This past year I (31/F) finally received a diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with for over half my life. I have Complex PTSD/PTSD (I’ll spare you the differences and overlaps) (Ed. Note: No worries! I, Jennifer, will link people to a basic explainer.) Encouraged by my therapist I shared the PTSD with my parents. The main reason being because, with the enthusiastic support of said therapist, I am pursuing a service dog (SD).
Being able to acknowledge that yes, I have experienced multiple traumas and that I deserve to seek help and healing in a way that’s actually beneficial has been huge for me. I am very fortunate that my dog turned out to be an excellent candidate and I am owner training with the help of a professional service dog (SD) trainer. For the first time in forever, I can even sometimes think positively about the future!
The problem is that my feelings of being valid and deserving of help are new and fragile. My mother is extremely dismissive about my having PTSD, deciding to go the SD route, and the legitimacy of my dog being a service dog in training (SDiT). It often gets to the point of being triggering. And when I tell her she’s being hurtful she says she loves me, has good intentions, and somehow I end up apologizing for getting upset.
In the past I had her/the family on a very lean information diet, particularly when it comes to mental health stuff. I am worried about introducing my dog as my SDiT and it making the family feel as entitled to information and judgement as my mom. They mostly follow her lead when it comes to me. Although there have been times when my dad will privately admit mom is super critical of and often cruel to me, he has no intentions of intervening.
We live in different states so Holidays mean my siblings and I return to my parents’ house for several days. If it was just a dinner, I might be able to get through it, but I doubt I can last days in close quarters without utilizing my SDiT and I’d prefer not to lie since the truth will come out anyway.
Do you have any scripts for navigating what is essentially a medical treatment plan they don’t/won’t agree with? Tips on how to introduce my dog as my SDiT and have that be respected?
Letting the Service Dog out of the Bag
Hello there! Captain Awkward here with a beta-read and practical service-dog suggestions from The Goat Lady. I hope we’re reaching you while there is still time to cancel or radically alter your plans for this upcoming trip to see your folks.
Because that’s my practical advice: Strongly consider cancelling the trip and probably DON’T talk more in detail about your diagnosis or treatment with your mom right this second if you don’t think it will be safe or productive. More words/context/recommendations after the jump.
From your letter, I’m guessing that your conversations with your Mom about your diagnosis and possible treatments are skating around a glaring, painful, unasked and unanswered question that informs EVERYTHING else (right down to the logistical details of planning a visit with the dog). That question is about the relationship between your trauma and your mom. The one thing she can’t or won’t directly ask you is, “Is some of the trauma because of me?” and the thing you can’t necessarily safely say to her is “Yes, and the dog is what enables me to contemplate being in the same house for more than a few hours, thanks for asking.”
Identifying The Silent Question In The Question doesn’t mean I suggest you try to solve the silent question before you go or on the visit, quite the opposite! It may not be possible to safely talk about this with her, right now, or ever. Even if your mom isn’t one of the initial or major sources of the trauma, she’s not exactly a soothing, comforting, reliable support person where your mental health is concerned. Additionally, given her tendency to minimize your emotions and bully you into having different ones, I’d venture a guess that the minimizing that’s going on from her end is less about you and how you informed her and more about her and her fear.
Imagine you sharing your diagnosis and your mom and her immediately having a big emotional reaction with an internal monologue that goes something like this:
“Does having a traumatized daughter mean I was a bad parent? Was I a bad parent? Do you think I was a bad parent? Are you telling people (your therapist, the Internet, Unspecified People in The Community Who Might Judge Me) that I was a bad parent? Is this my fault? Wait, nonsense, I’m a good parent who did the best I could and who only ever wants what’s best for you, and as your mother, I’m the expert on what’s best for you, so if something is off here, it must be the diagnosis, surely there’s no need to be so dramatic about all this, kids today with their avocado toast and emotional support animals, it’s just some fad, and indulging you in all this would probably actually do more harm than good. After all, who knows you better or loves you more than YOUR MOTHER (your faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamily)?” – Your Mom’s Jerkbrain, who is much louder than her Adult Child
Inside: Fear of being wrong and looking bad and not knowing what to do that blocks out everything else. Outside: “Oh don’t be ridiculous” and “Are you absolutely sure, a lot of that stuff is overblown these days” or “Don’t be so dramatic, you’re exaggerating like you always do” or “I suppose your therapist thinks it’s all because of Me” or whatever hurtful shit she said. If I’m correct about this, I’m not telling you this because I think you have to manage her feelings or comfort her about them, I’m suggesting that it’s possible that you are literally being drowned out by her internal conversation with “her worry about you” where it meets “her own self-image.” Your mom isn’t right about you, she isn’t the expert on you (especially compared to…you), she doesn’t know more about PTSD than you, she doesn’t know more about YOUR PTSD than you and even if she were *a* mental health pro she’s not YOUR mental health pro (she would be in fact specifically ethically prohibited from even attempting to treat you), so maybe being able to remind yourself “her wrongness is way more about her than it is about me” will help it all sit a tiny bit lighter. She’s a worried, fearful, mostly-wrong lady who is trying (unsuccessfully) to ride a long-established parent-child power-dynamic because she doesn’t have other tools, not The Ultimate Boss Of You.
To contrast (and remind you that people have choices about how they treat you), here are some supportive things a person could say when a loved one discloses a mental health diagnosis and treatment plan that centers the person doing the disclosing:
- “Wow, that must be a lot to deal with! Do you want to tell me more about it?”
- “Wow, interesting, glad you are getting some answers. What do you need from us?”
- “A service dog? How great that [already loved and available dog] is a good fit for the training! How fascinating! How can we help?”
- “Oh my, that sounds really stressful. You’ll let us know if there’s anything we can do, right?”
- “I’d love to learn more, is there anything I could read that would give me more insight without you having to explain it piece by piece?” (In my experience therapists can sometimes recommend or provide material specifically for educating family members, NAMI‘s site can be useful for that as well).
Even “Hey, this conversation is making me feel really anxious because I don’t know anything about that and want to make sure I say the right thing, can we take a break so I can catch my breath for a minute and then you can tell me all about it?” would be better than what your mom did, i.e. a Sith mind trick where she mentally converted a medical condition that is happening to you into an inconvenient problem you are inflicting on her and then tried to minimize it all out of existence. It sounds like she’d rather argue with you about your diagnosis and treatment (possibly in order to remain the sole authority, in her mind, on what you are “really” like and what you “really” need, possibly to avoid having to think about her role in your fraught history) than to stop and say, “What do you need to feel better? Then obviously that’s what should happen!”
Whatever your mom’s feelings and her intentions, her actions and words aren’t meeting your needs. She might not be capable of meeting your needs (The inimitable Rae McDaniel’s “You’re not going to be able to buy groceries at the hardware store” quote comes to mind). Wanting your mom to know what’s going on with you isn’t unreasonable or weird, giving her a chance to rise to the occasion and support you was incredibly brave. You also need some specific support around the upcoming visit and your dog. What you got was steamrolled. You felt like you had to apologize to her* when you didn’t do or say anything wrong, and you left the conversation with even less confidence than you started with about how this visit was going to go. This isn’t because you told her wrong or need better scripts, this is almost 100% one of the cases where the Letter Writer has explained it all just fine and the actual problem is that the other person doesn’t want to hear it.
If that’s the ballpark we’re playing in, this is less a “How do I convince my un-supportive family to validate my diagnosis and service-dog-in-training?” question than it is a “Is this the right time to take my half-trained service-dog into territory that is almost certain to be triggering? If I go, how do I keep myself safe and not jeopardize the training?” question.
If validation isn’t coming, and more heartfelt conversations are likely to be even more frustrating and outright damaging, where does this leave us? In my opinion, resetting expectations and setting boundaries as you plan your visit home are going to do more than any additional conversations where you get your mom to try to understand or validate you around this.
Resetting Expectations: Again, what if your mom is incapable or totally unwilling to be affirming or supportive about this? Maybe it won’t be like this forever, but what’s really going to change about her attitude in the next week? How can you get what you need to be okay without depending on her to do something she may not be able or willing to provide? How can you internally shift your expectations away from ‘how mom feels about your dx’ or ‘mom’s uninformed and yet incredibly adamant opinion about service dogs and trauma’ (topics she can likely hold forth on at some length) and back to “Welp, she can think anything she likes, this is what’s working for me, so I’m doing it anyway, and the best way I can take care of myself is _____.”
Resetting expectations also means aiming for “not a completely awful time” and “in and out with everyone safe and in one piece” over “deep discussions and true connections.”
Setting Boundaries: What are the minimal, baseline, actionable things you need to be okay during this visit and not mess up your dog’s training? There are scripts that will help you set boundaries, like: “I’m bringing the dog with me, does that mean I should stay in a hotel or will we be okay in the house?” “When a service dog has the vest on, it’s working, everybody needs to just ignore it.” “Don’t feed the dog anything, it’s part of the training to have treats and praise only come from me right now.” “If I feel panicky, I need to go into a quiet room with the dog and be left alone until I come out.” “Well, the research says that this works, but in the end the best way to judge any treatment is if it makes me feel better. This is what my medical team recommended, and so far it’s making me feel better, what’s there to argue about? Who wants pie?”
Scripts might not work (which has less to do with how you delivered them than it does with who was on the other end to receive them), so setting boundaries is also about making plans for what you’ll do to take care of yourself. Can you stick to your routines and the dog’s training even if people are skeptical and unsupportive? Can you safely remove yourself from conversations and rooms if your family’s ableism gets to be too much? As the visible evidence of the diagnosis, does the dog need protecting, will your mom try to sabotage the training or separate you from the dog (by forbidding it from certain areas of the house, or feeding it harmful stuff, or letting it out off-leash ‘just for a minute,’ or do stuff to ‘prove’ you don’t need the dog, for example, and I wish I were kidding but I am not)? If you had to cut the visit short and go home, how would that work?
Validating you and supporting you is the right thing for your family to do, but if they don’t, boundaries help you keep yourself and your companion safe without depending on having to persuade bullies and skeptics to fix their hearts.
In your shoes, here are some additional questions I’d be asking right now of your mental health team and the situation at large:
First, and most urgently, would visiting these people right now make it worse and should you cancel and try again later when you’re on firmer ground and the dog has finished training? If you were certain that no further understanding or validation was coming, would you still want to take this trip?
[Note: I HATE LYING, but after you described your mom’s behavior and your dad’s ‘yep she’s really cruel to you sometimes,’ if you decide to cancel I would recommend a single last minute text message along the lines of ‘oops, I seem to be coming down with something and I don’t want to give everyone the gift of being sick, so sorry, miss you!’ on the day you were supposed to travel over ‘I guess I will call my parents in advance and try to discuss with them why I do not feel comfortable coming home right now like reasonable adults.’ Reasons are for reasonable people, the first option is communicating a decision, the second is opening a negotiation with someone who routinely pressures you and centers her own feelings and will try to override your decision at every opportunity. You are a polite, reasonable person who wouldn’t want to cancel at the last minute, but people who punish you for the truth about your life lose their right to know everything about your life.]
Second, whether or not your family “understands” the service dog thing (for instance, that having the dog along is what makes the prospect of a family visit bearable or even possible for you), what are the practical considerations of bringing a dog-in-training around people who are new to being around service dogs and some who might outright try to sabotage your efforts? Does the trainer have a good guide for educating family members and reinforcing the training that you can use, maybe a website or pamphlet that could be delivered in advance? Plan this out so you have everything you need. The Goat Lady has more about this later in the post.
Third, you told your parents about your diagnosis and your mom, especially, was awful about it. Is it time to resume the “low information diet”? Telling your mom doesn’t mean you have to keep discussing it with her, especially when she makes you feel worse, so consider scripts like:
- “Oh I wasn’t asking for advice I was just letting you know what’s happening.”
- “Oh, I just wanted you to know and my therapist thought it was a good idea to loop you in, but it doesn’t mean we have to keep talking about the details. That’s what I have a therapist for, let’s you and I just hang out.”
- “Oh, my therapist and dog trainer and I are on the same page, this is my treatment plan. I’ll know it’s working if it makes me feel better, and so far so good.”
- “Oh, believe me, I got it when you said you were skeptical, but I’m doing the training and bringing the dog anyway, so all you have to worry about is… [practical considerations that won’t eff up the training]. Can I count on you to [do the right thing]? Great, that’s all I need!”
Fourth, if you go, is there a sibling you trust and can count on to do the right thing by you and the dog run interference for you if necessary? “I’m bringing the dog, as a Service Dog In Training (SDiT) the dog needs x, y, and z. Can you back me up if things get weird?”
Fifth, in my experience, people who act like your mom rarely be persuaded to do the right thing, but they can sometimes be yanked into doing the right thing with a combination of strategies.
We’ve talked in the past about being boring and changing the subject in response to intrusive or critical comments or unwanted advice. (“Huh, thanks, I’ll think about it. Hey, that reminds me, are there any updates on that buried time capsule they found during Aunt Mildred’s home renovations? What was in it?”)
We’ve also talked about giving people praise and attention when they are kind and removing attention (and access to us) when they are not. One way to put that into practice is to replace “Sitting your parents down and tearfully asking for the right thing in a heartfelt conversation” with “Blustery, cheerfully acting like they were going to do the right thing all along and giving them a lot of advance thanks and praise for doing the right thing as if it were their idea in the first place!”
It’s like positive, benign, friendly gaslighting. You were definitely anticipating an argument and they were probably planning one, so if you come at them with, “Hey, can’t wait to see you! You got the info about the dog stuff, right? It’s been so fascinating to learn about how they train service dogs, I’m really excited about it. Oh, before I hang up, did you send me your Christmas list yet? I’m going to try to get a bit of last minute shopping done today. Love you!” sometimes you can defang and disarm the argument before it even starts. Whatever they say, you do your best to cheerfully “yes, and” it back to what you need them to do or what you were going to do anyway, and you give them a lot of praise as if they have already agreed to do it. “But I’m just trying to help you!” => “I know you are, thanks so much for doing [thing I actually need], thank you so much, you’re the best! Gotta go, but thanks again!”
If your folks roll with your mood and tone, they get to be GREAT PARENTS who OF COURSE want their daughter to FEEL BETTER, and over time they might actually start trying to live up to your vision of them. If they are determined to have the argument, so be it, but now they have to deliberately and obviously kill the mood. It turns out the same social pressure that makes you feel like you have to comply with them and never cause a scene are in play, except it’s working for you now. And specifically with your mom, it might temporarily bypass the “fear of unearthing the difficult past” klaxon her Jerkbrain is likely sounding. You don’t need her to understand it or delve into it or apologize for it or admit fault, you need her to do one concrete future thing at a time to not make it worse. If she does, you’ll be like “Yay! Good Mom!” and if she doesn’t enough times in a row you’ll go home and not talk to her for a while.
This approach isn’t easy – it requires some performance and faking-it-till-you-make-it, it takes enormous energy to like, soothe and manage the feelings of people who may have installed your traumas specifically about those traumas, and I wouldn’t recommend it at all if you are feeling especially down or vulnerable or close to tears or low on energy. It’s also frustrating because it means giving people credit for shit they didn’t do and letting go of the idea that there will ever be an honest reckoning of what happened in the past. It might take a few tries to get it to stick, so revert to being boring, subject changes, and cutting the conversation short if you start to feel shaky.
That said, I have to say, this can work like gangbusters with people who are motivated by seeming like good parents (or bosses, or coworkers, this isn’t just for family) and being seen as good people. The straightforward, sincere, rational, honest discussions that would work for you aren’t working with your folks, so what if you created an image of what a great parent would do and then showered that theoretical awesome parent with so much cheer and praise and affection and attention that your actual parent started to think, hey, I DO look pretty good over there in that light, how do I get more of that? You’re training a dog who wants to be a Very Good Boy or Girl, it’s a similar principle, dogs (and difficult people) get the treat or the click or the praise when they do the right thing, not because they feel or believe the right thing.
Now, over to The Goat Lady, whose continuing adventures can be followed here.
“Goat Lady here (a service dog owner-trainer with a big ol’ pile of trauma-related mental health diagnoses), with some practical considerations:
Have you looked up access rights for handlers with SDiTs in your parents’ state? Not every state gives handlers with a dog in training the same access rights as those with trained service dogs. If you don’t have access rights with your dog, where will you be able to safely leave them if you need to go somewhere?
Is your dog at a point in their training where they can handle working on this visit? It sounds like this will be very intense for you, which means it will also be a lot for a dog who is still in training and can cause a dog to decide that this particular job is just too much.
Do you have a firm plan for making sure that your dog gets time off? Even my dog, who will periodically check to see if there is someone else they can help if I’m being too boring, needs time off to just chill out and not have to pay attention to my emotional state.
I really want to stress that you should check in with your trainer and with your counselor. It’s ok to sit this year out and go home next year as a more experienced and confident team!” -A.
We are rooting for you and your dog. This is a hard, brave thing you are doing, and you’re not “causing drama” or “being difficult” by having needs, you are doing your best to take care of yourself in difficult circumstances. If the service dog is allowing you to feel better and engage with your family safely, then that’s the right thing for you, no matter what they think. If you need to sit this one out and come back when you’re on more solid ground, that’s what you need, no matter what they think. Prioritizing “communicating my needs and maintaining good boundaries” vs. “explaining myself and asking for validation” is probably going to be a lifelong project with your mom, I hope it gets easier and better with time and practice.<3
Comments are on with the following parameters:
- If you have a service animal have had a service animal, and/or train service animals, please comment. How did you introduce your service animal to family? Are there any things to work on specifically when family (or coworkers, etc.) are not respectful? What were the obstacles? What made it work? What was the one thing you wish you knew then that you know now?
- If you have experience disclosing mental health diagnoses to unsupportive family, that’s also valuable. Were you able to get them to hear you? Did it work better when you stopped trying? Let us know.
- “I don’t have a service animal, but…” or “I’ve always wondered x about service animals…” or “Yeah but aren’t people being ridiculous with their emotional support cockroaches, where does it all end, aren’t some people faking, here’s this ridiculous anecdote” = Nope! Service animals are weirdness magnets, let’s practice being good Service-Animal-Accommodating People by not doing the “I was just curious…” thing, the LW’s going to get more than enough of that and doesn’t need it here. 🙂 It’s not an opinion poll or an open thread, so thanks in advance for hanging back and taking these questions to your own webspace or the Googles.
*P.S. For the Letter Writer and anyone who read this post with recognition because a lot of your conversations with a parent end with you apologizing to them about stuff that they did or said that hurt your feelings, or because they insist on being an expert about you who knows more than you do about you, you may find Dr. Karyl McBride’s book affirming and useful. Whether or not the “narcissism” label applies (a thing we can’t actually possibly know), or whether you are strictly “mother” and “daughter,” don’t let that scare you off, in my opinion the advice for setting boundaries and recalibrating expectations is solid for many fraught parent-adult child relationships.