Coping with Mentally Ill Family Members

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

My father is narcissistic and borderline. We have seen signs that he may also be histrionic and antisocial as well. He used to be a pastor, but when he left the ministry, there was no one feeding his narcissism any longer and he started looking elsewhere for the attention he craved…bars, strip clubs,dating websites, etc. He basically threw his family away for strangers who would laugh at his jokes and make him feel attractive. We tried everything to try to get through to him before we realized and were told that there were severe personality disorders at work here. He refuses to accept there is anything wrong. “We twist the truth” and “it’s our fault” because we “don’t love him anymore”. He believes his own lies. He tried marriage counseling, but he would have the therapists believing he was a victim until the rest of the family met with the therapist and set them straight on his lies. I had (what i thought) a wonderful childhood. I was a daddy’s girl. I just adored the ground my father walked on. Now I wonder if I helped feed the disorders.

I am the oldest daughter of three. I am 27, my sisters are 21 and 17. My father is too wrapped up in his new friends (one of which is a woman a year younger than me with 5 children) and finding attention that he has actually said he doesn’t want to “parent” anymore. My mother thinks my sisters have been through enough, so she refuses to come down on them the way she needs to, and even when she tries, she no longer has a second parent in the household to back her up. The 17 year old has friends over at the house at all hours of the night, which prompted the neighbors to call the police, thinking there were drugs being dealt out of the house. They ended up finding enough evidence in the garbage to get a search warrant because the 21 year old occasionally smokes marijuana. They found alcohol in 17′s room and charged her with a minor in possession and a joint in the 21′s room and charged her with possession. Neither of my parents did a thing about it. The 17 has also become a cyber-bully,posting on facebook that people at her school have std’s, etc. Both of my sisters are severely self-centered. I am starting to wonder if they haven’t inherited some of the personality disorders. As for my mother, I feel so bad for her, because not only is she having to file for divorce after 30 years of marriage, but both of her children are out of control and she can’t seem to do anything about it. I shouldn’t have to tell her how to be a parent, but it seems like she has forgotten how. She lets both of my sisters walk all over her.

My husband and I were living in the house for about a year and a half when all of this started. It was incredibly draining emotionally. We moved across the country for work, and I struggle with just moving on and leaving them all to their own demise. I can’t keep pouring my heart out, giving advise, trying to help them see what’s broken, when they just pretend to listen and change nothing. I just don’t know how to cope. I love them all, but it hurts so much to watch my family implode. I just want to walk away, check back in in 5 years or so. My husband and I are very close to having children, and I don’t want them to be a part of this circus.

A: You didn’t ask a question so I’m not sure what you hoped would come of your letter. I can only make some general comments.

I think you are probably right that your father has a significant mental health issue. What you describe is consistent with a personality disorder. However, it is also possible that there is an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. I trust that when you talked to mental health providers, they’ve considered that. Whatever the label, the impact of his behavior on his family is tragic — both for him and for everyone else. He doesn’t seem to understand what he has thrown away. It feels terrible to everyone that they have all been rejected.

It may be that your sisters’ behavior is at least partly rooted in the fact that their father doesn’t love them enough to be a father and their mother can’t pull herself together enough to parent them either. When kids don’t feel valued by their parents, self-esteem suffers. They often then push the limits to see if someone cares enough about them to tell them to stop — and means it. So far, both parents are failing them in that respect.

As for your mom: She sounds totally overwhelmed! My hope for her is that she will get herself into some therapy. She needs and deserves the support. She could also use some practical advice about how to get back in charge as the parent of the household. You can’t be the family therapist and shouldn’t try. You will only frustrate yourself and alienate your sisters. What you can do is love them all and encourage your mom to get into treatment.

You could also research when and where support groups for single parents meet in your home city and pass the information on to your mother. I did a quick search of the web and found two that might be helpful to your mom. It’s often helpful for people who are dealing with challenging problems to feel less alone and to get support and advice from others who are going through the same thing.

You may also be concerned about whether a personality disorder is hereditary. As far as I know, it is uncertain how much is inherited and how much is learned. My guess is that you have strong motivation and support for not repeating your father’s self-centered behavior. In some strange way, a negative role model such as he is can be as powerful as a positive role model. You may well have sworn to yourself that you will never, ever treat people who love you as he has. That’s a powerful incentive to keep your own life balanced.

I hope this was helpful. I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Feb 2013

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Coping with Mentally Ill Family Members. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/02/08/coping-with-mentally-ill-family-members/