now doubly devastated -- by the loss of her father AND now, it appears, her mother. She wants to run away and frankly I don't blame her.


1) What the fuck is wrong with my mom?
2) Is there anything that can be done about it?
3) Can I help my little sister somehow?

My mom is 45 years old, and I'm 27. I miss her. A lot.
posted by Avenger to Human Relations (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you're going through this.

I can't tell you exactly what's wrong with your mom. I don't think any of us can. She's sick. Whether the booze is the sickness or whether the booze is the drug she's using to treat the sickness, we can't say. She needs to see a mental health professional. The best thing you could do for her is to convince her she needs help. Maybe her husband could help you with that convincing?

Can you take your sister in with you?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:40 PM on February 9, 2011

Best answer: Violent acting out + alcohol abuse -> that the answer to 1) is alcoholism.

Some could say "yes but she drinks because of grief" or "yes but she is angry and drinks to give herself permission to act out" but the simplest and likeliest explanation is that this behaviour is driven by alcohol.

"she would get raging, fall down drunk from (say) two glasses of wine. Two glasses of wine makes me mildly relaxed, so I have no idea how this is even possible." My guess is that she's drinking a lot more than the two glasses of wine that you're seeing.

I would also suspect that this problem could have been going on for longer than you suspect but she was never allowed to act this way before because that was your father's prerogative.

My suggestion is that you join a support group like Al-Anon (which supports relatives etc., not just addicts) because, although you have no idea what to do, they will. Because she has minors in her care, I think you need to call social services as well. I understand that you probably won't want to do either of these things but they represent your best chance of making a difference.
posted by tel3path at 11:44 PM on February 9, 2011 [10 favorites]

The best thing you can do for your sister is get her the hell out of that house. It's only a matter of time before Mom turns on her to accuse her of trying to seduce 'her man', or some other imagined slight. If you have the ability to take her in yourself, maybe look at schools for her to go to? (If it's bad enough, you might well be able to convince a court to grant you custody.)

Encourage the sister to report any domestic violence that's going on. Encourage HIM to report any domestic violence that's going on. Be super supportive of them and encourage them to say something to the authorities. There is no reason for them to have to put up with that kind of behavior from anyone. I was in his boat for years, and I never said a damn word because I just didn't think anyone that could do something about it would believe me. There are hotlines they can call to talk to someone, which might help them learn to stand up for themselves. (It's so very much harder than it seems when you're trying to stand up to someone you love.)

Maybe your mother finally reached a mental breaking point. Maybe she honestly doesn't realize how far down the shitter she's gone. Maybe she's developed a late-onset mental illness that's causing it. She DEFINITELY needs to sober up, but getting someone to do that is ... yeah, not easy.

I don't envy your situation. Let us know how things are going, okay? Above all, give your sister and stepdad all the love and support they deserve and sadly aren't getting from others.
posted by Heretical at 11:50 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When there's a sudden personality shift you have to ask yourself whether it could have a physical cause, such as a stroke, a brain tumor, or early-onset dementia. But the proximate cause here is probably the major factor -- alcohol abuse. That she was living with an addict pretty well cements the deal.

Don't think you can "get mom back", because that's something that is going to be out of your control -- sort of a basic 101 summary of Al-Anon right there. But do see what you can do about your sister.
posted by dhartung at 11:51 PM on February 9, 2011 [13 favorites]

What about an intervention?

Your mom needs rehab AND a full medical work-up. But she needs you all to band together and pull her back from the edge, first.

I normally don't suggest stuff like this here, but I really empathize that your mom held everyone together for so long... I think it is time you all at least attempt to return the favor.
posted by jbenben at 12:07 AM on February 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Like what dhartung said, the sudden personality shift could be an indicator of a physical problem with her brain, which could be adding to the drinking problem. Not to say that it isn't possible that the drinking has caused the personality shift, but it would be a really good idea to have her medically checked out right away.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:53 AM on February 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Disclosure: I speak from the standpoint of someone whose father died at 68 of a brain tumour, at which point he had been sober for well over 15 years.

I am all in favour of being alarmist about brain tumours. Really. To this day, I marvel at the, shall we say, unruffled view taken by medics of my father's daily deteriorating language function and daily increasing paralysis. Brain tumours are vanishingly rare, yo, and he doesn't have headaches, so chill for five months or so and if the ambulance arrives to take him to his first radiotherapy appointment on the day of his funeral a full two weeks after his death, well, shit happens, man.

So, excuse me if I don't remove this stick from up my ass on the subject of brain tumours. I like that stick where it is, thanks.


When someone tells me that their a) abusive father b) turned out to have been a long-standing drug addict and that on his death their mother, who was c) the family's sole source of comfort and safety and d) is now frequently, verifiably drunk and e) seems to get drunk very quickly on very little alcohol and f) has undergone a dramatic personality change...

...let's say that the first thing I think of is not a brain tumour.

Yeah, obviously, IANAD, IANYD, I am not an addiction specialist, all that stuff. My opinion is worth exactly as much as you paid for it. I'm offering it anyway.

Parents often pride themselves on hiding this kind of serious problem from their children. More times than I can count, I have heard abused spouses say, "thank God, the children suspect nothing, we are such good actors, they are totally unaffected by all this." Even when faced with stuff you'd think they couldn't deny, parents show amazing commitment to this belief. Okay, there was that one bad Christmas, but I took the worst of it on myself etc etc. But to the extent they are successful at hiding what's happening, when things finally fall apart they are then faced with the children's bewilderment at how something this could be taking place in their happy home.

Where am I going with this? Well like I said, I think it's possible your mother has been drinking for longer than you realize and has been building up to the extent that she can no longer hide it, plus the external constraint of your father has been removed. I'm guessing that if your mother had acted this way with your father around, she knew full well what the consequences would have been.

The reason why you never realized it before is probably because a) society as a whole has been trained to look right at it and not see it (or speculate "brain tumour"? instead), and b) you specifically have been trained to look right at it and not see it (by the addiction of your father).

I don't want to give you false hope here but you should understand that if it's addiction, that's good news. It means there's hope for recovery and it means there is another, better person underneath who will be revealed by recovery. The bad news is that you can't do anything to impose recovery on your mother. You can do stuff like stop enabling her and so on, all of which is beyond my expertise.

I'm going to repeat my suggestion of Al-Anon and also of going to social services. Maybe they would be able to facilitate your taking your sister in with financial or logistical help, among other things. I do think it's time for you to stop having to deal with this intolerable situation on your own. Good luck, whatever you do next.
posted by tel3path at 3:28 AM on February 10, 2011 [25 favorites]

I'm writing this from my phone, so I can't research this as I'd like to, but I know there's been stories in the news lately about some prescription drug that causes some people to behave exactly like your mother. People who have lived quiet, conservative lives suddenly became raging alcoholics, sex addicts, and/or gamblers. They had total personality changes. Has your mother been prescribed anything? If so, Google it, along with the words "side effects", and see what turns up.
posted by MexicanYenta at 4:06 AM on February 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Menopause can cause personality changes, although very rarely to that extent. However the symptoms of menopause can exacerbate (or be exacerbated by) underlying emotional problems.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:27 AM on February 10, 2011

Best answer: Your story is heartbreaking, and I understand how much you miss your mom.

If you read nothing else in this post, please read this: the best thing you can do for your troubled family members is to try to get them professional help. You can't save them all by yourself!

I have one suggestion for you (and also for your younger siblings): Alanon. Not only can that genuinely help you sort out what you can and can't do for your family, but it also may help you to understand your mother's current behavior.

Also, I know you're 200 miles away, but do try to be there for your sister. If you can try to make sure she is getting counseling, that would be the absolute best thing you can do for her.

If Alanon doesn't seem immediately appealing to you, let me please try to give you a few examples of why you should go and give it a shot:

1.) It's totally free, and it doesn't take up much of your time, so if you try it once and hate it, it's not the end of the world.
2.) It's jam packed full of people who have been or currently are right where you are or even worse. They've also been where your mom has. They can talk to you at length about their experiences and they can offer you sage and helpful advice.
3.) You can take or leave as much or as little of it as you want.
4.) I personally found myself profoundly more aware of how to handle difficult family and relationship struggles with people with alcohol and drug problems after just one meeting. I'm not a lifer, I've only gone to meetings here and there when things were rough and it made all of the difference in the world.

Please feel free to mefimail me if you have questions about it, or would just like some personal advice. You're in a tight spot and my heart goes out to you.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:43 AM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm with Mexicanyenta--check into the medications your Mom is on--some of the anti-anxiety and anti-depressive meds have bizarre and disturbing effects on the personality and interact with alcohol in unpredictable ways.

She was never a smoker? I believe that drug Chantix has some side effects too.

I'm sorry you are having to deal with this; it is a testament to her parenting for trying to help.
posted by AuntieRuth at 5:07 AM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: She made the best of an awful situation and us kids were all extremely grateful for it.

I know where you are, emotionally. I had a childhood similar to yours. An emotionally-distant and scary father, and a stable, wonderful mother who was the only way my brother and I survived. My brother and I saw our mother as Superwoman: even in those most horrible, awful circumstances, she managed to raise us pretty dang well! She was all-wonderful, perfect, the best human being, because of how she had protected us, helped us, and cared for us. In short, we idolized her. And it appears you're idolizing your mother in the same way.

It took a very sad period in all of our lives for my brother and I to learn the following: if Mom was so perfect, she wouldn't have been in that relationship to begin with.

Perfectly healthy and happy people do not stay in abusive relationships. Sometimes, the abuse itself is the cause for their sickness, other times the sickness is what gets them into the abusive situation to begin with. (In my mom's case, it was a little bit of both.) Either way: to be an abused person is to be a sick person, a damaged person, a non-perfect person.

After my brother and I realized this, it led us both, individually, to see our childhoods in a different light. Situations and stories which, before, we had interpreted as Mom Being Awesome we now realized were signs of bipolar disorder. Memories about how hard she worked to keep us healthy and as happy as possible are now encased inside this insight: she only had to work so hard because she was sick enough to keep us in that horrible situation. And our boasts about how wonderfully she succeeded at raising us, given the awful circumstances, have come to a dead stop once we realized a good upbringing wouldn't have left my brother struggling with depression, me with anxiety, and the both of us with the same fears and issues when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

Mom isn't God. She's a person. A person who has suffered, a person who is suffering, and a person who is not particularly well.

It seems like, right now, you are going to have to realize the same thing. Your mom isn't God, and she never was. Try to reconcile your memories of "Joan Clever" with your new experiences of "Lizzie Borden." Try to come to a place where you can see the human being who is your mother, as opposed to the contradictory All-Perfect Entity who raised you and this new, troubled, sick person who is frightening you. They are one and the same. If you can manage to do this, it will make everything else easier. The help she needs cannot be got if everyone keeps assuming there is some old, perfect identity that she just needs to return to.

Of course, without a doubt, do what others are suggesting: make sure there is no physiological cause, like a tumor, that can explain this. Take every precaution for her health. But... Well, I've been where you are, and I know it is heartbreaking to be where you are, but I also understand how a childhood of abuse from a father can warp and twist your understanding of your mother. I'm sorry.
posted by meese at 5:23 AM on February 10, 2011 [38 favorites]

Your sister needs help. Is it possible to arrange an alternative living situation for her? Your mother's an adult, which means what can be done for her are limited, but if your sister can can be moved in with you, another family member, or even a friend's family (if she wishes to stay in the area for school purposes), that might be one thing to look at.
posted by Ys at 5:59 AM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree wholeheartedly with 2 of the pieces of advice above: Get your sister out of there to limit any further harm to her and get your mother to a doctor ASAP. There's something wrong with her. A quick Google search for "Personality Change" led to this, which will allow you to add other symptoms also. Best of luck to you, your mother, and your sister.

And get your mother to a doctor ASAP!
posted by Daddy-O at 6:02 AM on February 10, 2011

Okay, I think the drug I read about that can cause side effects like gambling and sexual addiction is Ropinirole, also known as Requip. According to this ABC News article, it is one of a class of drugs called dopamine agonists, any of which can have side effects such as your mother's behavior. So I would definitely look into any drugs she may be taking.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:06 AM on February 10, 2011

Best answer: Oh, and even if she's not taking one of the dopamine agonists, as AuntieRuth pointed out, there are lots of drugs that can interact with alcohol in alarming ways. Even something as innocuous as an over-the-counter diet pill. I've seen this first hand myself, and it can be scary stuff. I saw a normally very sweet woman take off her stiletto shoe and beat another woman in the forehead with it. I once had to bail a member of my own family out of jail because after 2 drinks (on an empty stomach, and following the taking of an energy booster pill), she taunted a police officer.

And the alcohol could even come from cold medicine like cough syrup. She wouldn't necessarily have to have been chugging vodka or something.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:15 AM on February 10, 2011

Response by poster: Im writing thus from my phone so I'll be brief:

1) I'm going to check out alanon.
2) I can't rescue my sister because my mom won't let it happen. I'd have to get her declared unfit first and I don't know how to do that.
3) I just remembered she recently started taking Cymbalta.
posted by Avenger at 7:58 AM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

The way to get your mother declared "unfit" is to call social services. It's not a quick, simple or pleasant process. If your mother is experiencing unchecked mood swings, violence and alcohol abuse, that's enough for social services to take a look. The question is what will happen next, which could include such options as foster care, placement with you, or treatment requirements for your sister to remain with your mother.

I would say it's worth a phone call to the office close to your mother -- ask about how things work out there. Definitely get help for your sister, though -- that environment is poisonous and life-threatening.
posted by freshwater at 8:31 AM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

After 20+ years of being married to drug-addicted man who terrifies her, and taking the brunt of his abuse to shield her children, I'd say that it's not your mothers' present state of dissolution that's remarkable so much as how long she was able to hold it together and keep up appearances. You simply don't come out of that type of situation un-scathed. It's not uncommon for abused people to begin acting out and to become abusers themselves once they're out from underneath the thumb of their abuser. It would seem to me that once your father became bedridden, the years of sublimated fear and impotent rage started to come out.

Given the circumstances, I'd say that there would be something much more deeply and permanently wrong with your mom if she were still able to keep everything locked up within her June Cleaver persona.

So what can you do? Clearly, your mother needs help. You say that your mother was a deeply religious Evangelical Christian. Perhaps she'd respond best to an intervention mediated by her pastor or clergyman? Talk to someone at her church - this type of counsel is what they're there for. I'd also like to sign on to the previous suggestion of Al-Anon; if your mother's church doesn't have a good family crisis protocol, Al-Anon will be able to put you in touch with someone who can advise you on what you and your sister can do to get her out of there, for now, and will also help you and your family try to get your mother the help she needs.

At the end of the day, though, if your mother refuses to be helped, there's not a lot you can do, and the people at Al-Anon, who've all been through something like this, can help you figure out at what point you might have to make peace with the face that your mother's illness might be beyond your control. I think it's important for you to know that you don't have to go through any of this alone. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends -- get everybody who's ever loved your mother involved. You'll all need to really stick together both to get your mother the help she needs, and to deal with the trauma and tragedy of what you're currently going through.
posted by patnasty at 8:38 AM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

You must call Child Protective Services for your sister and brother. Every day they are in that house and you know how bad it is you are participating in their abuse.
posted by fuq at 8:58 AM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

All anti-depressants now must carry warnings saying that increased likelihood of suicide attempts or suicidal ideation is a potential side effect. This is true, but misleading - the suicidal thoughts are part of the disease being treated, and not a discreet effect of the drug. Antidepressants can help depressed people regain some energy and agency -- sometimes just enough to go through with the terrible thoughts in your head.

So while the Cymbalta might be enabling some of your mothers' behavior, I would try to resist the temptation to think of it as something alien causing your mother to behave unnaturally.

Given her life these past 20+ years being married to your father, the anger, fear and desperation she's exhibiting is likely not only natural, but in some ways, a more sane response than keeping it all in.
posted by patnasty at 9:00 AM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Weird question, but why are you more concerned about your sister than your brother? Just because he's a boy does not mean that he can fend for himself.

In any event, you need to get them out of the house, or possibly look into spending some time there yourself to help start getting things sorted out, and look over your younger siblings. You may be able to apply for FMLA leave from your job. You need to do this now. Based off of your description, I'd be very worried about their safety.

Regardless of the cause, your mother's behavior is not okay, especially with children in the house. If you ever suspect that your siblings are at immediate risk, you need to call 911. Your sister and brother also need to know that it's OK to do the same in no uncertain terms. If they don't have their own cell phones by now, it might be a good time to covertly give them both a prepaid phone that can be used in emergencies.

If you cannot get out there to take care of things yourself, child protective services need to be involved immediately.
posted by schmod at 9:12 AM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

There was a This American Life episode - I wish I could remember the details - about a woman who started taking what seemed like a totally innocuous medication and almost instantly became a gambling addict. Point being, yeah, any medication can apparently have unexpected effects.

And sorry you're dealing with this. It sounds really scary and deeply upsetting.
posted by The Dutchman at 9:53 AM on February 10, 2011

a woman who started taking what seemed like a totally innocuous medication and almost instantly became a gambling addict.

Episode here.
posted by biddeford at 10:35 AM on February 10, 2011

Best answer: You know what? I'm going to give you a tough time about #2 in your update because it highlights the underlying problem here.

I hope you hear me.

You write that "I can't rescue my sister because my mom won't let it happen."

(I say this from experience) your family dynamic has been about ignoring the Uncomfortable Truths thanks to an upbringing with your Dad around. This is not a good way to live, as you well know. Honestly? The nano-second your Mom's behavior changed you all should have piled on and gotten her to a doctor or therapist or whatever. But that's not how you were brought up to deal with stuff, and so the problems festered and got worse.

Start proactively discussing the Uncomfortable Truth with anyone in your family you can enlist for support and then get your Mom and siblings help. There is no way "around" this problem, whatever the cause, you can only deal with it head-on.

Good luck. I mean it.
posted by jbenben at 10:51 AM on February 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

If you want to get your Mom declared unfit, go talk to a magistrate. A weeknight, around ten pm when they have some time. I've received all kinds of free legal advice that way.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:13 PM on February 10, 2011

get her a full medical workup. strange personality shifts, even at the same time as upsetting personal events, can be a sign of mentall illness or brain tumor. have her checked out -- it could save her life.
posted by custard heart at 5:32 PM on February 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks to all who replied. I've started discussing the prospect of taking custody of my sister with other family members (my brother is an adult, although a developmentally disabled one, which complicates things). There may be an intervention soon and hopefully a CT scan.

I'll keep this area updated. Again, thanks. And thanks to those who memailed as well.
posted by Avenger at 6:51 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older How to cut veggies so they're totally cut?   |   How do I know which sources to cite for a book I'm... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.