Hello everybody, welcome to episode 84 of Optimal Living Advice, the podcast where we take any questions you might have about the many struggles of life and get them answered for you here on the show. I’m your host, certified life coach Greg Audino. Today we will have one of our longer episodes. We have a long question about interacting with a parent with mental health problems. There’s A LOT to it, and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover so let’s just hop on in and listen to this viewer’s extremely vulnerable and powerful question about some family trouble…
QUESTION: “My parents, sister and I are very close. We moved to the US 18 years ago when I was 8 years old fleeing Colombia because the Guerrilla was threatening our lives. We had to leave everything we knew and come to a country where we didn’t even speak the language. My parents worked so so hard to give my sister and I the best quality of life we could have, but my dad recently burnt out. He was a very strong, smart, sweet man, but for the past few years he has become “lazy,” rude, and irritable. He says he forgets everything and pretty much hates himself.
We took him to a psychologist and a neurologist and they said he doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, but he does have severe anxiety. He stopped going to his psychologist because he didn’t think he was helpful and the appointments were too expensive. We have had heart to heart conversations, set up ways to help him cope with what he’s going through and it all works well for a while until he has a breakdown and then treats us all horribly.
Because of Covid-19 I moved back in with them temporarily. At first we got into a few arguments and then we talked and I told him how I felt without placing blame on him, he did apologize and we got over it. But then he became rude again and I told him that was it for me. I couldn’t put up with being put down by him any longer or watching him be rude to my mom. We don’t want to abandon him when he is struggling with mental health problems because we love him.. but we don’t know how else to help.”
Family Bonds that include a Parent with Mental Health Problems
Ok, so because this is a long question, I’ll summarize for those who may have had a hard time following: this woman who has a very strong bond with her family – they’ve been through about as much as a family could go through – is now struggling along with her Mom and her sister because her father has completely lost himself and turned into a severely anxious and vindictive man. She’s living back with her parents due to the virus, and in spite of many valiant attempts to help and communicate with her father, he continues to behave the same and she feels she is out of options.
Needless to say, this is a very strong question due mostly to the very strong bond you have with your family. I applaud the effort you’ve made to turn your lives around and make things work; it’s absolutely phenomenal. But as strange as it might sound to for you to hear this, that was then and this is now. I’ll get back to that, though.
First, let’s just talk a little more about what your Dad is going through so you have as clear an understanding as possible.
Family Members with Severe Anxiety
Severe anxiety causes us to forget a lot. Because people with severe anxiety identify so many things to be threats to themselves, that information has to be prioritized in their brains because they mistake as life or death, or much closer to life and death than others would. Survival tactics have to take precedent, therefore they have to forget information that’s less important to them to keep room to store information that they believe determines their safety.
Given the extreme circumstances your Dad has been through, it’s no surprise that he has this anxiety. What has caused this anxiety to pop up only in the last few years is anyone’s guess. Perhaps something happened that you don’t know about that caused the anxiety to spike? Have you spoken with him about this?
Either way, he’s been through one of the most painful experiences a person could go through and his trauma is probably similar to that of a war veteran. Experiences like that stay with us, they shape us, and they shape those close to us.
Family Loyalty and Values
In comes you. You are also affected by this experience, needless to say. Yes you were only 8, but that experience has stuck with you and you’ll be quick to recognize interior and exterior similarities to it throughout your whole life. In addition to the experience itself, however, the narrative surrounding that experience has stuck with you – mainly the narrative surrounding what it means to be a family. Fleeing a country for the sake of survival makes the bar for your family in terms of sticking by one another’s side probably as high as it can possibly be.
Under that umbrella lies your loyalty to your father in good times and bad. Your Mom too, which is why the way she’s being treated in all of this makes it doubly challenging for you. You have absolutely every reason anyone could ask for to stay with your family through thick and thin.
And though it seems twisted and sucky and backwards, that precious family value is precisely what’s working against you right now. That’s why I said that it’s probably strange for you to hear, but your only shot of getting through this is acknowledging that while what your family got through together was insurmountable, you are now your own woman and you have to look after yourself, even if that means familial casualties along the way. I know it’s in your blood to stick with family no matter what and make huge sacrifices for family, but how long can this realistically go on for?
I know it means a lot to you to be the same rock that your father was, but the pain and sacrifice you’re trying to work through now is simply not the same pain and sacrifice you collectively worked through 18 years ago. Looking after yourself does not make you a bad family member by any means. You don’t owe anyone so much that it stands to ruin your own life. You’ve done so many good things for your family and you’ll continue to. But let’s consider how you can create some boundaries and look after yourself a little more without guilt and without abandonment NECESSARILY.
First of all, by taking your Dad to a psychologist, having heart to hearts, and not putting blame on him, you’ve done all the right things. Unless you’ve held something back in your question, which I highly doubt you have, you haven’t misstepped in any way, shape or form in terms of giving your Dad an outlet to be heard and supported.
Healing from Pain
So why not give yourself an outlet? After all, this is no longer just your Dad who is suffering. Who’s to say you and your mother can’t go see a therapist separate from him and focus on your own pain in this time – the pain he’s inflicted on you – and how to heal it? That could be a great way to develop new strategies to cope and both identify and establish some distinct boundaries with your father. You can even start doing that on your own – considering what truly is and is not acceptable for you and making certain that he knows it.
On my end, one thing that seems like it might be happening based on your question is that your Dad does well in short bursts. He was willing to try the psychologist briefly, things were okay when you moved back in briefly, he’s responsive to the heart to hearts briefly. This might mean that limiting exposure to him for the time being could work for you.
Going back to the place you normally live might be the best option right now. Maybe your Mom goes with you, stays with a friend, or whatever she feels is best for her. Again it might feel odd to be away in times of a crisis (your family isn’t used to that), but your father might need this to regain appreciation. Let him know that his behavior has become so unacceptable that it’s your only option. You’re not giving up on him, you’re simply looking after yourself and letting him know that his behavior has consequences.
The Problem with Getting Too Comfortable
I’d bet the reason your Dad works well in short bursts is because he’s temporarily reminded of what he has and how much family means to him. Once he gets comfortable, he seems to go back to his bitter ways. So don’t let him get too comfortable. Seeing you less frequently may just cause him to appreciate his time with you more, respect you more, and not take you for granted.
This is especially likely to happen if, again, you remind him that you’re distancing yourself from him because of his treatment and that the family’s closeness is seriously at risk. Your father may be many things, but he’s not someone who wants to lose his family. He’s worked a great deal to keep the family safe and together, and that’s not something he takes lightly.
Your father is currently an aggressor. He won’t necessarily always be an aggressor, but he is right now. Like all aggressors, he’s also a victim, but he’s an aggressor nonetheless. You can’t make him change, but your best bet is by continuing to treat him with respect the way you have.
The only alteration is that you can start enforcing more respect for yourself at the same time, and that starts with you redefining what you and the family as a whole need to keep surviving together.
All right everyone, that brings us to the end. To the woman who sent this in, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You’ve been through a lot, and to let all of us be a part of a journey that is indeed very emotional and complicated is a real pleasure. So thank you for letting us have the floor today and trying to help.
Everyone else out there, please go ahead and email your questions to us if you’d like our help here on the show.
You can email questions of all lengths and of all topics to advice AT oldpodcast DOT com
We’ll catch your questions there and help you out to the best of our ability. Thank you so much for being here today, and I look forward to talking to you next time. Until then, everybody.