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Date of last update: 8/24/2017.

Forum Name: Psychiatric Topics

Question: Need help in identifying my mother's problem(s)...

 DesperateDaughter - Sun Jun 29, 2008 7:15 pm

Thank you in advance for your time, attention and help.

I am struggling to identify what ails my mother in order to be able to find the correct strategies/tools/etc. to:
a) stabilize our relationship,
b) help her enjoy her life at least from now on,
c) bring peace into my life,
d) allow me to heal and move/grow beyond the damage I have sustained in my relationship with her.

I have been trying to find a name for whatever makes my mother act in ways that are harmful to her and to those closest to her for years. I am fairly convinced that she has been suffering from depression (of various degrees of severity) throughout my conscious life. I am also thinking that she may have post-traumatic stress syndrome. I have wondered if she may be bipolar and have thought that she may exhibit some narcissism. Recently, I have also been researching borderline personality disorder, since some/many of the symptoms describe her behavior very accurately, and some/many of the lingering effects observed in (adult) children of BPD parents appear to fit my experiences. However, I do not know what is the true root cause that can explain what I intuitively (when younger) and intellectually (now) perceive(d) to be “off”. Given all this information, without formal education or training in the field, and with my mother absolutely refusing to seek counseling/therapy, I am having a hard time arriving at a conclusion that is both valid and helpful. Here is some history:

- My mom was physically abused (corporal punishment as a form of discipline) as a child.

- She was witness to and victim of a volatile home environment with a father who abused alcohol, had (still has) psychiatric issues of his own (violent outburst, definite narcissistic tendencies), did not love his wife (was indifferent on good days and despised her on bad ones), resented the fact that all his children were girls (especially disappointed when my mother, the first child, was born a girl, refused to bring his wife home from the hospital at first), etc. Her mother, abused by her husband, was emotionally unavailable, and took out all her frustrations on her kids.

- She is a gifted individual (graduated from high school 3 years early, ranked first in her class) who holds a PhD in an exact science and has had a successful career as a well-respected scientist. She is erudite, worldly, etc. Her academic prowess was a source of pride for her family and something for which she was praised and commended by her entire extended family throughout her childhood.

- She was often responsible for the care of her younger sisters and still feels a great deal of responsibility for them now (and they are all well over 50, have grown children, and have grandchildren). Aside from babysitting/household chores, she also guided them through their academic development before she left home to attend a university (at age 15), then she mentored them while they were applying to universities and fought with her parents on behalf of her sisters in order to give them a chance/choice to pursue the careers they wanted.

Marriages/Relationships with men
- She met my father (1st husband) while she was a university student. He was the star student of their department (at a very well-respected university) who despite his undeniable intellectual brilliance had some emotional problems (he was orphaned at age 7 and was raised by a grandmother who had become increasingly senile over time, he still grieved the loss of his parents (especially his mother) when I was a teenager, used alcohol for self-medication, would become violent or deeply depressed when drunk, had insecurities and serious abandonment issues). They married when she was 25 because of family pressure, since her parents were eager for their oldest daughter to get married and not run the risk of becoming an “old maid”. Her academic achievement was no longer appreciated in the same way, she was expected to devote herself to a husband and children rather than a career after earning her bachelor's degree. She had been severely criticized for entering a Master's and then a PhD program and by the time she was 24, she was told by her parents, in no uncertain terms, that she needed to get married or else. (So, according to her, she married the most brilliant guy she knew - not because she really loved him or thought that they'd make a good family, but simply because he was the best.)

- My parents' incompatibility was explosive (fights during which everything from chairs to crystal vases would become airborne, during which I would be crying to the point of losing my voice or fainting when very young, or would be frantically hiding sharp objects and repeatedly but pointlessly begging them to stop when older). I should mention that there is good evidence that my father had been involved in at least one extra-marital affair.

- They divorced 6 years later (after producing 1 child (me, in case you forgot ;), who rather unfortunately for herself, but fortunately for the poor unborn soul who might have been forced into the madness that was/is this family, remained an only child), but continued their violent relationship for many years afterwards. My father was almost always the instigator while my mother could not understand (which frustrated me to the point of distraction as a child) that arguing/disagreeing/trying to prove a point to someone who is drunk and/or extremely upset is a dangerous exercise in futility or worse.

- Although my mom had many male friends (working in a male-dominated field) with whom she had very genial relationships and had many admirers (being wickedly smart, pretty with a certain air of unconquered sex appeal (boy, if they only knew how unconquerABLE she is/was), a good story-teller, could be the life of the party, well-informed, etc.) I always felt like she was uncomfortable, poorly adjusted, malcontent and sometimes downright angry/combative whenever a man was cast in a romantic role in her life (but this is just my impression). She kept me in the dark about her personal life (in part to protect herself/us from my father, in case I naively divulged anything to him and aroused his angry jealousy, and in part because she did not know how to have an emotionally open relationship with me) to the point that I learned about my parents' divorce by overhearing conversations among our relatives (my parents worked at two different institutions, 45 minutes apart, and we always had 2 residences, so the fact that we did not all live in the same place at all times was not news and was not in itself an indicator of any change/anything wrong, since that's all I had known since birth). I had no idea about my mother's second marriage, which happened shortly after their divorce and lasted a little over a year, until I was in my late teens. (I did not question why we had moved to a new city and lived in a strange but lovely house, with a new but sweet man, why there was a very nice lady who was treating me like a grandmother. By age 5-6 I had become fairly expert at reading my mother - I learned not to ask questions that would elicit raging frustration, ire, or at best, avoidant silence.)

- According to my mom, her second marriage ended because of repeated threats of violence from my father. This is a very credible reason, since my father could be violent (even murderous) when drunk and had already attempted to physically harm someone he had believed to be romantically involved with my mother.

- Her third marriage was to a colleague, who was significantly older than she was, and was a marriage of minds much more than anything else (I was 15). From the conversations which I inadvertently overheard and clues I could not help but see, my step-father, a well-known and highly respected expert in his field, had hoped for the perfect marriage - mind, body, spirit - but my mother had serious issues with intimacy with him (from what I could observe, deduce, feel). I later discovered that she had used me, or more accurately my presence in the house, as her reason for avoiding intimacy, lest my “delicate sensibilities” be offended (I hope you can detect my sarcasm, since as you can imagine this was merely an excuse, perhaps one she had convinced herself was true, but a far-fetched excuse nonetheless). Furthermore, she strictly instructed me to keep their marriage a secret. She never attended any social functions with him, unless they involved his circle of friends only. She never introduced him as her husband (always as a great colleague and mentor) to her friends/acquaintances, etc. As you can imagine, this created a lot of friction and many arguments. I should explain here that the ultra-conservative views of her family (father in particular) and her own insecurities/warped ideas/etc. about divorce/re-marriage and the fact that her new husband was 20+ years older were certainly contributing to all this, but sill...

Parenting and general behavior
- If I had to choose three words to describe my mother, as she appeared to me during my childhood, they would be intense, unpredictable, moody. All three of these could swing either way - good or bad.

- She would have bursts of intense love - hugging me, kissing me, calling me pet names of every imaginable variety. Then, the smallest transgression could suddenly set off a most intense outburst of anger - she would launch into lengthy, scathing diatribes that would make me feel infinitesimal and miserable to the point of oblivion.

- Another word to describe her sometimes would be unyielding - if she had made up her mind about something (e.g., a particular outfit she wanted me to wear on a particular day), she was determined to see it through. However, this was not consistent, some days she would be strict beyond reason, then on other days she would hardly notice whatever it was that had worried her before.

- I often felt like she barely had any desire to talk to me, unless it was to chide me for something I had done wrong or to give me instructions/commands. I realized that she was tired, preoccupied, etc., but it was to an extent that made me wonder if she loved me. So after a while I started asking her if she loved me. I would try very hard to do things to please her and I would live in extreme fear of screwing something up (it was like holding my breath every day, hoping and praying that nothing would go wrong).

- Any time I became ill I wished I were dead, since she would plow into me with so much wrath, telling me that I was to blame since I had not worn a warm enough coat or I had stayed outside too long, etc., and that she would put me outside and not take care of me the next time I got sick. But then, quite often, as if something in her would turn off (or on), she would proceed to take care of me in the most appropriate way(s) and even tenderly.

- She would spend a significant amount of her spare time socializing with her friends (I realize that it was a form of therapy for her), so I would be left to my own devices and quite detached from her (and often from the world). However, if she came home after visiting with friends and I happened to be out playing she would often become angry.

- All of her time with me was invested into teaching and enhancing me intellectually - everything from Greek mythology and abstract mathematics to the proper way to take tea with the queen of England (just in case the queen happened to ask me to join her on a lovely afternoon (as a side note, we are not British, nor did we live in the UK) ;). We attended classical concerts, and occasionally the opera and ballet. All of this was quite wonderful, but the atmosphere was such that I was practically convinced I would win a Nobel Prize before I turned 30 (oh boy, I have missed my deadline!).

- I cannot recall a single conversation I had with her about something emotional, spiritual, intimate. Human emotions were only (and rarely) discussed in the academic context of literature. In fact, everything other than academics was swiftly brushed under the rug without as much as a cursory glance. We did not discuss the fights between my parents, nor their divorce or the general dysfunction of our circumstances, nor my mother's arguments/fights with her parents and the dysfunction there, nor my crushes (heaven forbid if I were to have any) or any social problems I may have had in school.

- When I was very young my mother would often construct an imaginary world in which I was a princess, perhaps as a way to detach me from the unstable environment at home/in our family. Not surprisingly, bridal shops, pictures of brides, bridal dresses, etc. were things to which I was very drawn as a child (a bride appeared as the fairy-tale princess - "every little girl's fantasy"). My mother encouraged this fondness on the one hand, but discouraged me (directly or indirectly) and all of her single friends (quite directly and often in my presence) from ever getting married, in NO uncertain terms.

- As I approached those contentious teenage years, and tried (even in the smallest ways) to assert my individuality, she became even more moody and volatile. By the time I was 12, she routinely accused me of "ganging up" with my father on his quest to "kill" her. These accusations became a usual part of the "explosion routine", which consisted of a) me doing something she disapproved (forgetting to pick up something, misplacing something, not being home when she happened to be there, etc.); then b) her berating me with unchecked anger; c) her accusing me of trying to give her a heart attack, fraying her nerves, and generally trying to kill her by sufficiently angering and exasperating her; d) me crying desperately (and invariably wishing to turn into a speck of dust and disappear into a corner) and apologizing profusely and repeatedly for whatever I had done/not done (to put my childhood transgressions in perspective, lest you think I was a teenage rebel, I am well past 30 and I have yet to hold a cigarette in my mouth, I have never tried any drugs, I have drank the equivalent of 6-7 bottles of wine (cumulatively) over the entire course of my life, I kissed a boy for the first time romantically (on the lips or cheek) when I was 19, I have never committed any acts of violence, I have never abused anyone verbally, physically or emotionally, etc.); then e) me begging her to forgive me and desperately and honestly trying to convince her that I was not party to any plan to cause her any harm (emotional or otherwise); f) her giving me the silent treatment (sometimes for only 10-15 minutes, after which she would be quite magnanimous and forgiving, or for hours/days, after which the incident would simply fade from her memory).

- A non-negligible part of my daily reality (ages 11-15) was framed by the preoccupation with predicting/reading my mother's mood and trying not to incite her wrath. On most mornings I woke up hoping that my mother was in a good mood. On my way home from school, the most pressing question in my head was generally "Will mom be angry with me today?" During this time, any attempts on my part to assert my individuality were generally perceived by her as a direct affront.

- My mom often has a hard time making decisions. She can belabor things endlessly. When I was younger she would ask for my opinion, which she would often completely disregard later (at best) or would then use against me. At times she would offer me options and ask me to make a choice (e.g. "should we visit such-and-such place or should we stay home?", "should I buy this item or not?") - these were often quite terrifying times for me since I knew that I could and often would be faulted either way. For example, if I chose to go on a trip and something went awry, I would be blamed for "insisting" that we go. If I chose not to go on a trip, I could be blamed for being selfish and holding us back. She practically terrorized me with the question of whether she should marry my step-father (her 3rd husband). There would be little or no discussion (unfortunately these were not moments of mother-daughter closeness or bonding, far from it), she would simply come at me point blank: "So, what do you say, should I marry him or not?" She practically drove me to distraction with this question (repeated at regular intervals throughout the day for weeks on end). In this instance, I was old enough to realize that the stakes were so high that I had to protect myself by not giving an opinion (which she could use against me). It was easier to put up with the "you don't care”, “you don't help me”, “you are indifferent”, etc. than have to deal with the "I got married because of you" or "I didn't get married because of you" that she could brandish like a sword for years.

- I started college at 16 and ended up living on my own and 1000 miles away from my mother, which was her choice (she took a position in a different state two months after I made the decision to stay in our hometown to be with her and my step-father). While I was deemed responsible enough and smart enough to be on my own, navigate collegiate life, take care of my parents' affairs locally (including overseeing the management of their sizeable real estate holdings), etc., I was also to remain on a very tightly controlled leash. My mother called daily to check that I was home no later than 9 PM (these were the pre-wireless days). On the one hand, I can understand her natural protectiveness and am touched by the love that inspired it. However, the obsessiveness and anger that were also a part of this control routine were a little harder to appreciate. She would fly into a fit of fury if I were unreachable for any length of time on any given evening. If I attended an event and returned home a little late (even if I had called her several times to let her know where I was and what I was doing - I had developed a sixth sense for finding pay phones) she would dump buckets of ire on me.

- My mother is also in the habit of making comparisons. When I was in college, she would constantly compare me to her friends' or colleagues' children and severely criticize me for the relative deficiencies of my activities/achievements/etc. She compares herself to other women and invariably finds that they have such "easy lives" raising their children compared to her struggles, which she finds particularly offensive since none of them are as talented/gifted/etc. as she is. She constantly compares herself to other mothers and finds that, while others have put much less effort into raising their children, she is the one who is "cast aside", "neglected", "abandoned", "disrespected", etc. by her ungrateful child. She compares me to everyone from celebrities/famous personalities to the neighbors’ daughters and finds my life/choices/attitudes/achievement/etc. severely lacking. I should carefully note that she does not say that she finds me intrinsically lacking - on the contrary she believes that she gave birth to and raised a “golden” child - but it is what I have done to HER daughter (me), how I have wasted my potential, how others of lesser means/potential surpassing me makes her “miserable”. She insists that she could tolerate my underachievement so easily if I were someone “average or below”. (What is even more frustrating is that if one were to suggest to her that she spends any time drawing such comparisons, she would deny it vehemently. My theory is that she KNOWS intellectually what behavior is desirable, wise, in other words, enlightened, and wants to identify herself as someone who is wise enough to live and behave in an enlightened way, but is unable to control her tendencies.)

- She often casts herself in the role of the martyr.

- She seems very impressionable, which can be especially damaging when she identifies herself with various victims. Every time she hears of a case of a husband/boyfriend killing a wife/girlfriend she spends a good deal of time telling/re-telling me what a monster my father was and how brave and brilliant she was to escape the fate of the woman in the news and to save both our lives (and she uses my father’s suicide (oh yes, there is more to this story) as absolute and unequivocal proof). In all fairness, he did make threats of violence on several occasions when he was very drunk, and I believe he would have been capable of it when drunk. However, those drunken calls and threats could also be seen as symptoms of severe depression, expressions of loneliness and despair, cries for help, etc.

- Sometimes I feel like repetition can be the mother of truth for my mom. I could be very wrong, yet often I can’t help but feel that when she repeats things enough and with enough passionate conviction (even if they are not exactly true), she becomes completely convinced that they are the truth. My mother can recreate memories in ways that are more suiting to her position. The further removed we get from an event (temporally), the easier it becomes for her to embellish, trim, augment, twist the memory.

Dealing with Loss and Separation
- She grieves the death of a loved one, relative, friend, and even acquaintance with deep and violent emotion.

- She has a highly exaggerated sense of responsibility, control, and guilt in the death of others.

- Her grandmother (very close to her) died when I was young and the way in which she grieved was overwhelming at first (she was besides herself and simply inconsolable at first) and completely consuming afterwards (she was emotionally totally absent from our daily life). She became nearly obsessed with the fact that the death was somehow her fault - i.e., if she had brought her grandmother to live with us permanently, then grandma would not have died (she was 81 when she died 20+ years ago).

- My father died (of suicide) nearly two decades after they had been divorced. For months, she alternated between crying violently (bouts of unbearably loud and almost non-human-sounding sobbing in the middle of the night) and looking at everything through the prism of that death. She kept repeating that it was her fault and she could have prevented his death had his friends informed her of his condition (he lived in another state and only contacted her when drunk). Her mourning process was often very suffocating for me. When I confronted her about her need to place herself in the middle of things (i.e., transforming my father’s death into her failure, and making the grieving process about her “failure” rather than his loss), she excused it by saying that she was taking the “blame” in order to protect me, so that I would not feel like it was my “fault” (not that I ever articulated such a thought, plus it is a normal and transient part of the grieving process when a loved one dies of suicide, which she would have known if she had bothered to do a little bit of research on the subject (given all her concern about me not “blaming” myself)).

- Less than a year after my father’s death, my step-father died and then she began grieving that death in the most exaggerated manner (often bordering on the grotesque). First, she began telling everyone that she had killed him (imagine people’s reactions). She convinced herself and tried to convince those around her that had she taken better care of him, he would not have died (he had acquired a serious medical condition several years earlier, which was bound to kill him sooner than later, but that was not something that entered her argument). He was not very old but he was far from being young (at age 75).

- She began telling everyone (including me) that her life was over and she had absolutely nothing to live for (remember that she was 20+ year younger than my step-father and she had a daughter (your truly) was barely past being a teenager). She refused to eat and refused to wear clothes that were not black. She started every day by reading the obituary pages of the newspaper (aloud) and comparing the ages of those deceased to my step-father’s age, comparing their characters and achievements (it is beyond me how she deduced this) to those of my step-father (invariably finding others far less worthy of living longer than my step-father). Virtually all of her conversations centered around (or in the very least, began and/or ended with) his death and her responsibility/fault in it. Certain friends simply stopped speaking with her because the only subject of conversation was how she had killed her husband. An interesting side-effect of this loss was that her attitude towards my father’s death changed drastically. My father’s suicide became a major reason for why she had failed to care for my step-father appropriately. She began riling against, deriding and assassinating my father’s character (calling him names and painting him the absolute and categorical villain in the story) - he and his “final act of selfishness, spite, meanness” were the reason SHE had failed to take care of my step-father and had thereby made HER kill him.

- Recently, when one of her cousins died of cancer and the other of heart disease, she grieved quite deeply. However, her biggest grieving points seemed to be that had SHE been in closer contact with either of them, she would have somehow stopped them from dying - they would have sought medical attention sooner, would have been able to see better specialists, received better care, etc. (this is rooted in that my mother has considerable financial means).

- My separation from her has caused such fierce emotional explosions that I feel like I have spent the last dozen years shell-shocked in an emotional trench. I had met the man who is now my husband a few months before my father’s suicide. As far as the relationship was concerned, it was nothing serious at first (mostly a summer fling). However, in my mother’s view, the idea of me dating someone was flatly unacceptable at that point (I was 19), and the mere suggestion of any sort of sexual involvement was a transgression of astronomical magnitude. Needless to say, I had to be very secretive. However, when I learned of my father’s death, my perspective changed (having a boyfriend did not seem like such a serious or important issue any more) and when I needed a ride to the airport to fly to the city where my father had lived (that same day), I called my boyfriend and asked him for a ride. (I did not want my step-father left alone, and even more importantly, I did not want my mother driving in her upset condition and constantly repeating to me that this death was somehow her responsibility, while I was trying to wrap my mind around the terrible news I had just received). Admittedly, my timing and manner of introducing a boyfriend to her were less than ideal (to say the least), and became something she used to throw in my face for years afterwards.

Given the fact that I had always lived an emotionally isolated life, and that my mother was incapable of supporting me emotionally through my losses of my father and step-father, I became more invested in the relationship with my boyfriend. Soon afterwards she began a full-force offensive (pulling out everything short of nuclear warheads (those would come later)) against this relationship and against him, which naturally drove me closer to him (the knee-jerk reaction of a 20-year-old) while I was busy defending my “right” (in two senses of the word). My relationship with my mother deteriorated into a continuous string of arguments. I became the terrible, ungrateful, disrespectful, selfish, blind, stupid, etc. daughter who was “continuing [my] father’s plan to kill [her]” by destroying my own life (thus by extension, her life). All of the above, in combination, was eventually enough to drive me out of the home I shared with my mother permanently (I had done a stint living in a campus dormitory, paying my way, so as not to ask her to support a choice she did not approve, but she had become so intolerably critical of this - using every conversation I had with her to tell me what a selfish person I was to abandon her and my step-father (he was still alive then), etc. - that I had broken my contract at the end of the first semester and moved back home). It also drove me into a de-facto marriage with my boyfriend (who, I will concede to my mother, was not the greatest catch I could have made) as we bought a house and moved in together. Again, not the ideal way of doing things, but not something I can now reverse. More than a dozen years and a couple of children later, she is as critical and unaccepting of my relationship as she was then. Her argument: “He is still the same person, and the same loser, as he was then. He is still far below [my mother’s] intellectual, social and financial standing to allow [her] to accept him into [her] world. He is still the man who has robbed [her] daughter of great successes and achievements, wealth, etc. He is a person [she] would not even acknowledge with a nod on the street, let alone accept as part of [her] life/family.”

She has now adopted the role of the abandoned, unappreciated, lonely, martyred mother. Her latest conviction (or truth through repetition) is that I never treated her as a mother, that my father and everyone else (her parents, etc.) had a systematic program of destroying her out of my life, that I feel no kinship towards her, that there is no “mother” concept in my consciousness, etc., etc. Her mantra is that I cannot choose my mother (i.e. my loyalty to her must be unshakeable and must take precedence over all others), but I can choose a partner, so the fact that I continually choose to remain with my “undeserving and worthless” husband is direct proof that I have never considered her to be my mother or part of my family.

Today she told me that I have “never, ever loved [her], never done anything to show [her] that [I] cared, never stood by [her]”. This categorical and absolute way of speaking (and also thinking) has been part of her personality for a long time (I remember it from as long ago as I could actually understand what it was/meant). Sadly, even with all my personal shortcomings, this is very far from the truth - I have always loved and still love her (perhaps not in a way that she needed or found satisfactory, but nonetheless...), I deeply miss the relationship that we never had, and I stood by her for as long as I could bear.

I have filled pages and I can likely fill many more, but I hope this is sufficient to help you form an informed, professional opinion.

[Intuitively, I know that much of this is NOT normal, but she has been so relentless and has repeated the same sentiments, thoughts, arguments so often that even as I type these words I cannot help wondering if perhaps she is perfectly right and normal, and I am crazy and seeing things all wrong. What makes it even more difficult is that she is certainly not a bad person (and I am feeling guilty for having revealed the negative things above) - she has been a loving mother in the best ways she could manage, I know she loves me (even if our definitions of the word often differ quite vastly), she is a wonderful and fascinating person in so many ways, and has done many wonderful things for me. As she often stresses, she did not leave me in an orphanage, provided good food, shelter, adequate physical care, huge amounts of intellectual nourishment, vacations to coveted destinations, etc.

So much of my consciousness is preoccupied with this that going through the routines of my own life can seem like a gargantuan task sometimes. I feel so overwhelmed by the reality of this consuming and dysfunctional central relationship, by my insecurities, my inability to believe that my decisions are valid and good, by the constant feeling that I am a terrible failure. I feel paralyzed and constantly doubt my own sanity. I keep wondering if I may be mentally/psychologically inadequate - perhaps, I am the one who is crazy and she is right about everything. The only compass that I have are my children, and thankfully my mothering instinct is so powerful, visceral and primal, that it is keeping my personal angst from spilling into my parenting and is ensuring a fairly healthy childhood for my kids thus far (by all objective criteria). And yet, I am worried about cracking, about being crazy and saddling my kids with a lifetime of emotional and psychological baggage. As my children get older, as my personal aspirations (career, general life path, etc.) remain in flux, as my mother gets older and has non-trivial health issues waiting just around the corner, I feel cornered by the dysfunction/mess/incongruence of my relationship with her. I don’t know how much longer my psyche can withstand her near-daily barrages of criticism (she will vehemently deny that she is “criticizing” me, rather she claims (and honestly believes it herself) that she is only motivated by her concern for my well-being and happiness) - speeches full of derision and emotionally wrenching theories of what is wrong with me as a person and as a daughter, and how my life is a complete failure.

I have sought help in the past (counseling/therapy), and have come to the conclusion that I need more than someone nodding sympathetically (I can talk to myself in the mirror, hold a notepad and nod at myself ;). Given the vastness of the field of psychiatry/psychology, finding someone who specializes in the problem(s) plaguing my mother/me is inherently difficult, and becomes practically impossible when I don’t even know the name(s) of the problem(s). Any help, guidance, suggestion(s) in identifying the possible issues/conditions/problems would be invaluable to me.]

I am immensely grateful to you for reading through this long narrative.
 Dr. E. Seigle - Wed Jul 30, 2008 3:50 pm

Dear DesperateDaughter,

You have given a very rich, organized narrative of your knowledge of your mother's life and your relationships with her, as well as what appears to be cogent analysis of your Mom's relational patterns and the ways of perceiving herself and others. It sounds like you have had a very painful relationship with your mother, that you feels consistently criticized, guilty, ashamed and unworthy when you interact with your mother, and that this causes disruption in your marriage, and in your confidence. I am also hearing that you speak with your mother on a nearly daily basis, and that you find these conversations very upsetting, in that you feel consistently put down and blamed. You experience your mother as consistently distorting her relationships, seeing herself as a victim and others as mistreatin her. You also say that you have been in psychotherapy a number of times, and that you experienced the therapists as generally supportive and sympathetic, but not very helpful in a more active way.

You asked about what you mother's diagnoses might be. The information that you provided points most distinctly to a possible personality disorder, or at least, having strong personality traits, akin to a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), as your rightly suspected. People often have traits amounting to mixes of components of several personality disorders, and your mother may have some borderline traits, but the major themes point toward narcissism. In particular, your mother's tendency to have a fragile self-esteem, being prone to feeling worthless or grandiose, and projecting this onto others (you), seeing them as inadequate, worthless, and treating them with scorn, are characteristic of narcissistic PD.

I don't hear any clear evidence of a bipolar disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though a careful evaluation would be needed to say for sure. It's likely that your mother is often or chronically depressed, as is typical for individuals with NPD.

You have asked what you can do to get help for yourself. It's not clear what kind of problems you are having. The kinds of issues sustained by the children with a childhood such as yours generally require psychotherapy; it might help to tell me what kinds of problems you experience in your life, in terms of feelings, relationships, behaviors, thoughts, or anything else. Then I can be more specific. It sounds like one issue is that you need a therapist who will be more active and directive than those you've had in the past.

You asked how to help your mother and how to improve your relationship. From what you said, I would speculate that you and your Mom have what may be an over-involved relationship. In other words, you may spend more time, talk about more negative emotional topics/feelings, and feel more responsible for her life than you wish to feel. I hear the possibility that you may feel over-resposible or your mother. Setting some boundaries and limits regarding how much time it is healthy for you to spend in the painful conversations that you have with your Mom may be important. Your therapist (see below) can help you to learn how to respond to the repetitive, critical, self-involved (on your Mom's part) conversations that your experience with your Mom.

My main suggestion is that you find a highly regarded psychotherapist in your community, and you use that to help you to answer your questions. As I said earlier, you can start by considering setting some boundaries with your mother; how much time you want to spend feeling put down and criticized by her. It may be mentally undermining for you to be put down for hours weekly. Your therapist can help you to learn some ways of responding to the attacking things that your Mom says to you. Your Mom could benefit from psychotherapy if she were willing. This would typically be supportive of her, rather than curative, if our diagnosis is correct. Perhaps setting up some other relationships, activities, involvement in organizations such as volunteering or religion might give your Mom some more satisfaction in her life and thus draw off some of her anger and sadness. Sometimes people such as your Mom can benefit from having a pet, if she can care for one.

I see that you've thought long and hard about your mother, and that you clearly love her, since you've given her so much thought. I also see that you feel that your mother loves you, beneath all of her critical and victim-like communication with you. A book you might find useful in understanding yourself and your mother is called The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller. I suspect is speaks to your experiences during childhood. Good luck!

Eliot Seigle MD
 DesperateDaughter - Sun Aug 03, 2008 12:12 am

Dear Dr. Seigel,

Thank you for your detailed response. "The Drama of the Gifted Child" has been recommended to me by a previous therapist, so I will heed his and your advice and pick up a copy. Since my original post I did pick up a copy of "Surviving the Borderline Parent" and have found it helpful (it helped me gain perspective regarding my mother's sudden and explosive rages, and fast mood swings, among other issues). I was also looking at "Children of the Self-Absorbed" as a potentially helpful book, and it appears that it would be suitable, especially given the narcissistic tendencies that you have so accurately identified (they appear so obvious now, after you directed my attention in that direction).

As far as the help I am seeking for myself - the area where I feel most vulnerable and in need of most meaningful improvement is my self-esteem. The rational person in me understands that I am by no means a failure in life for not having become a Nobel laureate or the next Bill Gates by now (arriving at the pinnacle of success by spectacular performance in science and/or business is the only acceptable life trajectory for me as far as my mother is concerned), nor am I a defective person and daughter for not having married a titled prince with vast financial means, the looks of the Belvedere Apollo, the talents of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the gregariousness and altruism of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, I know intellectually that I have neither ruined my mother's life nor taken away her happiness by failing short of the multitude of impossible and shifting expectations she holds. Nonetheless, the continuous verbal diarrhea full of such laments and accusations takes a huge toll on me emotionally, thus often leaving my emotional self unable to be in agreement with my rational/intellectual self (regarding the absurdity of the situation).

I had located contact information for a therapist working with adult children of parents with borderline personality disorder, and I will search for a therapist who is well-versed in narcissistic disorder, (one who works with both would be ideal, but may not be available) and will attempt to find the best fit for me.

If there are any additional reading materials and helpful resources you can recommend, I will be further indebted to you.

Thank you again for your attention, consideration and time.
 Dr. E. Seigle - Fri Aug 15, 2008 6:06 pm


An important topic that you will likely take up with your therapist is how you will take care of youself so as to protect yourself from your mother's verbal attacks and put downs. this can be a difficult decision, but sometimes people have to set limits on the amount of time they will spend with a loved one who may be verbally abusive to them. It generally isn't in the interest of the person being abusive, as well of the abusive, hostile, or denigrating and narcissistic person themself, to be permitted to pour out their inner pain in way that are destructive to others.

I'm glad you will obtain Drama of the Gifted Child; I can't think of one that comes close.

-E. Seigle MD
 sis5 - Sat Mar 13, 2010 10:45 pm

I am not a doctor, but wonder if it Could it be something as simple as Hormone inbalance? could be I think, and yes this can go on for years..I have seen it!
 Faye Lang, RN, MSW - Sun Mar 21, 2010 7:31 pm

Hello DesperateDaughter,

Having read your description of your maternal relationship and Dr. Seigle's excellent response, I have a suggested reading - it's old, but can be easily found: Pulling Your Own Strings, by Dr. Dwayne Dyer. It contains information about role-reversal, triangulation, scapegoating, etc., that are practiced by your mother and imposed on you. It can be very helpful in gaining understanding of how such manipulations work and can be limited.

Good luck to you!

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