What the heck is wrong with my mother?!
March 4, 2013 1:52 PM   Subscribe

My mom is well-meaning. She tries hard to be good and kind. I would be in dead a ditch without her. However, she is far and away the most emotionally manipulative person I have ever met. The most succinct way I can describe her behavior this: Every conversation about a problem-- even if it's not related to her behavior-- turns into a conversation about what a bad person she is. YANMPsychologist. But she doesn't have one and won't get one, and I need some kind of term to frame her behavior so I can look up resources on how to talk to her without wanting to scream.

Examples of her behavior:

- Talk about cleaning. Anything. I dare you. I dare you to say you did the dishes. Let her see you pick up that paper towel that fell on the floor-- I hope you're ready for a ten minute exchange about how she's sorry she didn't do it herself, god, she's such a bad housekeeper, you shouldn't have to work so hard, she's a terrible person.

- Mention some person's bad child-rearing skills. A coworker, a public figure, the parents of a serial killer on Cold Case Files-- anyone. I'm sorry, you thought you were talking about [foo]? NO, we're talking about mom, now, and how terrible mom is and why she should never have been allowed to have kids. (Never mind what this implies she thinks about you.)

- If she's venting about her horrid coworkers, do not try to agree with her about how horrid they are. This will end with an argument about how no, sweetie, to be fair, I deserved to be yelled at or blamed for something some other slacker did, because it's my own fault.

If you respond to her self-loathing subject change in any way other than repeatedly assuring her she is not a bad person/mother/employee/whatever, the conversation spirals downward further. The terminus of this Sadtrak invariably lies in "Then I just shouldn't talk anymore"-town or "I should go away"-sville. I generally don't mind constantly reassuring her that she's not a bad person, because I love her to bits, so this wouldn't be a problem, except for two things.

- She actually did neglect me when I was a kid. After my stepdad died, she checked out for a long time and among other things this resulted in me having head lice for two whole years, during which I became the junior high-school pariah for obvious reasons. After all the crap that happened during those two years I still have to remind myself sometimes that my friends actually like me, and aren't just getting close to me so they can play practical jokes on me in front of my peers. Any time she wants to talk about how she was a bad mom she brings this up, and, I gotta be honest, I still haven't forgiven her for it. So having to tell her she's a good mom when she's appealing to this particular thing, just to get her to shut up with the self-hatred, makes my blood boil.

- She isn't just a bad housekeeper, she's got a mild hoarding bug. I don't mind cleaning-- I like organizing stuff, and hey, she raised me and helped me out when I was deathly ill in the hospital. But by necessity I sometimes have to ask her where she wants something, if it's okay if I put this or that thing we don't use in the shed or the garbage, etc. This triggers the Bad Housekeeping Awards, Hosted by Mom every freaking time. I'm not sure how to avoid this one because I can't live in a trash heap and I don't want her to either because her health is declining and she deserves better (even if she doesn't think so, damnit).

I know I should not be living at home in this kind of environment, but because of medical issues I have I'm 10s of 1000s of $ in debt and my credit rating is lodged in a sea vent at the bottom of the Marianas Trench somewhere. I don't see any way out of having to live here right now. So please tell me WTF her problem is, so I can look up conversation strategies to deal with it, and maybe also strategies to help me BREATHE.
posted by the liquid oxygen to Human Relations (28 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
"I would be in dead a ditch without her. However, she is far and away the most emotionally manipulative person I have ever met."

These to feelings you have about your mother may be more related than opposed
posted by Blasdelb at 2:03 PM on March 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


To be honest, it seems like you mother is right, she is a really hopeless mother and housekeeper. What she needs to know is not that she isn't, because that would be lying, but that you love her and need her regardless, and that together you can work out what to do about Real Life.
in this scenario, there is a clear danger of you becoming the parent. Watch out for that, and set boundaries. Huge Berlin Wall type boundaries. But don't be afraid to tell your mother the truth.
posted by mumimor at 2:03 PM on March 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


Oh wow, I really feel for you. And I'm pretty useless at advice in this realm, so I'll just tell you simply that your writing is incredible and funny and rich and that you make me like you just from these few paragraphs. So whatever has gone on in your life, you've turned out to be an incredible writer, and I'm feeling really good having just read what you've written.

So, maybe, humor? Because you've clearly got a talent in that realm, and maybe you can just crack your mother up by replying in your obviously very funny way?
posted by Capri at 2:04 PM on March 4, 2013 [25 favorites]


I do not know what the name is for what your mom does. But here is a conversational strategy that might be helpful: steer away from evaluative judgments (good/bad, should/shouldn't) and stick to cause-and-effect.

Ideally, this means sticking to practical concerns (not 'are you a bad housekeeper', but 'can this go in the shed?'). When she tries to derail, adopt the Broken Record Strategy. When forced to talk about The Head Lice Years, instead of telling her she was a good mom, keep sticking to cause-and-effect: "You were going through some really hard stuff after my stepdad died."
posted by feral_goldfish at 2:10 PM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's an off-shoot of narcisism.

My mom has a different form and I agree, it's maddening! I just call her on her bullshit and I take what she says with a grain of salt.

Interestingly enough my two clossest friends also have Moms who are narcissists, so we compare notes! I have my own support group!

When your mom starts on this, you can tell her, "You know mom, the house is a wreck, and I suspect that you're a horder. But it's your house and you can do with it what you like. I don't judge you." Or alternately, "I wish we could work together to tidy it up and declutter, but it's your house and your decision."

When your mom starts down the Bad Mother path, "You know mom, there was a time there when you weren't the greatest mom, but even with your failings, I still love you."

She's not really listening anyway, she's fishing for complements or attention. Once you see it, you'll recognize it. Just don't fall for it.

As for work, just don't buy in, "Mom, you always bitch about these people, but then you always think you deserve it. So which is it?" Or even better, "OH NO! I'm not touching that with a barge pole."

I used to walk on eggshells around my Mom, I never knew what would set her off, or how she'd react. She'd yell at me for 15 minutes about putting her wool socks in the dryer, and then cry if I started to leave because she's so sensitive!

As for hording, my mom is a neat freak, with 100,000 carefully dusted and archived tschotchkes. I told her, "I don't want any of it, if you want it preserved, give it to a museum because I promise, it's going on eBay otherwise."

You can survive this. Narcisism.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:13 PM on March 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


I totally agree with Capri. You must have been strained writing that but it comes across as compassionate and humorous and I like you as much as Capri does.

I also agree with mumimor. Reassuring her that she's a wonderful mother and a white-glove housekeeper is dishonest to her and a helluva burden on you. It's ok for you to say, "to be honest mom middle school was pretty rough but I've let it go and I need you to also, because I need your support & companionship now." And it's ok for you to say "we're not all Martha Stewart, I like organizing and you're good at xxx; we make a good team."

Unfortunately the things that end the manipulation in the short term (reacting to her self-loathing) are the things that make it an entrenched behavior.
posted by headnsouth at 2:13 PM on March 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


I second Capri's comments about your writing. I laughed in some spots because it was so good, then felt bad for laughing because it's clearly a tender topic for you.

That aside, I think you can try to acknowledge your mom's feelings without getting caught up in the vortex. So you pick up a paper towel and she says, "God, I'm such an awful housekeeper" you say "You're my mom and I love you." And that's it. Then hug her and move on. It gives her love but very clearly doesn't leave an opening and doesn't force you to say something that's not true. And if you say it enough times, it can become almost shorthand for saying "Not going there with you" in a way that feels loving and supportive.
posted by missjenny at 2:15 PM on March 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


Seconding Ruthless Bunny on this one. My mom's one of these. My solution is avoidance as much as possible, directness without deliberate provocation when not, and therapy. Ohhhhh, lots of therapy. Check this out, try not to hurt yourself laughing and crying at the same time: www.daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com
posted by SinAesthetic at 2:24 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've got a similar problem with my mother, though thankfully she recognizes that she has a problem and seeks help for it. (I am also in therapy myself, please consider it.) Until your Mom is willing to do that, there's absolutely nothing you can do. Nothing! And I know that sounds awful, but it's actually very freeing. You can't do anything so it's not your responsibility to do anything.

The only thing you can manage is yourself, so figure what in your own behaviour you can modify that will lead to results that you prefer. For me this eventually turned into my telling my mother I absolutely can't deal with those conversations anymore, I'm having a bad time and can't be her support, and then limiting our contact to what I could emotionally manage. It did not go over like roses, we didn't speak for a week or two, but she's been managing her own behaviour better and I've given myself the option to hang-up or walk out. (Which is probably the incentive for her improvement.)
posted by Dynex at 2:29 PM on March 4, 2013


Hoarding is usually considered to be an anxiety disorder, and the constant need for approval and validation also sound like low self-esteem / anxiety stuff. You obviously can't "fix" that for her, you can only manage your reactions. And bring in levity.

I've gotten a fair bit of mileage out of, "Hey, be nicer to my mom! If anybody else talked about her like that I'd tell them to shut up! What make you think you can talk about her that way?" kinds of humor.
posted by ldthomps at 2:38 PM on March 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


mumimor: To be honest, it seems like you mother is right, she is a really hopeless mother and housekeeper.
Not helpful, nor relevant, to his mother's self-esteem issues. If a person believes themselves to be ugly, is it important if they are? Or is the truly damaging part of the problem the self-esteem?

--

the liquid oxygen, every single sentence you wrote about your mother tells me that you were raised by someone wracked with emotional insecurity. You have to have residual issues from this unhealthy upbringing that need to be dealt with, surely...
the liquid oxygen: I know I should not be living at home in this kind of environment, but because of medical issues I have I'm 10s of 1000s of $ in debt and my credit rating is lodged in a sea vent at the bottom of the Marianas Trench somewhere. I don't see any way out of having to live here right now. So please tell me WTF her problem is, so I can look up conversation strategies to deal with it, and maybe also strategies to help me BREATHE.
Yep, I was right. You feel overwhelmed, anxious, panicky, and are financially insolvent. You desperately need to seek therapy for yourself.

Not only will it help your outlook, and help you to work on your financial situation with a clearer head, but it will help you learn better ways to deal with your mother's mental issues.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:41 PM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here is some more reading on Narcissistic Mothers.

A friend has also received some comfort by knowing of the existence of this site.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:52 PM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's helped me a little bit to make sure 75% of my interactions are with people who AREN'T like that. Then it's easier for me to realize it's just her shit, not my problem, and even though it's still annoying it rolls off my back much more easily.

Basically, just make sure your mom isn't the majority of your life, as best you can. Making that the case will be tricky since you live with her, but maybe try to schedule a social call per day? (Office/work interactions don't count as much as purely social ones.)
posted by small_ruminant at 2:56 PM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


> If a person believes themselves to be ugly, is it important if they are? Or is the truly damaging part of the problem the self-esteem?

I sort of think so. Yes. I think they require two different approaches. If I have short legs, I can buy different sorts of clothing. If I just *think* I have short legs, I can compare my leg:height ratio with images of other women on the internet, and conclude that my legs aren't that short after all.

I don't believe in coddling people, even people with anxiety. Coddling is just a band-aid, it doesn't actually help them gain security (in my non-professional experience).

OP, I'm a goal oriented person. When I interact with someone like this, I tell them straight out that (a) we have talked about this before, (b) we did not reach any sort of productive conclusion, and that (c) I'm not willing to spend time rehashing the same thing unless we can anticipate a different result.

If the person persists (without trying to find actionable items), I walk out.
posted by ethidda at 3:00 PM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


My mother is like this -- the neglectful childhood I had, the oh-everything-is-my-fault-so-I'll-waste-more-of-your-time-comforting-me song and dance, the self-centeredness.

I think she has undiagnosed BPD. She's very self-centered, very anxious, had a lot of childhood trauma herself, and everything is ABOUT HER.

Frankly, I don't have any contact with her at all anymore and my life is much, much better.

If you have to deal with her (or until you move out), it doesn't really matter what you do. You can't fix her, she won't change, and it's not going to get better.

Just try to be calm and spend a lot of time away from her. Don't take what she says seriously, and get help for yourself.
posted by 3491again at 3:16 PM on March 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh, sorry, by BPD I meant Borderline Personality Disorder (sometimes called Emotional Dysregulation Disorder) not Bipolar.
posted by 3491again at 3:22 PM on March 4, 2013


My mother is just like this. You said 'emotionally manipulative' and I think that that is a big part of it. When I was growing up my mom was overwhelmed by the terrible circumstances of our family life and developed some not terribly effective methods for coping with things–denial ultimately being the most prevalent aspect of my mom's behavior. I think (assume) that she has crushing guilt she simply can't face and that, when it's convenient (like, whenever none of her children are around - which is most of the time) she goes off into Deep Denial Mode.

Like your mom, whenever my mom is confronted with what she presumes are thinly veiled accusations (she is very sensitive to this), she jumps immediately to defend herself/punish the other person by putting herself down. She does this to get us to reassure her that she is not whatever it is she is accusing herself of being while simultaneously making us feel awful, awkward, confused for ever bringing something up (innocently) that might be painful for her to think about. It's meant to train people to never do/talk about certain things around her so that she never, ever has to confront her guilt. I don't think my mom is doing any of this for attention, btw. Nor do I think she is a narcissist (of course, I'm not a p-doc, just a daughter, so this is all just my own personal observation).

Bottom line, my mom is terrified to face anything and resorts to preemptive guilt-tripping to ward things off. There was heavy duty addiction, enabling, emotional and physical abuse in my family while I was growing up, so that informs everything, too. My mom clearly felt powerless and remained emotionally immature (never learned how to protect herself or her children to the point of neglect). Fear, guilt and denial are the words that come immediately to mind when I think of my mom's behavior. Anxiety is in there, too.
posted by marimeko at 4:14 PM on March 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


This book is really really good and covers a lot of specific techniques on how to continue a relationship with someone like this.
posted by Rocket26 at 4:25 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suspect that reading about Borderline Personality Disorder, as 3491again said, will be helpful for you. Even if she doesn't officially meet the diagnostic criteria, some of the manipulative behavior is similar.
posted by jaguar at 4:32 PM on March 4, 2013


Oh, also – strategies? I don't play into my mom's denial/guilt trips anymore. It's that simple. At some point in therapy I realized it was hurting me and not really doing her any favors, either. And she has adjusted. She knows it doesn't fly with me anymore so she doesn't bother. When she does, I'm honest, respectful and as nice as possible, but I don't go on and on with reassurances like I used to before. I just move past it and try to reamin rational in the face of her actions (which is hard!). If she says things that I sense are meant to manipulate me, like some of her more indirect ways of getting her point across, I'll call her on it or ask her to clarify. I'll remind her fairly directly that I don't appreciate being manipulated. As well, if she blatantly denies the truth/facts about the past or something I know is not true, I'll say something or correct her, gently. As a result, she has relied less and less on me being complicit in her re-writing of history. She knows I won't go along with it so she doesn't use me in this fashion anymore. I wish I had figured these things out years ago but guilt prevented me from even considering my own feelings or needs in the matter until I went to therapy.
posted by marimeko at 5:09 PM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


My therapist has suggested that I have borderline personality disorder or something like it. Complex PTSD is another, less stigmatized term.

People here keep mentioning manipulation and I want to question that term a bit. I have said stuff that is similar to your mom's talk and while it is definitely not a good thing to do, manipulation is not my conscious intention when I get in that mode. It's like calling a drowning person "clingy."

I say this not to make you feel worse or more responsible for your mother because she is responsible for herself. But people with BPD (or other personality disorders) are sometimes viewed as lost causes and that is not accurate or fair. The feelings your mom probably deals with (emptiness, worthlessness, etc) are real and very powerful. I have no advice on dealing with her; other people's suggestions sound wise.

Dialectical behavioral therapy has helped me a lot. More than I can say. But I am younger than your mom and I've been working at it for a long time.
posted by gentian at 5:13 PM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ok, first, thanks for the answers. Some of these are very helpful. Also I am glad I gave a few of you a laugh.

Second, IAmBroom, I totally need therapy, but I also don't know how to get it when I am, as you say, financially insolvent. If you know of a place in the Panama City, FL, area that accepts the poor of wallet as well as the poor in spirit other than our Life Management Center (with which I have had very bad experiences), I'd love to hear about it. I can't find anything else listed on the internet except addiction recovery stuff. Maybe I should be looking in nearby cities as well?

Third, gentian, I'm sorry if you see yourself in my mother's behavior and feel attacked, but I don't see why the pain and frustration she causes me by expressing her emptiness and worthlessness at every opportunity are any less real or important than how she feels. As a few other commenters have guessed, I've got issues with depression and anxiety myself, but I don't heap my dark feelings on her when we're talking about something 800 miles away from them, like, say, the weather, or cycling (cookie for you if you can guess how she brought these topics back around to how much she sucks!). In fact, I can't discuss my psychological issues with her at all, because that turns into a conversation about how she must have raised me wrong, or is a monster because she gave me her genetic predisposition toward depression and should never have dared to have kids at all. I mean, that's like two steps away from "I shouldn't have had you"; what can I even say to that?

I'm glad you're working on your issues, but she isn't and won't-- and I love her a lot, so seeing her hate on herself nonstop and trying in vain to comfort her has pretty well emptied out all my emotional reserves. Her intentions are the farthest thing from my mind; I have no sympathy left to give her, just the black and hardened core of grim utilitarian determination that drove me to ask the internet how to make this situation workable until I can extricate myself from it.
posted by the liquid oxygen at 6:33 PM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Have you ever tried to agree with her to an absurd level? "Yes, mum, you were such a horrible mum I'm planning on setting you off on an ice floe any day now." "I'm sure your co-workers totally hate you and are planning to give you wedgies and swirlies on Monday." That would be my first instinct, but perhaps I'm just a horrible daughter...
posted by deborah at 8:39 PM on March 4, 2013


I'm glad you're working on your issues, but she isn't and won't-- and I love her a lot, so seeing her hate on herself nonstop and trying in vain to comfort her has pretty well emptied out all my emotional reserves. Her intentions are the farthest thing from my mind; I have no sympathy left to give her, just the black and hardened core of grim utilitarian determination that drove me to ask the internet how to make this situation workable until I can extricate myself from it.

That stood out from your original post too – that your mother is using you as a crutch because she's not at all willing to change. She may or may not do one or both of two things when you finally manage to leave: 1. find a different crutch 2. ask for professional help. My officially-diagnosed BPD mother (who also fits every description of BPD mother I've ever read, so I believe the diagnosis) actually did both: she went into therapy and lied to her therapist. Not enough that he didn't see the BPD, obviously, since he diagnosed it, but enough that therapy became her new crutch. I kept in touch with her for a few years after she started therapy, and I have no idea what her therapist actually told her. All I know is that she used "things" she learned in therapy to justify death wishes towards me. For instance, barely a paraphrase of things she would say: "I was talking with &therapist and HE said that I was so strong to survive my childhood but you didn't, just look how hard you have it, you don't deserve to have grown up with such a generous mother because &therapist says that a good mother supports children when they make reasonable mistakes like I did as a kid but your mistakes were totally out of line and so I was right, you're hopeless. Why didn't you just die when you had that burst cyst?"

This is why the desire to change comes up so often in MeFi as the key element in helping people. They have to want to change. It doesn't matter what their diagnosis is, it doesn't even matter if they're in therapy: they have to want to change. It is true that particularly narcissistic personalities are narcissistic because, well, why would they change except for themselves...

Your mother doesn't show any desire to change. So, your only options are essentially how you can care for yourself, which includes avoiding how to be drained. This thread has loads of good suggestions for that. Having outside friends/emotional support was what saved me growing up, and if that's hard to swing, some sort of hobby. Something you love. You don't need it to be rationally justifiable: or rather, its rational justification is precisely that you love it; it brings you peace and joy. The more you can build that experience of groundedness, the more emotional strength you will have to know that your mother is your mother. She is not an inevitable sink of energy. Though, honestly, the best way to ensure that's true is to get out eventually. It's impossible to guard against everything in such close quarters; completely objective realities such as her hoarding tendencies will inevitably affect you. Be compassionate with yourself.

The VERY best way would be if your mother eventually desires to change and works towards that on her own... but you can't sacrifice your own life towards that end. It won't work, especially. I've seen it time and again with my family. The choice has to come from them. I could write a book about all the dramatic, life-or-death circumstances my family members have put themselves in over the years, in which "therapy could really help you out" was said to them, and to which they replied with, "I can't afford it", the only exception being my mother, who found a way to twist it to not change at all anyway. (It didn't come from her, see – it came from several of us urging her to try it out.) Then they bought BMWs, bigger houses, had babies, that sort of thing. Past a certain point, indeed, you live your own life, without them in it.
posted by fraula at 2:00 AM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


That's an off-shoot of narcisism.

That's what I got out of it too. My experience with narcissistic people is that they are emotional disasters, and everything about their behavior is centered around their own hangups, whatever they happen to be. Narcissism can be thought of as one of the ways anxiety manifests itself.

Their manipulation isn't really purposeful; they aren't trying to make you feel a certain way. Rather, they are just guiding conversations into areas where they are less uncomfortable. IE, their own self-loathing. The result is that you feel manipulated, but they aren't doing it on purpose per se.

The standard advice applies. Don't react to behavior that is unacceptable. "I'm an awful mother" is an invitation to talk about her, to either engage in a pity fest about how she's awful, or to engage in an argument where she has to convince you how awful she is despite her protestations. So instead, give her no relief. "I'm awful" should be responded to with either a silent [whatever], or a dismissive "then change your behavior, you can't change the past." The key is to not give them comfort in your discomfort. If she discovers that you aren't going to engage in her self-centered wallowing, then she will hopefully find something else to talk about.
posted by gjc at 4:37 AM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Your ultimate goal, once you have your financial ducks in a row, is to move out - until then, can you relate to your mom more like a roommate as far as possible? Get some distance from her so she doesn't push every button? Do you have a plan for when you are going to be moving out and are moving toward it - even by baby steps? Being able to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel will help you keep your cool as this situation won't seem like forever.

In the meantime, take small_ruminant's advice and have a social and emotional life that doesn't involve your mom. If you don't have any social support other than her, you are going to be that much more enmeshed with your mom and her moods and problems because you are depending on her for your emotional sustenance.

Have as much going on outside the home as you can. A job (if your health permits, and if it doesn't, look into disability benefits), hobbies, church or synagogue if you are religious, Meet Ups, anything to expand your life outside of home. Having a support system means that even if you are living with your mom, you will not be so dependent on her emotionally (which, to be honest, is worse than being financially dependent - FAR worse!) and this will go a long way towards being able to deal with her outbursts.

tl;dr - Have as much a life, particularly a social life, that doesn't involve mom as you possibly can.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:45 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


the liquid oxygen: Second, IAmBroom, I totally need therapy, but I also don't know how to get it when I am, as you say, financially insolvent. If you know of a place in the Panama City, FL, area that accepts the poor of wallet as well as the poor in spirit other than our Life Management Center (with which I have had very bad experiences), I'd love to hear about it. I can't find anything else listed on the internet except addiction recovery stuff. Maybe I should be looking in nearby cities as well?
I have no knowledge of social services in Florida - can any Mefites from there help TLO out here?
posted by IAmBroom at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2013


This is a very very late follow-up, but it's owed to you for all the stories and help you guys gave me. I marked as best the answers that have helped me the most in the months since this post, but each post was helpful in some way.

Some time after the blow-up that led me to make this ask, my mother apologized and said that she'd forgotten to take her high blood pressure meds that day. The next time she went nuclear, I asked if she'd remembered her meds-- and she hadn't! She's been remembering to take them more or less consistently now and is WORLDS better to be around. And when she's in a general funk, "weaponized" humor, heading her tirades off at the pass with statements of love, and just remaining calm so I don't start a feedback loop of anxiety for her have all helped. Thanks all for pointing those options out to me.
posted by the liquid oxygen at 5:49 PM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


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