On your un-diagnosed mother

My mother in an un-diagnosed manic depressive. Only un-diagnosed because she refuses to see a therapist and is enraged whenever its mentioned. Ditto for suggesting any medication.

When she’s in a downswing, she is beyond morbid, black, angry, sad, and likes to shut herself away from the entire world, including myself and my toddler (who is constantly asking for her). Nothing helps her. No amount of pep talking or consoling. Not one thing I say makes anything better for her, it just upsets her more. I’m 30. I’m a working mom. I’m busy. And we’ve been through this so many times that lately when she gets like this, I’ve just refrained from contacting her until she feels better. But I feel incredibly guilty about my silence. To me, this is the only way to deal without letting her drag me down into the abyss too, but I feel like I have a responsibility as a daughter to be there for her. Tired of the tightrope. Wishing I could help but realizing I can’t and switching to self preservation mode.

Not sure what my question here is. Any insights?


Manic depression is bipolar disorder, but it sounds like you’re describing major or persistent depressive disorder rather than something bipolar. (You mention the negative aspects of her depression, but you don’t mention the negative aspects of any manic episodes. Believe me. If she were manic, you would be complaining about that too.)

The fucked up thing is that there’s not much social stigma around a depression diagnosis these days, but there’s still tons of social stigma around a bipolar diagnosis. There really shouldn’t be. (Honestly, I’d much rather have someone in my life who has bipolar disorder than pretty much any of the personality disorders.) Regardless of whatever disorder your mom ultimately has, the problem remains that she doesn’t want anything to do with treatment, and that really puts you in a tough spot.

Obviously, your mom needs some professional help. Thing is, you’re not her doctor. You’re her daughter. You simply can’t be the one who helps her the way she needs to be helped. It’s true, as her daughter, you do have a responsibility to her, but at the same time, you are not responsible for her. You have to learn the difference. Your mother is responsible for her own mental health. You are only responsible for yours and your child’s.

Basically what I’m telling you is that it’s okay to step off the tightrope. You don’t have to do that anymore. If your mother isn’t willing to take care of her depression, then it’s reasonable for you to establish boundaries and not let her drag you down. Stop feeling guilty for protecting yourself and your child.

As her daughter, definitely keep encouraging her to seek treatment, and don’t let her anger dissuade you. Let it strengthen your resolve to maintain boundaries for as long as she refuses to help herself. That’s not just self-preservation mode. That’s the best thing you can do for her, for you, and for your child.


22 thoughts on “On your un-diagnosed mother

  1. WhoAmI says:

    “Honestly, I’d much rather have someone in my life who has bipolar disorder than pretty much any of the personality disorders.”
    Now I’m curious about what you think of the personality disorders, coquette !

    • JC says:

      Borderline, narcissist, histrionic and sociopathic are the ones that come to my mind. Most of the personality disorders come with symptoms that make people enormously selfish and/or evil. Bipolar is more toward creative genius and “artistic temperament.”

      • WilhelminaMildew says:

        My brother, though undiagnosed, is almost certainly sociopathic. Enormously selfish and evil both describe him quite well. I haven’t spoken or engaged with him in nearly a decade and never will again.

      • WhoAmI says:

        Never met one of those “explosive” borderline who get mad at people and attack them for very insignificant things. I’m more familiar with the ones who cut and starve themselves tbh.

      • KestrelQ says:

        This is absolute nonsense, and definitely propagates negative stereotypes about mental health issues.

        For starters, “sociopathic” is definitely not a personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder is the actual diagnosis that people associate with “sociopaths”, but in my personal opinion, the term “sociopath” is so over- and mis-used that it has lost any meaning it may originally have had.

        The 10 recognized personality disorders are schizoid, paranoid, and schizotypal (cluster A); borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, and antisocial (cluster B); and avoidant, dependant, and obsessive-compulsive (cluster C).

        This sentence: “Most of the personality disorders come with symptoms that make people enormously selfish and/or evil. Bipolar is more toward creative genius and “artistic temperament.”” is so absurd I’m not even sure it’s worth commenting on. Using the word “evil” is pretty ridiculous in any non-biblical or literary context, but using it to refer to an entire category of people just because they have mental health issues is — to say the least — very inaccurate and damaging. Please stop contributing to the stigma attached to mental illness.

        Personality disorders are all different, and they also present differently (and with varying degrees of severity) in different individuals. Some people who have personality disorders may act in ways that you perceive as selfish, but that doesn’t mean that all (or most, or any) people who have personality disorders are “selfish and evil”.

        Your understanding of bipolar disorder is also completely incorrect. It has nothing to do with genius or the ability to create art. Some people with bipolar disorder are certainly creative and artistic, but many are not. They are just people whose brain chemistry is such that they experience manic and depressive episodes, with varying duration and frequency depending on the person.

        On another note, I have to say I definitely disagree with CT on this one. In my opinion, it’s all a matter of degree and individual presentation. Someone with severe BD can certainly be more destructive and harmful than someone with mild OCD or BPD. People are not diagnoses, and painting everyone who has a particular diagnosis with the same brush is, in my opinion, detrimental to everyone.

  2. Been There says:

    Reading this, I must say I feel your pain. Years ago, my mother was diagnosed as manic depressive but the psychiatrist also thought she was schizoaffective. This was characterized by deep depression, wild mania and pretty powerful delusions. During these episodes she could be extremely angry and mean, distant, ecstatic, and flighty. She also refused to see a doctor or get treatment. She went one time, chaperoned by her parents. She received meds, but then pretended to take them and flushed them down the toilet. After years of trying, I knew that I could no longer stay on the sidelines. Her mania became a danger to her well being, as she was putting herself in situations which she could get hurt as well as being generally reckless. At this time, I made the decision to have her committed. I will tell you, this was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life, but two years after this decision she is still compliant with her therapy and meds. I can point to the care she received which provided her the opportunity to get mental and emotional balance restored, albeit forcefully… I was losing her to her madness, and though I do not fully have her back (since the meds do suppress parts of the personality) I no longer fear for her safety and she is able to live a healthy and much more rich life. Perhaps you can talk to a social worker in your area, to learn about this process if the situation comes down to it. You do have this one last option available, just be sure you understand that this can dramatically change your relationship forever, and this attempt may not succeed. But if she is in dire need, it may be the only option. I will leave you with this last question, If you were in her position, overwhelmed by depression that you could not control, ( and possibly incapable of helping yourself), what would you want your daughter to do for you?

  3. Anon says:

    My mom is bipolar so I understand how you feel. She was diagnosed once years ago during a manic episode and then she never spoke about it again. She has since refused all psychological help. My siblings and I accept that we can’t make her get help. When she’s manic, we just try to talk her down from doing crazy shit. When she’s down, we just tell her we love her. She’s never going to change and accepting that makes life easier, though I will say I sometimes feel envious of people who have “normal” mothers.

  4. rex says:

    offer to meditate or easy stretching time with her during a calm period? so much therapy focuses on mindfulness perhaps introducing it to her in a way you think she can digest will start the process of accepting that she can begin to control her mind and make her more open to outside help. many techniques can be found online to fit different personalities from adult coloring books to gardening– the same suggestions she would get from a therapist without the instant “crisis mode” energy that can accompany a first visit to a mental health provider.

    • Recovering codependent says:

      You could do this. And if you don’t want to – you don’t have to. Set your boundary and it’s okay not to play therapist. Been there, I think it’s a soul sucking dead end.

  5. g says:

    oh this one is hitting home, I thought to write about this to you coke. My mom is diagnosed bi-polar, and in the last manic stage sold her home and moved to another state, thousands of miles away from me but near her sister. Well, it isn’t turning out so great, and she has just sunk into more depression. I have thought about how to get her committed but none of the other family is on board, they always protect her. I have set the limit of no visits from the grand-kids until she is on meds again (its been a a few years, she says she doesn’t like not feeling the highs and lows). I no longer feel guilty though, I feel numb because I can’t get caught up in her controlling shit and growing up with her made me get therapy and go on meds for a bit because of the PTSD from abuse. Do what you gotta do to stay sane, your kid needs you. I try not to talk in too much detail in front of the kids, demonize her. I feel you…setting limits is a good step. this is advice is spot on.

  6. Mus says:

    For whatever it’s worth, speaking as someone who is bipolar and has also experienced years-long major depression, you have absolutely nothing to feel guilty over when you take steps to protect your and your toddler’s mental/emotional health by distancing yourself. Not just because your own welfare should be a priority (though it should), but because no matter how close you get to her issues, you aren’t getting any closer to her. She isn’t letting you. She won’t and possibly can’t let you, and she is the one creating that distance, not you. Accordingly, she is the only one who can remove it.

    I’m not trying to suggest you should abandon her or magically stop caring, obviously, but depressed/bipolar people, when in the trough between waves, don’t often derive comfort from others reaching out to us. If anything, we may turn it into yet another locus for obsessional guilt (which, by the way, is still something we do to ourselves, not something you’re doing). You said it yourself: nothing you say makes anything better for her. She has to want help. Her brain may turn against her so thoroughly that she never does, and that sucks out loud, but it’s not something you can fix regardless.

    If she rejects therapy so categorically, it might be worth leaving a book on CBT lying around, such as Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. If she chooses to crack the spine on it, then she might, might begin to entertain new ideas about therapy and what it is or can be and start the slow process of reconsidering her options. But this is a horse and water situation, and it’s not your job to keep trying her on different ponds (which all look the same to her, anyway). Take care of yourself first, whatever that means. You deserve that as much as the people depending on you do.

    • JC says:

      I guess I am lucky. I’ve mostly accepted help where needed, and I have friends and family who were extremely helpful and supportive through two episodes of straight-up insanity. I have actually found less support for the depression end of things, but maybe that’s because I am fucking insufferable when I get like that 😉

  7. Betsy says:

    You have some obligation towards her, sure, but ultimately you’re the child, and she’s the parent, and there’s a level of emotional support that is definitely not for you to provide. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some inversion of that relationship in your family.

  8. KP says:

    “You mention the negative aspects of her depression, but you don’t mention the negative aspects of any manic episodes. Believe me. If she were manic, you would be complaining about that too.)”

    The morbid, black anger could be part of dysphoric mania or a mixed episode. Either way, to the OP, it’s unwise to diagnose your mother yourself.

    I come from a family with a lot of undiagnosed mental illness, so I know where your coming from. You can encourage her to seek treatment to a point, but inevitably, it’s up to her, and you shouldn’t have to feel guilty or responsible for her health.

    @JC “Most of the personality disorders come with symptoms that make people enormously selfish and/or evil. Bipolar is more toward creative genius and ‘artistic temperament.'”

    There’s a lot of symptom overlap between bipolar and borderline, and they’re commonly comorbid. Bipolar unfortunately has been romanticized as create person’s disease.

    • JC says:

      Well, I can only speak for myself. What I can say about it is that having manic episodes took me to the limits of my mind in a way that I can’t even convey to another person. I qualify as genius IQ in normal circumstances, and things went way off the chart. I wouldn’t like to have it happen again, because the progression can be very destructive, but I would not give back the experiences. They were truly incredible, life-altering, and they leave a deep imprint on who I am.

      If that is romanticizing, so be it. I will take that over people standing in judgment of me over what is a medical issue I didn’t bring upon myself.

      • Strangely Rational says:

        I have Bipolar II, so no full-blown manic attacks, just hypomania. A lot of people with this condition don’t take meds for it because it can interfere with creative energy.

        I’m at gifted level, extremely creative, and I recently stopped my mood stabilizer because it was making me feel too neutral and uninspired (that, and it’s caused me to gain 40 lbs. in the last few years – it’s coming off gradually now).

        Still on my antidepressant, though, because that shit makes me suicidal, especially in the winter. Hypomania isn’t much of a risk for me – I’m not at all an impulsive or reckless person, and mostly I get hyperactive, talkative, irritable, and have insomnia issues. Of course, some of that is from the ADHD – that’s a fun combination!

        It’s not just me – I have several extended family members with these conditions, and they’re all intelligent and creative. My husband is mentally ill too (PTSD and probably Borderline) and at genius level. I don’t know that I’d consider it being romanticized – more like a silver lining.

  9. Lisa says:

    Ya finally answered my question regarding my friend and her mental health and boundaries I need to establish. And to think I was feeling a little bitterness at not getting a personal response. I can’t play her therapist anymore and gotta take care of myself, while still encouraging she gets the help that she needs.
    Thanks for indirectly helping me out 😀

  10. Strangely Rational says:

    Regarding social stigma in bipolar vs. depression, I think it’s s bit more complex than saying that it’s worse for the former.

    It’s true that most people would generally feel more uncomfortable or unsafe around someone with bipolar, fearing a sudden, insane outburst. It’s true that they would be more likely to ascribe negative characteristics to them (irrational asshole). But on the flip side, having had both depression and bipolar, I can say that with bipolar, your illness is taken far more seriously. You’re more “legit.”

    With depression, people tend to think that you’re faking, exaggerating, and/or making excuses to be lazy. They’ve had everyday “depression” (i.e., the blues), got some exercise, ate better, read some inspirational religious crap, and it cleared right up . . . so that should work for you too. You don’t need meds!

    At least I never had to put up with that bullshit after I developed bipolar. Of course you need meds. Of course you need a therapist. Of course you should apply for disability. Of course we understand why you can’t go out tonight. It’s a “real” illness.

    Of course, how prevalent these attitudes are depends on demographics. I live in a very conservative, religious, bootstraps-loving region where depression isn’t an excuse for anything. Unsurprisingly, mental health services in our state are atrocious. It’s probably better elsewhere.

  11. margarita says:

    Speaking from bitter experience, you can’t be your parent’s parent or their doctor. My mother is similar and I have spent many long years being made to feel responsible for her mood, for her anxieties and for her wellbeing. She refuses to seek help. I don’t know what your mother’s diagnosis is, but you are not responsible for her life, her health or her happiness. You have nothing to feel guilty about. Live your life. If she genuinely asks for help, then help her. Take her to appointments and help her with meds. But as long as she chooses to wallow in her own misery, there is nothing you can do. Focus on your own child, they’re the one you’re responsible for.

    This is a really shitty situation all around and it’s really difficult. But boundaries are important. Good luck.

  12. Grace says:

    It’s actually really bugging me how Coke threw people with personality disorders under the bus. Is she trying to say that bipolar people shouldn’t be stigmatized, because look at these mentally ill people that DO deserve their stigma?
    I know people with personality disorders can be pretty darn awful, and the vibe I get off Coke’s makes me think that she’s definitely known some people who earned their prejudices. But at the same time, stigma around personality disorders can prevent people from getting a diagnosis and beginning treatment, because they want to avoid a label that can fuck them over bigtime.
    Maybe this is a little too nitpicky for Coquette. But she does have a pretty large audience, and her words carry weight. While it’s true that Coquette would rather have a friend who’s bipolar than borderline, I’m still not sure why that truth was relevant.

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