Do I do anything?
February 29, 2012 3:32 PM   Subscribe

My dad's wife, a clinical psychologist, says he is paranoid and mistreating her. Um. Now what do I do?

They have been married for 20 years or more, after my parents' divorce. My dad is in his late 50s, I am in my mid 30s. I get along with his wife just fine, and she has never been anything but kind and direct and honest with me, though I wouldn't have chosen her as a friend myself (too extroverted, opinionated).

All in all, I trust her judgement over his, because he has always seemed a bit...I dunno, not reacting like you'd expect him to react. For instance, when I was a kid, the same comment of mine might make him really angry or make him laugh or make him take me Very Seriously, depending not on what I actually said or the situation, but something going on inside his head. Does that make sense?
I also notice that while he has always lost his temper easily, the way he blows up at his wife and his other daughter (now 20 years old) is sometimes completely disproportional to what actually went before. Or he'll misinterpret an ordinary comment of my sister's as defiance.

My impression is that he has this very emotional movie of things going on in his head that is only tangentially related to what is actually going on infront of his eyes. Sometimes the emotions are positive (like saying something disproportionately sentimental.)

So yeah, I'm inclined to believe her. She says he's reacting to all the cruel stuff that happened to him in his childhood.

Anyway, more worryingly, she says he's been acting out more and more towards her. So he got angry at her for correcting something he said and spent three hours trampling up and down the stairs, banging doors like a maniac. She says that was the first time she got a bit scared.

My father does act out in a way that I would find unacceptable in a marriage, so again, I believe her and also that it was scary. He never acts out towards me (in fact, I could probably say anything I wanted and he'd be nice to me - he wouldn't listen, but he'd be nice) because he knows I'd just not turn up any more. I'm not so heavily invested in having him in my life - he was too unstable a presence in it.

She also said that he called her names and then later seemed really baffled, as if he couldn't remember having done it.

So yeah. I'm wondering if I should be doing something?
I told her that every person has the right to feel safe and happy in marriage and that as unhappy as they both seemed it might be the time to walk away. ...Apparently, he can be really sweet, though?
I asked if they'd been to couples counselling and she said yes, but he later accused her of lying to the counsellor.

I just feel really uncomfortable getting involved in my dad's marriage! She has tons of friends who she says are all telling her to DTMFA. She has all the resources at hand to decide what to do about her marriage or his mental state. And as someone who visits maybe every few weeks or so I don't feel qualified to judge whether my dad is reacting abnormally or how much of it is just scenes from a nasty marriage. So I think it's basically up to her!

But I'm also quite rattled about hearing all of that.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You are responsible to help your dad, not his marriage... At most you can take him out to lunch or something and talk to him. I mean, realistically, what do you expect of yourself?
posted by jjmoney at 3:38 PM on February 29, 2012

This is her problem not yours. Your issue is how you react to it. So far, telling her to do what she has to do seems about just right.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:42 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, geeesh. I'm sorry you're in this position. Having been in a similar position, it's really hard. There are a few things that really helped:

1. Act with compassion and kindness towards the aggrieved party. CHECK! You already did this, woo!

2. Figure out what boundaries are healthy. We went with "no negative talk about Dad, I can't give advice or be a shoulder to cry on, but let me know if you think there is a medical issue that needs to be taken care of or if you make any major decisions."

3. Talk to your sister and see how she's doing with all of this.

4. Feel things out and see if there might be a medical cause to all of this. A change in behavior might require neurological testing, he might need a basic physical, or he might just be getting crabbier as he gets older.

Good luck, and sorry you're dealing with this.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:43 PM on February 29, 2012 [11 favorites]

She also said that he called her names and then later seemed really baffled, as if he couldn't remember having done it.

Can you get him to see his doctor? A neuro workup might not be the worst idea. It sounds like he hasn't suddenly become Angry Man, but it does sound like his Angry Man is rearing its head higher and more often than it used to. That and the potential memory weirdness can be signs that the problems are medical in nature.
posted by rtha at 3:45 PM on February 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm with the young rope-rider in suspecting that there could be a medical reason for this that should be explored; however, convincing a person who is already prone to rage issues and paranoia that he should see a doctor to have his behavior examined is not a task I envy your stepmother.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:45 PM on February 29, 2012

There could be a medical issue going on here, which might not be psychological in nature (although it would be having psychological effects). I would take him to see a doctor -- a medical doctor.

Beyond that, I agree, their marital issues are up to them and there's nothing else you can or should do.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:50 PM on February 29, 2012

He never acts out towards me (in fact, I could probably say anything I wanted and he'd be nice to me - he wouldn't listen, but he'd be nice) because he knows I'd just not turn up any more.

well, there's your answer right there - you have been able to set boundaries with him, so he can control his behaviour. You can explain to her what worked for you, she can then use that as a guide for her own decisions. after that, I think you're totally justified in keeping out of the situation.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:01 PM on February 29, 2012

oh - should have previewed - what everyone is saying that it might be a medical issue is good sense, if you can help get him to a doctor, that would be great
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:04 PM on February 29, 2012

I think if you have further conversations about this, you should ask her very directly if she wants you to do something. She might just want you to know so you're not surprised if something happens, or she may be using you as a head-check.

Nthing that she seems to be describing a pretty abrupt escalation, and that's always a reason to see a doctor.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:37 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

My dad went through similar sorts of bad behavior when he developed hyperthyroidism, so this could very well be medical. (Not that it's necessarily thyroid-related in your case, but there are a lot of possibilities in this vein, as others have mentioned.)
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:22 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with others that he should get a medical evaluation, just in case.

It's always good to set some boundaries when in a fraught situation like this. Don't feel bad about doing so.
posted by annsunny at 5:25 PM on February 29, 2012

She is a professional.

Express your concern,
mention the possibility of a purely psychological reasons
ask her what she thinks
unless your opinions differ greatly with her, indicate your support.

In other words, unless you have something that would contradict her assessment, she has the lead in the situation, probably both legally and experience-wise, and you should follow it and ask to be kept in the loop.
posted by edgeways at 5:48 PM on February 29, 2012

It doesn't matter if she's a professional, but how things are going aren't working for her, same as if she were a car mechanic and not in the psyche field. What does she need? Who should check out her husband?

That she works in the field probably makes things blurrier and more complicated than they need to be. She doesn't need to solve this by herself, and I wouldn't be surprised if she's trying to do so. There's a reason you don't treat your own family members- you just aren't objective enough, so you should take her diagnoses with a grain of salt. However, she can get him to another professional that she trusts and see what they say. She can even tell them her concerns.

Having it not be 100% her problem to solve, and letting her off the professional hook might be a big relief to her.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:08 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

It does sound like he needs some mental health help. Her being a psychologist is probably a PROBLEM actually, because he won't trust that any suggestions she makes to him about needing to get help are unbiased. And he may not trust psychologists in general if it's a closely networked field in your town.

I think the only and best thing you can do is to give him your opinion that his behaviour has changed and that he should see a doctor and/or therapist.

(For what it's worth, the behaviour you describe sounds a fair bit like my Dad when he is off his bipolar meds.)
posted by lollusc at 6:55 PM on February 29, 2012

Oh, and when I said to tell him that "his behaviour has changed" try NOT to make it about their marriage. Stick to examples of things he's said or ways he's behaved to other people rather than his wife. And don't bring up her opinion. Try to be the "unbiased" independent voice that might (might) make him take her more seriously when she also tells him he needs help.
posted by lollusc at 6:57 PM on February 29, 2012

She might be asking for your help to try and save their marriage, but another way to look at the situation is that she is worried about him and asking for your help for him. In that way, asking you for help is a really natural thing to do. Perhaps you should look at the problem twofold - 1) maintaining your boundaries about not meddling in their marriage and 2) deciding how much you want to be involved in your father's medical/psychological problems. I think there are plenty of ways (some described above) of dealing with the second without things getting weird about the first.
posted by lab.beetle at 7:24 PM on February 29, 2012

I think you need to suggest he see a doctor for a full checkup. This might be potentially beyond the psychological.
posted by mleigh at 7:58 PM on February 29, 2012

Some of this sounds to me like early stages of dementia. Definitely try to get your dad to a doctor. You cannot get information from the doctor without your dad's permission (at least if you are in the US), but you (or your step mom) can call the doctor ahead of your father's appointment to mention your concerns.
posted by min at 5:04 AM on March 1, 2012

Also, yes, it could be dementia or something, but my dad completely lost his marbles at about month 6 of taking Ambien to go to sleep, so it might be something as simple as a medications problem.

As my parents and their peers age, I'm running into that more and more. The MDs say, "Well, that just happens sometimes when people get older" about some aweful quality of life thing, and then for some (unrelated) reason the medications get changed or reduced and everything gets better. The complacency of MDs about old people's shitty quality of life makes me want to strangle them.

The same is true for the people in my life with chronic illnesses. If you have MS, lupus, fibromyalgia, Hep C, etc etc, every crappy thing that comes up gets attributed to the disease, not something fixable, even obvious and easy to check fixable problems, like thyroid problems. Apparently you are only allowed one ailment at a time.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:09 AM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you!

I think the idea with recommending him a medical check up is a good one. What kind of check up, though? Just a general one?

I particularly found the following comments by The young rope-rider, lollusc and Lyn Never helpful.

- Talk to your sister and see how she's doing with all of this.

- Oh, and when I said to tell him that "his behaviour has changed" try NOT to make it about their marriage.

- I think if you have further conversations about this, you should ask her very directly if she wants you to do something.

I should add that my dad, while a big fan of psychology (he's in and out of different types of therapy pretty regularly), is not a fan of doctors in general. I mean, he hasn't been to the dentist in decades and tends to "yeah yeah" people who tell him to go. So I don't anticipate much success in convincing him to have a check up. But I'll try and make my case convincing.

He also complains to me almost every single time we talk or email about his "know it all" "bossy" wife who he says puts him down infront of all her friends and who gangs up on him with their daughter. Sometimes I try to introduce a different interpretation if his seems too skewed to me, other times I listen and most of the time I try to keep it short and change the subject.
I don't know if I can do anything more productive with that.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:35 PM on March 1, 2012

You might try just telling him that you love him and you're worried about him and won't he please please lay your worries to rest by getting the MD to give him an overall check up, just as a favor? I mean, you're so far away, and ANY loving daughter would be worried and it's not like you can see him in person, and you want him to be around for a long time etc, etc. It's all true, and it'll make it about your generalized overprotectiveness and worriedness instead of about him being possibly crazy.

Any MD will do. (You can prep the MD by telling him/her your concerns.)
posted by small_ruminant at 3:47 PM on March 1, 2012

Medically speaking, a GP would probably be the place to start, especially if he already has a primary care physician, but depending on his insurance, there might also be the possibility of going straight to a neurologist.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:39 PM on March 2, 2012

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