My mother is crazy and terrifying

I've done well in spite of her -- but how can I protect my younger sister?

Published July 10, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My mother is manipulative, cruel, plotting and very ill. She's got severe bipolar disorder that she refuses to have treated (she denies there's anything wrong with her). She has only gotten worse over the last few years. Her refusal to get help has hurt her family immensely, and she can't even see what she's doing. She is closed-minded and spiteful, and she constantly looks for new ways to cut me and the choices I've made down.

In her opinion, the fact that my boyfriend is moving with me to my new school means I have no self-respect. She thinks he is immature, sickly looking and not very bright. Since my very first boyfriend, in fact, she has relentlessly cut down every guy I've ever dated, and she's always waiting with an "I told you so" when, for whatever reason, the relationship ends, after which she begs me to "respect" myself more. She also disapproves of most of my friends -- they are all lazy, fat, ugly, whores, etc.

I have learned, more or less, to ignore her over the years. Other family members and friends have been there to support me, and most of the time I can understand it's her illness talking. My stepfather is a psychiatrist, and he has been incredibly helpful in the rougher times. However, the situation has taken a serious turn.

My sister is in high school, and my mother's hold on her life is terrifying. My mother lives vicariously through my sister, who is at the top of her class and spends most of her time studying ... and depressed. Because my mother has allowed her relatively no room for independence, she can't cook or pump her own gas. She was diagnosed with an eating disorder and depression a little over a year ago. My mother even picks out the boys she dates, and makes sure they meet all of her "requirements" (intelligence, good looks, athleticism, rich parents) before talking to them and pushing them on my sister.

My sister has not escaped her cruelty; my mom cuts her down as well and tells her all of her friends are losers, but then tempers these outbursts by taking her on (occasionally) thousand-dollar shopping sprees. My sister is beginning to adopt my mom's attitudes and values, and it frightens me. My sister knows my mother is crazy and beyond help, but the hurt my mother has inflicted has left its scars.

It's no use to even try to get my mother to go to therapy -- the one time she had a joint therapy session with my sister the therapist afterwards said there was nothing she could do to make her listen. I love my mother, she has done incredible things over the years, and I know she would gladly die for me. Sometimes she is the nicest, most wonderful person in the world, and we can giggle together and hang out like old friends. At other times I find myself screaming and crying uncontrollably because of something she's said to me. How do people deal with this kind of thing, and how can I help my sister?

My Mother Is Mommie Dearest

Dear Daughter of Mommie Dearest,

It is amazing what people can deal with and still thrive. I am glad to see how well you are doing in life, given how destabilizing a crazy mother can be.

How do people deal with such a thing? We deal with it the way we deal with all the forces of nature arrayed against us: We strengthen what it weakens, we mend what it breaks, we protect what it threatens. In order to be strong enough to do so, we stay in shape. In order to maintain our happiness, we play games, we celebrate birthdays, we take vacations and sometimes pretend that it's not even there. We learn to laugh it off, because otherwise it robs us of laughter altogether. We concentrate on the good times. But we always guard against its attacks because they are bitter and fierce and unpredictable.

We practice certain principles. We never visit unarmed or in a weakened state; we are always prepared for whatever it might throw at us. Whenever we get hit, even if it is just a nick, we treat the wound immediately, as there may be poison in it.

As a matter of psychological discipline, we don't expect it to go away or get better, and we don't blame it when it comes. When unreasonable hopes arise in our hearts, we try to let them go and concentrate on what is the most likely outcome.

And we get help. I suggest you identify people who uplift you and keep them close to you so you can go to them afterward and say, "Guess what my mother told me today." Try to know who is on your side and who isn't. But recognize that family alliances can suddenly shift. Make sure that you can take care of yourself, should someone you trust turn against you.

Knowing how things can change, protect yourself. Leave others to their craziness.

And how do you help your sister? You do what you can. But you face the fact that you're always going to want to protect your little sister and you're never going to be able to protect your little sister. You face the fact that this will probably be true for the rest of your life. You also face the fact -- and this can strike one with startling intensity -- that you are going to want to protect your mother from your sister and from your stepfather and even from yourself; when she is threatened you may find yourself shifting, allied with your mother against everyone else in spite of yourself. These things happen.

Sometimes you're not going to see the situation clearly and you're not going to trust anyone around you, and you're going to be lost. You make preparations for what to do if you get lost: You sprinkle bread crumbs along the route of the maze.

In short, how do we get through this? We get through this one day at a time. We get through this by doing the best we can, by taking the next necessary action, by trying to forgive sometimes and forget sometimes and sometimes just by hunkering down and covering up until whatever horrid wind is blowing through blows through and the curtains fall still again.

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