Dealing with others' control issues. What can you do?
September 1, 2011 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Metaintervention: My Mom tries to control everything at the cost of her health and personal relationships. Resistant to therapy. How can I persuade her to see things in a different, more reasonable light?

Impending financial meltdown, terrible job market, back to school, etc., I recently moved back home. My Mom has always appreciated being in control, namely of a clean house, but I didn't realize the extent until I moved back home. Far worse.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick to the issue of cleanliness. Take me at my word, her standards are thoroughly unattainable. If guests come over and offer to do the dishes, she’ll let them. They wash them and leave them to dry. When they leave, she re-washes the spotless dishes as well as the rack they dried on. She wipes down the immaculate chairs. She often wakes up in the night to pee and wipes down the pristine counters if she thinks someone might have used them.

Nearly 60, she’s still a beloved social butterfly outside the house. She goes out with friends, plans vacations, organizes events for work. She planned a flash mob the other day! (I shit you not, she met with a choreographer Monday.) But when she’s home, she barks orders at everyone. Berates them, insults them – this woman has never picked a battle in her life. The rest of the family literally does not believe anything we (myself, my father and my aunt) say because it really is such a stark contrast to her gregarious public nature.

She has rheumatoid arthritis and works on her feet. She can get by all but a few days, although she really should rest when she has the opportunity. Instead, she chooses to clean. More often than not, she chooses to scream about things until someone else cleans them. My father left her fifteen years ago, arguably due to these control issues. Of course the control extends beyond the cleanliness of her house but this is a big point of contention for her. She's been living with my aunt - her sister - who is ready to dissolve their arrangement to spare her mental health. That leaves me.

I’ve tried talking to her – figuring out why she feels things need to be so clean. Or why someone needs to wash her car a certain way when they’re doing her a favor. Always a bullshit answer, (eg. ‘that’s the way I want it done.’) even after an hour of relentless albeit respectful and nonjudgmental digging.

Also, diagnosed with anxiety/depression. I assume they didn't press the anxiety portion or they would have uncovered highly evident OCD, right? This is inconsequential if there are no other forms of pharmaceutical treatment as she’s already found an antidepressant that ‘works’ for her.

I’ve tried letting her have her way, beyond moderation. It is never enough. She wastes a lot of time/energy cleaning and all it does is make her less unhappy – it never has a positive effect. Similarly with other areas of control. This isn’t an acceptable option anyway.

I’ve tried to get her to stay in therapy. She’s reluctant to go, even before they present conflicting views. As soon as they do, she stops going. (Of course, with confidentiality, they don’t give me the whole story but in an effort to help, they’ve hinted at even gentle confrontation becoming a deal breaker.)

The only treatment she will stick with is the pill form. An SSRI and PRN benzodiazepines. The benzos work great for her average days but they’re not a daily, long-term option. She also tries to avoid taking them on all but the worst days. In those scenarios, 1mg of lorazepam (Ativan) functions as gauze to a hemorrhaging wound. The arthritis is treated with a host of medications including steroids, which we know have various, related side effects. Discontinuing those is a nonoption.

I think a lot of her agitation at home stems from the discomfort she experiences outside. She knows it’s socially unacceptable to treat people the way she treats her family, so she reserves that behavior for when she gets home. Akin to taking your anger out on the dog. Maybe I’ll get her a dog. (Kidding.) Ultimately I won’t endure this for the rest of her life. I’ll be poor and stay with friends before I get used to this. As her last lifeline, I feel obligated to call upon the hive.

I worry about this growing obsession. Then I step back and realize she orchestrates all of this very well. She still has her job, her friends.. she’s cognizant. Growing up, I tried babying her. In retrospect, that only made things worse. How can I help, without giving in?
posted by to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure you can - she doesn't think she needs help. Maybe she does or maybe she doesn't, but you're unlikely to convince her that she does. Especially not as long as most of her life seems to be working well for her.
posted by mrs. taters at 11:32 AM on September 1, 2011

How can I help

Flatly, you can't. Even a skilled therapist would require months of almost daily sessions to make progress, and that's only if your mother was interested in pursuing it.

without giving in?

That's not going to help either. You're attempting to fill a bottomless hole.

It sucks, but the best you're going to be able to do is take care of yourself.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:50 AM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

There's no incentive for her to change, so she won't. You're going to pour your energy into a black hole. Move out and reconfigure your emotional boundaries. NAMI has fantastic classes for family members of the mentally ill.

street cred: child of a bipolar parent/control freak
posted by desjardins at 11:52 AM on September 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

i have a mother who is mentally ill and basically undiagnosed. she's played at therapy like she's played at ever hobby (really into for a couple months, then puts it down and never thinks of it again). having a mother like this pushed me into the roll of caretaker as a young child. it physically pains me to watch her make decisions that i feel are harmful. i feel like because i know what's wrong with her, that should be enough, and she should just fucking listen to me. but, she doesn't. or she can't. or whatever.

the bottom line is the same as desjardins said - you can't save her. you can't caretake her out of this position. all you can do is make sure your boundaries are strong and that you aren't sacrificing your own mental health.

it sucks and it isn't easy and it'll break your heart, but at the end of the day she's a grown woman who has made her decisions and now you have to as well. if you're all she has left, that's something she has done and not something you need to feel responsible for.
posted by nadawi at 12:23 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

She has emphatically stated and demonstrated she does not want help. There is not a single thing you can do except move out and live your own life.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:40 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's like War Games. The only what to win is not to play.
posted by MsMolly at 12:52 PM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

rrrrgh. *Way* to win.
posted by MsMolly at 12:52 PM on September 1, 2011

You feel like you've exhausted all your options because you have. There's literally nothing more you can do to help her--it's on her to see a problem and want to change. It's time to set your boundaries and protect them. Is it possible for you to move out?
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 2:54 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's nothing you can do. If you really are unable to move out for some reason, go to Al-anon or some similar support group. Al-anon is great at helping you not let someone else's crazy make YOU crazy. As with so many self-destructive habits, she gets some sort of satisfaction out of it. When she's sick enough of it, she'll do something about it.

Also, ime, the more you try to help her, the more you will distance yourself from the good parts of her. For example, when you are so! frustrated! at her compulsive cleaning, it will be hard for you to recognize how great it is that she invites people over for dinner. Dinner with friends will eventually start to feel like one more opportunity for a compulsive, self-destructive episode. If you're like me, you'll just start to dread dinners with friends. Ack! So detach from her craziness as best you can, and try to love the parts of her that are awesome. She's not your problem to solve; she's a grown up in charge of her own life.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:02 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You guys are the best therapists I know. Being removed from the situation until recently, I've been trying to convince myself that a 'set of fresh eyes' will allow me to troubleshoot better. You've reaffirmed my commitment to accept the situation for what it is.

I'll keep NAMI and AA in mind should I struggle further. I'm in a great place right now, all things considered, so perhaps I'll take the opportunity to avoid this shitshow before I get too wrapped up.

To answer the moving out question, I can but I will struggle financially. I live in Boston, which experiences a perpetual rental bubble that will not pop. I suppose that means it's not a bubble. Either way, the trouble is supporting myself and getting back to school while avoiding taking on unnecessary debt. The challenge of balancing time and money for myself, school, work, friends, a relationship and food that doesn't all come out of a can, etc., etc.

@Nadawi, that's exactly the sentiment. Growing up too fast, you're in a position to say 'I can see this, here, I'll hold the mirror! See? Now change.' We both know it doesn't work like that but it should, shouldn't it?

@Small Ruminant, I like the idea of focusing on the positive because you're absolutely right - it's so easy to get caught up on the negative and be unable to look past that.

MotivationFilter does it again.

posted by at 4:36 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

The answer to this situation is for you to find a way to move out. If you're not living with her you won't be bothered by this behavior any more.
posted by ook at 4:38 PM on September 1, 2011

Just for clarification: AA!= Al-Anon, though you'd think it ought to. Speaking for myself: AA is a lot more fun, Al-anon a lot more useful.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:01 PM on September 1, 2011

To answer the moving out question, I can but I will struggle financially.

Sanity is worth Every. Fucking. Penny.
posted by desjardins at 7:10 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I would consider an approach of "I'm sorry Mom, I can't be around you when you're acting like this." and going to your room (or to some private space). Being yelled at and treated poorly is too much of a price to pay for free rent, and I'd be keeping an eye out for emergency alternate living arrangements. In the meantime, it's important to set some rules for what you're willing to put up with and tell her when she crosses those lines. "Mom, I know you think [vacuuming the sofa] is important, but I disagree. I vaccumed it for you yesterday, and I will vacuum it again on Wednesday." Yelling ensues. "I'm sorry Mom, but I can't be around you when you're acting like this. I'm going to the library. I love you, and I'll be home at 10. See you then."

There's no way you can understand why she needs the dishes to be washed twice, the car to be detailed just like that, the chore to be done to those standards. She is not mentally sound. There is no reason for her preferences. When you're "trying to understand" it's somewhat implicit that you're trying to make her see that she's being unreasonable, and she will never see that. These will continue to be her preferences, and you can't change that, nor should you try to. When it comes to situations where she's doing herself harm (exacerbating her arthritis by puttering around the kitchen cleaning things, disrupted sleep because she won't stop cleaning the bathroom, etc.) it will be hard, but really, it's her problem. You're not making it any worse by seeing it and keeping your mouth shut than you would be leaving home and not seeing it.

However, her right to believe what she wants without your trying to persuade her otherwise does not extend to expecting you to agree with her. When it comes to situations when she's expecting to keep up to her expectations of cleanliness, that's when you say, "I'm sorry Mom, I don't agree with you. These dishes are so clean I would be happy to eat off them. I don't think I'm able to wash these dishes any better than Aunt Martha just did. I'm not going to wash them again. Would you like me to take out the trash before I go read my book?"

It's hard to live with someone who is mentally ill, and even harder to do so without a support network (i.e. when all the family thinks she's fine). Gentle avoidance is probably your best short-term solution, with the fallback of moving out if she pulls the "this is my house these are my rules!!" card.
posted by aimedwander at 10:58 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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