Monday, June 10, 2024

In Grief: Widowed Mom's Drinking Alienates Family

Compassion for our parents is the true sign of maturity. ~ Anaïs Nin

A reader writes: My father passed away last July. My mother and he had a terrible marriage and only stayed together for the "kids," then couldn't afford to live apart. He passed away after a brief illness, but had made my mother's life very difficult. For the last 20 years, they just cohabited together with seperate lives - different bedrooms and even different tv rooms.

I did not have a good relationship with him (nor did my brother) - he was mean, selfish and just not a very nice person to us or anyone else. Nonetheless, I did and still do grieve for him. I also grieved for the father I never had, but I did forgive him before he passed away and was present when he died.

My mother is 73 and struggling - she grieved for him and then seeemed to be coming out the other side, however her personality has changed - she has these huge temper flares, is very angry at everything and bitter (in a way, I feel it's almost like she's become him) - she was never like this. If she sees someone getting something - anything, a new car or going away on vacation - she is bitter/angry about it and resentful. 

She drinks and takes anti-depressants - and yes, I know she shouldn't be doing both - but she's my mother and not a child, I can't control that plus she lives thousands of miles away.

All she does is fight with me or my brother and when I try to come to his defense on something, she then fights with me and it's all "nobody loves me" and "what did I do to deserve this" "no one does anything for me" - when we do do a lot. It's all negative to her - she sees no positive in anyone. 

It feels like everything is about her - I have tried and tried to talk to her, to tell her to enjoy life and what is left, that she is lucky, she has her health, her house and 2 children who love her dearly. The person that I described is not the mother I used to have, and I don't know how to help her. She has changed so so much - right now, she is not speaking to either of us.

I asked her to get help about a month or two ago - someone to talk to about this, she said it was all nonsense, since then she's had 2 knockdown screaming fights with us, saying extremely hurtful things (that are hard to forgive).

Is this normal? Will my mother return to herself, how do I approach this with her, she truly believes she is the victim in all this. I love her to pieces and I don't know what to do - she's turned into a stranger.

My response: My heart hurts for you as I read your sad story, and I'm so sorry this is happening to you, to your brother and to your mom. Unfortunately, all we can do is speculate as to what is really going on here. You ask if your mom's behavior is normal, and I really don't know the answer to that question. It's possible that in all those years she tolerated being in an unhappy marriage by telling herself that everything would be better if only she were free of your father ~ and now that he has died, she's discovering that she alone is responsible for her own happiness. It's the same existential experience we all must face at one time or another: that in the end, how we decide to live the life that's been given to us, now and in the future, is up to each and every one of us. Your mom no longer has your dad to blame for the life she has been dealt, and that could represent an enormous loss for her. Bear in mind that I am only guessing here, but I do think it's a possibility.

Of course, you already know that combining alcohol and antidepressant medication can affect her personality, and certainly not in a good way.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the changes in her personality are due to some physical changes in her brain, and the only way to rule that out is for her to be examined by a qualified physician. If there is any way that you and your brother can persuade her to get in to see her primary care provider as soon as possible, I think that would be an important step. Does she have a trusted friend who lives close by who could help you in this regard? Do you know who prescribed her medication? Is there any way you can contact that person to share your observations and convey your concern about the changes in your mother's personality?

There are many resources available to help you understand what may be going on with your mom; you might begin with this: Handbook for Long-Distance Caregivers.

Afterword: After he received a phone call from our mother, my brother went up to see her today. She was in bed, having gotten drunk and fallen and bruised her ribs (our fault, she said, because we had upset her so much on Monday and that's all she has).

He tried to talk to her and she said we were what was wrong with her, that we treated her so badly and she wants nothing to do with us. He told her that she has changed, become so angry and bitter. She is jealous of our lives that we have a family - he then left as he felt it was useless to continue as she didn't want to talk.

My sister-in-law is up there now trying to get through to her. Both my brother and I fear that she will try to kill herself, not because she wants to die, but to try and "show" us, i.e., to teach us a lesson. My obvious fear is that she will succeed and will die.

She is very religous - do I try to call her priest and ask him to intervene? This just seems so hopeless.

My response: My dear, unfortunately I think the major problem here is your mother's drinking. Until the alcoholism is addressed, there is precious little you can do to help her, because you cannot reason with someone who is intoxicated and under the influence of alcohol. When inebriated, your mother is in an altered state, not in her right mind.

If your mother has any sort of relationship with her priest, yes, I definitely think calling him is indicated. Bear in mind, however, that he can only do as much as your mother permits him to do. She is the one who is in control here, even though she is doing her best to manipulate you and your brother to believe that she is helpless and her behavior is "all your fault." No one forced her to drink herself into a state of drunkenness. 

I think you all need some professional advice in this situation, and I urge you to contact someone at Al-Anon, or a therapist who specializes in alcoholism, to get some guidance as to what, if anything, you can do to intervene in this difficult sitiuation. See also the related resources I've listed below.

Again, I'm so sorry this is happening to you. I come from an alcoholic family myself, so I have a great deal of empathy for you. We know a lot more about alcoholism today than we did years ago, which is why I think those experts would be your best source of help for you and your mother. 

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Image by saphir sarah from Pixabay
© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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