I Know My Mother Was Disturbed, But I Don’t Have a Name for Her Disorder

Reader’s Question

My mother passed away about 2 years ago. Since her death, my grandmother and I have been talking about things we had both experienced with my mother over the years. I never really understood much of my mom’s behavior. I endured years of emotional abuse at her hands and that of her boyfriend. But until my grandmother (who had moved away when I was very young) and I started comparing notes, I had no idea that she had experienced some of the same things.

Mom always complained that she had a great deal of responsibility foisted on her as a child and was forced to cook, clean, wash and iron baskets of laundry, etc. My grandmother was shocked to learn that she had claimed such things, and insists that my mother was hardly asked to do anything and was, in fact, spoiled rotten. My grandparents tended to spoil me also, so I tend to believe my grandmother’s version of things. My mother used to use her false claims to pressure me into doing the lion’s share of the housework, especially after my father died and she found a younger boyfriend. As soon as I started working at age 15, I was expected to pay for all my own things and the remainder went for household expenses, while my mother and her boyfriend played poker and went drinking.

I was punished for the slightest infraction, even imaginary, whereas my brother, who behaved much like my mother, could kick me in the chest right in front of her with impunity. He could raid my possessions, and she would just laugh. My brother also frequently cut school or got into fights, etc. His behavior was as unpredictable and unruly as hers.

My mother would do things like stealing money and hoarding mail (checks, bank statements, 401K papers, credit card statements in particular) that did not belong to her and then calmly claim no knowledge of doing so. Often, these items were later found in her possession. She spent her portion of the rent money on frivolous items, but then claimed she paid her share and expected the other party to pay her back rent. When confronted about her irresponsibility, she would explode in self-righteous rage.

My mother would say incredibly hurtful and belittling things in anger and do whatever she had to do to get her way. Once, when I was seriously considering going to an out-of-state college, my mother threatened to kill herself and claimed that if I left, her death would be “all your fault!”

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My mother’s boyfriend made frequent and blatant sexual passes at me, but instead of attempting to protect me, she acted jealous and blamed me for his behavior, despite the fact that I was visibly terrified of being alone with him and wore the most concealing and baggy clothing I could find in an attempt to discourage his attentions. Later, she would dismiss it all and claim she believed “his mind was going” before he passed away. But she never once acknowledged her own culpability.

If my mother was ever confronted with things she had said or done, she would either claim she didn’t remember or say her accuser was “being dramatic” or blowing things out of proportion. She twisted everything around to the point that I didn’t really know which way was up and began to wonder about my own sanity.

Whenever a man would show interest in me, my mother never failed to develop a sexual interest in him herself, and her behavior would turn very seductive. In the last couple years of her life, I became aware she had developed a taste for online porn, chat, ‘toys’ and phone sex. I also suspected she was seeing several different men, which my grandmother later confirmed. And in her phone I found at least a good dozen different men’s phone numbers, all people I didn’t know.

My grandmother and I both believe that my mother had some sort of psychological disorder, and I have a couple of specific suspicions, but would like a professional’s opinion, understanding that it would be just an educated guess, rather than a specific diagnosis. Any suggestions or advice you have to offer would be greatly appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

It certainly appears that your mother had a significant disturbance of personality and/or character, although it would be difficult to accurately assess the exact nature of her disturbance. Much of the manipulative behavior you describe is as I describe in my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], and you might find the book and the prior blog articles I’ve fashioned from it quite helpful. (For example, see my article series such as Manipulation Tactics and Impression Management and The Thinking Errors of the Disturbed Character.) But from what you report, it’s also possible that your mother’s character disturbance exceeded those of the manipulators I describe in that book. In my soon to be released book, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], I outline several other disordered character types. Features of a few of these disturbed characters appear to fit your mother. I’ll be posting some excerpts from the new book in upcoming blog articles.

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