How to distance from mother who doesn’t understand why

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    My mom has bipolar disorder, and unfortunately this has affected me my whole life in an incredibly damaging way. Every year or so she’d go off her medication and have episodes that were hurtful and traumatic to me and my siblings as far back as I remember. I understand people cannot help that they suffer from a mental illness, but she has never once addressed the damaging affects this has had on me. From neglecting my basic childhood physical and emotional needs, to insulting and berating me and treating my father terribly in front of us. My parents then divorced which meant that I as the oldest had to bear the weight of contacting doctors when she got out of control and trying to stop her causing damage to the home and herself. She has acted so terribly towards her children, and now that I’m a mother I believe that the trauma and neglect has lead to my anxiety issues, as I can’t understand how she could treat her children like that, and never attempt to explain, comfort or reassure us when she was better after the episodes and hospital stays were over. Now I am an adult, I know our personalities do not align. She has no interest in my life and no information I ever tell her about myself seems to register with her. She has a network of friends and I’m thankful for this as at least she is not alone, as my father left her after years of horrendous treatment by her. The issue is that she asks me to come over and visit her and bring my young daughter. I feel physically sick with anxiety when im in her company. the time I spend with her is torturous, both because it is incredibly triggering, plus the conversation just does not flow from her side. I try my best to think of things to ask her and count down the minutes til I can leave. She is not and has never been nurturing to her children. Now that my daughter is older I can sense she is uncomfortable around her too and I absolutely do not want to expose her to any of the bad feeling I had around her as a child. She is a completely selfish woman and totally oblivious to my discomfort and suffering at her hands. I have on occasions in the past tried to explain that she caused me so much mental torture and never explained or apologised or considered how hurt I was, but this never seems to register with  her for more than a few hours.

    I don’t want to be around her any more, but I don’t know how to say it to her without upsetting her. I don’t want my daughter around her and soaking up her selfish and inconsiderate energy. My life is better when I’m not around her, I have a wonderful husband and lots of friends. I feel guilty because society says you should always respect your parents. Nobody truly understands how awful she makes me feel. Does anyone have any advice? Thank you so much in advance x


    Dear Saoirse,

    you’ve suffered a lot as a child, exposed to a mentally ill mother. And you’re right, it can lead to a host of problems in adulthood, such as your anxiety. I understand that you would have liked if she had acknowledged the damage she’s done and apologized and made things right. But it seems she’s not willing or not capable of that.

    My own mother isn’t mentally ill, but she too doesn’t want to admit that she did anything wrong while raising me. And boy she did – from persistent criticism of me to being chronically unhappy and bitter about life and blaming others for her problems. But she believes she was a good, sacrificial mother. I’ve tried to talk to her, but to no avail. She gets offended and blames me instead for being a horrible daughter. She refuses to take any responsibility for her actions and take a look in the mirror. She’d rather blame others.

    After a while, I’ve given up trying. I don’t expect her any more to admit anything. I’ve realized she’ll never change. I’ve recently read a funny metaphor: “You cannot milk orange juice from a cow.” So there is no point in hoping to get orange juice from her — she’s not capable of that.

    I think the first healing you’d need to do is to stop expecting her to be different, stop expecting her to give you what she isn’t capable of. And then you can decide what you want to do – whether you want to cut contact completely, or maintain a very superficial contact, where you visit her once or twice per year, and that’s it.

    I understand you feel horrible in her presence, and that she triggers you a lot. And that’s I think partly because you haven’t healed your childhood trauma completely.

    I was also triggered by my mother a lot, we would get into arguments, but now I can be “cool” around her. I don’t get triggered so easily. But that makes our contact very superficial, of course. I guard myself and keep my boundaries. I live in a different country and visit my parents once a year or so. And I hardly talk to her on the phone in the meanwhile. So I maintain contact, but it’s very superficial, because I can’t be honest and vulnerable with her – she would use it against me.

    But anyway, my point is that I’m not triggered any more by her, because I don’t expect anything from her. That would be my advise for you too – to work towards that. And then, from that point of relative freedom – you can decide what you want to do in terms of allowing her to meet your daughter and under what conditions.

    Of course, if she is verbally abusive or unsafe in any way towards you or your daughter, you shouldn’t keep contact. But if she can behave normally, then perhaps you can think about it. And of course, never leave your daughter alone with her, but only allow them to meet under your supervision. I’d keep those precautions in any case.



    Dear Saoirse

    I am sorry that your childhood was blighted by your mothers illness.

    It is okay for you to keep your distance, no-one (society) who knows even a little of the situation would not blame you for this wise decision.  If you do decide to meet up with your mother and bring your daughter along a practical solution would be to meet up in a park so that your child could play  and being outside somehow feels less suffocating and easier to walk away if things get toxic.

    All Tee’s advice is excellent especially about giving up expectations of things to change from your mothers side.

    It appears that your mother may find it hard to deal with her past actions and their effects on you and or memory issues. You could write her a letter  gently explaining why you are uncomfortable about having contact, keep a master copy that you can re photocopy as and when necessary.  If you choose to write to her do so when you are feeling calm( your best possible self) then put it away for a couple of days then re read it as if you were looking at it  as if a friend was writing to her mother. then edit if necessary.

    You may also need professional help with releasing the burden of your childhood and the on going anxiety it has caused.



    Thank you both so so much for taking the time to reply to me and for your wise advice. I will definitely take on board your suggestions. I especially like your suggestion, Roberta, of if we were to meet, an outside space like a park could be helpful. I think I always just suggested that we would call to hers, so I could get up and leave whenever I wanted and not have to wait around for a meal / coffee to finish. She definitely does suffer from memory loss, I think each mental episode she has had has damaged her sense of being tuned in to the real world. The friends and acquaintances she has now, she has mainly met through mental health services. These people are (understandably) on her side and encourage her to reach out to me so she can see me and her grandchild. However they are absolutely unaware of the horrendous trauma her children suffered. They just see her as a woman who’s daughter doesn’t make much of an effort with her. This also affects me as I’ve even had a friend of hers reach out to me to tell me about how often she sees her own grandchildren and that my mother loves my daughter and wants to see her more often. This frustrates me (and I guess this is definitely a personal issue that probably stems from childhood, where I get annoyed that her people think I’m the one in the wrong)

    Tee, I’m sorry you had to deal with similar issues with your own mother. As a mother myself I cannot in a billion years fathom how a woman could cause their own child to suffer. It physically hurts to think of my own daughter going through even a fraction of that pain. I have gone to therapy a number of times in the past, most recently it finished due to covid restrictions in 2020. I do agree that perhaps I need to learn how to deal with the way I react, rather than expect her to suddenly have a lightbulb moment (or to get OJ from a cow!) as this is realistically never going to happen. Recently I feel like I am almost mourning the nurturing mother I never had, and so resentful of the one I do have.

    Even writing my feelings in this post is awakening a lot – so I think writing a letter is a good start. I actually did this before and although she acknowledged it at the time, it didn’t really change anything in the long run. But circumstances are different now and I guess there’s no harm writing another one. It’s just hard to know what I should suggest – that we don’t see each other at all? That we only see each other when I feel strong enough? I don’t really know where to draw the line. I forgot to say she lives quite close to me – less than 10 min drive. So I can’t use distance as a reason.



    Dear Saoirse

    You could may be write something like this…….

    As a child I , naturally was unable to separate your behavior due to your illness and the role you played as my mother.

    I understand your desire to be around me & your grand daughter, but I still need time to heal and come to terms with my adverse childhood experiences so that history does not repeat itself and effect yet another generation of our family.

    Please feel free to put your own suggestions on this thread for a detached point of view.

    It is very rare for any one to reflect,  apologies and take responsibility for their actions and the damage it caused even inadvertently as in this case due to being bipolar and so any group that your mum is a part of probably does not challenge hers or their own belief of how they see their life stories .


    Dear Saoirse,

    you are very welcome. As Roberta Said, you’re not obliged to anyone to keep in touch with your mother, and I think there is no point in meeting if you have such a strong reaction to her. Perhaps the best course of action is to take a time out – a pause in contact – until you’ve processed some of the childhood hurt and anger that you feel towards her. Your hurt and anger are totally justified, but if you leave them unhealed, they will be a burden for you and continue to contribute to your stress and anxiety.

    As a mother myself I cannot in a billion years fathom how a woman could cause their own child to suffer

    There is a saying “hurt people hurt people”. That’s how I came to understand my mother’s behavior. My mother was emotionally abused by her own mother, and she simply didn’t have it in her to give me love and affection. She was love-deprived herself. She couldn’t give me what she herself didn’t possess. That’s how I got to understand her and forgive her. But it doesn’t mean I’ll let her insult me and emotionally abuse me any more. I am keeping firm boundaries.

    Anyway, maybe understanding that your mother was a hurt and deprived child herself can help you come to terms with her mistreatment? Furthermore, her mental illness incapacitated her to be a loving, caring mother. She probably didn’t even understand how she hurt you and your brother – even in her “sane” periods, when she was back from hospital.

    Recently I feel like I am almost mourning the nurturing mother I never had, and so resentful of the one I do have.

    It’s good you’re mourning the nurturing mother you never had. However, you can now make up for what you haven’t received as a child. You can give your inner child the love and care she never received from her mother. That’s called re-parenting.

    I think the reason you’re so resentful is partly because you believe that you’re irreversibly damaged by the lack of your mother’s nurturance. But in reality, you are not. Your inner child can be reparented and this can change your emotional setup, so to speak. Those unmet emotional needs can be met now (you can do it either on your own or with the help of a therapist.)

    I do agree that perhaps I need to learn how to deal with the way I react, rather than expect her to suddenly have a lightbulb moment (or to get OJ from a cow!) as this is realistically never going to happen.

    Yes, it’s most likely not going to happen, unfortunately. But if you learn how to re-parent yourself, you won’t need her to have a lightbulb moment and finally become a mother you were always longing for. Your happiness and peace of mind won’t depend on her. And so, you’ll be less reactive to her, less triggered and less resentful.

    But circumstances are different now and I guess there’s no harm writing another one. It’s just hard to know what I should suggest – that we don’t see each other at all? That we only see each other when I feel strong enough? I don’t really know where to draw the line.

    How about if you give yourself some time to process and heal, which will enable you  to see and feel the situation with greater clarity? Right now, you know you don’t want to continue like before, forcing yourself to go visit and feeling horrible anxiety. But you’re also not sure you want to cut contact completely. So maybe give yourself time to figure out what you really want.

    You can write a letter telling her that you are working on your mental and emotional health and you need some time to work things through before you can proceed meeting with her. Or alternatively, you can tell her that as a part of your new self-care routine, you can only meet her in a park for the time being. In the letter, try not accusing her but state your own needs and preferences (and present requirements) calmly.

    How does this sound?

    P.S. I’ve just read Roberta’s latest post – that’s excellent wording for your potential letter!



    Thank you both so much for your responses. I’m truly grateful to you both for taking the time to help me. 🙏🏻


    Dear Saoirse,

    you are very welcome! I wish you the best possible resolution of this dilemma. Let us know how it went, or if you need some more help.

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