#628: How do I care for my suicidal mom?

Sometimes I post things out of order of how I write them, and numbering shenanigans happen. This is the missing post #628.

Hi Captain,

The year after my grandmother died, the following things happened:

  • My mom got heavily depressed.
  • My dad and I were completely taken by surprise and maybe not reacted quickly enough.
  • My mom probably tried to commit suicide then tried to hide it from my dad who in turn kept it from me.
  • My dad became more and more unhinged and sometimes violent : shouting, breaking and throwing stuff (not at people).
  • With the help of family friends, we decided to check my mom in a mental health hospital. She clearly did not want to go but we pressured her.
  • My dad decided to leave my mom.
  • My mom came out of the mental health hospital and it didn’t seem to have done any good.
  • It was horrible. It’s been three years now but I’m still not completely over it. (I am in therapy.)

My dad is a lot better. He’s moved to another country, gotten a new life. Through all of this he tried to stay supportive of me and my mom. He spent a lot of time in therapy and I can honestly say he’s changed : no more anger problems. Our relationship is honest and fairly good.

My mom, now. My mom is not better. She does not take any meds. She does not go to therapy of any kind. She doesn’t work. She just stays at home all day reading stuff on the internet. She eats badly, always the same things. The house is dirty and she refuses to hire a maid. She doesn’t shower often enough and she smells. She has a few friends who still visit her sometimes but she doesn’t always open the door.

For the last two years, I was away in a college transfer program but I tried to come back once or twice a month. When I came back, I would live in her house and I would cook, clean the house, do grocery shopping so she’d have fruits and vegetables,… (She did not ask me to do all these things.) Now I’m back home for my senior year but it was agreed by my dad and I that I shouldn’t live with her, so I’m renting a student flat.

So, now that I’m back in my mom’s city, I don’t really know what the course of action is. Should I still care for my mom like I did when I lived with her? How often should I go and see her or call her ? (I’ve tried to ask her those questions but she does not answer. She never says what she feels.)

More importantly, is there anything I can do to help her ? Is it still worth something to try and convince her to go to therapy or at least get out of the house ? It kills me to see her suffer like this. It kills me to think that maybe that’s it, and she will never get better for the rest of her life.

Any advice is welcome.

Imploded Family

Dear Imploded:

I am glad you are in therapy, and I’m glad you are not living with your mom. Whatever issues your dad has, him telling you to not do that was a solid, good, caring act. I am so sorry you are dealing with all of this and I send you all the Internet Stranger Love in the world.

When you tried to help your mom and took care of her, that was a loving thing to do, and you DID help her, even if she isn’t in a place where she can acknowledge it or participate in it right now. What you did matters. But your mom has an illness that is slowly eating her life. If she does not get better, if she does in fact end her life someday, it will not be your fault. It will not be because of anything you did or didn’t do. You can have all the love in the world and still have limited power to change this for her. The illness is treatable, to an extent, to the extent that the person suffering seeks and engages with treatment, to the extent that the ill person fights for their own life against it. The love of others can be a comfort, but love is not a cure. You can care about your mom, but you can’t do her caring about herself for her, or instead of her. This is a tragic, painful, awful truth, and again, I’m sorry. Knowing it doesn’t mean that you stop feeling guilty and torn and awful.

In trying to think of how to help you, this thought came to me: If you offered your life up to this illness and said “Eat me instead, eat my life, just let her get better, or failing that, let her keep living” the illness would accept your offer but it would not accept your bargain. You could spend every scrap of energy and time that you have on cooking for your mom and looking after her and encouraging her, and the illness would laugh and say “MORE!” and she might still not get better but you might get worse. This illness is a liar. It wouldn’t care what order it ate you in.

I think the best thing you can do for your family’s wellbeing is to fight for yourself. Fight for your own happiness and security and health. Keep going to therapy. Do all the loving things you did for her for yourself (laundry, getting out, exercise, eating vegetables). Finish your education and find work that sustains you and hopefully interests you. Surround yourself with good friends and spend time with people who love you. Get enough sleep.

Here is one tiny tool that might help. It’s something I use for time management when I get stressed or need to figure out a new routine. Print out a couple of copies (or make a version that roughly reflects your waking/active hours using the software or calendar app of your choice) and fill it in. You can plan in weekly increments or two-week increments which sometimes works better, since not everything happens every single week. To use the tool:

  • First, add obligations: classes, work, places you have to be. Include the time you spend commuting and studying/preparing.
  • Second, add self-care things: Therapy appointments. Workouts. Grocery shopping, food prep, laundry, bill paying, chores. Standing social engagements. My friend B. has something she calls “Wife Night” where she acts like her own (traditional meaning, used ironically) wife – sewing on lost buttons, paying bills, doing the laundry, changing the sheets, all of the routine maintenance stuff of her life. This is the stuff that you have to do to maintain your quality of life.
  • Third, add pleasurable/fun things: Your favorite TV show, time with friends, time to read for pleasure, time to go to the movies or a concert, time to play your favorite video game. You can put this stuff second if you want to, it too is important, and it too is self-care.
  • Fourth, add future-oriented stuff: You’re a university senior, so set aside one hour/week to work on/think about future stuff. Looking at job listings for things you might want to do. Working on your resume. Picking up an extra skill. Journaling about what you want to be when you grow up. Attending campus events and networking sessions.
  • Fifth, mark out a block of time and call it “Family.” That block of time, every week, or every other week, or once a month (whatever you can do sustainably) is when you engage with your mom.

Not everyone’s priorities would or should happen in this order. I hope this is obvious to people reading. But Imploded, I think this is a useful way for you to think about this. You want to be a part of your mom’s life, but she can’t or has chosen not help you decide how much or how that should work. In the absence of a stated preference or expression of need from her, what do you need from your own life in order to be functional and happy? Where can you fit her in, in a way that lets you preserve a relationship with her, without her needs taking over your life? How can you prioritize time with her in a way that is sustainable for you? By giving her a predictable, routine place in your life you can give both of you something to look forward to with far less danger that you will become overwhelmed. One of the good things about therapy for me that when I know there is one 50-minute hour in my week set aside to indulge fully in worrying about my problems, it frees up some mental energy and helps me function better the rest of the time. Call it the placebo effect, perhaps, but being able to redirect my thoughts by saying “that’s a therapy issue, write it down as a reminder and then MOVE ON” has been a huge help at times when I need to focus on other things and get practical things done. Maybe you can do something similar by designating specific Mom Time in your week.

Mom Time could look any way you want it to. For example, it could be:

  • A phone call or Skype session.
  • Going out to breakfast or lunch.
  • Go to the movies (she’s out of the house, you don’t have to talk for long stretches, when you do talk you can talk about the movie).
  • Getting together to watch a shared favorite TV show.
  • Occasional haircuts, manicures, pedicures, other fancy girly things if that’s how you both roll.
  • Asking her to help you with stuff that she’s good at. “Mom, look at my resume?” “Mom, I need help picking out grownup work clothes.” “Mom, can you show me how to cook that awesome family recipe?” Affirming her in that Mom-role could be a very loving thing that you do for her.

Your time together *could* involve going grocery shopping, or cleaning her house, or fixing her meals or whatever, and eventually you may encourage her to go back to treatment, but I think as you set this up you should think about directing this away from the idea of helping her and toward the idea of spending time together and seeking her out for the sake of her company. I think it’s possible and even probable that she feels a lot of guilt and shame for not taking care of herself better and for leaning on you so much in the past. “Duh, you’re my MOM. I want to SEE you” is a harder thing to argue with than “I’m just trying to HELP you.” If she’s reticent to invitations at first, stick with calls, but be consistent about reaching out to her during the time you’ve set aside and keep making the invitation/making the effort even if you don’t get a big response at first. Sustained love and effort is way more important than devising the perfect activity.

Friend-dating your mom isn’t a cure or a fix for her depression. It’s a start in forming a healthy adult relationship with her, though, and it’s worth doing if you can. Go slow, be consistent, and give it time to take shape. It may take her a while to be able to do things out of the house, or to trust that you mean it when you want to spend time with her.

I want you to do something else, schedule-wise, if you decide to try this out. After your weekly Mom Time, I want you to put something in place for yourself as a reward. Call it “Down time.” “Watching favorite show time.” “Roller skating time.” “Coloring pretty pictures time.” “Seeing or calling/texting my funnest and most supportive friend time.” “Feeling my feelings and writing them in a journal time.” “Being nice to myself time.” Something that says “fuck you, illness, you can’t have me” before you go back to your week.

94 thoughts on “#628: How do I care for my suicidal mom?

  1. LW, your situation sounds so much like my own and I am so, so sorry that it’s something you have to deal with. Being in a position where you feel responsible for taking care of the person who is supposed to take care of you is unbalancing at best. When you add in mental health stuff on top of that, the difficulty level gets compounded by a million. It sucks so bad and you are amazing for having coped with this for three years.

    I just want to echo the good captain’s, “it’s not your fault,” so hard. When my mom got bad, for a very, very long time I obsessed over what I could do to fix it. If I was a better kid, she wouldn’t be depressed. If I could do all the chores, she would engage with her surroundings again. If I could say the right thing, she wouldn’t go into a depressive episode and everything would be okay. But no matter what I or you or anyone else does for someone they love who is depressed, we can’t fix it. And it isn’t our responsibility to eat up our own lives pursuing that hope.

    So many jedi hugs, LW.

    1. “If I could do all the chores, she would engage with her surroundings again.”

      It is like you and your mom are both me. There were (and still occasionally are) stretches of “If I can just get everything done I’m supposed to have done, my life will be awesome.” :/

      1. I was talking with someone today about that voice in my head that tries to convince me so hard to Do All The Things, like there’s some kind of prize if I can have everything done all at once: clean house, washed kids, paid bills, fixed appliances, groomed appearance, satisfied spouse – if you have them done all together at the same time, you can achieve Level 20 and be awesome forever and you will never stress again!

        That voice is a liar. There is no such prize.

        1. Yeah, you only sit there like “And now what? Why am I not happy?” In my case that voice is the reason why I am NOT happy, because I feel better when I do a moderate amount of stuff in an appropriate time frame with a lot of rest in between.

        2. I struggle with that kind of thinking SO MUCH. “If only I can check off every item on my to-do list, I can have self esteem!” I know it’s not true, but DAMN is it hard to get that voice to STFU.

        3. It’s hard to give up on the promise of a magic bullet, even if it is nigh on impossible to get your hands on in the first place.

    2. I’m the LW.

      Thank you for your kind words.

      My particular obsession was trying to solve my mom like she was a mystery novel. Looking for clues, for patterns, as if there had been a tipping point that could have been avoided or that could be reversed if only I could unravel it all.

      My dad was also convinced it was all fallout from a family secret we didn’t know about. He read her diary claiming to inspect it for clues. (I was really angry at him for that.)

      This kind of thinking is very damaging indeed.

      I hope you’re in a good place.

      1. A friend of mine with ADHD once spotted a book on ADHD lurking in my living room, and asked semi-jokingly, “Are you trying to solve me?”

        Which really stuck with me.

        Ironically, he later read that particular book and got a lot out of it, but he was completely right to call me on it: making someone feel like they’re a puzzle you’re trying to solve is a crappy thing for them and you.

        So, good for you for having already recognized that tendency in yourself and realized how damaging it is.

  2. I was suicidally depressed until very recently.

    I didn’t realize this was the case until one night when I thought: ‘And tomorrow I’ll google how to kill myself painlessly.’ I googled for help instead, and found it. I’m doing much better now.

    You cannot convince your mother that she needs help. She has to come to the conclusion herself. Treatment will only work if your mother actively participates.

    If you have a concrete fear that she will harm herself you can have her committed against her will. Sometimes this starts the road of recovery, sometimes it doesn’t.

    And I’ll tell you one thing my psychiatrist told me at my very first appointment: ‘Every day do something that makes you happy, no matter how small.’

    Your first priority is to stay healthy in every way. You can’t help others if you fall apart yourself.

    1. My therapist told me that it’s like trying to save somebody who is drowning. Drowning yourself will not make them better, there will just be two drowned people instead of one and it will help absolutely no one. And it’s better to realize “no, I can’t help this drowning person, because the tide is too strong/they are too far/I can’t swim” than throw yourself blindly into the water because again: two drowned people.

      1. God YES. I keep telling people this when it comes to helping others. And sometimes, I have to remind myself. Do what I can, stop feeling guilty over not doing what I can’t, and the stop feeling guilty part is much harder than it sounds.

        1. Also you must put on your own life jacket before attempting to assist others. As a person who is still struggling with their own mental health and does not really have my metaphorical lifejacket on securely, I have very limited capacity to help others. It is pretty much restricted to “Here is your lifejacket!” (e.g. “You need to talk to a professional, here are some phone numbers.”) I have a huge capacity for getting bogged down in other people’s stuff, so it is necessary for me to stay maybe a bit more clear of it than my better nature would like.

      2. That’s such a spot on metaphor! As a suffered of depression, the feeling of drowning in your own life is beyond accurate. But so is the contradiction of wanting a rescue/wanting people to stay back. During my last episode, I broke up with my boyfriend (who had done everything humanly possible to keep me afloat), until I finally told him “look you have to go. I’m barely managing to keep going, and if you stay I’ll drag you under with me.” I could have taken any harm or pain to myself, but I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself if I had let the maelstrom of my illness wreck him too.

        Sometimes those drowning know that while they want saving, that it’s best if everyone stays clear. It’s a herculean effort to rescue yourself, especially when you’re illness holds you under and waits for you to drown. But the guilt of letting it hurt loved ones is a far heavier burden.

        LW, thank you for wanting to rescue your mom, and thank you for being wise enough to seek your own help. The Captain is right though. Because while your mom may desperately want saving, she also likely wants to you to be safe from her illness. Hopefully she comes through this blackness more able to rescue herself.

  3. This was a fantastic answer, and I really hope it helps.

    I also want to add my +1 to the list of suggestion for things to do in Mum Time that do not revolve around Being a Mother For Your Mother. Because the things you have done for her are kind and good and generous and right and will have meant more than you know.

    But I think it might also be helpful for both of you – for you and for your mum – if you can move your relationship back towards one that more closely resembles what most people envision when they imagine spending time with their adult and young adult children. Definitely, if it helps and if you are able and willing, help make sure your mum is fed and has a cleaner home than she otherwise would. But if ALL your visits revolve around you doing the things for her that she used to do for herself, and nothing else, that can make it harder for both of you.

    Speaking as someone whose depression and anxiety sent her into a squalor situation as well as serious poverty, the thing that was the hardest for me was feeling like I was helpless, a burden, or failing at life. Oddly enough, while I found doing a singe sink load of my own dishes or a single load of my own laundry or brushing my own hair even once that whole week was an unbearable task, I often had loads of energy to help OTHER people take care of their things – helping a friend deep-clean her apartment when she moved out, helping cook meals for my MIL when she was recovering from surgery, helping my best friend work through a difficult break-up, doing the make-up and hair for my little SIL when she was getting ready to go out… I felt useful, competent, needed and like a real human adult. Going for walks with friends and talking about things that didn’t involve my feelings and my need to fix my life made me feel normal.

    Those moments sometimes gave me little boosts of energy and motivation, and reminded me that even though it felt too hard right now, I was capable of doing the things I felt I was supposed to be doing. If you can find things to do with your mum that help remind her that she is still the mum, she still gets to take care of you, she is still a living and vibrant and whole person and not defined by her illness.

    1. My partner seems to operate exactly the same way. Zie will not count the cost to help someone else. Helping hirself is mostly insurmountable. Sadly, now that we have been living together, I apparently count in the circle of self, because zie mostly can’t do much FOR ME as a motivation, or for hirself, so I have to do the vast majority of life stuff for me, for hir, and for us. It is breaking me down by inches.

      Definitely follow the Captain’s advice about being with her, rather than trying to either fix her, or fix things for her.

      1. Ooh, solecism I’m so sorry, that does not sound easy at all. Me and the mister are… nice and unheathily codependent, but in a way that balances, because caring for each other is something we can do. I wish I could offer some advice for your situation. Will internet hugs do?

        1. Thanks for the internet hugs, Bunny. We’re kinda in limbo at the moment, waiting for the bureaucracy to determine some things so we can unmuddle our finances. But I am now contemplating putting on my lifejacket (ie, moving out), because I need to move beyond uncontrollably crying every few months. Just waiting to get the money sitch stabilized, I guess. It doesn’t help that my depressed partner is starting to pull out the emotional manipulation big guns: I will commit social suicide by abandoning all of my hobbies forever if you leave me. I won’t get a roommate and I don’t want to rattle around in this house alone, so the only acceptable living situation is you being here. If it weren’t for you, I’d be homeless under a bridge by now. Etc. And that’s on top of the shouting at me that “zie is already giving everything zie’s got, it’s the best zie can do, what more do I want, why can’t I leave hir alone” anytime I try to discuss shifting the status quo in any way. Sigh. Love isn’t enough, and I am moving into survival mode.

          1. What Winter said Solecism. It is not OK to be treated that way, even by someone with reasons to be behaving poorly. Someone who threatens violence to themself to control others is bad news, and you cannot stay in an impossible living situation no matter how badly you want to help.

            It isn’t selfish or wrong for you to take care of yourself, even if this involves sometimes withdrawing support from someone else. Also, while it is entirely reasonable to expect support from your partner, it’s not reasonable to expect that they’ll take anything you dish out with no reciprocity of support, or to claim they’re obligated to stay no matter how you treat them.

      2. ooh – that sounds uncomfortably familiar. I’m the one who can’t stop helping friends who need help, even after I’m long past burned out. For most of my married life, this has been kind of okay – the husband didn’t like it, but mostly was concerned with protecting me, rather than feeling neglected.

        Now he has stage IV cancer and I’m discovering that I can’t be there for him if I don’t preserve my own energy and sanity. And the friends who have sucked up so much of my energy over the years really aren’t liking it.

        1. Oh sheesh, that’s rough. If your “friends” are upset that your situation is limiting your ability to support them, they’re pretty crappy friends. And probably don’t deserve your support, your energy or your friendship.

        2. Friends who are upset with you because you’re neglecting them while your husband has stage IV cancer are not your friends! They should be reciprocating your support over the years by helping and supporting *you* right now. 😦

  4. But your mom has an illness that is slowly eating her life. If she does not get better, if she does in fact end her life someday, it will not be your fault.

    This is something I’m still dealing with, with my own sometimes-suicidally depressed mother: between 2008 and 2011, she made three attempts on her life, the aftermath of one triggered a similar episode in me, and … it is okay, if you run out of can. She’s less depressed now, but she still has episodes. We’re not close – we talk once or twice a month, and I almost never visit. I get to deal with the reality that my mom might take her own life, for the rest of her life. It fucking sucks.

    What I think I’m trying to get at is: it is okay to disengage, if you need to. It is okay to mourn the relationship you had with the person she was of you (or anyone else going through similar) have to, and it doesn’t reflect badly on you or your value as a person.

  5. One of the first things my Psych told me is when you hit adulthood you have to redefine you relationship with your parents because you are all adults. It was quite a revelation to me and I’m still struggling with it. Having depression is a beast and the only way I fix myself after falling in a hole is falling all the way down and hitting the bottom, realising I do not want to be here and then climbing back up and Kicking arse and taking names. But it’s a journey that the depressed person has to make by themselves all you can do as a loved/caring one for them is to ensure that they know you are there for them.

  6. thank you captain. i really needed to hear this today.

    “the illness would accept your offer but it would not accept your bargain.”

  7. Thank you so much for this, Captain:
    In trying to think of how to help you, this thought came to me: If you offered your life up to this illness and said “Eat me instead, eat my life, just let her get better, or failing that, let her keep living” the illness would accept your offer but it would not accept your bargain. You could spend every scrap of energy and time that you have on cooking for your mom and looking after her and encouraging her, and the illness would laugh and say “MORE!” and she might still not get better but you might get worse. This illness is a liar. It wouldn’t care what order it ate you in.

    My dad has a different kind of mental illness (he’s an alcoholic, and while he’s not violent, just kind of drunk and not-there, it still really sucks) and I think I spent around 15 years trying to help him (since I was about 10 years’ old). And well, I was trying to do just that: somehow exchange my life (and my wellbeing, and big stuff like taking care of my health and small stuff like inviting friends over when I still lived with my parents and tiny stuff like having time for myself and not Watching If Dad Is Not Drinking) for his health and not drinking. And of course it didn’t work, because it’s not like you can make somebody get better and take care of themselves and go to therapy. It took me moving out from my parents’ home, some years of therapy and a wonderful, caring partner to be able to stop destroying myself over my dad, but I still sorta cried over this paragraph. This is so, so true, and while this comes from a place of love and wanting to care and just wanting to Help However I Can and I Will Do Anything, it’s a bad, bad thing.

    You are awesome, LW, and brave and strong for taking care of yourself. For me the hardest thing in a situation like this was accepting that perhaps I will never have the dad I want to have, or the relationship with him I want. It took me some time to mourn it (and I think it was a very necessary time, and I guess I’m still partially mourning it) but now I can visit dad, and talk to him when he’s in a more sober phase, and have a relationship with the person he is now, and maybe it’s not great, but there is no “healthy dad, great father-daughter relationship” option to choose from for me, so I’m glad for what there is. Probably there is no “happy mom, happy LW” option for you to choose from (at least now), so you have to choose the least sucky (for you) one from those that are. And it may be “depressed mom, distant mom-LW relationship”, or maybe “depressed mom, occasional mom-LW friendly outings” or maybe something else, but you can’t choose “healthy mom”, because it’s not available right now and may not ever be.

    1. Thank you ziroonderel. Your insight that there is no ‘good’ option, there is only what there is – so helpful. I have very different circumstances, but I am constantly grappling with how to let go of the ideal (that does not exist and won’t ever exist) and work with what is good in the reality. Thank you.

  8. “Fuck you, illness, you can’t have me.” Probably the most helpful thing I have ever read. I wish I had more advice to offer the LW, but I really don’t. Except to say that the Captain is right. Good luck, LW. And good luck to your mom. Best wishes sent to the both of you in your battle against true evil- the kind that doesn’t care who it hurts or how it does so.

  9. LW, I’m posting because I was in a very similar place several years ago. My mother was an alcoholic, depressed, and suicidal. She attempted twice and was hospitalized both times before succeeding in killing herself the third time, alongside a violent attack on my father and his new girlfriend. I was her primary emotional support through this entire ordeal – the person she called at 3 in the morning, the person she called when she attempted the first two times. She refused to engage with her therapy, was noncompliant in her medications, stayed in the mental hospital programs just long enough to convince them that she was better and she’d never do it again.

    I don’t really have much in the way of good advice. CA has set you on the right path – take care of yourself, because no one can truly take care of your mom except herself. But I wanted to let you know that you aren’t alone, and that I have all the empathy in the world for you and your situation right now.

      1. I appreciate that. To be honest, while I miss my mom very much, of course, it’s a relief not to be in that situation anymore.

          1. Thank you for saying so. I’m finally emotionally coming to peace with that being my reaction – rationally I gave myself permission to feel this way basically as soon as it happened, but it’s good to finally actually *feel* it’s ok to feel this way, too. I don’t know how helpful this is to LW or anyone else, but what sort of helped me come to terms was realizing that my mom, the woman who raised me and who I loved so much, had already been eaten by the disease monster, as CA put it. For a long time before she died, she really wasn’t my mom anymore, she was a suicidally depressed alcoholic who masqueraded as my mom. The mother that I wanted to still be with was gone long before she died, sadly.

  10. Hi LW – I’ve been there. I’ve so been there. And the Captain is right: you cannot make another person happy. You cannot fix other people. You can point them in the right direction and you can give and give and give – but that won’t fix them and eventually it’ll suck everything you have out of you until you’re a very tired 25 yr old with lots of passion for life and not much energy to live it with. Set reasonable boundaries, take yourself away from your mom if it gets to be too much, and know that loving a person sometimes means you can’t be around them. It’s hard, but we’re rooting for you. If she never gets better, it’s not your fault and there’s nothing more you could have done. You may have a heavy heart but know you should have a clear conscience.

  11. When I am in a bad place – when I have run out of clean dishes, underpants and spoons and you have to step over actual rubbish to get to the rubbish bin… The thing that helps the most for me – and I don’t know it will help for your mom because everyone is different – is when people ask me for help with things. It might sound backward because I am the one that needs more help – but if someone asks me to help them buy a dress, or help them with the dishes because they’re injured, or feed their cat or keep them company on an afternoon after they’ve had therapy and don’t want to be alone… I feel like I am an adult with value and it helps me to remember that the feeling that I am a worthless waste of space that can’t do anything and will never be a proper adult is a jerkbrain lie.

    But there is something amazingly magical that happens when people ask me for help and demonstrate that I am wanted and valued in their lives (Even if it’s small things!) Every time someone asks me for help I have more evidence to combat my jerkbrain with. If I help a friend do their dishes or stroke their hair as they go to sleep or say “yes! of course I would love to hang out with you and help you escape your brainweasles for a while!” …

    Well the next time they offer to come and help me with *my* dishes it gets a little easier to accept. Because I remember that when I helped my friend it wasn’t because they were a loser waste of space who was incapable of adulting like everyone else: it was because they are my friend and I love them! And it becomes easier and easier to accept the idea that maybe when they offer to help me it’s because I am their friend and they love me too. And when people ask me for help and I feel how it feels and I feel how I feel about my friends and family who are struggling or hurting or just want a second opinion or something, it makes it easier for me to ask for help too.

    1. LW here. You’re the second person to suggest that I get my mom to help me here. Great suggestion! I will try it out.

  12. Is it okay if I ask a related question? My mom is having a rough time of it. Dad died last fall after a really horrible wasting illness. She’s always had undiagnosed and untreated (and unacknowledged by her) mental health difficulties. Lately she’s made an unusual number of “jokes” about suicide.
    I know that might be her reaching out for help but I really honestly just can’t deal with it. Is it cruel to tell her not to talk suicide with me anymore? So far I mostly freeze up and then completely ignore the comment, and that doesn’t seem particularly caring either. She’s also a hair-trigger breakdown feelingsdump crier so I’m worried if I say anything in response to the “jokes” that I’ll unleash a mess that I can’t handle, which is the opposite of what I want.

    1. “Mom, you’ve made that joke a few times now, forgive me if I need to probe a bit. Are you thinking about suicide?”

      She will FEELINGSDUMP, yeah. But often it’s a relief to actually be asked. It’s the opening for you to say “Counseling. Now.”

    2. When I was living with my grandmother during and after my grandfather’s dying process, she would make jokes-that-weren’t-funny about suicide all the time. It freaked me the fuck out. So I went for, “If you keep saying things like that, I’m going to take them seriously, and I’m going to call emergency services, because I love you and I don’t want you to hurt yourself, and they can help you and keep you safe in ways I can’t.” (My grandmother hates the suggestion of counselors or therapy or anything of the sort, so I didn’t have the option the Captain suggests.) She stopped making the jokes around me. She’s still alive. She could probably use a mental-health Team Her, but she won’t keep the appointments I’ve made for her a couple of times, and I can’t take on the entire responsibility of her sanity; it won’t work if she’s not willing to be there anyway, and all in all I don’t think this is an ideal solution, but it does get through that joking about suicide is not okay and there are people who can help if you need help.

  13. As someone is very much in the role of mothering their mother, and has been for a long time now…listen to the Captain, LW. It’s a dark, scary place to be and in the end, you can’t win this war. All you can do is sacrifice pieces of yourself over and over again.

    Right now I’m going through the monthly battle with my mother over her chronic UTIs. The pattern…she follows me around for days/weeks telling me she’s in utter agony and must have a UTI. I attempt to explain that the pain in her back is actually from arthritis, as has been confirmed repeatedly. She screams that I’m wrong. She continues following me around complaining but won’t go to the doctor. Eventually, after dozens of conversations, I get her to go. The doctor agrees she has a minor UTI, but reminds her that treating it won’t fix the pain in her back. The doctor struggles to find any antibiotic that my mother hasn’t already falsely claimed an allergy to. Mom takes one antibiotic pill and insists on calling the doctor to get a different drug. She refuses to take the new drug. Eventually, she panic attacks herself to the hospital because she’s convinced she has a raging kidney infection and is on the verge of blood poisoning. The hospital confirms for the xth that she has arthritis. Later, rinse, repeat.

    Beyond the obvious frustration and stress this pattern results in is a terrible fear that one day it really WILL be blood poisoning. Or her common migraine will turn out to be her brain aneurysm bursting. Or what I’m sure is a panic attack will turn out to be a heart attack. Because I deal with all of this over and over again, and she always tells me I’m wrong and that this time is different, and I’m always 99% sure that it isn’t different at all…but what if it is? If I am wrong, how to I move past that, even if I know I did the absolute best I could? Especially since with her cognitive difficulties I don’t think she is capable of making rational choices in these matters?

    She makes suicidal comments as well, and she’s very depressed because of her pain issues and memory problems. Like your mother, she won’t seek help. So I’m here in the trenches with her, but I can’t protect her at all, and in the process of trying I’m getting hurt. It feels so *wrong* to separate yourself, but I will tell you it will be so much harder if you let yourself get to where I am. Being my mother’s caretaker has become my identity and it isn’t noble, it doesn’t mean you’re a better person to give of yourself until you bleed…it just means you’re *lost*.

    1. I’m sorry. That sucks.

      My hope for you is that somebody sits in for you — because of your deferred vacation, because you have to have minor and unscary but totally necessary surgery that will require you to stay in bed for a week, whatever. Half an hour of what you’ve described should be enough to convince any rational human being that you shouldn’t be doing this alone.

      Jedi hugs to you and your cat, who will hopefully heal up soon.

      1. He’s actually doing much better! He was pretty sore for the first three days (and kind of hilariously doped up on pain meds, which made him both aggressively affectionate and just plain aggressive), but now he’s back to running up the stairs and jumping on the beds. Though I STILL haven’t been able to figure out what happened. It’s funny because I’m always the one insisting that he’s an adult cat who doesn’t need to be supervised 24/7, and the five minutes I let him out of my sight he does…whatever the heck he went and did.

        I also worked out a deal with one of the family members who shares our time share and switched weeks, so they went up when I had planned to and I’m going up at the end of October. So vacation saved! (Though they made me pay 300 dollars for the privilege…I worked out a deal with my only good brother to pay it as a Xmas present.)

    2. I have been a little bit like this (pain and health confusion causing very odd defensive behaviour). For me the thing that got through was loved ones saying, ‘I can’t cope with your levels of pain and distress anymore. I need you do x as a first step.’ There was a definite suggestion – not explicit – that I would lose that person in my life. That, and the realisation of how much I had been hurting them, jolted me into doing x – even though x, though seemingly simple to others, was incredibly hard for me and took a lot longer than anyone would expect. Once the first steps had been taken, the next steps became gradually easier.

      1. I’ve had this conversation uncountable times. Usually it’s over her absolute refusal to visit a neurologist or aging specialist. There is something very clearly wrong with her cognitive thinking and memory, but I don’t actually know what the issue is because she’s terrified of having to hear a diagnosis. She’ll even agree tearfully that she understands this situation isn’t working and agree to go, but the problem is she forgets the conversation ever happened the next day. Even if I make her sign a piece of paper agreeing to go, she’ll later say it isn’t her signature. Everything is just so much more complicated when the person either can’t remember or can remember but pretends not to (honestly, sometimes I don’t know which of the two it is.)

    3. My husband had a stroke in 2001 and was convinced he would die any second or if he was upset in any way after that, and he convinced me of it too. As he became increasingly irrational and angry, and began acting out in ways that made me feel miserable and unsafe, it became harder and harder on my system to deal with it cheerfully and without complaint and I somehow managed it, but the personal cost was enormous. Until he picked a fight over IM and I realized that I had been so conditioned to think that at any moment he could die and everything could be the last thing I said to him that I had stopped standing up for myself. (At this point I’d been living in another country for school for about eight months.) So instead of knuckling under, I said I didn’t want to have the discussion and signed off. He died that weekend. It was pretty horrible but once the worst has happened it stops having any power. We had a fight and he died a day later and I can’t take that back, and in some ways that sucks, but on the other hand, I can tell you that it’s not the end of the world. If that helps at all.

      1. He had no right to make you responsible for his emotional well being. I’m sorry for what you’ve been through.

    4. This sounds really difficult for you, and your mum. Is this a situation where the broken record technique might help? It sounds as though no amount of explanation to your mum will enable her to see the situation clearly, which is distressing for her and really frustrating and exhausting for you. How would it be if literally the ONLY response you gave to any health issue she raises were to say “Do you want to see the doctor?” in a totally calm way? And if she says no but keeps complaining about her health, keep responding with that, and only that. It’s a totally reasonable question to ask a person who says they are ill; and your calmness in asking it could help to calm her, too. (You might need to be calm through gritted teeth!) Probably the cycle of no-yes-‘allergy’-‘infection’-panic-hospital would remain much the same; the difference is more in removing the exhausting work of trying to persuade and explain, and just making it about one simple question. Ultimately, her medical issues (whether UTIs or arthritis) are something it’s completely reasonable for you to pass to her doctor. Of course, if she’s ever in a position where she’s so distressed or unwell that she can’t reasonably respond (as would be the case if she were suddenly taken ill) then that’s the time to stop asking and start calling for help.

      (I should say, here, that I speak from the privileged position of living in a country where going to the doctor or the hospital doesn’t come with a price tag attached. As you’ve mentioned trips to the doctor, I’m working on the principle that this is something that’s reasonably possible for you/your mum; apologies if I’m wrong.)

      Please release yourself from the fear that you’ll one day miss or dismiss a serious illness. For starters, I do believe that you’d see a difference if she were to experience something like a heart attack or burst aneurysm. And, whatever her cognitive difficulties, it sounds as though you’re encouraging her to seek medical help when she seems to need it, and ensuring she gets it at times when she’s seriously unwell. There is literally nothing more that you or anyone could possibly do. You’re amazing, and I’m basically in awe of everything you’re doing for her. Please do look after yourself, and try not to beat yourself up.

      1. The reality is that I try very hard NOT to let her go to the hospital unless there’s a very clear reason because it is a HUGE drain on our finances. All of our major bills are medical bills. I’m now in serious debt that I’ll probably never be able to pay off because the drain of her medical bills means I can’t pay out of pocket for my cats’ medical fees, so I just keep putting more and more on my carecredit card (the cats will always get what they need, but in the past I’ve always been able to pay it directly or in a short time period.). Which just makes the guilt worse because I’m constantly trying to weigh more money wasted over her possibly not getting care she actually needs, so it makes me feel like I’m putting money first. I feel like I have to engage in these long conversations because if I can delay things long enough, the arthritis in her back will calm down and she’ll forget about things until the next time it flares up.

        Though really any broken record technique doesn’t work on her because she’s incapable of learning that no other reply will be forthcoming and she’ll just continue badgering me with questions and refuse to walk away. Going through the cycle at least buys me 10-15 minutes before she comes back for another round.

  14. I’m wondering a bit if this advice would change at all if the LW’s mother WAS willing to seek help. Is there anything you’re supposed to say or do aside from suggesting therapy? Say your depressed relative is already seeing a therapist, but things aren’t improving. Same advice?

    1. I guess that is where I am with my mother sort of. She’s seen loads of therapists and been to eating disorder clinics and seen priests and all kinds of people that are supposed to help but they just don’t. Instead to many of them unload their problems on her for some reason that I do not and will never understand. It is a horrible feeling knowing that I can’t trust the people I’m supposed to trust to help her. Knowing that she doesn’t trust them anymore and that she has far to good reasons for it for me to logic her out of it. That she’s sick of telling her problems to new people that end up not helping her anyway and just writing lies in her files for the next person to read. Some of it is just crazy and I’d never believe it if I hadn’t been to meetings with her and seeing it happen myself.

      This has been my life for basically all my life, getting more insight as I got older and all of it getting more hopeless. And to answer your question I do think the captains advice is still good. You need to make sure you survive this, your depressed relative will not improve if you give up all your own strength to try and fix her/him. Take care of yourself and keep making time to spend with your relative. If you think maybe finding a new therapist or a different type of treatment will help them then support him/her in making that happen. If not then still keep spending time but not all your time.

      But if someone else has some better advice I’d also love to hear it.

    2. I have a serious mental illness. My own personal advice would be for them to change therapists, and change meds. Keep going to doctors until someone “gets” it. It’s taken me six years to find anyone. Like canomia said, so many people in the health field are liars, or apathetic, or won’t look past what they think is going on, or shouldn’t be in health because they have a spiteful, barbed temperament. You need to dig and dig and dig until you find someone who will keep helping. And then, when they stop being able to help you, you need to dig and dig and dig again. It’s a horrible process but it’s the only way.

    3. If things aren’t improving after a while in therapy, it could be worth asking about the possibility of seeing a different therapist. Sometimes just hearing “if it’s not helping, it’s okay to quit and look for someone you like better” can be a revelation.

      Alternatively, if the relative likes the therapist and feels it’s helpful but it’s not doing the job on its own, it could be time to suggest seeing a psychiatrist to talk about meds (or to change/augment existing meds).

      Whether or not to take antidepressants is a very personal decision, obviously. But it can help to have other people reminding you that there are more possibilities for treatment and things that haven’t been tried yet.

      When you’re depressed, it’s especially easy to get despairing when you try treatment and it doesn’t work; the “medication merry-go-round” of trying one med after another to find one that works without intolerable side-effects can be very tough.

      So, in my experience, encouragement to keep trying new options can be helpful.

      But basically — same advice. Secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others with theirs.

      This isn’t a moral issue, that people who are seeking help deserve support and others don’t, and because the LW’s mother isn’t seeking help she’s somehow “bad” and therefore the LW should disengage.

      Feeding your own life to the black hole of someone else’s depression will not save anyone — deserving or not deserving, seeking help or not.

      The handy thing about people who are seeking help is that it can make it easier to remind yourself “I am not X’s psychiatrist or therapist, they already have a psychiatrist and therapist, I can get on with my job of being a friend (relative, whatever)”.

      But if someone isn’t able to seek help — you are still not their psychiatrist or therapist.

  15. I just…. I never thought of this.

    The bit about the illness eating you but not accepting the bargain. My dad is SEVERELY mentally ill, and my family in general is not terribly stable and… I just never thought of this. That even if I could be unselfish enough to give everything up, it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t fix it.

    I just… thank you.

  16. The Captain’s advice here is wise and wonderful. A few tiny additional thoughts from me…

    It is sometimes part of my job to work with people who are very depressed, suicidal, or otherwise experiencing mental ill health. It’s absolutely crucial that in order to keep myself functioning, and support those people effectively, I have a lot of boundaries in place around what I can and can’t do to help them. The situation when the ill person is a close family member must be very different, of course – but I strongly believe that in that situation, those boundaries become more important, not less. LW, it’s a really, really good thing that you’re living independently from your mother – this helps to give you space to be yourself and live a life that isn’t consumed by your mother’s illness. That was probably not an easy decision to make, and I just wanted to acknowledge that.

    Will your mum come out of the house, if invited to? If she will, then I want to second the Captain’s suggestion that this could be a good way of setting up your contact with her. I myself have often been that person whose mental state reflects itself in her living environment, and to be honest, it makes me not want people to come round all that much (because yes, I know month-old mouldy dishes are horrible, but having somebody else come round and wash them up doesn’t feel entirely helpful; it feels more like underlining my own general crapness at that point in time). Echoing the Captain’s usual advice that ‘sometime’ is not an actual time, maybe try issuing her a few specific invitations (“Would you like to come and see Guardians of the Galaxy on Tuesday at 7pm?” “There is an exhibition of impressionist watercolours at the art gallery, I am going on Saturday afternoon, would you like to come too?” “How about coming for a walk with me on Monday at 10 and trying that new coffee place?”) and seeing whether she takes you up on them? Or, if she’s past leaving the house, maybe framing your interactions in terms of positive things you can come round and do (and, hopefully, actually enjoy yourself) – like getting takeout and watching a DVD, say. Doing a giant jigsaw. Anything that takes the pressure off you to feel like you have to be doing something to help her, and off her to feel like she’s a helpless helpee, will actually, perversely, probably be really quite helpful for both of you.

    You said your mum doesn’t answer questions about whether specific actions are or aren’t helpful, and that definitely makes things tough. Regarding the grocery shopping you mentioned, this may seem like a silly question, but did she actually eat (at least some of) the fruit and veg when you used to buy them for her, or did she leave them to fester? If she eats them, buy them. If she doesn’t, don’t.

    Thinking in terms of boundaries, one boundary you might need to settle upon for yourself is to what extent do you let things go, domestically, before you feel compelled to act upon them – and honestly, I think you might need to let things go quite a long way, as horrible as that sounds. People fundamentally cannot accept help until they themselves are ready to, however much we might want them to and however much it might be better for them if they could. And, with the kind of issues your mum is living with, many of the treatment options she might have – talking therapies, for example – really won’t be able to achieve anything without her willing input. Yes, that places her, and you, in a horrible limbo. You are effectively waiting for a train that has no timetable and seems to have been delayed indefinitely. It sucks. And it’s possible that, for your mum, that train of moving-forwards will never arrive; and that sucks even more. But as things stand, it sounds as though a lot of your interactions since she became unwell have, totally understandably, involved you trying to do things to help her. The thing is, no matter how much laundry and shopping and washing up and cooking you do for her, it can’t fix the fundamental problem that she is unwell in a way that will only keep on generating more mess to be cleared up. So, in terms of all these aspects of her life, I think you may have to accept that you just can’t hold that tide back on your own. Is it horrible to think of your mum living in a smelly, dirty environment, living off junk food? Yes. I’m so sorry that’s the situation. But, if you’ve been largely away for the past couple of years, I’m assuming she must be functioning well enough to exist without needing day-to-day support; and she’s actively decided she doesn’t want to hire a maid – so, this may be something you have to allow her to live with, within reason. ‘Within reason’, for me, would mean stepping in in the case of things like pest infestations, or legal issues such as breaches of her lease or local complaints; and maybe also drawing a personal boundary about whether or not I would be prepared to visit all or part of the house in its current state. I know this might make me sound completely cold-hearted, but you ultimately can’t win the fight against your mum’s illness by excising all evidence of it from her home. All you’ll achieve is burning yourself out. You are not being selfish or a bad child to your parent to decide not to do that.

    In terms of what help you can offer her:

    – Avoid making offers of “let me know if I can do *anything* to help” – this is such a non-specific phrase that people often find it really hard to know what it means, since it’s unlikely to be literally true that you would do absolutely anything, so they end up not asking for anything at all. Make specific offers (“I am going food shopping this evening, would you like me to pick anything up for you?” “I am making lasagne, would you like me to bring one round?”) that she can accept or decline; and if she declines them, say no more about it on that occasion.
    – Where you can, have interactions with her that are nothing to do with her illness at all. I don’t mean never mention it or allow it to become the elephant in the room; but don’t make *every* time you see her a list of pleas for her to seek help, offers to do her dishes, and so on. This will be really, really hard, but ultimately it will lend more power to the times you do talk about the subject of her illness with her.
    – If your mum asks for your help, in a way you can reasonably accommodate, give it. (I say this because it sounds, from your letter, as though her situation is one of inertia rather than making excessive demands on you – but if I’m wrong, do bear in mind the ‘reasonable’ bit!).
    – Know how to summon help in your local area in the event that her situation worsens to the extent you feel she’s at immediate risk.

    Look after yourself, LW. If you’re blaming yourself on any level for any of this, don’t. None of it, now or in the future, is your fault. It’s not something you can change. It’s not something you can fight for her. Your question, fundamentally, was “is there anything I can do to help her?” – all you can do, really, is live a full life and invite her to be part of it. Good luck to you, and to her.

    1. LW here. Thank you so so much. This helps a lot. A few specific reactions below.

      It seems hard to get my mom out of the house without going to her house to get her first. I suggested that she come to my appartment to eat but she dismissed the idea. Maybe I should try again with a specific date. Going to town (cinema, exhibits,…) does not seem possible at this moment.

      I do get her sometimes to suggest films I could download and we watch them together. We also talk a lot about politics and society. (She’s very knowledgeable.) We play scrabble. She sometimes goes on short walks in the nearby woods with the friends who come visit. That’s about it.

      For the general state of the house, it’s very difficult for me to leave it alone. It’s the house I grew up in, and it will also be my house if my mom passes. Dirtyness is one thing but there are also humidity problem and a wall in the garden that might fall down this winter. My mom resists my attempts to do something about that.

      You’re right in that my mom does not make excessive demands on me. It’s more of the opposite problem, she does not want me to help at all.

      1. Dirtyness is one thing but there are also humidity problem and a wall in the garden that might fall down this winter. My mom resists my attempts to do something about that.

        FWIW, there’s stuff here that sounds familiar to me, as someone who tends to have fairly limited reserves of coping skills as a result of residual depression (and assorted other issues, including Asperger’s syndrome).

        Managing everyday life chores (shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, dealing with paperwork, organizing things) is very hard work for me; I usually feel as if I’m barely keeping on top of it. My house is extremely messy, though I generally manage to keep it clean.

        I’ve had family members offer to hire someone to come in and tidy up, and it’s upset me a lot — it feels like a judgement on me (“You are failing so badly and your house is so revolting that we have to do something about it”), and also a potential major intrusion into my life.

        Having strangers come into my house is very tough for me at the best of times, and “tidying” generally means I can’t find anything (at present, it’s a mess but I know where things are). So it would be a huge stressful thing, when it feels like I’m barely keeping my head above water.

        I usually manage to deal with structural house things, but my reaction is always “oh god yet another huge complicated thing that requires me to talk to people and deal with it“, and I tend to postpone dealing with it when I can’t face thinking about it.

        So I can imagine that if I was more depressed than I currently am, my reaction to a humidity problem or a wall that’s going to fall down would be closer to “OH GOD CAN’T DEAL WITH THIS RIGHT NOW, CAN’T DEAL WITH ANYTHING, WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO FORCE ME TO DEAL WITH THIS WHEN I CAN’T DO IT, WHY ARE YOU THREATENING TO MAKE PEOPLE COME INTO MY HOUSE?”.

        Does that help make any sense of how your mother’s reacting?

        Obviously, it doesn’t make the problem go away if things are actually going to rot or fall down (which will also be stressful for her). But it might give you some more information to help you decide if and how you want to offer help, and to understand why she might resist and what aspects of it might be most difficult for her.

  17. LW, I don’t know if this is your thing, but there is an Australian dramedy called Please Like Me partly about a young man who’s Mum is bipolar.

    The human is quite dark, and the depictions of mental illness are realistic, but it might be something you could check out.

  18. A lot of this seems like people and the Captain are telling this person to abandon their mom. This is basically the worst thing to do when people are suicidal, and while it isn’t their fault if the person dies…I’d sure as hell rather have my mom die while I knew I had done everything in reach, ever, to try to prevent it. I was suicidally depressed for years, and if people had just left me alone, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you.

    Can she not be put into an institution again for her own safety? Somewhere that will care for her and make sure she at least stays alive and has a minimum of proper care?

    1. “while it isn’t their fault if the person dies…I’d sure as hell rather have my mom die while I knew I had done everything in reach, ever, to try to prevent it.”

      My mum did die three months ago. I somewhat expected it. She told me she was suicidal 18 months ago. And yet, if I had done more, my own mental health would be significantly worse, to the point of possible breakdown. A lot of people, and the Captain, are not telling this person to abandon their mum, but they are saying “it is okay to prioritise your own mental health”, and that is a powerful message that many people do not receive enough.

    2. But LW is not leaving her alone much more than before? The mum has been living alone for years. Also, the Captain lined out why it’s a bad idea to give everything to try to make her better. And as earlier tries haven’t helped, I’m not sure how committing her against her will will do much good because as LW described, she will convince staff she’s well enough to leave and then the whole thing starts again.

    3. Hi, LW here.

      Your comment is very offensive to me. It’s like you’re blackmailing me with my mom’s possible suicide. Trust me, I don’t need to be guilted.

    4. And I’m not going to abandon my mom EVER. I was writing here to find a way I could keep supporting her on the long term, in a way that’s sustainable to me.

      Nobody but you wrote about abandoning my mom. Jesus.

          1. And hey, I lost the thread of the comments (so many comments) but we can for sure stop referring to your mom as suicidal. I put it in the title of the post as a way to indicate clearly that suicide is being discussed here, so if someone needs to not be reading about this for whatever reason they know to not click the link. Suicidal is a state of mind, not a descriptor of a person. That’s my mistake/choice and possibly what is fomenting
            Alcor’s misreading of the situation.

          2. Replying to JenniferP here because it won’t nest.

            Alright, that’s okay. Thank you for clarifying it for me.

    5. ALCOR. Nobody is abandoning anybody.

      There is a difference between hospitalizing someone who is making immediate suicidal threats and who is in an immediate crisis mode (which this family DID when the mom was in that place, and would/will do again if it becomes necessary) and caring for someone who is extremely depressed and functioning poorly over the long-term. You can’t hospitalize people against their will when it is not a matter of immediate danger. Being a full-time caretaker is a JOB, not something you can just casually take on your senior year of college and you can’t exist in “I WILL SAVE YOU!” mode for years and years and years, especially when the mom is not participating in any efforts to help herself. The response is about attempting to remain engaged with her (checking in with her weekly, spending time with her) in a way that is sustainable over the long term. I’m sure the LW would be overjoyed if her mom would go back to therapy and undertake medical care aggressively. She also has no control over whether that happens. So what CAN she do? She can be present and try to keep a relationship going.

      I’m glad your friends and family where there for you, but if the worst had happened, it would not have been their fault.

      If you have some concrete suggestions for things that the people in your life did to reach you when you were in that place, that would be helpful. Otherwise, save your guilt trips.

    6. I really don’t think anyone is telling the LW (or anyone else) to abandon their mom. It may feel like that to you right now, but that isn’t the content of the message. That is you projecting, and quite a bit at that.

      What people are saying is take care of yourself first and then offer help as time and your emotional health permits. And this is by no means the ‘worst thing to do’ in ANY situation. You cannot offer help that destroys you – not on a sustainable basis. Help that destroys you is no help at all.

      In fact, the bulk of the advice here is how to offer help that doesn’t destroy you, so I am really confused how you got to the point where you read it as ‘telling this person to abandon their mom’.

  19. This is one of those times when I wish deeply that younger me had had the Captain’s advice. The person who told me to prepare myself for the likelihood that my mom and younger sibs would always be my responsibility? I knew that advice was off, and I didn’t really take it, but it DIDN’T HELP.

    LW, take good care of yourself, and give your mom what support you can give her. If you find that supporting her is draining your resources, it’s okay to pull back. You don’t have to be your mother’s entire Team Her.

    1. LW here.

      I gotcha. Your situation sounds tough. I don’t have any siblings which in my situation is both a curse and a blessing I think.

      Fuck the person who told you that, especially if you didn’t ask them for their advice. I hope you are well now.

      I’m not going to abandon my mom but destroying my mental health over this would just add to her stress and not make her better.

  20. Hi. LW here.

    Thank you Captain and thank you to all the people who replied with support or advice.

    A lot of it are things I already heard from my Dad, my friend, my boyfriend, friends of my mom, or professionals and that I do my best to apply. It’s good to have confirmation that I’m doing the right thing and I thank all of you for that.

    Some of the advice you gave is new to me. Several persons mentioned that I should try to get my mom to help me instead of always trying to help her and that is really good. I will try that. My ideas: cooking meals together and get her to prepare me for my driving licence.

    One thing I do already: she was a very involved environmental, feminist and socialist activist pre-depression and nowadays she reads news sites all days. I always ask her questions about what she reads or what she thinks of a specific news story or other subjects (women roles in popular media for example) and I genuinely enjoy those conversations (and I think she does too). Sometimes I also get her to play Scrabble with me.

    I will also look up a therapist nearby and try to have a conversation with her about her getting help. I stopped doing that two years ago because it felt like I was pressuring her to have a conversation she did not want to have but maybe I can try to suggest it gently every few months just to facilitate things for her in case she ever changes her mind.

    All the stuff about the planning of my time is great advice and I might use it if I ever feel overwhelmed. Right now my school schedule is very light and I’m doing to do lists of what I want to do the next day every night and it works for me.

    I feel bad that a lot of you seem to be sorry for me. Please don’t. I am very lucky. I live in a country where mental heath care is made affordable for everyone. Thanks to government help and insurance and my parents’ savings I was still able to continue and succeed in my studies without worrying about the financial aspects of things even though my mom stopped working. I have good friends, my boyfriend could not be more supportive (and our relationship is great), my master’s thesis that I’m working on is interesting and I really like my life right now.

    I do have one question though. A lot of you are referring to my mom as suicidal. My mom committed two suicide attempts in her life (that I know of). One before I was born and one three years ago. The situation that she’s in now is stable and stressless and even though she’s clearly depressed, it seems to me that this kind of isolation is a relief to her. I think it’s unlikely that she would make another attempt at her life in those conditions.

    My question is, would she still be refferred as suicidal in this situation? Is it like when you’re an alcoholic, you will always be an alcoholic? Can someone please explain?

    (Granted, I might be very naive on this specific subject. It came as a shock to me that my mother would attempt to take her own life and I still can’t quite believe it.)

    1. One thing I do already: she was a very involved environmental, feminist and socialist activist pre-depression and nowadays she reads news sites all days. I always ask her questions about what she reads or what she thinks of a specific news story or other subjects (women roles in popular media for example) and I genuinely enjoy those conversations (and I think she does too).

      … you know, there are a bunch of interesting feminist people online writing about their experiences with mental illness, strategies for dealing with it, decisions about meds, etc. etc..

      If she’s like a lot of us in finding endless websurfing do-able when she doesn’t have the mental energy for anything else, maybe you could point her at some links?

      (I’m currently blanking on recs, but I know there are lots, and I’m sure people would have suggestions.)

      Might be interesting/useful to her to read about other people’s experiences, and might even lead her to tap into the online peer support resources for people with depression and other mental illnesses. Which is something she could do without leaving the house (which it sounds is a barrier for her right now).

      1. I would be interested in those links, perhaps people could add them to the Friends forum under Resources?

        My mother has been in a psych ward since Friday — she is not actively suicidal but is overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness. I’ve had my own depressive tendencies at times and am finding it terrifyingly stressful every time I call her there (so yes, I am bracketing the calls with lots of self-care; Massive Attack and yoga and hot drinks…)

        This post / answer / discussion could not be more timely for me. Thanks, Capt. A & Awkward Army!

      2. Thanks a lot, but I don’t live in an English-speaking part of the world and my mom does not read English. I have this problem often where I read a book or an article I love but I’m unable to share with her because of the language.

        I’ll look around and see if I can find link in French, though.

    2. As someone who has attempted suicide, and who has had family members attempt: see the Captain’s note upthread, but also, you never know.

      You are too deeply involved in your mom’s life and have too much of a pre-existing emotional relationship with her for you to be able to accurately assess whether or not she’s really suicidal. The very fact that you care about her makes it hard for you to have an objective judgement on this matter, even if you have mental health care provider training yourself.

      If you are concerned that she might be a danger to herself, involve professionals immediately. This is “advice for anyone with a maybe suicidal loved one” more than it’s specific advice for you. That said, given it’s been some years, at this point I would revisit the “do you want to get help?” question.

      1. I’m not really concerned, I guess, not enough to involve professionals. (I’m mean, she’s unwell but she’s been the same kind of unwell for two years now without trying to kill herself, so I can’t really have her committed…) If I see her suddenly get worse, I’ll react appropriately, of course.

  21. For my twopenceworth no, I don’t think a person who has been suicidal is automatically always suicidal. I see it as more of a spectrum – ranging from having no suicidal thoughts or feelings at all, through thinking about it, to acting upon those thoughts. A person can be anywhere on that spectrum and can move from one place on it to another many times throughout their lives; and I don’t think that a person can or should be considered suicidal for the rest of their life just because they have at some point thought about suicide or acted upon those thoughts. It’s very much about the present. So, although it’s good to be aware of the fact that your mum has felt this way the past so you can be aware should it happen again, I don’t think you need to think of her as ‘suicidal’ unless there’s a reason to think she currently is.

    It’s also very often the case that when a person is suicidal, they don’t actively want to be dead so much as they feel so overwhelmed by emotions that they want to stop feeling that they can’t think of any other way to make them stop. I don’t know if that helps to put your mum’s part suicide attempts in context, at all; I hope so.

  22. One thing I learned that helped me a lot with my dad’s and mom’s self-destructive behavior is the idea of being able to detach with love. You can love someone and still detach from them; detaching doesn’t mean you don’t love them anymore, it simply means you have to love them from a slight distance.

  23. Reblogged this on a muse dreams… and commented:
    There are several good ideas in this post. It really speaks to me about how hard it is to help oneself/a family member/friend with depression. It also gives concrete ideas on how to do that.

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