The Silent Treatment

For 58 years, my mother was married to an alcoholic. I suppose in the last five years of his life, he didn’t do much drinking. Because of the dementia. He died in October 2012. Complications from dementia. My mother’s oldest son was an alcoholic. He died in April 2012 of cirrhosis and hepatitis. My mother’s youngest son, also an alcoholic, entered rehab after Christmas. I set up an intervention. He seems to be doing well.

My mother no longer has anyone take care of. To enable. My oldest brother is gone. My father is gone. And my remaining brother is in treatment.

My mother spent decades managing the fallout from my father’s binges. The fallout from his rages. And then caring for his every need when the dementia got bad. She spent decades helping my brothers sort out their messes. She kept them both employed at my father’s business. She made sure they could pay their mortgages. Their car payments. She made sure they got to the doctor when things got bad and they needed treatment. She at times took them to appointments. These were grown men. My brother died at the age of 56. My other brother is 52.

My mother has been a raging codependent cubed (to the third power) for decades. And now she has no one to fawn over and control. What can she focus her attention on? Who will fill the void?

It seems I am her new recruit. But she’s going at it differently. She’s now become the needy dependent one. She insists on talking to me on the phone every day. Every single damn day. And if I go out after work, she’ll call me over and over until I get home and call her back. She’ll leave three and four messages in an evening. I try to throw up a boundary.

“Mom, I can’t talk to you every day. I’ve got other things going on some days.”

“You can find five minutes.”

“Mom, some days I just want to come home and relax. I don’t want to talk to anyone.”

“Well, all I want is five minutes, and then you can relax. I raised you and took care of you for years. Now it’s your turn to take care of me.”

Recently, I tried to encourage her to stop calling me over and over.

“Mom, calling me multiple times and leaving multiple messages is not going to make me able to call you back any sooner.”

“I don’t care. I want to talk to you and it makes me feel better to keep calling.”

The last time I spoke with her, on Wednesday, I managed to get a call in to her before she called me.

“Oh, you didn’t forget about me tonight.”

She then went on to tell me how upset my brother is, how discouraged he is. He has canker sores in his mouth and the doctor isn’t taking care of it right.

“You need to call your brother and talk to him. He’s upset. But I can’t say anything to him about it because you told me not to. So you need to call him.”

“Mom, have you been to an Al-Anon meeting?”


“I gave you the schedule. You could go during the day. At lunch time. You could use the support.”

“I’m not doing anything else. I’m not doing any more than I’m already doing.”

“Mom, I can’t talk to you until you go to a meeting. You need to start going. I can’t be your counselor. And I’m not Steve’s counselor.”

“Well I’m not going. I don’t need to. I don’t need that.”

“Mom, call me when you’ve gone to a meeting.”

“Well if that’s what you want to do, fine.”

And she hung up on me. She hasn’t called me since. My mother is punishing me for trying to set boundaries.

I’d forgotten how truly nutty my family is. I knew from a distance they were running the same old scripts, over and over and over. But I hadn’t been in the middle of it for many years. For years I’d kept my distance. And no one bothered me. No one tried to suck me back in. My mother was too busy focusing on my father and two brothers. But now I’ve got no cover. I’m an open target.

Because I’m resistant to filling the open role, my 76 year-old mother is giving me the silent treatment. But I’ve worked too hard for too many years to allow her to suck me back in.  I’m standing my ground.


  • I think there is a fine line between being pestered by a needy, aging parent, and succumbing to the guilt and taking their call. My 76 year-old father does something similar to me, calling me out of the blue just to “talk” (i.e. complain about how he’s been dealt a raw deal in life). I’m so busy doing my own thing that I don’t want to take the time out to talk (listen?) to him, especially knowing how the same conversations will go, over and over again. But occasionally I wonder how much guilt I’ll feel when he finally passes and I can’t be pestered by him anymore. I haven’t spoken to my mom in almost 5 years, but I’ll never have the opportunity to speak to her again or to be bothered by a phone call from her.

    I feel for you… “family” can be a tough thing to deal with sometimes.


    • She needs a healthy outlet. Other interests. It’s not my job to fill the void. I have my own life. I like talking to her on occasion. Three times a week would work. Before my father died, weeks went by. She was busy. She didn’t need me. And now that she does, I’m suddenly her favorite daughter. I worry that she’s going to drive my brother nuts when he’s back at the office. If she’d go to Al-Anon meetings, she’d find support. People to listen. New friends. And she’d learn to build a life around her, rather than around everyone else. Unfortunately, she’d rather try to suck the energy out of me.


      • I hope I didn’t come off as suggesting that you should change your tactics. I was just putting some thoughts out there that had run through my head when faced with a similar situation. I have repeatedly told my dad that he needs to find some other outlet for his loneliness. Join a meetup group, go to VFW meetings, even join a dating website (basically anything to give him something to do so that he didn’t feel the need to call me as often). We are all responsible for our own happiness. Once a parental spouse is gone, it’s easy for the other parent to turn to who they know and are familiar with, their children. But ultimately they are responsible for re-taking their own lives and making themselves happy again, rather than sucking the energy out of their kids. And as you’ve said, I have my own life to live. Occasionally that might even mean taking dad out for breakfast, but only if it meshes well with my life’s schedule.


      • Ha! See how easy it is to trigger my guilt? Which then results in pushback. I would (and have) enjoy spending time with her now and again, if I could get her to ease off. Hopefully, this is just a period of transition, and we’ll get there.


  • you are doing the right thing, stay strong and centered and silent in your mountain

    I’m 66 years old and way too busy with LIFE to pester my children or anyone else. I live in senior housing (independent) and see too many women in their 70s with NOTHING to do but pester and complaint and they all are bitter. Some have tried to engage me and the most they ever get is a couple of minutes or ‘you got to be kidding’ or ‘too bad, got to go’.

    The key to a good life and in one’s later years is to have a LIFE with many many interests, that does NOT include one’s children or spouse.
    Ella, you are free and independent you have done what you can, don’t let this develop into a guilt thing…stay in your mountain,


    • Thank you! I know I am doing the right thing, but she’s so good at the guilt. She’s been honing that skill her whole life. I will keep enforcing the boundaries, and hope she will learn to accept them. We’ve thought about senior housing. I think it’s too soon after my father’s death to make a big change like that. But eventually, maybe. She does like people. She has a few friends. But with taking care of my father for years, she lost track of all that. I guess it’s hard to rebuild when you get older and you’ve lived your life for other people. I so wish she’d start going to meetings and learn things can be better.


      • of course we can’t force people to go to meetings etc and yes it’s too soon after her husband’s death, but, over time perhaps senior housing would be a nice thing for her, more people her own age, activities, etc. I’m on the ‘young healthy’ side of senior-hood and have a partner I spend weekends with, therefore I don’t join things, we do go to some of the monthy dinners and I’m treasurer of the tenant association. so yes, keep thinking about the benefits, for her in senior housing, and when you do talk with her, bring those options up to her. ‘there is life after death of a spouse’ type of thing.


      • This really helps, Gert. You’re showing me that she does have options and can still find enjoyment in life. She’s just got to let go of finding it through caretaking.

        Sounds like you have a terrific, happy life. Inspiration. 🙂


  • It sounds like a good idea that you set some boundaries by insisting she go to an AA meeting and taking yourself out of the equation as a therapist. Good luck with everything. From what I have read on your blog so far, you seem like a very strong person.


  • Hang in there. It sure sounds rough right now, but you won’t be any good for yourself or for her if you get pulled back into a place that you can’t go.


  • I wish I had a magic wand to make all of this either get better or go away.. I think all you need to do is continue to love & support your Mother, BUT you must put yourself first…


    • I’ll keep working at it. Hopefully she’ll calm down with time. I hate when I lose patience with her, which seems to be more frequent as time passes. But the manipulation has to stop. Of course, I’m not a mother, so I’m not sure what I’d expect from my children. Or how much is too much.


      • I just think you Mum is feeling lost now.. all of her co-dependent threads have been cut so she feels un-needed..Just love her, that is really all you can do…


  • You are right to stand your ground, set your boundaries till she goes Al-Anon meetings. That is the same thing that should be done for an alcoholic. “Don’t come around till you go to AA and sober up!”


    • You’re right. It’s just hard to find the right balance between compassion and firmness since both my dad and oldest brother died last year within six months of each other. And my dad’s been gone only since October. I’ll keep experimenting and hopefully find the sweet spot.


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