In this week’s blog, our survivor, Brigid (not her real name) finally shares the lifelong held secret of her upbringing. After several years of not fully realizing the abuse or understanding its impact, she has found the freedom that only clarity can provide. She refuses to hide any longer. She is breaking the silence. She is claiming her worth and speaking her identity. She IS a powerful woman. A wonderful daughter. A good mother. She is so strong. As Brigid speaks her truth, she is declaring an end to abuse in the family. The cycle has stopped with her and her sister. Honor her by sharing your support in the comments below.
I have a family secret…. My sister has a family secret…. My Mom had a personal secret. She passed away too soon, too fast, and her secret died with her. But we still are living with it. We feel the pressure of it on our chests. Do you know the secret? \I truly doubt you know the extent of it because my Mom was so good at pretending. My sister and I could tell you, say over a couple of drinks, but it’s hard to share out loud and you may end up thinking we are both sad victims and heartless bitches at the same time…if that can even co-exist. We can’t find a way to tell you this secret, so soon after Mom’s death, without hurt, anger, a hateful heart and vicious tongue. But I’m gonna take a stab at sharing much of it right here…on paper.
You probably don’t know anything because I come from a long line of outwardly strong women, and we know how to pull it together despite adversity. Our skin has had to be tough. And our emotions have been in check. Because of Mom, for Mom and how Mom modeled it to us, …we…keep….it…. together…. PERIOD. And let me tell you, EVERYONE and I mean EVERYONE LOVED OUR MOM! She had an aura that drew people in, her laugh and smile were signature to her and she had an easy way that made people feel like they could be themselves, even in an in-patient chemo center. I say this now, realizing that she let others be their best self because it allowed her to hide the ugliness she was living by herself.
So, what is the secret that my sister and I feel burdened by every day? What have she and I had to hear, watch, read, live and struggle with for over 40 years that our Mom always asked us to just, “ignore it?”
Our Mom was ABUSED for over 43 years by our father. Verbally, mentally, emotionally she was his prisoner. Deep breath…….
Why? How? You had no idea? Well, our father has the harshest, ugliest (my own “non-medical, technical” adjectives) form of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you aren’t familiar with this diagnosis, then you are probably like, oh, okay, I thought something was up with him; he’s an odd guy. He’s a narcissist? Only cares about himself? Thinks he’s better than others? We all know people like that. But if you REALLY know what this personality disorder can do to a spouse and family, then I bet your gut just did a somersault. And I am so deeply sorry if you personally identify with my story.
My Mom was verbally and emotionally abused by my father for the 43 years they were married and, let’s face it, probably through the years before walking down the aisle. According to my dad, she was fat, lazy, spent too much money, was stubborn, a liar, begged him to marry her, had poor judgment in friends, spoiled her kids, her dad was boring, her mom was selfish, and her siblings were idiots. Geez, and those are just the overarching themes as I recall hearing them. I am sure there are many other unique instances of ugliness. That was just the day-to-day spewing of abusive comments directed at her in our house. Daily. Nightly.
He also knew how to hurt her and us kids without being so direct. She’d plan vacations and trips and he would back out at the last minute. He’d buy music concert tickets and make her go to them despite her having other plans. He’d buy her presents that were self-serving to him. He’d go out for dinner with her just so he could eat what he wanted. He’d tell her she was a bad Catholic because she didn’t make it to Sunday Mass like him. He’d intentionally ignore our family, friends or guests visiting our house. He’d give all of us the “silent treatment” often but it was most painful during special occasions like my college graduation or Mom’s last Mother’s Day before she died.
I’d say the final glaring, disgusting moments were once my Mom was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer. He refused to drive her to the hospital for treatment because it was too far away. He blamed my sister and I for convincing our Mom to go there for treatment when they didn’t “cure” her. He told us we killed her. He whined and complained to my Mom about getting her daily pain medications from the pharmacy. He was outwardly angry because he couldn’t cook in the house due to the smell, which made her sick. She had no caretaker at home. Because of this, toward the end of her life, she was trying to care for her terminally-ill self on her own. That was heartbreaking to realize and acknowledge. After her last hospital stay, we talked her into going to a hospice facility with a warm bed, loving staff, and a place we could sit by her side peacefully. It would be better for her than going home to him. She agreed.
I grew up hearing my dad say terrible things about my Mom for as long as I can remember. I felt embarrassed as early as 5 years old because she was “heavier” than my friends’ Moms. Now, as a middle-aged Mom myself, I look back and wonder WHY in the world, at such a young age (or ever, right?) was I so ashamed of my Mom? She was beautiful, generous and undeniably special. I was actually the lucky kid with my Mom. I had the Mom all my friends loved and enjoyed being around, but I didn’t make that connection back then. Because all I heard at home from my dad, drilled into my head, is that she was fat and lazy, and I may end up just like her. I mean, when you are little, you trust what your parents say, right? You learn from your parents about how to treat others, speak to others, view others, right?
I always thought we had very little money because I constantly heard that my Mom spent too much and ran up the credit card bills. I grew up hearing that she begged my dad to marry her and cried when he didn’t want to. I grew up hearing that her maiden name, which was of German origin, meant overweight, lazy, bull-headed…. a butcher’s granddaughter. I grew up hearing what a terrible person my grandmother, her mother, was. That she was selfish and that my Mom should hate her. I grew up pitted against my sister in every way. If I wasn’t on my dad’s good side, he would buddy up to my sister and vice versa. I grew up with him hating our neighbors, close family friends, and my high school friends but I never ever understood why. Was something wrong with all these people? With me? I guess so. It was 40+ years of spewing hatred at and about my Mom, my sister, me and those we loved.
“Just ignore it,” my Mom would tell me time and time again once I was older and out of the house where I could see that his behavior was abusive and not healthy for any of us. I was hurting more times than I could tell because of him. I asked my Mom to leave him many times. How could he treat his wife and daughters that way while he goes to church as a “faithful” Catholic? He was the ultimate hypocrite. But, “just ignore him.”
As a young adult, I see that I didn’t know how to have healthy relationships with others. He always had an opinion about someone. It affected my ability to openly enjoy, trust, like and be myself around people. I spent years angry and frustrated that I just couldn’t shake a fear of socializing and truly opening myself to others. My brain was wired to think the worst about myself and others, which when meeting new people, gave very little fuel to fostering long lasting friendships.
Mom is gone now. She left in terrible pain, mentally shut down, and with a will to die because there was no miracle of a cure. Our beautiful, full-of-life Mom. She hit her stride in her 50’s and was at the height of her career, spending more time with her grandchildren. She spent little time at home with my dad while creating her own life (albeit later in life). So yes, it’s hard to have faith these days when she was taken during her heyday. And like that, she was so sick that there was no time to talk anymore about “him.” No time to ask “why” did you stay, “why” did you put up with this abuse, “why” didn’t you leave him for you…. for us? My sister and I have questions that will never, ever be answered. We no longer have an opportunity to tell her she didn’t deserve to be treated that way.
We struggle with moving on without Mom, our protector, who took the brunt of his hate all the time. What did she put up with? How did she just allow him to say what he said to and about her, us kids or our friends? Why “just ignore it?” And here’s where perhaps being a heartless bitch comes in…. how could we not now feel like the wrong parent died?
They say you need to put a boundary in place between you and a narcissistic spouse or parent. Set up the boundaries and recognize that love will never be reciprocal with them. Heck, I can’t even say love and think of my dad without feeling angry. When you are a kid, you have no idea that you are not loved unconditionally. You assume your parents love you. It’s a given, right? Only now, when we can “diagnose him,” do we see what love means to him: what he can get for himself through guilt, manipulation, self-serving behavior and language. They say narcissists are great actors and he’s good. He’s got a lot of people convinced he’s a good man.
Now, we need to protect our kids from him, so they may never hear what he really thinks of others. So they may never be manipulated against each other. So they will remember our Mom in their hearts as the best Mimi in the whole world. And it’s hard. We grew up with our grandparents and wanted our kids to have the same experience. Yet, Mom dies and we lose BOTH parents. That fact right there is not lost on any of us. My daughter reminds me all the time.
It looks different from his viewpoint. ”Oh…. those terrible daughters who don’t speak to their dad when he’s so sad about losing his wife. Oh…. those terrible daughters who won’t let their husbands or kids see their dad and have a relationship with him.” Much like our Mom, we don’t want our reasons for our boundaries to make us look bad or even weak. We aren’t outwardly weak, and we certainly aren’t bad daughters, women, or mothers. But again, if you didn’t know this inside scoop, you might think things are the way he tells it.
If you knew my dad at all, you’d perhaps think he was just odd, quirky and introverted. You probably wondered how our Mom could deal with him by some of his outwardly strange behavior, but you probably had no clue about this abuse. And it was 40+ years of ABUSE. My sister and I were abused by hearing it, watching it, receiving it. He always told us we were so like her. This meant we were fat, lazy, spent too much money, were bull-headed, etc…. We are probably pretty messed up just trying to ignore all that he put inside our heads.
My therapist said that I look pretty “put together.” On my first appointment, I looked out of place. I was calm, cool, and collected. That’s what I have been conditioned to do. I was seeing my therapist to deal with hard doses of mental and physical grief I’d been experiencing after my Mom’s death that just didn’t feel right. After several sessions, I realize we might have spent one hour on that grief and many more hours on trying to make an ounce of sense of my dad’s behavior. My therapist was quick to help me work through how I felt about losing my Mom, the “Saint.” All I had to do was talk about her life before she got sick, when she was throwing herself into her work, travels, friends, and grandkids. She helped frame what my Mom was really doing in her last 10+ years, finally living her best life WITHOUT him. Doing what she loved WITHOUT him. Enjoying work or grandkid weekends away from him. That was a helpful reframing of the sadness I felt about her enduring my dad’s venom for so long and then dying so abruptly. She had been intentionally putting in a boundary in place with him, and I am 100% positive he didn’t even know it. Ha! I actually love that part. Makes me smile and it gives me great comfort.
My Mom made her closest friends later in her life. When she was living her “best” life. She traveled for work and with these friends. She was living! She was away from my dad. She was thriving. During this time, she told me she told her best friend “everything.” but she didn’t elaborate. I have to wonder what that meant. Right now, I’m afraid to hear if Mom really confided in her about my dad but more that she didn’t at all.
I intend someday to ask my dad’s family if something happened to him as a child. If his family or someone abused him in some way. If someone at his Catholic school abused him. If anyone knows anything about his family’s history with mental health, abuse or personality disorders. I have to think there has been a generational cycle of abuse and mental illness from past rumblings about my grandparents. As I understand from therapy and personal research, Narcissistic Personality Disorder can be developed at a young age where a child has limited emotional love or support and the child develops their own self-loathing. They were not nurtured in love, so they don’t love themselves and thus they cannot love others. But they can pretend to love, if it serves them, and use it as manipulation to get their way. Perhaps it’s because he was the youngest of 8 siblings, or his dad was a drinker or that he was born with a crossed eye. Maybe it was sparked by a bad LSD trip. Where and when did this personality disorder develop? One part of me wants to know, wants a reason for his troubled mind, heart and soul. It has been helpful to put a name to why he is the “way” he is, so let’s hear why. Another part of me is scared to potentially hear of his childhood trauma. Ugh, it’s my blood too, right? But something shaped him to be this way.
Regardless…. he will NEVER CHANGE. Narcissists will not acknowledge that anything is wrong with them, and they rarely seek mental health treatment. They are the victims ALL the time. My dad claims to be the victim after losing his wife. He uses it to overly expose his “love” for his wife, his “one and only,” his “angel. “He’s a victim because he has two daughters who don’t speak to him and keep their families away from him. He will always be the victim. People feel sorry for the victim. They offer love to the victim without asking for it in return. He supposedly loved my Mom so deeply he will never get over it. He doesn’t know how to love. Not possible.
Okay, so I am a highly sensitive person. I want to empathize with his childhood and the things out of his control that created who he is. I want to pray and cry for him to become the dad and grandfather we need in our lives without Mom. I want to love the grandfather who joined his family for a week in Disney and was fun, could laugh and danced for his 60th birthday at the Polynesian luau (a rare moment of family normalcy). I want to tell him I am thankful that he is the reason I know every word to every 70’s era song and that one of my favorite childhood memories. When we got cable and put on MTV for the first time, just us two. Or for the fact that the only reason we played sports is because we were athletic like him. That I loved our annual summer family reunions, growing up eating grandmom’s Hungarian cooking and that being part of a big family felt special. That it’s okay he had an eye condition as a baby and that I saw when he edited his baby picture so you couldn’t see his cross eye. Literally heartbreaking seeing that he did that. And between him and Mom…. he was the picture-taker, the scrapbooker, the nostalgic one who gave us the picture books to keep for our kids. That I feel bad he is the way he is and understand he can’t help it. That he has a disorder. But all those feelings collide with the horrible hurt I feel for my Mom and us and then all I want to move forward is for him to ADMIT the ugliness and STOP the meanness, and CHANGE into a loving father and grandfather…. and those expectations will just NEVER HAPPEN…. EVER. I open myself up to the abuse cycle again when I get soft like this. When I get manipulated by those memories. If I unblock the texts and Facebook messenger or open up the boundaries I’ve put in place in any way…. the verbal spew of blame, hate and ugliness are right back in my face. It will never stop, and thus he has to stay “blocked.” The boundary I chose. One only I can control and keep in place.
Confusing right? Maybe Mom felt sorry for him. Maybe that’s why she didn’t leave him. Staying with him required literal SuperWoman strength. I begged her to leave for years. We fought about it. I questioned whether she loved us, since she didn’t do anything when I told her he was hurtful. I later learned this was NOT how we should be treated, that she deserved more. Then she got sick and time to figure it out halted. No need to talk about it anymore. There was no time to let him know he was an abuser. That she deserved better for so many years. All my sister and I could do was give her love and support in her final days. She once said if anything happened to her before him, he would have no relationship with his daughters. She was right. She knew we had the ability to put the boundary in place without her. Because with them living together, if we wanted to see Mom, we had to see dad. There was no avoiding it. I often questioned why I’d do something nice for him because he’s so ungrateful. She would say, “because you love your mother.” Ugh, heart wrenching.
All of us are crafted by our environment. We have to want to live differently if that environment was harmful. We have to want to stop generational abuse. We have to recognize abuse and mental illness and get treatment. We have to admit it’s there, and that it’s not healthy to ignore. And not feel we need to keep it secret.
Your ability to grieve is unique as a Narcissist. You may outwardly portray a person brokenhearted from losing your love, but the TRUTH is you are mourning what you could do to that loved one or what that loved one provided for you. So when my dad puts out publicly how he lost the love of his life, my Mom (although I never, EVER, heard him tell her he loved her or that they were in love), it’s really that he’s mourning that he lost his ability to abuse and manipulate her. That was a huge part of his life and relationship with her. He’s grieving the loss of what she could be or do for him…. his cook, his dinner companion, his dog sitter, his caretaker, his punching bag….NOTHING that has to do with a loving, emotional response to losing someone. I’ve also come to realize, and perhaps he has too, that he lost his ability to abuse his daughters. With us “blocking” him from communicating with us, he can’t be mean, gripe, criticize and complain directly to us and about us.
I don’t love or even like my dad. OUCH. But I won’t say I hate him either. The feelings associated with him are complex and hard to put into words. In all honestly though, my sister and I do FEEL hate and anger toward him. We don’t want to talk to him for fear of his words. We don’t want his gifts for fear of manipulation. We don’t want him around our kids for fear of confusion. He’s intentionally blocked on all family members’ phones and social media. He’s not invited to our homes, nor has he visited. That way he’s lost his ability to spew hurt on us because we have CHOSEN to put our boundaries in place. We have the fortune of loving husbands, wonderful fathers to our kids and can stop the cycle of his abuse RIGHT NOW. And we are doing it.
But maybe, just maybe, you get it. Maybe…. we aren’t horrible daughters. Maybe, like Mom, we are strong…. like her, for her, in her honor and as role models to her granddaughters whom she LOVED SO MUCH. So they may never feel the way we felt. We are wonderful daughters, Moms and wives…. like her, for her and in her honor.
To you, friend or stranger, …. I think my Mom would be okay with me sharing what she didn’t. I hope she sees that I want to break this cycle for all of us. Now.
One of the last texts I wrote to my Mom is me telling her “You are so strong,” she wrote back… ”You are too.” Love you, Mom.
If you are in a high conflict relationship or are a survivor of abuse, we hope you will seek to gain clarity about your present and past circumstances by learning more about emotional abuse. Consider joining us on August 15 as we launch a new cohort specially designed for those who are experiencing a lot of conflict in their intimate relationships or for those who are in or were in an abusive relationship with a friend, romantic partner, or other relationship. If you know someone who is struggling the way Brigid has and you want to help, our Responders’ cohort is perfect for you. Together with Brigid, let’s put an end to the cycle of abuse.