I need scripts, and I need them ASAP.
I have 24 years of reasons (emotional abuse and toxic family environment) to hide why I am on antidepressants from my parents, and I have been doing so successfully for a year, paying for them out of pocket, because I am on a medication where I can afford that, though I am not in a position where I can yet go off my parents’ (very good) health insurance for my other (costly) health problems. My SSRIs have been great for me-I respond well to them and I am getting through grad school very well with thousands of miles of distance from my abusive parents, plenty of therapy, and at long last, medication I probably needed years ago! (medicate those brain weasels, plus learning weasel-charming techniques!)
But. I just found out that some no-doubt well-meaning person at my pharmacy put my most recent refill on my insurance, which my medical-trained mother goes through line by line every month.
I am desperately hoping she does not tell my dad, because that would make things a thousand times worse. As it is, she is probably going to corner me with the “But why didn’t you tellllll ME” and “You didn’t say anything about how you feel to me BECAUSE I’M A BAD MOM” and “You obviously don’t think that I AM TRUSTWORTHY ENOUGH” and make it her, her, her and I am just….I don’t have any scripts for this. And I’m going to be visiting them for the next month, starting tomorrow. (Dad is a “Only the weak use medication” and “Try exercise” and “Drink St John’s Wort tea because they’re all placebos anyway” type.)
Please, Captain. I need your help. The last time something like this happened, Mom and I had a huge fight because I didn’t tell her about a panic attack I had-I didn’t want to tell her about it because she made it all about her feelings about it, but I wound up telling her that I was just too ashamed of it too tell her in order to get her to shut up, because she would not let me leave. I’ve already spent weeks psyching myself up to deal with how self-centered she is most of the time, and knowing that she’s going to be reviewing my insurance statement line by line and then making it all about her feelings about it has made that psych-up all but useless.
(I can’t cancel the trip, either. One of my best friends is getting married and I spent a month’s rent.)
~Forced Out Of The Antidepressant Closet
Dear Forced Out:
Rush answer coming your way!
Scripts cannot solve 24 years of abusive behavior and lack of respect for boundaries, and I’m sorry. I’m gonna give you some scripts, and your parents are going to say what they are going to say and do what they are going to do, and the script won’t fix that or pre-empt it. That doesn’t mean scripts aren’t useful. They help you say something back, so you’re not just taking whatever it is silently. They give you comfort in that you did your best to advocate for yourself – if the other people are acting badly, they can’t claim ignorance anymore, because you told them what was up. “Sorry, I didn’t realize.” “Well, good, that’s cleared up then.” If repeated enough times, they make it boring for the other person to interact with you around this one thing. They are a way to remind yourself of what is reasonable and how you want and deserve to be treated.
I know exactly why you are dreading this visit home, but I want to remind you that your parents acting in predictable, shitty, minimizing, self-centered ways is survivable. You’ve already survived it. You’re surviving it all the time. Whatever awkward bullshit they throw at you, you’ve already survived worse, because you used to have to live there and take it all the time and now you don’t.
You also don’t have any history or touchstone for having an adult relationship with your parents, of talking to them like adults, of being treated like an adult. So it’s very understandable that you would instantly regress when you go home, and, even though you obviously have a lot of success having adult relationships away from home. This isn’t about antidepressants: a good idea, yes or no? This is about dealing with unreasonable and abusive people around an area where you feel vulnerable, and about trying to psych yourself up to have your vulnerable places poked for their amusement or to shore up their self-image as good parents or whatever messed up reasons they have for doing what they do. You’ve been groomed and trained to give them outsized deference and to “behave” when they act unreasonably, and you’re not going to throw that off in one visit, so forgive yourself right now for probably not having some perfect awesome emotional Teflon abilities at the ready.
A reasonable parent would still be worried if they saw an antidepressant prescription pop up on the family health insurance bill, and a reasonable parent would probably still want to know that their child was ok and might ask about it. But they’d do it respectfully, like, “Hey, I saw some new meds pop up for you on the health insurance bill last month, and I don’t want to pry, but are you doing all right? Is there anything you need from us?” And you’d feel super awkward but you’d say “So far so good, my doctor thought it would be a good idea and it all seems to be working” and they’d go “Okay, that’s good. If there’s anything you need, don’t be shy, ok?” and you’d both feel awkward for a bit but the circuit of “I’m your parent and I will always love you and look out for you”/”I know! Thanks, but I got this one” would be complete and it wouldn’t loom over or wreck the entire visit or the day. Chances are you would have told Reasonable Parent yourself long before then anyway. Unreasonable parents feel (correctly) like they are always the last to know certain information about their adult kids, but it’s a self-reinforcing cycle, where years of going apeshit about totally normal stuff makes their kids reluctant to invoke the apeshit reaction, so they withhold info.
Someone who didn’t grow up in a house where they were excessively monitored, a house where everything you do and think and say is a reflection somehow on your parents rather than about yourself, won’t hear the difference, but I do. This is for potential commenters who do not understand why the LW is so panicked about something that isn’t or shouldn’t really that big a deal. There are signals here that normal people with normal childhoods and normal relationships maybe cannot hear. I had an intercom in my room that was used like a baby monitor well into high school if I had friends over. My phone calls were monitored. My diaries were read and I was punished for things I wrote in them. My room and bookbags were tossed regularly like a prisoner’s cell. Of especial interest in these searches were notes passed between me and my friends, which we learned to copy out in Tolkien’s rune-script (long before the days of handy generators) even though we were just talking about homework and boys, not running a teenaged spy ring. I got good grades and did not do drugs or have teen sex or really do anything trouble-making wise that would invite such monitoring, so it’s not like my parents were genuinely concerned about trying to keep me out of jail or rehab or the arms of Satan. If it sounds surreal, it was. That stuff has stopped, and it all happened so long ago that it doesn’t seem real, which is part of the sense of unreality/disassociation that adult survivors of this stuff carry with them. We always feel like we’re overreacting, because we spent so much time under-reacting to truly bizarre things when we had no power to do otherwise. “Is this normal? Am I overreacting?” we always ask. Well, maybe you are and maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re just reacting. Maybe you’re just learning how to react finally. Maybe your ability to calibrate how you deserve to be treated and what is normal was severely stunted by people who had power over you, and you learned that your best defense was not reacting at all.
A question from the Letter Writer’s mom is never, never “just a question.” It can sound like a reasonable question, like, the above exchange, but it won’t be. I fully believe that your mom will ask about the meds in a way that implies that:
- She is owed all the details (bonus points if her exact words are “So, when exactly were you going to tell me about _________”?).
- That your mental health treatment is somehow a comment on something about her, or somehow affects her. Triple bonus points if she inquires about therapy from the telling angle of “I bet you’re telling them all about what a terrible mother I am” or other passive-aggressive (yet incredibly true!) comments.
- That you are keeping a giant secret that you should have told her, so what ELSE are you keeping from her? (Bonus if she uses this as a launching pad to body-shame you or police your sex life or choice of career).
- This is proof you can’t be trusted to take care of yourself/proof you don’t love her/proof she is a bad mother.
- And, if you assert your right to medical privacy, she will remind you that you are on the family’s health insurance and she will somehow threaten to take that away from you if you don’t behave/conform/give her what she wants…even though, in the reasonable person’s world, using your medical insurance as it was intended is not a statement on your love for your parents, and in fact is proof that you are good at taking care of yourself and that your parents love you enough to provide medical insurance while you’re in school.
- You complete the bingo card of bonus points automatically if at any point your mom says “I’m just asking a question, I don’t understand why you’re so defensive/secretive.“
- Infinity more bonus points if the conversation happens when you are a) trapped in a car or somewhere you can’t escape or leave or b) right when you are trying to get out the door to go to something wedding-related so that you can also have an argument about who is more important, the wedding that is the only reason you are coming to town at all vs. YOUR MOTHER WHO LOVES YOU AND JUST WANTS WHAT BEST FOR YOU.
Did I miss anything? You have been primed and raised to believe that all information about yourself belongs to your mom, and you are required to answer all of her questions fully, until she is satisfied, or else you are a bad child or somehow saying that she is a bad mother. And when you’re Through the Looking Glass into her effed up abuser’s perspective, it’s really hard to remind yourself that this is not normal and actually, you don’t have to answer all the questions, and you definitely don’t have to answer them to her complete satisfaction or have answers that are comfortable for her. I mean, a true, reasonable answer to “Do you talk about me, and family stuff in therapy?” Is “Doesn’t everyone talk about their family in therapy, at some point, even if it’s just to talk about patterns of thinking and behavior?” You don’t have to reassure your mom about what your therapist thinks of her.
Over here in the Reasonable World, lots of people are on antidepressants and it’s no big thing. Your mom’s medical training means that she should understand that medical decisions are best handled confidentially between a doctor and a patient and that it is a big no-no to diagnose or treat your own family. I predict that she will reject this appeal to logic because YOU ARE HER DAUGHTER and SHE KNOWS YOU BEST and other sundry reasons that every damn thing in your life has to be all about her, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not the right way to go after it when talking to her. The other thing to keep in mind is that the hard/bad stuff is being treated. The meds are working. So you don’t need advice or time to process or solve a problem, the problem is already being handled, correctly, which is good news. So the first batch of scripts can be something like:
- “Oh yeah. My doctor recommended that I try this out, and so far it really seems to be working.”
- “Handling this with my doctor really seems to be working.”
- “My doctor is great, I feel a lot better since I started seeing him/her, and so far the meds really seem to be working.”
- “Yeah, I had a bad patch, but once the meds kicked in I felt so much better.”
When you get the inevitable “But whyyyyyyyyy didn’t you tell MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE?” response, tell the bald truth. “I was a bit ashamed, especially since you and dad have said so many negative things in the past about people who need meds, and I feel kind of private about medical stuff anyway, so I chose to just handle it with my doctor. The good news is, it’s working!”
Then get ready to cultivate an air of confusion at the rest of her FEELINGSBOMB. “But do you think I’m a bad mom, you don’t tell me things, whyyyyyyyyyy we’re not close whyyyyyyyyyyyy” etc. “Uh, mom, where is this coming from? My mom is my mom. My doctor is my doctor. Some stuff, like brain chemistry, is doctor stuff. That’s not an insult, that’s being an adult. With a doctor.” You didn’t get depression AT her, you didn’t treat your depression AT her. People who react as if everything is about them invite and deserve the “I’m sorry you feel that way, but uh, I have to go into another room now” non-apology. Also, your mom is not entitled to know exactly when you went on the meds, what prompted it, how long you’ve been on them, that you’ve been paying for them out of pocket all this time, and I would not fault you at all if you were deliberately vague about all of that stuff. Doctors give free samples all the time at the beginning, btw, especially to poor grad students.
So say, “Mom, your questions about the logistics of all of this are making me really uncomfortable. I realize you’re still processing some stuff, but I’ve already told you everything I’m comfortable discussing with anyone who is not my doctor.“ And if your mom actually says “You obviously don’t think I’m TRUSTWORTHY enough” what if you said “Well, it’s about fixing my brain chemistry, not about you at all, actually.” Or what if you said “Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but I’m much more comfortable discussing mental health issues with my doctor than I am with you and dad” instead of reassuring her? You could even be more reassuring about it, i.e., “I don’t need you to be my therapist. Just be my mom.” She’s been trying to trap you for so long, daring you to confirm or fail to reassure her that she’s the Most Special, making an issue of your past panic attacks into a referendum on her own need to be the Most Important Person In Your Life. You’ve been raised to believe that the world would end if you failed to reassure her in this call-and-response game. That she’d unleash something so hurtful and unpleasant or painful that it would be the Worst Thing In The World. Whatever That Thing is, I think you can survive it. I think you already have. I think you could again, on your own terms.
I realize we’ve focused a lot on your mom and not on your dad, who from your letter seems to be offering more general ignorant mental health stigma/dickhead responses than your mom’s “Come Into My Hellmaze of Abuser Logic Where I Hurt You And Then Beg You To Reassure Me” responses. His opinions on anti-depressants are just as crushing, and can be just as part of an abusive pattern in your house, but they don’t have as much of the “Your life is all about me me me” thrust as your mom’s stuff. I think he can be countered with some of the same scripts. “My doctor suggested it, and so far it’s really working.” “Well, couldn’t you just jog and drink St. John’s Wort tea?” “Maybe! But so far this is really working.” “Only the weak use medication.” “Well, that’s pretty insulting, Dad, but I guess I’ll be one of the weak people since this really seems to be working.” If he keeps pushing you, what if you escalated it instead of retreating? “Well, hey Dad, you’ve said so many jerky and insulting things about antidepressants in the past, it was actually my plan to never ever tell you about this very confidential and private medical decision I made. But, since the cat’s out of the bag, and since it’s working, me managing my brain chemistry is actually way more important to me than convincing you that it’s a good idea. The good news is that you can think whatever you want, and then I’ll keep doing what works for me.” If I’m right about the type of guy I imagine him to be, he wins when he draws you into a protracted discussion where he gets to demonstrate his “superior” man-logic and cow you into at least lip-service agreeing with him to get him to shut up. You win by making the conversation as short as possible (even if you end up conceding/agreeing, like, ‘Yep, I’m so weak! Time to take my Lexapro, tho”) and by not giving a fuck. You can win this one.
And if they won’t stop, leave the room. Leave the house. Go for a walk. Go for a drive. You can. I promise, you can. Your mom can feel bad and be very angry and not want to end the conversation, and your dad can feel like he wants to argue more, and yet, you can end it. When you were a kid, you couldn’t really do this, but you have leveled up now. Embrace it.
This is all going to feel really fucking scary, no lie. If you can call your therapist or a friend and rehearse stuff, do it. If you can be out of the house as much as possible on this visit, do it. Have a great time at the wedding. Invent wedding events if you have to. “Can’t stay, wedding pre-brunch wedding breakfast!” “Can’t stay! Afternoon wedding high tea with wedding things wedding wedding!” And hey, if she doesn’t even mention it, if none of this happens, then, great. Consider it a win. Things got slightly better in your life and your relationship with your mom. Not safe. But better. I don’t think it was a bad idea or an overreaction to be concerned or to want to prepare.
These scripts and strategies won’t make the overall relationship better this visit, or this instant, or maybe even this year. When you get back to school, I strongly recommend reading Karyl McBride’s book, Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and maybe forming a little book club on that one with your therapist as you think about long-term stuff. Some stuff I’ve gleaned from reading that book, to give you a preview: Your mom (both your parents, but especially her) is unlikely to ever apologize, admit that she is out of line, or talk about past incidents of abuse honestly. There will always be this warp in reality between you, where your memories of your childhood will be treated like they are exaggerations and lies, and she will simply…not remember…things that she did and said, and you will second-guess yourself all the time, like, am I crazy? Am I misremembering? She is likely to see attempts at boundary-setting as direct personal attacks on her. To do otherwise profoundly threatens her self-image, and protecting her self-image is a lot of what motivates her to behave as she does. So you can waste a lifetime in trying to get her to apologize or looking for that cathartic moment when she acknowledges what she did and you have that healing, clearing-the-air discussion and resolution.
Sometimes relationships are so toxic that cutting contact is the right thing to do. But sometimes you (or we…this was also me) want to keep the lines open, for whatever reason. And it is possible, with time and some structure, to make things better. People often mellow as they get older, and you’ll get older and get more autonomy and resilience and build up your skills in boundary-setting (and more able to afford hotels/rental cars and a place in the Fuck Its). There is no moment where they acknowledge your grownupness*, but there is actual power for you, to be accrued over time, in treating your parents as if they are reasonable parents and giving them whatever information you would give a reasonable parent and letting them have whatever unreasonable reaction they’re going to have. And then, when the tantrum or whatever is done, you go back to treating them like reasonable parents who will do the reasonable thing, as if the tantrum did not happen and you don’t give a single shit about it. And there is power in “I will stick around if you are nice to me, but if you are not nice to me and you disrespect my boundaries, I actually do not have to be here/answer this email/call you back.” People like your folks don’t really understand boundaries, but they do understand consequences, eventually. It’s a long journey, but since you are going to have the conflict anyway, deploying scripts can be a part of your own leveling up process as you practice resetting your relationship along more adult lines. Think of it as you extending an invitation to your mom to come function in the Reasonable World, with you. She can come over and hang out with you, or she can stay where she is, but you are not coming back to her world, ever.
Ok. Good luck. Have fun at the wedding. You’ve got the rest of this, and don’t be shy about checking back into this thread at any time if you need a place to vent about what’s happening throughout the trip.
*”Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste… years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just… take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I’m sorry you feel like that and walk away. But that’s hard.” – Ekaterin, A Civil Campaign