More on the theme of parents & communication with adult children today.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I’ve been reading your blog for just a few days now but I already caught on to the important part ‘speak up for yourself’.
Now my problem is that I can’t. Or rather I can’t make myself.
I’ve grown up with my bipolar mother. She’s in therapy, on meds and the whole family is very supportive.
She was stuck in depressive stage for what feels like my whole youth, so living at home was equal to walking on egg shells. No arguments, no unplanned behavior, no upsetting mom lest she burst into tears. No friends over (not that I had many). No going for a walk after school instead of heading straight home. No speaking my mind. Keeping my head down so dad wouldn’t have more to worry about.
While my younger brother dealth with the problem by taking drugs and acting up, I was the model daughter. Dream grades. Quiet behavior. Self sufficient.
I, well, broke around age 17 where she had another depressive plunge and went into the hospital. I was unable to visit her, speak to her, look at her without everything freezing. I had two years of therapy, at least one mental breakdown and unvited her from my graduation ceremony because I didn’t want to risk her ruining the day as she was almost but not quite out of the hospital.
Fast forward to today:
I’ve moved out and live with my boyfriend of 6 years. She’s not had a depressive episode in a while but is bordering on mania. She’s still self centered but more aware of her surroundings. Unfortunately she has this big idea of us being/becoming bffs. She tries to bribe me with presents (small things…flowers, yarn, chocolate). She says she loves me and I can see in her eyes that she wants me to just say it back.
But I can’t. It would be a lie. I don’t love her. She has serverely disabled me with this need for top grades, the inability to speak up for myself and the fear that one wrong step will have her telling me again what a horrible child I am and/or send her back into depression.
I generally keep my distance as she’s getting clingy again. I only visit my father (he works at me university, so I can just visit his office). But I don’t want to cut her out of my life. Or rather, I feel I shouldn’t. It would mean not seeing my father as much. I enjoy spending time with her in small doses (or at least I think so…might be self-delusion). I’m afraid it’ll push her back into depression and though I should be taking care and thinking of myself I just can’t.
The solution to my problems is just one talk/phone call/email/letter away
I could talk to my boyfriend.
I could call or email my father.
I could call or write a letter to my former therapist.
But I just sat here for three hours trying to make myself do any of it and couldn’t.
Lips Glued Shut
Dear Glued Lips:
I think it’s hard for you to say anything because “I don’t love you” is an absence or retreat rather than a statement.
Here’s a script I would suggest for you, since you don’t want to cut your mom off entirely. You can send it as an email or a letter, or rehearse it ahead of time with a close friend or therapist. I see you have a ‘former’ therapist – would you consider finding a ‘current’ therapist? The stuff you’re dealing with is Big Stuff. A letter might be best so you can say everything you want to say and then shield yourself from her reaction.
“Mom, I am glad you are getting some treatment and making strides toward feeling better.
I have some awkward but important requests. First, I would like to ask you to stop giving me gifts like (example) and telling me that you love me. I know you mean it kindly, but to me it feels like pressure to say something back that I am not ready to say. I worry that if I don’t react the way you want to it will send you back into depression. That is too much pressure for me to carry.
The best way you can show me that you love me is by taking good care of yourself and giving our relationship some space to breathe and to heal on its own. I don’t know that we will ever be as close as you want to, or the way that other people think mothers and daughters should be. The hard truth is that we can never make for lost time or undo the past, but maybe with time we can develop something that is honest and real based on choices we both make as adults.
For the next few months*, I think it’s better for me if we don’t talk or see each other very often. I want to ask you very directly not to contact me, and to let me be the one to get in touch with you and make plans when I feel ready. I’m sorry if that feels hurtful or scary to you. I wouldn’t ask this of you if I didn’t feel it was important to my own well-being and mental health to set some boundaries in our relationship.“
As always, adapt and use only what feels good and useful to you, if anything. If she falls back into a depression, please release yourself from all responsibility for having caused it. She has a chronic, cyclical illness that will always need management with therapy and medication.
I hope you get some peace from this, however it plays out.
*This is a tactic, not a schedule. NEVER is a long time and is very hard for people to think about and hard to enforce, especially with family, especially since you are still close to your dad and he’s going to be in the middle. Sometimes it works better to ask someone to change something up for a few months, with a promise that you’ll re-evaluate, than to issue ultimatums or invoke the words “never again.” You can obviously decide after a few months that you like the peace and quiet and see no reason to change anything about the situation. In the meantime you will have laid the groundwork for a world where she doesn’t contact you against your wishes and given your dad a way to help you without putting pressure on yourself to make a permanent decision.