Trying to Balance Compassion With Self Preservation
I'm trying to balance compassion and self-preservation and it's a bitch. My mother has certifiable mental illness with a long history of issues including hospital stays for suicide attempts and alcoholism. She is generally miserable and unable to maintain long-term relationships. She has seen doctors and specialists by the dozens, she's had inpatient stays in psych wards, has more than 3 decades into 12 step recovery and has tried every pill known to Big Pharma to treat depression. She has been on disability for at least 25 years for her depression so it's well documented.
Sometimes though, the lines blur between my mother’s mental illness and her just being a shitty human. There are times when she is amazingly thoughtful and generous, mostly to strangers or acquaintances. She saves the gnarly stuff for my brother and me; we are the only relatives who have stuck it out.
I'm not sure when my mother’s mental health issues began. She has told me a lot about her life (too much if I'm honest) and I know she always had a terrible relationship with her brother. In fact she had a rough go of it with both of her parents as well. Was that due to their treatment of her, her mental illness or some other sad combination? I don't know. I do know this; misery is her most frequent companion. If there isn't something to lament about, her razor-sharp mind will find something obscure and mold it into a formidable monster.
My mother is smart, so very smart that it makes pitying her as a sick person near impossible at times. Master manipulator and rationalizer extraordinaire, check and check. She can twist the most innocuous situation and turn it into filth and wretchedness. She has left a wake of destruction behind her. When she goes, she goes big, in a huff...a cloud of confusion, hurt and anger swirling around her like her own personal tornado. It's sad, infuriating and exhausting.
I have to mentally remind myself that my mother is sick. Like cancer, diabetes, MS, lupus, fill in the blank...except it isn't like that at all. If your mom has cancer she doesn't typically say, "I wish you were never born" repeatedly to you as a young child. Diabetes doesn't abandon you in the state of Florida to go to New Jersey when you are 9. MS doesn't call you a "whore" because you over did the eye shadow and lip stick at 14. Cancer won't leave you and your brother homeless at 15 because mom doesn't have it together. Lupus doesn't tell you that you're a bad person because your husband bought his dream house, the one he worked his ass off for, but it's too big so you're all horrible people. Mental illness and alcoholism do that, not the other diseases. So I'm a bit tired of the mental-illness-is-just-like-any-other-disease line, no it fucking isn't.
So now I have a 72-year-old broken down, mentally ill mother who has basically treated me like shit most of my life. And as much as I want to let go of past bad experiences, they keep reinserting themselves into present day. Every time she makes an unreasonable demand or is inconsiderate I am haunted by the ghost of reason that says - "seriously, why are you doing this for her?"
Why indeed. I'm a good person and I don't want my mother to haunt me when she dies, and she would. I have had my share of obstacles that I have overcome and I basically cheer for the underdog. At this point I'm not sure which one of us is the underdog. I think it's me today. Yesterday I told my mother to "fucking move then". What got me to this point beyond the cumulative effect of 49 years of insanity?
I bought a house at the beach in New Jersey in 1999. It was a struggle to purchase it and I did it on my own before I got married. That house was a testament to my financial and emotional independence. It was one of the most empowering things I ever did as a young woman. Fast forward 14 years and I no longer needed the house. We hadn't lived there in years. My brother and his family lived there for 5 years and they moved away. My husband and I have a beautiful home in a neighboring state.
After Hurricane Sandy, we began to worry that at some point it would get destroyed in a storm and we would lose the financial appreciation. I sold the house a few years ago and tripled my investment. As someone who had been a reluctant, accidental SAHM for a decade it felt great to make a financial contribution to my family. I also used a portion of that money to buy a small house in a nearby adult community. I bought a place for my mother because she was so unhappy where she lived.
For nearly 10 years she complained about her living situation. I also thought it would be more practical to have her closer to me as she aged. My brother moved to Maine so he can't help with medical or other issues that require hands on assistance.
Fast-forward another 3 years and there isn't a week that goes by that my mother doesn't complain to me about something. Some of it is normal life stuff, a few ants, a nosy neighbor, the air filters. The air filters get to me. My mom smokes about a pack a day but INSISTS that the air filters in her house get changed on a monthly basis. She complains a lot about her financial situation, which has always been awful. I bought the house so there is no mortgage but there is an association fee that she pays. She also has utilities and other bills. It is a stretch for her and I help with some of it.
The other day Mom called to tell me that I "had to pay" her Comcast bill so she could pay out-of-pocket to see an eye doctor that isn't in her plan. If she said, "can you help me" or "I want to go to...." that isn't how it was presented at all. It was a command given with a bitchy tone and she went on and on about how horrible Pennsylvania Medicaid is compared to New Jersey and....I just snapped and said "fucking move then". Granted I could have delivered the message in a calm tone minus the expletive, but she wouldn't have heard me then. I've tried that approach for two years, no luck. She heard me this time.
Later I got an email from my mother telling me how she doesn't expect me to pay ALL her bills. She then went on to describe how she is the victim of a corrupt government of evil ne'er-do-wells. Blah blah blah I've been reading and hearing this crap for years. I'm worn out I tell you, worn out. She has never taken financial responsibility for herself and she is seemingly incapable of any consistent emotional stability. This life long inability or disregard (not sure which some days) has left her facing her "golden years" pretty much broke and alone.
The biggest barrier for me though, is my mother’s complete lack of interest in my family or me. She has two kind, funny, smart, beautiful grandchildren 10 minutes from her home and she could not care less. Soccer games, shows, Sunday dinners she is frequently invited and rarely shows. When she does attend a dinner she is consistently late. She shows absolutely no regard for how her actions or lack there of could have an impact on others. Again, I don't know if this is part of the mental illness or just someone so self-absorbed that they are incapable of basic consideration. Either way the end result is the same.
So here I am again trying to balance compassion for my mother with my own self-preservation. This isn't new territory I know what I need to do. Take a break, don't call her for a few days or minimize interaction until I can fortify myself enough for the next round. Once again I remind myself that this isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. I just hope I can make it to the finish line.
About the Author ~
I'm Bryce Warden – (Psst…that isn’t my real name) I have a shady sordid past and a husband who adores privacy…so voila, call me Bryce. I’ve been with my husband for over twenty years and I’m still crazy about him. He’d say I’m “just crazy”, close enough. I also have a small business where I help people and pets and I am a hospice volunteer. I have lots of stories to tell; some are funny and others will break your heart. You can read more about my personal midlife crisis at Was That My Out Loud Voice