No Choice but To Go with the Flow; Go Ahead with Your Own Life, but Leave Me Alone
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My mother has advanced Alzheimer’s and it takes up every minute of my life. My partner tries to be understanding and helpful, but she works full time and most of the burden falls on me. In a way, it feels like my mother dies every day, but I can never stop mourning because tomorrow it starts all over again.
Truth be told, I need some comforting words. The stress is making me less of a partner to my girlfriend, and it seems like it will never end.
Dr. Hurd replies,
Dementia means “deprived of mind.” It is the progressive decline in cognitive function beyond what might be expected from normal aging. Losing one’s mind is about as awful as it gets. There are no words to comfort you.
The number one rule for coping with your mother is not to try fighting her logically. It’s a waste of energy. She’s lost her normal brain functioning. In earlier stages, she most likely went in and out of lucidity. In the later stages, she’s obviously checked out entirely. You have to come to terms with the sad but true fact that neither of you can do anything about it.
It’s hard to watch a once lucid—even highly intelligent—person become incapacitated in this way. If one accepts the premise that the mind or consciousness is one’s spirit or soul, you are witnessing the slow death of one’s soul. At the same time, it’s crucial to not make your own life harder because of something you can’t control.
Try to go with the flow, as the expression goes. You can’t help what the flow is, and you can’t change its direction. So just go with it. I hear this repeatedly from people I speak to who have successfully cared for a loved one with dementia. By “successfully” I mean they didn’t become unduly stressed. They just accepted it the way it was.
As you say, in a way your mother has already died. You must allow yourself to grieve as if she had already died. At the same time, she’s still here and you feel affection toward her because of who she once was. But that’s not who she is now.
Don’t add to your burden by trying to do the impossible. Laugh with her, cry with her, be patient with her. Then go out and guiltlessly live your life away from her. It is what it is, and you can’t change it, so there’s no need to fight and argue with reality. That’s both the bad news and the good news. Take a deep breath, embrace it, and move on.
Dear Dr. Hurd:
After many years, I finally coaxed my boyfriend to go into therapy. He didn’t really want to do it, and in truth he’s doing it more for me. It’s been a few months now, but I don’t see him changing. Should I speak to his therapist about it? Or my boyfriend? I’m not sure which way to go.
Dr. Hurd replies,
Here’s the problem: It’s your boyfriend’s therapy, but you’re treating it as your own. People consult a therapist because they want to change their thoughts, emotions or behavior. What you might seek to change for your boyfriend isn’t necessarily the same as what he chooses to change. Regardless of who’s right, his life isn’t yours to change.
If there’s something you don’t like about his thoughts, emotions or behavior, then you should consult a therapist yourself. Perhaps the way you’re responding to him implies some sort of conflict, contradiction or issue within you. If that sounds familiar, then by all means explore it.
I frequently get requests from people to become their son’s, daughter’s, partner’s or otherwise significant other’s therapist. The first thing I say is, “Have him or her call me.” Also, I do my best to warn the mother/father/family member/spouse/partner/whatever making the referral: “He’s going to select his goals for change; not necessarily yours.” People might act like they understand this, but experience has shown that they often don’t.
Even highly intelligent people take the loved one’s problems as self-evident, like a sore throat or a broken arm. “Well, isn’t it obvious? The therapist will see what the problem is, and correct it.” It doesn’t work that way. If everybody saw things the same way, there would be little need for therapy in the first place.
Frankly, it’s naïve and arrogant to assume you know what he needs. If you want your boyfriend to have happiness, leave it to him to figure out what that is. No therapist is going to make him happier. He can only do that for himself. A therapist can only help him articulate it and guide him toward it. A cognitive therapist like myself will focus not only on emotions, but also on facts and what’s reasonable.
When you care about someone and you believe therapy might help, then by all means suggest it. If you’ve had good experiences yourself, tell him about those experiences. But don’t expect him to diagnose and treat everything the way you would. It will only lead to frustration and disappointment..
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office may be reached at 302-227-2829. Email Dr Hurd