Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Happy Birthday, Baby Narcissist

It was my birthday yesterday.  My sister gave me a book called "It's My F---ing Birthday", a series of "state of the union" addresses the thirty-something and then forty-something main character gives herself on seven subsequent birthdays.  Upon visiting the author, Merrill Markoe's, website, I am amused / perplexed to read that one of her main objectives with this novel was to examine the tricky business of having narcissistic parents.  Was my sister aware of this?  Is this an acknowledgement that she's finally in on the joke?  Or was she just so enamoured with the title she was oblivious to the content?

Regardless of my sister's motivation, I was intrigued by the character's annual entries (I've only made it to her 38th birthday, so don't spoil the ending for me if you've already read it, please!), which she concludes with answering the questions: "what did I learn this year?" and "what do I want to learn next year?".  It seemed like a good set of questions to ask myself on the auspicious occasion of my 41st birthday.

A good set of questions which I managed to totally avoid by answering "happy birthday" emails and FaceBook wall posts all day, and celebrating with great food and wine and single malt and midnight naughty activities [sorry Mom, but I figured I'd lost you in the first paragraph, anyhow...] with my incredible husband.

Couple this with my friend Louise's recent blog entry, "What do I fear?", which I have been studiously avoiding for over a week while fighting the gnawing feeling I must respond with my own answer to the question and... well, the stars are apparently aligning and trying to shake or stab some of that truth-I-hold-so-dear into my consciousness.

Because my first answer to the question was: nothing much, really.  There's so much I used to be afraid of -- speaking the truth, being alone, being imperfect, falling on my face, not being loved -- that I've done and survived with flying colours, so am no longer afraid.  I lived my first three-plus decades in such all-consuming fear that I truly feel fear-free now.  Of course, I was afraid with Don's cancer diagnosis, but I also knew I could handle whatever had to be done, because I'm really freaking awesome in a crisis.  Pathologically awesome in a crisis.  I sometimes catch myself trying to create a crisis so I can remind myself just how freaking awesome I am.

I'm not afraid of spiders.  I'm not afraid of being alone -- and Don has learned to not take it personally when I do the "I've got the house to myself" happy dance.  I'm not afraid of being unloved, because the people who threaten me with that are the people who aren't capable of loving in the first place.  I'm not afraid of speaking the truth -- some people wish I were, but I'm not, sorry!  (not really...)  I'm not afraid of screwing up, because that's how you learn new things.  I live a free and open and fear-proof life, trusting my gut and going for it.

Er... Alyssa... um...  [tap tap tap]...

If you're not afraid of anything, could you please explain some of your neurotic, knee-jerk reactions?

Because SOMETHING has to be scaring you into all that crap.  You know, the having to say "yes" to everything and take responsibility for stuff you don't really want to do, at your own expense?  The fact that, even when people aren't asking you to do stuff, you're finding a whole pile of stuff to do anyhow?  The fact that you became Little Miss Cranky Pants after a Saturday of jammies and cheesy television?  And practically had a nervous breakdown when your husband said he didn't need you to take care of the pile of stuff on the stairs in order for him to love you?

You're afraid of something, Lyss.  You're definitely afraid of Something.


Yes, I'm obviously riddled with fear and guilt and all that ugly stuff when I'm not DOING something.  But... maybe it's just a silly residue...?  Maybe...?  Because my brain and heart KNOW I'm still loveable if I'm in my jammies watching cheesy tv.  And my home is no longer in a place where if I don't keep everything together, the world is going to blow into smithereens (and, if it had blown into smithereens in those early years, it might have actually been a good thing).  Nobody is going to kill themselves if I don't put their needs before my own.  I know my future doesn't live or die on whether my desk is clear.  And I've even learned, after the seven years when I upped the ante from living with narcissists to living with a sociopath, that the world doesn't explode if you don't pay the credit card bill on time (although, it's much easier if you do, trust me!)  All of the reasons I used to have for this obsessive-compulsive workaholic behaviour are gone gone gone.  I know they're gone.

And yet... while I have been working hard at saying "no" the last couple of months, and started weeding out the things I don't actually have a passion for, it's been like ripping out my entire body's arterial system through my eyeballs.

Taking that jammies-and-cheesy-television day on Saturday turned me into Medusa-on-acid for Sunday and Monday.

I'm not SUPPOSED to relax.  I'm not SUPPOSED to take a day off.  I'm not SUPPOSED to look after myself.

Why the hell not?!?!?

And here, we get back to what the universe has been screaming at me this week.  I am TERRIFIED of becoming a narcissist.  (She writes, in a blog, that she thinks people want to read... oh shut up, Alyssa!)

I come from a long line, really.  It's my birthright.  I was raised (or not) by two thoroughly messed-up narcissistic individuals who should never have procreated.  It's not their fault, I don't blame them -- hell, I've met THEIR parents, and am thoroughly amazed that ANYONE in this family has managed to make it to adulthood (their bodies, at least -- there's still many whose emotional IQs have yet to catch up... or even start the race, in some cases).  My parents really didn't have much of a chance at being good parents, because their parents were serious control-freak nut-jobs.  In the last several years, I've had the opportunity to learn more than any person should about their grandparents, and let me tell you I am no longer in the least bit surprised that my father saw giant coke-bottles chasing him home from school, nor that my mother knew about this yet still thought "oh, there's an awesome father for my unborn children!"

They were messed up.  Their parents seriously messed them up.  Their parents were so freaking incompetent, that both of them were grasping and gulping for whatever care and parenting they could get from whoever was the closest at hand.  And on November 29, 1970, I became the closest person at hand.  I remember my mom once telling me she wanted to have a baby so she would finally understand unconditional love.  It sounded kind of sweet at the time... now I know how destructive a motivation that was.  From the very beginning, it was my job to parent my parents.  2-1/2 years later, it was my job to also parent my little sister.  And with an alcoholic pedophile father and a prescription-pill-popping suicidal mother who had zero parenting skills and more than anyone's fair share of mommy and daddy issues of their own, it was a lot of work.  A LOT of work.

If I weren't 100% on top of things back then, the world WOULD have exploded.  No sick days, no mental health days (hardeeharhar), no days off, no nights off.  My needs were absolutely nothing compared to the immense ocean of needs of my parents, and the need to keep the "one big happy family" facade intact for the outside world.  The grandparents would not accept an ounce of imperfection, and they were mean and vindictive bastards.  I had to keep it together.

My parents were narcissists.  Not by choice, but by design.  They never had their childhood needs met, so they had to find a way to make it happen later in life.  This is why I hate vampire movies.  Once you're bit / damaged, you have no choice but to instil the same harm on others.  It sucks.  Hardeeharhar...

One of the biggest reasons -- well, THE biggest reason -- why I chose to not have children myself was because I know I, too, had really awful parenting, and there was no way I wanted my subconscious to subject a poor little offspring of mine to make up for my parents' lack of parenting.  I did not want to burden a child with providing me with unconditional love.  I did not want a child to grow up to believe his or her sole purpose was to make up for what I had missed.

I did not want to be a narcissist-by-design.

And so, here I am, childless.  Solves the whole problem, right?


OK, yes, it does solve the problem for those unborn children of mine, who are probably hanging out in the place where little baby spirits wait for a body to inhabit, and thanking me profusely for not giving in to the societal pressure to cause 2.1 of them a lifetime of therapy.

My part of the equation, however, is still fully intact, and ruling with a vengeance.

I spent a decade of four-days-a-week-flat-on-my-back sessions working on de-dissociating myself.  I thought I'd gotten them all.  But there is obviously one little piece of me tucked away so very well... and I'm still working hard at keeping her down there.

As Medusa-on-acid will attest, I am still playing whack-a-mole with my inner Narcissist.

If there's even a hint of her, saying she might deserve something good?  WHACK!!!

For years, Don's been making fun of my total inability to accept help.  I've explained it away by citing my fiercely independent streak.  Nobody looked after me before, why should anyone look after me now?  I can take care of myself.  Besides, the minute you accept help from someone, they're only going to let you down by failing to give it to you after all.  You won't be disappointed if you don't allow yourself to rely on others.

Yes, this all makes logical sense, and I've been explaining my some-might-say-fierce-is-a-woeful-understatement independent streak that way for quite some time.

But what the universe seems to be not-so-quietly-stage-whispering is: I don't want to be caught thinking I deserve what I want, because that would make me a blazing Narcissist.  And that would be bad.  So... WHACK!!!  WHACK!!!!   WHACKETY WHACK WHACK WHACK!!!!!

You think you DESERVE a day off where you don't have to do anything?  WHACK!!!  You want to open that nice bottle of wine (I just mis-spelled it with an "h" twice...) for no particular reason other than it'll taste good?  Didn't you see what that did to your father?  WHACK!!!  You want to watch TV and read books and not spend the day looking after the needs of heartless vultures who need you to look after their shit for them?  WHACK!!!  You want to buy yourself a new pair of comfortable and hole-less shoes instead of give money to charity?  WHACK!!!

Geez, Alyssa, you're so freaking selfish.  I mean, it's probably genetic, or at least learned behaviour.  It's not your fault you're such a selfish person, but holy crap, you'd better protect the world from your obvious narcissistic behaviour.  If you let yourself sit still for an hour, the next thing you know, you'll be an alcoholic pedophile pill-popping suicidal maniac who thinks the whole world owes her a favour!!!


I could figure out those damned shades of grey.  And the damned shades of all the other colours...

Hey... little Narcissist... I think you might be a helpful personality to have around sometimes.  Because, until Medusa showed up, Saturday was actually a pretty good day.  I mean, don't go overboard, there are others who have to share this body.  But...  I'll try to put that big club away, and stop whacking you in the head.  You're right, the idea of you taking over all the other bits of me and turning me into an alcoholic pedophile pill-popping suicidal maniac is a bit far-fetched.  I'll try to clear out some closet space for you, maybe let you buy a new pair of shoes.  Yes, I'll let you buy a pair of shoes, but we aren't going shopping for neo-citran or crack or anything, OK?  Deal?  Deal.

So, a la Ms. Markoe's heroine: What have I learned this year?

That having a jammie-and-cheesy-television day does not make me a crack whore.  That having a couple of needs satisfied from time to time does not make me a raging narcissist.  That having wants and needs does not make me a raging narcissist.  That saying "no" to things I don't want to do doesn't make me a raging narcissist.  That saying "yes" to things I do want to do doesn't make me a raging narcissist.

That people became narcissists in the first place because their needs weren't met.

That I run into more danger of becoming a raging narcissist by insisting my needs don't get met than by allowing myself to meet my needs.

Ooh, that one felt scary...  So much for being fearless.

What do I want to learn in the coming year?

How to let those needs raise their heads without whacking them down.  How to embrace my inner Narcissist.  How to not denigrate her by calling her a narcissist.

But hey, baby steps, right?  We don't find a balance until we swing to each side.  So...  First, I'm going to simply embrace my inner Narcissist.  Ask her what she wants, what she needs.  Buy her a pair of shoes.  Bake her a birthday cake.

She's been hidden away for so long, the lights are a bit bright.  And her head is a bit sore.  She might have some trust issues of her own...  I'll have to make sure she doesn't bid a hasty retreat.

Hey, Baby Narcissist -- welcome home.  Happy birthday.  Hope you like chocolate.  :-)


  1. Happy a day late birthday. I thought it was the day yesterday but your reference was a bit obtuse for my slow thinking.

    Happy Day

    And this post needs digestion. Don't you just hate those people who ask those questions you'd like to avoid. I get a tad ticked off with myself when I don it because I know I can't avoid answering myself. No matter how hard I try.

    Hugs. You do good work!

    Hugs to you and Don.

  2. Thanks, Louise -- questions are good, keep asking! :-)

  3. I read this post last year and I keep coming back to it from time to time, the paragraph beginning, "I've come from a long line" and the idea of halting the reproduction of this particular strain of virulence by not having kids. I'm doing a lot of research on personality disorders right now (on three of them, actually -- narcissistic, histrionic, and borderline). It's no surprise that you are terrified of having it too -- I share your fear, and children of narcissists go through this often, I'm learning. The one answer I keep taped to my desk is: "You learn behaviours and you emulate behaviours because they once worked, but as you mature you learn more mature behaviours that work in more mature ways. Someone with a personality disorder cannot evolve like that; they are stuck." So it would seem that residue does not a disorder make! Residue and old habits are evidence of evolution. Residue is brushed off like annoying dandruff after a momentary panic and a change of shirt. So far so good, anyway.........

  4. Ooh, interesting research! (Maybe your research and my research should get together and have a playdate... )

    I do see that, and on paper / intellectually believe I'm not doomed to be one (in fact, my empathy factor is so far off the radar, it's probably not ever remotely possible, no matter how hard I tried...). It's the sinking in to the fundamental belief-about-self that's the hard part.

    I'm in the middle of reading "Toxic Parents", and recognizing much in there along those lines too. The truly nutsy, out-of-control and selfish adults are the ones constantly labelling the little kid with the traits they hate in themselves. (Or at least their inner something hates, since their outer something is determined they're perfect!).

    And yes, I imagine if I just sat back and thought it was all normal, I'd be in danger. But I definitely DO recognize where my toolbox is short, and work hard to learn and change that. Which, as you say, would probably not happen in the person with the personality disorder.

    You might be interested in another blogger, who writes "The Narcissistic Continuum" -- She's also in a family full of them, and combines research with personal stories in her writing.

    I shall remind myself to keep brushing off the residue. :-)

    Thanks, darlin'!

    1. Thank you! I will ravenously check out that blog. And yes, empathy is the other thing that Captain Obvious likes to trumpet from the rooftops. A very pretty sight, actually; if you imagine a Currier & Ives picture of a Christmas scene with snow and evergreens, snow angels on the lawn, and an insanely joyful trumpeter on the roof in his parka and his Groucho-Marks-Nose&Glasses. (It would be tedious if he leaped from roof to roof all year round, of course, so we try to maintain our levels of empathy so that the trumpeting will go somewhere else. But he's there to remind us that we have it when we forget that we do. With a blurp and a blast and a reveille to beat the band. And, well, that little bit of comedy always emerges when those without it wonder what we're listening to....)

    2. We love you, Captain Obvious! :-)