I’ve just conducted a little experiment, out of curiosity. I just put down the phone after a conversation with my mother. As I always do after these sorts of conversations with her, I felt fuzzy and more down and a bit dissociated.
This time was different in that I had a notebook and pen with me, so on a whim I started writing down what she was saying to me instead of just making ‘uh-huh’ noises and trying to drown it out.
What follows is verbatim, taken from a 12 minute phone call duration in which I barely spoke (she knows I’ve been really struggling lately and am under new medication and on the waiting list for psychiatric care).
‘I think you just wallow.’
‘You’ve got to push yourself.’
‘You can’t get better without helping yourself.’
‘You are the only one that can help you.’
‘Wallowing in the house isn’t helping you.’
‘You need some sort of routine.’
‘I won’t talk now as you clearly don’t want to talk.’
*tells me about how much her friend is helping her in a way that I can’t*
‘I’m going to get someone in to do the stuff around the house. I’m fed up, I can’t look at it any more. I can’t hang around any more, I’ve had enough, and YOU’RE not well enough to help me.’ (n.b. she has repeated this nearly every time I’ve spoken to her over the last year)
‘Would be nice if you just phone me occasionally to let me know how you are.’ (valid point but I do text her when I’m too down to speak)
‘I had a fall yesterday but you’d never know about it’ (no, because you didn’t tell me until just now??)
‘It’s ok though, I managed to save myself before I hit my head’ *derisory sniff*
‘You’ll have to start sorting yourself out and managing yourself.’
‘You have to help yourself.’
*talks about Christmas presents for various family members*
‘I’ll get (her friend) to get them for me as I know YOU won’t be able to.’
‘Now try to get yourself a bit more cheerful, will you?’
‘You’ve gotta try, love, or you’ll lose everything.’
‘I thought you loved your new house.’
‘My friend was told she wouldn’t get better until she went out and got herself a job’ (after some pressing on this point,) ‘well, she’d started to get a bit better after years of treatment when they told her this, of course.’
‘I was going to just come over and see you this week but I thought I’d better not.’
‘I’m not coming to you at Christmas if you’re going to lope around being a misery guts,’
‘I’m off now, as you don’t want to talk. Tell me when you want to see me, that’s IF you want to see me. I won’t push, you’ve got to do the asking.’
*hangs up without reply after I say ‘bye Mum, love you’.
This was ALL said in a TWELVE MINUTE phone call. Often, she stays on the phone for an hour or more. I always used to wonder why I seemed to feel worse, drained, exhausted, and especially guilty and ashamed of myself after these calls, but it’s quite easy to see the reason when I have this toxicity staring me in the face.
And here’s the thing: I know unequivocally that my mother loves me. I know she has no clue about mental illness, not really. I know she thinks that saying these things will help me to realise my situation and get better – that’s if she even thinks consciously about them at all, as I’ve a feeling most of these things are said to me on autopilot. My mother is my only real support at the moment too, as I’ve managed to alienate a lot of people through my self-isolating tendencies.
I also know if I were to bring this up to her, she’d get angry and say ‘well, I can’t say anything around you then, so I’m not going to speak at all,’ then give me the silent treatment for a couple of weeks. I know, because that has happened many times before. I’m sharing it here because I need to vent my anger at this somehow.
Those words are harmful. If you have a loved one who is suffering similarly, be extremely careful how you respond to them. I know you want them to heal. I know you see the ‘you must help yourself’ truth as self-evident, but it may not be evident to them. Don’t send them into a shame spiral.
Saying these things isn’t support – it’s criticism and victim-blaming. It doesn’t spur me to action; it hurts me beyond belief and makes me feel twice as much of a failure for not acting on her ‘sensible’ suggestions.
PLEASE share this to everyone you know who has a loved one with a mental illness, or is going through similar troubles with their families.
It’s time people realised that their choice of phrase can really exacerbate problems. And that people in my situation connect to vent, as I can’t be the only one out there frustrated by this sort of reaction.