My mom's a chronic debtor

She makes $80K in the mental health field but can't afford a $10 co-pay

By Cary Tennis
Published January 22, 2013 1:00AM (EST)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I write seeking advice as the newly pregnant daughter of a chronically indebted, bipolar (and most likely borderline), recovered-alcoholic mother. The most recent incident that spurred this letter occurred when I took the day off to attend to my mother during an outpatient surgery and she did not have the $10 necessary for her pain medication co-pay. This came on the heels of the holidays when I had told her the best Christmas present she could give me was the knowledge that she had ability to pay her bills in January. Instead, I got several department-store gifts that were presumably bought on a credit card. 

I declined to pay the co-pay and received holy hell in the form of manipulation, anger, promises, anger, threats, etc. My brother later gave in, as we were worried about her pain. 

My mother makes over $80,000 a year in the mental health field. From the bills lying around on her desk (I looked and invaded her privacy) it appears that she is now in debt again to the only folks that will issue her a card, department stores, and to several bill-me-later and payday-loan places. I am an artist, live paycheck to paycheck, and make a fraction of her income. I do live within my means, and recognize that I have a lot of anxiety around money due to my experiences with my mother. I am attempting to become more financially literate and not fulfill the starving-artist stereotype.

Throughout my childhood and adult life my mother has begged, borrowed and bullied others into picking up the financial pieces for which she refuses to take accountability. Her bipolar illness and drinking both contributed to revolving crises, hospitalizations and periods of no work or unemployment, which in turn precipitated financial crises. Manic periods contributed to excessive shopping and poor/nonexistent financial planning. Although she sobered up around 12 years ago, when I was in my late 20s, depression and work crises continued until an almost foreclosure forced my brother and me to step in and push for disability and a move to a cheaper area. 

My mother insists that she does not make enough money (this is an expensive area) to meet her basic needs and has been bankrupt twice. She is nearing retirement age and has NO savings.

I understand that all of this stems from my mother's poor self-esteem and loneliness. As a child, she was forced by her mother to hide school outfit purchases from her abusive, alcoholic father. The abuse was horrible. I understand that on some level my mother is repeating the cycle of victimization, waiting for my brother and me to rescue her, but in reality, pushing us further and further away. In classic borderline fashion, she considers us to be the best children in the world, until we won't meet her needs, and then we are heartless assholes.

I have empathy for my mother. So much so that I know that it is damaging to me. I am an artist and I'm sensitive, and I ache for how lonely she is. But I want to live my own life. I am the oldest daughter, and have felt responsible for helping my mother find happiness ever since I can remember. All of my birthday candle wishes were for her to feel better. I want her to feel better so that I can feel better. I feel guilty enjoying my own life, preserving what little shred of savings I have, and trying to secure my own future.

The irony is that my mother has long suggested Al-Anon, saying that my issues are all about me wanting to control her. Yet, when I attempt to set limits with her and not be codependent, she rages at me. I do recognize that I am not responsible for her happiness, but I guess on some level do not feel that yet. I guess I want to control her behavior to the extent that it will head off catastrophe in the future. I know this is not possible. I feel that being an artist is an invalid choice when something so huge is looming and it's only a matter of time. I have self-sabotaged in my own work, doubting my ability to manifest money and work-security as an artist, and consequently not put my full effort into opportunities for fear of failure.

Although AA has been a lifeline for her, she refuses to go to Debtors Anonymous or accept that she has a problem. She is at times kind and motherly, and I get lured back in. She always lashes out, and I feel like a fool for still seeking a mother.

Now that I am pregnant, I feel especially vulnerable. And angry. And lost.

I have done some therapy and know that I could benefit from more, but it's not in the financial cards at the moment. Any advice that you have would be very much appreciated. I'm struggling with ADD myself, so a few focused directives would be great. Meanwhile, I'm tired of being ...

The Dutiful Daughter

Dear Dutiful Daughter,

Here is my focused directive:

1) Go to Al-Anon twice a week. Get an Al-Anon sponsor. Do the Al-Anon program. 2) Throw yourself into your art.

You need action. I could give you reasons but you don't need more reasons. You need directives. You need the knowledge and understanding that come from action. Some of this action you will have to take on faith.

More focused directives: 3) Do not do anything dishonest or sneaky in the interest of  helping your mother or understanding her illness. Do not invade your mother's privacy. Do not confront her directly one-on-one. Only deal with her when others are present.

4) Talk with your brother about arranging an intervention. Make a joint decision with your brother about this. If he is in favor of it, then do it. If he is not, then let it go. You cannot arrange an intervention without help so do not pursue it unless you have your brother's help.

Meanwhile, no matter what else happens, keep attending Al-Anon meetings and keep doing your art.

It may not be clear at first that anything is changing or improving. It's normal for nothing to seem to get better right away. That's fine. Just keep doing the right things. Go to Al-Anon twice a week, do the Al-Anon steps and throw yourself into your art. Whatever art project has been nipping at you, throw yourself into it. It will reveal things to you as you work on it. Al-Anon will also reveal things to you.

These two activities will take you in the right direction. Get up each day and remind yourself that you are powerless over the disease that afflicts your mother. Just keep doing this.

It will be hard. Your instincts will be to stop. Keep going. "Logic" will tell you to stop. Keep going. You will feel at times that you are murdering your mother. Accept the fact that you may lose your mother or may have already lost her but you are not murdering your mother. You are surviving. You are surviving her ongoing assault on your being.

During this period, the actions you take will be right but they will not always feel right because they will be new and unaccustomed. You will have to trust the group and the methods.

When others complain that what you are doing isn't helping anything, thank them for the observation. Observations such as that are helpful. They remind us how little others can see of the changes happening inside us. They remind us how prevalent is the assumption that others know what is best for us. So when people comment on your involvement in Al-Anon and your many hours spent with your art, you do not need to explain. Just thank them for the observation and keep doing it. Keep doing Al-Anon, keep doing your art and remain awake to signs of change.

Eventually you will come to tolerate the feelings that arise as you separate from your mother, create boundaries and let go of the illusion that you are responsible for her.

If it helps, think of it like this: You are pursuing the studied acquisition of an ordered life for you and your child. You are pursuing protection and refuge.

Cary Tennis

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