What is Real? Surviving Narcissistic Abuse
Content warning: violence and child sexual abuse.
It’s always so difficult to describe to people what my childhood was like. So much of it felt like a nightmare fever dream, with huge gaps all throughout. When I was still in it, still in that house, under his roof, I couldn’t describe it at all beyond “normal” and “that’s just Dad.” Until I finally left, I didn’t realize the magnitude of pain that was being inflicted upon me. I didn’t realize the lie-filled reality my father constructed for me wasn’t actually reality.
People think narcissism means self-centeredness, attributed to something as minor as taking too many selfies. But it’s something much more sinister. Being raised by someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder means you’re questioning your reality at all times, since they take gaslighting to a whole new level. You don’t trust yourself, you don’t trust anybody, but you do trust what your father told you: it is all your fault. You’re put down constantly and yelled at often. You are told you are the bad one and your sister is the good one. You are deprived of money while your sister is showered in it, and when you’re given money, there are so many strings attached that you usually give it back. Your whole world is your nuclear family and your father’s turned them all against you. You were taught that this is your fault and that everyone outside cannot be trusted.
NPD isn’t incredibly common, but it’s more recognized now since President Trump exhibits multiple classic symptoms of the disorder. Narcissistic abusers often accuse others of being over dramatic or sensitive. They tell offensive jokes at the expense of those around them. . They are completely unconcerned with other people’s thoughts and feelings, and are only interested in how others can serve them. They thrive off of and often create people-pleasers. They are overly critical and controlling, and can be verbally, physically or sexually abusive. They often manufacture aggressive situations, and then sometimes react as if their victim are crazy, mocking our rightfully angry reactions to their outlandish behavior. They do lots of projecting and love shifting blame. They gaslight, they use the silent treatment, and they enjoy engaging in smear campaigns. And my father had the whole package.
(While NPD is a fairly new mental health diagnosis, it’s important to recognize that the above behavior is abusive and not to be tolerated regardless of the cause. Though I’ve experienced it only with my father, NPD abuse can happen in many scenarios: in familial dynamics, romantic relationships, work connections and friendships.)
My father was very verbally abusive to my mom, yelling at her in front of me since the day I was born. As a baby, I never cried and I ripped my hair out all night from stress. My father started sexually abusing me when I was three years old. He showed me porn, a VHS of a white woman sucking off a black man, as he masturbated beside me. My mom caught him, and quickly picked me up to leave the dark room. To this day, she refuses to acknowledge that this happened. My dad used to play “relaxing” games with me to get me to sleep before bed while my mom was on the night shift. He touched me under my nightgown when I fell asleep as he masturbated beside me once again. I woke up once when this was happening when I was about six-years-old, and the explosive verbal punishment I received taught me to pretend to sleep and keep my eyes shut when it was bedtime with daddy. I started masturbating in public, even in front of my grandparents once, and no one ever thought twice about it. I wasn’t allowed to speak because I was the reason why everything bad happened.
My aunt’s girlfriend started sexually abusing me when I was eight years old. I told my parents but they didn’t believe me. I’m always lying or being overdramatic or looking for attention in their eyes. And I slowly began believing that. I believed this logic so much, I didn’t remember this part of my life until this year.
My dad yelled at me for anything. If I had an opinion, I was in trouble and disrespectful. If I wanted to set a boundary, I was selfish and expecting too much. Mental health struggles like bipolar and PTSD began to build up and develop in me, expressed in tantrums or rage. My parents didn’t get me mental health help when things got out of control (I would express anger physically towards walls and myself), instead taking matters into their own hands. They shoved me constantly, something they said didn’t count as hitting. So I started shoving them back. As a result, my family still blames me for the violence in our house. This was in spite of the multiple disabilities and health challenges I was experiencing due to a mix of trauma and chronic Lyme disease. I was ill and sad and simply defending myself from their attacks, and it was still my fault. The burden I placed on them was heavy, something they communicated by angrily waving medical bills in my face and beating me in the face with my own IV pole. I have nerve damage in multiple parts of my body from these attacks. I couldn’t eat from all the stress affecting my stomach, yet I was completely at their mercy due to the advanced stages of my illness at the time. Now I know: it was they who were the burden. They weighed on my soul as I cut myself in the shower and threw myself around in rage. They quite literally hit me while I was down, and I had to lie to the ER nurses every time the stress of their attacks made my fragile heart give out. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what was going on at home. I had to be a good girl and tell the nice doctor that I have anger issues and throw tantrums for no reason. I obeyed for many years.
I began trying to reason with them, explaining to my dad why his behavior was hurtful. No matter how I said it, no matter how much advice on non-confrontational wording I got from therapists or books, he simply wouldn’t hear me. I would express that I wanted to fix our relationship and discuss our tricky past. He said, “what tricky past?” On some days, he would yell at me for being so angry and unforgiving, unable to let the past stay in the past. This behavior alone, his sheer inability to see reality and feel empathy for me, was enough to make me want to scream all over again.
I could only truly describe or understand what happened in my house after I left it. When I left home for college, I started realizing that I didn’t have to be anxious and on alert wherever I went. I learned I was allowed to have feelings, and people even asked me to express them. I met my fiancé and learned that I didn’t have to sacrifice my selfhood in order to receive love, and that love could be constant and unconditional. I learned to accept kindness from their family, slowly catching onto the fact that kindness wasn’t conditional, that I wouldn’t have to suffer in some way to receive something nice nor was I required to reciprocate. I learned that I didn’t have to panic if I left a plate out because no one was going to scold me or hold a grudge against me, at least not in my partner’s house.
Over the course of our relationship, I slowly moved in. And once the move was final, I felt like I could finally see for the first time. Growing up with my parents was like walking around with your eyes closed--to your own trauma, to your own body, and to reality outside of the house. In my parents’ world, which was also my world for some time, nothing existed but my dad and his opinions.
I still struggle with trusting myself. I have a core belief thanks to the abuse I endured that my reality is false, that everything I think and feel is wrong. I try soothing myself every day that this is not the case. And thanks to my surroundings now reflecting more positive things onto me, I’m slowly gaining my own trust back.
It is said in circles dedicated to survivors of NPD abuse that going “No Contact” with your abuser is the best course of action for a solid recovery. And I have found that to be true. For so many years, I tried reasoning with my father and enabling mother about my feelings, to no avail. I now know that people with NPD cannot hear or understand reason (especially when it comes to abuse and anything outside of their head), and that they also are fed the most by compassionate and empathic supply. Ever the peacemaker in the family (though I was called “bully” and “monster”), I understand now why my vulnerable feelings and reasonable requests were only ever met with more abuse. My parents used my empathy against me. Knowing this and knowing I would never get anywhere without another fight, I cut my father off.
I haven’t spoken to him in almost nine months. No Contact was broken a few times along the way due to his glaring inability to respect my boundaries, but I count that as his failure and not mine. Ever since having that distance, I’ve felt noticeably better. I have bipolar disorder, a disorder my father also has, and my symptoms finally stopped at the medicine dose I was at when I moved out and stopped speaking to him. I felt amazing about myself and I wondered why I didn’t leave sooner (of course, I realize it’s more complicated than that thought makes it seem). And then I started remembering things.
Slowly, I remembered sexual abuse from my childhood for the first time. I remembered my aunt’s girlfriend, and I remembered my father. The latter came in little bits here and there: I recovered the porn memory, and I let myself be honest about the fact that my father consistently stands outside my door when I masturbate, listening (I’ve caught him twice). I remembered forced cuddles and hard genitals pushed against my back, and him chasing me up the stairs to pinch my butt. And then I remembered “bedtime games,” remembered how I learned to feign sleep and hold my breath, remembered when he groped me while he was drunk at a family party.
Though my mother is an enabler, I felt compelled to tell her this story. I was worried about telling her, since after telling her about my aunt’s girlfriend, she had told me that the woman “meant well” and wondered if the pornographic photos she took of me were for a school photo project. In my moment of flashback, of feeling sick from the memories, seeing my Dad’s face in the mirror, and smelling him on everybody’s breath, I saw my mom as my defender. This is something she always told me she was, even though she never protected me from a single thing in my life save for physical illness. The power of the manipulative parenting continued to affect me.
When I told her, she was angry. She told me I have false memories from my medication or my environment, and that my parents would gladly take me away and pay to put me in a psychiatric facility. She told me all the times I was sexually assaulted in college (I was actually assaulted once in college, but I digress) has affected me more than I realize. She told me I’m crazy, I’m a bully, and I’ve been ruining their lives with my mental illnesses since I was a child. Somehow, all these explanations could be true at once. I wished she could hear herself. She sounded just like him.
Text after email, she eventually threatened to sue me for defamation even though I hadn’t even written anything about my experience of sexual abuse with my father. Even though I was poor and they knew it, as they’d been refusing to help care for me since I was too disabled too work. I’m only on my feet because of my partner’s generous family, who helped me get a home, furniture, and a working car before I finally got a good-paying job. Horrified, disgusted, and disheartened that I finally knew my mother’s true colors, I blocked her on everything. I blocked her on email, Facebook, Instagram and I even blocked her number. And ever since then, I have felt even better than I did before. The stress that each message from my mother caused me (which actually caused stomach bleeding in two places) was finally gone forever. I never have to deal with them again and I can focus on my happy home, my stable mental health, my awesome job and my loving chosen family.
No Contact was hard to achieve, as it involved a lot of detangling from old thoughts and beliefs. I had to let go of the obligation I felt to my parents and the guilt that I didn’t deserve to feel over the loss of our relationship. I grieved the mother I wanted her to be and the father I never truly had. Most of all, I had to conquer the idea that families don’t all look the same, and sometimes your family of origin completely fails you. My therapist told me, “Sometimes, your family of origin is just meant to bring you into this world. They might give birth to you, but they might not be your people.”
I have found my people now, a healthy and loving family that nurtures me and supports my journey forward and away from my bio parents. I’m reminded of my abusive upbringing often when I feel surprised at a loved one’s kindness or feel incredible guilt for something I did not cause. However, I finally found my inner compass that grounds and guides me, one that is wise enough to know that my father’s lingering voice in my head is not my own. I’m slowly cleaning myself of the lies and manipulation. And with each time I accept a gift from someone, with each tender and empathic moment I share with a loved one, I feel victorious in my recovery.
S. Lavender is a writer and dog trainer living in Asheville, NC with their partner. They spend most of their paycheck on their regal gremlin of a dog, and they like everything to smell like lavender.