"The sad truth is that this boy is gone. He is not hiding underneath, under a sea of madness. He has been transformed completely."

Dear Virginia,

My son, 20, suffers from a mental illness which is becoming worse. He doesn’t think that there’s anything wrong with him, but from dawn to dusk he shouts tirades of abuse at me. I try to go out a lot because I’m anxious all the time, or spend a lot of time in my bedroom, praying that he won’t start again. It’s so sad because, until he was 15, he was a lovely boy. I’m told by the medical profession there’s nothing that can be done unless he gets so bad that he has to be sectioned or he admits that there’s a problem. Counsellors tell me to ask him to stop or move out.

Yours sincerely, Mary

Virginia says...

Poor old you and your poor, poor son. What you want is to do the best for your son, obviously. And the fact that what may be best for your son turns out also to be what is best for you is probably what is holding you up.

You feel, I’m sure, that doing what the counsellors suggest – giving him an ultimatum that either he stops insulting you or that he moves out – is cruel. You feel that you are being a bad mother, and you imagine that the person to whom you’re offering this rather harsh decision is actually the lovely boy you knew and adored until he was 15.

The sad truth is that this boy is gone. He is not hiding underneath, under a sea of madness. He has been transformed completely. All of us, in some way, become transformed as we grow up. The screaming baby in the high chair who throws food on the floor is no more “me” now than it is you. As our children grow up, it’s true, most of us can see traces of their former childish selves in their adult lives, but only traces. With your son, there is, sadly, no trace. You are dealing with a different person.

Of course you still love him, because he is, whatever he’s turned into, still your son. But what would be the best thing for him? To continue living at home, alienating not only you but no doubt countless others whom he may well be ranting at in the street? Imagine how lonely he must feel, so full of hatred. And yet, there is a faint possibility that with help and medication he might be transformed – not into the person you remember, but someone who could perhaps get a job and manage his life, someone, indeed, who could express love for you and laugh with you despite never, perhaps, being quite “normal”.

By doing nothing, you are actually preventing him from getting help. He has no incentive and, indeed, he probably doesn’t really know how he could get help if he wanted it – or he sees help, in his distorted mind, as some kind of evil plot.

First, visit your own doctor and explain the situation to him and outline what you are planning to do. Then tell your son that unless he stops this behaviour or seeks help, he will have to leave. And then see what happens. Explain that it’s for his own sake. He may, you never know, agree to visit a doctor. After all, it’s not that difficult. You’re not asking him to leap out of a top floor window. If he refuses, you may have to get him evicted, or even move yourself. But only a change in your behaviour can alter the situation. The fact that his leaving would make life easier for you in some ways is neither here nor there. And if you feel unbearable guilt, remember that your suffering is part of what you must go through to help your son.

Readers say...

Get a specialist to see him

You say your son “suffers from a mental illness” but give no account of any treatment or diagnosis that he has received and hint that he himself does not admit that there is a problem. This, then, is your diagnosis and in those circumstances it is little wonder that he is confused and angry with you. You need your son to accept medical help and you need a professional diagnosis before you can proceed with any treatment. If he won’t go to a doctor, see if you can find a medical specialist or counsellor to come and visit you and see the living situation you describe at first-hand. Although this might be expensive, it will allow a professional person to assess what needs to be done. It will also remove the guilt that you have by taking any decision for your son’s future out of your hands.

S Richards

by email

He should leave, for both your sakes

I am sure that you really love your son, but you are not doing him any favours by allowing his illness to dominate both your lives. From my experience of dealing with mental illness in my own family, it is all too easy for those close to the sick person to gradually come to accommodate symptoms and behaviour as they become worse, often in the hope that their loved one will get better by themselves. It makes it very difficult to be objective about the severity of the illness, and when things eventually reach crisis point, as they have in your family, the task of getting help seems even more daunting. If he really will not admit that he’s ill, and won’t get help, you have no choice but to tell him to leave. If he’s not speaking to you (other than shouting), put it in an email. It is possible that the threat will be enough to make him see his doctor. In any case, I think you’ll be in a better position to help him if you’re not having to deal with the daily abuse.

Name and address supplied

Let him confide in someone

Have you tried talking to your son and explaining to him how his behaviour makes you feel? It may be that something has happened to him which is making him so aggressive. Abusive behaviour often stems from unhappiness, anger or frustration. If he won’t open up to you, is there another family member or friend that he trusts who he could confide in? If not, then I don’t think it would be unreasonable to ask him to agree to a period of counselling in order to carry on living with you.


by email

Next week's dilemma

I am being driven to distraction by my girlfriend. For the first few weeks after we met, we got on very well and I felt that we were in love, though I was too shy to say so. But the minute that I told her my feelings, she backed away and refused to see me. A month or two later, I got a tearful phone call from her, saying that she missed me and wanted to get back together. I was naturally a bit cool, but the moment I started to trust her again, she backed off and the same thing happened. This has now happened for a third time. I can’t bear to be hurt again, but  I do love her. What can I do?

Yours sincerely,


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