My mother is co-dependent and it is ruining our entire family

Hello Dr. Peele,

I need some advice please.  My mother is co-dependent I think.  My mother and father married young (16 yr. old), and had me.  My mother was a “mind your husband” wife, doing what he asked, and being a homemaker.  They had nothing in common and my father was violent.  The last time it occurred, I remember pulling on his pant leg asking him to please stop. He kicked my mother, who was on the floor, and told me “If you want her, you better get her now before I kill her.”  Her eyes, nose, and ears were bleeding.  This was the last time I had to witness this.  Thank God.

Fast forward. My mom went from man to man looking for a husband as she could never make it on her own. She thought that she ‘needed a man’ and has always played ignorant. Her words, “I was never as dumb as people thought.” This lead of course to bad relationships that never lasted.  I know she had a hard life, I accept that.  However, that meant when I was growing up that I had to wing it, without a role model or mentors.  Unfortunately, my mother has never learned to make a decision until this day. She finally met a wonderful man that loved her as herself, let her be the homemaker, and they lived happily ever after for 33 years until he died about 1 ½ years ago.  I dearly miss this man, not only because he was a good father to me, but because he took care of my mother, and never laid a hand on her.

Now my mother’s health is poor due to major surgeries, breast cancer, and now Parkinson’s disease.  Once my stepfather passed, my mother had no idea how to handle her life.  I was going to the university, albeit late in life, and I was almost finished.  I graduated and it was a big step since I am the first generation high school and college graduate.  At any rate, I took over the responsibilities of helping my mother.  My original plan was to start my own business before I knew I’d have to help my mother out.  This didn’t work out at all and there’s no way I can leave the state now.

Trying to be a good daughter, I helped her with getting my father’s social security.  I took all bills/utilities I could and put them on auto pay so she didn’t have to deal with it.  I put all her medicines on auto pay as well.  This leaves her with only one credit card monthly to write a check to.  I thought this would help, not only so she’d feel safe, but to free me.  Even so the stress on me has been unmanageable and my health began to fail me.  I think it’s partly genetics but constant stress…you know what they say.

Here is what happened along the path to my health declining.  The economy took a dump (no jobs), we had a BP oil spill in this area, so job venues are not readily abundant.  I was back-ended and laid up for half a year, and now my health is slowly declining due to OA, RA, and fibromyalgia.  Most days it takes a while to get going and some days, it’s hard to get going at all.  This doesn’t stop the responsibilities and those go on daily.  I keep pushing with all I have.

I think I have made a grave mistake and I’m not sure how to go about fixing it.  I ‘must’ call my mother each and every day because my step-sister does. That’s how that started.  Okay, she used guilt on me, and I’m now a mindless entity that does this every day!  However, now the calls are several times a day instead of once.   My mom calls because something came in the mail she doesn’t understand…she calls because I asked her to make an appointment but she doesn’t know what day is best, she calls because ‘insert any reason’.  If there were no other people in the world that would be fine with my mother because I’m enough!

It’s just I don’t feel well most days, it takes all my energy to do my business, her business, grocery shopping, housework, or yard maintenance (not in one day).  I have nothing left over to give because I’m so tired.  I don’t even feel like doing anything with my friends because I it so a boyfriend is certainly out of the question.  Alternatively, I’m so worn out that I don’t get my things done.  This is an issue as I see it.  Then throw in the occasion other family member that needs help and I’m totally overwhelmed.  Yikes!  Might I add I’m an only child so there is no other help.

Due to the Parkinson’s disease, I thought it would be good to get my Mother closer so that I could help her, so we purchased the house next door.  It was a foreclosure, and needed everything done to it.  Can we find more things to do?  I did them myself because my mom can’t help and I’m trying to save her money.  If I mention that I’m too tired or don’t have time, she gets offended.  If I tell her it is something she should be able to handle, I hurt her feelings.  If I get snippy because I’m not feeling well, she cries.  If I tell her to say out loud something she just asked me because it makes no sense, she gets upset because she thinks I’m calling her dumb.  It’s a no win situation!

I get so stressed and I’m afraid I may have made the wrong decision for her to be closer.  It’s just I thought it would be feasible since I have to drive her, have to make her arrangements, etc., her area isn’t that safe anymore.  I also second guess myself as I’m not sure if it is the Parkinson’s disorder or the same things as always.

Dr. Peele, could you please advise me on how to help her be more independent, or feel confident enough to do something important (read decisions) for herself?  Can you offer advice on how not to feed her co-dependency even more once she moved next door?  It is so bad now, let me give you an example.  We’re eating Chinese takeout, she doesn’t like something, it’s forever “We don’t like that.” Even though I stop her and say, “No mom that’s not correct.  You don’t like it.  I like it just fine.”  I’m just not sure how to handle the 24/7 thing.

Any advice or opinion greatly appreciated and thank you in advance.  D

Dear D,

People get their lives into strange, hurtful situations.  I feel for you and for your mother.  It is hard to reverse things after so many years.  And, really D, I am thinking about you primarily.  You know that, I think.  Your mother constantly sacrificed herself to men — although she made that work for herself for 30 some years with your stepfather.  But, in your description, your whole life has been dominated by your mother.  She can’t be free; you can’t free yourself form your obligations to her.

As in all addictions to people (you know, I wrote Love and Addiction many years ago), the emotional issues create the dependence.  Your emotional needs drive you to be there constantly for your mom in a reversal of a mother who fosters codependence in a child.  You might reflect on why you require her to need you so much, how that has become such a major, necessary source of satisfaction for you.

Practically, you need to set up boundaries in your dealings with her.  To do that, you must find alternative satisfactions for yourself.  You’re stressed, haven’t done the things you want, etc.  But what remains in your life that you can try to accomplish?  What would bring you satisfaction outside of your life with your mother?  Whatever that might be — more education, volunteering, exercise, gardening, a job — start taking those steps.  As when parents leave a child with a babysitter, they — and you — may be surprised to find how much emotional resilience the children/your mother have.  (And, if you have the resources, you might seek help from a caretaker.)  You’re the one who says that she plays dumb, having learned to play that dependency card to the hilt.

D, you speak of “we.”  Do you have a husband, children?  (I know you have a stepsister.)  You don’t mention your obligations to the other parts of your we — is your husband supporting your addiction?  Does he object?  Does he have suggestions?  I bet he might — like, “D, your mother can do that on her own, without you running over there all the time.”  In other words, just as you might work on your own life and personal resources, you need to make use of the resources, the people, that/who are already present for you. After all — you and I have just met, I’m not on the scene, I’m not emotionally involved.  So you need to call on people closer at hand who have a stake in all of this.

And, finally, you might speak to a counselor.  Here’s what I would warn against — finding one who explains all of your behavior because you witnessed abuse as a child — maybe they’ll suggest you were abused yourself but forgot it, or that watching your mother being beaten constituted abuse for you (which, really, it did).  That certainly was traumatic, and I do feel for you.  But, ironically, you are now in a situation where you are being abused.  And you need to get help from someone professionally who can assist you to establish your own boundaries, stick to them, and let your mother know what they are and demand that she respect them.

A hard task, I know.  But, then, otherwise the misery your describe in your life will only escalate, as addictions will do when you don’t address them.

With concern and hope,
Stanton Peele

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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