Is Mom Mentally Ill?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

My mother has always mystified me. She is very uncomfortable showing her emotions, to the point where she has never said “I love you” to me, and my father sometimes forces her to say it to him. As I got older, I learned that she was different from other mothers by watching the way that mothers and daughters joked around or hugged one another. She would be uncomfortable showing affection in this way, and I have so rarely been offered any emotional support from her or been given any pearls of wisdom.

She is very sensitive to the smallest of criticisms, and I feel like I am walking on eggshells around her, trying not to offend her. My father doesn’t treat her right, and she lets him walk all over for her, serving him and bending to his every will constantly. She will never stand up for herself when he talks down to her (he is mildly emotionally abusive), and it kills me to watch. I also know virtually nothing about her life, as she never tells me stories about her childhood or expresses any opinions. She is extremely private in that way, and sometimes I feel like she barely has a personality because she doesn’t really have any interests (or at least not that I know of).

I have always assumed that my mother had an anxiety disorder, and was angry at her for not caring enough about her kids to support them emotionally or share who she is. Yet she is never cold or rude to me; she is always pleasant and polite, but her niceness feels like a persona and I can’t see the real her.

For my whole life I have wished I could know why she is the way she is, if maybe something traumatic had happened to her when she was younger. But she has a good relationship with her parents and visits them every weekend. Recently someone suggested that my mother may have Asperger’s, something that I had never before considered, and when I heard this it was like everything suddenly clicked and made sense. I would like a professional’s opinion because I’m not sure if I am reading too much into everything.

My brother has PDD-NOS, so maybe there is a genetic basis for spectrum disorders in my family. My mom also has various social problems: she is very quiet, she invades everyone’s personal bubble and gets very close to them when speaking, she stares at people sometimes, she doesn’t always answer or understand the question you asked, and she takes a long pause when formulating a response to a question.

I am worried partially because she was my female role model as I was growing up; she showed me how to behave socially. I am a very shy person, and my self-esteem is extremely low. I know that I am much better than her socially, and when I get comfortable with people, I can open up and show myself. But it takes a LONG time for that to happen, and sometimes I withdraw without meaning to. Sometimes when I see the way others interact with each other, I worry that I didn’t learn a healthy and fulfilling way to relate to others. How am I supposed to change that? Is it enough to observe others when I’ve been watching her for 21 years? Where do I go from here? Thank you for reading!

A: I don’t have enough information to comment on your mother’s issues. But I can speak to your last paragraph.
People aren’t doomed to repeat what they experienced while growing up. Yes, your childhood has a lot of influence, especially if you don’t think about it. But part of growing up is deciding what you want to keep and what you want to change.

Remember that you had other women in your life to observe. Perhaps you had a grandmother or aunts, a best friend’s mom or teachers you admired. All of those relationships contribute to how you think of yourself as a woman and how you relate to other people. You can draw on parts of all of them.

Some people manage to sort out how they want to be totally on their own. Other people find it helpful to talk to a therapist for awhile. A therapist can help you think deeply about what you honor and respect about your mother and therefore want to carry forward and what you would like to do differently. You’ll have support while you discover perhaps untapped resources within yourself and try new things.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jul 2013

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Is Mom Mentally Ill?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 18, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/07/30/is-mom-mentally-ill/