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When You Have to Take Care of an Aging, Abusive Parent

My madness saved me. Growing up in my household, if you weren’t a bit “mad,” you would have gone insane.

“Typical American story”; sexual, verbal, mental abuse, along with chronic physical and mental illnesses. Suicide and seemingly never-ending tragedies were the norm; our family just took it to new levels.

My family both saved my life and destroyed me.

In my childlike warrior phase, I was wild and infused with imagination. My inventiveness and imagination freed and safeguarded my childhood. Offering me a release from the carnage that was unleashed upon me and inside the camouflaged sanctuary called home. Why is it we always want what we know can destroy us? I lived for moments of solace, laughter, togetherness. Knowing that the hurricane will always follow the calm. Always an astounding contradiction of delightful family moments versus memories of conflict that waged inside our house. A transformative struggle in a lifelong war laid bare the understructure that had been camouflaged for years by fabricated truths; fractured communication, hearts and interrelationships. It was a shocking reminder of why I have worked so hard to live the way I do and soak up every bit of my “crazy,” brutal, beautiful life, all while sheltering my children and husband from the madness which broke and built me.

Propelled home by parental health issues one has to face when dealing with aging parents, I was fully armed to protect myself from old wounds that I worked hard to mend and the predestined heartache that always seemed to follow after a visit back home. Little did I know I would be flung into new roles after my father died by suicide and mom’s diagnosis of mixed vascular dementia/end-stage Alzheimers. These unexpected incidents led to my worst fear coming to fruition; exposing my boys to my family’s madness.

They never really understood why I kept away, or more importantly, why I kept them away. Unspoken thoughts of my overreacting and accusingly pointing out the few times they met them “they seemed perfectly OK” was the undercurrent of any conversation about this subject.

A horrific six short months not only would they understand my reasons, but be forever altered just being around my mother and brother. Cracked yet again by my false haven, I had to again rebuild from the loss of progeny. My aging mother had no choice but to move in with us and unleash her destructive behavior on the household, health workers, doctors and anyone she came near or interacted with. She had always been my crypto, but seeing her infect others was beyond eye-opening for me and led to many self-discoveries and healthy releases.

Over and over, I heard health workers as they quit, or the assisted living home heroes, say how sorry they were. That if it was just aging disorder of vascular dementia/Alzheimer’s they could handle it, but the mental aspect and hateful behavior were too much and they needed to move on for their well-being. That she would more than likely need a more suitable facility to treat her illnesses. I felt bad to expose yet another person(s) to her abuse. “I hope you get cancer or heart attack and die,” she spewed angrily at me, oddly as I was going through melanoma treatment — that was a kinder version that day and one of the nicer things she said.

Once she started in with her abuse on my husband and kids, that was my redline. Not even worth talking about the horrible treatment she dispensed upon them. Witnessing my youngest son and husband’s spirit breaking and utter disbelief that a family member could treat each other so wickedly, and my oldest son refusing to visit our house as long as she was there, I knew had to protect my family. They came above everyone and everything else.

I asked my youngest what has been the hardest thing so far in your short life you have had to deal with and process? His reply without pause: “Your mom — and that says a lot seeing that we’ve dealt with your sickness and my brother getting hit by a car and paralyzed. Mom, that was too much.”

I moved heaven and earth to get her into a living arrangement that could help her and allow my family to heal. She crossed my boundary of not just hurting those I love but depleted them of joy. It was like watching a dementor suck the life out of them. Letting go of any grief or shame felt, I knew I did what I had to do to help my family survive and heal from this.

After a month of her gone laughter filled the house again, everyone began to process the traumatic stress she brought into my haven. We once again started to rebuild our broken spirits and let love grow and mend our shattered hearts.
I visit her once a week because she won’t change me. I won’t be horrible just because she is. I know most will say, “Well this is just her aging illness, I went through the same thing.” Trust me, you did not. You didn’t grow up with her and have no idea how destructive she is and has been my whole life.

I chose the opposite. I’m not a victim. I work hard emotionally to be as healthy as I can and acknowledge where my past colors my life, making thousands of mistakes along the way and trying to learn from each one.

My boys are still processing and get upset that I go to see someone who laughed at me on Father’s Day saying, “Ha, you don’t have a dad… what are you celebrating?”

I acknowledge their feelings and explain the one thing she taught me is how I don’t want to be. Angry, bitter, victim mentality and hateful. I refuse to treat her as she did me. It’s part of my healing process. I have learned to not react and recognize that while she will never change, I can. So I will continue the painfully awkward visits and know I’m doing the best I can, fully aware she will never thank me or understand the hurt she ravaged not only on my life but my husband and boys. This is my healing. My boundaries are set and hate and anger (after being processed) have no room for rent in my precious, brutally beautiful life.

Getty image via Elizaveta Stefantsova