Stop! You Can’t Be Your Borderline Mother’s Interventionist

Stop! You Can’t Be Your Borderline Mother’s InterventionistIt is decidedly unwise to find yourself serving as the primary mental health crisis care worker for your family members. Still, that is precisely the role in which I found myself for many years. It was hard for me to see all my hard and earnest work for what it was—codependency—as my mother would accept help in no other way. Again and again, she turned down willing and available treatment, bringing her threats of suicide and other high-alarm states only to me. I feared I couldn’t turn my back on her, and that if I did, the price would be too great. No child wants to feel responsible for her mother’s suicide. So from the young age of 13, I began reading everything I could find in the public library about mental illness. I studied psychology in college and later read therapeutic treatment manuals when I should have been vacationing with my family. 

My mother’s progress at times leaped ahead, and other times slid backward. She once spent the length of a year refusing to leave a house that wasn’t meant for habitation, wearing combat gear she’d bought at an Army surplus store. She battered a young grocery store clerk while bystanders looked on, frozen, and pulled a gun on my elderly grandfather. Her rages were colossal; her panics, traffic-stopping. And they still are, though in recent years, the episodes seem less explosive and come less frequently—something that still surprises me.

Just as I had begun to trust this new temperature—things had cooled down over a relatively long period—the plague hit. The plague, of course, is the onslaught, the back-to-back gut punch of events that anyone would find trying, but for my mother, was simply too much. Financial troubles, marital issues, problems with my brother—all of it piled up until she turned to me, as she always does, and I answered, as I always do, ready to help deescalate her crisis. But I cannot manage my mother’s crises. (When I say “turned to me” I really mean “turned on me.”) I end up triggered and emotionally harmed by the consequences. It was never appropriate for me to try. I love her, I want to help her, but I am not suited for the job.

Active BPD Progress Moves Forward and Back

I’ve discovered that BPD progress, like any kind of progress, can look similar to the waves of the ocean. You’re surfing along on the tidal surge, moving ahead and gaining ground, but sooner or later the tides turn, and you find yourself falling back. There are ebbs and flows. I believe most people with BPD can eventually advance ahead, regardless of the back steps. Borderline personality disorder is known as the “good prognosis diagnosis”—as difficult as it can be for sufferers and the people who love them, it can be overcome, and tends to mellow over time. For that to happen, a willingness to seek treatment is almost universally necessary. It can be difficult for BPD sufferers to recognize they need help even during the good times, not just during moments of crisis. That support is necessary to help them shore up their resolve and secure the ability to regulate their emotions, good and bad. Family members and partners should not attempt to be the “feelings regulators” of their BPD loved ones; this makes for an unhealthy dynamic and takes a toll on everyone in the long run.

Take Care of YOU

My mother has an untreated mental illness. The rage, the accusations, the criticisms, the threats of harm and declarations that she wishes I’d never been born are all storm surges beyond her control. I know that the degree to which my mother attacks correlates only to the degree to which she is experiencing inner turmoil; it is not about me. Understanding this has been freeing for me in a way nothing else has, and I return to it when I need to be reminded.

An airline flight attendant’s safety session comes with an important lesson: to help the loved one sitting next to you, you have to secure your own oxygen mask first. Your “oxygen mask” may take the form of healthy boundaries (not allowing yourself to be the target of rages by stepping away or not picking up the phone); a willingness to seek your own therapy; a desire to learn about codependence; and the conscious choice to stop interceding as your BPD loved one’s therapist or crisis interventionist. That role is simply not appropriate for us.