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.
Sounds to me you need to embrace the role of bad daughter fully! Does your firm have branch in another state you could at least get a temporary posting to? Good to hear more about the reasons for your bad relationship with your sister…
Yes, no desire to reconcile with my sister. She’s icky.
What an elegant and heartbreaking rant. You deserve a Wow, and more. You go girl, as far as you can. Do you realize how amazing you are? That you got yourself out of that mess and are as clear-headed as you are? Sure, maybe not all the time (who is?), but for you to sit down and write this all out required focus. Clear-headedness. You have clawed your way out of that pit. Now you have to stay there.
Thank you, Denise. I currently am in the midst of a balancing act. More to come.
I only have a brother left – but he’s just like my mother was and altogether unpleasant and toxic.
I wish I had family, but then I remember.
You’ve done enough. (Shame is a horrible tool – familiar with that guilt trip)
Assisted living places have come a long way. Quite nice ones with apartments – with social opportunities – field trips – good food in the dining room – and a nurse on staff. They are safe. Sign her up for email service (office prints out messages each morning/afternoon – they can’t reply on-line and are protected from scammers)
Ah, so you know. I’m on the lookout for a place just as you describe in NW Houston. I’m guessing there is something that fits the bill.
NW Harris county is crime central. (We fled the 1960 area-Willowbrook/Champions area and it’s only gotten worse).
There’s some in Woodlands or Kingwood areas (but be careful in the some of Kingwood area, too- it’s changing). Cinco Ranch/ far west stable at this time, or south side of Clear Lake. There are some nice places inside 610 loop Houston – might be worth considering (not Sharpstown or too near Reliant stadium.)
There are nice sheltered communities for those active and those needing more care
She’s in a SNF, now. Until Medicare runs out or until she gets well enough to return home. And then we figure something else out.
Wow…I can totally relate, although I guess I have been blessed by the fact that I have no siblings (alrhough it doesnt feel like a blessing most days when dealing with Mom on my own). Firstly,.you are not a bad daughter…get that thought out of your head…I applaud the way you’ve taken care of yourself and not let yourself get drawn back in to the family mess…I can empathize with wanting to move far away; if not for my husband’s job I would be pushing to move to our vacation cabin in the mountains of West Virginia. Anyway, I think you are on the right track, keep taking care of yourself …also, do you suspect any dementia beginning in your mom? I only ask bevause the neediness sounds a lot like Mom was before her surgery and uktimate mental decline….Hugs from Susan
Vacation cabin in the mountains of West Virginia? Sounds lovely. As much as I dislike my sister, her existence is good for my mother. And it does make things easier for me. It’s all so complicated! Funny you mention dementia–the doc put her on Aricept. I think the doc is an idiot. More to come on that in my next post. As for being a bad daughter, I will keep reminding myself I am anything but!
You sound perfectly justified in keeping your distance from your mother, sister and the pedophile B-I-L. Your mom may see you as a bad daughter but you should stand proud and know that you are a good person, well deserving of everything positive that you have done in your life apart from the dysfunctional family members. It can’t have been easy to put some distance between you and your family and put yourself first — good for you for doing it! –Fern
Thank you, Fern! When everyone was healthy, things were a lot easier. I could stay away save once or twice a year entirely guilt free. The good ole days.
You are not a bad daughter – you are a white sheep in a flock of blacks.
You managed to become a lawyer – hey, that is difficult! With a family background like that even more so.
You made it successfully through school even though you cannot recall any positive affirmation.
You chose a career for yourself, not one of those “beauty salon”-businesses or anything else where you can get away without year-long training – you chose a hard path! And you succeeded.
And unlike me, who did not make it to a lawyer, and who broke up completely with my father, you still manage to feel responsible for your mother, who never managed to create something like a stable home.
SHE was a bad mother, illoyal to you and your brothers, self-centred and undeserving – and YOU still were and are loyal to her. Not a doggy-kind of loyalty, but you care. Despite everything you had to endure from her and from your father, to whose maltreatment of you she did not put up any defences.
You have absolutely the right to do only, what the law forces you to do in concern to her.
Please, do not be too harsh judging your sister. She’s wrong – but she only copies what she has learned from your mother: “Stay with the man you chose, no matter what kind of asshole.” A bad lesson many mothers taught.
You yourself chose a needy alcoholic once, if I remember correctly – it’s a sign of strength you corrected that decision. You took less time than me (I stayed with my alcoholic for 13 and a half years!) to realize you did not want to walk the path of your mother.
You are a strong woman. And not responsible for your mothers needs – more than feeding, clothing and housing her – and not necessarily somewhere near you.
You do not need to change states, if you ask me – you have the distance in your mind and your life. And that makes you strong.
Even though your family failed you, you did not fail yourself. Which is the most important lesson. From what you are doing still for your mother I can see you did not even fail your family. Breath freely – you can have a clear conscience.
Thank you, Fran. (Is it Fran?) These are some very wise words. I do know my sister learned well from my mother. Sometimes I feel sorry for her. Which would be way easier to do if she wasn’t so nasty. I’d feel guilty about my relationship with her, but I know it’s not me. She gets along with no one. She’s a cold, cold woman. But I guess you have to shut down to avoid that reality. The odd thing about my B-I-L, he’s actually a very kind and considerate person. It’s so difficult to reconcile the two sides of him.
Kudos to us, for leaving the alcoholics behind us.
Reading this brings out strong feelings of empathy. Though I didn’t have the abusive parents earlier in life, I’ve been out on my own for the past 30 plus years and shudder at the thought of having to deal with an über needy parent. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I’m too selfish for wanting to live my own life without such an imposition. But then I look back and know that I haven’t needed or asked for any help from my parents during those past 30 years, and my brother has done so repeatedly. So I justify my selfishness by telling myself that HE should be the one to have to take care of any ailing parent. Maybe that makes me the bad son. I think that I can give my best love from a distance though, as it’s what I’m used to. Anything more might cause too much stress to arise between us, and bad feelings to start forming. Isn’t it better to be on good terms, if even from a distance? I don’t know.
I applaud you for keeping your distance. I’ve done pretty well until now. Things were so much easier before everyone started dying. It would have been much easier if Earth was hit by an asteroid and we all died at the same time. But alas, I must navigate the minefield.
Your brother sounds like the perfect man for the job. Good love from a distance sounds like just the ticket. I hope to get back to that place at some point. But maybe I’m dreaming.
I feel that you have been making the correct decisions for YOUR SELF and you own no explanation to anyone, but, yourself.
In my personal life I have had to distance myself from many including a daughter to maintain my sanity and livelihood, or I would have been supporting her, her husband and 2 kids. Very recently I cut loose a granddaughter who sees me as a bank, calls me by my first name and argued with her mother (my daughter) because she would not ask me for a $1,000!
When I just feeling, from another, like a rug and a garbage can…I walk and I don’t look back.
You are a woman from whom I shall take a lesson. I need to work on distance without guilt! Your granddaughter sounds a bit like my mom’s grandsons. Unfortunately, she puts up with it. But that’s not my problem! 🙂
Bad daughter is really being good. This whole arena of abused kids who end up being caretakers of their aging, formally (and really still currently) abusive parents, needs more research. It is a phenomona happening over and over now as parents age and decline and baby boomers become their caretakers. It has fascinated me for years. It is interesting for me to watch the entitlement that occurs in my own family as aged relatives who were abusive expect the ones they abused to care for them. They haven’t really changed at all. They are still narcisistly focused.
It might help you to turn off your phone when she calls repeatedly. It might help to set up a schedule in your mind of what you can tolerate regarding contact with your mother, not what she demands, and stick with it. You might consider being far more parsimonious with your contact. It might be useful to disengage, focus on your own life and what you want to do. It is not being a bad daugher, it is being a person with boundaries, who takes care of herself and will no longer be manipulated by a narcisistic parent.
You have my empathy and understanding believe me and sorry for the suggestions which I usually avoid, but they do work.
Thank you for guiding me back to this post, Cindy. It brings to mind how slowly and insidiously I have been sucked back in as my mother’s health declines. My sister is doing her best to maintain boundaries with my mother, and I have been “picking up the slack.” And neglecting myself. While quietly waiting for her to be gone, and my life to begin anew.
Thank you for the much-needed suggestions. Absolutely no need to apologize for them.