Dear Dr. Yael:
I am convinced that my mother is clinically depressed, but she refuses to seek help or even admit that she has this problem. Instead, she blames all of her sorrows on outside sources.
My mother has never been a “glass is half full” kind of person but she has gotten much worse since menopause. She makes every Yom Tov, family affair or get-together a nightmare by displaying a sour face throughout and always complaining about everything. Every conversation is laden with negativity, and she can never take any enjoyment from anything or anyone in her life. It’s almost like she wants and expects something bad to happen, and when it does she obsesses over it. But when good things happen to her, she neglects to notice.
While she complains that her life has no purpose, she refuses to do anything about it. She recently retired, making things worse; now she just sits on her porch all day sulking. She refuses to make friends, travel, seek a hobby or find some type of stimulation – not to mention refusing to seek a therapist’s help or to discuss hormonal changes with her doctor. We have tried taking her out, calling her multiple times a day and visiting her with the grandchildren as much as possible – but all she does is kill the joy. It has come to the point where the grandkids hate going to her house and we, the children, get migraines after every encounter. We try to be sensitive to her needs and discuss them with her, but our attempts are draining.
How can we help a person that refuses to be helped?
A Frustrated Child
Dear Frustrated Child:
I feel for you and your family, as it cannot be easy to deal with so much negativity when you spend time with your mother. Nevertheless, the person suffering the most is your mother. People who tend to focus on life’s negatives never enjoy the “trip.” Life’s journey is filled with ups and downs. We all have nisyonos and it is the way we cope with these challenges that makes all the difference.
It appears that your mother has many good things in her life. She seems to have married children and grandchildren who try to love her and make her happy. However, due to what you’ve described as her negative attitude and depressed state, she is missing out on the joys of life.
We all know both people with difficult lives who manage to smile and focus on the berachos and positive things in their lives, and others who appear to have everything – good health (for them and their children and grandchildren), nachas, money, etc. – but are likely to focus only on the negative thing.
Happiness is really about our attitudes in life. I very often see people who cope with difficult and tragic situations in an exemplary manner, while others with basically good lives who focus on every little problem and blow every issue out of proportion.
The old adage, “When you smile the world smiles with you, and when you cry you cry alone,” is so true. It is those positive, bubbly people who seem to have friends despite life’s adversities.
I have treated beautiful-looking clients who on the outside seem to have everything going for them, but feel miserable inside and exude negative energy wherever they go. These people do not understand why people do not gravitate to them, why they do not have many friends, and why their married children never seem to want to spend time with them. I try to teach them how to look at the positives in their lives, how to value life’s berachos, and learn how to compliment and show appreciation to others in their lives.
Baruch Hashem, many of my clients have learned to change their attitudes. In doing so, they make new friends and notice that the people in their inner circle (spouses, children, grandchildren, etc.) become more interested in spending time with them.
Here’s a suggestion: Consider getting your mother involved in YMHA classes or in an organization near her home. Maybe she can develop a hobby and meet people with whom she can enjoy it. The hobby can be art, painting, learning a musical instrument, joining a theater club, or becoming involved in exercise or swimming at a local facility. As an avid swimmer, I can say that through swimming I have developed new friends. It’s also good for her wellbeing.
Also, try to arrange a walking partner for her (maybe one of your friend’s mothers). Since you mentioned that your mother is not responding to any of your ideas, tell her that she should walk to stay fit. When suggesting the mother of one of your friends, tell your mother that this woman needs a walking partner and that it would be an act of chesed for her to help this woman. By exercising, your mother will feel better because it will increase her endorphins. Endorphins are natural anti-depressants that our bodies produce and thus are the best form of “medicine” that we can take. It is also a great starting point, as you do not seem to be sure if your mother is clinically depressed since she is refusing to seek medical help for her symptoms.
While it is uncertain if your mother will respond to this kind of intervention, perhaps she is the type of person who does not know how to take care of herself, but likes to take care of everyone else. If she thinks she is helping someone else, i.e. her walking partner, maybe she will get the help she needs in the process. And once your mother starts being more active, she would gain further benefit by joining a group therapy session. Group therapy (perhaps with recently retired people), as opposed to individual therapy, may be better for her because she will see that she is not alone in her difficulties. And hopefully she’ll make some friends in the process.
If your mother is clinically depressed (she would need to be diagnosed by a professional to ascertain this), she might need medication prescribed by that professional. The right medication can make a positive difference. When feeling better, she can try some of your ideas and/or some of mine.
If none of these ideas work, simply stress to your mother how much you love her and how much you want to help her feel better. Tell her how much it hurts you when you see her feeling this way. Emphasize that you want her to enjoy her life and all the berachos that Hashem has given her – including her beautiful children and grandchildren. If your mother has never been a “glass is half full” kind of person, she will not likely change this facet of her personality. But hopefully you will be able to get her to come out of the depressed state in which she finds herself, hence decreasing her negative attitude.
If you think it will help, show this column to your mother. Maybe it will hit home, and she will try to turn over a new leaf in her life. I wish you hatzlachah in your challenging situation.
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