the narcissistic family

the experience of an only child who was raised by two narcissistic parents...how does NPD affect one's family?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I had a dream

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.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

stepping off the hamster wheel


When you’re an adult child of a narcissist, it’s not only about what you suffered as a child.  It’s also about repeating deeply ingrained patterns of behavior that you were taught, either overtly or subconsciously, by your parents.  You likely learned that your needs were of lesser importance than others.  You probably feel uncomfortable if you know that someone else doesn’t feel well, sad, or unstable, and you work often against your best interests to correct those feelings in other people.  Even when your own “inner voice of wisdom” is shouting at you, saying that a particular friend may not be the healthiest person to have in your life, you ignore it.  On an unconscious level, you often attract people who are similar to your parents; these people may not have many other friends, simply because “normal” people think they’re nuts.  You, on the other hand, have no natural barometer for healthy relationships with other people.
I’ve spent a great deal of my life agonizing over the mysterious reason why I seem to attract so many insane people, as at times it seems like they simply come out of the woodwork wanting to be my friend.  Accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an absolute necessity throughout the recovery process.  Instead of feeling sorry for myself, and feeling like I have no control over whom I attract into my life, I’ve been forced to recognize that I have played a part in this.  That said, it’s also been important for me to see that many of these actions have been on a more unconscious level due to my own upbringing.  As a child of a narcissist, it’s like I was almost programmed to not have any sort of healthy boundaries.  My parents taught me to anticipate their needs, to never question their actions, and to make them happy above all else.  If I failed at these tasks - which inevitably, I always did, not really understanding the rules of the game of narcissism - anger directed toward me or other psychological torment would result.  How did this programming manifest itself into my life as an adult?  Well, let’s just say I’ve been non-judgmental to a fault when it comes to other people.  Those red flags that normally go up when you meet a crazy person...yeah, those haven’t existed in my world.  I would always look to find the good in anyone.  I also had a very high tolerance level for self-centered behavior.
I can certainly recall many failed relationships - both romantic and platonic - that I’ve had with narcissists.  One of the first was a boyfriend that I dated on and off for about 3.5 years, from the time I was 17 until shortly after my 21st birthday.  He was handsome and wealthy, incredibly smart, well-read and talented (a concert pianist).  He was also an abusive sadist who never moved out of his mother’s home (and with whom he had a very questionable sort of relationship), unemployed, an ex-criminal who had been convicted of grand larceny at one point...
Of course, I focused on the former rather than the latter.  My parents had taught me the importance of wealth and appearance as paramount in the world.  When this particular boyfriend began to behave in a strange way - such as by forcing me to model fetish clothing in stripper stores for him - my alarm bell didn’t go off, seeing that my own father used to make me model clothing for him, as I’ve described in earlier blog entries.  I was merely a possession to this particular boyfriend, a very familiar role which I had played before not all that earlier in my parents’ home.  Everything about our relationship was based on what I could do for him.  How I looked reflected on him (so he frequently forced me to diet), and I ended up getting really expensive clothes and haircuts - going into debt to pay for these things - even though I lived on minimum wage jobs.  I was only to have certain friends that he approved of.  I wasn’t to discuss things about our relationship with others.  Our break-up was a quintessential narcissistic scenario: I won a composers’ competition with a piece that I had written for him.  Instead of being happy for me, he told me that the only reason I had won was because he had performed on the recording.  He got very angry when I told him that the agency who awarded the prize had hired someone else to play it on a concert.  It took a while (and a rape later) for me to finally kick the jerk to the curb.  
This experience was - obviously - a bit of an extreme case, and I could write a book about what I went through in those 3+ years.  Shortly after I broke up with this guy, I started dating someone else...and pretty much repeated the same cycle within a different context, equally as painful and damaging.  After two years of that, I had had enough...or so I thought.  What I’ve realized now is that I’ve repeated the same behavior in friendships ever since.  The cycle: meet someone, immediately connect over some mutual interest (too quickly), hang out a lot, realize they’re nuts, they get obsessed with me, I freak out or try to set a healthy boundary, big blow-up fight.  Repeat.  Over and over and over again.
Case in point: the most recent scenario.  Several years ago, I met a woman at one of my own shows where I was fronting a rock band.  She was a fan of my group, and came to many of our shows, which I found flattering.  We had a mutual friend who introduced us, and we hit it off right away, sharing many of the same musical preferences.  Over the years, we went to many shows and festivals together around the country.  I “thought” I had fun at these events.  However, now that some time has passed, and since I’ve had the NPD revelation about my parents, I realized that I didn’t.  I was just happy to have someone to attend shows and festivals with me, not having had a female friend like that in the past.
The first time Joan (not her real name) invited me over for dinner, I had a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I remember this now, but at the time, I ignored it...much in the same way that I ignored the weird warning signs at the beginning of several of my abusive romantic relationships.  The night ended up being relatively entertaining, but that’s only because I didn’t really take note of the fact that Joan only talked about herself all night.  I could have been anyone, and had I simply listened, Joan would have thought I was an amazing person.  What Joan knew of me was that I was a singer in a band, and a good singer at that.  I think I was her version of a “notch in the bedpost” - albeit not in a sexual way - to have a “friend” in her corner that was a “public figure” or something. 
This phenomenon became more apparent to me over the years as we went to rock shows together.  She would do everything in her power to get on the inside track of the “scene” even though she wasn’t a musician herself.  She knew all of the promoters.  She knew all of the musicians, or so she said; today, I realize that the musicians probably just thought of her as a crazy fan and were flattered, not to mention a little creeped out, by her enthusiastic attention.  Often, she would beg me to attend events with her, claiming that she needed moral support due to some past trauma, only to leave me on the outside of a conversation.  She wouldn’t speak to me or introduce me to other people.  She would dominate any conversation of which she was a part.  I just sort of would stand there, nod, and so forth.
When we traveled out of town to festivals, she was incredibly controlling about every aspect of a trip.  We’d have to pick a hotel out months in advance.  Every detail would be nit-picked over and over again, necessitating hours upon hours of phone calls and dialogue.  On the trip, I was told what soap and shampoo and conditioner I could and could not use, due to her many chemical sensitivities and allergies.  We couldn’t have the hotel room cleaned because that would make her asthma worse due to the cleaning products.  We’d have to eat at certain times, and at certain places for her particular diet.  And if I woke up early - which I always do, being the early riser and runner that I am - I would have to make sure to be extremely quiet otherwise she would get irritated.  I couldn’t ever rush her to do something that I wanted to do.  She’d keep me up late at night, even waking me up to talk after I had been asleep for a while.  Seriously - on one of the trips, I actually wore the most industrial strength ear plugs that I could find, and when she woke me up, I’d simply fall back asleep as she chirped away at me, thinking that I was attentively listening.  
Now that my own feelings seem to be coming to the surface more and more, I can easily see that I was miserable on these trips.  Yet what did I get out of it?  At the very core, I was stoked to have someone to go to shows with me, as there aren’t all that many women with similar interests in the types of music that I like.  But that was about it.  My therapist has suggested that I was re-enacting a scenario with my mother, as Joan was nearly twenty years my senior.  It’s possible...I will admit that.  I’ve heard and read that survivors of abuse often re-enact the scenarios with other people, just to have a chance to fix it.
What put me over the edge recently was that suddenly I became the object of Joan’s rage and paranoia.  I had seen her do these kinds of strange things to “friends” in the past, saying that so-and-so was terribly mean to her just out of the blue so she had to cut them out of her life.  I moved to the other side of the country from Joan about nine months ago, but continued to speak to her on the phone pretty regularly, considering how busy my own schedule is.  In the past few months, though, she had been calling more and more often, wanting to talk about intense traumas each time.  She would call four or five times in a row if I didn’t pick up - and I didn’t pick up only if I was not home.  I couldn’t get off of the phone in less than an hour, and from the moment I answered the phone, she would deliver an intense rambling monologue about how someone had victimized her.  I couldn’t get a word in, and she never simply would open a conversation asking how I was doing.  I began to truly dread her calls, realizing that they just exhausted me.  After researching NPD a couple of months ago, I started to see that Joan herself was a narcissist, and so I began to set boundaries with her.  If I was in town, I wouldn’t stay at her house anymore.  I limited the amount of time I would spend with her.  With the phone, I asked that we could simply set a time to talk, rather than be bombarded with crazy frantic calls.  I’m really busy with work, plus there’s a three hour time difference between where we live, so this just makes logistical sense.  Plus I do this with most of my friends who don’t live here in town; it helps to have a “phone date” so that we will both be home at the same time to chat.
That request didn’t fly with Joan.  What resulted was a string of nasty emails, meant to hurt me.  She told me that I was uncaring and incapable of a “real” friendship, since I mainly communicated via email rather than the phone.  I was lying; I ignored her phone calls.  She could see me commenting on facebook when she was calling (I don’t know where she got that one from, honestly).  How dare I schedule her in like any other appointment!  Plus, I was JUST LIKE HER FAMILY - whom she has termed as abusive and sick to me in the past.  To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised at her behavior, as I’d seen her do the same thing to our mutual friend who initially introduced us several years ago.  I just knew it was coming, the firestorm of her narcissistic rage.  How dare I not recognize how important she was...how dare I choose to spend a day with my husband (at his request) rather than speak to her for hours on the phone!  Yeah. 
I’ll admit, it did hurt, even though it didn’t really surprise me.  Something interesting about my own recovery process is that things are starting to hurt with more frequency now.  Rather than it taking a year or more to get upset about a particular situation, it happens within a couple of days, as it did in this case.  I’m realizing that I’m starting to FEEL things for the first time, a common phenomenon with ACONs from what I’ve read.
In a weird way, I’m so relieved this happened.  Joan was the last person in my life who was this way.  Now that I understand the dynamic of a narcissist, it’s like I can smell it or something.  It’s so obvious that I can’t believe I never saw it before; it’s almost like I’ve been in a cult for years and years and I’ve finally been deprogrammed so that I can see reality.  Now that I understand the cycle, I can step off of the hamster wheel of insanity.  I don’t have to go through this ever again.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

where do you end, and where do I begin?

One of the classic symptoms of a narcissist is the complete and total disregard for personal boundaries.  In the case of a narcissistic parent, the child is often just seen as an extension of the self, or as a possession that the parent has every right to manipulate as he or she sees fit.  In my case, with both parents being narcissists, I have had no respect for my own self, space, and especially my privacy throughout my entire life.
This manifested itself in some seemingly strange behavior when I was growing up.  Some of these things may not seem THAT odd, but when combined with all of the other symptoms, today I see them as red flags of my parents’ impaired psychological condition.  One thing that always seemed a bit “off” to me was my parents’ continual insistence on keeping every door in the house open.  I wasn’t permitted to close the bedroom door when I slept.  I was supposed to keep it open at all times, including when I changed my clothing.  My parents, as well, kept their bedroom door open at all times, including when they changed clothing or slept.  Sometimes, this was very annoying, even when I was very young, because my father would snore very loudly at night and it would be hard to sleep.  And needless to say, as a teenager, I didn’t want my parents to see me when I was nude.  In addition to the bedroom doors being open, my parents would always use the bathroom with the doors wide open!  It didn’t matter if they were urinating, taking a smelly bowel movement (that was my father), or showering/bathing...the door was always open.  Always.  And it was expected that I would keep these doors open.
I don’t remember ever feeling comfortable about these “restrictions.”  When I got to be a teenager, I started rebelling by closing my door when I slept and when I bathed or used the toilet.  My mother would often cry if I tried to give myself some “alone time” - particularly in regards to a ritual I had every night where I’d write in my diary with the door closed, listening to my favorite radio program.  She would say that I was shutting her out, that I didn’t love her anymore, and that I didn’t care.  (I even have this documented, with her exact words, in my diary!)  There was simply no respect for the fact that a young woman might want some space to herself, to be private with her own thoughts...and with her own body.
Nothing was off-limits to my parents when I was growing up.  I was supposed to tell them everything.  They were supposed to be my confidantes, my best friends.  They limited my contact with others, and exercised very strict controls on whom I could associate with, or befriend.  Only “approved” friends were welcomed into the house, meaning I was not even permitted to select my own friends with whom to share my confidences.  In terms of conversations with my parents, they would want to know what boys I had crushes on and my absolute innermost feelings.  My dad, in particular, treated me like some sort of locker room buddy, making all kinds of disgusting crass comments about women and their bodies.  I remember - even as young as six or seven years old - how my father would make comments about what Solid Gold dancers or pop stars he’d “give anything for just one night!”  There was no censorship, and no questioning of what might be appropriate or not.  And at the same time, he would tell me that I was never, ever allowed to tell anyone about anything that went on in our home...because that was private.  That was between family only.
Even my trash wasn't off-limits.  My father often went through my trash in my bedroom, searching for evidence of I-don’t-know-what.  I used to write a great deal of poetry when I was in high school.  Lots of young girls do this, in their teenage angst!  Mine went a step further, and frequently I’d write tomes about bleeding to death, wanting to die, how I planned to die, and how gross I was.  One time, I wrote a poem about hating my body and how I was trapped in it.  I threw away a draft of it - I even tore it in half and crumpled it up so no one would see it.  My father found it in the trash, taped it back together and flattened it out.  Then, he put it ON HIS DESK at work, taped to a framed picture of me as a little girl, on his desk.  Keep in mind he was the superintendent of one of the largest public school districts in the state at this time.  I was utterly horrified when I saw this!  But it didn’t matter.  He said it was a good poem and that’s why he put it up.
There were other strange occurrences too, dealing with privacy.  My father really is a sneaky guy.  He would go into my room often when I wasn’t home and look for my diaries.  And he would read them!  How would I know this?  He would frequently quote passages from them to me when he drove me to cross-country practice, or to school in the morning.  As a teenage girl, it was so invasive, not to mention overwhelmingly embarrassing.
As a grown adult woman, these strange practices continued, but in different ways.  First and foremost, it was always expected that I would call home frequently in order to discuss all sorts of “matters of the heart” with my family, particularly with my mother.  It was not tolerated well if I was unable to call for a while, such as during periods of time when I was busy on a gig or other contract.  I would be expected to immediately respond to text messages, emails, or voicemails if they tried to contact me.  I would be told that I was uncaring or selfish by not immediately responding.
During these conversations, I was supposed to talk about myself and about my marriage.  My family often used these conversations to sow the seeds of dissent between my husband and myself - this is definitely a matter for another blog post of its own!  It was like they were always looking for something that they could find at fault, something that was very, very wrong.  If I was going through something tough, they were all ears; it was like they relished hearing bad news and helping me to “pick up the pieces.”  They wanted to hear what was wrong, and they wanted ALL of the details...even about my own intimate life with my husband.  Saying that something was off-limits was not tolerated.  I would be accused of shutting them out.  Something was wrong with me, obviously, because I didn’t want to share intimate information, or deal with something on my own.
If I was going through a happy time in my life, my conversations with my parents would be stilted and awkward.  They would have nothing to say.  In fact, they would rarely ask me how I was doing, what I was interested in, how things were going, how my husband was doing, etc.  If I volunteered good news or good information, they would change the subject.  (I never mentioned anything good, according to their versions of stories.  I shut them out by not sharing anything I was interested in.)  Frequently my mother would talk for an hour on her end of the telephone, often ranting about being misunderstood or abused at work, often discussing someone else’s horrible problems, or someone’s terrible illnesses.  I would have to sit and listen.  To be honest, I’d frequently sit on the computer during these long monologues just to have something to endure the rambling, much of which was paranoid and completely irrational.  My father, on the other hand, would control conversations simply by not speaking.  If I didn’t contribute to a conversation about something in which he was interested (like sports or golfing), he would just not say anything.  If I brought up something about myself, he would ignore it.  It was like I didn’t ever really exist.
Another way this lack of personal privacy would manifest itself would occur during their frequent visits to my homes over the years.  The first thing my mother would do - almost EVERY time - was clean my house.  This was under the guise of “I’m doing something for you,” but now I see this had nothing to do with actually HELPING me do anything.  It was about control and power.  I obviously needed her, because I was a terrible housekeeper and was unable to keep my home up to her ridiculously high standards of cleanliness.  If I protested letting my mother scrub my floors or deep-clean my rugs, she would get angry.  I didn’t care.  I was ungrateful.  I was selfish.  And I was spoiled...she did everything for me growing up, hence why I was so lazy as an adult that I couldn’t keep a clean house.
Both of my parents would also control the decor in my homes.  They would offer to buy furniture for my husband and myself in the guise, again, of “helping.”  But my mother would carefully “guide” me through catalogs and stores, looking for the right items for “me.”  Never mind what my actual tastes were.  I was too stupid to have taste, and too lazy to keep anything up myself.  The most recent conflict with my parents was over my mother sewing curtains for my kitchen; granted, I picked out the fabric, which I very much like.  But I didn’t really want curtains in the first place.  It’s not like I think about these things, or really even care, and neither does my husband.  It’s just not that important to US.  This is unacceptable to my mother, who made a huge point to fly up last fall - and who made a huge point that I needed her to make curtains for me.  At Christmas, when my mother asked my husband what he thought of these curtains, she was enraged when he didn’t immediately grovel and thank her profusely for all of the effort she put into creating something that isn’t at all important to HIM.  
Narcissists will make themselves at home, no matter where they are.  That is because your home is their home.  That is because YOU do not exist to the narcissist.  Who you actually are, what you like, what your interests are...all of these things are immaterial.  The only thing of importance to the narcissist is: the narcissist.  And any effort you make to rebel against this will be met with conflict.  Expect it if you continue to try to salvage a relationship with a narcissist.
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Thursday, May 3, 2012

my body is my own

My narcissistic parents were positively obsessed with looks.  Both of my parents always dressed “to the nines” during my growing-up years.  It was the 80s, when women frequently matched their purses to their brightly colored shoes.  My mom took it to the next level.  She had matching shoes, purses, and earrings perfectly coordinated to each of her outfits, and she dressed in a formal way to do even the most casual of activities, such as grocery shopping.  My dad was the male equivalent; it was almost like he was the stereotype of the quintessential 80s yuppie-type, even though he worked in public education instead of on Wall Street.  He wore business suits, shoes with tassels, expensive matching belts.  Sure, some of this was dictated by his career...I get that.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father in a pair of sweatpants or a T-shirt, not even to mow the lawn.  Even on the most casual of days, like my mother, he’d be in a collared shirt and perfectly pressed and creased slacks, with those omnipresent tasseled shoes.
Many of my own earliest memories involve feeling like a living doll.  The family weekly “schedule” revolved around dressing for various occasions, like school and church.  As a schoolgirl, my mother had rules about what outfits I could wear on each day of the week.  I was required to wear skirts two times per week, as Mom said it would make me feel comfortable wearing dress clothes later in life.  Usually I tried to get this out of the way early in the week, as I was a tomboy to the max, and I HATED dressing up.  This particularly sucked during the winter, because Mom never relaxed the rules, and we lived in a part of the Midwest known as the “snowbelt.”  It was cold, and I’d freeze walking to school with only tights over my bare legs!  I was only allowed to wear jeans on Fridays to school, and most of my jeans consisted of colored denim, rather than the basic blue jeans that almost all of my schoolmates wore.  On Sunday nights, my mother would come into my room, and make me pick out all of my outfits for the week; this included not only the clothes, but all of the appropriate matching accessories like shoes, colored socks, and plastic jewelry.  She made little tags with the names of each day to slip over the appropriate hanger so that we could keep things organized.
Our weekly schedule additionally involved purchasing clothing to be worn, and my parents were extreme shop-a-holics.  To this day, their favorite hobby is going to shopping malls to purchase clothing, and they usually rate the virtue of a particular city or town based on the quality of its malls (or lack thereof).  I get that a lot of women in particular like to shop - as do I on certain occasions, usually with girlfriends - but in my parents’ case, we went to the mall every weekend, usually on Friday nights.  I have to admit, this was incredibly embarrassing as a teenager, because even in high school, I was never spared this ritual.  We would have to have a family dinner (at the same restaurant each week) to which friends could never be invited and then go to the mall, following an elaborate ritual in which we would slowly wander from one side of the consumerist mecca to the other, looking at sales, and with me trying to hide my face from my peers as I was restricted to walking between my parents, my mother on one side and my father on the other.
In addition to a weekly shopping schedule, my parents had other shopping schedules that either revolved around Dad’s frequent conferences or my school year.  My father traveled frequently for work to conventions geared to school administrators.  Mom and I used to come along, as we could get out of the “small town” where we lived and go to the “big city.”  Yet we didn’t sight-see, take walks, try unusual restaurants, or go to museums.  We’d always go shopping at whatever mall was closest.  
Other shopping trips were scheduled for fall and winter, at the beginning of each school semester.  I looked forward to these trips, but not because of getting to pick out new clothes.  I used to get SO excited for these trips because my mother would bring along my aunt, who was the one relative I felt like I could truly be myself around.  (She died several years ago, and I mourned her death greatly, as she was my best friend even as an adult.)  Today, my mother thinks my excitement had to do with the clothing, even though that wasn’t the case!  My aunt, mother, and I would go to the mall in a nearby city, where my mother would “suggest” outfits to me.  My aunt would dutifully follow us into the dressing room; she always just sort of kept her mouth shut through the process.  I’d have to model everything for approval to both her and my mother.  It was an excruciatingly long process for a child - the picking out of the clothes, trying on outfit after outfit in endless combinations, and then locating the perfects coordinated accessories.
The worst part about the shopping process happened right after we would arrive back home.  My mother would make me model each and every outfit, complete with shoes and accessories, in front of my father.  He would nod his approval for her taste in picking out such nice clothes, as befitted the daughter of an “important public figure” as himself.  I felt invisible, standing there in ridiculously formal clothing, that was nothing like any of the other children wore in my public school.  And I knew in my gut that those clothes would set me apart from those children...resulting in yet more bullying.  But I couldn’t complain...NEVER.  If I did, I was selfish and ungrateful.  After all, my parents always discussed how “spoiled” I was, since they bought me “everything I ever wanted” and “never said no” to anything.  It made no sense to my young mind - the feeling of guilt, being torn between gratitude for having clothes but not liking any of them because they weren’t me or expressive of my own quirky personality.  In addition, I had this feeling of just being an object, something to be possessed and stared at by my father.  Today just remembering this feeling makes my skin crawl.
My parents were not only obsessed with the clothes that I wore, but also with what I ate and how my body looked, especially as I grew from a child into a young woman.  There was no privacy, and no tact, related to the typical things a girl may encounter during puberty being raised in a healthy family.  The first sign of my changing body was, strange as it may sound, rapidly growing feet.  By the time I was only 12 or 13, I already was wearing a size 9 in women’s shoes, even though I was not quite five feet tall!  My mother and father used to refer to my feet continually as “gunboats.”  They made frequent jokes about how clumsy I was, and how I always tripped over my enormous feet.  They would point out my feet to relatives, at occasions like family reunions, and to complete strangers...even in restaurants.  I remember one occasion where I tripped walking into a Big Boy, and my mom laughed, announcing to the entire restaurant what size of shoe I wore.  If I protested, or acted like my feelings were hurt, my parents would tell me that they were just joking and that I was being overly sensitive.
The second thing that started changing as I began to enter puberty was my appetite.  I was hungry ALL the time, and by this point, I had started to run cross-country, amplifying the phenomenon since I was training.  My parents started making jokes about how much I would eat.  I remember one time on vacation in Florida when some of their friends brought us freshly caught swordfish steaks and I ate the whole thing (I was 11 years old at the time, going into the 7th grade).  My parents thought it was positively hilarious that I was able to eat the whole steak, and told their friends, who found it equally hysterical.  Their friends started calling me “Miss Piggy,” and for years following this, they’d send me little pig trinkets and gifts...things like pig figurines, pig slippers, and socks.  I never realized how much this impacted me until relatively recently, when I confronted my own eating disorder.  I began starving myself not long after the Miss Piggy incident, and by the time I was 15 and five foot four, I weighed only 85 pounds, limiting myself to about 500 calories a day, much of which was in the form of rice and Gatorade.  I also became a vegetarian at this time - also a connection to the steak/Miss Piggy incident.  But what has hurt over the years, more than the name calling, is that my parents would never recognize that I had “issues” with eating after this.  In a letter from this past January, my mother told me that I never had anorexia, and that since she had training as a social worker, didn’t I think that she would have put me in therapy if I had really needed it?  (Ouch!)  Hmm.  So my patterns of starvation diets as an adult, randomly dropping 30-40 pounds on 1000 calorie a day diets over just a few weeks, came out of nowhere, right?  It’s all my fault, of course.  That’s right, I’m the crazy one.
The third big change in puberty, was of course, my body’s evolution into that of a young woman.  This is scary and exciting all at the same time for every girl; in my case, it was scary and embarrassing, as my parents would focus on each new change with utter fascination, humor, and dread simultaneously.  “Don’t dress like a woman, you’re too young,” on one hand.  “On the other hand, oh your hips!  They’re so big!” (cried aloud to a store clerk at JC Penney’s on a Friday night shopping trip) on the other.  “The boys must really have a crush on you,” one day.  The next, “Don’t talk to the boys...don’t give them the wrong idea.”  And then another, “What’s wrong?  Why aren’t any boys into you?”  I couldn’t win, no matter what.  
Today, the memory that brings up the most revulsion about my body is how my own father would refer to it.  When I became a young woman, I evolved from the scrappy little tomboy that used to accompany him to football games and who would play “horse” with him on the basketball court.  I think it must have freaked him out to some extent.  When I started “developing,” Dad gave me a lovely new moniker: “Huckleberry Twin.”  This was in honor of my new, tiny little breasts.  I was already incredibly self-conscious of these, as I was a year younger than all of my classmates at school, and I was slow to develop (probably partially due to starving myself?).  As a result, I was tiny and child-like in comparison to the other girls, and it was so embarrassing for me, especially in the context of things like the locker room during gym class.  The kids at school called me “mosquito bites” because I was so flat-chested.  Again, I couldn’t win.  At home, I was teased by Daddy, and at school, I was teased as well.  No place was safe from my body, an entity completely foreign to me, completely out of control, and completely weird and gross and scary.
As an adult, I’ve always been self-conscious about my body, more so than most women.  My last therapist (prior to my current one) diagnosed me with body dysmorphia, a disorder where you perceive your body as being completely different from reality.  A good example is that I’d always see myself as a fat cow in the mirror, even though I might weigh about 130 pounds of solid muscle (I’m a distance runner, and regularly compete in events of 50-100 miles in length, so I’m in shape!).  If I went shopping, I’d always have to take a close friend with me, because I literally couldn’t tell if something fit or not.  By default, in my head, everything made me look fat and ugly.  I never saw the connection to my childhood and my family until recently.  As narcissists, my parents saw my body itself as an extension of themselves, and so by necessity, it needed to be controlled.  When it did something of its own volition - like develop into the body of a young woman with curves - it was weird, strange, odd, and needed to be laughed about, since they couldn’t handle it not being able to be easily controlled.  It made them uncomfortable...me becoming an adult out of their control...that is the bottom line.
Just yesterday, I had a crazy experience that has never happened to me before.  I was heading out for lunch with two of my friends, and I stopped to obsess about my appearance in the full-length mirror in my bedroom.  This is generally a daily ritual - looking at my appearance anytime before I leave the house, and obsessing about how fat and ugly I am, and what I need to change, how much weight I need to drop off of my massive ass, my sagging gross breasts, my frizzy hair.  But yesterday was different.  I took a look and saw someone unfamiliar.  She was pretty cute.  She had curves, wore a stylish outfit, and had pretty, wavy hair.
When I waved at her, she waved back at me.  “Welcome home,” she said.  “I’ve been here all along.”
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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

but what about me: holidays and the narcissistic parent

I’m not much of a holiday or birthday person, and I generally don’t care all that much about receiving cards or gifts in celebration of such said occasions.  In fact, my husband and I rarely “exchange gifts” in a traditional way for things like Christmas or anniversaries.  Typically, we do something - like go on a trip, or buy something together that we’ve always wanted.  Or we do what is most important to both of us: spend time together.
I realized recently that I’ve spent much of my adult life avoiding participation in holiday events.  One way I accomplished this was by choosing a vocation that forced me to work on important holidays, like Christmas.  For many years, I was a church organist and musician, so I always had gigs on holidays.  This enabled me to avoid having to interact with my family on holidays and gave me a very convenient excuse for not being able to be present for Christmas or Thanksgiving.  Plus I made money!
Today, I understand that the real reason I’ve avoided holidays - and that I have never really enjoyed holidays - is because of my experience growing up with two narcissistic parents.  My parents were champions at sabotaging holiday cheer of all varieties.  The main way they did this was by setting the bar so high that no one would possible ever be able to fulfill all of their expectations.  Unfortunately, I was always put under a great deal of pressure to accomplish this task, despite the fact that it was never feasible.
Let’s begin with birthdays.  In my home, birthdays were about gifts, first and foremost.  If I didn’t give a gift to my parents (let alone the most thoughtful gift imaginable), it was an unforgivable sin.  If I was late with a gift or a card for a birthday, this too was a horrible crime.  I remember the spring of my first year of college, which was a tough year for me; I caught mono in my first semester, and was incredibly sick for much of that year.  I was taking over a maximum number of credit hours, trying to work on a double major in music and Latin (in order to please my parents since I wasn’t allowed to just be a music major), and I was very busy with classes.  I was also trying to stay healthy.  My father’s birthday is at the end of April, which coincided with the end of the semester.  A couple of days before my father’s birthday, I woke up in a panic: “Shit!  Dad’s birthday is in two days!”  I scrambled immediately to the bookstore and bought him a silk tie emblazoned with my college’s logo along with a nice card, since I knew how “proud” he was that I attended a fancy college with a good football team.  Then I went to the local post office center to overnight express-mail the package to the other side of the country, where my father lived.  
None of this was a small expense.  I think the tie cost around $40, and the cost of shipping overnight was something like $20.  For a freshman in college, who worked over every break and holiday to earn spending money for the year, this was substantial.  I remember calling home on my father’s birthday, and I asked him if he liked his present.  Instead of being happy that I had remembered his birthday, he was incredibly angry with me, as was my mother.  The package I had sent overnight had never arrived!  I was in the doghouse for months after this, and my parents even as recently as a few months ago have reminded me about how I “forgot” my dad’s birthday that year...back in 1995!!!  They even accused me of lying about mailing the package in the first place, which I remember hurt my feelings a great deal that first year of college, when I was just 17.
The whole focus on gift giving in my family extended to every holiday - Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter...even St. Patrick’s Day, despite the fact that we were Protestants, not Catholics!  When I was a little girl, my mother would go overboard with decorating the house, and would spend scads of money on trinkets and ornaments related to every holiday theme one could imagine.  Outsiders often thought it was “cute” how she would give outlandish gifts to me for things like Valentine’s Day.  The crux, however, is that the gifts she would give would be gifts that she would have wanted to receive, or gifts that she thought I should have.  I remember being given incredibly juvenile clothing as a teenager (to try and keep me as a young girl) when I was in high school; I’d go to school at age 15 or 16 wearing things like pink polka-dotted coveralls, and then change in the bathroom into a pair of jeans so I wouldn’t be totally mocked for looking like I was 8 years old.  As an adult, I would receive sensible business-casual attire from places like Talbot’s, even though that’s never how I actually dressed.  In fact, Talbot’s was my mother’s favorite store.  There would also be occasions where Mom would come to visit over holidays, and she’d want to take me shopping.  If I picked out something that I liked, she would look at it and say she wouldn’t buy it because she didn’t like it: “Ugh!  That’s ugly.  I’m not paying for something like that!!!”  I always felt so damned guilty about all of this, like I was ungrateful for not liking Mom’s gifts to me over the years.  Now I realize that the gift-giving had to do more with my mother than it ever did with me.  Narcissists are apparently notoriously bad gift-givers from what I’ve been reading.  They either don’t give meaningful gifts, or they give gifts that they would want themselves.  In my parents case, they were definitely of the latter variety...buying me business casual attire as a woman because they didn’t approve of the fact that I had become a rocker-musician type.
Christmas was the ultimate holiday for my parents.  When I was young, my mother started amassing a crazy collection of themed Christmas trees with coordinated ornaments and wrapping paper to match.  She had a teddy bear tree, a cat tree, a family tree, a star tree, a fruit tree...any kind of tree theme you can think of, she had.  If you brought packages to the house for Christmas, you couldn’t wrap them ahead of time because they wouldn’t match the stupid tree.  I think at one point she had seven or eight of these elaborately themed trees in the house.  Decorating the trees was a lengthy ritual that began each year around Halloween.  Every weekend would be consumed with putting up yet another tree, and making sure that it and all of its coordinated ornaments and ribbons looked absolutely perfect.  And the trees did look perfect - so perfect, in fact, that I was afraid to touch any of them, like they were each some kind of sacred museum piece.  The weird thing was that my mother never really seemed to enjoy the trees.  Neither did my dad during the process of putting them up; he’d bitch and moan like crazy about adding the hundreds of lights that the grueling job demanded.  Yet he would beam with pride anytime any neighbor would pop over during the holiday season; he would talk about how wonderful all of the trees were, and how my mother was so talented and creative.  To an outsider, maybe it looked pretty...but I would guess some probably thought it was kind of weird or even creepy because this was really over the top.  You can’t even imagine...
The day of the holiday itself was as equally regimented as the tree ritual.  I would be forced to wear some frilly nightgown on Christmas Eve (which always made me feel horribly uncomfortable), and wake up before dawn.  We’d have the same breakfast every year and ooh and aah over mountains of packages underneath every perfectly trimmed tree.  Then it was lunch, and then Dad would sleep for the rest of the day.  This sounds innocuous enough, I suppose.  But these are the weird parts: 1. I was never permitted to share a holiday with anyone else.  No other friends, no neighbors, no other relatives.  Holidays were “for family only” so there were no phone calls (beyond the scripted approved ones to grandparents) or contacts with the outside world. 2. I would have to “model” all of my clothes that I received for my father; this continued until I went to college.  It totally creeped me out.  I’d go into the bathroom and try on one infantalizing outfit after another, come out and walk around in front of my father, who silently nodded his approval.  3. There would always be some kind of crazy argument, usually between my mother and father.  My mom would get angry at my dad for spending too much money on something (usually a big ticket item like a car or a piece of diamond jewelry), then proceed to yell at him, and then they’d both pout silently for the rest of the day.  Sometimes the arguments would be directed at me, especially if I wasn’t as enthusiastic as I should have been about something, and then I would be told that I “ruined the holiday” that year for both of them.
Invariably, the holiday would almost always end miserably due to one of the above.  Mom and Dad would be upset that none of the other family members cared enough to drop by (even though they made it clear that we were “an island” during the holidays).  They’d be mad at me if I didn’t like an outfit that I was purchased.  And they’d often end up at each other’s throats about something.  I remember this heavy vibe every Christmas, just dying for the day to end already so we could move on and so that awful pressure for the “perfect day” would go away.  Strangely, though, the next day, Mom would be crying about how sad it was that this beautiful holiday was already over.  We’d take down the trees in the days following New Year’s, and she’d be positively despondent in her apparent grief.
As an adult in my twenties, I would approach every holiday with a feeling of dread.  I even made the mistake on numerous occasions of inviting my parents to have holidays with myself and my husband.  One particular year, when we were both in graduate school, we decided to host a Christmas party and dinner on the day itself for many of our friends who didn’t have a place to go (we knew a large number of international students who couldn’t afford to fly home, for example).  I thought it would be fun for my parents to meet all of our friends from school!  However, my parents sulked in a corner for the duration of the entire party, and barely spoke to anyone.  They would only speak if spoken to, and even then, would offer one or two word responses.
I didn’t make that same “mistake” twice, and in later years, would reserve those holidays for just my husband, myself, and my parents.  Yet even then, they’d never be happy, no matter what I did to prepare for their arrival, how much I decorated, or what gifts I purchased.  Nothing was good enough.  And why?  Because “it just wasn’t like it used to be” when I was a little girl.  Those days were apparently the glory days of all holidays and could never, ever be surpassed no matter to what ends I went to make things enjoyable for them.
So why am I talking about Christmas on the first day of May?  I’ve realized that holidays in general are a huge trigger for me, and last week was my father’s birthday.  For the first time in my life, I didn’t drop everything to buy him some kind of thoughtful gift and card.  I was actually out of town for a few days and ran out of time.  It probably sounds terrible to someone (who doesn’t understand NPD or the effects of a parent with NPD on a child) that I’m proud of myself for not dropping everything to acknowledge my father’s birthday.  But I am very proud.  For once, I’m acting normal!  Gosh, my own in-laws are frequently a day or two late with my birthday card and I don’t get upset.  My in-laws don’t have panic attacks at the thought that a gift for me for my husband’s and my anniversary might be - gasp! - a day late!  (I don’t accuse them of not loving me!)  I’ve acted this way in the past due to my parent’s behavior, because if I was even one day late with a card, I would be told that I didn’t care.  “You don’t love me, otherwise you would have remembered and been on time with your card.”  How many times did I hear that growing up?  
I’m at a point in my recovery now that if I hear this phrase, I’ll be irritated, but I won’t be angry with myself.  I’m human, and I can only do the best I possibly can.  And I’m OK with that!
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Saturday, April 28, 2012

rewriting history

This past week in session, my therapist suggested something very profound to me: I may only spend one hour per week in therapy, but my therapy isn’t limited to that one single hour.  I can be my own therapist during other hours during the week, and instead of listening to the introjections in my head that stem from my upbringing, I can start listening to introjections from the therapist in my own mind.  Talk about an empowering idea!
One thing that has been incredibly helpful recently - aside from writing almost every day on this blog - is rehashing memories of dealing with my parents through conversations with my amazing husband.  For the entire duration of the twelve years that my husband and I have been together, we’ve been trying to figure out strategies for dealing with my parents, meaning ways that WE can change our behavior to better accommodate their difficult eccentricities.  The idea that my parents likely have NPD takes this burden off of us, in that there is absolutely NOTHING we can do to improve the situation.  A reconciliation between two conflicting parties necessitates that everyone meets in the middle.  In the case where one conflicting party has NPD, there is no possibility for reconciliation because this party will NEVER budge.  And why?  Because NPD doesn’t allow for the possibility that this party may have ever done something in error.
Our topic of conversation over coffee and donuts this morning had to do with writing history.  Something that hit me: it’s no wonder that cult leaders often suffer from NPD, because narcissistic people often write their own stories - their own mythology - with a religious-like zeal.  They are always at the center of their mythology, and like a god, the world centers around them, their feelings, their whims, and their own motivations.  I started thinking about how my own parents have created mythology about their own experiences, and questioning the history they have written around me.  Granted, I don’t think that any history can be completely objective, as it’s always somewhat slanted toward the perspective of the person writing it.  However, there is something to be said for a simple “accounting” of actions that occurred.  The following paragraphs are some examples of my parents’ narratives regarding our family and our interactions, followed by an accounting, and then my own possible interpretation taking their NPD into consideration.
Example one:
My parents’ mythology: Jen was a brilliant child.  She started reading when she was only 18 months old!  She had a genius level IQ at a young age.  She loved attending science camps, and working with her science toys and microscopes.  Two things seem really weird to us: she never believed that she was brilliant, which is strange because we constantly told her that she was (she obviously just didn’t listen!).  The other weird thing is that she decide to become a musician.  Why would she waste her intellect by quitting her amazing job?  And then she just followed her husband because of his job, dropping everything that was important to her.  It’s such a waste of her abilities.
The accounting: Jen did have good scores on IQ tests, but those are simply a measure of potential in certain types of logic-reasoning situations, not really a measure of intelligence.  She may have recognized a word or two from the newspaper as a toddler, but it’s not like she was reading chapter books and COMPREHENDING them at that time.  She did play with science kits, but that’s only because what her parents bought for her for Christmas and birthdays, and it’s what was available in the house.  She actually really wanted to be a musician from a very young age, and has accounts of this written in her childhood diaries.  Mom and Dad did say things about her abilities with her science kits, but since it wasn’t what she enjoyed (only what was available), she always felt like her own interests weren’t valid, and so her self-esteem suffered as a result.  She did like going to science camps, but it was only because she got to escape the house for a while.  She never really did all that well studying the material presented in the classes.
Jen did relocate with her husband to a new city; her job in their old home was not a good situation, as she was grossly underpaid and she didn’t really want to be a teacher, desiring instead to work as a freelance musician.  She only took that job in the first place to help provide for her husband during his own job search, and the job provided good health insurance benefits.
My interpretation: my parents wanted me to be special, so that they would consequently feel special.  They wanted to tell anyone who would listen how special I was, so that it would reflect on them, making them seem like they were amazing parents.  They thrive on empty praise, and “kiss ass” behavior.  When my husband and I made a big decision to move across the country for my husband’s new job - which makes him incredibly happy! - they lost their source of narcissistic pride: the fact that I was a community college professor.  They couldn’t brag anymore about how well I was doing, since being a freelance musician doesn’t register as a respectable career in their minds.
Example two: 
My parents’ mythology: No one in the family cares about us.  Our relatives forget our birthdays all the time, and never send us cards.  We reach out constantly, sending gifts to all of our great-nieces and nephews, but we never receive a thank you card.  Our own daughter is neglectful, as she is difficult and doesn’t respond to our phone calls or text messages.  She doesn’t care about us, and she is very selfish.
The accounting: relatives do keep in touch with Mom and Dad; in fact, several in-laws have visited on multiple occasions throughout the years.  They aren’t the greatest about remembering birthdays and anniversaries, or even calling regularly, but when Mom and Dad are in town, these relatives do tend to drop everything to hang out with them.  Let’s be honest: sometimes when you have tons of relatives, it’s hard to keep track of a lot of dates, especially if you’re someone with a bunch of grandkids, whom you’d likely tend to prioritize in a different way than an older brother or sister.  Mom and Dad do send gifts to a lot of younger relatives, but they’re all incredibly busy raising children and working full-time jobs, just trying to make ends meet.  Moreover, it might make some people feel uncomfortable to have a distant relative spend a bunch of money on odd juvenile gifts; you might feel like you have to do something in return, and these people set the bar really high for financial expectations in gifts, which you might feel uncomfortable spending yourself.  
As for the daughter, Jen works a lot of hours.  Sometimes she’s just too busy to immediately return a phone call or text, and since she travels a lot for her work as a musician, sometimes she’s on an airplane or out of cell phone range.  Her financial situation isn’t the greatest, and while she and her husband are relatively stable, she’s not exactly in the position to refuse work.  As a result, she’s busy A LOT, and she prioritizes things to spend as much time as possible with her husband, a wonderful, supportive man whom she adores.
My interpretation: because my parents have NPD, nothing that anyone does for them - myself including - is ever enough.  They’re constantly looking for conflict, to find something “wrong” with any relative to make themselves look better.  Not everyone shows love in the same way.  Some people show love through making phone calls, others through purchases, others through spending time with loved ones, others through physical contact, etc.  My parents expect everyone to anticipate how they would like to be shown love and kindness, and expect everyone to drop everything to fulfill this intense need.  And when other people don’t operate under the same paradigm, they label these folks as “selfish” or “uncaring.”  That includes me.  They can’t even seem to comprehend the fact that my marriage is of the highest priority in my head...even after being married for TEN years.
Example three:
My parents’ mythology: Our daughter was a bad teenager, and she was extremely difficult.  She gave us no end of problems, and talked back constantly.  We did so much for her - we paid for her college, bought her a car, and supported her so much financially that we are in terrible debt.  She isn’t grateful, and never says thank you.  Today, the fact that she doesn’t speak to is in incredibly hurtful considering everything that we have done for her, and we can’t understand why she simply can’t just call us and tell us that she loves us.  It’s like a slap in the face!  She must be very mentally unbalanced and ill, and she needs our help to be a good person.
The accounting: Jen had a really rough time in school, because Mom and Dad moved a lot for work and she was constantly getting bullied.  She tried really hard to fit in at school and make that also coincide with Mom and Dad’s expectations, but it never really worked.  By the time she was about 13, she gave up trying and starting taking it all out on herself because she thought something was really wrong since it felt like nothing she ever did could make it right.  At that age she started vocalizing that what Mom and Dad expected caused others to make fun of her.  She had problems with drinking, cutting, anorexia, and other self-destructive behaviors of which Mom and Dad SAW the evidence, but refused to do anything since they were worried someone in the community might get word of it.  Instead, they told her to never talk about any of her problems at home or school to anyone; she wrote about this in her diaries, because of this rule.
Jen actually got a substantial scholarship to college, and while it didn’t pay for everything, it made an enormous dent in the expenses.  She also worked full-time on every summer and winter break, including overtime hours.  Starting her sophomore year in college, she began working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and in the eighteen years since she left home, she asked for financial help two times.  And both times, she repaid the debt ahead of schedule.  Ironically, Dad borrowed money from Jen on occasions, including one time where he demanded student loan money from her to pay his mortgage and then didn’t pay her back quickly, even though she was working full-time at a minimum wage job (while going to graduate school full-time) to support herself.
My interpretation: Being told constantly that I was a “bad kid” was so frustrating, because I didn’t really ever do anything THAT bad in the grand scheme of life.  Everything I did that was perceived as “bad” was really just a reaction to being bullied, hurting, feeling awful about myself, hating my body (because everyone, my parents included!) made fun of how weird I looked, along with intense feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy.  I got frustrated at age 13 with pleasing Mom and Dad, who told me things would get better if I just “played the game” and they never did.  When I spoke up for myself, it was met with a ridiculous amount of conflict.  I never was just allowed to be my own person, and my own emotions were constantly invalidated.  I was told incessantly that I was oversensitive and overreactive.  All of those experiences scarred me as an adult.  I never wanted to be dependent on them for anything and so I worked my ass off so that I would never have to ask them for any sort of help or assistance.  
I’m not a bad person.  Even today, I still love my parents, which is hard to believe when I go back and read through all of these blog entries!  I’m also very grateful for the opportunity to attend college.  But I do realize that I’ll never have a real relationship with them, because that would necessitate facing these mythologies and possibly re-writing our history together.  People with NPD don’t just suddenly do this, even when confronted.  I think my parents thrive on the idea that I’m sick because they simply can’t face the possibility that I don’t want to have anything to do with them today due to THEIR OWN behavior.  Me being sick is simply a convenient explanation.
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Friday, April 27, 2012

be very very afraid: fear as control

Much of my adult life, I’ve been plagued with panic attacks and bouts of paranoia anytime I’ve been faced with unfamiliar or new situations.  From simply attending a conference at work to flying on an airplane, I’ve literally been struck with terror, and have had to force myself through feelings of intense discomfort in order to accomplish almost anything.  And I’ve tried EVERYTHING to address these issues!  I’ve been to therapists, acupuncture, meditation courses, holistic healers, and tried self-hypnosis, energy medicine, EFT, prescription medication, and everything else one can imagine to just “survive” the challenges of being placed in a situation that could have even the slightest possibility of being “unsafe.”  
Most of these tools have helped to differing degrees, but the one thing that they have had in common is that they have never eradicated the source of my distress.  Throughout my years in therapy, a common conversation I’ve had has always been about these panic attacks and intense fear of public situations and travel.  I’m even scared of the telephone!  I had become incredibly frustrated over the past several years because even though I had been directly addressing these problems, I couldn’t figure out WHY they existed.  Where in the hell did they come from?  One thing that was identified is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which makes perfect sense, having been through intense bullying as a child and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as a young adult at the hands of two boyfriends.  However, PTSD is a symptom, not a cause.    Why and how did I even get into these abusive situations in the first place?
The identification of narcissistic personality disorder in my family of origin was a watershed moment in my therapy, to say the very least.  NPD - in BOTH of my parents (and I’m an only child!) - manifested itself in a textbook manner, illustrated in many of the situations I encountered growing up.  Parents with NPD tend to be either completely uninvolved in their childrens’ lives or, on the other end of the spectrum, controlling to the “nth” degree, partly because they see their children as an extension of themselves, rather than separate individuals.  My own parents were definitely of the latter variety - the domineering, controlling parents.  Fear was one of their favorite methods of control.
How did my family use fear to control me?  How have they continued to use fear over the years to keep me under their control?  Here are a few illustrative examples:
1.  One of the more irrational fears I’ve had as an adult has to do with flying.  Sure, it’s a common phobia, but I’m a musician, and I travel around the world to produce shows and play gigs.  My poor husband would frequently end up with bruises on his wrist, because I would squeeze it SO hard if we encountered even the slightest bit of turbulence on a flight.  I could never figure out exactly where this crazy fear originated, especially because I am a frequent traveller.
Recently, through my therapy and through intense meditation sessions, I’ve been having flashbacks of scenes of my childhood.  One of the memories that just popped up for me is of flying for the first time as a little girl when I was only two years old.  We used to vacation in Florida every year for at least two to three weeks, and the flight to Tampa or Orlando was a huge deal.  My mother would dress me in a fancy outfit, usually with a matching hat and purse.  Everything about the flight was regimented, from the way she would plan out my clothing to what games she would bring and when she would bring them out on the flight.  My father would never sleep the night before, due to some sort of crazy nerves in regards to travel.  He would make us arrive at the airport literally FOUR hours before the flight...and this was in the days prior to 9/11, where there weren’t such intense screening processes as today.
My father would cross his fingers at the beginning and end of every flight.  He told me - when I was as young as a toddler - that most accidents on flights occurred at take-off and at landing, so that was when we should both pray to not crash (and die).  He also told me that hijackings took place usually at these times as well, so to keep vigilant.  During the flight, my mother would take Dramamine, being terrified of heights, and she would frequently “white-knuckle” the armrests, even if the flight was smooth.
Since both my parents are narcissistic, they never stopped to ask themselves whether or not this kind of behavior was appropriate in front of a child.  This seems even more outrageous to me today, considering that I was a mere TODDLER when this began!  Why would you instill such an irrational fear in a little girl’s mind?  As an adult, these “introjections” were perpetually present in my head, enough so that I avoided flying overseas as an adult.  I actually turned down work opportunities, controlled by this paranoia and fear instilled in my psyche from the time I was a tiny little innocent girl.
2.  No matter how I felt growing up, I had to constantly tell my parents “I love you.”  It didn’t matter if we had just had a huge blow-out fight, or if we were in public, or if I was on the phone at a friend’s house as a teenager; each and every conversation had to end with this de rigeur declaration of undying affection.
Why?  Again, through my recent self-work, I’ve had some flashbacks of old conversations, especially with my father, when I was a little girl.  I remember him telling me that “you just never knew” if you were going to get in a car accident and die on the side of the highway.  Anytime you said goodbye to a loved one, it could very possibly be the last time you would ever see them.  And what would you want the last thing you heard before you died to be?  “I love you.”  Of course!
Another thing I remember especially about my father was his behavior over the holidays.  Each and every year, at times like Christmas and at Thanksgiving - usually over family dinner with just the three of us - he’d say, “Well, I won’t be around here next year this time, so we’d better make this the best holiday ever.”  I was told, by my mother, that my grandfather used to say this as well, so that’s where Dad got it from.  She’d laugh it off, and say that he was just joking and being dramatic.  
In light of the fact that both of my parents have NPD, I now see what all of these behaviors were really about.  They were both intensely paranoid that SOMETHING might happen to them, and needed me - as a LITTLE GIRL - to soothe them and make them feel better.  I was just a tool to placate their own irrational fear.
As an adult, these patterns have persisted in how my parents have dealt with me.  Just last week, after not hearing from me for about a month, my mother sent me a letter saying that she just couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to speak to her and Dad, and that it makes her feel so badly that I just don’t call to say a simple, “How are you?  I love you.”  Ugh.  It makes my skin positively crawl - literally everything is about her and my father.  Classic narcissism.
3.  The phrase “God-fearing” certainly applies to my family - not only to my parents, but to my extended family who were all very strict evangelical Christians.  Growing up, I was made to go to church each and every Sunday, rain or shine.  I also had to participate in Sunday school and confirmation classes and youth group and church choir.  Unfortunately for me, the bullying that so frequently happened at school continued at church.  One of the worst experiences I had at church as a young girl was being told by my youth pastor that I was going to hell because my parents had only had me “dedicated” at my birth, instead of having been baptized.  He declared this in front of the entire confirmation class, who laughed.  I was mortified, not to mention terrified.
My parents were not unaware that these kinds of things were going on.  No matter what they may claim today - their most frequent excuse is “you never told us!” making all of this MY FAULT yet again - they knew.  I have years upon years of diary and journal entries from growing up, documenting these very things.  In fact, my journals from my teenage and pre-teen years are filled with crazy, paranoid entries about how I was so scared of the devil, and how I wanted to be “close to Jesus” but I just “couldn’t sense Him anywhere...there must be something wrong with me...I must be damned to hell!”
Fear, fear, fear.  Why on earth should an innocent little girl, one who was continually beat up and victimized in school, think that she’s going to hell?  Wouldn’t “normal” parents step in, and offer her constant reassurance?  Or take her to a different church where she wouldn’t be teased?  Or maybe even not force her to go to church if it was such a toxic environment?  Instead, my own narcissistic parents were more concerned about the appearance of being a devout and God-fearing family.  I remember one time when my father was interviewed in the local newspaper, and he stated that the most three important things were (in order): God, family, and country.  Yet at the same time, my parents never really talked about God or Jesus at home; I was just told that I had to go to church.  No matter if I was sick.  No matter if I was bullied.  No matter if I didn’t “feel the presence of God” myself.  After all, “what would people in the community think” if we weren’t upstanding members of a local church?  (Yes, in case you’re wondering, my parents did indeed speak in these kinds of terms.)
When I first left home, I quit going to church.  Later, however, I started working as a church musician even though I hated the thought of attending church.  This continued for nearly twenty years, probably in some vain hope that my parents would approve of me, and my job would earn some sort of respect in their eyes.  Even though I had many painful experiences dealing with the church (which could fill an entire blog of its own!), and even though I was working in churches that were diametrically opposed to my personal political and social beliefs, my parents continually insisted that I attend...even as an adult!  Here I am now, as a woman in my mid-30s, with parents who regularly fear for my soul, even though they never themselves actually discuss spirituality outside of the context of “you just go to church every week” as some sort of strange absolutist regime.
No respect, no empathy, no putting themselves in my shoes after all of the crazy things I’ve seen and endured due to my years employed by the church and attending church as a victimized child.  There is not even a tiny bit of recognition of these things by my family.  My NPD parents are only concerned with being seen as upstanding, being seen as involved...and creating fear of “what others might think” due to having different opinions.  It makes me want to vomit, thinking about religion or spirituality used in this type of context.
In conclusion:
I told my therapist in session just a couple of weeks ago that I think my parents thrived on me being sick, both as a child and as an adult.  When he asked “Why?”, I replied, “Because they used my being sick as a way they could make me feel better, when in reality, they were sick and my ‘sickness’ made them feel better.”  It’s all just an illustration of how twisted the psychology of a parent with NPD works.  It’s even sicker to realize how the fear-method of control makes one irrationally afraid of common scenarios...and fails to teach a child proper methods for dealing with real life.
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I'm an ACON (adult child of a narcissist) in recovery. Both of my parents suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and as an only child, this greatly impacted my experiences both growing up and as an adult. Here, I share many of my experiences to help others during their own recovery processes.
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