Family causes anxiety and I can't visit them.
July 21, 2014 8:47 PM   Subscribe

My family causes me a lot of anxiety, to the point that staying away from them is a key part of keeping my sanity. They don't understand why I don't visit and won't discuss with me. How do I deal with the residual guilt?

Without getting into long details, my family (two parents and a half-brother from my father's first marriage) cause me anxiety. They mean well and love me, but because of my childhood and incidents therein, I spent nearly 15 years untangling myself and my brain from the throes of serious mental illness/anxiety/depression. Much of my success controlling my illness comes from staying away from my family. I live across the country, and have only visited a handful of times over the last 5-6 years.

This is all, unfortunately, combined with a serious fear of flying. I've driven the last few times I've visited, with my husband - a long, stressful drive. Popping in for a few days and popping back isn't an option for me right now. There doesn't seem to be enough medication in the world to combat my flying phobia + family anxiety. I'm also working on the flying thing in therapy.

I feel enormous guilt about not visiting, and my mom lays it on thick, telling me my dad is elderly (true) and that I'll regret not being there (not so true) and so on. A few years ago, during a particularly helpful therapy breakthrough, I tried a few times to start a conversation with my mom about my reluctance about coming and the reasons behind it. I didn't blame, I didn't list all the reasons my family makes me anxious - I just tried to start the conversation with a lot of "I feels" and "When this happens, I.." Both times, my mom shut down the conversation with "Oh, I'm the worst mother in the world, am I?" and "All your problems are my fault, right?" and similar conversations down the line. My father just changed the subject. They won't listen to my real reasons for not coming. My mom believes I'm in a Cat's Cradle situation here - not visiting because I'm too busy or don't care about them. I've told them both many times that I DO care, I love them, etc., but they don't believe me.

What this has turned into is me feeling constant, enormous, night-sweats guilt about not visiting. I'm essentially an only child (my half-brother is an addict and in and out of jail), and my parents are older (70s and 80s, both still healthy). They're right that I don't have much time left with them. Because of their ages, I'll realistically have to move home to care of them in the near future. Both have in their directives they specifically, if ill, want to stay home, don't want to go to a facility and want me to take care of them.

I know they're both getting older, and scared about it, which breaks my heart. It would bring them comfort for me to be there. There is truly no one else to take care of them - no extended family, no other siblings, no close family friends. It's just me.

I need some advice on a couple of things. I can't have a conversation with my parents about any of these topics that doesn't involve them shutting down on me completely, so I need to constructively deal with my own feelings here. I'm working on this - constantly - in therapy, but could use some anecdotal advice.

Have you experienced this? How do you deal with the guilt of not visiting your aging parents, if you have good reasons for not doing so? How do you stay close to your family while not falling apart, if the family is a reason for your mental distress? What coping mechanisms do you use to balance a situation like this?

I'm a married mid-30s successful lady with a good support network and coping skills in place. This seems to be the only part of my life right now I can't navigate. Thanks for your advice.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
They can't understand.

I think it is better if you don't try, since all it will do is cause more friction and angst.

Is your spouse able to be a buffer?

Hopefully you are working in therapy on WHY they tie you up in a knot (trust me, I understand this) and the main advice I can give is work on desensitizing yourself to it.

And give up on the dream of your parents understanding you. Mine are around that age, and I understand they and I will never really grok each other, and that has to be okay. For my own mental health, and for theirs.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:16 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My family causes me a lot of anxiety, to the point that staying away from them is a key part of keeping my sanity.

Is your sanity negotiable?

It would bring them comfort for me to be there.

Are you sure? If you are anxious and upset around them, or initiate conversations that make them defensive, why or how would your presence be comforting? If they can't even have a reasonable conversation, you may be grossly over-estimating how much your being there would be valued.

Personally, I've made decisions about not contacting or seeing certain family members for my own well being. When I worry about them or feel like reaching out, I determine what I can do that feels comfortable (eg, a short phone call or writing a letter). When guilt comes up, I accept it but also feel very strongly that family members earn their way into my life. If they aren't behaving in ways that support my well being, I have every right to draw firm boundaries.

Here's an idea: In lieu of visiting, maybe but your parents an ipad and teach them how to use FaceTime or Skype.
posted by Gray Skies at 9:18 PM on July 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Both have in their directives they specifically, if ill, want to stay home, don't want to go to a facility and want me to take care of them.

My anecdotal advice is that you and they need to reconsider this plan, because this alone would stress me to the point of physical illness. (Experience: I'm an only child with a mother I love but no way could I possibly live with her. She lives in an assisted living facility and I visit her about once a week.)
posted by immlass at 9:29 PM on July 21, 2014 [29 favorites]

I don't have much good advice on how to deal with this rationally because my decisions were to move 5,000 miles away, stay there for a long time, and stay as high as possible.

But as to this:

Both have in their directives they specifically, if ill, want to stay home, don't want to go to a facility and want me to take care of them.

Please be aware that nothing they put in their wills or health care proxies can legally compel you to move home and take care of them if that isn't what you want to do, or are able to do.

Also please be aware that an inability to deal with your previously abusive family, despite their best intentions and well-meaning now, is not a character flaw. You are not a bad person for wanting to remain as mentally and emotionally strong and healthy as possible. When you stand up for yourself, they will tell you this, that you are cruel, a bad person, a hateful person. I am telling you right now that they are wrong and selfishly manipulating you because they know you're vulnerable to this kind of behavior. Don't give in and sacrifice yourself for people who seem to care nothing for your wellbeing.
posted by elizardbits at 9:38 PM on July 21, 2014 [52 favorites]

Serious question: If you are incapable of visiting them without triggering serious illness in yourself, how on earth could you live with them for an extended period of time? If you can't take care of yourself, you definitely can't take care of them.

This is what assisted living is for. As difficult a conversation as it will be, you might want to advise them to make other arrangements.
posted by zug at 9:43 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Both have in their directives they specifically, if ill, want to stay home, don't want to go to a facility and want me to take care of them.
If they haven't discussed that with you beforehand, and made sure you are 100% OK with it, then this is some manipulative BS. You live on the other side of the country, you say you're successful (presumably this means you might be tied to a job and your location) and you have a husband. It is total insanity to expect you and your husband to give up your life to move across the country and take care of you. Let's pretend you don't have anxiety issues with you family - its STILL utter BS to expect that of you.
posted by Joh at 10:38 PM on July 21, 2014 [21 favorites]

want me to take care of them.

Just remember: they may want this from you, but they can't actually compel it.

Also, one of the things you may need to make peace with is the fact that they will never understand why you've made the choices you've made. They will almost certainly never see it from your point of view. If they had the capacity for that kind of empathy, they would have demonstrated it by now. It may bring you some peace and relief (and, paradoxically, it may even make it easier to deal with them) to let them off the hook in this regard, and to let go of expectations that they can't ever fulfill.

My best to you.
posted by scody at 10:59 PM on July 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

Agreeing with the posters above that it would be helpful for you to address the issue of living with them to take care of them.

Also, your mother is stonewalling you. There is basically no way to have a productive conversation with someone who doesn't enter a discussion like this with the mindset that you are equals. The most you can do is state your boundaries in a way that's consistent with your own standards of respectful communication. But you can't do this and take care of your mother's feelings at the same time, and there is no guarantee that she'll be respectful in return. It's probably best to get off the phone ASAP and with saying as little else as possible once your mother starts in with this kind of maneuvering.

I would stick to your guns and not visit them unless they're willing to show that they take your needs seriously. If the discussion of whether or not to visit them is frought with this much power gamesmanship, your mother is probably just going to find something else to make you feel like shit about once you get there.
posted by alphanerd at 11:07 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not to be a downer, but it always amazes me that adults in AskMe questions consent to having stressful relationships that hurt so much, like the one you are describing.

Work with your therapist specifically in depersonalizing and disentangling yourself from these relationships. Whatever form that takes. Do it.

There is literally no reason for you to live like this.
posted by jbenben at 11:43 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Because of their ages, I'll realistically have to move home to care of them in the near future. Both have in their directives they specifically, if ill, want to stay home, don't want to go to a facility and want me to take care of them.

Okay, they want to stay home and have you take care of them. That's great for them. I want a million dollars. My dad doesn't want to end up in a nursing home, but if he didn't want to end up in a nursing home then he could have put some effort into maintaining a functional relationship with his kids. At this point, he's younger than your parents but he's also in very poor health, and I wish our lives had been different, but after spending a lot of time on this with therapists... well, that's all there is. They don't get everything they want.

Parents have obligations to children. Children do not have obligations to parents. You're trying very hard to make this seem like it's really not a matter of your parents being so horrible that you can reasonably avoid them, and yet they still come off quite horrible enough for you to reasonably avoid them.

You're allowed to love them and not be their primary caregiver. You're allowed to love them and not visit. You don't have to hate them forever, to have been beaten or sexually abused, to have a "good enough" reason to live your life separately from theirs, it is entirely good enough that you are healthier without them. If they handle that separation well, that's a good sign for mending things later. But since they're already handling it poorly, that's not a sign that you made the wrong call, it's a sign that you made the right one.
posted by Sequence at 1:15 AM on July 22, 2014 [16 favorites]

When I was a child I learned that my father was a bully and he remained a bully all his life. I left at sixteen and never lived there again though my mother was precious to me. I sometimes said I was lucky because my father's behavior was so blatantly unacceptable that I was able to reject it and to detach from him. As I grew older, I could set boundaries when I visited and keep him from crossing the line but if he did, I was always prepared to leave on the spot. I did leave in the middle of dinner a couple of times--picked up and drove home across three states. I was past forty before I learned that I had to set the rules. I hope you can learn sooner than I did. The way he behaved was never ok and there is no way in the world I could ever have taken care of him in his old age. He wanted a lot of things that, after great struggles, I learned I could not give and he was not entitled to. Fortunately his oldest son was able to manage his care.

Your circumstances are different but you do need to believe that their rules and their wishes are not binding on you. You can stay away and talk on the phone--and you can hang up if their guilting starts and tell them why on the spot, like training a puppy, they have to know in that moment what they did that you won't tolerate.

I did some of this with my father and my son actually did this with me one time. I learned very quickly to listen because I would do very nearly anything to avoid losing his goodwill. I know he loves me but I want him to like me.

Your parents are not respecting you. Perhaps they will never change but you have to say--and believe you have a right to say--what you can and you cannot accept. It is not necessary to personally, physically move back there and take care of your aging parents. I wonder if it is even physically possible. If they need actually physical care, one person cannot do that, anyway, and their perception of you makes you the last person whose caregiving is likely to be skillful, firm, caring but unemotional. You need to be their daughter, not their nurse and servant.

I hope you can rethink this whole scenario in therapy and tell your parents your intentions if you're able to get that far with your therapy but, if you can't let them know beforehand, you can still help them arrange alternative caregivers when the time comes and be a loving daughter with all the coordination and communication that is possible short of capitulating to what is a poisonous situation for you. Their community will likely have a network of providers who are equipped to assist.

You are not expected to sacrifice your health and wellbeing to be your parent's whipping boy. If they have not been able to make a change in the way they treat you, you cannot simply move in with the status quo, and offer yourself up as a sacrifice. Arrange help, professional visits, housekeeping, whatever is needed and arrange communication between you and them but do not put yourself in that sacrificial role. There is nothing to be gained by it It will not improve your relationship. Show your caring in all the ways that actually contribute to their wellbeing. Sacrificing yourself will not.

I wish you strength and confidence in your ability to be a mature daughter. Work in your therapy to detach. You do not need them to approve of you. Guilt is not a productive choice. It actually would be nice if they thought about wanting you to approve of them.
posted by Anitanola at 1:19 AM on July 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

Both times, my mom shut down the conversation with "Oh, I'm the worst mother in the world, am I?" and "All your problems are my fault, right?" and similar conversations down the line.

My mother does the exact same thing. I've tried a couple of things in the past: A] responding in kind, with "I was SUCH a terrible child, wasn't I? You never knew where I was or what I was doing. I ended up in jail before I finished school, didn't I?" and other such laying it on really thick. And B] using the question as an opening to say things like "well, there were things that might have been handled differently, like X and Y. Maybe if you did Z you'll get a more favourable outcome." She likes the latter one less and plays the guilt trip less often now. One thing I had to remind myself of several times was that not feeling guilty doesn't make me a sociopath. It doesn't make me a bad person. It makes me someone who cares for themself, which is one of the fundamental jobs of an adult - to look after themself and ensure that they're doing what they can to get themselves to where they want to be in life.

The reason you're not able to handle this is because your parents are deliberately keeping you off balance. They will likely use every trick in the book to get you to comply, because they know they can push your buttons and it will work. Set a boundary with them, something like "If you're going to disrespect me or emotionally blackmail me or in some other fashion not treat me like an adult, I am going to leave/hang up the phone/etc". Your parents will likely react badly to this, possibly with more abuse.

The fact that they're being more abusive after you say this means it's working. The more abuse they throw at you, the weaker they know their position is. If they were so confident and sure that you'd come running, they wouldn't need to engage in behaviours designed to make you feel like you have to stick around. The fact that they think they need to make you feel like you have no options proves that you have those options. If you didn't have them, they wouldn't be attempting to take them away from you. They know you have them, but you need to realise it for yourself.

All you have to do is be clear about your boundary, and then stick to it. Decide ahead of time that you're going to do X when they say/do Y. Then when they do Y, do X. The first time will likely be hard. They will likely engage in an extinction burst. This all just means that it's working. Your parents know they're losing their grip on you so they try to hold on more tightly. If you need motivation about doing this, stop and think what it will actually be like for you if you do move in to take care of them. You'll get this kind of behaviour 24/7. A boundary might be "I am not going to visit you while you're acting like this". Or "Until you can have a constructive conversation with me, I'm not going to be in contact with you". Your therapist will likely have better ideas, or there's this list to get you started.

It's a matter of self care to do this. It's not cruel. It doesn't make you a bad child. You are entitled to do it. It's completely OK to do it. Ask your therapist. Also, make sure that your therapist is doing everything they can to support you. You are worth being supported.
posted by Solomon at 1:50 AM on July 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

It's just so much uncaring garbage that they are -- successfully, thus far -- jamming down your throat. People who care about other people don't pull out all the blame cards that your mother pulls out every time you attempt to communicate with her. That whole "Oh, I'm the most terrible mother" jive -- I know you likely won't be able to say this, but one correct response to that is to state "Well, hey, you're sure being a pretty terrible person right now, not to mention a terrible mother. Are you enjoying yourself as you hammer away at me? Because I'm not enjoying this. I hope you have a great evening, talk to you next week (or next month,, whatever you want.) Then close with a bright, cheery "Goodnight!" and hang up the phone.

I know -- I know, I really truly know, from my own experience -- how hard it can be to stand up in the face of this sort of jive. Mine was a brother, who I know loved me, who I loved, but there was so much alcoholism, in both of us, and he was strong and I was weak and I got hammered into the ground. It's like, the more they take away from you, the more you need to lean on them, and then they'll take more, and then I'll lean more, on and on.

I had no idea that when I left Illinois that I was running for my life, it's sure plain to see now, rear-view mirror.

I have a mentor. I mentor men. One thing that my mentor suggests that I do is to write down what I want, what I really want, and what I want to say, what I really want to say. And then he helps me, as much as I will allow him, as much as I will allow myself to stand straight -- he helps me live to what I want to be. His wifes mother was pulling the same jive on her that your parents are trying to pull on you, she was determined to move in with them, or at the very least move to a place very close to their home. Jan was not buying it. Her mother could not -- would not, truth be told -- she would not belileve it. She died, fast, in an assisted living place. That was her choice. Jan had made it crystal clear that she was not going to be dumped on, jumped on, used and/or abused by this woman who happened to be her mother. Jan stood tall. I sure admire her.

I wish you lived her in Austin, I'd put you in touch with Jan, she's got this great heart but she's tough as an old boot, and will not be treated poorly. Just being around her is a good thing for me, knowing how she is, who she has trained herself to be.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:52 AM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'll realistically have to move home to care of them in the near future. Both have in their directives they specifically, if ill, want to stay home, don't want to go to a facility and want me to take care of them.

That there is some serious bullshit. Just because this is what they want, it doesn't mean you have to do it.

Since talking with your parents doesn't work, send a letter.

Dear Mom and Dad,

As you know I have severe and serious anxiety issues, many of which are triggered by our family dynamic. As much as I love you, there are underlying issues in our family which cause me extreme stress and anxiety. I don't blame you for this, it's just a fact.

I also wanted to address your expectation that I'll move in with you to care for you if you should become ill in the future. Clearly with my situation, this won't be possible, so please amend your end-of-life directives accordingly.

I'm sure this is hurtful to you. I'm sorry for that. I have to care for myself first. I am working with a therapist to overcome my fear of flying and other anxieties, as that work continues, I hope that my visits can be more frequent.

When you visit, don't stay in their house, get a hotel room., That way, when you get overwhelmed, you can go to the hotel. I do this when visiting my family because....dude, I get it!

You can love your parents and still realize that they're bad for your health. As for your mother's guilt trips, call her on that shit. "Right Mom, when I establish a boundary it's all about YOU." I do it with my Mom and she backs right down.

Hang in there. Also, have you tried anti-anxiety drugs, because MAN that's is some helpful shit there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:28 AM on July 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm dealing with something that sounds very similar, and nearly posted a question along these lines. You are further along the track than I am, and you have much more going on, so you’re my hero right now. Anyway, here’s my experience - divided into two parts: how I'm dealing with myself and how I am interacting with my parents.

What is slightly missing from your question is: Do you love your parents? Do you like them as people? Do you think that there might still be a healthy way to become closer to them in future, and is that what you want? If so, then I'd advise trying to keep as many doors of communication open as possible for the time being. Some of the advice my fellows have given could close those doors and increase distance, if combined with your parents existing defensiveness - which may or may not be what you want.

I live on the other side of the planet from my folks, and visit about as often as you do. The mental distance is about as great, let's say. Whenever I’m home, I feel trapped, as though all my love and affection is swallowed up by unexpressed frustration at my parents and an inability to communicate with them. This manifests itself in me as appearing distant - monosyllabic, reclusive, etc., even though under the facade I’m burning with emotion.

It's totally natural and appropriate to feel some guilt in situations like ours. As you say, there are productive/healthy/good reasons for maintaining distance and the associated guilt. But there are also unproductive/unhealthy/not-good-enough reasons, and it’s those reasons, I think, that keep us up at night. It’s up to you to decide for yourself which reasons are good enough to live with and which are not good enough - you’ll disagree somewhat with my own (partial) lists below, I hope.

Reasons to maintain distance (physical and emotional distance are all mushed together in my head) that I am comfortable with:

* I have a happy life where I am
* My boundaries are intact
* I am really busy

Reasons to maintain distance that I am not comfortable with:

* I feel anxious around my parents
* I have to buy an expensive plane ticket
* I feel bad about how I behaved growing up
* I am too busy

Reasons to reduce distance that I am comfortable with are:

* I want a closer relationship with my parents
* They want a closer relationship with me
* I want to feel less guilty
* I want to talk about my upbringing in a relevant way
* It’s a loving thing to do

Reasons to reduce distance that I am not comfortable with:

* They might die soon
* They’re giving me a guilt trip
* They think I don’t want to visit them
* I want to blame them

This isn't my complete set of reasons but you get the idea.

The great thing about the bad/unproductive/unhealthy/uncomfortable reasons are that they are often untrue (or at least true only in one person's brain), or they can be ignored or recharacterised positively, or there is something practical that can be done about them, without sacrificing any of the good reasons. I mean, of course my parents are going to die at some point, but that’s going to suck no matter how close we are at the time, so I’m rethinking of it in terms of a neutral factor, an inevitability, it could be tomorrow. There will always be steps we didn’t or preferred not to take between now and that time; it’s more helpful to be thankful for the ones we could and did take.

(I adapted this list-making technique from this book, by the way. And my therapist, who recommended the book to me.)


I know you say that you can’t talk to your parents about these topics. It may help to remember that even though that’s your experience at the moment (or was as of a few years ago), the situation can change enough that it may turn out differently in future if you tried again. In other words, it may still be premature to close the door on it and give up all hope. To be clear, I’m not saying that talking will definitely work one day, but just that it's a powerful tool that shouldn't be thrown away until you're sure you don't need it.

What you wrote about your communications sounds like an unproductive interaction between yours and your parents’ fears (and their own inability to handle the situation), not fundamental mismatches between what you both feel and need. There may also be those, but there may be more overlap than you think, too - the way to find out which is which is to keep communicating about them.

I'm staying with my folks at the moment, and have just in the last few days had a conversation along the lines you describe with the less-defensive parent, and in the next few days or so am planning to have the equivalent conversation with the one who will be difficult. The following are things that I'm using to help me; I’m just offering them in case it gives you any ideas to help things go better next time.

* The meta-narrative here is that as my parents age, I am becoming head of the family. On the bad side, this means more stress and anxiety, and guilt about distance and obligation, as you describe. On the good side, this means more influence and power, mua-ha-ha. Something I realised I get to do now is to disrupt old patterns and introduce new ones. Your parents will be noticing this too, and it will be difficult for them, which might contribute to the negative reactions (guilt trips, stonewalling) that you describe. Do what you can to assure them that you’ll wield your new-found authority with love and compassion.

* So I suggested to my mum “shall we go for a walk-and-talk tomorrow?”. This is an unprecedented thing to do in my family and the subtext is “I’m introducing something new now". But it also gets us off (their) home turf, and means that we're both anticipating the conversation rather than feeling ambushed. Also a separated structure means that the conversation can be put in a box afterwards as necessary. A walk in the park is good - quiet; engaging but not distracting; something that mum would like. For my dad, I’m going to suggest going for a pint at a new pub - again, unprecedented but not unfamiliar.

* Both my parents have mentioned me being ‘distant’ at home, and I used that as the conversation starter, and to establish terms. "Listen, I know I'm being distant, and I'm not like that in other parts of my life. I don’t like who I am when I’m at home. I want to fix that but I’m carrying some difficult stuff at the moment. So if I come closer to you, it's with this difficult stuff, and I need you help me by talking about it with me. Would that be OK?”. I like the metaphor of carrying difficult stuff. It's external to me and to them; it doesn’t matter where it came from, it’s just there, and you could do with their help getting rid of it. I think people like being asked to help more than they like being dumped on - that might help with the defence reactions.

* I totally did list to my mum the reasons why my parents make me anxious! Well, OK, not all, and not all at once, more like "Here are some things that frustrate me about you/your relationship with dad", and I spent a few minutes on each one, telling her how it affected me and - importantly - asking what she thought about what I had to say before moving on. I think giving representative examples makes it clear that there is a tangible cause. Plus specific things are manageable and actionable, not some big “everything is wrong for all the reasons” calamity. Also, asking questions of them is an opportunity for them to tell you how those things felt from their point of view, which will help bridge more gaps.

* It’ll be quite confronting to them, and they’ll have a lot to process and take on, so I’d naturally expect to hear some defensive stuff too. My dad is prone to stonewalling me as your parents did. In that case, my plan is to ignore the surface meaning and retreat to common ground: “You said before that you wished I was less distant. I do too. But in order to do that I need to let you know you what’s keeping me so distant”. If he truly doesn’t want to hear it, then I’d resort to something like “I’m not going to be able to come closer without dragging all this difficult stuff with me. Would you prefer I stayed as distant as I am, or can you help me with this conversation about it?”.

* I’d also expect to hear some criticisms about myself. But criticisms are always just a matter of how someone else perceives you, not necessarily how you truly are, or how you want to be. So the trick with criticism you don’t agree with is to take it on board as a valid belief of the other person, and talk about where the differences in perception might be, and - in this conversation - move on.

* This initial conversation is probably not the time to suggest changes or solutions; it’s just to disrupt the unhealthy pattern, to establish common ground, to let them express themselves too, and to ask questions of each other. In your case, I’d say it’s also not the time to talk about the future, like aged care. By itself, even without solutions or agreements to change, I found it extraordinarily helpful and calming just to find a way to hear and be heard.

* I planned a high note to end on. Specifically I told my mother that while we were saying awkward things that should also say that I love her (we're English - this NEVER happens) and we hugged, cried a bit, and went for a nice lunch and a shop.

* I’m planning to follow up, ideally establishing another new pattern. In a few days, assuming everything goes well with both parents: “you know, I thought that conversation we had the other day helped a lot. Thanks for being there for me. I’d love us to keep talking on the phone/skype about those things while I’m away if you’re OK” - then when the time comes, establish a secret bat-signal upon which it becomes OK to talk about a bit of difficult stuff. If it didn't go so well, I'd be asking them about what could make it go better next time.


That’s some of my experience, anyway. I know how hard this stuff can be especially with everything else that's going on. I'd be happy if you wanted to email or memail me; I’d find it helpful too. Go well!
posted by cogat at 7:45 AM on July 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just tried to start the conversation with a lot of "I feels" and "When this happens, I.." Both times, my mom shut down the conversation with "Oh, I'm the worst mother in the world, am I?" and "All your problems are my fault, right?" and similar conversations down the line.

Setting and enforcing boundaries will itself require setting and enforcing conversational ground rules, which you can stick with the same formula to do:

"Oh, I'm the worst mother in the world, am I?"

- Mom, when I'm trying to explain how it is for me and you pick up what I'm saying and spin it round to make it all about you, I feel ignored and shut down and belittled, and if that keeps happening I'm going to have to hang up.

"All your problems are my fault, right?"

- Bye, Mom. I'll call you later. I love you. Please think about what I've just said. (click)

It would also pay you to remind yourself that you cannot make other people believe, understand or accept things, especially emotionally potent things; there has to be genuine willingness on their part to try. You can put evidence in front of them, you can explain and clarify and soothe and cajole, but when it comes right down to it you cannot get inside their head and inject the understanding you'd rather they had.

This is true for everybody, not just you and your mother, so the guilt you feel for being unable to make her understand your completely reasonable position is not itself reasonable.

Now, that doesn't mean you shouldn't feel it - obviously whatever you feel, whenever you feel it, is what it is - but at least it gives you a solid and factual basis for talking yourself down from that whenever it flares up. Conscious practice at recognizing, accepting and acknowledging feelings that distress you, and then talking yourself down from them by reminding yourself of relevant truths, will make the process easier and quicker each time; eventually it will become an automatic habit, and the reflexive guilt will stop lasting long enough to be more than briefly and mildly unpleasant.

I suspect that your mother has been using a somewhat similar method for years, except that instead of relevant truths she's been employing convenient fictions. I've met quite a few people who do that. It never ends well.
posted by flabdablet at 10:55 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Both have in their directives they specifically, if ill, want to stay home, don't want to go to a facility and want me to take care of them.

My husband helps families find senior care for their loved ones, so I know from experience that most seniors want to stay at home with 24/7 care - and yet almost no one gets that, because the costs are astronomical and the logistics of declining health and cognitive ability combined with adult children having jobs and families of their own make that dream impossible. There are exceptions, of course: some people are rich, some people have generous long-term care insurance, and some people are genetic freaks who age "gracefully" and die quickly and happily, but those cases are very, very rare.

So this healthcare directive of theirs is a nice wish but it's unattainable. I would have a conversation about this with your parents, and these are just some of the issues I would bring up:

1. The IF (if they get ill) is 100% unrealistic. They WILL get ill. Given their ages, this will happen sooner rather than later.

2. I am going to presume that your mother is in her 70's and your father is in his 80's. So most likely, your mother will become your father's main caregiver. It is important that she realizes this, and doesn't rely on this pipe dream where both she and your father retire from life and you uproot your family and quit your job to wait on both of them hand and foot. Spouses, not children, are the first in line to be the primary caregiver.

3. While the above scenario is more likely, your father may find himself in the primary caregiver role instead. It is important that he realizes that it's rare for both spouses to get ill at the same exact time and that if your mother's health goes first, he is likewise the first in line to become the primary caregiver.

4. Specific scenarios... if dad gets dementia and is a wander risk, will mom watch him 24/7? If he starts with aggressive or lewd behaviors, will she be able to restrain him? If mom gets ill, will dad do all her toileting, including changing her poopy diapers if need be? If she get diabetes, will he get the training to administer shots? I am guessing that when you bring these scenarios up, the light bulb will go off in their selfish heads and all of a sudden, they will realize just how much of a burden it is for one person to take care of a seriously ill individual. Now remind them that they expect you to take care of BOTH of them (which is more than twice the work).

5. This care they expect you to provide "if" they get ill... what exactly do they expect to happen? Do they expect you to quit your career, make your spouse quit theirs, move across the country, and buy a house next to theirs? Do they expect you to be at their home 9-5 or do they expect you to move in with your whole family? If it's just 9-5, do they plan to be ill only during these hours? What happens the rest of the time?

6. So, being cared for in a facility is so unacceptable to mom and dad that they expect you to sacrifice your career and your family life. What are THEY sacrificing? Have they curtailed their spending to a minimum to set money aside for at least some of that in-home care? Are THEY planning to move close to you so you can provide comfort in their old age without throwing your own life away? It seems to me that these things are of paramount importance only as long as YOU shoulder 100% of the cost. While you are having your "night-sweats guilt", your parents are investing zero real effort into this thing you are agonizing about.
posted by rada at 3:16 PM on July 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

Both have in their directives they specifically, if ill, want to stay home, don't want to go to a facility and want me to take care of them.

Whoa!! They can put something in their directives, but that doesn't mean you have to accept it! Something like this should only be put in a directive after obtaining consent from the person involved.

I have a very wise naturopath who said to me, "There is no end to the demands some elderly parents will make. First they will want you to phone every day. Then they will want you to visit every day. Then they will want you to move in with them. Then they will want you to give up your social life to spend time with them. Then they will want you to give up your job to stay home with them. And so on."

Don't let it start--draw your line in the sand right now. Your first priority has to be your own mental and physical health. After that your next priority is your marriage.
posted by purplesludge at 4:35 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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