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Posted Apr 28 2010 10:20am

I love getting comments on this blog, or through twitter. It lets me know that people are reading and that they care. I rarely reply to them, but I love getting them.

In this post, I am aggressively soliciting comments not just to stroke my own ego. I have a legitimate question, need legitimate advice, and I’m hoping that you can help…whether you are supporting a family member with a mental illness, or you yourself are sick.

My wife’s relationship with her mom is toxic. It’s as simple as that. We do not live close to my mother-in-law, but they interact via Skype fairly regularly. Since Day 1, I have had concerns about how my mother-in-law (heretofore shortened as MIL…for Mother-In-Law) has processed her daughter’s illness. As compared to my parents, who have done massive amounts of research and have met with a therapist repeatedly in order to better clarify how they can best support us right now, my MIL is proceeding as if everything is normal, and hasn’t adapted.

She is a nice person, my MIL, but this stressful scenario has revealed that she is not as sophisticated as I had originally thought. When my wife was delusional, she wanted to call in an exorcist, and at one point, she wondered which jealous friend had put a spell on my wife to get her sick. Pretty fucked up. When she visits, she is painfully stifling to my wife. I once saw my wife in her bathroom, brushing her teeth…and my MIL was there, stroking my wife’s hand, the same hand she was using to brush her teeth. She has no understanding of boundaries. She doesn’t get it that she can’t just love this out of my wife, she can’t squeeze her tight enough and make it all go away. Yet she sure does try, in ways that are unsettling to watch.

I also suspect that my MIL has an eating disorder of her own, if not a serious issue with her body image. Her huge obsession is with my wife’s weight. Which is horrible. She can’t see progress, like the reduction of suicidal thoughts, because she’s too busy focusing on the fact that my wife is still overweight. Or that she has acne on her forehead from the medicine. That is what she focuses on. Over Christmas, my MIL saw my wife for the first time in 2 months. My parents called, asked “How do you think your daughter is doing?” The first two things she said: “She has gotten fat and she has a lot of acne.” That’s it. Nothing on her emotional state, her strength, her reactions….her outward appearance. That amount of emphasis on the external, which is the world of side effects, and refusal to acknowledge the internal, which is where the disease hides, is not helpful.

But, she is my wife’s mom. I have a mom, my relationship with my mom is important. And, no one should tell me how to run that relationship. That is between me and my mom. The problem is that currently, my wife is still in survival mode. She is not thinking on the deeper level about how her relationship with her mom is quite strange, that her mom’s behavior is not particularly helpful. That being treated like a baby by her mom often makes her feel worse, because she stops taking care of herself, she puts that in the hands of her mom. (I hope I’m not being too confusing here with so many pronouns.)She instead just feels like it’s her mom, it’s a comforting and familiar face in a world of loneliness and sadness. So while to a healthy, objective observer, my MIL acts in ways that are extremely inappropriate, my wife sees it as just being taken care of.

I bring this up because they had a particularly toxic interaction yesterday on Skype, which my wife told me about. Three very upsetting things were brought up.

1) My MIL told my wife that she is starting to see doctors to try and figure out what is wrong with my wife. I find this upsetting because rather than see a therapist to figure out her own shit, my MIL is trying to solve her daughter. This is not feasible. A doctor halfway around the world, who has never met my wife, can’t help. But, my MIL is once again showing my wife that it is the Mother who will solve the problems, so don’t worry honey, you don’t have to try and understand yourself, because let’s be honest, it’s been 8 months and you’re still overweight, so obviously you haven’t made much progress, so just leave it to me and I’ll fix it for you. Obviously I am not a fan of this.
2) My MIL asked my wife, verbatim, “So, when do you think that you’ll be back to your normal weight? It’s been a while.” This made me furious. How dare she try and imply that my wife is staying overweight just for shits and giggles. Like she enjoys all of this. Like it’s fun for her, or that she’s too lazy to try.
3) And then the kicker. My MIL said to my wife “If you ever want to get pregnant, you need to lose this weight. Overweight women can’t get pregnant.” This had me ready to rip my MIL’s head off, for several reasons. First off, it’s factually and medically wrong, just like casting a spell on someone to make them delusional is factually and medically wrong. Second, this comment ties together two of my wife’s biggest concerns: her weight, and a future of having children. She had gone off birth control just before going delusional, because we were ready to have kids. Everytime she hears about someone having children, or getting pregnant, it gets her sad. She wants kids. She doesn’t want to have a mental illness. The other night she said to me “If I hadn’t gone psychotic, we’d probably be pregnant right now.” She is obsessed with this, and it pains her, deeply. And my MIL just put pressure on my wife to lose weight, or else say goodbye to children. Which is not factually true. But is certainly hurtful.

With this in mind, I think the line has been crossed. I am no longer comfortable just sitting back and saying “It’s not my relationship, I can’t tell my wife how to feel about her mom, I can’t tell my MIL how to treat her daughter.” Fuck that. My wife is my family. My family is being harmed. I am going to protect my family. I need to do something about this.

Here is where I solicit advice. I can only imagine that if your loved one has a mental illness, they may have relationships in their lives that are toxic. Relationships that don’t help, and only make things worse. This relationship can get better…if my MIL takes the time to reflect, learn, go to therapy, etc. Without that, it is toxic. How do you protect a loved one from a toxic relationship, while at the same time respecting the fact that they must be in control of their own relationships?

Or, to those of you who suffer from mental illness: how have you handled toxic relationships? The hardest part about all of this is that my wife doesn’t fully see this. She didn’t like what my MIL was saying, but she wasn’t enraged like I am. She doesn’t get upset about the things her MIL says, because it’s her mom, and she wants to love and trust her mom. I have observed enough and have been validated by enough objective outsiders to conclude that this cannot continue uninterrupted. How would you feel if your husband/spouse/friend/whatever told you that you need to take a serious break from a close relationship, even with your own parent?

I don’t want to treat my wife like a baby, like her mom does, and manage her relationships. But my wife needs more of a buffer from her own mom than 5,000miles is already providing. It’s not healthy. While my wife may not be immediately upset by this, I know that she will for quite some time be obsessed with the fear that if she can’t lose weight, she can’t get pregnant.

What do you think I should do? How should I manage this? How can I best protect my wife and yet encourage her to be her own person?

As if it’s not enough to have my wife sick. I also have to deal with a MIL that only makes things worse. Greaaaaaaat.

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