“There is nothing wrong with making mistakes, but one should always make new ones. Repeating mistakes is a hallmark of dim consciousness.”― Dave Sim
My Biggest Mistakes
It’s human to make mistakes. It’s intelligent to learn from them.
Your demanding, critical, and unappreciative mother is ill.
This person who has caused you pain for as long as you can remember has entered the last phase of her life. Maybe she has a severe heart condition, suffers the consequences of a stroke, or is coping with the onset of Alzheimer’s. She’s losing her memories and other mental abilities, while her body is getting weaker. Whether she understands the situation, is unaware of her condition, or is in denial, she’s still trying to run your life. And as a result, as happens to many of us, you are your mother’s caretaker.
Terrifying, isn’t it?
I get it, I do.
While my mom fought for her life after a massive stroke, I stood outside the hospital gripped by conflicting feelings: anger and sadness, sorrow and annoyance, worry and unexpected excitement — there was a real chance that Mom could die.
An emotional hurricane raging inside nailed me in place, while the ambivalent thoughts stabbed into my mind like sharp needles. “She gets what she deserves… It must be terrible for her; I don’t want her to suffer.” And then, “If she dies now, I’ll be free.”
The last thought was dark and horrifying but gratifying at the same time. To be free from Mom’s abuse seemed like such a relief. For a while, the idea took me into a dream world where my life magically became uncomplicated and happy, but then reality woke me up. It had the face of a pharmacist with a smile half-creeping down his face — how long had he been trying to get my attention? Just then, I realized that I had dream-walked into a drugstore.
“How can I help you, ma’am?” The man’s patience had reached its limit.
Finally, I found my voice. “I need something to help me sleep. Please.”
That day was the beginning of the ten years I would spend being Mom’s caretaker. This decade was the worst time in our relationship, and at the same time, the best. I made lots of mistakes, but I also learned things that changed me forever.
Do you want to know more?
It’s All Intertwined
Caring for an elderly person is never an easy task, but taking care of a difficult, demanding, ill parent may become mission impossible. Just when you think it’s going well, the situation explodes in your face, throwing you into an endless spiral of anger, resentment, guilt, and self-loathing for being the “worst” daughter ever.
People rarely change in their old age.
So, what do you do? Do you run away or do you stay? Is it possible to care for an emotionally abusive parent and not lose your faith in humanity or ruin your own life? Can you still find joy?
Let’s have a look.
What Not to Do While Caring for Your Difficult Parent
They don’t teach you how to cope with your own difficult feelings or tackle others’ emotional turmoil in school. And even if they taught you that, real life is not the same as theories. We all need to learn from our mistakes, and being a clinical psychologist only helps to a certain extent.
The following were my biggest mistakes during caregiving:
#1 Turning the table.
Seeing the decline in Mom’s faculties, turning the tables felt like the right thing to do. Now I was the strong one, and it was my turn to run the show for her. So, I started telling her what to do and how, making decisions for her, etc. The power struggle between us continued, but the polarities have changed.
Later I understood that by reversing the roles, I treated Mom as someone less than me, as a child. That didn’t work well for either of us. I took Mom’s dignity from her, hurting and provoking her to defend herself by hurting me back even more.
#2 Trusting the wrong person.
Living far away, I was dependent on outside caretakers to help Mom. I hired a company that provided caretakers, and I wasn’t a part of the choosing process. Some were better than others, I knew that, but I decided to trust the staff to avoid complicating my life any more. As it turned out, one woman was a drug addict and she stole from Mom and often left her on her own. Another woman hit Mom so hard that she fell and hurt herself. I saw it and still had my doubts — it was the woman’s word against Mom’s, and Mom had dementia. Still, I felt something was wrong, and when the woman left soon after my visit, I was relieved. I wish I’d known more about elder abuse.
Today, I can only imagine how it made Mom feel — abused and helpless. I wish I could erase it from the past, but I can’t. I’m so sorry, Mommy.
#3 Reacting to sickness.
I kept reacting to Mom’s irrational behavior like an annoyed little child who’d been pulled away from her toys. Except my life was complicated as it was, and Mom, with her outbursts, denying new caretakers entry to her apartment or spitting out her medicine, was time- and energy-consuming. Reacting angrily and impatiently, I forgot that she had a severe illness and I was the healthy one.
#4 Trying to prove myself.
To begin with, taking care of my ill mother was like doing the right thing for the wrong reason — I was still seeking the approval of Mom and others. I wanted to be seen as a good person and a good enough daughter, not the monster my mother often depicted me as. But I came to realize that once more, it made me feel like Mom’s creation, not my own person. It wasn’t until I found my own reasons to stay in contact and help my mother on her last journey that I felt confident and authentic.
#5 Choosing the easier way.
I agreed to treatments that made it easier, maybe even possible, to be around Mom. Those meds helped to keep her psychotic outbreaks at bay, giving me much-needed days of peace. But these time-outs became shorter, and the side effects of these meds could have been severe. What if they caused more damage than help?
If I could do it over again, I would find other doctors to consult and involve myself more in choosing caretakers for Mom. I believe that could have made a huge difference for Mom’s quality of life.
#6 Lacking understanding.
I didn’t understand that my mother’s loud, critical comments on other people’s behavior or appearance were a part of her illness. She could say to a friend something like, “Don’t wear this hat; it makes you look horrible.” Or casually but loudly comment on an outfit of a woman walking in front of us: “Her trousers are too tight, can’t she see that? It makes her ass huge and legs short.” I saw how the poor woman shrank to half her former size. How did I respond? By berating Mom instead of redirecting her attention to something else.
#7 Not being present.
Have you noticed that sometimes you go to visit your parents, but you are too busy to pay attention to them? I know how it feels. Overwhelmed by Mom’s long list of tasks she wanted me to perform each time, or sometimes being there out of obligation, I hurried to get the work done. It was usually never completed, and we didn’t have time to talk or just sit together sipping our chai.
Thinking about it now, I realize that I couldn’t accomplish all the tasks and be present with my mother at the same time. I should’ve dropped non-essential tasks like cleaning her freezer or sorting out her kitchen cabinets and paid attention to Mom instead. I came that far, eventually, and it helped me see Mom, not as an object I needed to take care of but as the person she was.
It felt like torture being there. Mom was frustrated, resentful, and angry with me. And she was right — I was not mentally present. She was hurt, and she let me know that by being critical, demanding, and harsh.
There were other mistakes, I’m sure, but let me cheer you up. I also did some things good, and I learned quite a lot while caring for my mother. And I’ll tell you all about it in Part 2 – don’t miss it!
See you soon.
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