Learning to set boundaries with my mentally ill mother
“Don’t you love me?” The lines around my mom’s eyes deepened, the confused pain engraved across her face. “Then why won’t you live with me?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”
“Yes, mom, I do love you,” I said. But I just can’t live with you, I thought.
“Well,” she said, “you sure have a funny way of showing it.”
Since moving out of my mom’s house at the age of 18, this conversation, with minor variations, has repeated itself throughout the past four years. While it hasn’t gotten any easier to try to answer her — because she’ll most likely never understand — my inner resolve has strengthened.
I know I’m doing the right thing for both of us.
How do you “lay down your life” for someone with a mental illness, while setting appropriate boundaries that keep you from becoming a doormat?
And how much do you overlook, allow, or tolerate, when this person won’t accept treatment or even acknowledge that she’s wrong in any way?
And how do you do this when that someone is your own mother?
For years, I didn’t want to go there. Though I acknowledged the fact that my mom is neither emotionally nor mentally stable, I didn’t want to ask these questions.
Amy Simpson, in her book Troubled Minds, writes, “Overlooking inappropriate behavior or beliefs is destructive,” and “does no favors for the mentally ill.” This wasn’t an acceptable answer to me. Instead, I reasoned that since my mom does not have the same view of reality as someone without her illness, she shouldn’t be held to the same standards.
Which then begs the question: what standards of behaviour should be compromised for someone with a mental illness, and what boundaries need to be unyielding?
Looking back, I believe that in some ways I underestimated what kind of behaviour my mom is (or can become) capable of, while also acknowledging that she most likely will not be able to respect all of the boundaries that I set. Regardless, I know that lines still need to be drawn, even if they are more for me than they are for her. Because boundaries are necessary for all individuals involved in any kind of relationship.
When I’m only offering whatever lives up to her (somewhat skewed) views of “love,” I give in to her manipulation. I’m living more out of a burden to “fix” my mom, or to “make her happy.” This is also what ends up causing me to fear what will happen to her if I can’t be there for her. And then I feel guilty because I’ll never be able to live up to all of her expectations for “loving” her.
Today, I’ve come to accept the fact that I can’t do any of these things for my mom, nor should I expect anyone to be able to; this isn’t the burden we as Christians are asked to bear when we’re called to lay down our lives for others.
What I can do is show up and be there for her, even when it’s hard and painful. This may involve calling her on the phone when I’m away and talking to her when she’s consumed by negativity. It could mean surprising her with flowers or taking her on an outing, even if she isn’t appreciative of the gesture, or is even critical of my motives. Or it could include watching another movie with her just because she likes the company.
It could also mean saying no when she pressures me into doing something that I don’t want to do, or not allowing her to treat me in certain ways that are unhealthy and detrimental to my well-being.
All of these things are acts of love. And in the process, I’m not a doormat. When she pushes or crosses my boundaries, I can take the space I need, and not live in the guilt that I am not “loving” my mom. I can pray for forgiveness and givers-of-mercy for my mom, as she does not know what she is doing at times, and the ways that she is hurting me, as well as others around her.
I can love her with a kind of love that is both unwavering, yet has a backbone, is tough and coarse. I can love her with a kind of love that has boundaries, but is limitless. This may look different over time, but it still remains, growing deeper.
This is the kind of love I have for my mom, with or without her mental illness.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Callum Baker.