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When You’re Your Abusive Parent’s Caretaker

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The parent-child relationship is one of the most important and complicated relationships we all have. The dynamic of the relationship changes throughout the various stages of life, but perhaps one of the most challenging times for adult children is what to do with aging parents when they begin to require more caregiving. This process is fraught for even those who have enjoyed close loving relationships with their parents. But what happens when the parent-child relationship has been one filled with physical, emotional or sexual abuse by the parent toward the child?

• What is PTSD?

Navigating caregiving for an abusive parent is something I am intimately familiar with. My mother has dealt with her own mental and physical health challenges for as long as I can remember. As an only child with a single parent, her needs became my responsibility to care for. I knew that if she wasn’t OK, I wouldn’t be OK either, and unfortunately nobody else stepped up to occupy that role nor did she seek out professional support for her mental health. The codependent enmeshed dyad we shared morphed into a covertly incestuous relationship that has pervaded into adulthood.

I fell in line and played “good daughter” for a long time, ignoring my own mental health or needs. In 2015 I finally took over as her power of attorney and began managing her finances, paying her bills and otherwise managing all her affairs because she simply wasn’t mentally equipped to do it. When I discovered the degree to which her unmanaged mental health had affected her financial stability due to her compulsive shopping and gambling, I became overwhelmed. This was the point at which I entered into therapy to help me handle the panic attacks and overwhelming anxiety I was experiencing.

As we worked through this all with my therapist, I became increasingly aware of how dysfunctional and toxic my relationship to my mother had been my entire life. I struggled with indulging in the anger and resentment I felt toward her while simultaneously understanding that I was the only one keeping a roof over her head and food on her table. I couldn’t abandon her in good conscience, but I also couldn’t continue engaging in a personal relationship with her without it adversely affecting my mental health.

For a while I went around in circles trying to establish stricter boundaries with her in terms of when we would interact and what we could and could not talk about, but each time a boundary was established she’d violate it by finding manipulative ways around it. It left me feeling helpless and frustrated. I couldn’t fix her or force her into doing the therapy required to help her, so I decided to go mostly no contact with her. I blocked her on social media, text, email and told her she wasn’t welcome uninvited to our home, which is also our place of business.

The only contact I did continue with her was to manage her affairs. Figuring out how to do this while maintaining my distance was and continues to be a challenge. I often feel guilt for putting my needs ahead of hers, but I take some solace in knowing that I can care for her in the best way I know how by insuring she is financially secure and doesn’t have to worry about being hounded by collection agencies or not having enough money for groceries.

If you find yourself in a situation similar to mine, there are a few key things to keep in mind:

1. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries

This one was huge for me because saying no, asserting my needs and not being an extension of my mother felt like I was being selfish and a bad daughter. It was a completely foreign concept to me that my life did not revolve around my mom or that I could and should have autonomy from her. I still feel pangs of guilt and occasionally think I should just go back to being her everything. But doing so isn’t healthy for either of us. Whenever she tries to guilt me into reconnecting with her, I have to remind myself of how miserable I was whenever I was around her and how much anxiety I experienced when she’d act inappropriately toward me. It’s hard, but it’s absolutely the most important thing you can do for your mental health.

2. Communication

Establish a method of communication that works for you. If you are OK with emails, use that. If you are comfortable with a once a week phone check in, figure out a day of the week and time that you are comfortable with and be sure to set a time limit you stick to. If you absolutely cannot communicate personally at all, perhaps have a post office box where you can leave notes, mail or whatever else you need to and vice versa. This provides an opportunity for you to handle things without any interaction. There are a number of creative ways to communicate without physically being in the same space.

3. Support

Establish a support system to help you out. Asking friends and family who understand your need to maintain this separation to hold you accountable is key. They can also assist in crisis management, meaning those moments where you might feel like backsliding. When I feel a “shame s*** storm” (thanks for that Brene Brown) coming on, I reach out to my husband or a friend who knows my mother to remind me that I’m doing the right thing and I’m not a bad person for having needs. I also have an amazing therapist who continues to remind me that I can be empathetic towards my mother while recognizing that she is toxic to me and maintaining my distance from her. They also remind me that by continuing to care for her affairs from afar I’m actually being a good loving daughter in the best way I can.

4. Outside Resources

Take advantage of outside caregiving resources. There are so many options out there for things like house cleaning, grocery shopping, transportation, financial management and even personal/medical caregiving. Yes they come at a cost, but that cost may be worth it to maintain your inner peace. If finances are a concern, contact your local Department of Aging to find out what resources they have available. They are a wealth of information and have been very helpful to me over the years.

There may come a time where I decide to reconnect with my mother to a greater capacity, but only if and when I’m ready to do so without it causing me mental distress. Until then, I’ll continue navigating her care as best as I can from afar, making adjustments and tweaks as new needs may come up. I anticipate as she gets older there will be more physical caregiving needs I will have to figure out how to provide her, but I’ll cross that road when I get to it.

To my fellow children of abusive parents, know you are not alone in not wanting to be involved with your parent. You truly don’t owe them anything, contrary to the messages society perpetuates about this. If you do choose to provide any kind of caregiving out of a sense of duty or filial piety, know that you can do so in a way that provides them with the support they need while honoring your feelings.

Photo by Julian Santa Ana on Unsplash

Originally published: August 2, 2021
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