Recovery is an interesting process. I know I’ve related this before on this blog, but it’s such a profound thought that I feel like I can’t stop restating it. My therapist has said that therapy isn’t limited to our session time. Outside of session time, I can be my own therapist, and continue to work on all of the issues that come up. This is so true...and so infinitely empowering! I find that my own “mindfulness” sessions, consisting of writing, meditation, and slow running, have brought an incredible amount of clarity and guidance.
One theme that has been coming up for me recently has to do with a certain degree of detachment from my own thoughts. I should clarify that this is a healthy detachment; adults who have been raised by narcissists often have a degree of detachment from this own emotions in an unhealthy way. My detachment is more in the arena of: I am an observer of my emotions. My emotions are there, finally bubbling to the surface after laying dormant for so many years, the victim of constant invalidation from my family. Through my mindfulness sessions, I’m accepting these emotions and learning not to judge them as good or bad. They are what they are, nothing more and nothing less.
This technique is most helpful in dealing with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. I’ve suffered from PTSD for many years, as the result of multiple rapes at the hands of past boyfriends and abuse from my family, often in the form of panic attacks, flashbacks, and bouts of extreme paranoia in social situations. What I have discovered recently is that I’ve driven myself mad trying to make PTSD go away. Acceptance that it’s there for a good reason has been an enormous turning point! Now I’m able to vocalize to my husband, “I’m having a flashback now. Give me a moment,” when I’m in the throes of an attack. Being able to do this gives him forewarning, and allows him to step back, while it enables me to detach, let it happen, deal with the aftermath more as an observer rather than a participant, and move forward. This is incredibly intense, to say the least. I think these types of flashbacks must be relatively common with adult children of narcissists, as we’ve been indoctrinated to simply swallow up any of our own emotions and psychological responses to situations. We’ve been told over and over again by our family of origin that what we feel is not valid, that it’s not important, and that it’s absolutely selfish of us to focus on our own feelings. For any ACON that might be reading these words, please let me assure you: it’s never selfish to acknowledge that YOU have feelings. Your feelings and emotions are important because they are yours alone.
One way that latent emotions seem to be popping up for me recently - and challenging me to use these new mindfulness techniques of impartial observation - is through my subconscious experiences: dreaming. I have been plagued by almost daily nightmares for the past several months. Recurring nightmares are not a new thing for me. As a child, I had a nightmare that persisted literally for years. In this dream, I was an adult and I was pregnant with a child. I gave birth to the child only to have it butchered in front of my eyes. (I’ll spare you the gory details, and will only say that it would rival anything seen in the worst type of graphic horror movie.) Why would a nine-year-old little girl be having a dream like that? I seriously thought I was crazy, and having this dream over and over again - through my early 20s - made me feel like I had no hope for being a healthy person. It seemed truly irrational. It wasn’t until I read the Alice Miller book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” that it started to make sense. That book related another common nightmare I experienced - the one where I was just lying dead on the ground and no one noticed - and explained that this nightmare was often observed in children whose parents frequently invalidated their feelings. Through the lens of narcissism, both of these dreams now make perfect sense to me. In the birthing/murder dream, I’m giving birth to something to have it murdered...much like my family murdered my own feelings and emotions, labeling them as unworthy of being expressed. In the being dead dream, I’m DEAD. No one notices! Again, because I know on a very deep level that I’m having feelings and emotions of my own...and I’m told that they are not valid.
The most recent dreams have gotten more and more vivid. Probably the most common one I have involves being trapped in an elevator. I get in, press a button and start ascending, usually at a strangely rapid pace that frightens me. Then the elevator suddenly comes to a screeching halt, and I float up in the air. And then it falls. I never crash...I’m just stuck in this weird suspended state, hurtling toward something bad. I’m finding that this is a perfect metaphor for where I’m at in my own recovery process. I’m getting better, and I have fabulous days now where I just feel great. I’m interacting with new people in a different, more confident way. I’m not feeling paranoid, and I can walk into a room without being totally freaked out. I’m not constantly apologizing for my presence. But at the same time, in the back of my head is this nagging feeling of guilt. It’s the deeply programmed “but what about me?” thought that came from my parents. I haven’t spoken with them, or really had any contact of my own volition, since last January. My mother has taken to writing me letters, even when I’ve specifically asked for her not to contact me. They always seem nice on the surface, but there’s this undercurrent embedded in her cloying words of, “Why are you doing this to us? We aren’t worthy of such horrible treatment, but I guess we understand because you are such a sick person.” I want these letters to GO AWAY forever. But they won’t. I’ve accepted that, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with at times.
I had another crazy dream last night; often before a big race (I’m a long-distance runner) I have funky dreams about not making it to the starting line on time, or getting lost on the course. This dream was about the next race I’m running in just a few short weeks. I’m running the course, and it’s on some trail through these intensely dark woods where I can’t even see the sunlight. The dream is incredibly vivid, and I can even smell the odor of the pines mixed with the musty smell of the dust under my feet. I’m breathing hard with the exertion, and I’m looking forward to making it to the next aid station where I can get something to drink. I’m really thirsty. I get to the aid station, and my mother is there, in charge. She fills up my water bottles, but takes forever. And I’m in a rush...I don’t want to miss the cutoff times for the race as I’m not a very fast runner. But she keeps talking, dropping things, can’t find the Gatorade, etc.
I move on at long last, and arrive at another aid station. My mother is THERE too. Ugh! I’m getting really frustrated because she’s holding me back. I’m about to miss the cutoff. And then my father appears out of nowhere. My mother tells me that he’s been running a lot recently, which shocks me, because my father is about the most unhealthy person I’ve ever met (he’s diabetic, overweight, and does absolutely nothing to deal with his health issues...it’s like he doesn’t even care, and spends his time finding ways to eat copious amounts of donuts, danishes, and burgers). My father says he’s going to “pace me.” But I don’t want his help! I tell him this, that I’m running late and I’m going to miss the cutoff for the race. Plus, he doesn’t know the course, and I don’t want to deal with him wandering around in the woods and having to try to guide him. I need to take care of myself, not him, at this moment.
Of course, he doesn’t listen to me. He starts running with me, and immediately is pushing the pace at an unrealistically fast cadence to keep up. He’s panting hard, and I know he’s hurting. I still have fifty miles to go in this race, and I know I’ve got to take it easy. I just run my own pace, and he starts to relent, trotting behind me now. Eventually he fades away. I don’t even know - or CARE - what happens to him. Maybe he’s lost in the woods somewhere? I end up in a meadow at the top of a mountain, on a beautiful trail under a bright sunny sky, and my father is nowhere to be seen. I keep running, and somehow I realize that the race doesn’t even matter. I’m just happy to be running, happy to be outside, happy to be with myself.