What should I do about mom that is in dire situation?
August 13, 2008 7:53 PM   Subscribe

I don't know how I should feel or what I should do about my current situation with my semi-estranged mother. I don't even know where she is right now and her life is in shambles. Should I have to take care of her?

This is a long one.

I haven't seen my mother in two years and I only saw her that time because my step dad died and I went down for his service.

I moved out of my house when I was 18. I had asked to move back home at one point because I was sick but my mom basically said no. I'd say I left on very bad terms because she was angry at me for wanting to move out and be with my current husband. I had to hear many sessions of how I was hurting her beyond any pain she'd ever felt and also wild stories about my husband and his parents (just completely made up fabrications such as she thought they were in a cult, my husband was an unsafe driver, he was going to kill me, etc).

She was controlling my entire life, possibly with borderline personality. I was told basically growing up that if I tried living on my own in a city I'd be raped and murdered. I was told by both her and my step dad I would live with them until I was 30 years old and I was also told growing up if something were to happen to my step dad, I would have to fully take responsibility for my mom. This behavior is almost unbelievable but wild stories, constant drama, gossip, lies, etc. are common place in my family fueled addiction and alcoholism and living in a very secluded, backwards place.

My mom never had a job growing up and was always taken care of by others. I have grown up with a sense of needing to take care of my mom. When my step dad died, I seriously considered having her move up with me and my husband (we live in a different state). She wanted to stay in the place they rented, I ended up going home and came to my senses and realized this would be terrible for me, and life went on.

Unfortunately now she is in a terrible place. She had a job for almost a year now which is completely unprecedented but was barely scrapping by. I distanced myself from her after my step dad died because she started drinking again and partying and she got with some guy half her age a month after my step dad died which was disturbing to me. The partying winded down about four months after his death, though.

For about a year now we have had a "good" relationship, one that I had shaped out with counselors and made sure to enact a lot of boundaries in. It was a distant relationship for me. I feel very detached from her and I made sure I never tried to get anything from her emotionally (she just can't give it) and that I never tried to offer help or assist her in anyway.

She called me about a week ago to tell me she quit her job and is moving to the coast with this guy (the one half her age) that she has been seeing for two years now. I haven't heard from her since. I don't know what town she is in or what she is doing. Then my aunt calls me and is worried about her. She didn't know that she had moved and she said my mom had been having trouble making rent, had her phone turned off, wasn't going to be able to make any of the bills. This relationship she is in has always been really rocky with alcohol problems, anger, possibly abuse issues.

I feel worried and upset that I need to do something. I feel really guilty that I am doing well in my life but the only reason I feel I am is that I have completely detached myself from my family. I feel incredibly selfish that I just bought a couch for the price of my mom's rent that she couldn't make. At the same time I absolutely DREAD her ever coming up here. I fear her showing up to my place one day saying she has nowhere else to go. But I also worry about her, her safety, her well being.

I don't know what to do. I don't even know what advice I am looking for. Who should have to take care of my mom? I don't think she is capable of taking care of herself in anyway. She has other family but she doesn't rely on them because she always had it in her head I would take care of her. I am the only one in the family doing well.

I feel so incredibly bad because there were points in my life growing up where I think she was trying her best to be a good mom and a good person toward me. I remember our family functioning well for periods of time and I feel so guilty because I do think she loves me a lot- she is just very sick with whatever problems she has. It breaks my heart to know her life is like this, but at the same time I feel the only way I can deal with my family is to be distant from them, including her and I also think some of her problems are of her own making.

How can I reconcile this guilt, concern, worry, and feeling that I need to do something for her with the fact that the best thing I ever did in life was get away from her and my family? I feel so torn lately and am constantly worried about her safety and well-being, yet dreading having to do anything about it.

Also she has disappeared and no one seems to know where she went. I don't know what town she went to. She doesn't have a cellphone. She didn't seem to tell anyone else but me that she was leaving. What should I do about her missing? Just let her be and hope she isn't out there homeless somewhere or dead? I feel so torn up inside about this.

I'm sorry this is so long and I know I bring up a lot in this, but I guess the summary of this is just how can I be a good, caring person in life yet also tell my mom she can't live with me, she has to live on the streets if it comes down to it or worse?
posted by rainygrl716 to Human Relations (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
In some ways your problems with your mother remind me problems I had trying to help my mother (who passed away last year). However, with my mother there was only a lack of cooperation and trust, no actual animosity. Also, we never lost track of her, so yours is a worse situation.

My mother had been experiencing more frequent episodes of depression and where she lived was getting more unsafe (neighborhood deteriorating, her neighbor friends had died or moved away, she was also having trouble coping with daily routines --- apparently beginnings of dementia). We had always thought that eventually she would need to move in with us and so we helped her sell her house and move into one of our spare rooms. But that only lasted a year. Her mental situation deteriorated even more (because of strange surroundings, or would it have deteriorated if she had stayed in her home?) We helped her move into a nice independent living facility, but they only kept her for less than a year before she became too crazed and needy for "independent" living. So she moved into the adjoining well-regarded nursing home facility and in 11 months she passed away of a stroke at 83.

I have replayed the decisions I made over the past 3 years and I don't have a lot of new ideas. I could have let her "die in her house" which she always said she wanted to, instead of talking her into moving in with us. I think perhaps I should have sought out a geriatric specialist and paid for a full evaluation on our own dime. Perhaps with an excellent doctor and careful medication she would have improved (though one time when she lived with us we discovered she was palming her meds, we had to start watching her like a hawk!)

I don't know if this is helping you. My point is that in a somewhat simpler situation I had trouble actually helping my mother. So obviously I think your ability to help is somewhat limited, especially with not knowing where she is.

The only other thought I will offer is anonymous help. If you ever do hear of her whereabouts and if any social worker gets involved, perhaps you can provide indirect assistance anonymously in some way.

And, of course, your spouse may have an independent perspective (I know my wife helped a lot with my mother).
posted by forthright at 8:30 PM on August 13, 2008

I think simply preparing yourself with knowledge of local social service facilities and phone numbers would help ease your dread that she may show up at your doorstep requesting help.
posted by artdrectr at 8:44 PM on August 13, 2008

I am sorry that you are going through this--it sounds awful. The main piece of advice that I feel comfortable giving you is that you should find your local Al-Anon chapter and attend some meetings. Doing so will help you get a better perspective on your situation and provide you with some guidance to help you reach decisions about what to do that aren't clouded by feelings of guilt, co-dependence, anxiety, and the like.

Your concern for your mother shows that you are a good, caring person, but that doesn't mean that you are necessarily obligated to take actions that undermine your own mental health and happiness. I don't think anybody can really provide answers to the questions that you have asked--it has to come from you. But your mind needs to be in the right place to be able to make the best choices for not just your mother, but everybody involved, including yourself. Al-Anon has helped a lot of people (but certainly not everybody) find that place.
posted by jtfowl0 at 9:03 PM on August 13, 2008

Your mother is an adult, responsible for her own choices and the consequences of those choices. When addiction and alcoholism are involved, those choices are likely to be bad ones and the consequences are likely to be negative.

I have sympathy for your situation. I am my alcoholic father's only child. He has no surviving siblings and both of his parents are dead. He loved me but was a pretty rubbish father. Regardless, my plan was to fund the extensive care he needs with the substantial proceeds from my grandparents' estate. When he fucked that up, too, I ran out of options. Other than sacrificing my life to take care of his, there was nothing left to do.

At one point, my husband and I moved, and I changed my email address and I just... never gave him my new contact details. No contact at all as worked best for me, because do you know what? These people are crazy, and you cannot reason with crazy like that. Nor do you want to live with it, trust me.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:06 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I really do appreciate all of you who took the time to respond to this. I am just in a very bad place about this right now. I'm only 23 and have spent my entire adult life trying to get better from my upbringing and the problems my family has created for me. I'm doing the best I can in my life but I struggle with my mental health as well. My mom is 46 and I really cannot fathom what she will do in her later years. She obviously has no retirement funds, no job, no source of money.

forthright- Thank you for sharing your story and I'm sorry for your loss and struggles. This kind of situation is difficult no matter what is involved.

artdrectr- That is a good idea, although I am more concerned with my emotional ability to deal with that. I guess I still fear my mom and her reactions. I've been emotionally torn down by her for so much of my life and leaving at 18 didn't just magically make that situation better. I don't know how to deal with her other than distance, and by that I mean physical distance and emotional distance. We both end up fighting and angry and hurt whenever we are physically together.

jfowl0- I looked up my local al-anon meetings before posting this actually. I really need to make this a priority in my life. I've had success with them in the past.

DarlingBri- I really appreciate your words. This is what I remind myself when my feelings of guilt and concern overwhelm me. I feel bad saying it but I wasn't even concerned or cared much when she said she was moving and then I never heard from her. I was relieved that I wasn't talking to her. It was only after talking to my aunt and realizing how bad her situation was that I started to feel terrible for her and worry about her well-being.
posted by rainygrl716 at 9:24 PM on August 13, 2008

Do you have to help her? No, it's not likely that you do. I don't see any moral reason that would obligate you to help her.

But, should she contact you again, I think you should offer to help her. So, long as the help is on your terms and within certain limits I can see no harm to you. But what are reasonable terms and reasonable limits? This is for you and your husband to decide. You might suggest to her that you are willing to help her financially but only if she enters counseling and gets a new job. Or you might come up with some other arrangement entirely.

Talk to your husband and decide what you are comfortable doing; set firm boundaries. Then wait. I am certain that she will contact you at some point. The best thing you can do fore her, and yourself, is to be ready.
posted by oddman at 9:33 PM on August 13, 2008

I have to admit I have no experience whatsoever with this kind of situation. But seeing how young you are (geezis, only two years older than me!), you have a lot in your future to take care of. But unfortunately, you cannot take care of everything, including family/parents.

Now I'm going to say this from an individualistic POV - that is, your first priority should be you. You, and then the people closest to you (husband, close friends, etc.), then the priority gets lower the less close you are to someone. What your mother did - not telling anyone where she went, cutting off communication essentially - is a sign that she wants to be alone, and find her own path. She will contact you if she is in need. If no word, then assume she's doing fine (or at least alive), and go about your own business. I know you're hurting and you feel like you have an obligation to help family and parents, but realize you're an adult and you have your own life to define.
posted by curagea at 10:09 PM on August 13, 2008

Best answer: At some point, every child of broken parents has to either become their own better parent, or sink into the pit of familial despair. You have a new family now, and need to think about what's best for it as an entity even if you can't focus on what's best for you. Your mother is relatively young, and if you don't protect her, she will undoubtedly find someone else to do so, because from what you describe, that is her dynamic.

When you asked to move back home because you were sick and she said no, she was telling you that she was not available to serve the role of mother in your life. Although at some gut, mindless level you may feel differently, this does not mean that you have to become her mother in order to restore the mother/daughter relationship to some semblance of normalcy.

There are no rules for this at all. You can do whatever you want. You can help her next time she asks for help, then stop helping her at any time you feel like it. You can be mean to her. You can ignore her. You can pay her bills for the rest of her life. You can put your husband in charge of deciding what, if anything, you-as-a-family do for your mother. This is your life. You get to decide minute by minute and month by month how you want to live it, what you will tolerate and what you won't, and you are the only person who is allowed to judge how you're doing.

I guess I'm lucky that my cold and uninterested mother doesn't reach out to me for anything. It makes it a lot easier than if she gave me mixed messages like yours does. I've been in those mixed message relationships, and remember how crazy-conflicted they make you feel. My main advice to you is: forgive yourself, and know no matter how much you do, you can never make it "all better" for her. I'm glad that you got away, and wish you well.
posted by Scram at 10:11 PM on August 13, 2008 [7 favorites]

Best answer: At only 23, you're still in the process of separating your identity and seeing yourself and your mother as adult peers. Which you are. Your mother has no actual control over you. Whatever power she has, you grant her. You don't have to see her. You don't have to talk to her. When you do talk with her, you don't have to argue with her. You get to say "Ahh, sorry, I'm not willing to discuss this with you." And you can learn to set boundaries and simply disengage if she won't respect them.

When I finally told my father that I wasn't willing to talk to him when he was drinking, and that I was sorry but I was going to have to hang up now, the world didn't stop spinning and the ceiling didn't crash down on my head. It was brilliant. You need tools and plans like that if you want to have any kind of relationship that can be kept on Planet Acceptable. And you have to be willing to say "enough" when that time comes, too.

For me, "enough" was "borrowing" 5K from me, destroying my grandmother's estate, and then ruining my wedding in the space of about three months. Try not to let it get to that level of financial and emotional destruction. There's no upside to martyrdom.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:15 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

A man I work with who lives in Northern California has a sister who is addicted to meth and more or less homeless in San Francisco, moving in and out of single-room occupancy hotels. He and his siblings have all come to terms with the fact that they just cannot help her.

And he's a really good person. He just retired, and spends most of his time involved in nonprofits, city council, neighborhood gardens, and generally working to make the community a better place to live. And on a one-on-one level, he really cares about the people he's working with.

He wouldn't be able to do any of that if he was pouring all his life energy down the bottomless hole that is his sister's addiction. Nothing he can do will make her life one he'd like to see her in. So, it seems that having a good self-preservation instinct is what will make it possible for you to be a good person.

It seems like right now you're still fairly fresh in the most boundary-setting phase. This might be the most hard-line time for you. After you're fully established in your new life, maybe there will be a way for you to offer a little help to your mom solid in your knowledge that you're not risking letting your entire life and everything you have getting sucked down into helping her. Or maybe not. But whatever you do now is not what you're going to do forever and ever.

That's my long-term take on your question, but right now, with her disappeared, you're in a tough spot. There are two ways to look at it. This could be nothing, either a false alarm or the new normal - the toughest test yet of your new resolve to sit tight and separate yourself. On the other hand, it could be something, and if you think you'll look back on it wishing you'd taken action, maybe you should. Nobody can say what this really means or if you should help. You're the one who has to live with what you do.

All in all, it's probably little comfort, but I've heard your exact struggle from two friends who had tough times growing up. They've tried all different approaches. Best of luck. One random suggestion: I do wonder about why it's falling all on you. Her sister is calling you with concern, can you pass it off to her, and just offer your support to her?
posted by salvia at 11:31 PM on August 13, 2008

You cannot steer anything until it moves.

She may well have tried her best to parent you given her circumstances and personal limitations, but it sounds like what Mom offered wasn't the care you needed at the time. It's not likely she meant harm but there is no reason to carry unproductive guilt. The common denominator in her lifelong chaos is not you, it's Mom. Her issues may have dribbled all over you, but you surely didn't cause them.

Mom is a grownup. As much as you may care about her, worry for her, and love her, your health and wellbeing are not likely to survive if hinged on her and how thoroughly she may be messing up what could otherwise be some terrific years of her adult life. Getting her back on track isn't outside the realm of possibility but it will have to be her doing, not yours.

If/when she comes back around, try to keep loving her the best you can. Until then, Mom is in charge (for better or for worse) of Mom's life. Parents can be button pushing masters because, well, they're (we're) the ones who created the buttons to begin with. I may be revealing my inner AARP-member-in-training, but please also try to be patient with yourself, remembering in the grand scheme of things that you are freshly in the earliest stages of assembling your own adult life (not just you- I mean everyone in the early 20s). Good luck.
posted by mcbeth at 12:14 AM on August 14, 2008

Look, she can take care of herself. She did for a year and is still doing so.

Did she have the best life, full of roses and champagne and healthy sit-down meals? No, she didn't. But that's okay.

So I don't see where the dire situation is, here. In fact, she seems to be doing her own thing. She didn't even contact you for help, did she?

What is your aunt doing to help her? Oh, right, calling you! That's bullshit.
Your aunt is trying to rope you back in to the sick family dynamic that everyone was comfortable with. But you're not comfortable with it, so that's too bad for Auntie.

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.

I suggest Al-Anon as well.

Take care of yourself, and good luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 5:02 AM on August 14, 2008

And--love is great. She can love you. That doesn't mean you have to do certain things. It means that she loves you. That's it. There is no obligation. I know she put a lot of obligations on you as a child--I love you, therefore you owe me x--but that was inappropriate and wrong.

The only thing we owe our parents is to do our best to have a happy and healthy life, to the best of our ability. Even if that means keeping them at a distance.
posted by sondrialiac at 5:05 AM on August 14, 2008

Then my aunt calls me and is worried about her. She didn't know that she had moved and she said my mom had been having trouble making rent, had her phone turned off, wasn't going to be able to make any of the bills.

You did mention that wild stories, constant drama, gossip, lies, etc. are common place in my family. Don't worry about drama from auntie. Your mother is my age. She's an adult. She is responsible for her own life choices. The fact that her head may not be screwed on straight is not your fault, and not your problem to solve.

She was controlling my entire life, possibly with borderline personality.

You chose well to break away from that. That took guts. Good on you.

I was told basically growing up that if I tried living on my own in a city I'd be raped and murdered.

It's unreasonable to expect normal social obligations to apply to abnormal social situations. If you have a reasonable belief that living with or near your mother will be hell because your mother is delusional, controlling and abusive, nobody sane is going to think worse of you for choosing not to do that.
posted by flabdablet at 5:17 AM on August 14, 2008

Sad as the situation is, your mother is an adult and she seems to be making some quite self-destructive choices, which are utterly unfair for anyone else to come after and clean up. In the end, or at least, as it stands now, the ball's in her court. If you can't even contact her, no matter what your intentions, then what can you do? If she comes to your doorstep...it reminds me of the old saying "Home is where they have to take you in." Good luck.
posted by zardoz at 7:58 AM on August 14, 2008

I think that the important thing for you to realize is that you really can't help her. Yes, you can provide material assistance. But, if she persists in her behavior and point of view, she's going to thwart every effort that you make to put her on the right track.

Before you can really do anything, she needs to admit that she has a problem. And, at the moment, that looks unlikely. If you do manage to convince her to turn things around, then you can conceivably do something meaningful. Until then, I'm afraid that you're most likely stuck, and all you're going to and up doing is spinning your wheels and frustrating yourself if you try to offer assistance.
posted by Citrus at 8:27 AM on August 14, 2008

My mother is a recovering alcoholic. I don't think I spoke to her during my entire freshman year of college. She was homeless for periods during my college years and during my first year of law school. Things finally got better when she decided to do something about it. Now, she's been sober for over ten years and she's lived in the same apartment for as long. The hardest thing about loving an alcoholic/drug addict is that you desperately want to help, but you can't because they have to help themselves.

The best thing you can do is work on resolving any guilt or anger you may have. You may need therapy or alanon for this. You also have to accept that her life is in her hands. Once she decides to get help you can be there for her, but there's just not much you can do before then.
posted by bananafish at 9:40 AM on August 14, 2008

She is the mother; you are the child. Stop being the mother. Allow yourself to have your life, and do not allow the fact that you have taken care of others your whole life to sabotage your potential to build lasting, loving relationships with your husband and his family, regardless of her attempts to thwart that and draw your attention back to her.

If you try to swoop in and save her now, your ability to have a normal, non-codependent relationship with others will be impacted. Your focus should be on yourself and your husband; your mother is an adult and must be responsible for her actions, past and present.

It's not wrong to want to help her; she's your mother. But plenty of MeFites have 'the crazy' in their families and will back me up on this... at some point, you have to let her take care of her problems and live your life for YOU.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:41 AM on August 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all for your comments and perspective. I guess I just feel stressed out because I am having to deal with a mess my mom created for me financially (long story) as well as this and August 13th was the two year anniversary of my step dad's death, and accepting that call from my aunt just added onto all the other stress. That was my fault for accepting the call.

Reading what you all had to say, though, helped me regain my own perspective that I shouldn't help and I shouldn't involve myself in any of this. I need to sort out my life and unfortunately right now that means dealing with problems my mom created for me. I was just wondering if my anger about that was clouding what I was doing and the hard-line stance I have taken on helping her out at all lately.

Thanks again for taking the time to respond.
posted by rainygrl716 at 1:39 PM on August 14, 2008

You haven't done anything wrong, and I commend you for being brave enough to focus on your own healing. You are taking a lot of positive steps for yourself.

Good luck--we're pulling for you!
posted by sondrialiac at 5:16 PM on August 14, 2008

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