Anxiety in mother
June 25, 2016 11:06 PM   Subscribe

My mother has always been a high level worrier but as years pass her anxieties are posing limits on her and my father. She's not been receptive to discussion of this in the past. Is there a way to broach this with her and possibly help her get the help she needs to live a more enjoyable and less restricted life?

Examples of her fears:

Bedbugs. She will no longer stay in any hotels and there are only a small number of places where she will stay overnight and even then she takes full precautions - clothing and other goods go in airtight tupperware-like containers, clothing is isolated upon return until it can be washed and dried at high heat etc. This leads to she and my father driving long distances for day trips. They're old enough that this is not a safe proposition. If they buy anything outside of the house, it is put in quarantine in plastic bags or tupperware containers outside the house until she determines that it is safe.

Ticks. She's so terrified of Lyme (and other tick-borne illnesses) that she's gone from being obsessive about the regular precautions of long pants and socks and checking for ticks to refusing to walk in areas that might have ticks to refusing to have ornamental grasses planted in their garden to most recently refusing to walk on any grass (including mown grass in urban areas).

Other illness. A close family member was in a nursing home before this family member's death. This person had had a wound infected with MRSA about six months before death. When other family members went to get the deceased family member's possessions, my mother was deeply afraid that they'd bring MRSA back with them in some way. She demanded that they take precautions on handling the possessions - they did and when these possessions were brought back to my parents town, they were put in a storage facility to wait for the 2-3 months required for MRSA on surfaces to die. It is now almost five years later and she's just allowing people to open the boxes because she decided that all nursing homes have incidences of C. diff and we should all wait for additional months and years.

Her own illness. She had a minor easily treatable illness, sought medical advice with her doctor who said she wasn't contagious and gave her advice on treatment. She now refuses to share a bathroom with anyone and washes her clothing separately from anyone else. She has had toenail fungus for years and years and also washes her socks separately from anyone else. The washing machine and dryer run constantly. She refuses to treat either thing. She had a (determined to be benign) mole removed and for the next two weeks essentially refused to leave the house or the car if she did go out because she was afraid of it getting infected in some manner. She's had minor fungal skin issues (similar level as athlete's foot) and refuses to treat them with over the counter remedies because she reads the warning labels. She's not totally against medicine though - she has a lifelong chronic illness that she takes medication for on a daily basis.

Other examples:
Asbestos. The house I grew up in had asbestos insulation on the pipes and furnace including a pipe running through one of the two bathrooms in the house. We were only allowed to use one bathroom because of this. She refused to get it remediated because that might cause release of asbestos into the air.
Lead paint. Won't allow anyone to do anything near windows in the house that had lead paint. Even with prudent protection.

Over the years these fears have become more and more prominent and required more and more concessions. Most of her fears have a grain of rationality in them but she ramps them up to unbelievable levels and then imposes them on herself and everyone around her. I generally treat them like phobias - it helps in understanding and lets me be kinder to her about things that are not rational. But the recent refusal to walk on grass is pretty hard to deal with.

I've talked to her about seeking counseling in the past and she inevitably takes it as an invitation to tell me how I'm an awful person and I should look at myself first before suggesting that she deal with her problems. My motivation, and I've been pretty blunt about this with her, is that she be able to enjoy a less fettered life. I'm afraid that she's going to end up being a shut in and forcing my father to be one as well. I've considered asking this question in the past but demurred because at a certain point if someone doesn't want to deal with their problems, that is their own choice. But these problems are not just affecting her.

I've talked with my father about this but he is unwilling or unable to get her to even think about seeing a therapist or something like that. I recently suggested the Metafilter favorite book, Worry, and he said that he thought she'd be unreceptive.

She's a well-educated intelligent woman in her early 70s who is clearly miserable and limiting herself from many enjoyable things. She's also limiting my father from many enjoyable things. I love them both very much and want them to be happier.

I'm seeking any advice on how to talk to her about this - or how to help my father talk to her.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've talked to her about seeking counseling in the past and she inevitably takes it as an invitation to tell me how I'm an awful person and I should look at myself first before suggesting that she deal with her problems.

New suggestion - you seek counseling. It sounds like a very stressful situation you're in having to deal with her obsessions and fears. Then you've got a far stronger leg to stand on when she says to deal with yourself first, although I don't doubt she'll come up with a new excuse if that one stops working as well.

I'm afraid that aside from gentle suggestions from time to time, you are unlikely to find any magic words that will work to make her see that her irrational behaviors and beliefs are irrational. It is the nature of the illness to lack insight. I recommend NAMI meetings for you. I'm sorry. I know how hard it can be to have a family member with debilitating mental illness.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:30 PM on June 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

My motivation, and I've been pretty blunt about this with her, is that she be able to enjoy a less fettered life. I'm afraid that she's going to end up being a shut in and forcing my father to be one as well.

One other thought - when trying to talk to someone about issues like this, it can be counterintuitive, but when you approach it so directly you put that person on the defensive right off the bat. You're also approaching this very personal situation from her from the position of what your concerns are, rather than what her own priorities and concerns might be.

I think rather than leading with statements like "Mom, I'm worried that you need professional help for your mental health" you might want to try to wait for a situation to come up involving her fears, and then ask her open ended questions about how she felt, or make some kind of empathetic statement like "it must have been hard when you had to miss your best friend's birthday picnic." If she sees you as supportive then you may be in a better position to provide support.

One strategy you can try if possible/necessary would be bringing it up to her primary care doctor. Although her doctor cannot discuss her care with you without her permission, you are permitted to provide information relevant to her medical care. Perhaps if a doctor broached the subject with her she might be more open to discussing it than she is with you. Not all doctors have the communication skills necessary to open a dialogue with someone like her, your mileage may vary.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:43 PM on June 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think the biggest problem here is the enabling. She's being enabled for her fears by your Dad, (and many others it seems) and all and every concession to her irrationality is constantly made. I get the feeling she pushes back until people just give up and she gets her way, because it's easier that way than to argue with her. I feel like this is causing the snowballing, too. The more she does it, the worse it gets. But because he refuses to fight the battle any more, there's literally nothing you can do to help, because you need a united front, and as you said, he doesn't want to deal. He needs to want to deal, because he's suffering the most, apart from her-- and he at least is in a mental place where he can take the steps to make himself less miserable, even if she refuses to do the same. So talk to your Dad. If he isn't on board, I don't think there's a lot you can do. At a certain point, if no one wants to make a change, you can't force one.

If you get your Dad on board, together, I'd talk to mental health professionals that specialize in phobias like this, because they've probably seen it all already, and worse. Phobias like this are pretty tough to overcome and I think you require someone that knows their stuff about things like this in particular. They may have tips and ideas on how to broach the subject gently so she doesn't feel attacked, and may be able to tell you what actions people around her can take-- should you give in to her irrational fears or push back and do things without her? They can help with this. Moreover, they would be able to tell you how to measure any kind of progress she has. After this, see if you can get her to perhaps join you guys in the therapy. It may work if she doesn't feel singled out. Also consider she may be worsening due to a mental decline, but even then, there are steps one can take and medications and such.

If at the end of all that she is 100% adamant that she's fine and still resists, then there's not a lot you can do but focus on yourself. I'm sorry you're in this situation, it sounds exhausting and I wish you all the best.
posted by Dimes at 1:00 AM on June 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Consider that every time your father accommodates her irrational fears he imposes these limits on himself. He could go on trips without her, he could do all kinds of things differently but he chooses to accommodate. It's not all down to your mother. If he's happy to do that that's his choice.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:41 AM on June 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

If he's happy to do that that's his choice

As someone who has a father that is in a similar situation due to my mother's mental issues, I will say there's a decent cha ce he's not happy to do 'that' but is more likely in a situation where making waves is either impossible or so close to that as to seem so. I'm not saying that it's not his job to act somehow, but that he's not necessarily as complicit as some might think.

Anyway, good luck with your mom, I've given up helping mine and have just realized that her odd behavior, in our case centered around food aversion and gossip stress instead of insect and disease fear, and extreme hoarding will be something that I will have to cope with in any and all interactions with her until she dies, and in the case of the hoard even after. I'm sorry you have to deal with this, be strong.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:25 AM on June 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

I wonder whether some insight or help concerning this would be available from religious sources. I've always imagined that the common themes of ritual purification in various religions must connect to this sort of stuff somehow.
posted by XMLicious at 7:26 AM on June 26, 2016

This is they type of situation where anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication can be really really helpful. And they can give enough mental "space" from the anxiety to consider talk therapy. Does she have a trusted GP who could prescribe?
posted by mercredi at 7:36 AM on June 26, 2016

Is Dad complaining to you about these restrictions? If so, I think you can begin a dialogue with him about therapy for himself. If not, I think you can bring it up once ("I've noticed it seems like you're really impacted by Mom's worries, and I know Mom isn't open to counseling, but I wonder if you've considered it for yourself. It could be a really helpful tool for figuring out where to draw your own limits and boundaries.").

Other than that, I'd echo the suggestion that you seek out some support for yourself. In a way, right now you're part of the dysfunctional system. You pushing against Mom might actually be counterproductive if it's reinforcing for her that she has to do these rituals because no one else will take the "threats" seriously. Disengaging doesn't mean endorsing her irrational behavior, just acknowledging that it's her choice to make (and your choice not to follow or enable).
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:09 AM on June 26, 2016

She's not totally against medicine though - she has a lifelong chronic illness that she takes medication for on a daily basis.

I think it might be worth investigating whether her illness itself, or her medication can cause anxiety and phobias over the long term, and if so, working with her and her doctor to look into adjusting her treatment regimen.

Migraine headaches, for example, are associated with higher rates of phobia and anxiety.
posted by jamjam at 10:47 AM on June 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Does your father accompany your mother to her medical appointments? Can he speak with her doctor about it? It sounds like she might be more open to medication than to therapy, so starting with talking to her doctor (whether that's you contacting the doctor or your father) about how her phobias are interfering with her daily life and her health might be a good place to start. (If she refuses medication, however, there may not be a ton you can do.)
posted by lazuli at 11:03 AM on June 26, 2016

And to get your father on board: It may be helpful to let him know that anxiety is self-reinforcing and therefore likely to get worse if untreated. She performs all these rituals and avoids things that scare her, and it works! She hasn't gotten bed bugs or Lyme disease or infected anyone else. So it reinforces the idea that her rituals and avoidances are necessary and successful. She's teaching her brain that she has to do these things. Medication (or therapy, though it sounds like she's not open to that) would be a way of un-teaching those irrational correlations.
posted by lazuli at 11:08 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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