My Mother is Behaving Erratically

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Reader’s Question

My mother has been an alcoholic for 20 years or so, and she’s been an abuser of prescription medication for about 10 years. She’s in various stages of recovery for these addictions. I believe she does not drink any longer, but I have my suspicions regarding her medication regimen. Since she’s on such a litany of prescriptions for anxiety, depression, etc., I have no real way of telling what’s a valid prescription.

We’ve always enjoyed a relatively easy relationship. My teenage years were a bit strained with the alcoholism, but we still remained relatively close. I moved out of the house when I was 20 (ten years ago). About five years ago, she began displaying a strange pattern of behavior. She would call me on the phone and embark on this narrative that seemingly had no end, and required no input from the listener. She retells the same stories and seemingly fixates on things. She will feel wronged by a person (frequently her ex-husband, and more recently her own sister) and will focus on them endlessly.

Her social skills have diminished considerably. She is now unable to hold a job. She displays some degree of paranoia, feeling that people, even those close to her, are out to get her. In lieu of a job she seems to make up these fantasy worlds for herself. She has an alter ego she calls “The Advocate,” that seems to connect to people on an emotional level, e.g. she can tell what people are feeling just by looking at them. She thinks people are drawn towards her “advocate’s” compassionate nature.

Her behavior is also erratic. She showed up at my college graduation stoned. She missed the rehearsal dinner for my wedding. She offered to host my baby shower, but showed up three hours late and then complained that my in-laws had backup plans that saved the day! She showed up at the birth of her first grandchild and barely looked at the baby. Instead she made a big show to my in-laws about how much she respected their culture. I can no longer talk to her or deal with her and she is so defensive that, were I ever to bring these concerns to her, I feel she would breakdown completely. I’ve always been the one on her side, although in the past several years, she’s complained of me distancing myself from her.

I’m not sure what to do at this point. She complains about me not letting her into her grandchild’s life, and about how my in-laws are always over, but then she shows up and proceeds to make the whole show about herself and her problems. There is a history on her side of the family of bipolar disorder, and my aunt remarked recently that my mother’s behavior closely resembles that of my great-aunt, who ended up with severe bipolar disorder. Does this sound likely?

Psychologist’s Reply

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While it is possible that your mother is suffering from bipolar disorder, it would be extremely difficult to know for certain, given the high number of prescription medications you listed. Her behavior could just as easily be due to the combination of the medications themselves, a physical problem from years of substance abuse, or something else entirely.

I’m guessing, though, that your true concern is less about what her diagnosis might be, and more about how you can deal with her. Interacting with someone who is addicted is very difficult. It is frustrating because their behavior is unpredictable, and you often do not know how to help them. There is also anger because their behavior negatively affects your life. Then there is also the worry about their well-being. All of that makes for a strained relationship, at the least.

One of the best things you can do for yourself and your family is to set some personal boundaries with your mother. Personal boundaries are the limits you have in order to protect yourself from being manipulated and used by others. They allow us to dictate how we allow others to treat us and how we treat others. In this case, it sounds like your mother has frequently disappointed, embarrassed and worried you. As such, you need to set boundaries to prevent that from happening as much in the future.

You mentioned that she calls you and rambles on for a long time. One boundary would be to determine how long you are willing to listen to her. Set a fixed amount of time (say, 15 minutes) and then after that time has elapsed, either change the topic to something you want to discuss, or gently end the conversation. This way you hear what she has to say while not overly burdening yourself.

Similarly, I would definitely set some boundaries around how she interacts with your child. Children can get frightened by watching someone who is not in control of themselves, so it seems important to make sure that your mother is sober before interacting with your child. I would also provide a structured environment for such a visit, and perhaps even a set time. If your mother is sober and delightful, you can always change your plans to lengthen the time spent together. If she is out of control, you can always change your plans to shorten the time, or not have it at all. The key to boundaries is that you are in control.

Dealing with addiction is one of the most difficult things a family member can experience, primarily because you feel so helpless and out of control. Setting boundaries is one way to regain some control. Another way to help may be to attend a support group like Al-Anon, which is specifically designed for the family members of addicted people. It may be helpful for you to find other people who are in your situation, and who have good advice and support to offer.

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