My mum is 56 and she’s been running away from her demons all her life. She’s an alcoholic anorexic and smokes marijuana daily. It’s always been disruptive to the family and I, the youngest, have always been the mother figure to my brothers and to Mum. She is inherently selfish, but in the unknowing way a child is. After getting into trouble with the law my parents moved abroad. I refused to go and lived with friends in a stable household from the age of 12. I got an education and a healthy perspective on life. I’m now 27 and over the years I learned to make peace with my parents’ decisions and lifestyle.
Recently I went to visit them after hearing Mum had been ill and discovered that she has lost weight, is drinking more and doesn’t leave the house. She thinks something is seriously wrong, but says she doesn’t want to know and refuses to go to the doctor. My dad has no power over her and seems to accept there’s nothing he can do if she wants to die. She’s in England next month and I’m considering holding her hostage, trying to get her to eat, trying to connect with her emotionally and even dragging her to the doctor against her will. Can I force her to get help?
This letter first appeared in the Observer.
[Firstly, it is important to say that you absolutely can force her to get help if she is a danger to herself. You can talk to a doctor about her and ascertain the level of help she may need. This can be administered against her will where she is endangering her own life.]
It is immediately clear that you have been parentified from an early age and you write as someone with no problems of her own, someone stable and well-balanced who seeks to help someone unstable and unbalanced. This, I think, is unlikely to be the case. I suspect that, as the designated grown-up, you are good at protecting yourself by always seeming like the one in control when, in fact, there must be a lot of very chaotic and out of control feelings raging, however much you say you have ‘made peace’.
You say your mother is selfish in an unknowing and childish way, but where does that leave you? You say she has been battling with her demons – the suggestion is that she has been quite mentally unwell for as long as you can remember. The effect of being raised by someone with untreated mental health issues can be devastating.
She was and is anorexic and so unable to provide herself with proper nutrition, unable to take good things in. I wonder what effect that must have had on you as the person going to her for nourishment of various kinds? You apparently had to nourish yourself and her in many ways. I would imagine this must have left you running on empty, whatever veneer you put on it.
At 12 you refused to go abroad with your parents, even though you had been mother to your siblings and your own mother. Although you say you gained stability through this, the cost must have been enormously high. You lost your family and at the same time were perhaps made to feel terribly guilty for abandoning this toddler/mother who needed you. You gained stability by excising the rot from your life, but that rot was probably fundamental to you and I wonder if you were left feeling extremely depleted (under-nourished).
It sounds as though there has always been a strong suicidal element in your mother and now your guilt is beginning to overwhelm you. You seem to be asking; can I just let her die? You barely mention your father’s personality or whether he also has eating and drug issues but, either way, it is apparent that he is co-dependent, that he facilitates your mother’s addictions with regard to food and drugs. She seems to be a very powerful figure, either surrounding herself with weak people or perhaps draining the strength from them with her own needs. As I say, she is someone you had to cut out of your life in order to survive yourself.
Now that she is dying and, it seems, choosing to die rather than get help (always her preference since she must have known on some level that she was struggling with her mental health before now) you feel responsible. You write; ‘I’m considering holding her hostage, trying to get her to eat, trying to connect with her emotionally and even dragging her to the doctor.’ You are hoping to effect a resurrection then, not only of her but of yourself – you will kidnap her, feed her, have her cured and, on top of that, you will bond with her and create a meaningful relationship that will nurture both of you. This, of course, is a fantasy, albeit a very understandable one. You want to save your mother and thereby yourself and create the mother you never had and the maternal relationship you must have longed for.
You suggest that you have plans to do all these things but I think you are probably more tied up with your mum’s suicide fantasy than you are able to admit. The murderous rage and hatred you must feel towards her for her lifetime of selfishness (unconscious though the rage seems to be in your very measured letter) is finally linking up with her own desire to die. What you are really asking in this letter is; do I have permission to let my mother die even though I could probably save her if I really tried? And if/when she dies I wonder if you fear that your desperate hope for love and support will die too? That the chaotic, mad, disorganised and selfish part of yourself that you have tried to reject will die too?
But do you have to mother the person who failed to mother you, yet again? Or, are you going to be the raging toddler for a change, allowing yourself to feel that it serves her right? This is what you seem to be asking.
I think if you allow yourself to get in touch with your murderous feelings towards the mother who deprived you of a childhood and of a supportive mother, then you might feel more able to help her as an adult, to facilitate her desires at the end of her life and to care for her appropriately. While you are keeping the sage, reasonable and implacable mask on (one you have had to wear in order to survive), your unconscious might end up acting for you – perhaps to your and to your mother’s detriment.
[I also wonder what role this very denigrated and castrated father has in your mind. Your older brothers too seem to be dismissed. Were you partly husband to your mother, father to your brothers? Is your own gender identity confused? There is not enough to go on here to speculate further, but it is clear that you must feel extremely lost and lonely in a variety of different ways at this very difficult time of your life.]
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