My family is insane. Now what?
August 11, 2008 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Crazy Family Filter: Help me cope with my family's mental health issues? (long)

I'm pretty sure we're some sort of film and lit cliché: An intelligent but dysfunctional cocktail of neurosises (neurosi?) and mental illness, with a few prodigy and geniuses, substance abuse, molestation and intergenerational issues with neglect and/or parental over involvement. Everyone says their family is crazy, but mine is crazy is a sense that is terrifying, not goofy and eccentric.

I'm not exactly sure when something went wrong in my family, because family legend is spotty a few generations back. Apparently my maternal great grandparents were a trifle over controlling and my great grandmother was said to be prone to depression. Her children, my great aunt and grandmother, were definitely not sane, my mother’s not sane, her sisters are not sane and my siblings are not sane.

My maternal grandmother suffers from substance abuse problems, primarily alcoholism, symptoms of Asperger syndrome, depression and what we think is borderline personality disorder. She refuses to bathe and tries to involve everyone in her sexuality, molesting me, my mother, my first aunt, and my brother, as well as going out of her way to generally expose herself to the world at large. She also does very stupid things like setting herself on fire to get attention, getting into relationships with abusive people, breaking into the apartment to insist someone cancel her credit card while hurling emotional abuse, etc…

My maternal grandfather was just creepy. He molested my mother and I believe he molested her sisters.

Both grandparents were Mensa members. Being intelligent is taken for granted in my family, and remains the most prized virtue of the clan. Less genius family members tend to have self esteem issues. My mother was the ‘dummy’ of the family, and she’s very, very bright.

One aunt was a prodigy, off to Harvard at 16, and settled into computer programming, and merely seems to battle with Aspergers/Depression/No longer being a prodigy now that’s she’s 50.

The other aunt is also Aspie and has been unable to hold employment for six or so years due to crippling anxiety. She has panic attacks, which I’ve gotten pretty good at soohing when she visits.

My mother gets severe migraines from over stimulation (ie a sunny day, getting hot enough to sweat, etc) and is aspie. She prefers to keep no social contact beyond her family, and I think that I may be her best friend, which is awkward when you’re also someone’s child. Sometimes she tells me about events from her past, and they’re fucked up to the point that I can’t cope. She won’t see a therapist yet as she’s ‘too busy’ and it’s embarrassing to call one from work.

My siblings are both either unable or unwilling to attend school. Their father, my stepfather, is prone to depression, which manifested as anger, before he went on Prozac, typically directed at me. At one point this anger led him to threaten me with a knife. I still haven’t forgiven him, and when my mother told me not to provoke him into these rages it put a huge rift in our relationship as well. My siblings are supposed to be home schooled, but are merely left at home all day, alone (they’re aged 14 and 16, so strictly speaking it’s legal) and while my sister gets minimal tutoring in the evenings, my brother is mostly unschooled. The brother is mostly good natured, but my sister reacts to perceived slights by trashing and breaking things around the house. It scares me, because when property of mine has turned up damaged I can’t tell if it was an accident or her being upset.

I'd really hoped that tracking down my father's side of the family would help give me some role models that's weren't batfuck insane, but my father is selfish Aspergers typified and is married to someone who suffers from severe depression. When I visited them for the first time they had a yelling argument over the top of my head about something stupid. I have two half sisters with them I’m sort of worried about.

Needless to say, I’m not sure I’m sane. I have an official psychiatric diagnosis of Aspergers syndrome and have been treated for depression. I’m also very anxious and suffer from obsessive passions. I’m terrified of birthing another version of my grandmother, though I want to have a kid some day. Mostly I’m expecting to get a wee little neurotic person like my siblings are, which is acceptable.

Speaking of which, I don’t know what to do about the siblings. They were pretty much left to themselves. My sister has no friends, the house is filthy and there’s no discipline at all. I was raised with mild discipline and much more attention, and I worry about them. They are fed, however, and loved. I dunno how they’ll cope as adults without highschool, in Canada.

I’m already in therapy, and I’m not sure it’s helping because I don't know what to do when people I love are all insane, not just some of them. I move away in 21 days, which will help, but I’m worried what people like my severely isolated mother will do without me too, so add major guilt.

Any help gladly taken.
posted by Phalene to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure what kind of information you're asking for, but I'll intuit that you're looking for recommendations on some course of action to take with your mother and siblings. Feel free to correct me if I'm off base.

If your mother has previously set herself on fire and has a penchant for public nudity, I'll bet she's been in a psych unit before, because this is the kind of stuff you get involuntarily committed for. If she was involuntarily committed (assuming the Canadian mental health system works similarly to the states), she was locked down for a 72 hour period before going to a mental health court judge who made a decision as to whether or not she needed further treatment. Even if she was remanded by a judge to further mental health treatment, that really only means that she was held long enough to be stabilized on medication and released. Once released, it's every adult's choice whether or not they want to engage in longer term mental health treatment in the community and remain compliant with their medication. Every adult has the right to refuse treatment or medication, even if that results in their having another involuntary commitment to a mental health facility down the road. This is very frustrating for family members and mental health professionals; really the only course of action is to continue to encourage your mother to engage in treatment and perhaps find mental health housing where she will have some level of supervision to prevent her from acting out sexually and self-harming (it sounds like she really needs it to me). If she continues to refuse help, the county will just continue to lock her up when she acts out, and release her once stabilized. At least that's how I've seen it work in Philly; some people go through this revolving door process on a monthly and sometimes even weekly basis.

It is true that once past a certain age (16 in Philly) a child is no longer considered truant, but is considered to have dropped out by default and the city will accordingly no longer pursue them or their parents. Which means, that like your mother, your siblings are going to have to voluntarily take action to access educational resources. If there is a local literacy program, I'm sure they will gladly meet with your brothers if they are willing to engage the service. Again, once beyond a certain age there is no compulsory education, and if they don't want it, they won't get it.
posted by The Straightener at 8:25 AM on August 11, 2008

That is some write up Phalene. I think you are doing the best thing you can do for yourself. Moving away is surely a good thing. Hopefully far, far away. Give yourself some room, take care of yourself. You need to.
Good luck
posted by a3matrix at 8:31 AM on August 11, 2008

My grandmother has been both voluntarily and involuntarily commited in the past. Last time she went in (for suicidal threats), she picked up a new boyfriend, a fellow substance abuser with a history of violence.
posted by Phalene at 8:40 AM on August 11, 2008

I move away in 21 days, which will help, but I’m worried what people like my severely isolated mother will do without me too, so add major guilt.

Moving out will help out a lot. As far as feeling guilty about not helping your mother enough, in my opinion that's not your responsibility. Your mother is able to hold down a job, and that's proof enough for me that she's enough of a functioning adult to take care of herself.

I would try to have an attitude of trying to be involved in your relative's lives, rather than having an attitude of feeling obligated to fix their problems for them. So, for example, try to do things to encourage your siblings to get some kind of education, but don't feel as though you need to save them. Just try to have positive relationships with your relatives, and don't feel that you are a failure if they have problems. And it might seem cold, but if your relationship with a given relative is always negative, sometimes it's best to just avoid as much contact with them as possible.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:44 AM on August 11, 2008

My grandmother has been both voluntarily and involuntarily commited in the past. Last time she went in (for suicidal threats), she picked up a new boyfriend, a fellow substance abuser with a history of violence.

Lovely, not terribly uncommon, though.

If your mother is involuntarily committed again, the court hearing would be a good time to advocate for an extended stay in a psych unit and push for some sort of court ordered supervised housing situation. If there are family members present as petitioners, it holds sway with the judge. However, being a petitioner against your own mother is a very hard thing to do, and probably won't improve your relationship with her. Maintaining contact with her hospital social worker while she's staying inpatient can also help, as you can try to keep them on point with securing resources in the community for your mother. Some social worker go all out for every client they have, some just shuttle people in and out, it's kind of a crap shoot in my experience.

You may have already done these things, or someone may have for your mother, in which case it's probably best if you separate and concentrate on your own mental health and peace of mind. These scenarios can drag on for years, and the fruitless efforts of codependent family members rarely improve outcomes.
posted by The Straightener at 8:51 AM on August 11, 2008

That's a tough situation, and you have my sympathies.

I'm also not quite sure what you are asking, but the part that jumped out at me was this:

Now what?

Because this is the part you can control. You can't change the family history, or anyone's diagnosis, or what any of them will do tomorrow.

But you can control yourself — you, and your reactions, and what contact you have with your family. Questions like, do you seek out drama and take on all the family craziness as your responsibility, or do you curtail contact with some (many? all?) family members and focus on making your life a haven of safety and calm?

I guess what I'm saying is that you can't change the hand you were dealt, but you can totally decide whether or not your history will control you, or whether you will live a wonderful and satisfying life irregardless.

But there is pain either way — the pain of being sucked into family craziness, or the pain of having to say to the people you grew up with and share genes with that "I can't be there for you this time; I need to take care of myself first." Neither path is easy, and that's just not fair. The unfairness is simply built into the situation; you can accept it or fight it, but it won't magically become more fair through sheer effort or tears.
posted by Forktine at 8:54 AM on August 11, 2008

@The Straightener

It's my grandmother. My mother has never set herself on fire, etc. I've already ceased contact with the grandmother, since I don't fancy getting molested or assaulted/robbed by her boyfriend.
posted by Phalene at 8:55 AM on August 11, 2008

Yes, your grandmother, sorry.

Mental illness in the family is a lot like addiction; in trying to pressure someone to get help who doesn't want it, you're more likely to negatively impact the quality of your life than positively impact theirs. Real recovery only happens when a decision not only to seek help but to then actively maintain a chronic condition is made. Considering that there is a physical threat from you grandmother's boyfriend this is a no brainer. It sounds like you've already made your decision, and in disengaging from her I think you made the right decision. Since your mother "tells me about events from her past, and they’re fucked up to the point that I can’t cope," and also refuses to seek treatment, you may have to make the same decision again somewhere down the road.
posted by The Straightener at 9:07 AM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

You are on your own now and that's the way it should be. Regarding moving out, therapy will help you with the feelings of guilt. You have to accept now that you will probably never, ever have a "normal" relationship with your family.

A good therapist will help you discover ways to deal with your family on a surface level that will not leave you feeling crazy yourself. Holidays like mother's day are particularly hard for me, because I will never have to typical storybook-style mother-daughter relationship with my mom.

A good therapist will help you find ways to cope with this, but listen to me now and listen hard: your family will most likely never change. Even your siblings, who still have time on their side, will have to make the decision themselves what direction they want to go in. The only thing you can do is learn to take care of yourself.
posted by Brittanie at 9:08 AM on August 11, 2008

Oh, and more than one neurosis are neuroses.
posted by amicamentis at 9:39 AM on August 11, 2008

It sounds like you've lived in an unpleasant, unstable situation for a long time. Moving out and getting away from the craziness will help, but don't be surprised if it's very hard at first. You are used to the crazy, and trying to live sanely may feel strange or overwhelming.

Also, as you are aware, your family fucked you up. Getting away from them will stop further damage, but it may not be an immediate cure-all. There is a decent chance that you may become depressed again upon leaving. If that happens, please don't start despairing that you are permanently fucked up or anything of the sort. Even people with great family lives can have problems after moving out, and in your case, it might take months or even years to process all the damage from your crazy family. But you sound capable, and self-aware, and that means that eventually you should be ok!

Are you going to college, or working? Obviously it's important to keep up with your school or work obligations even though you may be very troubled emotionally. It's good that you are in therapy - I hope you can stick with it. Do you have any friends you can use as a support system? If not, try to make some. I don't mean "support system" in the sense that you can cry about all your troubles to them, but in the sense that you can build up routines of social interaction, have weekend plans, etc, and get into some good habits and a regular schedule.

The other thing I see in your question is that you are worried about a lack of good role models. You don't see anyone your parents' age with their shit together, and you worry that
a) people just get more screwed up as they get older
b) that is likely your fate since you descended from these people
c) even if you wanted to actively avoid that fate you don't know how to get your shit together

Am I close? This is a tough one because it's hard to form relationships with people outside your age group, and so far you've only been exposed to fucked up adults and probably aren't even sure where to find the normal-functioning ones. But please do trust me that they are out there. There are millions of people leading happy, fulfilled lives, with good friends, families, and careers, and some of them came out of backgrounds as bad or worse than yours. And you can definitely get there yourself, and be stable, functional and happy in adulthood, middle age, and beyond. I can't tell you how to meet role models, but they are all around you - your therapist, maybe, some of your teachers, older co-workers, friends' parents, etc. Even if you can't easily connect with them, what about some writers or artists that you admire? Bloggers? Posters right here on this site? You can observe any number of well-adjusted people in their natural habitat if you just look. Take care of yourself and good luck!
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 9:51 AM on August 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, and the best and only thing you can do for your siblings is get out, get your shit together, and become that role model. They may well not follow but if you are away, sane and happy, you can at least be a stabilizing force at some point down the line.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 10:02 AM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, I have lots of crazy family members on both sides. I would go into a write-up but there's not really a need. I only speak to my father, very rarely. No one from my family attended any of my wedding festivities. Signifigant history of abuse.

It helps if you behave selfishly. Yes, selfishly.

The exploitation, the manipulation, the parentification, they all rely on you putting yourself second. They rely on your desire to change your family members into functional human beings. That will never happen. As you try, though, they will be able to use you to play out their own dramas and fulfill their needs at your expense. They won't get better, though. They'll always want you to be there, ready to sacrifice yourself.

You must decide to put yourself first.

If you are truly to put yourself first, you must move away.

Of course you're worried how your mother will do without you, but it's not possible for you, her child, to be her parent. Meaning, she cannot be dependent on you as her caretaker. It is not appropriate or even possible. Nor should she tell you things that disturb you, simply so she can get them off of her chest. It is inappropriate and hurtful for her to do that. You are expected to just deal with it even if you can't cope, because your emotions come second. That is harmful to your mental health and is producing anxiety.

Your stepfather abused you verbally and physically--he threatened you with a deadly weapon. Your mother should have supported you, physically and emotionally, but she did not. She wants you to protect her, but she does not want to protect you. Again, she expects you to take on responsibilities that are impossible for you to take on, as there is no way you cannot control your stepfather. You are expected to live in fear--no matter how remote--for your bodily safety. That is harmful to your mental health and is producing anxiety.

Your sister violates your space and breaks your things in anger, this is threatening and inappropriate. Again, your mother and stepfather should be protecting you from her behavior, but they are not. You are expected to put up with it and live in fear. That is harmful to your mental health and is producing anxiety.

Even a "sane" person would have near-crippling anxiety if they were put into your situation. So give yourself a bit of a break and recognize how strong you are, recognize that the situation is really really bad, and that you're making positive steps to get out of it. Once you are out of the crisis situation that is living in that house, take some time, and think about things like children, family, where you want your life to go, and who you really are.

As for your guilt--

In regards to your siblings, you're not going to change the way your mother parents her children. As you say, they are fed and loved. Your mother is not your child. Her children are not your responsibility. You will not be able to force your mother to treat them correctly. Attempting to control her behavior towards your siblings is a waste of time. Attempting to control your siblings' behavior is also a waste of time.

As for your mother, I question how isolated she truly is, and how much her isolation is exaggerated and created by her to keep you guilty and roped into the harmful dynamic you have with her. She goes to work. She lives with your siblings. She is competent to call a therapist if she needs to. To me, that is not isolated.

I would expect some kind of dramatic gestures on the part of one or more of your family members, meant to keep you around. They don't want this sick system to be disrupted. These gestures may take the form of suicide threats, confessions of horrific fears or illnesses that require you to stay and care for the family, panic attacks that render them unable to function without you, claiming they will never speak to you again, theft of your necessary items (or money), etc.

Do what you have to do to protect yourself. Do not be manipulated by threats. Remember, they are responsible for themselves.

Put your money somewhere where they can't get it, make sure you take your family members off of/close all joint credit accounts, hide your car keys or keep them on you at all times, get a safety deposit box for all your ID (birth certificate, etc), and get out.

Best of luck--
posted by sondrialiac at 10:09 AM on August 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

(Just to clarify for The is Phalene's GRANDMOTHER that set herself on fire, was involuntarily committed, etc. Not the mother.)

Phalene--I feel for you. Not only are you dealing with the confusion and stress that these relationships have for you, but you probably are struggling with the fact that you don't know what a "normal" relationship with a family member looks/feels like. And that sucks.

Is it possible that you are really dwelling on this now with a sense of urgency BECAUSE you are leaving in 21 days? After all, even though the situation and relationships are completely messed up, they are familiar. And, even though your role in some of these relationships is unfair to you (as in being your mom's best friend), they provide a role to play that is also familiar. The loss of that familiarity can be daunting, even though it would be a very good thing in the long run.

Although not as extreme as your situation, I had to rediscover what normal relationships were like and how to navigate them as well as renegotiate my relationships with family when I went to college. Counseling helped tremendously, as did books like "The Dance of Intimacy" and "The Dance of Anger" by Harriett Lerner. They helped to give me very specific words and actions around renegotiating those relationships from afar. Eventually, those relationships did get renegotiated and my life improved immensely. But some family fought to keep me in the same roles for a pretty long time. My changes meant that they had to change, too. And they were NOT comfortable with that initially.

I think you are extremely self-aware for being in the situation you are in. That is a huge benefit. I know it is difficult, but do not attempt to save your mother right now or your siblings. In this time of transition, it will benefit you to focus your energy on yourself before you reach out to them. Kind of like that spiel on airplanes, when they advise you to put on your OWN face mask before putting one on your child? Even though your instincts are to help your child first? This is like that. Your face mask first.
posted by jeanmari at 10:16 AM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are so many issues, that you must triage.

The first task is getting your own mental health and living situation stable. This is the only thing to focus on until you've fully accomplished this task. You cannot simultaneously save yourself, siblings, parents and grandparents.

It's a waste of effort to define the second task now. Their situations may change in the time it takes you to get to a stable place. Realistically, this could take you several years. When you're ready, look to see what you can do to help others in your family. You may never be able to help members of your family, but could decide to help other survivors of traumatic families. That's okay too and it's a long way off in the future.

Take care of you.
posted by 26.2 at 11:08 AM on August 11, 2008

All I can suggest is that you put a lot of thought into the kind of people you want around you in the future, in particular romantic partners. Be careful that you don't gravitate toward other crazy people, or people who'll manipulate you.
posted by amtho at 11:25 AM on August 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

Avoid being anywhere near the toxic members of your family. Be polite and non-confrontational, and far away from them. There's a reason I live 1,000 miles from where I was raised, and it's not just that Maine is a great place to live. Minimize contact. Answer only a few emails and phone calls. When you're healthier, you can establish better boundaries, and they'll learn to understand that you won't participate in crazy behavior.

Try to hang out with normal, sane people, to whatever extent you can recognize them.

Live as regular a life as possible; get up and go out to work or play every day, maintain hygiene, etc. Exercise regularly, get sunshine, and get good nutrition. All of this helps mental health.

If you can, try to be a lifeline for your siblings. You may not be able to do that right now, but it could be a goal. Even having you to visit would give them a safe haven.

You can't fix your family. You all get different genetic gifts and burdens, and you can't predict what they'll be. You can get yourself as healthy as possible, have a child, and be the best parent you can be, but a lot can happen. Your child might be pretty well-adjusted, or schizophrenic. But loving a child is something I'd never give up.
posted by theora55 at 11:30 AM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dear Phalene, congratulations on being alive and sane. You do sound sane, clear, wise and savvy.

Boy, have you been through *a lot*.

My sincere sympathy for your having to endure what you did.

When I read your post this morning before going to work, I hoped you'd get some useful comments and you did. Wonderful, practical, supportive and wise. So I'll add my 2 cents to others' insights and their, imo, very healthy, constructive suggestions. First, a disclaimer, I'm not a professional therapist. The following opinions were learned during my own recovery process.

The last 23 years I spent working on healing from the damage done in a family in some ways similar to yours. The thing I wish I'd known much earlier is about personality disorders. But you're already way ahead of the game there.

Some practical websites and information I've gathered that might be useful to you:

An excellent online support group for non-BPDed adult children of BPDs.

This MetaFilter post, which includes many links that might be helpful to you:
Borderline personality disorder described firsthand.

This list of resources for adult children of narcissists.

Adult Children of Narcissists

Bullies:Drama queens, saviours, rescuers, feigners,attention-seekers

I think recovery for Adult Children of Narcissists (ACONs) comes in 3 stages:

1. 'seeing' the N (destructive personality disordered abuser) for what they are and working on external detachment

2. 'seeing' one's own issues as an ACON and working on healing those
issues, which results in increasing detaching internally from the
enmeshment with the Nparent

3. and then what I call Calyx recovery, which is learning to blossom
in one's own life, which can be extremely challenging for ACONs, who
may have frighteningly ambivalent feelings about succeeding at
anything for fear it may be co-opted or violated by the Nparent or
else leave the ACON vulnerable to the Nparent's abuse. I think ACONs
need to literally come into their senses, in small, manageable
increments because those very senses were violated by Nparents.

How to deal with an Overbearing Mother

Divorcing a Parent: A Sympathetic and Practical Guide for Adult
Children Who Need to Free Themselves From an Abusive Relationship with a Parent by Beverly Engel

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis

Spiral of awakening in this recovery/hooks and detaching

Adult Children Divorcing Their Parents Group

To join send an email to the group owner:
Samantha_tannert [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk and please
write into the subject, parental divorce

(Owner of Adultchildren_divorcing_their_parents)


Do you have parents who abused you as a child?
Are you a abuse survivor?
Are they Borderline, Narcisistic, Anti-social
or do have another personality disorder?

Are they criminals? Or do you have a parent
who is a drug addict or a drinker? Or do you
have a parents who is co-dependent and did help
or help hide the other parent to abuse you?
An enabler?

Are they continuing with this behaviour?
No self-reflection? Never changed? Or even
became worse? Did you try all and it did not
work out? And then as the last measure
you could only divorce them?

Then this is the right group for you.
Here you can tell what your parents did
to you and why you need to divorce them.
And how you feel NOW. What are your future plans?
How do you live without parents? What changes
bought this in your life?

You can tell all, here you find a place
where people gonna listen.And we are doing
the AFTERMATH here. How you go on after you
divorced the parents?
What is happening next? Are they stalking you?
Do you feel lost or lonely sometimes?
Here is the place to discuss this.

Your member Bean says:
"I hope that whatever point you are at in
your journey, please never lose hope for yourself.
There is peace for you."

This group is for children
who have chosen to divorce or plan to divorce
their parents and do not plan a reconciliation.
But everyone else who has something to say concerning
this issue is also welcomed.

Some meds that might help support your brain chemistry during your healing process:

Lexapro l AskAPatient ratings
Luvox l AskAPatient ratings

Wishing you the best in your journey.
posted by nickyskye at 7:11 PM on August 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

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