My Mother’s Fear Vortex

My mother is in a panic because her toilet is working just fine. The current condition of her plumbing is irrelevant to her fear that there could be a catastrophe at any time. Her confidence in the imminent disaster of her toilet refusing to flush properly is based on an incident the previous day. You know how sometimes the rubber flap thing in the tank does not properly settle down after a flush and just lets the water continue to circulate? Well, that happened to her, so now she is sure that the toilet has mutated into a source of volatility and distress in the form of ruthless unflushability.

She believes that her salvation can come only in the form of a visit from a plumber. And not just any plumber – the plumber she used when she still had a condo, before she moved into assisted living. The handyman at the assisted living center is not to be trusted with such a critical mission. If the center won’t bring in her plumber, I am supposed to call the center director and demand this service call for her. I am also supposed to devote as much of my time as she wants so she can relate every detail that led up to her view of this emergency (somehow this includes a tooth ache the week before…).

Both my sister, who lives a block away from our mother, and I have been called in on this crisis. I live almost 1500 miles away, but I got the call anyway because my sister was insufficiently alarmed and because I am already her top consultant on one of her passion topics: bathroom issues.

She cannot listen to messages that explain that her problem is minor or her fear is unlikely to materialize. Earlier this year, she was so adamant that she might get a blister from her orthopedic shoes that she spent $1000 on three different pairs of special shoes before she bought one she liked enough to silence the fear. One of those pairs of shoes, thick-strapped sandals with built-in orthotics, was rejected because she was afraid they might not offer enough support, and that might trigger a resurgence of arthritis in her feet.

With my mother, any fear is so urgent, so real, so devastating that everyone in her tiny circle must rush into action on her behalf. But here’s the thing: we rarely agree that she has a real problem calling for intervention, and we have learned that she won’t accept any solution other than the impractical one she has already etched onto the steel trap of her anxieties. Trying to talk her out of the fear is irresistible even though we know it is futile. We know that our reasoning never averts her fear.

For those of us who are regularly sucked into her fear vortex, the fears and her demands for feeding them are soul-sucking. They are love-sucking. They leave us with less compassion and her with more fear. I know that her fears and anxieties are an intrinsic part of her. I know it’s frustrating for both of us when I can’t resist trying to reason with her.

Today is the last day of 2015. I know it would be gracious and compassionate of me to make a resolution to be more understanding of her from now on. The thing is, it’s frustrating to always do all the understanding. I am not as sympathetic to her as she would like – and pieces of that limited sympathy come from the complexities of our relationship, from the old scars of having a mother who doesn’t understand her children’s needs or feelings or perspectives. I’m not prepared to surrender entirely to her. I’m not prepared to set aside my life because she might get a blister or her toilet might not flush. The best I can do with a resolution is to continue to try to be helpful to her without resentment, to try to be patient, to try to protect my heart.

Copyright 2015.


2 thoughts on “My Mother’s Fear Vortex

  1. Anna

    Hi Sarah,

    If you feel like it, I recommend picking up John Cleese’s autobiography “So, anyway…”. His description of his mother’s irrational fears fits with what you describe here. Might be an interesting read for you and affirming.

    My mother is similar, always hysterically afraid of hackers, online ads, going bankrupt and other things that with common sense can be avoided… I can’t recall how often I had to help because “there’s something wrong with the computer, I saw a red message!!” and then she is incapable of explaining what it was. She doesn’t seem to see the difference between an online ad and the virus scanner genuinely needing an update…. I could go on but you probably know what I mean…

    Anyway thanks for sharing, it’s an insightful blog entry.

    Kind regards,



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