‘My mother was abusive at home but a local hero in the community’

Tell me about it: Moving home to care for a father with dementia has resurfaced trauma

PROBLEM: My mother died just over a year ago. She was somewhat of a local hero in our area, she was involved in every event that took place in the village, she was kind to strangers and charitable at every given opportunity.

I am in my late forties and have relinquished my job and apartment in Dublin to come home to take care of my elderly father who is suffering from dementia. I have one sister who lives abroad but has not returned to Ireland in more than two decades.

The truth is both myself and my sister hated our mother. She was emotionally cruel and physically abusive. She would always taunt us that she would have preferred sons rather the two ugly sisters. When we were teenagers, she would deprive us of food to keep our weight down. She told us that we would never get married, because no man would want either of us. This prediction was true, but I think neither of us ever engaged in a relationship with anyone because we found it difficult to trust another human being.

We have both dealt with our issues differently, my sister lives a solitary existence and I have tended to drink a bit more than I should but that is now under control. However, since I moved home, I have felt a rush of trauma. Every time I go to the local shops someone reminds me what an angel my mother was. They also tell me it is terrible that my sister has not come home. I love my father; he is a gentle soul but I sometimes feel very angry that he never intervened when our mother was awful to both of us.

I often just want to leave and return to my life in the city, but that would mean my father having to go to a nursing home and I really don’t want him to suffer because of her.

ADVICE: Trauma is a good word for what you are feeling, and you describe a very difficult childhood where your primary relationship was full of criticism and deceit. That you have compassion and love for your father shows that you are completely different from your mother, and that is quite an accomplishment. However, you are no longer the child who needed to stay in a horrible situation as you had no means of survival without your parents and so now you are facing a choice.

There is a saying that we reap what we sow, and this is an example of this. Your mother clearly burnt any bridges with you early in your life, but you continue to live with the injustice of a community that sees her as a saint, and you know so differently. Living with this on a daily basis must create agitation and upset and you might need to consider the effect of this on you in the long term.

Your dad, if his dementia is advanced will need increasing levels of care and perhaps it is time to think of this and to make a plan for his care. It is a huge testament to your love for him that you sacrificed your life for his sake but is this really what a caring parent would want for their child, particularly a child they watched being reared in trauma? Surely the challenge for you is to create a life for yourself that has strong, unconditional and supportive relationships in it – you did not grow up with these and thus will have trouble letting people get close enough to you. Having a mother who was relentlessly critical was damaging, this damage is often life-long and deeply wounding.

You are right to think that you and your sister have shied away from intense relationships due to your experience of your foundational relationships being so harmful. Yet you seem to have had a life in the city that was meaningful and real for you and perhaps it is now time to consider returning to that life and making it work for you in even more substantive ways. You have a long history of surviving in a traumatic situation and this pattern may be what is allowing you to continue in your current unbearable position – in other words just because you have a capacity to withstand agony does not mean that you should do it.

You can still have a relationship with your dad that is based on visiting and this would allow you to focus on developing your own life. Think back on what you wanted from him as a dad and then implement that – did you want him to believe in you, see your worth and champion your desires and abilities? This is your job now, to be your own advocate for a rich and varied life. If you struggle with this, you might consider seeing a psychotherapist to help you untangle the complicated ties that your family has created for you and to help you find your own path.