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Home » Ask the Therapist » Does this sound like Munchausen syndrome?

Does this sound like Munchausen syndrome?

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From a young woman in Canada: After my parents’ death (when I was 16 and 20) , my aunt helped me immigrate to Canada from Romania 6 years ago to pursue university and her kindness got me very attached to her, my only family member left. She is now in her 60s. However, during my 6 years spent around her, I realized some issues: she would make false serious accusations, throw tantrums in public (break cups, throw food in the middle of the street, hit me or other people) if she felt unappreciated, and she would isolate me from any gathering/give silent treatment/ do very mean things to punish me for being ungrateful.

I think she likes manipulating people (she tried to trick me with some financial documents). It affected me a lot, i was crying daily because of her abusive behavior. But she also helped me a lot during my studies financially and sometimes emotionally and maybe I wasn’t the kindest, most understanding person either.

She has a very rough past: she took care of her paralyzed mother (who never showed affection) since she was a child until her mother died. Since I met my aunt, she had various rare illnesses: knee pain, then allergy to cold, and now she can’t walk or talk. She gets blocked in front of doors, where there are a lot of people who have to stop and wait after her, and she can ONLY start walking if you put your leg in front of her leg so she can step over it. When she talks she complains nobody understands her because of her impairment but she always keeps her hand in front of her mouth making it more difficult. She constantly falls when nobody supervises her and gets seriously hurt. More recenty she fell so bad she broke her nose and had to have surgery.

She saw an exorbitant number of doctors (with some of them she tried to partner to do a PhD, to have a goal in life, but as you can imagine, it failed). Nobody found something clear. Some say its conversion disorder/somatisation, orhers say its supranuclear paralyzes/Parkinson’s related.

What they don’t know, is that she always enjoyed victimising herself. She only talks about her illness, stopped asking anything about us. She bought all the handicapped-related gear (bed, wheelchair, toilet, etc.). She always has a surgery/therapy (hypnosys, acupuncture, psychologist,  chinese medicine, eye laser after her nose surjery). And she seems to enjoy when multiple healthcare people come to visit her (to clean, give medication, feed, therapy, etc.). She always sends pictures of her injured (bruises, blood, surgeries) to her friends and myself and we all distanced ourselves since we understand something is off.

She refuses to go to a retirement house. Understandable since her husband is doing everything to satisfy her never-ending requests (build a special chair, build a special bathtub, buy specific food, give her attention).

She gets angry if we talk about other people getting sick and showing empathy towards them.
Does she show factitious disorder symptoms?

Any of your imput would be enormously appreciated. Thank you!

Does this sound like Munchausen syndrome?

Answered by on -

A.

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.
Dr. Marie

Does this sound like Munchausen syndrome?

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Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Dr. Marie is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2020). Does this sound like Munchausen syndrome?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2020/01/19/does-this-sound-like-munchausen-syndrome/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Jan 2020 (Originally: 19 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 15 Jan 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.