Thank you for writing. The only question you asked is whether your aunt has Munchausen syndrome. It’s possible. I can’t make a definitive diagnosis on the basis of only a letter. But what I can suggest to you is that your report of your aunt’s behaviors suggests someone who has a long history of controlling others through a variety of tactics, illness being only the most recent.
It pains me to think that she isolated and punished you when you went to live with her. As you said, you may have been difficult at times. But let’s keep things in context: You were grieving. Your ability to cope was already depleted. You were having to adjust to both the loss of your parents and the loss of friends who knew you and could give you support. If that were not enough, you were also in a new country. You were emotionally vulnerable, grateful for a place to be, and dependent on your aunt. All made you an easy target for manipulation.
For those who may not be familiar with Munchausen: It is a factitious disorder, a mental illness where a person deliberately and knowingly acts if she or he has a physical or mental illness. Some people focus on medical issues; others of psychological ones. Some people combine the two. The person knows they aren’t really sick. It’s a strategy for gaining special attention and sympathy.
The cause hasn’t been clearly identified, although it has been noted that many patients with this disorder report an abusive childhood that contributes to an attachment disorder. Often the person also has other concurrent mental disorders.
Munchausen syndrome is difficult to treat. Although such patients constantly seek medical attention, with multiple visits to doctors with multiple complaints, they usually aren’t willing to admit that they are essentially faking it. If they did, they could no longer keep up their pretense of illness.
But — and this is an important “but”: People with apparent Munchausen syndrome may in fact truly be ill. People who are sick can and do sometimes have mental disorders. People who have mental disorders can and do sometimes have medical problems. Teasing out whether a person has one problem or both takes time and an astute physician. Since people like your aunt go doctor to doctor to doctor, often no doctor sees them long enough to figure it out. It therefore doesn’t surprise me that she has some serious medical diagnoses from different doctors.
As you noted, from her point of view, your aunt has no reason to get better or to move into an assisted living situation since her husband capitulates to her demands. Their relationship is not something you can or should get involved with.
I hope you are no longer living with this person. Gratitude does not require that you allow yourself to be abused. If you are still in your aunt’s home, it would be wise to plan a move out as soon as it is practical. In the meantime, draw some clear boundaries and keep your distance. Now that you have been in Canada for 6 years, I hope you have friends and colleagues who you can turn to for support. If not, do see a counselor for a few sessions to help you keep yourself centered in spite of your aunt’s manipulations.
I wish you well.