My mother's anxiety is driving me crazy!

Ever since her sister was attacked, and I survived cancer, she's been so anxious!

Published July 28, 2008 10:21AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My 65-year-old mother has an anxiety problem that seems to get worse every day. Tomatoes, traffic, the dog, the cat, airplanes falling out of the sky, everything. It started to get worse several years ago when her sister, at 76 years old, was assaulted, raped and left for dead. The lady survived -- barely -- and now mother sees rapists behind every corner. Last year, I went through Stage 3 cancer, and I noticed afterward that her anxiety seemed to get even worse. Mother's doctor has recommended that she see a therapist and consider meds for anxiety, to which my mother replied, "Of course I'm anxious! There's a lot in life to be anxious about!" I see my mother's increasing unhappiness, yet I can't get her to take her G.P.'s advice and even think about consulting a therapist.

At the same time, all this anxiety is driving me crazy. I can't talk to her two minutes on the phone without being reminded of every possible bad thing that could happen: A poisonous snake in my raspberry bushes! A neighbor could see me volunteering for the Democrats and burn my house down! The dog might still be constipated!

What do I do to help my mother -- and myself -- from going completely crazy????!!!!

Chicken Little

Dear Chicken Little,

Take it from me: You can't fix your parents. That is the straight truth: You can't fix your parents.

You can try. People try. I have tried. You bet I've tried.

You can keep trying. You can make an appointment with a therapist and tell your mother she has this appointment to go to and you can drive her there. You can ask her doctor to make the appointment and tell your mother it's important that she go. You can be more direct, apply more direct pressure. She might become willing. People sometimes need a push. You can tell her, Mom, do it for me.

On the other hand, her resistance may increase under pressure, leading to a battle after which she shuts you out completely.

There's no telling. So you detach.

I am a control freak. I want to control everything. The only thing that has ever helped me stop trying to control other people and the world, to stop trying fix things, to stop trying to make the world right, the only thing that has ever helped me is learning to detach with love. Learning to detach is hard. It involves intellectual assessment, i.e., this can lead to no good; emotional growth, i.e., this is painful but I can handle it; and the practice of meditating, i.e., I am going to sit here and do nothing for 15 minutes. It involves greeting the unexpected as if you had planned for its visit.

You detach. You detach and face the grievous void at the center of the frenetic.

Interesting word, detach, as it relates to the mother: It brings to mind the breast, our dependence, deep and biological. How are you supposed to willingly detach from that?

I would love to fix your problem. The fact that I want to fix your problem is my problem. The fact that you want to fix your mother's problem is your problem. What if we all stopped trying to fix one another's problems?

Your mother is beyond your reach. You can take her to a therapist, you can argue with her, you can complain to your friends, you can reassure her, you can hope that a therapist will prescribe her antianxiety medication, you can make sure she takes her medication, you can turn the lights on, you can drive her to her appointments, you can tell her that everything is going to be fine.

But you cannot fix her. As long as you try to fix her, you remain in thrall to her. So do what you can, but detach. Otherwise you are trapped. It will never change.

Enough for today.

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