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“We Are Absolutely the Worst People” in Her Life: When Mental Illness, SUD, and Blame Collide 

At Allies in Recovery, we’re always impressed by the mutual support our members give each other—and wherever possible, we try to build on it. At the heart of this post is a conversation about how to take care of your emotions while staying connected with your Loved One (LO). It leads to a stark question many of us coping with SUD grapple with: how do you support a Loved One who blames, rages, and is verbally out of control? Laurie MacDougall tackles this vital, thorny issue. 

Editor’s note: in November 2018, Allies CEO Dominique Simon-Levine wrote a widely-read post on borderline personality disorder (BPD) and substance use disorder (SUD). Among the comments added by others was one by an Allies member whose younger sister may have BPD. The younger sister ended up “estranged from everyone in her family, including her two children,” and the Allies member struggled with the verbal abuse that resulted from efforts to help.  

Recently, Allies member Kelly replied to this commenter. Her reply moved Allies writer Laurie MacDougall to respond in turn.  

This post begins with Kelly’s comment and continues with Laurie’s response.  

Hi, You described my daughter exactly, now 34. I have custody of her 14-year-old daughter and my grandsons who are just three and five. 

She was also self-medicating with alcohol, Adderall, and eventually meth.  She then put herself in a residential program, but id still exhibiting underlining behavior of BPD after 6 months of rehab. 

She has estranged herself from her three siblings and myself as we are absolutely the worst people among many other adjectives she uses to describe all of us. We are by nature and action a very close family so this is particularly absurd to all of us and very painful. When she is on her A game she is charming and engaging. We haven’t seen that side in two years and it’s just getting worse. I am always on the fence between reaching out or staying clear away. When I do try to reach out and help her it somehow gets twisted into a diabolical plan to hurt her.  

My heart goes out to you, as I’m in search of ideas and support. 

Hi Kelly,  

I think all of the Allies community can relate to how difficult it is to deal with the incredibly negative accusations and blame-darts directed at us by Loved Ones (LO) with substance use disorder (SUD). Having borderline personality disorder and other mental illnesses adds another layer of negativity. 

For all the difficulties expressed in your post, there’s also some really good news that you wrote about in your comment: 

  1. You have stepped up in a big way as Grandma. It has to be incredibly difficult to take on the raising of your grandchildren. It is wonderful to see that they have you in their lives to care for them. Really, very selfless and giving.
  2. Your daughter entered into some form of treatment on her own. Wow! This is a big deal. When it’s the individual’s idea, they are more likely to be committed to the process of recovery. This doesn’t mean they won’t struggle or have setbacks, but it’s a step they get to own. Kudos to your daughter.
  3. You and your grandchildren have the support and connection to your immediate and extended family. As you relate, you’re very close as a family, and that is such a wonderful strength to draw from.
  4. Your daughter has had moments when she exhibits positive (charming) behavior. This is something to build on. Try to use those moments to strengthen connection with her. Reinforce all positive behavior you would like to see repeat.
  5. You are searching for ideas and support! I know that this journey has had to be very difficult, but you are still here trying to find ways to make it better for you, your daughter, and your grandchildren. 

One thing I am not sure of from your comment is whether or not your daughter has been diagnosed with BDP by a psychiatrist or if she is just exhibiting behaviors associated with BPD. If she does have BPD, there may be added strategies and support options for handling situations with her and the psychiatrist should be consulted. Either way, learning CRAFT skills is a way to build and improve on your relationship, even if just a little bit.  

Our own feelings are a great place to start 

Your word choices in this comment (diabolical, very painful, absolutely the worst) convey a deep sense of pain and difficult feelings. What about starting there? Module 7 (How Do I Care for Myself When Negative Feelings Get in the Way?) is all about such situations.  

Taking a break from your LO and caring for yourself is so important. It’s also important to take whatever amount of time you need before being in contact again. While you’re working on self-compassion and coping with difficult feelings, you could also dive into Module 4 (How Do I Talk to My Loved One?) and start practicing positive communication skills. 

Less “awfulizing” can make room for understanding 

The very first video in Module 4 discusses the goal of no negative talk. Learning to reduce the negative talk to an absolute minimum combines well with introducing realistic thoughts (discussed in Module 7). Together, these skills can help you stop “awfulizing”—seeing and feeling everything through the lens of how bad it is. Reducing the awfulizing, reframing everything from a more neutral viewpoint, will help lessen the sting, give you more opportunity to manage difficult feelings, and help you respond and interact with your daughter in a more helpful way.  

Try turning to an inner voice: one that challenges you to consider that your daughter’s blaming and shaming of you and the family could be a way to keep herself safe from facing her own behaviors. If it’s someone else’s fault, she doesn’t have to feel horrible about her own stuff. She gets to avoid her own difficult feelings.  

Looking at my own LO’s behavior from this new angle helped me to observe the behavior itself and not become so entangled in it. I would often think things like, “My LO is not doing this to me. They just cannot face it all right now.”  

I have to be honest though: I was often still left with own hurt and battered emotions. I was not good at protecting myself from the harsh words. It took a while to understand that if I could calm myself, I could manage my feelings better and learn to respond rather than react. Which brings me to boundaries.  

Boundaries are a must 

We often hear about boundaries when talking about SUD; the word gets flung around like water from a sprinkler. Boundaries are complicated. They are not easy to implement or manage. I have written quite a bit about boundaries; if you want to read more you can click here and here. Without going into all of the details, let me hit a few highlights that might be helpful:  

  1. Boundaries are for your protection. Physically, mentally and emotionally.
  2. Boundaries are your responsibility to implement and to maintain (not your LO’s).
  3. Boundaries determine your behavior (not your LO’s).  

The CRAFT approach requires some sort of connection and communication with your LO. But how do you cope with exposing yourself to the verbal assaults, accusations, and blame? It’s a balancing act!!!! You are going back and forth about whether to break away completely or keep reaching out. I have some thoughts that might inspire you to get creative and find ways to create a bubble of protection for yourself while staying connected with your LO in a helpful way. This is where creating emotional boundaries can help.  

Any time you are engaging with your LO and start to feel those deep, painful emotions rise to the surface, think emotional boundary. They are your emotions, so they are yours to protect and manage. I don’t know about you, but in my experience with LOs, early in my journey, I would often stay and engage when the conversations got hairy and painful. I spent a lot of time trying really hard to convince my LO of my viewpoint. It usually was done in a very emotional way and did nothing but escalate the situation. Or I would try to avoid the chaos by not saying anything and just trying to make it end. In both cases, my LO was not convinced or doing what I hoped, and I was left frustrated, feeling rejected and desperate.  

I learned over time that protecting myself from the verbal assaults and giving myself permission to temporarily step away was self-care. That self-care proved to be beneficial not only to myself but to my LO and everyone else in my life. Boundaries are good for everyone involved 

What might a boundary look like for you? Keep in mind that these are just suggestions. Be creative. Find what will work for you. 

Mom: “Oh man, I hear that you are upset with me and believe that I did that to hurt you. I really want to talk with you about this and hear what you have to say. Right now, I can feel my own feelings well up. I’m getting hurt, sad and angry. I am not going to be good in this conversation right now. I need a little time. Let me call you back later when I have calmed down and we can talk.”  

Daughter: “Oh yeah, sure. Now you don’t want to talk. You never want to talk when you know it’s your fault. You and the rest of the family! Seeeeeee, you’re running away. The truth comes out, it’s you. That’s great, just say goodbye and—” 

Mom: “Yes, I will call you back later. Bye.” 

Or maybe she hangs up on you. Often these things don’t go nice and calm. It’s more of a whirlwind of raw emotions, with provocations to keep us engaged. Our LO may take some comfort from knowing we are there to be blamed. By removing yourself calmly from the conversation, you are protecting yourself from further verbal abuse. By using “I” statements to describe your feelings, you are letting her know her words have an impact on you. You are modeling how adults handle themselves when their emotions start to take over. You are also owning your piece of this puzzle. That is, you’re sending the message that you’re going to deal with your own feelings because they are your responsibility. You’re indicating that you are open to what she has to say. You’re not abandoning her. But that you’re not going to continue with the conversation when it’s heated.   

This sounds straightforward and easy, but we all know that boundaries are anything but. Our LOs are usually not all that accepting of the new boundary and will ramp things up to try to keep us engaging in a way they’re comfortable with. In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. It can feel very intense and like you’re not getting anywhere and nothing is going to change. “It’s not working!” I hear this often from families. Setting boundaries and managing them over time can be like a wave. I find that I have to implement a boundary three to four times before things peak and start to settle down. And that usually doesn’t change things permanently. I may have to repeat the process again and again because the boundary’s being tested, or we fall back into old patterns. Being aware of this might help you to stay persistent and deal with your own difficult feelings. It’s a long, and often winding, process. 

Don’t try to do this without self-care  

Let me repeat: take whatever amount of time you need for self-care and settling down. Hours, days, weeks: it’s up to you to determine when you can engage again. Be patient with both yourself and your daughter.  

And be sure to check out the communication and interactive skills and strategies you can learn through the Allies website. Get support from others in evening groups or in any of the skills and training opportunities we offer. You are in a complicated situation, and we want to be as supportive of you through this journey as we can. It is clear that you have not turned away: if that were the case, you wouldn’t be here. Again, you have stepped up in a big way for your grandchildren, and are trying to do what you can for your daughter. Please remember that you’re not alone. 

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