How do I confront my parents about my mother's undiagnosed mental illness?
February 25, 2007 7:47 AM   Subscribe

Seeking advice about how to confront parents about mom's mental illness.

Sorry this is long; I am posting anonymously and therefore I won't be able to respond—so I will try to give as much info up front as possible.

It is very clear to me that my mother has Asperger's Syndrome, as well as some emotional problems. My whole family is in denial and they pretend that she is just quirky and walk on eggshells around each other. My father spends every moment by mom's side and is completely codependent. Because of lack of acknowledgment of her needs, she has become increasingly more out of control and "quirkier" over the years. Naturally, my childhood was chaotic and abusive.

Now I am strong and independent, and have taken appropriate actions to deal with most of it. But I still carry some guilt, anger, and the responsibility of "being the adult" in this scenario. And the sadness of not being able to have a relationship with my parents. I'd like to let this go and move on.

I am trying to decide if I should write a letter explaining how this denial has negatively effected me throughout my life and that contact with them is unhealthy for me if they are not willing to seek help and examine how their behavior has effected our relationship. I'd like to do this in the kindest, healthiest way possible. I do not have a close or normal relationship with them. They have gone to great lengths to "protect" themselves from the outside world. There is no way to communicate with either of them privately. Strangely enough, their agreement has worked for 25+ years, and they project the happiness of clams. But I have constantly been a nuisance to them, because I spent my childhood being bratty and angry, just trying to be heard. I've grown up quite a bit since then, but everybody still wishes I wouldn't rock the boat (I sometimes can't ignore the giant pink elephant in the room).

So, how do I confront my parents about my mother's problems? Is writing a letter the best way? Anybody have experience trying to reach through to parents in denial? How did it go and what advice would you give?

I really have no idea what to expect and I can't guess their reaction beyond total surprise. Thanks in advance for your replies! And yes, I am seeking a therapist as you type your insightful response.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should decide what you want as a result from your actions. Do you want your parents to realize how much they've hurt you? Do you want to just vent? Then yes, write the letter. But if you want them to actually change their behavior, a different approach might be helpful.

If you want a change of behavior, tell them just what you want - for example, "I want you to speak to me respectfully when I come over. If that's not possible, I won't come over." Then stick to it, calmly and without engaging yourself in an argument. People with Asperger's have trouble empathizing with others, so your mom may not react to a long letter detailing your feelings. But concrete requests with consistent consequences might get to her.

Good luck!
posted by christinetheslp at 8:05 AM on February 25, 2007

Wait on the confrontation/intervention, etc. See the therapist. Get your own life under more calm and control. Consider attending a meeting of your local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) -- meetings are non-threatening and offer information from those "who have been there" with their family and/or friends. Might be helpful. Good luck. Go slowly. Be kind to yourself.
posted by peace_love_hope at 8:10 AM on February 25, 2007

christinetheslip is right. With no clear objective, your mission is futile. And no, since you're not her doctor, it's not clear your mom has Asperger's syndrome or anything else.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 8:35 AM on February 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Based on this:
"Strangely enough, their agreement has worked for 25+ years, and they project the happiness of clams."
I'd say that it sounds like they're living perfectly happy lives and don't need any kind of intervention or treatment. You want to punish them for the unhappiness in your childhood, which is an understandable sentiment, but you might as well acknowledge that motivation to yourself instead of couching it in terms of "helping" your mother. It must have been really rough to feel excluded and misunderstood by your parents as a child, and I imagine that caused a lot of pain. You're certainly within your rights to tell them that, but I suggest you think through what you're hoping to get from it first.

If you're hoping for them to acknowledge that they haven't had the best relationship with you over the years, that's possible, although by no means likely. If you're hoping that acknowledging the past will cause them to change, it's extremely unlikely. I'd say use your time in counseling to become more comfortable with who you are now, in spite of their parenting or lack of it, and when you're coming from a place of strength, you'll have a better idea of what you need to say to them, or if anything needs to be said at all. I think that only when you can tell them about the hurt in your childhood, without expecting their reaction to fix it and make it better, will you be able to talk to them without it tearing you up inside. That doesn't mean that the way they treated you was right, or that you have to think it was, but it does mean that you're never going to be able to change the past, and you have to find some way to be ok with that, or you'll just keep living it over and over again.
posted by MsMolly at 8:55 AM on February 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Strangely enough, their agreement has worked for 25+ years, and they project the happiness of clams.

And you want to upset that apple cart why? Because you got fucked over?

Frankly this whole "confront" thing smacks more of revenge than an earnest desire to help anyone.
posted by tkolar at 9:42 AM on February 25, 2007

Once you find that therapist you are seeking, work it out with him/her. Seriously: whether and how to confront family over a long established, unconfronted emotional/mental health issue is the sort of thing therapists are for. Doing it under the guidance of your own motivations could very well end up doing more harm than good to you (basically just reliving the childhood experience of not being heard, taken seriously or listened to, and having your parents/family gang up against you) and no good at all for them. Because your motivations are clearly fueled by strong emotions - and that doesn't mean the are in essence incorrect or should be ignored, but it does mean your judgment is distorted.

You need to think out what it is you really want to achieve, and how you will deal with possible fallout, and a therapist is the person to do this with (which is not to say I don't think soliciting others' stories here is a bad thing, just that you should delay action until you have professional support). Among other things, you may want to rethink framing any discussion in the context of your amateur diagnosis of Aspergers and focus on specific behaviors, events, and consequences instead.
posted by nanojath at 10:35 AM on February 25, 2007

wow. this sounds exactly like my parents (substitute depression with asperger's).

speaking from personal experience: nothing you can do will change your mother. she is how she is.

your energy would be better spent working on accepting this. i know you want to tell them how much pain you feel they've caused you, but telling them isn't going to get them to change. at best it will make them embarassed and defensive--and their failure to change, even though they know how much pain they caused you, will hurt you even further. this will not improve the relationship. if you decide to cut them out of your life, you can explain it to them then. otherwise, work on yourself, nod and smile to your parents when required, and don't burn your bridges.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:59 AM on February 25, 2007

Hon, don't write the letter. They won't understand it, they won't get it, you won't get the closure you crave and you will be even more frustrated.

Mourn the loss of the parents you never had, and move on. Be polite to the parents you have while understanding they are who they are.

I have some similar issues with my own folks-altho I am the one with the diagnosis-and I had to make my own peace with the fact that our relationship will always and forever be totally shallow.

Meanwhile I have found other people in my life to relate to in the way I need, so it's all good.
posted by konolia at 11:35 AM on February 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

If you're a person who likes ceremony or ritual, you could possibly write the letter, then somehow destroy it -- burn it, tear it into piece and scatter it, throw it into the ocean. Get the feelings out, then let them go without putting them on anyone else.
posted by occhiblu at 11:42 AM on February 25, 2007

Konolia & occhiblu nailed it. Don't write the letter, if it is some kind or recognition you need for living life with a communicatively disabled parent I think your first best step is counselling.
After this reasess where you are at.
Often just writing the letter but NOT sending it can be very therapeutic.
Good luck whatever you decide.
posted by Wilder at 12:47 PM on February 25, 2007

"The Dance of Intimacy" is surprisingly good for learning how to deal with difficult family members. It emphasizes baby steps. Think about how long it took you to come to the realizations you've come to -- if you write them a letter you will essentially be throwing them into the deep end of the pool. They are sunk decades deep in denial and just won't get it. Better to set miniscule, but obtainable goals, like "have a pleasant, chatty, 3 minute phone conversation without anyone screaming," or whatever is appropriate to your situation.

Also, you would be amazed how much denial you can bust thru simply by having boundaries. You have to decide on a bottom line and enforce it - such as "If Mom starts doing X, I'll have to leave." If you can state it calmly and pleasantly (harder than it looks) and stick to it in the face of massive countermoves, you will slowly be setting a new standard.
posted by selfmedicating at 2:44 PM on February 25, 2007

I suggest you DO write the letter, but keep it to yourself. It might help you figure out what's really going on in your own head, which might be useful when you find a therapist. The issues you need to deal with here are yours, not your family's - by all means, if you feel you will be healthier without them, then distance yourself, but the letter is for your own benefit, not theirs, so keep it to yourself.
posted by biscotti at 2:59 PM on February 25, 2007

A general observation that doesn't answer the question.

The more mentally ill a parent is, the worse the kids do... up to a point. When a parent is clearly mentally ill and obviously not able to fill the functions of a parent, the kids understand and look elsewhere for sttructure and support. This says something about the damaging effects of denial.

Another observation: Asperger syndrome is not a mental illness. There's nothing to treat. People with Asperger syndrome are less socially adept but they have other perceptual advantages.

Also: people with Asperger syndrome do not lack empathy.

Also: many people with Asperger syndrome are excellent parents.

So your mother may have Asperger, and the family structure built around her limitations may have been a bad one, but a "chaotic and abusive" childhood does not automatically flow from having a parent with Asperger. You have two parents; your father was apparently unable to be a good parent or ensure you had adequate support from another source, and you don't claim he has Asperger.

A chaotic and abusive childhood flows from having chaotic and abusive parents. It doesn't flow from Asperger syndrome. Absolutely, hold your parents to account in one way or another - I agree with all previous commenters - but don't make an Asperger label the focus. While (if accurate) it's not irrelevant, the point is the neglect and abuse you suffered.
posted by kika at 11:30 PM on February 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

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