This being an “advice” “column” (insert more quotation marks for good measure), it’s no surprise that family drama has come up before. We’ve talked awkward holiday dinners with asshole relatives, and partners who chew too loudly or collect dick art or are maybe not the baby daddy after all. So — quite a range, there. But forget all that stuff! That was child’s play. This week, we’re taking “family drama” to a whole other level.
Don’t get too excited, though. This question is sad and scary, covering years of trauma, and honestly it’s all way above my pay grade.
[Reminder: Got family? We do too! If you ever wanna tell us about yours, and maybe swap fucked-up family stories with us, send us a note at [email protected]. Just know that whatever your family is like, you’ll probably never top this guy’s.]
In the interest of, I dunno, honesty? Journalistic integrity? I should mention that I’ve edited today’s question down at the request of the askerererer. Partially it was done to better “fudge the details” and hide his identity, and partially it was because he ran long and most of the extraneous stuff was complements to the staff. Which, you know, endeared him greatly to us — but you all probably couldn’t care less about that. Ingrates.
So here’s what’s left. It’s still a lot, it’s still mostly in his own words, and… well, just read it.
I’m 28. When I was 13, my mother attempted suicide. It was during the summer holidays, and I was immediately shipped off for two weeks at my parents, then two weeks crashing a friend-family’s holiday.
Since then, I was the one to shoulder my Mum’s relapses and troubles. Like… my family were well-off, my Dad was still in the picture (though the marriage was obviously rough) and my sister soon went off to university.
At 14, 15, 16, 17, I had to pick her off the floor and panic about whether or not to call an ambulance. I had to beg her ‘Please choose me over the sleeping pills’ and have her *not* do that. She would actually save this bullshit for when there was just me, because I believe she respected my deeply intelligent and successful sister and her husband more than she did me. She related to me. She saw herself in me, so it was OK for her to create some sort of wine-and-cheese-and-incoherence-in-bed situation that I could find and do my best to fix.
So now, 28. many things repaired, but obviously her disease(s) not going away. I worry constantly that I will become her. My sister has moved to the US. My parents no longer speak.
She lives in a sort of older-people’s place that isn’t quite a Home, ya know.
So the last few days she left us panicking, my sister and myself, not replying to any messages, not picking up the phone, even for planned Skype dates. I opened WhatsApp and when I saw she hadn’t been online in 2 or 3 days my heart DROPPED and I thought the worst. We finally got hold of the building manager, and apparently she is a) alive, b) receiving grocery deliveries of booze but not really food, and c) never leaving her apartment. This on top of a variety of heart, lung, etc medications. She’s 72.
Today we both got a ‘I got a call from building manager, am alive, love you’ text from her.
This is clearly not OK. Not enough. I’m over being angry, and I’ve been depressed enough myself to do this to people, but years ago, before I realised how awful and terrifying a thing it was to do.
I myself am not doing well mental-health wise, and before that inadequate text I was PANICKING thinking I might have to take time off my new job and fly to her and pick her up off the floor like when I was 14. I don’t feel strong enough to do that without exacerbating my own veeery current issues of depression and anxiety. Again, I’m not doing as well as I’d like in my own New Life, but getting there. But if your Mum needs you that much, you have to, right?
This is my question.
Do I have to?
I moved out of my Dad’s to my new place 7 weeks ago, and I’m still not quite there with living on my own and respecting myself and the new space. I need to work on and care for myself. If I had to go to my mother’s den of misery, I would for sure set myself back a lot. But since my sis is in the US, my Dad is an asshole, and my Mum has no friends, I *have* to, right??
Someone please give me clarity!
xx 15 Years Of Duty
Well, first let me issue our standard disclaimer that while the Overlords may be a lot of things, we’re not licensed mental health experts. So everything that we’re about to say is basically a sum of our personal opinions, and our advice should definitely be run past some proper professionals. Cool?
So. We’ve got A LOT of thoughts about your situation, but the most important thing we want to know is: are you currently seeing a therapist? Because you should. I mean, it sounds like you’re aware of your condition, and I’d like to assume that means you’re actively pursuing some form of treatment or help, but on the off-chance that you’re not — please do so. Frankly, our chief concern is for YOUR well-being as opposed to your mom’s, but if you wanna take it full circle then the reality is that you will not be in a position to help your mom unless you help yourself first.
Because the answer to your question is simple: No, you DON’T have to. You don’t have to fly to her or help her right now. In fact, doing so would just put you further at risk, which would make an already shitty situation twice as shitty. You don’t have to do this, and really — you CAN’T do it. As Emily put it, “No one can ask you to destroy your own life/happiness/well being to save theirs. You are unable to do this in the same way you’d be unable to lift a car to save her.” Your responsibility is to yourself. So take care of yourself.
Also, you never should have been in this position to begin with. Your relationship with your mom is dysfunctional, her patterns of behavior towards you constitute emotional abuse, and your family shouldn’t have ever left you in the position of shouldering this burden alone.
Now, that doesn’t mean your mom can help behaving the way she has. She’s got her own illnesses, and I’m curious what her history of care has been over the years. But to a certain extent, that’s all moot. Maybe she can’t help herself, but YOU can’t help her either. Even setting aside your own depression and anxiety — if she’s really in imminent danger, what can you do if you’re a plane-ride away? You probably wouldn’t reach her in time.
You know what she needs instead? Professional help.
Now, this could take a lot of forms, and will require research. Does your mum’s housing have any other services besides the building manager? Do they have any sort of emergency system, or staff nurses? I don’t know what the health care services for the elderly are like in the UK, but perhaps there are visiting caretakers who could come by with food and check on her a few times a week? Hannah also wondered whether she lives in an area that still has PCSOs (police community support officers, like not-quite police) who could maybe keep an eye on her.
You mentioned that your father or your family has money, so maybe now is the time to ask them to pony up and get your mother a system of care that isn’t reliant on you, personally. Maybe it will require moving her to a different, more hands-on facility, or hiring private caretakers. But whatever it is, they don’t have to do it for her sake — they should do it for your sake. And while you’re at it — tell your sister to take point on coordinating this shit, because you need to walk away and focus on healing yourself.
Sometimes people have such an aversion to strangers seeing them at their worst, that the threat of outside help can deter some behaviors. If you or your sister let your mom know that the instant she goes off the grid (doesn’t respond to messages or show up for the scheduled Skype chat) you will assume the worst and call an ambulance to knock down the door to her place, what would she do?
Look, I know that washing your hands of this situation is easier said than done. You constantly worry about her, and that is a deep-rooted pattern of thought that won’t go away overnight. Definitely talk to a therapist about how to cope with your concerns for her, and how involved it’s actually healthy for you to be. The way you described the situation, it sounds like she used you as a safety net in a lot of ways (she would “save this bullshit for when there was just me”), so part of me wonders whether she would have gone to the dangerous extremes she did if she DIDN’T believe you would be there to pick her up. What I’m saying is — if you distanced yourself from her now, and she knew you wouldn’t be flying in to save her, would she still be as great a risk to herself? That’s speculation on my part, and not something you or I can answer. But a counsellor might be able to help you better understand what she’s capable of in her state.
I thought I’d share as an example from my own life, of how people can change when their loved ones AREN’T always picking them back up. Now, this isn’t exactly like your situation, but: let’s say there’s a very, very stubborn old bastard who lives on his own. Unfortunately, he’s also very sick and needs help, but has been refusing all kinds of care. He’s basically decided that he wants to die in his home, and his loved ones are constantly wondering when that day will come. But they also noticed that he uses them as a shield to a certain extent, trusting that they’ll follow his wishes even when he’s frankly being an idiot. So the most recent time he fell and went to the hospital, they… ignored him. They didn’t visit or speak to him for a few days, forcing him to deal with doctors and staffers on his own. Sure, they checked in on him from afar, but they knew the second they showed up he’d demand they check him out and take him home (which would have been the worst thing for him). And after those few days in the hospital on his own? He listened to his doctors’ advice, and now he’s in a long-term rehab facility and finally getting the level of care he needs. It wasn’t an easy decision, to ignore a loved one in a time of crisis, but in this case a few days of tough love was the best possible option.
Should you “ignore” your mother? Maybe not. But it’s OK to accept the fact that you aren’t the only or even the best person capable of helping her.
To summarize: You’ve done enough. Now, you need to take care of yourself and leave your mom in the hands of your family and trained professionals. Before you act on anything that we’ve said, confer with a counselor who specializes in these kinds of situations. And know that we wish you all the best — in health, in your new job, in your new life. You deserve it. You’ve earned it.
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