I need to get a grip on what to do in dealing with my elderly mother, and by extension, my sister. I want to run. Again. Only farther, this time.
By way of background, my father was an alcoholic of the binge variety who verbally and physically abused me and my brothers. I have no memories of him abusing my sister, but she moved in with her husband-to-be when I was twelve. My father verbally abused my mother, but I don’t recall him ever laying a hand on her. He physically attacked my brothers on numerous occasions, and when they left home and I was the only kid left (I was the youngest), it was my turn. I don’t want to go into long drawn-out accounts of the abuse. A few highlights: he screamed, he raged, he broke down my bedroom door, he kicked me while I was curled up in a protective posture on the floor, etc. I get flashes of him hitting my brothers, but can’t conjure up specific recollections.
My father would make up with me a day or two later, which often included gifts. When I refused to accept the apology, my mother would become angry, and insist I do so, claiming I had instigated the initial conflict. I’m sure I did at times. I’m sure at times our fights began with me defending my mother from his verbal onslaughts.
Other than anger and rage, my father rarely exhibited emotion. Except when it came to our pets, which he lavished with love, affection, and baby talk.
Yes, my father was an enigma.
Through it all, my mother condoned his behavior, blaming us kids for “antagonizing” him. When he attacked her, she loved when we came to her rescue. She liked to play the helpless victim. But when my father wasn’t around, which was often (he traveled a lot on business), she was anything but helpless. She was a master manipulator. And controlling. She too was abusive, in her own subtle way. Shaming was her ultimate weapon.
When my father would return from his trips, my mother would tell him what bad thing my brothers had done while he was gone. Often this resulted in beatings for the boys. My father’s anger relieved, things would be calm again. My brothers were both my parents’ whipping boys.
My mother had two knee replacements and a hip replacement when I was growing up. I’m not sure what the cause was, but imagine her being extremely heavy had something to do with it. She never took care of herself, claiming she didn’t have time–she had to take care of everyone else. Later she would be diagnosed with Type II diabetes. Yet she refused to change her eating habits, or to even learn the best way to feed her body, given the disease. She always seemed to bask in the attention lavished upon her by my father when she was in the hospital. I suppose that’s understandable, given that’s the only time her gave her any positive attention. At the same time, he’d tell her she needed to lose weight, quit eating, that she was fat and disgusting.
Both my brothers, who worked for my father their entire adult lives at the family business, became severe alcoholics. (No surprise, there.) My sister and her husband also would work for my father for many years, although they did both leave for other jobs within the past ten years. My sister is angry and nasty, much like my father. Her husband is a child molester. A pedophile. My niece (their daughter) told me several years back that her father had sexually abused her from a very young age (6) until she was 15, when she finally told a school counselor. I wasn’t entirely surprised when she told me this news, given her father’s interactions with me when I was growing up. (When he was 22, he began dating my sister, who was 15. I was 9.) When I learned about what he’d done, I told my mother. She forbade me from telling my father. Later, I would tell my brothers. As a result, my relationship with my sister, who stayed with the molester, is strained. She hates me for telling. For knowing what he is. For knowing what she is. My relationship with their other daughter is also strained. “How dare you talk about my family!” There appears to have been some healing over the past few years, however.
Due to the twisted family dynamic, I’ve spent thousands of dollars and many years with therapists. I’ve been treated for depression off and on. But who wouldn’t be, with a family like mine? I often wonder: if I had completely cut ties with my family when I left my hometown 13 years ago, would I have had an easier time of things?
I did cut ties more than the rest of them. After one awful summer, I refused to work for my fathers’s business under the supervision of my sister. Instead, after undergrad, I eventually went to law school. I lived in my parents’ garage apartment during those 3 years. After graduation, as I prepared to move out, my mother begged me to stay. I declined, got an apartment downtown near my office, and worked on getting some distance.
Five years after graduating, after five years of therapy, I found myself searching for a position anywhere but in my hometown. I interviewed as far away as Baltimore and Concord, New Hampshire. I made it no farther than Austin. At the time, it seemed light years away. These days, I’m thinking Bali wouldn’t have been far enough.
For the past 13 years, I’ve been living in Austin, becoming healthier with each year that has passed. Until everyone started dying, I rarely saw my family, other than at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Even then, I’d go for the day at Thanksgiving, and one night on Christmas Eve. One year, I spent nearly two weeks at my parents’ home when my mother was in the hospital. It was bad timing at work, but I did it anyway. Even though my father was with her, she said she needed me. So I was there.
Some years I’d spend a week with my parents at the family cabin in Ontario in the summer. I loved it up there. My father generally was better there. But still the conflict always was brewing, and at times there were blowups. I remember becoming so agitated one year, I changed my flight and returned home early. Other times, I’d bring a friend. Having a buffer made things easier.
As I write this, I wonder why I continued to go most every year. I think I was looking for a normal relationship with my parents. And for love from my father. So cliche.
And now, here we are. Both my brothers are dead, my father is dead, and I’m left with my mother and sister. I’ve been thrust together with my family countless times for funerals, pre-death vigils, and first holidays with missing family members. Aside from the normal stresses of losing family members, there are the additional layers of complication. Facing the pedophile brother-in-law and sister for the first time since I outed them. (She stayed with him because, as she said to me shortly after the revelation: “I love him.”) Watching my brother continue to kill himself with alcohol. Feeling my mother shift her focus, her need to control and for attention, from my brothers and father to me.
After taking care of herself, my father with dementia, my alcoholic brothers, and my father’s business, my mother suddenly has decided she’s helpless. She’s suddenly decided she can’t drive and doesn’t want to take care of her own finances. She claims she can’t figure out how to take her blood sugar. She’ll call me and say: “I need you to come down here this weekend. You can bring your work with you.” Last weekend, I refused.
I get texts from my sister: “I will be out of town this weekend. You might consider staying with mom and assessing her needs.”
Huh? I just spent the weekend with her at the beach. She was fine.
“The doctor said she could stay with you in Austin for 3 weeks so you can assess her.”
So I’m a doctor now? And a caregiver?
Again, I declined. I haven’t heard from my sister since. My mother went into hysterics over the weekend. She called me constantly, crying and claiming she needed help. She couldn’t say why she needed help, or what she needed help with. Still she was insistent. Since October, I have recommend therapists, grief counselors, breathing exercises, getting fresh air, a part-time caregiver. Each suggestion is met with resistance.
“I want a family member to talk to. I want you.”
“Mom, I cannot be solely responsible for your happiness. I have my own grief to work through. My own life.”
BUT, I NEED!!!
This morning, I told her: “You have to stop calling me over and over.” I counted nine calls on Sunday, alone. The last time I asked her to stop the incessant calling, she gave me the silent treatment for weeks. This time she said, “When you didn’t call me back, I was worried.”
“I’ve been on my own for 30 years. You’ve never once worried about me. Why all the concern, now?”
“I was worried about me, not you.”
And this says it all.
She finally relented last week and we hired a caregiver who comes in three days a week. It hasn’t slowed down my mother’s complaints that she needs more attention, more company, more care. More! I told her if she needs this much care, she needs to be in assisted living. She immediately backed down. Her voice shifted from meek and helpless to clear and strong.
“I just need a little more attention now, while I’m getting back on track.”
“Mom, there’s nothing wrong with you. You just need to manage your blood sugar better.”
“There is something wrong with me. You need to talk to the doctor. I can’t eat. I can’t swallow.”
“I have talked to the doctors. They say there’s no reason you should have trouble swallowing.”
The doctors have found nothing so far. She had a chest x-ray today. She’s got a swallow test tomorrow. I honestly hope I’m right, for her sake, but if I’m wrong, I’ll offer up the mea culpa.
I’ve been having fantasies of moving farther away. Of cutting off all communication. I am 50 years old. I have no husband. No children. I want to regain my balance. My sanity. I do not want to live for my mother. I’ve worked my whole adult life to escape the tentacles of my family. I refuse to get stuck to my mother’s suction cups.