Does my mom have BPD?

My mother has always been unstable and scary. Could she have borderline personality disorder?

Published April 22, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I've been reading your column for years and it's helped me a lot. Thank you for that.

A recent suggestion that a daughter-in-law who throws outrageous tantrums at the end of visits might have a borderline personality disorder really struck a chord with me. The videos you linked to were so similar to my mother. For example, at least twice a year she'll unleash a barrage of furious and hostile emails and phone calls to me and accuse me of gloating while she cries, being abusive, lambasting her and making her as miserable as I possibly can, never saying anything supportive, being secretive and a user (because I didn't tell her that my husband and I had separated until we knew for sure we were headed for divorce) ... I could go on and on. None of it matches my view of myself at all, though I do tend to close myself off and not react when she screams at me. I used to get really wrapped up in the hurtful things she says, but I'm used to it enough that it mostly gives me a week or two of feeling depressed and like I'm a horrible person, and then I just shrug and carry on.

The latest episode was provoked because I couldn't give her a ride to a doctor's appointment with only two days notice due to work commitments. She had said that if I couldn't, it was no big deal. But I've learned that these kinds of events are precarious, and I steeled myself for the inevitable.

What makes this time different is a veiled threat to me through my kids, her grandchildren. She said that she does everything in her power to pretend that I treat her great when she talks to the kids, and that the kids are going to grow up to be just like me if I'm not careful. My assumption is that I'm bad enough that she's going to start telling them how she really feels about me. When I was a teenager, she sometimes threatened to tell my grandparents, whom I adored, how lazy, inconsiderate, sluttish and malicious I was, so this feels like a familiar control tactic.

I do my best to enable a relationship between her and my kids in that I take them over for visits, set up video chats, and never say anything negative about her in front of them. But for self-preservation, I also minimize my contact with her as much as possible. Now I'm worried about what effect she might have on my kids if I'm not there to monitor the situation.

So, what do you think my next steps should be? She's resistant to the idea of therapy and feels that her problems stem solely from her physical health (which admittedly isn't good at all).

Is My Mother Borderline?

Dear Is My Mother Borderline,

You know, for those of us living with people who will not address their own problems, and particularly for people for whom treatment is especially hard, such as people with borderline personality disorder, the best approach is to understand their illness, take practical steps to ensure safety, and limit the damage they do to themselves and others. Here is a good basic set of do's and don't's.

And though it is mostly aimed at parents of borderline children, this more detailed article gives some real insight into what it feels like to have BPD, and useful tips on what to say and not to say. Of course, in your mother's case, if she does have BPD and will not admit it, telling her she's making progress may not make sense. Yet the description of how a borderline person fears abandonment may help you watch for situations that may trigger her.

And here are some more videos, particularly for family members.

I urge you to reach out to professionals and get help in coping with this difficult situation. The effect that their grandmother may have on your children is of especial concern.

So please find support for yourself, so that your bouts with her are followed by healing and insight and the repair of your self-esteem and confidence. Learn more and also consider these suggestions:

Limit contact. If she depends on you for rides, ask your partner, if you are partnered, to drive her. There may be other ways to give her the help she needs while limiting personal contact -- calling her a taxi or limousine, for instance. If she is status-conscious, she might interpret this as a gesture of love and respect, rather than as an attempt to distance. It's possible. In a kind of jujitsu move, you may be able to use her own unreality in that way: she cannot face the fact that you cannot abide being with her, so she might reinterpret things to suit her own emotional needs. I don't know for sure. It's just an idea. I know some of my ideas get me into trouble but there's no shortage of them.

The main thing is to find support for yourself and to protect your children. Support groups are also very helpful for such situations! You might look into and see if you can find a support group nearby, or try an online support group through author Randi Kreger's

I also suggest you limit her contact with your kids as much as possible until you have consulted a knowledgeable professional and/or your peers. She will probably not be able to resist telling your kids what she really thinks, and that can put kids in an awful bind.

Best of luck to you.

By Cary Tennis

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Borderline Personality Disorder Bpd Family Mental Illness Mothers Since You Asked