Why did my mom's personality change?
February 20, 2008 7:24 AM   Subscribe

What the heck is wrong with my mother?

This is LONG. Convenient summary in the last paragraph for those who want to skip the lengthy backstory.

My mom has always been a very sweet woman, but a bit of a pushover. When I was a teenager I learned very quickly how to push her buttons and how to get exactly what I wanted from her. We also had a lot of typical mother-daughter arguments. I feel like a jerk now for that, of course, and as I got older our relationship dynamic changed into a very pleasant, friendly one where we would talk on the phone for hours (we live in different cities and have since I was 19).

She and my father divorced when I was 4. 10 years ago, when I was 23, she remarried a man who we all thought was nice, if a bit bookish and shy. They seemed very happy. A few years ago, things changed quite a bit and in the past couple of years I have noticed some very worrying changes in her behavior. Examples:

1. She was very close to her mother as far back as I (or anyone else) can remember. My mother and grandmother used to talk on the phone twice a day and my mother would visit her 2-3x a week when they both lived in the same city. My mother said she would never move away while my grandmother was alive. Instead, my mother and her husband moved about 5 years ago to another city two hours away from my grandmother's home and stopped calling her as often. She now calls maybe once a week. The reason for fewer phone calls? Her husband doesn't want to pay the long distance charges. We have attempted to get them a $20/month unlimited long distance plan, even offering to pay for it, with no luck.

2. My grandmother had a stroke about 4 1/2 years ago. I lived in another state 7 hours away and my uncle (mom's brother) lived across the country, and we both dropped everything (jobs, family, personal obligations) to take turns sitting by her side while she was in the hospital. My mother didn't come up for two weeks and canceled her first scheduled visit because she "had a dentist's appointment". My mother and her husband are retired and have no personal obligations besides church choir once a week.

3. During a family reunion this summer, my mother argued with and yelled at my grandmother because she was moving slowly (grandma is in her 90s and was having stomach problems that morning). She also burst into a fit of rage when describing some kids misbehaving at her church - vein-popping, red-faced anger just from recounting a situation. She also used a racial epithet during another conversation that weekend. My mother has always been a very caring, compassionate, empathetic woman and has never displayed any prejudice before. My uncle's description of her behavior was that she was like a caricature of herself, which I would say is an accurate description.

4. Her handwriting has changed significantly, from tight cursive that went straight across unlined paper to loose, scrawling writing that tilts upwards. She has also started forgetting things very easily, which she chalks up to "senior moments" but I think are more worrisome than that - she forgets things that she has been told repeatedly, even when it is told to her in writing.

5. She had a seizure a year ago and neglected to tell me about it for several months. Based on the description of what happened, it sounds unusual for a seizure - she was "acting weird" for a couple of days, according to her husband, and she was "talking gibberish" a few hours before it happened. He left to go to the store and asked a neighbor to sit with her while he was out, and she collapsed during the time that he was at the store. She had been on Dilantin for 40 years and had tapered off it earlier that year, but her doctor put her back on it after the event and she has not had a recurrence.

Some of you have probably picked up the slight undertone of derision when I referred to my mother's husband above. In the years since they have been married, he has increasingly displayed his penchant for controlling every move that is made in his household. He refuses to get an unlimited long-distance plan even though it is cheaper than the per-minute plan they use. He controls when she can make the two hour trip to visit my grandmother. He stands behind her when she is on the phone with me, my grandmother, or my uncle and chimes in, and sometimes actually coaches her on what to say. He tried to put my grandmother in a nursing home after her stroke, before giving her a chance to recover, and fought my uncle on it - and to this day, will not speak to my uncle except through my mother, as he coaches her on what to say to him. He makes my mother pay for her own dinners when they go out to eat and has coerced my mother into making a play for some of my grandmother's money (she's not rich, but has a living trust that is to be divided between my mother and my uncle).

The reason I include that background is that I think it is affecting some of my mother's behavior. However, the handwriting changes, forgetfulness, and seizure make me feel like something neurological is at play. The problem is, I can't call her doctor and ask, and I can't ask her husband because I'm concerned that his controlling personality will not allow him to accept suggestions from others. And, I hate to say it, but I wouldn't put it past him to ignore symptoms and allow her to become ill to increase his control over her.

Summary: Mom's personality has changed significantly in the past few years. So has her handwriting, memory, and health. Her husband is a controlling dick, so it's difficult to approach him because he won't let anyone else get too close to her.
Questions: What the heck could be wrong with her? Is it just aging or does it seem like something neurologically wonky is going on? And how should I approach this - can I call her doctor and tell him I suspect that something is wrong or does even that overstep the bounds of confidentiality? Or should I try to approach her husband, and if so, how?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry to hear that this has happened to your mom.
Personality change, loss of motor control (handwriting change), history of stroke and an episode of "seizure" - sounds like a stroke. She should go to a doctor and describe those symptoms as soon as possible.
posted by aquafiend at 7:47 AM on February 20, 2008

sorry, meant to add the following link:
stroke symptoms

"If several smaller strokes occur over time, the person may have a more gradual change in walking, balance, thinking, or behavior (multi-infarct dementia). "
posted by aquafiend at 7:55 AM on February 20, 2008

It seems like a fairly regular Dear-Abby issue, that someone continually wonders and wonders but never actually addresses the issue directly to the person they are wondering so much about. Call and talk with your mother for a nice long chat, or see if you can arrange to speak with her while Grumpy Hubby is out to the store or some such. Without getting her to explain necessarily if she's within earshot of being overheard, you could just ask her to confirm any suspicions about the nature of their relationship by yes/no responses.

Is there any backstory on the previous relationships of Grumpy Hubby? Is there a chance that you two could get away for a few days for a get-back-in-touch personal outing to chat?

I think you need to worry less about whether "he might think" or "he might accept" and focus more on "this is how I am going to deal with the situation" or "here is my plan of action, despite Gumpy's presumptions."

In every situation, ever, you have the option to act or react. If you remain in an always-reactive status, nothing will ever go your way and you will continually be the tall grasses that are blown about by the wind of circumstance. However, simply by choosing to do it, you can become the wind that blows the grasses about. Instead of reacting, act. When faced with a circumstance, take that circumstance and wrestle it to the ground and pin it and make it ask for YOUR mercy, instead of being always at the mercy of whatever is thrown your way.

That said, take a steady, firm, caring Rod of Change in your hands regarding your worries about your mother and clear a path you have created to get in there and see that things are made okay or better. With determination.
posted by vanoakenfold at 8:01 AM on February 20, 2008

follow-up from the OP
The last time we had a heart-to-heart conversation about her husband's controlling personality was several years ago, when he did leave her alone with me and my grandmother. After that, he cut off her visits to my grandmother for over six months and refused to let her visit me alone, even though I offered to pay for and arrange all of her travel. This was prior to my mother's personality changes. Since then, he has become more controlling.

I have tried to have discussions with her about her health, but she either says "I'm fine" or asks her husband if he has noticed anything. She seems to be unaware of the changes to her own personality. (She has visited a doctor, but he just put her back on Dilantin without doing any further tests.) I have never been able to get her on the phone when he is not at home - they usually run errands together and the only separate interest she has is exercise class, which she goes to alone. He will not allow her to have a cell phone nor will she call me when he is not at home, because she is conditioned not to use the telephone due to the expense. I have also attempted to get her to go on a trip with me or to visit alone with her. He will not allow her to travel alone nor will he leave us alone even for "girl talk" when I visit her - he will leave the room but will hover and eavesdrop on our conversations.

Thanks for the responses.
posted by jessamyn at 8:36 AM on February 20, 2008

Does your mother have a lot of money that her husband is hoping to inherit? Did he take out a lot of life insurance on her? Not to be overdramatic, but this scenario sounds like one of those Lifetime movies, where the husband (or wife) is controlling the spouse's every move, cutting them off from family, and slowly drugging or poisoning them in the meantime. Once the person slips into that final deadly coma, the spouse will shrug and tell the doctor, "Ask the family, Mom has been acting strangely for several years now."

Conspiracy theories aside, such severe personality and handwriting changes could be early indicators of dementia or Alzheimer's Disease. Or the result of a stroke (which, as mentioned above, sounds more like what she had than just a seizure). Someone needs to get Mom to a doctor alone, without her husband.
posted by Oriole Adams at 8:44 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

You need to make a good faith attept to talk to her husband about this. Call him and if that does not work then write to him (certified letter or somesuch). cc your uncle and any other family members. Be non-confrontational but list the issues that concern you and state what you would like to do: have her see a neurologist etc. Hopefully he will respond and let her see a doctor.

You also need to talk to the lawyer handling your grandmothers trust and let them know that your mother may not be capable of handling her own affairs. She may need that money to pay for her care so secure it now.

If the husband does not respond and it was my mother I'd show up outside her exercise class one day and take her to a doctor. I'd also give her a cell phone. It's possible that the husband is evil but he could also be suffering from dementia, he certainly does not sound entirely rational. Either way he is not caring for your mother.
posted by fshgrl at 9:04 AM on February 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Have you ever considered that controlling husband might actually be abusive husband? Enough beatings about the head can lead to changes like you mention, and it can certainly be a huge factor in changes in relationships with family members if he has brainwashed* her enough. (I say this not as a medical opinion, but as one who has seen similarly drastic changes in her own mother after a 4-year abusive relationship.) A man who wields that much control over his wife is definitely not far off from the type of husband who would physically abuse his wife. And even if he's not physical, enough verbal abuse can dramatically affect a person's mental state.

You definitely need to find ALONE time with your mom to find out what's going on. Because something is definitely off and needs to be addressed.

*I know brainwashing is widely considered to be not possible... what I mean is generally beating an idea into her head over and over for years until she goes along with it... like the phone situation you reference.
posted by uvaleg at 9:35 AM on February 20, 2008

He will not allow her to have a cell phone nor will she call me when he is not at home, because she is conditioned not to use the telephone due to the expense. I have also attempted to get her to go on a trip with me or to visit alone with her. He will not allow her to travel alone nor will he leave us alone even for "girl talk" when I visit her - he will leave the room but will hover and eavesdrop on our conversations.

An admittedly atavistic and male response:

Do you have any brothers? Or large male friends? If my Mom were living with this sort of prick, my brother and I would straighten his ass out in a New York minute. It's HIM you need some alone time with. Your Mom is in serious trouble, this asshole needs to be told, in no uncertain terms, that there are going to be some fucking changes around here. Get right up in his face.

Yeah, yeah, bullying etc. This is your mother we're talking about, all bets are off until you are satisfied with her treatment. You can be polite to him once he has been acclimated to his new reality.
posted by Scoo at 10:12 AM on February 20, 2008

I'd have to agree with aquafiend. MID, or TIAs (mini strokes) can alter a personality, and can have a wave affect where the symptoms come and go based on personal chemistry (science not social). She is also exhibiting signs of depression, probably augmented by her husbands controlling influence. Your best bet is to make a girls day out date, go grab your mom and take her to a neurologist or gerentologist whom you have previously made an appointment with. Good luck.
posted by Gungho at 10:26 AM on February 20, 2008

This may be way off base but if you mother is suffering from undiagnosed dementia her husband's controlling behavior may be a cover up for her loss in mental capabilities; coaching her on the phone and not leaving her alone are the things that cause me to pick up on this. He may fear the diagnosis for many reasons (like the possibility of putting her in a nursing home or even just the confirmation that his wife is undergoing a really rotten part of aging). I don't have a solution to the problem (other than talking frankly to him about her mental state and his behavior) but his actions maybe a not so great coping strategy to her possible illness. Personality changes and physical ability changes would certainly make me concerned about stroke or dementia. Good Luck.
posted by estronaut at 10:30 AM on February 20, 2008

Or should I try to approach her husband, and if so, how?

Nicely and genuinely at first. Then when he makes no concessions, however is necessary. You and your uncle both tell hubby you're coming over. You both go there. You tell him that you will spend some time alone with your mother soon, and that you will take her to the doctor. You tell him he will not be present either time. He gets her to himself the rest of the time, and your limited alone time with her is hardly enough to get past his abusive conditioning. You discuss hubby and her health with her. You try to get her earnest permission to see the doc with her. Repeat all of the above as often as necessary. If you need to, you go behind his back. But if both you and your uncle are there, as well as your mother, he is not in control. It might be a good idea to just start visiting every sunday. He'll be working hard all week to keep your mother in line. You need to see her in person, at length, regularly to have a chance against that. Tell hubby you're doing it to save him on the phone bill and that he can shove it. You also do your best to bring other friends of hers on visits, to remind her that she is happier when she can see who she wants, when she wants, without hubby getting in the way.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 10:32 AM on February 20, 2008

Confront the guy already and get it over with. That's problem #1. Then go with your mom to a see a neurologist. It could be A LOT of things, it's important to have this checked out.

I think you left out most the most important info (unless I missed it skimming this huge thread).. like: your mothers age, medical history (diseases, surgeries, meds besides dilantin, etc), significant diseases in the family, exactly when or how long ago this started, abrupt or gradual, chronological order of the associated symptoms.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 10:50 AM on February 20, 2008

One thing to consider is that unless you think you are going to convince your mother to leave this man (as would be REQUIRED if there is abuse occurring), he will be a major factor in your mother's ongoing health care.

While my knee-jerk response is to agree whole-heartedly with those above who are advocating a no-nonsense / laying down the law confrontation, if you end up making an enemy out of him there is *alot* he can do to block your attempts to help your mother. Furthermore, he will have *alot* of power if (god forbid) your mother is incapacitated and unable to consent to treatment.

If I were in your position I would think the top priority would be your mother's health. You have mentioned some "alarm bell" symptoms that could be very urgent but can *only* be properly assessed by a doctor who has the whole picture (the symptoms you've mentioned and her medical history). Barring evidence of physical abuse you need to get this taken care of first.
posted by aquafiend at 11:21 AM on February 20, 2008

If your mother is suffering from dementia (and it sounds like she is) and you suspect that her husband may not have her best interests at heart, you should talk to a lawyer about the possibility of being granted power of attorney. It sounds like you don't trust her husband to do the right thing, the first of which would be thorough evaluation by a geriatrician. Best of luck.
posted by pammo at 11:37 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Neurological problems aside...

You've already talked to your mother about her husband. I'm certain others have mentioned their concerns to her as well. She chose to stay with him. It isn't your place to like or understand her choice of spouse, but it is your job as a daughter to respect her choices. That respect becomes even more important if she has a serious illness or problem that may already be stealing dignity from her.

Her husband may be controlling, but he's her husband of many years. She chose him long before any of this other stuff came about. This is not your chance to swoop in and save your mom from Supervillain Stepdad Who Nobody Likes Anyway. This is your chance to make sure that your mom is cared for despite his overweening cheapness and control issues. If you take her away from him without her consent, you're being as bad as he has been. You're making her conform to your choices, then, same as he has done. If she walked away on her own, it's a different story.

You need to talk to her, yes. Bring that uncle if you can. You also need to talk to him. Just ask him to meet you both for coffee, without your mom. Tell him your concerns about your mom's health, and why. All the symptoms you've mentioned are valid concerns. I wouldn't get into it with him with your problems with how he is with her, but you never know... he could be trying in a weird way to help her keep an appearance of everything being normal, when it isn't. The fact that he could call a friend and say "My wife's talking gibberish, can you come sit with her while I run to the market" makes me think that there's an "again" tacked to some part of that sentence.

Tell him that you want her to see a neurologist. Give it a week, then take fshgrl 's great advice on the certified letter and gauchodaspampas's advice about more frequent visits. If he's Sinister Stepdad, he won't like this. But it will give you a better vantage point to see your mom & how she is & will help rebuild your relationship. Only do this after the discussion with your mom's husband, as a follow up.

Someone I know who worked in rehab nursing told me that the patients who got the best care were the ones who had flowers - it meant they had a guardian angel hovering nearby who would make sure they got the care they deserved. That's basically what you want to be - an extra set of eyes to see what's really happening and an extra set of hands to help.

Whatever you do, don't make the mistake of thinking, even in the back of your mind, that she'll somehow have a miraculous recovery if she only got away from him. Unless he's drugging or poisoning her, you'll have an older, confused person with diminished capacity to care for who may not completely understand what has happened and may not be very happy about the change. Are your concerns so strong that you're willing to face that possibility?

Last bit before I toddle off - before you put anything in writing or start making motions towards power of attorney, think about this. You'll be entering some really tricky emotional and legal shoals once you send that letter. You're saying, in writing, that you believe your mother is not in her right mind and hasn't been for a while. Aside from the emotional bombshell that could be to your family, you also need to consider how far you'd go to actually prove she's non compus mentis. There may also be legal impacts - any contracts, wills or arrangements she'd signed even a few years back might be called into question. This may be good or bad, depending, but it's sure to possibly be an expensive thing. You may also have quite an argument to show that you, a semi-estranged daughter who sees her mother rarely would be a better choice of legal guardian for your mom than her caregiver husband of many years.
posted by Grrlscout at 2:40 PM on February 20, 2008

arrgh compos mentis, sorry - mea culpa ;)
posted by Grrlscout at 2:40 PM on February 20, 2008

one more follow-up from the OP
Thanks again for all the responses.

I can't visit her weekly as we live on opposite ends of the country. My uncle also lives far from her. Otherwise I'd have already done something like that and would be visiting her far more regularly. We are not "semi-estranged" as one poster mentioned - we do see each other rarely, but not for lack of me trying. We talk on the phone once or twice a month. We visit when everyone's schedule allows - they are retired, but they travel often, just never to where I live.

I'm not looking to convince my mother to leave her husband, nor do I think she's completely in the throes of dementia - she seems to be functioning at least semi-normally and can carry on a regular conversation. I am concerned that his overbearing control over her is negatively affecting her physical and emotional health.

I think what I am looking for is ideas on how to approach him in the right way so that we can both assist my mother with whatever her problem with, and some ideas about what her medical symptoms could indicate so that we have a type of specialist to approach (I had already assumed a neurologist would be the right way to go, confirmed by several in the thread). I don't want to come on too strong and have him respond by isolating her from the family any further.

Oh, and she is 60, symptoms started approximately 2 years ago. I noticed the handwriting start to change then and it has progressed to the looser scrawl-type writing since then. The memory lapses started at about that time and have become far more noticeable and frequent since her "seizure". There is a history of minor stroke - her mother had one at age 86 - but no other history of dementia in the family. There was one relative with Alzheimer's who had similar symptoms (angry outbursts, forgetfulness) at the beginning stages, which is why I used the Alzheimer's tag, but he was not a blood relative of hers.
posted by jessamyn at 4:12 PM on February 20, 2008

Your description of your mother immediately reminded me of my own. She's now 82 and, over the course of her life, she's had some pretty serious, periodic mental episodes. In the last 20 years or so her mental condition has gradually deteriorated. Symptoms include increased obsessions, rants, irrational temper and paranoia. This is explained by her previous diagnosis AND Alzheimer's, which brings me to my point. In the past she's been prescribed tranquilizers for bad spells, which, to me, isn't treating the disease, only the symptoms. The tranqs were always a stopgap measure. Recently, a doctor prescribed Aricept, which, according to their web site, has been shown to help in Alzheimer's cases ranging from mild to severe.

Since Mom's been on the Aricept we've seen a marked improvement. She is no longer obsessing, ranting incessantly and her mean streak is not nearly as apparent as it was. She's become downright pleasant. She laughs easily, focuses on the conversation and responds appropriately. Her improvement is more than I and my family could have hoped for.

Of course, your mileage will most likely vary. I hope I haven't gotten your hopes up only to have them dashed.
posted by wsg at 5:19 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Did you say your mother was on Dilantin for 40 years? Was she epileptic?

It sounds clearly neurological to me. My mother went through some weird changes which we kept attributing to bad life choices, alcohol use, depression, etc, and finally we got her to the NHS in england (where she grew up) and she was diagnosed with MS. Your symptoms are different, of course, but they don't seem to be normal personal shifts. You should get her to a doctor and have tests done.

The bad news is, depending on a diagnosis, it may not be any real use: if there isn't a good treatment, you'll just have a name for the group of frustrating symptoms which are still what they are. There is potential for more medical coverage & benefits, and with some diagnoses, presumably there are treatments which can really make a difference, but many times the day to day difficulties will remain.
posted by mdn at 7:12 PM on February 20, 2008

I don't think the doctor can ethically/legally give YOU any information but there's nothing stopping you from giving HIM information.

Some alternative explanations for some of the behaviors you've described (just tossing these out as possibilities for you to consider):
- Your mom and grandma had a really bad fight that you don't know about and that's why your mom is avoiding contact with her.
- Your step-dad knows/suspects that your mom has a neurological problem and is being controlling with good intentions ("her brain doesn't work right so I need to make decisions for her and keep other people from taking advantage of her") instead of being abusive. She may have done a lot of screwy things that only he knows about and that are affecting how he treats her now.

For the phone issue, I suggest that you add a toll-free number to your phone line so she can call you for free and you pick up the bill. My parents have one and IIRC it is not that expensive. Then she will have no financial obstacles to calling you.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:59 AM on February 21, 2008

If I were you, I'd certainly contact the doctor. Since he's only been seeing your mother for five years (I assume), the personality changes might not be so apparent, or he may not know the extent, and just generally may not have as much background information as he needs.

On the other hand, it sounds like there were some changes going on with her medication, and a little Googling brings up some message board discussion of personality changes related to Dilantin over time, as well as effects in combination with other meds - which may be why there was some attempt to taper off or switch. Even if he can't tell you what's happening with your mother because of confidentiality, he may be able to confirm general information, and could perhaps benefit from getting more information on his patient.
posted by taz at 5:27 AM on February 21, 2008

Dilantin for 40 (!) years, tapered off, apparent seizure, then resumption? Of an anti-seizure medication with potential for liver toxicity in long term use? IANAN (I am not a neurologist) but--

She needs to see a good neurologist, now, with you explaining just what you have said here.

Epilepsy, strokes, Altzhimer's, Parkinson's (and a whole raft of other conditions that cause changes in behavior)--these are all in the neurological specialist's realm. My father has been diagnosed with epilepsy for the past 40 years. 5 years ago, he had an 'episode' which his neurologist diagnosed as status epilepticus and his family doctor thought was stroke. And these were both experienced physicians. (The family doctor later agreed with the neurologist, though.) You, your mother, and her husband need to know what exactly she is dealing with physically. And it may take time to get the right diagnosis, get the right medications, etc. Furthermore, her current doctor (if he is not a specialist) may be reluctant to give up his role as primary caregiver. (Ask me how I know.) Do not give up, however. You will probably have to to make an extended visit(s) to help with this. Rather than being confrontational with her husband over this
posted by apartment dweller at 11:36 AM on February 21, 2008

(ack, hit send too soon--continuing)

Rather than being confrontational with her husband over this, you may want to consider the possibility that he feels in over his head with her behaviorial changes, and may not himself know how to proceed.
posted by apartment dweller at 11:38 AM on February 21, 2008

« Older Ulead VideoStudio Editing   |   Need some electrical advice and setup help ?? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.