My First Narcissist

Father #1 in my family diagram is my biological father, Arthur. It was important to him to be taken for an important man. As a sought-after family physician, he rushed to the bedsides of his patients at all hours and made himself indispensible at the local hospital. As a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church, he taught Sunday school and counseled struggling souls in the ways of righteousness.

From every angle, he looked like a pious man of God, an unimpeachable community leader.

He sent my oldest brother, Allon, to school in Florida because an Evangelical minister with an international following sent his kids there too. Allon was thirteen years old. Our father bought him a ticket and put him on a train to travel the 1,500 miles by himself. You can still hear that dejected kid in his voice today when my brother asks, “What did I do wrong? I don’t know why he sent me away.”

My middle brother Tedd was sent away to the Christian academy our father later helped to found with an itinerate preacher. Since reading a draft of my memoir, Tedd has told me many times about being in his dorm room at that school, which overlooked the parking lot. He knew our father was on campus when his car showed up in the lot. But instead of coming to say hello after his business was finished, our father climbed in his car and drove away while his son watched.

He’s been dead for four decades but people still take my sister aside to tell her what a Godly man our father was. A faithful servant of the Lord. How can she tell them that this revered Christian man was incapable of loving his family? That he stalked his patients, his wife, his children as sexual prey?

The hell a narcissist creates for those closest to him is an intensely private one.

Most Sunday nights after the evening service, my parents invited their church friends over to our house for fellowship. Bruce and Sue and I were sent to bed before the guests started arriving. Our father demanded that we stay out of the way. I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling while cars pulled in and ladies’ heels clacked up the front walk. One night, instead of settling in the living room or drifting to the kitchen for coffee and sandwiches, a group of guests hung back in the front hall. Spasms of laughter floated up the stairwell to the bedroom I shared with Sue.

I padded down the stairs in my footie pajamas and stood sleepily rubbing my eyes.  “Oh no,” one of the adults said with a wink. “Did we wake you?” Then they whirled me into the living room and plied me with chips and cookies while I performed. I danced. I sang. I answered questions. They hooted at my answers and looked approvingly at my parents. My father stood stiffly against the wall, arms crossed, his thin smile stretched taut.

He grabbed my wrists, marched me back to bed, hustled me under the covers and slammed the door shut on his way out. He wasn’t about to be upstaged in front of his flock. Least of all by a snot-nosed little kid.

When I met my husband, forty years after my father’s death, I found myself resisting the powerful manifestations of his love. This was what I’d been trying to invite into my life. Yet to be the object of such unequivocal feeling made me anxious. My therapist, Jan, suggested that I was holding onto the belief that I didn’t deserve to be loved so well.

We used EMDR to pursue that possibility. As I slowed my breathing and listened to the tones ping from one ear to the other, my father’s face appeared. We were outside, at dusk, standing in the space between the garage and the house. It was cold. He towered over me. He kept saying the same thing again and again: You don’t deserve to be loved. You don’t deserve to be loved. And then: Your mother only loves you because she has to.

Jan stopped the tones and let me cry a while before asking what was happening. Then she proposed I go back as an adult to get my child self out of there. She restarted the tones and back I went. I told my child self not to look at him, to keep her eyes on my face. As I held her and backed away from my father, I showed the child me all the things she was going to learn and experience, the fullness of who she would become. I told her that person was already inside of her. That she was perfectly suited for the journey just as she was.

I carried her into the house. My mother was lying on the couch. I told my child self to brush Mom’s hair until it was time for dinner, and while she was brushing, to raise the brush to her head sometimes and brush her own hair too.

Jan suggested I might be feeling unworthy of unreserved love because my mother hadn’t received it herself. She asked me to go back to the couch and have a conversation with Mom about that.

I told my mother I didn’t want to hold back or defend myself out of fear. I didn’t want to repeat her mistakes. She encouraged me to open myself completely, without reservation or doubt that I might not be worthy. Sitting in Jan’s office, I felt a palpable expansion, my chest brimming with breath.

We used the tones to reinforce the new belief: I deserve to be loved well. I laughed out loud at the image that came. My child self and I were outside again, between the house and garage in the almost-dark. We flicked our fingers and my father crumbled like dust. Poof.

 

Is Your Parent a Narcissist? A Quiz

 

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Right before the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, I read somewhere that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) had been omitted from the new edition. Supposedly, the APA had decided that narcissism was so prevalent in the American population it could no longer be considered a disorder.

Turns out the DSM hasn’t scratched narcissism off the list of disorders. We may indeed be getting more self-involved as a nation, but that doesn’t change the fact that for some folks, it goes beyond Trump-style egomania. It’s a pathology. A disease. An affliction families are exposed to and shaped by every day. (On second thought, The Donald might just be the NPD poster boy.)

Here’s a taste of the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder outlined in the current DSM:

  • Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Relationships are largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation
  • Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking
  • Personal standards unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional

Sound like a mommy or a daddy you know? Take this quick 5-question quiz to find out if you, too, were raised by a narcissist.

I. You call home from college to report that you made the Dean’s List. Your parent:

  1. congratulates you, gushing about how wonderful you are and how proud he is of you
  2. reminds you that he started college at age 16 and graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Deus ex machina

II. Whenever a service person comes to the house (piano tuner, plumber, IT guy) to help him out, your parent:

  1. thanks the person profusely and doesn’t begrudge them their fee
  2. waits until the person has left and then calls him a know-it-all, a Mr. High-and-Mighty smarty pants, a cretin whose shoddy work your parent must now correct

III. Your parent calls you on the phone. You didn’t realize he had your phone number. He explains that:

  1. he just wanted to hear your voice; he’s been missing you and wants to know how you’re doing
  2. he decided his dog needs a birth date to celebrate, and he couldn’t wait to tell you that he’s giving the dog yours

IV. Your hardworking sister is struggling financially. Your parent offers to give her his second car. A week later he:

  1. takes the car to be fully serviced and detailed, and pays for the title transfer
  2. retracts the offer, saying he needs the car to drive his dog around

V. You arrive from the airport late at night, after traveling cross country to visit your parent. He:

  1. sits up waiting for you excitedly, your favorite snacks at the ready when you walk through the door
  2. locks the doors, turns off the lights and sets the burglar alarm after changing the code

If you chose the second answer to any of the above, well, welcome to the club. Lots of people probably think your parent is a charming person. They have no trouble telling you so every time you run into them. They sigh reverently, or eye you with envy. Most people will never see your parent the way you do. Because if there’s one thing your parent knows, it’s how to put on a good show. He does this as if his life depended on it.

Eleanor Payson, M.S.W. uses the analogy of the Wizard of Oz to explain narcissistic personality disorder and what it does to families and individuals subject to its exhausting tyrannies. Your parent is a master at using his wizard voice and billows of green smoke to manipulate every situation, monopolize every conversation, suck up every last molecule of oxygen in the room. You exist in his world to enlarge his sense of self, to show him how great and powerful he is. And, as Payson puts it, “to be devoured by [his] unrelenting needs.”

You want a brain, a heart, some courage? You want to go home, little girl? This isn’t about what you want. It’s never about you.

When your parent senses that you’re on to him, when your awareness of his disorder prompts you to start questioning, pushing back, refusing to let yourself get gobbled up by his all-consuming need, things get prickly. He will breathe flames. He will command you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Don’t listen.

Make sure to get a good, long look at the little operator back there frantically working the controls. Call your brothers and sisters over to look too. Maybe then you’ll be able to start seeing him for what he is: an imposter, a fraud. An old humbug.

It can be one of the hardest things you ever attempt, to break the hold of a narcissistic parent’s spell. Every child, no matter how old, desires nothing more profoundly than to know that her parent is on her side, that he is devoted to helping her get what she needs. Coming to grips with the fact that he has a very different agenda—one that takes zero notice of her self or her wishes—can be brutal.

Get some support. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my therapist about how to set limits. I ordered a copy of Payson’s book and then ordered more copies for my siblings. We spend time comparing notes, reminding one another that our experience is not a dream. We strategize ways to minimize the toxic effects of our parent’s disorder. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. But that’s not the end of our story.

Survivor Guilt

In the days and weeks following my family’s airplane crash, people kept assuring me I’d be fine. “You’re young,” they’d say. “You’ll bounce back in no time.” It would be a different story for my parents, these same people confided. A parent should never have to bury his child. One day when I had children of my own I’d understand, they promised. Losing a sister just wasn’t the same. And I still had my whole life ahead of me. I was lucky to be alive!

I listened. I tried to feel lucky. But all I could think was: Nancy is dead. I wasn’t even wearing my seatbelt. Why am I still here?

When my father told me he wished Nancy had been the one to survive, the guilt bloomed inside of me like a fungus. Gradually, I made myself a living corpse. I took shallow sips of air I didn’t deserve to breathe. I slogged through heavily freighted days.

Survivor syndrome emerged in the 1960s as psychotherapists began to identify a pattern of symptoms present in Holocaust survivors: depression and persistent anxiety, social withdrawal, emotional numbness, nightmares, mood swings, loss of physical drive. Survivors of natural disasters, warfare and terrorist attacks often suffer the same conditions. Our traumas differ, but we shoulder a common guilt at having lived through the horror that killed others around us.

I was forty years old when I finally began to invite myself back to life. First my therapist gave me the words “survivor guilt.” Then she gave me the eye movement therapy EMDR. (Hang on to your hats. There is much to come about EMDR in subsequent posts.)

Six months into therapy I wrote in my journal: “If everything I do has to be good enough to justify my LIFE, my having been allowed to live when Nancy died, how do I even get out of bed in the morning?” I was beginning to plumb the depths of my guilty self-punishment. Beginning to sense that every single day might not require me to defend my existence.

At the same time, I was realizing that my second father was not the only one who wanted to negate my life. My earliest childhood memories predate the plane crash by at least a decade. In them, my first father tells me again and again that my life has no value. To him or anyone else.

Survivor guilt gave me language to explore a big part of what had happened in my life. It helped explain why I behaved as if I didn’t deserve to occupy my own skin. But there was more. That guilt was compounded by the message I received from both of my fathers: We don’t want you.

My journal entry ended this way: “I’ve been raised by men who, given the choice, wouldn’t have had me live. Now I have to grow up, grow out from under them, grow past them, tell them to BACK OFF because I’m here to stay.”

Eye Movement What?

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Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It sounds like an alien plot to hypnotize us and turn our brains to hamburger. I was skeptical, to say the least, when my therapist suggested I try it. So I started googling. I checked out a few library books and searched journal articles to find out what this thing was supposed to do, and how it was supposed to do it.

EMDR evolved from discoveries Francine Shapiro made in the late 1980s as a PhD candidate in clinical psychology. She was taking a walk one day, a distressing thought churning in her head, when suddenly her distress vanished. She decided to pay close attention to what was happening as she walked. The next time her mind seized on a disturbing thought, her eyes began to move rapidly back and forth of their own accord. Once again, the thought vanished. When she tried to call it back, it no longer troubled her the way it had moments earlier.

Shapiro began experimenting, first on herself, then with friends and family, and got similar outcomes. In the protocol she developed, the patient holds a traumatic event in mind while the therapist guides his eyes rapidly back and forth. The published results of Shapiro’s first controlled study, done in 1988 with a group of twenty-two survivors of rape, sexual abuse and military service in Vietnam, began to draw the attention of the profession.

Today EMDR is an internationally recognized trauma treatment that more than 60,000 therapists are trained to practice. Initially, the therapist moved a finger or a pencil back and forth in front of the patient’s face, instructing her to follow it. Soon it became clear that other modes of bilateral stimulation worked as well. Some patients now wear headphones plugged into a device that makes an alternating tone from one ear to the other. Some hold touch pads that buzz between the left palm and the right. Some watch a point of light move back and forth across a light bar.

Author and clinical professor of psychiatry David Servan-Schreiber theorizes that EMDR is effective because the eye movements “capture attention” and help the patient focus on the present while accessing emotions linked to traumas from the past. He writes, “It may be this dual state of attention—one foot in the past and one foot in the present—that triggers a reorganization of the traumatic memory in the brain.”

Scott Borelli of the European EMDR Association writes that trauma-afflicted patients often live as if there were little or no difference between past events and the present. One key element of healthy human motivation and behavior, Borelli points out, is the ability to look to the future with “hope and anticipation.” Trauma freezes people in past time, creating “anxiety rather than hopeful expectation.”

I related to this state of perpetual hopelessness. In my head, there was a video clip playing in a continuous loop. I saw myself trying to walk down an ordinary street. Every movement required a terrible effort, as if my legs were strapped to cement weights. When the camera panned down, I noticed something attached to my ankles. It looked like my shadow at first. Then I realized I was dragging myself along, face down on the pavement, hands clamped like leg irons to my upright self. I watched this wordless struggle over and over and over again, believing it would never end.

EMDR erased that video clip.

I went into therapy convinced that all the interesting things about my life were finished. I expected to just go on hobbling down the street until it was time to die. Slowly, as the EMDR sessions ticked by, I found myself becoming curious about the future. About what possibilities lay in store. I pictured myself in new situations, doing things I’d been too dejected to let myself imagine. Things like making my living as a writer.

It’s funny what happens when the head learns to recognize the past as passed. Seeding the heart with hope.

You can read about trauma and EMDR and learn more about what happens in an EMDR session on my husband’s website, AndyWeisskoff.com. He’s a licensed clinical social worker who’s been using EMDR in his practice for the past eight years. (And no, he’s not my therapist.)

Have you had an experience with EMDR? Leave a comment about it.

 

 

Diagram of a Family

 

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You’ve seen the stick-figure decals, custom made for the rear window of your SUV. The family is lined up tallest to smallest: Dad, Mom, kids, dog, cat. I guess some family stories are that straightforward. There’s no death and remarriage, no divorce, no adoption, no half-brothers or step-sisters.

My story is thornier.

I was the last of my father’s children. He had a fatal heart attack at age 59, when I was six years old and my mother was 36. He’d married her soon after his first wife died. My father was a doctor, and before she became his wife, my mother was his secretary. She was only six years older than my father’s eldest son, my half-brother Allon.

After my father died, my mother remarried. We’d lived in Maine all my life, but my mother and my brother Bruce and my sister Sue and I moved to Massachusetts to live in my new father’s house. He’s a doctor too. My first father used to bring my mother to see him as a patient. Our new father legally adopted Bruce and Sue and me, but not my brothers Allon and Tedd. They were married with children of their own.

Like my mother, my new father had been married before. He and his wife had adopted two children, a boy and a girl. When they divorced, the boy, who was still a baby, had to be returned to the orphanage because his adoption had not been finalized. The girl, Nancy, stayed with my father. He fought his ex-wife for sole custody and won. When my mother married my second father, Nancy became my little sister.

Try putting that family on a decal.

When I was sixteen and Nancy was twelve, she died in a plane crash. My father was flying the plane. He and my mother and Nancy and I were on our way home from visiting my brother Tedd in Maine. After we crashed and the police and firefighters found us, the others were pulled out quickly, but I was stuck in the wreck. My arm was pinned beneath the engine. They wanted to cut it off to get me out.

When I was nineteen, my father told me he wished I had died in that crash and Nancy had lived.

My memoir, Every Moment of a Fall (Schaffner Press, May 2016), is about the depression that seized me in the wake of these events, and about how I eventually found a way out through talk therapy and EMDR. The transformation in me has encouraged my siblings to seek their own healing from the deep scars that mark us as family.

Complicated or not, we’re like a lot of other families rocked by narcissism, sexual predation, neglect. I’d like to think that our unfolding story holds out hope. Not for some regressive fantasy of familial unity. But for the genuine release that comes from linking arms and facing down hard truths together.