Over the five years Paul and I have been dating, I’ve often talked about his mom and said, “I think something’s wrong with her.” For the most part, when people heard that, I think they thought what I really meant was, “I don’t like her, and I don’t understand why she says and does certain things.” But I meant exactly what I said. At the very least, I thought she had no coping mechanisms. I saw it in the way she unraveled at the tiniest stressor–no problem or obstacle was small or manageable. Every problem was met with a fervor, a panic. To make that worse, she constantly finds something wrong with something, anything. The way I’ve often put it is if there isn’t a problem, she’ll go looking for one or create it herself, and Paul’s suggested she just doesn’t know how to be happy and exist in a calm, peaceful environment.
Almost a year ago–last November, just before Thanksgiving–she had some sort of breakdown. Paul’s siblings hadn’t mentioned anything until it reached its tipping point, but she’d been acting strange and erratic for about a week, saying a lot of really bizarre things. It culminated in her packing some things in the family van, waking the kids up on a Saturday morning, and saying they were moving to the mountains. When one of them called their dad, who was working, he played along and told them to pick him and he’d drive, and instead, he drove to the hospital. They concluded she had a mild UTI, which can make people act kind of strange, although that normally happens more in older people. But it seemed like a reasonable answer, and they’d done head scans and found nothing. Paul, however, insisted the UTI wasn’t the culprit. At the time, I brushed this off as his cynicism, but looking back, especially now, I think he just instinctively knew.
Someone–I believe their family doctor–did refer her to a therapist, just in case. She went for a few sessions but found reasons to dislike the therapist, the way she does with everyone, and ultimately decided in March she didn’t need to go anymore. Paul was livid–she said she knew what she needed to do now and didn’t need to go anymore, but we both knew that’s how therapy works. We also knew she hadn’t been telling the therapist everything.
She never really got back to her “normal” self. Sometimes, she seemed alright to me, but Paul knows her better and insists she wasn’t. He said she’d seemed distracted, and sometimes I did notice she just wasn’t as engaged–one evening we were over and got to talking about the book Siddhartha and Buddhism, and normally, this kind of discussion would trigger an outburst from her packed with comments about reading about other religions being against Catholicism and concerns that we were thinking of converting, but she didn’t say a word.
I can’t remember when things started getting bad again. Details would trickle in from siblings. One afternoon when we were over, Emily told us about their mom giving her a bunch of old jewelry–which made me worried that she was suicidal–and she gave each of the kids a sealed envelope and told them not to open until she said to. There was just a dollar bill in it.
We’d sent one of the siblings to a friend to talk to as a confidant. They never met in person and still haven’t, but given this friend’s experience both professionally and personally, we thought they were a good resource. We still firmly believe this. But this friend heard some things they found very, very concerning, things from the kids’ childhood that are considered emotional abuse and neglect. It was big enough that this friend seriously considered reporting it to CYS.
I was worried for the kids, anticipating a full-blown meltdown. But I didn’t give a single shit about how Paul’s mom might’ve felt had it happened, especially because given some of what was learned, I think she’s known the whole time that she’s a bad parent. At the very least, she’s been aware she was doing something wrong–she actively tried to hide it, and Paul’s dad only very recently became aware of the extent of what was being said and done every day while he was at work. I kind of feel bad for him because of that. He’s getting a lot of shit dumped on him at one time right now, but at the same time, I still blame them both for Paul’s depression. Not because they caused it–although I think his mother was a factor–but because they failed to recognize it in him as a teenager despite the obvious signs and they failed to do anything about it. I resent them both for it.
The report didn’t happen. Our friend got some outside opinions, and they felt it could do more harm than good and suggested to leave it up to the kids. Paul left it up to his siblings still living at home, since they’d have to deal with it, and they decided not to do it. But the fact that it was a very real possibility seemed like a huge wake-up call. They realized the extent of what their mother has done. Even for me, it’s bizarre to call it emotional abuse, but that’s exactly what it was and often still is. I mean, even as adults, the woman’s children are afraid of her.
As a side note, a friend almost reporting your boyfriend’s mother to CYS would wreck plenty of relationships, romantic or as friends. But it didn’t. At all. We all came out unscathed. It’s like it never happened.
But now, I wonder how much of Paul’s mom’s behavior over the years could’ve been mental illness the entire time. In the midst of the discussions of emotional abuse were discussions of just how bad her mental state’s gotten. I don’t want to go into detail because it’s her business, but after Paul’s dad told their family doctor everything, he concluded she could be a high-functioning schizophrenic. He can’t actually diagnose her, so he has referred her to a psychiatrist. Her appointment should be this Wednesday.
Paul told her long before her breakdown last year that he thought she should see someone, and she took it as an insult. But when a similar statement comes from a doctor, she listens, and thank God for that, at least.
All this as set-up for a visit we made two weeks ago.
Obviously, Paul spent a lot of time on the phone with his siblings and dad. In fact, one night before he talked to his dad, I actually said something needed done and that I felt like I was the only one taking all this seriously and pushing for her to get help, and I don’t even like the woman. And sure enough, I overheard him on the phone getting pushy with his dad, insisting it was enough excuses and just acting like it would all go away and it was time to actually do something. So Paul decided he wanted to go out one night for dinner during the week before “everything goes to shit,” though I think there’s a chance that it was a shit visit before everything gets better. All depends on her now.
The visit was bizarre. When we got there, she was just sitting on the couch. Paul talked to her while I talked to his sister Emily. But it became really clear really fast that something is very wrong with their mom. She was incredibly disengaged. She spoke very little, and when she answered questions, it seemed like doing so required a lot of effort from her. She spent most of the evening sitting on the couch, looking very deep in thought but saying almost nothing, even when we meandered toward subjects she would normally have very strong (and uninformed) opinions on.
The worst part? The fact that she is so disengaged made it one of the best visits I’ve ever had with the family. I like her better this way, at least to interact with her, because she’s nicer. And don’t get me started on how bizarre and cruel it feels to say you prefer a person’s personality when they’re very obviously mentally ill.
The schizophrenia theory has us all thinking. Paul’s thinking back to things she used to say when they were kids that were a bit off but not alarming and wondering if it was schizophrenia the whole time, especially considering she’s too old for it to be coming on just now. Our theory is she’s had it for a long time and something happened that made it worse and harder to hide.
As for my personal reflections, I’m wondering what part mental illness may have played in all these of years of resenting her. Has she been such a mean person because that’s just who she is, or is what I’ve been interpreting as narcissistic meanness been related to potential schizophrenia? And now that this has all come up, how do I go forward? I’ve vowed to not tolerate any abuse from her, but I feel like I’d be cruel to snap right back at her and be as harsh as I truly want to be sometimes. I can’t in good conscious be nasty to someone who’s mentally ill, especially if she’s behaving in certain ways because she can’t control herself, but I also can’t just let things slide anymore. Both mine and Paul’s therapists told us to set boundaries with her–mine are pretty clear, I think Paul is still trying to draw his, with the exception of ceasing visits if she’s not getting help–and my therapist often asks if she’s getting help herself, but I struggle with how to make those boundaries clear now. I don’t believe in handling her with kid gloves. I actually think a huge factor in everything is that she’s been allowed to get away with a lot over the years because so few people challenge her, and she cuts them out when they do. Which ironically I think puts me, as well as Jacob’s fiancee and Julie’s boyfriend, in a really good position to be the ones to speak up because we don’t like her anyway and she can’t just get rid of us. If she tries, our respective significant others probably aren’t gonna tolerate it. But as much as I don’t believe in being gentle with her, I also don’t think extreme, careless bluntness is the answer, either.
One of the things I want to address eventually is her clinginess with Paul. It’s strange. It’s like she thought her kids would live at home forever, and it’s like that’s what she wants. When she sees Paul, she hugs him for an awkwardly long time, and I can’t just say, “Hey, quit hugging your kid, it’s weird,” but like I said, we still need to establish boundaries. She struggles with the fact that we just can’t go over and have dinner during the week, nor can we spend every weekend with them. I’m not sure if she doesn’t understand the reasons why, which include life and other commitments and friends and family, or if she doesn’t care. Especially now.
In short, I just don’t know what to do, but I guess that’s why I pay a shrink.