My mother is charming, bright and often very lovely. She’s also a neurotic mix of guilt-tripper, tantrum thrower and hypochondriac. Our family revolves around her moods and sicknesses. Her hypochondriac behaviour is escalating. It has always been an issue – my siblings and I had several operations each before we left home, some of which she now tells me she knew were unnecessary.
I know why she struggles and why she involves us. She was emotionally and sometimes physically neglected as a child, growing up in the middle of a large family, constantly ignored. I get that she’s stuck as that child – her tantrums make it clear that she’s less emotionally mature than my seven-year-old daughter.
I’m not particularly nice or patient. I resent having to be the adult, to be the bigger person. My father always colluded with her and never challenged her behaviour. She’s terrified of growing old, to the point where my family and I remained in the UK when we were looking to emigrate, as my older sister has with her family. I have agreed that I’ll be there for my mum and my dad as they get older. She’s terrified at the idea of going into a home, so I’ve promised I’ll be there.
I hate to admit it but I don’t do all of this out of love. I do it because, unlike my siblings, I can’t bear the guilt trips. My mother has always criticised me for being too soft, and I think she’s probably right.
I know she won’t change and that she needs my support. But no matter how much I remind myself that this is not her fault and that she didn’t choose to be this miserable, I keep getting so angry with her for all of it.
I can’t see the point in challenging behaviour that won’t change, but I’m so damn frustrated with trying to deal with her. It’s constantly draining. If I try to distance myself to recharge my batteries, she escalates and has a health crisis, which will snowball for days. If I try to pay her more attention to give her what she needs, she’ll manufacture an argument and throw a tantrum. It’s like having a toddler who is never going to grow out of it.
So I suppose I’m asking for a coping mechanism. A mantra I can repeat internally to bolster my patience.
Hang on, if the way your mother behaves isn’t her fault, whose is it? She needs to take responsibility for her behaviour.
You can love someone but hate what they do. It doesn’t make you bad. I think you sound immensely kind and patient but way too understanding, and unless you change the only bit you can – the way you respond – things are just going to carry on as they are.
I contacted psychoanalyst and visiting professor at University College London, Rosine Perelberg (psychoanalytic-council.org). She says that hypochondria is really about control: “Generally in hypochondria there is a double presentation: the desire to control both one’s own body/mortality and those around them. It’s a form of slavery.”
And, indeed, you are enslaved to her behaviour, aren’t you? She says there are “two aspects to hypochondria – a terror of death but also, paradoxically, a destruction of life”.
The key thing, Perelberg says, is that you need to “deeply believe that you’re not helping the way your mother is [by reacting the way you do].” I think you need to really concentrate on this phrase. What you’re doing, the way you are responding to her, isn’t helping your mother. And it really isn’t helping you. So why continue?
Perelberg also thinks that you hit the nail on the head when you described your mother as being like a child, “And as with a toddler, you need to create structures for when things happen.” She thinks it is interesting that your brother only responds at certain times and that your sister had taken herself out of the situation entirely.
She also notes that you don’t ask for a way out – “You want to bolster your patience, not to be free but to continue.” Sometimes, when destructive family patterns affect us, we tolerate them. But when they start to affect the next generation – in this case your daughter as you hinted at in your longer letter – you seem to be thinking “enough is enough” now. That’s good, because you need to break this pattern. But how?
Perelberg suggests, “You might be less interested in your mother’s symptoms, give them minimal acknowledgement.” You could also choose to make yourself unavailable to her at certain times.
This isn’t going to be easy and won’t happen overnight, but when she talks about her illnesses, zone out. She’ll have her health crises, let her. She has them anyway, doesn’t she?
Hand the responsibility for her life back to your mother because nothing you say, or do, is going to make her less “ill”, happier or less dysfunctional. You simply don’t have that power; it’s futile, so stop trying.
It doesn’t mean that you have to stop being a loving daughter or be cruel or cut your mother out of your life. Your behaviour towards her – even at its worst – sounds far more loving than hers to you. No wonder you’re angry.
This article first appeared in The Guardian family section on 21 May 2016.