My Mother Made Me Sick: One Woman's Story of Surviving Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

Julie GregoryFrom the time Julie Gregory was a small child, she remembers doctors. Lots of them. There was something wrong with her heart -- but what, no one could quite figure out. Her mother, however, was determined to get to the bottom of it. For years, in fact, for as long as she could remember, Gregory's mother had been shuttling her from one doctor to another -- and when one would come up empty, it would always end with her mom getting angry, dumping that doctor, and finding another.

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When Gregory was 13 years old, she was brought to the hospital yet again, and it was only when the nurse informed her that she was about to be cut open for a heart catheterization procedure that Gregory, terrified, suddenly bolted upright and blurted, “My mom is making this up!”

The Secret Mommy Syndrome: What Is Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?

It was the first time she had dared to voice what even her very young, confused mind had begun to suspect -- that there was nothing wrong with her and her mother was making up her illnesses. Still, it wouldn’t be until years later when Gregory was an adult that she would hear the term Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a psychiatric condition (otherwise known as factitious disorder imposed on another) recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in which a caregiver (usually a mother) will fake, embellish, or even cause her charge's illnesses in order to get attention, sympathy, and praise from the medical community and/or community at large.

Gregory, despite what she remembers as horrific childhood MSP abuse, considers herself lucky, because at least she didn’t have any organs removed nor did she die, which happens to so many other MSP victims. She was fortunate that she never had to undergo the heart surgery she says her mother so desperately wanted a doctor to perform. Luckily, the doctor could find nothing wrong with her heart and refused to perform it. That didn't mean that other doctors wouldn't keep trying to determine the source of her vague symptoms though.

The day she bolted up from her hospital bed and exclaimed that her mom was making up her illnesses, no one believed her. “I think they just assumed I was saying stuff to get out of an uncomfortable situation. I don’t think it would have even registered with a nurse to report this,” says Gregory. “Who would you believe? A parent or a kid?”

Munchausen syndrome by proxy wasn’t something that was widely on hospital radars at the time (many would argue it still isn’t). And no one could conceive that a mother -- one who seemingly wanted to do everything to help her daughter -- could be the cause of her strange and vague symptoms, which included heart palpitations, weight loss, and migraines. Says Gregory: “In this society, if you’re a mom, you’re considered to have all of the qualities of being a mom. No one thinks your mom could be the opposite of everything a mom should be.”

Gregory, now 45, remembers times when she would wake up in the morning, feeling fine (or as fine as a child could be given Gregory’s horrific circumstances), and her mother would wake up and look at her and say, “You’re not going to school today, you’re sick.”

She remembers pills her mother gave her that would suddenly bring on a migraine. She remembers her mother yelling at her to “act sick” for the doctors. One time, she says, her mother banged her head on the car window on the way to yet another hospital and threatened her that she better not act “normal” when they got in front of the medical staff.

Gregory says her mother often withheld food from her and forced her to do hours of hard manual labor around their small farm. The subsequent lightheadedness, heart palpitations, and weight loss no doctor seemed to suspect could be simple starvation. In fact, Gregory says her mom would falsely tell doctors she refused to eat. Medical staff didn't even think it was suspicious that Gregory ate like a hog during her hospital stays.

While Gregory’s father was a witness to the abuse, he did nothing about it. She says he had his own mental illness to deal with. Besides, even people witnessing MSP often don’t really know what they’re seeing. Who can quibble with a mom who just wants to make her child healthy? Gregory says her younger brother was a victim of other forms of abuse, but her mother focused her MSP tendencies on her.

No One Knew: Why Munchausen Is So Hard to Diagnose

The family lived in a very isolated area of Ohio; it was 15 miles to the nearest small town. So there weren’t friends or neighbors who could see what was happening. Even if they had seen Gregory’s mom bringing her to myriad doctors, wouldn’t they just see a dedicated mother who was willing to do anything to make her daughter well? This is what makes MBP so fiendishly difficult to spot.

"When you’re a little kid, you don’t really have the internal ability to think, 'Gee, my mom’s making me sick,'" says Gregory, who wrote a bestselling book, Sickened: Memoir of a Lost Childhood, about her experiences.

"But I was being given medicine I didn’t need at higher doses than normal and being constantly told I was sick. I was also suffering other kinds of abuse. So there really wasn't a day when I felt 'normal.'"

It wasn’t until Gregory was 23 and had left home and was taking an abnormal psychology class at a local community college that she heard of Munchausen syndrome by proxy for the first time. The force of what she was hearing hit her like a freight train. She suddenly felt this is what she had experienced as a child.

Gregory may have learned about the syndrome in a psychology class, but there are those who think that MSP isn't just a mental disorder but a crime -- a vicious, highly dangerous, and extremely difficult-to-detect pattern of child abuse.

When Is It a Crime?

"It's been a source of frustration for me that these crimes are so rarely prosecuted," says Dr. Marc Feldman, who has been studying MSP and related disorders since the early '90s. "People think these mothers are helpless victims of MSP and there’s nothing they can do to control themselves. But that’s not true at all. There is too much planning and cover up that goes into it for it to not be a calculated crime."

MSP does get prosecuted (in some cases). Unfortunately, that usually only happens when the abuse results in the death of a child -- or even two. The first woman prosecuted in the US for MSP was Priscilla Phillips in 1979. She was convicted of killing one adopted child by sodium poisoning -- and trying to kill another. She served only four years in prison.

Lacey Spears, an upstate New York mother who incessantly chronicled her son Garnett’s illnesses on social media, is currently standing trial for his murder. Prosecutors contend she slowly killed him, poisoning him with salt pretty much from the day he was born. He finally died at 5 years old.

Feldman says there are approximately 600 to 1,200 confirmed reported cases of MSP in the US per year, but that number could be extremely low due to underreporting and not recognizing the symptoms.

"Even if doctors do begin to suspect they are being duped, it becomes an ethical question for them to report it," says Gregory. "It's also embarrassing for them. Imagine telling your colleagues you got duped by a psychopath."

While most mothers don’t intend to kill their children -- MSP has a shockingly high fatality rate, says Dr. Feldman. About 10 percent of children subjected to this kind of abuse end up dying. A substantial amount of children die from respiratory failure, from being smothered, or having their airways blocked. They also die from poisoning, frequently with sodium. In the past, ipecac syrup was a common form of poisoning, but the substance has been taken off the market in recent years.

No one knows exactly what goes through a caregiver's mind when she (or he) perpetuates this kind of abuse -- because the vast majority of people who commit acts of MSP will vehemently deny doing it, no matter the evidence to the contrary. Feldman says he has seen many videos of caregivers being caught red-handed on video smothering a child -- but the caregiver will come up with excuses like, "I was tickling the baby’s mouth."

In the case of Priscilla Phillips, reporter Nancy Wright spent five days in a prison cell with the convicted mother and says she would break into hysterical sobs and deny she could ever hurt her children -- and she would do it so convincingly that "she should have been on Broadway."

In the 300 cases of suspected MSP Dr. Feldman has been involved with, he can only ever recall one mother admitting to making up her baby's symptoms -- and that she had done so primarily because she felt overwhelmed with his care and wanted doctors to relieve some of the burden. (The mother eventually lost custody of that child -- but had another baby that she was allowed to keep. Dr. Feldman says she had lots of therapy and he considers her "recovered.")

Gregory’s mother has never admitted to her (or to anyone that Gregory is aware of) that she abused her in this way. While she thinks the abuse may have been sparked by her mom's own traumatic childhood (one in which she was possibly raped), Gregory still says, “If I could put her in jail, I would.”

Healing: The Long, Slow Road to Recovery

As an adult, Gregory has had to relearn years of distorted thinking about her health and body. Always being told you’re sick when you’re not can take its toll. For years, she had a fraught relationship with the medical community -- the one which had failed her so miserably by not figuring out what her mother was doing, and by not listening to her as a child when she finally did figure it out.

Gregory avoided doctors until her pregnancy became complicated due to undiagnosed diabetes and she was forced to see one. It was the first time she realized that doctors could be helpful.

As for her parenting, being the victim of MSP has informed that as well. Gregory says she is hyper-aware of what abuse and neglect are, and things that other parents might not find problematic, such as yelling at a child or spanking, she will not abide.

Though the physical scars may have healed, the emotional ones still linger: “I have a longing for the family I never had, a longing for the small child I once was. The sadness and pain never quite go away.”

But Gregory is harnessing her terrible experiences to advocate for other children who may be victims of MSP. Hospital staff will consult with her over a suspected MSP cases and Gregory lectures at medical, law, and CPS conferences on MSP and the signs to look for. “These cases really need to go to the FBI and be treated as a crime, like child porn is,” says Gregory. “You wouldn’t give child porn cases to child protective services.”

“I want to protect children who are in this same situation,” Gregory says. “I have great compassion for myself as a child, but the pain will never go away. However, I can use it to do good in the world, and help others just as helpless as I was.”

5 Signs of MSP: How to Spot the Syndrome in Someone You Love

- Child or other potential victim (MBP victims can include spouses, parents, or even pets) tends to always develop signs of illness when alone with mother or other caretaker. Symptoms improve when taken away from the mother.

- Victim's health does not respond to treatments that should be effective.

- There is another child or victim in the family with the same or similar symptoms.

- The mother or caretaker seems overly involved and even obsessed with the potential victim's symptoms and doesn't seem to welcome good news, such as that the child is getting better or doesn't need surgery.

- Mother or caretaker will switch doctors often, seemingly unable to believe or accept that a child may not have a dire illness.

 

Images via © H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/Corbis/Julie Gregory

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