It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Living outside the box—I didn’t know it was allowed

The first glimpse I got into my own psyche and the shackles that were upon it, I was fourteen years old. Up to this point in my life, my concept of life was pretty much black-and-white: something was good or bad, a behaviour was right or wrong, and there was little room for nuances. I did not know at the time that digital thinking—having only two states such as right or wrong—is the hallmark of the immature mind. It is as if, as children, we have so much to learn as a baseline for integrating into our society, there isn’t much room for nuanced thought.
Because we are all narcissistic as kids, we expect everyone else in the universe to think the same way we do. We also presume that adults have a similar set of strictures—expanded for adults to include such things as smoking and drinking, driving cars and getting married and other such permissions that are conferred upon us when we cross a magical threshold of age. And so we grow up with our minds bound to certain paradigms and expectations, often based on our own observations and experiences. When we come across behaviours that are contrary to our paradigms we may judge them as being bad or wrong and we may then condemn them without even thinking past the recognition that it is different from our own standard. Why? Because if the world has only two states of being, then behaviour or beliefs different from our own must be wrong—our behaviour and beliefs, after all, are right so anything contrary must be wrong.
Digital thinking makes life easy, it requires no thinking, no measuring, no weighing and, using it, it is easy to avoid being wrong: stick with what you know is good, right, and acceptable, repudiate whatever is different from that, and you will always believe yourself to be in the right. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way the world works. Children learn right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair simplistically because their little brains are not yet capable of more complex concepts and processes. But as we age and our brains mature, we are supposed to segue into the more intellectually refined world of “it depends…”—critical thinking.
Unfortunately, this can be very inconvenient for parents. Those whose children grasp critical thinking may think they are living with a trial lawyer. Every loophole or subtle difference between what you said and the various permutations of interpretation may be thrown at the parent of such a child. As tiring as it can be, the good news is that the parent of this child has done a great job of opening the child’s mind to the realm of actually thinking about the world around them as opposed to having raised a parrot with a shuttered mind.
I started out with a very shuttered mind. My normal childhood narcissism coupled with an inflexible narcissistic parent who brutally forbade anything but slavish obedience led me to being a young teen with some very rigid ideas about right and wrong. Just as I knew there were rules of living and conduct for me, I assumed that adults also had rules of living and conduct. I further assumed that my observations of adults informed me about many of their rules. When I came across people, both kids and adults, whose behaviour indicated rules different from my own, I knew they were wrong or bad—or ignorant of what was right and good. This was exacerbated by religious teachings in which people who had not accepted Jesus were going to hell when they died, even if they had no knowledge of Jesus or Christianity. From this I took the lesson that ignorance was bad, too, that not knowing something was wrong did not excuse me from punishment. So I closed my little mind and believed if what you wanted or liked or did or believed was not approved of by the controlling adult in your life, then the simple act of wanting/liking/doing/believing rendered you bad/wrong, no matter if it was objectively okay or acceptable to others.  
I was secure in my knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad, with respect to what my brother and I were allowed in my mother’s household. Things got a little confusing in the summer when I would ask my grandmother if I could go out to play and she would look puzzled as she gave me permission, as if she couldn’t figure out why I was asking. But I knew what it meant to “be good” in my mother’s household and I was taking no chances that Nana or Grandpa might inadvertently say something about my behaviour that got me into trouble: I obeyed NM’s rules even when she was a thousand mile away. It was not until I reached my teens that I got my first inkling as to how shuttered and limited my thinking had become.
My father and stepmother didn’t have a lot of money but they lived a comfortable, if frugal, life. The summer before 10th grade I stayed with my father instead of my grandparents, sharing a bedroom with my two year old sister (which I thought was great—this was the baby sister I had wanted since I was seven—I adored her). My mother took off for Texas with her boyfriend and, this being the days before cell phones, internet, or cheap long distance, I didn’t hear from her for the whole summer. Since this was nothing new—I often spent entire summers with my grandparents and received nothing…not even a post card…from my mother—so I was not concerned. It is important to note at this point that this was representative of how I viewed mothering at this time in my life—her complete lack of interest was my normal—in the scheme of right and wrong, she was always right so this was the right way to be a mother, even if it hurt me and left a gaping sense of emptiness in my chest. She was doing it right and my wanting more was wrong.
As the day for the opening of the new school year approached and we hadn’t heard from her—and didn’t know how to reach her—my father and I became concerned. Should he enrol me in school? Should he keep waiting for word from my mother? We discussed it over dinner, we made plans and alternative plans. I began mentally separating the clothes I would take home with me from the ones I would leave at my father’s to wear on my weekend visits. We were gearing up for her to pull up in front of the house with no warning and demand my immediate appearance. Finally, after an eternity of anxiety, a few days before the start of school we received a telegram telling me to enrol in school at my father’s. I was ecstatic!
Summer was over and I now had to integrate into the family as a member of the household, not a summer visitor. The problem was, I didn’t know how to do that. While I knew what my father expected of me, I didn’t know about my stepmother. She was nothing like my mother but I still thought that adults had behaviour rules, so I assumed that her expectations of me were similar to my mother’s: I thought the differences between the two women were in more fundamental things: my mother had always had a job and chased after other men whereas Patsy stayed home with the kids and didn’t stray. I expected them to be very similar in their expectations and interactions with their children. Again, my mother’s paradigm sparred in my mind with what I observed: to my mother, Patsy was lazy, she was using my father as a “meal ticket” and she kept having babies (they eventually had five) to keep him hooked and feeling obligated to her. On the one hand, my mother was always right—that had been drilled into me since early childhood. On the other hand, I could feel the genuine bond between Patsy and my father. I liked Patsy, I liked that my father was happy with her (it showed), but my mother said she was a lazy bloodsucker using my father like her own private welfare… I had no experience of my mother being wrong…but my own eyes were not supporting my mother’s claims. Was she wrong about Patsy? Or was I wrong because I couldn’t see what my mother was seeing?
The first thing that I could see was that Patsy’s children were not afraid of her. What was she doing differently? I wasn’t afraid of Patsy—she had never given me a reason to be—but I was terrified of my mother. Patsy played with her children whereas with my mother, Petey and I were annoyances to be out of sight and earshot when we weren’t busy obeying her commands. One afternoon I sat curled up on an overstuffed chair with a book and surreptitiously watched Patsy play with one of her children and I was very, very surprised. Not only was she tickling and giggling with him on the sofa, I heard her tell him that she loved him and the first thought that popped into my head was “Are mothers allowed to do that?”
I grew up in a household in which my narcissistic mother ruled everything. Everything was done to her exacting specifications and if they weren’t, punishment ensued. I do not ever remember playing anything with my mother, no tickling or giggling—she was too forbidding for me to even imagine doing that. I had always assumed that she had never told me she loved me because she wasn’t allowed to. I just had this notion in my head that parents were not permitted to tell their children that they loved them! I was surprised hearing Patsy tell her baby boy she loved him...really, really surprised! But Patsy was an adult and a mother so she had to know those parenting rules, didn’t she? So was she wrong/bad to tell her child she loved him? Or was it my mother who was wrong? A crack was appearing in the stifling little box that bounded my mind.
On the one hand, this was good news—it meant that when I got around to having children of my own, I could tell them that I loved them, something I knew I was going to do the very instant I knew it was allowed. On the other hand, this made me wonder why, if it was permitted, my mother had never said it to me. It wasn’t more than a week or so later that I came to the conclusion that she never told me because she didn’t love me: we got a postcard from her saying she was travelling with Frank and that she would contact us when she got back to town; she gave us no way to get in contact with her in the event of an emergency and she said nothing about missing us, even though she hadn’t seen Petey and me for more than three months. From the absence of any such endearments it became clear to me that she cared little about me or about my feelings. For several weeks after receiving that post card I thought about it. I tried to think of anybody in my family who had ever said anything to me that was even close to a declaration of love. I could think of no one. It made me sad and moody and withdrawn.
This didn’t sit well with my stepmother. Convinced that nobody loved me except my father—and his love was conditional on my stepmother’s acceptance—I reverted to my mother’s expectations because I now felt I needed to earn my keep. Inside my rigid little box, if you weren’t loved, you were easily discarded so to counter that I tried to make myself indispensable but, at the same time, unobtrusive. I would clear the table after dinner and wash the dishes, clean the stove and the kitchen, and then quietly disappear to my room to do homework and read. My stepmother, however, felt rejected by this. She felt I was isolating myself so I wouldn’t have to interact with her. She thought I didn’t like her. It took a blow-up between us in the kitchen one night for the truth to come out and afterwards it became clear that I did not need to “earn my keep” in that household, even though I did in my mother’s. Another little peek outside my box…I thought you got a “free ride” if you were loved, otherwise you had to earn whatever you got, even if you were dealing with family: that was the “right way,” in my mind, until Patsy showed me different.
My mother was cheap. I don’t mean frugal or careful with money, I mean cheap. And she was the “penny-wise, pound-foolish” kind of cheap, as well. From her I learned that, no matter how much money you had, it was bad to waste any of it so it was better to buy cheap, flimsy things that “did the job” rather than spend more—even just a little more—for something of quality. She lacked both taste and perspective, actually considering a plain, unfinished wood dresser, bought brand new, to be superior to a high-quality antique piece. Antiques, in her mind, were “over-priced second-hand castoffs, other people’s junk” for which she would not pay a cent: better to have brand new junk than high quality cast-offs.
When K-Mart first opened, you would have thought she had died and gone to heaven. She bought my school clothes there, she bought her clothes there and although it pissed her off when the soles fell off her shoes in a couple of months, they were cheap enough at K-Mart to replace without a significant hit to the wallet. Nothing she bought me fit properly, from bras and panties to shoes and coats, but if they were from K-Mart, she was happy that she hadn’t spent one cent more than was absolutely necessary. After divorcing my father and actually having to learn how to watch her spending, my spendthrift wastrel of a mother had turned into a bona-fide scrooge—and it only got worse as she got older.
The problem was, that rubbed off on me but in a different way: I grew up thinking that stores like Macy’s were not for me. I was not allowed to shop in them, just as parents weren’t allowed to tell their children they loved them. If I walked into a high-end store I felt uncomfortable, like I would soon be found out and chased out of the store. I could not justify buying my clothes in a store like Macys or buying real silk or spending that much money on myself: it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t need to justify shopping at Macy’s, it didn’t occur to me that I was just entitled to buy my clothes there as anyone else. I was still seeing myself through my mother’s eyes. It took until I was nearing my 30s—I was still buying my clothes in K-Mart then—when I met a woman who was always so nicely dressed and turned out but who earned even less than I did, that I began to realize how boxed-in my thinking was in and I started chipping my way out of it.
But even though I managed to crawl out of that box and began shopping at better stores (and learned the difference between “stylish” and “trendy”) for myself, it was a few more years before I realized that I was still in that box where my kids were concerned. It took this friend giving me her little boy’s outgrown clothes and my realization of the quality—who even has used little boy things like shorts and T-shirts that are not tattered and stretched out of shape?—that I began to see that my kids deserved decent clothes and shoes from good makers, purchased from good stores. And it took me until was near to closing my 40s that I was comfortable walking into Macys and shopping for sheets or pots and pans, before I could buy a box of Godiva choccies, without my mother’s voice hissing in my ear “you should be buying Hershey’s—this is wasting money—you don’t deserve this—this is bad! YOU are bad! Shame on you!”

From the first through the ninth grade we lived in a pink stucco three bedroom ranch-style home in a California beach town. Two doors down the street was a girl who was in class with me, Janey K (she was called that because across the street lived another classmate, Janey B). Janey had an older brother who was in high school and who played in the school band. I thought he was so handsome!!
One afternoon Janey K invited me and the other Janey over to play. We went into her room and after a while I needed to use the toilet. When I came back I asked Janey how big was her house was…I had seen only one other bedroom in the house and it had distinctly teenaged boy’s décor, and I wondered if there was a third, hidden bedroom for her parents.
Nope—it was a two-bedroom house and her parents slept on a fold-out couch in the living room so that each child could have a bedroom. I was flabbergasted! Parents could do that? Parents would do that? Another one of my rigid little boxes cracked open because, in the world my mother had constructed for me to grow up in, children sacrificed for their parents, not the other way around. When I went back to live with my mother (and Frank) in the 11th grade, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment: my mother and Frank had the bedroom and I had a cot in the kitchen, placed in front of a drafty window where the kitchen table was supposed to be. If it hadn’t been for that afternoon of play at Janey K’s house, it would never have occurred to me that it was the parents who were supposed to sacrifice for their children, not the other way around. I would have grown up believing it was ok for my kids to sleep in the kitchen as long as my comforts were seen to, and perhaps believing many other damaging things in which I put myself ahead of my kids because my mother taught me that was the way the world worked.
My mother wasn’t a particularly good cook: everything was boiled grey or it was fried in bacon grease until it was stiff. Seasonings consisted of salt and pepper and, on the rare occasions we had spaghetti (pasta boiled until it was slimy, then stirred into a can of Campbell’s tomato soup mixed with some catsup) we got a little oregano (key word here: little). Patsy wasn’t the most accomplished cook in the world, but she tried—she really, honestly tried.
In the box my mother created for me for food, everything was cheap. Free was even better. Fresh fruit was only for school lunch and then, only the cheapest fruits available. Any fish my brother caught and brought home was dinner, no matter what the thing was. I was never particularly fond of fish in the first place and, thanks to my brother’s yen for fishing and my mother’s pinch-penny disposition, those dreadful scavenger fish that hung around the docks ended up on my brother’s hook which, in turn, put them on my plate, which pretty much dissipated what little taste I had for fish in the first place.
With the exception of celery and cabbage and the occasional cauliflower, our vegetables came from cans. And salads? Well, the most basic rule of food in our house was, if NM didn’t like it, it was absent from our table, and apparently my mother only liked “expensive” salad which she was unwilling to pay for out of her own money. What was “expensive salad,” you ask? Try a quarter of a head of iceberg lettuce, a tin of tiny, salty shrimps, chilled and drained, and Thousand Island dressing made from “salad cream” (ersatz Miracle Whip), catsup, and chopped pickle relish. Any other kind of salad was pretty much non-existent unless you count the chopped iceberg lettuce and slivers of tomatoes that graced the table when she was trying to impress someone and gull them into thinking she was a domestic diva.
You can imagine my surprise when Patsy put a salad on her table that contained things I had never seen before…like croutons and avocado. She was literally slack-jawed when I held up a piece of avo on my fork and asked her what it was! (I loved it—I just didn’t know what to call it!) I soon discovered that a whole host of foods I thought I didn’t like, I actually enjoyed. Things like mushrooms and rice and avocado and Brussels sprouts and broccoli and yoghurt—foods I had never eaten before but because my NM didn’t like them, I didn’t either. That first electrifying bite of avocado did more than bring me a new taste sensation, it sprung open the iron bars in my mind that had been keeping me from trying new foods.
Thinking about it in depth, many years later, I finally realized that I had been afraid to try new foods—or to eat foods my mother didn’t like—because if I ate them and liked them, then I was, automatically, bad. To like a food my mother disliked was to disagree with her and disagreeing with her on any subject was a very unwise thing to do. And so I just locked myself into the suffocating little box that she created for me, a rigid structure of stultifying, unchallenged beliefs pounded into my consciousness like stockade palings driven into the earth.
Eventually, at some point, I decided to be bad. I don’t think it was a conscious decision taken all at once, but more a tentative venturing beyond the confines of that mental stockade I had been living inside. I wanted to be good, I tried to understand what I needed to be or do or think or believe in order to be good, but somehow I just kept missing the mark. I didn’t recognize at the time that the goalposts were constantly in motion so that no matter what I did, I was doomed to come up short. After years of trying and too often failing I think I came to the conclusion that I was hopeless at figuring out what it meant to be good so I just quit trying. If I was going to have the name (and endure the punishments) for being bad, then maybe I should just stop trying so hard. But despite a change in my behaviour, I was still trapped in the view of myself through my mother’s eyes.
It took years to disassemble that box, to uproot those palings, to tear down that stockade. Learning to think independently was hard; learning to live independently was harder. I was not overtly rebellious, rubbing her nose in my contrary behaviour, but I behaved contrarily while doing my best to keep her ignorant of what I was doing just so I didn’t have to listen to the inevitable harangue of criticisms, edicts, and opinions cloaked as fact. I dated Jewish men and men of colour—not because they were Jewish or black but because I was attracted to them and I was no longer allowing a person’s colour/culture/religion to be the barrier my mother had created them to be. I went out with Italian guys and hippies, military guys and bikers—if a man appealed to me and didn’t violate my own personal code (no domestic violence, no substance abusers—users, ok—abusers, no, no married men, no players)—then I was willing to see what he had to offer. It was the late 60s, early 70s, “free love” was the word of the day, I was young and pretty and smart and I was struggling to find my way out of the box of servitude my mother had built around me as best I could.
What I did not realize until many, many years later was that throughout this time—indeed, until the mid-80s when my then-NHusband was greasing the skids to slide me into a deep, near-fatal depression—I was rebelling. Whether I was stripping in a bar or working in the executive suite of a major corporation, whether I was toking up listening to Creedence or sitting in a box seat watching the Royal Swedish Ballet, what I was doing was rebelling. And I was rebelling because I had never succeeded in smashing down the innermost box of that nest of boxes I had been stuffed into since earliest childhood: digital thinking.
I had never let go of the notion that life was black or white, you were with me or against me, if you were right, I was wrong. Decades after declaring my independence I was still shackled to the concept in order to live my own life, to do what I wanted to do with it, I had to be bad. And while I was living very independently, not permitting my mother’s twisted morality (do as I say, not as I do—if I do it, it is ok but if you do it, you are bad…) to choose my actions, my behaviours…and while I had made terrific inroads into deciding for myself what was right and what was wrong, I was still stuck in the dyadic thinking that posited that there was only right and wrong, that there were no states in between and the extrapolation that right=good and wrong=bad so that if you were right, I was bad.
It was not until I became a technical head hunter—a recruiter of engineers in Silicon Valley—that the penny dropped. I was puzzling the difference between digital and analogue electronics and an engineer explained to me that digital had two states: on and off. A light switch was an example of digital—the switch was on or off, the light was on or off, there were only two states of being. But analogue was like a dimmer switch…there were varying degrees of on—a little bit on, a little bit more on, even a bit more on—infinitesimal increments of on (or off, if you prefer to view it from that angle) between being fully on or fully off. It was a spectrum. And suddenly it all made sense to me—not just the difference between the states of analogue and digital electronics but the whole concept of analogue as applied to behaviour, thinking and life in general. That tight, restricting box around my mind was burst open!

And then I began to see that I was surrounded by digital-thinking people, people for whom only right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable existed. There was nothing in between, no nuances of thinking. Then I began to realize that these people were terribly judgmental: every one of them believed they were right and that they were therefore good. And if I disagreed, I was wrong and therefore bad. And, because they were right and good, they had what they believed was an inherent right to penalize those they judged as being wrong and bad. They were the epitome of self-righteous and many of them were members of my family—my own children, even!
There was no room in their shuttered little minds for perceptions that went contrary to their own. In fact, they were incapable of accepting information that went contrary to their existing set of beliefs because if they did so, the act of accepting that information would mean they had been wrong up to this point, and bad because they had been wrong. My NexH and I had a brief discussion about this when we had been married a few years and he was having an internal emotional conflict. I suggested that at the age of 30 he still had time to change his paradigm, to alter the way he had heretofore seen the world, and live the rest of his life as a better person. He looked me straight in the eye and told me that if he did that, he would be admitting that for the first 30 years of his life he had been wrong and, after giving it some thought, he knew he just could not do that. Despite the enlightenment that there was another way to perceive and process the world around him, he was so deeply enmeshed in the digital paradigm that he still saw the world as right/wrong=good/bad and he was unwilling to accept there was another way to view things because he perceived that as an admission that he had been wrong/bad the first 30 years of his life.
It doesn’t really work that way but a lot of us still live inside that shuttered little box of right/wrong=good/bad. Every time we take a self-preserving action and we then feel guilty and shamed, we are living it: self-sacrifice to the Narc Parent(s) is the right thing to do, and when you do it, you are good, per our Ns; refusing is selfish and selfishness is bad. The digital divide, family style. But the guilt is really your inner self, punishing you with shame for being bad by that digital standard. It is you, still buying into the child’s belief that whatever NM says is right and good and if you do something else, you are wrong and bad.
But the reality is, good and bad don’t even enter into this, and right and wrong are relative to the situation. It is wrong (and stupid) to jump into a lake in the dead of winter, fully clothed; it is right if you see a child is drowning and you can help: it’s relative. Doing the right thing doesn’t automatically make us good people any more than doing the wrong thing makes us bad ones. Digital thinking lends itself to judgmentalism because of the simplistic dichotomy it embraces: right=good, wrong=bad. Critical thinking, however, deals in nuances, nuances in which you can be both right and bad or wrong and good. Simplistic judgmental systems in the brain cannot survive critical thinking.
In my experience, narcissists are digital thinkers. Many may be able to engage in critical thought in realms outside themselves—at work, for example—but when it comes to themselves, they embody the notion that they are right and therefore good and if you disagree with them, you are wrong and therefore bad. They can engage in astounding mental gymnastics to rationalize and justify and just plain twist facts to put themselves in the right, but that is not critical thinking: it is just the self-serving narcissistic mind finding ways to make you agree with them—or be wrong and bad if you don’t. This is where the guilt comes from, the shame we feel when we know we have done the right thing for ourselves and our families by setting boundaries or even cutting ties with our Ns. When we defy them we find ourselves right back in that digital thinking box our Ns built for us when we were little, that box that keeps us responding with guilt and shame because we failed to put the N first, which makes us bad.
But guess what? You are allowed to think outside that box. You are allowed to think beyond digital paradigms. You are allowed to think differently and come up with radically different beliefs, actions, behaviours—and be right and a good person while doing it.
Do you know why? Because your N lied to you. Digital thinking is for children, not for adults with fully functioning intellects. Your N is fully entitled to live and think inside that stultifying little box if she wants to but you are just as entitled to smash down and reject the box she built for you, to think globally, to put yourself first. Because the idea that your N should be first is a lie: parents are supposed to sacrifice for their children, not the other way around!
Step outside the box. Give up the guilt, reject the shame, stop judging yourself, stop viewing yourself through your Ns eyes. Expand your thinking, embrace the freedom of critical thought wherein you are free to seek and embrace the truths that digital thinking has hidden from you. Make up your own mind. The ability—and the freedom it brings—is within us all.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The “Eternal Present” of the Narcissistic Mind

I have read that narcissists live in an “eternal present,” that they do not experience the passage of time the way we do. A slight we experienced in childhood, for example, loses its power to hurt us over time, as we gain perspective and experiences. The buffer of time tends to soften experiences and our reaction to them: I still, in some ways, grieve the death of my previous husband, for example—he was a terrific guy and deserved to live more than a few months past his 54th birthday—but the acute, heart-rending grief I experienced in the early days of his death has largely gone. It’s too bad he didn’t live longer, but my heart no longer feels shredded into tatters at the thought of his permanent absence. Time has healed the wound and I now remember him fondly, can tell stories about him, and remember him and our marriage with a quiet kind of joy.
Narcissists, on the other hand, apparently do not experience the buffering that the distance of time can provide us because they live in an eternal present. They have a perception of time in which an affront suffered ten years ago feels no less acute today than it did when first delivered. I cannot provide citations for this assertion, however, because I cannot find anything in the literature to verify it, but I can attest that if this is true, it would explain my malignant narcissist of a mother in ways that nothing else has ever been able to.
For example, my mother was always very hard on me with respect to grades: I was expected to get straight As, no matter what the subject. If I didn’t, I got berated but if I did I got harangued anyway: “See, I knew you could do it. You were just goofing off with those Bs you got last semester, weren’t you? I knew you weren’t applying yourself. It had better not fall below an A from now on because now I know what you are capable of…” Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t.
My report cards were mailed to my grandparents and in the return mail I would receive a small amount of money, my reward for getting those As. I occasionally overheard her bragging to people on the phone about my grades and excusing my brother when his were not up to snuff: “Oh, he’s a boy, you know how they are…”
And yet, when junior high and high school rolled around and there were assemblies and awards ceremonies and presentations, my mother was mysteriously absent. I was the tenor soloist in the school choir: she never attended a concert. Two years in a row I received a letter (the kind you sew on a letterman’s jacket or sweater) for excellence in music (the choir)—this was the only way a girl could get a letter so it was a BIG deal—and she was mysteriously absent from the awards banquets. She even skipped my graduation. And even though I expected her to ignore my accomplishments, the fact that she sent all this information to my grandparents and she occasionally used it to win a one-upmanship contest with another parent, confused me. If she was proud enough to inform her own parents and brag to other mothers, why did she avoid attending any of my events?
I graduated from high school exactly three months after my 17th birthday. On my 18th birthday I was discharged from the hospital following the birth of my first child, nine days earlier. It never seemed odd to me that my mother had married young and had her first child young—her mother did the same, marrying at 16, just as my mother had done. All three of us had our first baby when we were 17. For more than 50 years I puzzled over my mother’s unwillingness to attend my school events, the mixed message of hearing her brag about my accomplishments juxtaposed with her obvious lack of caring as demonstrated by her absence. And then one day it struck me—my mother had never graduated from high school herself!
She had not skipped a grade in elementary school as I had, so she still had at least a year of high school to go when she eloped with my father. Her parents both went only as far as the eighth grade, that being the limit of publicly funded education in rural areas a hundred years ago, so they had graduated from their respective schools…but my mother had not! Somehow the fact that I had graduated and had a baby before I turned 18 got enmeshed with my mother’s history and I just assumed she had graduated, just as I had. She had never told me she had dropped out of school, she allowed me to assume that she had graduated, like my father, her brothers, and I had done. But once I had that information in hand, things began to fall into place.
She was jealous that I was gathering all of these awards because she didn’t have any. She was embarrassed that she had not finished high school and I had. She was angry, in the way that narcissists become, that I had something she could never have because even though she could get a GED, it still was not a high school graduation with cap and gown and smiling parents and photographs and graduation presents, was it? And because she couldn’t have one, neither should I. She couldn’t stop me from graduating—I had earned that. But made it as difficult on me as possible to participate: she refused to give me a ride to the graduation ceremony (I rode with my boyfriend and his parents), she refused to attend, and so I had no one applauding for me (except my boyfriend’s parents), nobody taking pictures, no gifts, no cake, no special dinner—nothing. It was just like any other uneventful Sunday at her house.
Why? Was it spite? I suppose that was part of it—she was a very spiteful person and even prided herself on her capacity for vindictiveness. But I think it went deeper than that. I think each event of mine, each solo in the spotlight, each academic award, each ceremony or rite of passage in which I was a participant, she was stabbed with the same intensity of feelings of being deprived and left out that she had when her friends went to the prom, graduated, received gifts…while she was stuck at home with a colicky baby.
That this was the result of her own choices was not relevant to her: she had long since decided that everything that was wrong with her life was my fault. If I hadn’t come along her father could have had her impulsive elopement annulled and she could have returned to school in the autumn with her classmates and her life, without me, would have been “different,” a word she clearly equated with “better.” And so here I was, usurping all those things that should have been hers all those years ago, all of the attention, the accolades, the awards, the speeches of praise. I had not only denied her those things in her life, I was exacerbated it by getting them myself and then “rubbing her nose in it” by expecting her to tag along as a spectator. It was 18 years later, but she was just as angry and resentful and bitter about it as when she was cleaning up baby puke while her friends were dancing the night away at their proms, and crossing that stage in caps and gowns to receive their diplomas. The passage of time did not soften the sting of her privation: judging from how angry she was at each of my events, the way she sabotaged some of them so I could not go (once even refusing me permission to go to a concert I had been practicing for for more than three months and which the school was depending on my solo to put us over the top in a competition), judging from her grimly restrained anger each time I had a date or a school dance or extra-curricular activity, she was reliving her resentment of her classmates’ activities because I had had the bad manners to be born and keep her stuck in that unfortunate marriage. Her resentment of me and how my existence denied her those rites of passage was renewed each time I did something she had never been able to do, like go to a Homecoming Party or sit for college entrance exams—or collect a high school diploma.
My parents were married in May of 1946 and by early 1949 they had split up. Two years later they reconciled and we moved to California where they separated again sometime in 1955, reconciled briefly, then split permanently in 1957. I was ten and by the time I was twelve, my father had remarried and had a daughter by his new wife. In total, my parents were married and living together for no more than eight years.
My mother resented my stepmother, which I always found puzzling. The separations and the ultimate divorce were her idea, yet she acted towards my stepmothers as if she had been my father’s illicit paramour. She referred to Patsy as “that cheap chippie,” an epithet that described her own self far more accurately than Patsy (who had a university degree and came from a family that had both wealth and breeding) and other unsavoury terms. She resented Patsy as if she had been my father’s mistress and the cause of the end of their marriage when, in fact, my mother told my father that she was tired of being married to him, she was going to start seeing other men (she was actually already doing that while he was working his second job), she might bring one or more of them home with her, and if he didn’t like it, he could leave. He left and she divorced him on the grounds of abandonment and mental cruelty and walked away with new car, the house and everything in it except Dad’s clothes, mechanic’s tool, and hunting and fishing gear. And then she would get mad when he shows up to collect me and my brother for our visitation because there was a woman in the car with him.
She acted like he was cheating on her, and like Patsy was the “other woman.” She was in the process of stripping him of virtually everything he had worked for over the past six years, she was bringing strange men home (as she had said she was going to do—I found them asleep in her bed with her when I came in to wake her up to go to work, that being my job because the only alarm clock in the house was in my room), but still, she was angry with him for having a new girlfriend. So incensed was she that she instituted a bunch of rules—with a bunch of new ones at the end of every visitation—to govern how we were to operate. We were to remember and tell her everything about what was going on—what was their living arrangements, what kind of furniture did they have, where did they live, etc. We were not to tell either of them anything about our lives and especially nothing about her and what she was doing. And when the babies started being born I was soundly admonished not to refer to them as brothers and sisters. If I had to refer to them at all, I was to refer to them as half brothers and sisters, so that nobody got the “wrong idea.”
This animosity against my father and his wife did not abate with time. Years would pass and if anything about my father or Patsy found its way into conversation, she would instantly screw up her face and start spitting epithets. She was just as angry twenty years after the divorce as she was when it happened, despite she was the one who wanted it and instigated it because she was “tired of being married” to my father. (My personal guess is that she was actually tired of sneaking around, afraid of getting caught, and was resentful because my father moved out, taking his income and her respectability—divorce was scandalous in 1957—with him, rather than stay in the house and the marriage as a cuckold.)
But it doesn’t stop here. Remember, my parents lived together for a grand total of eight years or less. Twenty five years after my father married Patsy, a letter in the mail from my mother arrived at their house. By this time they had been incommunicado for better than fifteen years because my brother and I had been grown and gone for at least that long and there was no longer a reason for them to communicate. The letter was not addressed to my father or to the two of them, but specifically to Patsy. When she opened it she found eight pages of my mother’s crabbed handwriting telling her how she should beware of my father, that he had a volatile temper and he was dangerous when provoked. She specifically told Patsy to watch out for the cords in his neck to stand out and the veins in his temples to become prominent because that indicated when he was dangerously angry.
Patsy showed me the letter and it was absolutely appalling. By the time this missive arrived, Patsy had been married to my father three times longer than my mother had been. Twenty five years had passed and suddenly here was a letter from my mother describing my father as he had been twenty five years in the past at a time he was married to a person very different from her. But to my mother, those years had not passed. To my mother, my father was still the person she had been married to, the man who went livid when he found that during the hours he worked a second job to give his family extras, his wife was spending the money hanging around bars picking up strange men. To my mother, there was no difference in their situations, Patsy was the same as she, and no time had passed. She was literally living in the past in the current day.
But why the letter? Part of the narcissist’s hunt for Nsupply: if there were any cracks in Patsy’s marriage to my father, who better to commiserate with than an ex-wife who presumably knew his flaws? If she could engage Patsy, not only would she be getting a massive infusion of Nsupply, she would be in a position to regain some power over my father, this time through his current wife. He was just as much hers, in her mind, as he was when she told him she was going to be bringing strange men home with her. My guess is that she was in a particularly powerless position for one reason or another, and was mounting one of her little manipulative games to remedy that. But what is really the point here is that time had not made any inroads into my mother’s sense of entitlement where my father was concerned and she thought it completely appropriate to try to step into his marriage and warn his wife of twenty five years about his “temper” and how “scary” he was, as if no time had passed at all, as if the past was still the present.
By contrast, I divorced my oldest son’s father when he was two. The man was a drunk, abusive towards me and he would threaten to abuse the children as a way to control me. He couldn’t keep a job and when he had one, he cashed his pay checks at a neighbourhood tavern and drank up half of it before he ever got home. I left, moving clear across the country to put a safe distance between us. When my son was 16, he began asking about his father and our breakup and did I think we might ever get together again. As gently as I could, I told him that his father and I were too different and that we just didn’t get along. When he asked me what his father was like, I told him that I did not know, that too many years had passed, and that who he was back then was not necessarily who he was now. I experienced no anger, no fear, no anxiety, no desire to paint the man black to the child he never supported, the man who, in fact, consented to the divorce on the condition that I would not ask him for child support. It had been more than ten years and I had moved on and had no emotions about him any longer, and certainly no desire to insert myself into his life and start stirring up shit. My mother, on the other hand, was experiencing the same intensity of emotions—and desire for vengeance for her imagined hurts—twenty five years after she initiated that divorce.
The thing about narcissists is that momentous events—at least events that had sufficient impact on them to stick in their memory—they believe they recall in detail. The fact that along the line some of these details are actually fabrications gets lost in the mists of time and they keep a bright—if improved—memory, one that has considerable immediacy, in their heads. When one of these memories comes under discussion they will recount it in excruciating detail—with the embellishments incorporated into their sense of reality—and they can even tell you, verbatim, who said what to whom. It is as if these events happened just yesterday, not two or three or four decades in the past, and their emotional intensity with respect to these memories is no less powerful than it was when the event first occurred.
I can remember my mother telling about when someone rear-ended her car. As she told the story she grew angrier and angrier at “the idiot” who “wasn’t paying attention” and hit her, denting the bumper on her brand-new second-hand car. If you were listening to the story you would be forgiven for thinking the accident had happened just last week instead of fifteen years in the past…
And while that kind of recall may seem impressive, it has two flaws: one, all of the embroideries and trimmings and flourishes that her imagination has added to make it a better story somehow become remembered as the truth. The driver wasn’t an ordinary person but has transformed into a professionally-dressed, immaculately coiffed woman who didn’t care about her car because she could afford repair bills where my poor mother couldn’t. Instead of being apologetic, this tall, cool Grace Kelly doppelgänger was haughty and dismissive. Everything that could show the hapless other driver as the antithesis of my mother’s image of herself as the socially conscious Everywoman, this woman became. Truth fell by the wayside in the wake of this tale of my mother being victimized by a rich bitch and then how she put the woman in her place: first victimized, then triumphant—and all but the tiniest sliver of it, untrue.
The second problem with this kind of intense pseudo-memory is that is convinces the tale bearer of the invincibility of her memory. When that happens you end up in a situation where, if she doesn’t remember it, it didn’t happen: you are making it up! Or if she does remember it, she remembers it differently from the way you do, and because she has this fabulous recall you are unquestionably wrong. Despite the fabrications and bias of their recall, they will be convinced of the accuracy of their memory of an event solely on the basis of its power to evoke their original emotions many years hence.
As I said before, the notion that narcissists do not perceive the passage of time like we do, that they live in an emotional “eternal present” is not something I have found to be supported by studies and the literature. But it certainly explains a lot about my mother and how she operated. It explains how she could feel mad at me for spoiling her plans for decades after those plans were irrevocably spoiled. It explains how she never “got over” anything and how she could convince others that her lies—some going back decades—were true and immediate: her passion in her recall could be very convincing. It explains why narcissists never “get over” anything, why an insult received twenty years ago has the same power to wound—and anger—as it did on the day it was delivered.
If my mother is a valid archetype then there just might be something to this “eternal present” narcissists are purported to inhabit because it sure fits her.