Okay, my mother, who is 63, doesn’t do anything for herself and this is causing major issues for me. She behaves as though she is 83 instead of 63. My father passed in 2000 and she went to bed for 6 months and I had to take care of everything. She finally got a job and worked for many years, but that was all she did. She would go to work come home and go to bed. So I was still taking care of everything while I had a job. Then she realized she could retire early and did so at age 60.

Now she just lies in bed all the time. She does not bathe, she doesn’t clean except to do dishes and cook after I have gone to the store and purchased food, she even put me on her checking account so I could take care of the bills.

I was laid off during the economic downturn and decided to go back to school and get a second degree which I am working on now and will be graduating soon. I want to leave and go to grad school but I don’t see how I can when she refuses to take care of herself. I don’t even know that moving out would help because she fully expects me to come back and take care of her, she has said this. Her favorite phrase is “I’m not able to” and I KNOW that therapy is not an option.

If she found out that I was even telling someone all this she would get very angry. Which is another issue as well. She gets worked up when I try to have a conversation with cousins or my brother that she cannot hear, even when they are not about her at all. I have no help. My brother, who is considerably younger than me, will not help and I can’t blame him. My extended family is also sick of her hateful, rude and mean behavior, so they will not help either. She lies and tells people she’s had 2 strokes when she told me that a CAT scan showed nothing of the sort, so I know that when I leave I’m going to be abandoning her, at least according to my family. She has always been this way, when my father was alive he took care of everything and she went to work and came home and laid around the rest of the day. I started grocery shopping when I was 12 because dad was tired from working in a factory all day and mom certainly wasn’t going to do anything.

I don’t know what to do. I know that I can get into a good Grad School but I won’t get any support. I was just starting to have the conversation with my parents about moving out on my own when my dad passed, and now here I am middle aged and still at home. Which makes people think that it’s because I’m a loser and I don’t want to leave mommy. Which couldn’t be further from the truth! I am desperate to leave and have been for many years, but I am afraid that my family will fall apart if I do.

I’ve tried reading literature on co-dependency but it doesn’t seem to fit this situation. I don’t know how to handle this. I could just leave, but what would happen then? If I stay my life will be trying to have a life while continuing to take care of a woman that could take care of herself. My family says to just cut ties and go, of course they add that I need a man to do this, which is just ridiculous, I’ve had boyfriends (they think I haven’t because they don’t stay involved in my life long enough to know and because I live at home) and I don’t need a savior, I just need advice on how to resolve this so I can move on. I’ve already been cheated out of getting married and having a “normal” life because of this, and I’m fine with that, I don’t know if I can forgive mom completely but I CAN move on!

A: Yes, you can move on – and should. This isn’t doing either one of you any good. You and your mother may not be co-dependent but it sounds like she may have a dependent personality disorder. First she was dependent on your dad. Now that he’s gone, she’s put you right into the slot in her life that your dad used to fill. She has been so indulged in this way of operating that she may be terrified of being on her own. She may be in a prolonged grief reaction, partly grieving your father and partly grieving the life she had. And she may be seriously depressed.

I don’t have enough information to make a diagnosis. But I do have enough information to see that you’ve been gradually seduced into thinking you are stuck. Your mother has you convinced she can’t live without you. The rest of the family is guilting you into staying put because they are happy to not have to deal with the situation as long as you are there.

Ask yourself realistically what the worst case scenario would be if you announced that you were going to grad school in the fall and everyone should get used to the idea. So what if your mother gets angry. No one ever died of being mad. So what if she doesn’t go shopping. At some point, she’ll get hungry. She’ll either order takeout or she’ll call on one of the other relatives.

To handle the anger: If she starts raging, you could just say something like, “I’m sorry this upsets you but your anger won’t change my mind. If you can calm down, we can talk about it but if you can’t, I’ll leave until you can have a reasonable conversation with me.” If she calms down, then have your conversation. If she doesn’t, then state calmly, and clearly, something like, “I see you’re not ready to talk to me. Let me know when you can” and go about your business. The key is not to either add your noise to hers by being angry or to respond with guilt. Stay clear and firm but kind.

If the rest of the family accuses you of abandonment, you don’t need to feel guilty. You can calmly just point out what everyone knows – that your mother is fully capable of caring for herself. Remind your brother and whoever else is offering an opinion that if they are so worried, they are welcome to take a turn at being caretakers, that you’ve done it for a very long time.

Finally: Please get yourself into some therapy. You need someone to help you deprogram yourself. As you pointed out, you’ve been part of this drama since you were 12 years old. It’s going to take more than a couple of helpful hints from me to help you break out. You need someone to encourage you and to provide you with practical advice along the way.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie