Staying Connected to Bipolar Mother

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Reader’s Question

I am a 20-year-old female trying to figure out how to preserve a relationship with my mother despite her attempting to reconcile with her emotionally abusive ex-husband. They have reconciled three times over the course of ten years. She is severely bipolar to the point that she is on disability for it (along with having many medical issues and problems with her memory).

The conflict in our relationship is that I believe she has forgotten how emotionally abusive he was, and she believes that, since I was young at the time, I didn’t understand the relationship. I can remember instances of emotional abuse, such as, when I was ten years old he got upset and pinned her against a wall and punched it. When I was 16 years old, the last time they reconciled, I remember living with him and having him threaten to throw us out on the street. I lived in constant fear that my mother and he would fight and we would become homeless. I had so much anxiety during that ordeal I was unable to eat without having severe stomach pain. It’s possible that I developed ulcers then. Also as an adult, I have very severe anxiety problems. I feel angry with her, because she doesn’t remember this at all, and it only happened a few years ago.

Due to my mother’s inability to remember, I have carried feelings inside of me for ten years. I have tried to remember for her as a way of protecting her. I have a very vivid memory of the feeling I had when I was 10, when they reconciled the first time and I felt a great sense of fear and hopelessness. When I was 16, I still remember driving away from the house, and the feelings of emotional emptiness and despair that I never knew were possible. I have tried to express these feelings to her as a means of proving to her that he was actually emotionally abusive, but she refuses to believe me. I will provide instances to her where he was emotionally abusive, and she will say she doesn’t remember.

I have never believed ultimatums were a good idea, but I am going to be going away to college to start my own life in three months’ time. I have told her that I don’t think I can have a relationship with her if she reconciles with him. I can’t imagine sitting at a table at Thanksgiving dinner and attempting to smile at a man who has abused my mother and me emotionally so many times. My mother has said that she is going to start living her life when I move out, since she believes she has been living it for me all this time. I want to live my life for myself as well, but it seems that we are at an impasse in terms of the way we want to live ours.

Psychologist’s Reply

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What a difficult adolescence you must have had with such unpredictability and worry. It sounds like you have carried much of the emotional work for your mother, and that you have been the one stuck with the consequences of her actions as well as the painful feelings. Having a parent with a serious mental illness like Bipolar Disorder can create situations in which the child may have greater emotional maturity and better decision-making ability than the parent, but the child still lacks the power to exercise choices that ultimately affect her life. Anxiety is a very normal response to such an abnormal situation. Witnessing the abuse of your mother at the hands of her ex-husband and being exposed to these traumatic events can also contribute to symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

I can understand how much you want to help your mother make better decisions for herself. It must be frustrating to present your mother with evidence based on your observations and experiences, only to receive responses of denial or forgetfulness. You have every right to feel angry about what has happened in your lives, and to express your anger directly to her. However, it sounds like your mother will continue to make choices about her relationship with her ex-husband that meet her own needs (regardless of whether you believe they are healthy choices for her).

Thankfully, you will soon be in a better position to make choices about your own life and relationships, independent of your mother’s decisions. Only you can decide how you want to interact with your mother and her ex-husband — but it’s unrealistic to try to control her choices by cutting off your relationship with her. Finding a way to see your mother, while setting limits in situations involving her ex-husband may be most helpful for you. For example, other family members or friends might be helpful ‘buffers’ in tense situations when your mother and her ex-husband are present. You might also consider finding a way to shorten the time at a holiday like Thanksgiving if your your mother and her ex-husband are together (such as making plans for part of the day with others, or scheduling time alone with your mom over the holiday weekend).

Starting your own life at college is an excellent first step in establishing new boundaries, new rituals and new patterns with your mother. Most universities offer professional counseling services (either through the health services or student services office) that are already paid in your university fees. I would encourage you to visit with someone at your college’s counseling center to help you navigate tricky situations with your mother’s ex-husband, and to explore your choices about how you can keep yourself healthy while maintaining some kind of relationship with your mother (whatever that may be for you). A psychologist can also help with the anxiety that you have experienced in the past, which may re-emerge in the new and sometimes stressful situations at college.

You sound as if you have a really good head on your shoulders. Having the space and support to further explore your thoughts and feelings when you are away from home could be beneficial for you and, in turn, your mother. In the meantime, you might find Harriet Lerner’s Dance of Connection to be a useful book with insight into ways to stay connected to loved ones without sacrificing your own voice or emotional health.

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