Worried about a worrier
July 25, 2012 5:00 PM   Subscribe

My mother-in-law spends her life worrying about everything. She says she's happier than she's ever been. I think she needs help.

I guess I'm lucky in that I wound up with a mother-in-law I really do love. My wife and I helped her move from the Midwest two years ago to live near us and be closer to her grandkids. We were very proud that she decided to come out but since then, she's kind of been like a turtle in her shell and has limited her life to a very small square area. She refuses to drive on freeways (a big deal here in SoCal). She won't go and try new things. She spends most of her day watching TV (although in fairness she does go to a gym now somewhat regularly). She has a single friend. Most of the time, she worries. She worries and worries and worries. When I look at her life, I see a life ruled by anxiety.

In what is now becoming an annual ritual, she gets upset at my wife and I for feeling that she's disappointed us for not exercising more, eating better or meeting new people. She says she's happy, happier than she was in the Midwest. She says she doesn't feel isolated. I don't believe her. I can't help but think how much happier and more fulfilled she would be if she got her anxiety under control and stopped being afraid of her own shadow. I guess I should leave things alone. I don't want to hurt her. But I feel responsible for her having helped bring her out and I'm not sure how I can ever stop from wanting to help her. Am I the one who needs help here?
posted by up in the old hotel to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here's the thing about having a lot of anxiety (at least for me) is that you can be hesitant to tell people about things or ask for help because they might push you into well-meaning solutions that will actually make your anxiety worse or you are not ready for. To give you an example from my own life, when I was 10 I started out with a phobia around food/eating, my parents reacted by forcing their solutions on me, and I ended up with a full blown anxiety disorder and eating disorder and weighing under 90 lbs for years. So with your mom, okay right now she refuses to drive on freeways, but if she really gets pushed into that before she's ready, she could end up not being willing to drive at all.

I really think that the best way to help her, is to tell her that if she ever wants to ASK you for help, you will always be there for her to do your best. Like if she ever wants to go see a therapist, you guys can make arrangements to drive her there is she can't get there. And make sure she knows that you will just listen to HER ideas and solutions for becoming less anxious, not try to force your own ideas on her.
posted by cairdeas at 5:10 PM on July 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

But I feel responsible for her having helped bring her out and I'm not sure how I can ever stop from wanting to help her. Am I the one who needs help here?

You may have just answered your own question. You may feel responsible and want to help, which is nice, but I don't know that you're "helping" her by trying to cure her worrying.

You may also be right about the anxiety, but being right is likely not enough. One thing you could try would be to offer to drive her to an annual medical checkup, and find a way to discreetly mention to the doctor that you're concerned about her anxiety. The suggestion to address anxiety might be heard most if it came from a doctor.
posted by salvia at 5:12 PM on July 25, 2012

If she's not bugging you personally by being too needy of your time and attention to meet her social needs, I say believe her when she says she's happy. Some people don't like the go-go-go lifestyle, and don't require a big social circle to feel content. Maybe she really enjoys her alone time and her TV.

A person can be anxious and a worrier without needing therapy. If she seems content (and again, if she's not bothering you excessively to deal with her anxieties) leave her be.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:14 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sometimes the best thing we can do is really hear and believe what people tell us about themselves. She has voiced that she feels pressure from the two of you because her life isn't different in ways that you perceive as better. I know that's not your intention, but one source of great anxiety is that she is not meeting what she perceives as your expectations of her and what living a happy life means. There are people who live more isolated, sedate lives that are very content. I say give her the benefit of the doubt and relax a bit. Chances are when you do, she will, too. Also, some people are just worriers, but not to an extent that it's a mental health issue. If you observe other signs of anxiety such as cancelling plans with you and your wife or an avoidance of things she truly loves, or physical signs of an anxiety/panic attack, then you can revisit the issue and express your concern, but for now, I'd step back a bit and operate on the assumption that when she says she "has never been more happy," she genuinely is.
posted by katemcd at 5:31 PM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Your mother-in-law says she is happy, and the only evidence of strife in your question is that she doesn't like the expectations she feels like you're putting on her. Even if she isn't actually happy, maybe she has good reasons for not wanting to tell you or involve her in improving her life in whatever way.

I am assuming that she is mentally and legally competent. If so, it sounds like you ought to butt out.
posted by willbaude at 5:32 PM on July 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Have her personality and habits changed drastically since she moved? I'm not clear if you're saying in the Midwest she was all carefree and sociable and loved highways but the move really freaked her out, or not, or if you don't know. Because if not, it sounds like this just may be the way she is. Having her daughter and son in law and grandkids nearby, and a friend, and a TV, and a small geographical area in which she can do familiar things...a lot of people are perfectly content with that life and even much less, really.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:41 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there something you've left out?

...helped her move from the Midwest two years ago.... In what is now becoming an annual ritual, she gets upset at my wife and I for feeling that she's disappointed us...

Do you mean that she's expressed this worry only twice? Are you feeling guilty that she picked up from her roots to your location and you are not able to be around her enough to justify the sacrifice? Because other than that, I can't imagine why two conversations in two years would be upsetting.

About the driving in particular, I've noticed that older people sometimes drive less due to night vision and maybe a host of other physical issues related to aging. I remember reading someone's comment on AskMe once about a fantastic idea: They made some sort of billing arrangement with a local taxi service, so that the person could travel wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, for free. I wish I could find the whole thread. I thought this was a brilliant idea. Maybe it's a brilliant idea that will help your mother-in-law?
posted by Houstonian at 5:43 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you need to listen to what she's telling you. She's happy. You're probably making her more anxious by constantly asking her about her anxiety. People come in all sorts of different types - she happens to have a certain level of anxiety, but she seems to be able to live a happy life that way.
posted by barnoley at 5:57 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe she likes watching TV, going to the gym, having a single friend, and not driving on the freeway. All that plus being close to family? Sounds perfect! Manage your own expectations before assuming she needs help. Continue to love her, but stop being disapointed in her.
posted by katypickle at 7:34 PM on July 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe they aren't mutually exclusive things- she worries all the time AND she is happier than she's ever been. I'm telling you, my grandmother, once she was living alone, took great pleasure in being able to circle what SHE wanted to watch in the TV guide and pottering around in her own place.

If she is seeing you and the grandkids, has a friend and can get around during the days without going on the freeways...she's probably fine. Hell, I wouldn't drive on freeways but I'm ok.

I used to harrange (sp?) my parents more about not doing 'enough' but it turns out they are quiet (although also quite anxious) people who have their own routines and are perfectly happy with them.

It certainly wouldn't hurt to stress that you are willing to help her in ANY WAY she wants, but if she says she's fine, then...as someone said above, if you believe she is mentally and physically competent to live alone, then that's that. Be happy she's (saying she's) happy.

(And maybe ask her if she wants you to bring grandkids over if she doesn't love driving.)
posted by bquarters at 7:47 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let her acclimate! Sure, she's probably anxious as hell, but that's her issue, not yours. Do her the service of respecting what she says and not reading your own values into it. You are not going to help her by quizzing her constantly on her state of mind. Be a good son-in-law (I'm assuming) and invite her out from time to time - otherwise, let her be.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:23 PM on July 25, 2012

You need to go volunteer somewhere - only help people with their long-term issues if it's asked for or if it's in a professional capacity. You are not the one to save her from herself. I cannot begin to tell you how greatly this may backfire for you.
posted by heyjude at 9:56 PM on July 25, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all for your responses. This has been very helpful. I'm glad I asked the question.
posted by up in the old hotel at 10:26 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're looking for s solution to a problem that does not yet exist,
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:57 PM on July 25, 2012

But I feel responsible for her having helped bring her out and I'm not sure how I can ever stop from wanting to help her. Am I the one who needs help here?

Yup. In particular because your version of 'help' does not seem to match well with what she believes she needs.

Your mother-in-law has likely 20-30 years of life experience on you. Not only that but she has a literal lifetime of experience of being herself. If she says she wants to live a certain way you are in no place to contradict her.

I'm probably projecting my own feelings on to you, but I wonder if some of this isn't fed by her approaching death. All the limitations she is placing on her life are common in older adults, and it's never easy to think of a parent in that category. Are you sure that you and your wife's concerns aren't driven by a sense that you don't want her to be acting so old?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:53 AM on July 26, 2012

Some people only need to feel close to a handful of people. If those people are family, so much the better. I've always been like that as an adult: perfectly happy with family for closeness and intimacy and friendship, and with a couple of work friends for general chit chat and the occasional lunch. She sees you, your wife, your kids, the people at the gym, and her friend. That'd be plenty of social connections for me.
posted by that's how you get ants at 7:59 AM on July 26, 2012

In what is now becoming an annual ritual, she gets upset at my wife and I for feeling that she's disappointed us for not exercising more, eating better or meeting new people.
I can relate to her. Because of my anxiety, I don't drive, I don't really meet new people, and I loathe exercise. I've been in relationships (romantic, platonic, familial) with people who really couldn't accept that I am not incredibly miserable living this way. It can be really frustrating and depressing to have people be disappointed that you don't live up to an ideal they hold for you, when the life you have isn't damaging anyone. Don't I get to decide whether I'm happy or not? And how to attain that if I don't have it?

Unless she is complaining, obviously sliding downhill in some way, or asking for your help in improving the quality of her life, please leave it alone. Even if she's not being honest about being happy, feeling like you've disappointed someone in that way is one of the worst feelings in world.
posted by sm1tten at 9:21 AM on July 26, 2012

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