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What am I supposed to do to help my mother who has just been diagnosed with Severe Somatoform Disorder?

By Anonymous August 30, 2010 - 9:52pm
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My mother has just been diagnosed with Severe Somatoform Disorder. She is 64 years old and in her words has been sick as long as she can remember (she tells stories of being sick when she was 3 years old), so basically her entire life. She has been in and out of hospital for so many years, as long as I can remember and I am in my mid-30s. She complains of gastro/digestive issues, she has terrible balance and will just fall down, so can't leave the house unless in a wheelchair, and she suffers from what she calls "attacks" but what the Dr tells us are "false seizures." My sister and I have felt for some time that her medical problems were related to stress, as there seem to be cycles of very bad periods usually around the time that something major is going to take place (my wedding, and I'm her only son), a trip overseas, moving out of the house she has lived in for over 30 years etc.

I guess my question is what does this diagnosis mean for her and our family? For the last year and a half she has been solely focused on her illness and finding a cure for it, to the point that she has barely spent any time with her new grandson, and now to find out that the diagnosis is Severe Somatoform Disorder ... I just don't see her accepting this diagnosis .. she has pushed for so many years against the idea that it is not a mystery illness that just can't be diagnosed. Please help me.

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A book that helped me cope with health anxiety was Jonathan Grayson's Freedom from OCD. It might help you to read it and get some insight on your mother's "putting her life on hold in search of a diagnosis" to the put of not her not having a life. I don't know what the connections are between somatoform disorders and OCD, but there seem to be similarities in the all consuming nature of the unanswerable questions.

September 1, 2010 - 9:53am

Hi Anonymous

I highly recommend at least a few sessions of family counseling with your mother if she will allow it. A severe issue like this has certainly had an effect on your entire life as well as your mother's life. I would imagine she is in some sort of therapy. Just broach the idea of attending a few sessions either with her in the room or separately so you can discuss the situation with her therapist and go over strategies to support your mother while caring for yourself as well.

Having a family member with this type of problem is extremely challenging, and you must work hard to have good boundaries to protect both of you and your relationship.

Good luck to you and thanks for writing.

September 1, 2010 - 7:10am

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for your question, and for finding EmpowHER.
Severe Somatoform Disorder is a real psychological disorder. It is a condition that can be treated, the goal is to improve quality of life. Here is a full description of her condition from the Merck Manual. It includes treatment suggestions, which I'm sure the doctor already has gone over:
It is a doctor's job to rule out physical conditions and to "do no harm" in trying to diagnose and treat an illness. It says a key to effective treatment is a good patient/doctor relationship. Does your mom trust her doctor?
I'm not sure what else you can do to help your mom to accept the diagnosis, except be supportive. Good luck, and let us know if you have any other questions.

August 31, 2010 - 10:08am
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