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MIL has Munchausen?? (LONG post; need advice)

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MIL has Munchausen?? (LONG post; need advice)

Postby mattinthemiddle » Mon Nov 04, 2019 9:46 pm

Hello! I created an account here just to ask this question. I apologize in advance for the long post.

(Abstract/tl;dr: I think my seriously traumatized mother-in-law has Munchhausen or some similar factitious disorder, whereby she actually believes she has non-genetic amyloidosis, and is convinced she is going to die "soon". She has put my wife and I, and everyone else around her, through a year of emotional hell, intentionally or otherwise. Looking for input, support, advice of any kind.. Read on for background/context.)

My wife and I (27 and 29) have been married for four years. I've known her for seven. Her mother ("Julie"), who had been single since her first husband left thirteen years prior, was engaged to her second husband ("Jerry") when I met my wife, and they got married in August of 2014. That November, Jerry was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma and started aggressive treatment. There were signs that were 'missed' (more on that later). Julie went from being his wife to full time caretaker pretty quickly. By the time I married my wife in July the next year, he was already very sickly from treatment. The cancer advanced and regressed several times before finally his liver started to fail, and his body just started shutting down.. In March of 2016 Jerry passed away.

His siblings had never really accepted Julie into the family, and thus contested EVERYthing during the execution of his will etc, which dragged out way longer than it should have. Julie (and my wife, and her brother and sister) had to put off grieving and deal with this for months before it was finally resolved, everyone got 'paid out', and went their separate ways. Julie got evicted more or less from his house, where she had lived with and cared for him, and spent his last days together. We helped her move closer to us. THEN she started to grieve. She grieved heavily for over a year. Didn't work, didn't clean or take care of herself, ate whatever she felt like (mostly McDonalds and Culvers), barely took care of her dog and four cats. It was bad, for her and everyone involved, especially my wife.

I had been sympathetic all the way through most of the first year (there's no normal for grieving, I get that), but after that I started wondering if/when she'd snap out of it, and figure out what to do with herself. During all this, my own mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, gone through treatments, full mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and has since been in remission. Her struggle was completely eclipsed, at least in our home, by every facet of Julie's ongoing grief-related drama---it was the Julie Show, and my wife tuned in 24/7 to catch every minute of it. I caught my MIL venting angrily, in tears, to my wife to the effect of "why does [my mom] get to live, but Jerry had to die?" on multiple occasions. My wife's brother and sister also came to live with Julie---initially to help take care of Julie, and save on rent, but eventually outstayed their welcome (both take medication for depression and anxiety, and had 'failure to launch' for a while; they're in their twenties).

Our oldest was born in July of 2017, and this helped ground Julie (and my mom, who was in the middle of her second course of chemo at the time) for a while. However, she never got back to 'herself' 100%. She had and still has issues with self-care, poor diet, cleaning her place, general energy levels, anxiety etc. This year it got really bad. We welcomed our second child in April of this year, and almost immediately afterward Julie started complaining of "symptoms"; pain, weakness, some more 'specific' than others, etc. (a whole litany, I won't bother listing them all). This escalated very quickly into full on hypochondria. I'm talking tests for every possible kind of cancer that fit her symptoms, starting with stomach cancer (how this all started back in April: among her symptoms are very real GI bleeding and other complications, due to "massive, excessive consumption of McDonalds coke and french fries, my biggest vice"---her words). Totally understandable, she didn't want to go through what her late husband had, fine. Her money, right?

BUT, whenshe and her assembly of doctors and specialists had effectively ruled out any and all cancer, she didn't give it up and just treat her symptoms normally (e.g: she was prescribed a CPAP mask months ago, which she still hasn't worn once). Instead, she went online, googling her symptoms until she found non-genetic amyloidosis, which she monkeybarred to even before the last cancer tests came back (negative, ofc).

Since June-ish, she has been "10,000% sure" she has and is actively dying from amyloidosis. She goes on and on about her diet/lifestyle while grieving, how they could have caused this or that condition, which could have caused "the amyloidosis". How she feels so guilty about not taking care of herself etc since Jerry died. On and on and on, every single text/phone conversation with my wife, every family gathering ruined by this anxious hand-wringing, obsessively/compulsively going through the same litany of symptoms, guilt, grief etc talking points over and over and over---with blessed little relief for my wife and I, and her brother and sister, and anyone else she managed to rope in, in between. She's ruined birthdays and every family gathering on her side in between. Every time we talk about making plans, it's "well I might not be here by then so it won't matter"; injected into literally every conversation! She goes on about dying and "will you all be mad at me? will you all be okay? I'm so worried about passing, will [my wife and I] take care of [brother and sister-in-law] when I'm gone?" All while we're trying to raise our two kids, keep our marriage alive, and buy a house---stressful enough by themselves!

It has gotten to the point that, even if she was faking initially---exaggerating/lying about real symptoms for attention etc, idk---it has gotten to the point where she either completely believes the lies, or is now lost to the hypochondria and intrusive, obsessive-compulsive, anxious spiraling. There were moments of 'lucid' honesty and realization before, in which she would admit she really didn't know if she had this disease or something else; now those are gone.

My interpretation/theory about the above is this: Julie's existing anxiety and depression (untreated then as now) were exacerbated by trauma of losing her husband, as well as incredible personal guilt for (A) failing to encourage Jerry to get the 'early signs' checked out before they were married, for fear of her new life being put in jeopardy (she admitted this outright one night); and (B) as she says herself, for failing to make better life choices while she was grieving, especially with regard to her diet. I also contend that she grieved not only Jerry himself, but also the life that they could have had together, which was taken away along with Jerry.

She thought she had it set for the rest of their lives together, that he would work and she could rest after being a single working mom for so long. She quit her job to be his full-time caretaker, and still has not gone back to work. I mentioned the lack of concern for cleaning or taking care of herself---really unless she's going to church or coming over to watch the kids for an hour or two (YES, that's right, my wife trusts her alone with the kids), I'm not certain she does anything at all except scroll through forums and google search results, looking for validation and support for this disease she doesn't have. In any case, I believe she was looking forward to being taken care of, and is now forced back into the provider role, at least for herself and her pets, and she's mentally rejecting that. Hence, the hypochondria into what I think is full on Munchausen, and beyond that to the point of actual conviction and belief that she has this particular, incredibly rare disease.

What can I do as son-in-law, as husband, as father? I feel completely helpless. I have lashed out in anger both at my MIL and my wife, because I'm so fed up with the anxious, obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behavior. My wife has basically been pre-grieving her mom's "inevitable passing" for months now, and still takes her seriously because she believes her mom's real symptoms deserve real attention (she's an RN and can't tear herself away from the clinical side, despite the madness). I empathized with Julie all the way through her grieving until it became clear she's actively refusing to make better life choices (in particular I said, on one occasion, "we don't have a relationship unless you start wearing your CPAP mask"; Julie and I have barely acknowledged each other since) ((aside: this is just venting at this point---in public she eats like a bird, following some crazy keto-esque diet I've never heard of, but I've been in her apartment to feed her dogs, and I've looked in the fridge/freezer. Who's all that ice cream for? She hasn't changed her life choices at all, despite her grief, and is now actively deceiving us on that front as well)).

My wife is deathly worried about losing her mother, and totally worn out from dealing with her, on top of raising two kids and the homebuying process. She has indicated to me that she's unwilling to cut or even reduce contact with her mom to mitigate her exposure to the toxic behavior, and demonstrates much of the same behavior herself with regard to other stuff (e.g: "are you sure you don't think we were exposed to asbestos when we pulled those brackets out of the wall?" <minutes pass> "I'm just really worried we were all exposed to asbestos, and now we're all going to have lung cancer"). Her sister and brother are similarly strung out, though thankfully have their own lives in order and are not adding to the collective dysfunction anymore.

I know I can't force my wife to cut off contact, but she won't despite my protests, and that's unacceptable to me. It's a point of constant contention between us, and all this, on top of difficulties with raising kids, is destroying our marriage.

PLEASE if you have read this far, let me know how you have dealt with being in similar situations? I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of making an account just to post this short novel of a post, if I wasn't seriously in need of advice/support...or maybe just a long-overdue opportunity to vent about this in a healthy way, myself. Thank you for hearing me out, and in advance for any feedback.
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Re: MIL has Munchausen?? (LONG post; need advice)

Postby realityhere » Tue Nov 05, 2019 7:02 am

@mattinthemiddle,

You may think your MIL may be experiencing Munchausen's due to her own dx of amyloidosis, but pls don't diagnose when you're not a professional to begin with. Your MIL could very well be experiencing symptoms of an entirely different disorder or condition, of which diagnosis should be left to a professional.

"I know I can't force my wife to cut off contact, but she won't despite my protests, and that's unacceptable to me."

Sounds like an ultimatum. It'll be interesting what your wife says. This is, after all, HER mother, not yours.

Oh, believe me, I could tell you a long tale of in-law woes myself, but not gonna do that. I've long figured out that it's not my business and I try my damndest to stay out of that family drama. And yes, I've managed to carry on with our own family life as normally as possible, not easy, but it's possible, even with a spouse who doesn't see my side of what's going on with his mother.
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Re: MIL has Munchausen?? (LONG post; need advice)

Postby Alexicon » Sat Feb 22, 2020 6:49 pm

Hi Mattinthemiddle,

I'm sorry you haven't received many replies. I have been through similar situations with a relative. He was obsessed with the idea that he was terminally ill. He spent hours "researching" on the Internet and self-diagnosed himself with a series of illnesses. Doctors said that his symptoms were insignificant, and he became angry with them for failing to confirm his diagnosis.

He would call me and talk for two hours at a time. He went into a trance reciting all of his talking points, while I barely said a word the whole conversation. I guess he's the type who needs to talk about his problems to feel better about them. But...after the two-hour call, neither of us ever felt better. He was still anxious, and I was EXHAUSTED. Throughout this stretch of time, he was actually diagnosed with two legitimate health conditions, but after initial treatment, he didn't go for follow-ups. ("I don't have time for that; I need to find out what's REALLY wrong with me.") WTF

My relative has been "dying" for 20 years now (in spite of having no diagnosis of a terminal condition). And sharing his fears and complaints about it the whole time. And constantly reminding us of his impending doom. ("Oh, that movie looks like it's going to be good. If I'm still alive in 3 months when it comes out, I'd like to go see it.") I think that the medical fixation may be somatoform delusional disorder. Our family let the situation go unchecked, because explaining and arguing logic with the person made no progress in curbing his anxiety about his health. Eventually, the problem expanded, as this person now believes that another relative has been poisoning him (to prevent him from finding out about his medical condition). Now we're dealing with persecutory delusional disorder, too.

I don't know if your MIL's condition qualifies as a delusion, but here's what I've learned about dealing with people with delusions:

You cannot argue with a person who has a delusion. They might be completely and normally rational in all other areas of their life, but when it comes to the delusion, their brain will not accept logic. The brain will automatically develop an illogical response to any logical explanation you present. You can talk until you're blue in the face, but you'll just be wasting your time and exhausting yourself. If you confront this person too much about the delusion, their brain will label you as part of the conspiracy against them.

When someone is talking about their delusion, don't argue with them about it. Don't confirm the delusion either. Instead, try to change the topic. Distract them. Announce something interesting or funny that her grandkids did recently.

I haven't seen a lot of good arguments for making ultimatums. If you're not talking to her because she won't wear her sleep machine, then she feels more victimized and stressed, and this can make her anxiety worse. (And your wife will suffer for that.) I agree that you should minimize your contact with your MIL--for your own sanity--but you shouldn't do it because she won't comply with your demand. Instead, you should avoid spending time with her because you're "busy".

See if you can encourage your MIL to see a counselor to "help her deal with her grief and the stress caused by her medical situation". The counselor might notice other issues and give her some tools for dealing with anxiety.

Don't try to tell your wife to stop listening to her mother's tales of suffering. (The term "energy vampire" is sometimes used to describe people who need to obsessively talk about their problems to other people.) Don't give anyone any ammunition to label you as the bad guy. Your wife will have to come to her realizations alone and decide when enough is enough.
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