In last week’s blog, we shared what it is like to grow up with a parent who is a narcissistic abuser. We shared the struggles victims have in understanding the abuse they endured and in finding healthy relationships as adults and how they instead commonly find themselves repeating the abuse cycle within their relationships. Often, children of narcissistic parents turn to substance abuse as a way to numb the pain their parent caused. In this week’s blog, we are grateful to hear from Stuart (not his real name), whose grew up with a narcissistic and abusive mother. In his story, we see how damaging narcissistic abuse is and the effect it can have on a child’s healthy development into adulthood. In Stuart’s story, we witness how a victim turns into a survivor by seeking healing, experiencing success, and learning to effectively enforce healthy boundaries in relationships and with his mother.
Thank you, Stuart, for sharing your story so others may learn and possibly find validation and healing through your words.
When I was in about the 6th grade, Christina Crawford published the book, Mommie Dearest. I remember being so intrigued by the story that I read it six times. When the movie came out in early 80’s starring Faye Dunaway who played the part of Joan Crawford, I watched it over and over again. I loved the large mansions, all the glamor, extravagant design and fine decor. But really, deep down my devotion to that story arose out of how significantly I identified with little Christina. Hearing Christina tell her story and seeing how she was portrayed made me feel seen and understood. Deep down, it gave me hope that although I had no control over how crazy my life was, perhaps it was not my fault. And over time, I came to fully understand that how I was treated as a child was not my fault. I was not the crazy one.
As a little boy, I thought my parents were the most gorgeous-looking people I knew. To me, they were movie star quality – my mom looked just like Liz Taylor and she played it up well. Beautiful eyes and hair, make-up done perfectly with the bright lipstick, distinctive eyebrows, the same birth mark artificially applied to her face, and designer clothes full of color and elegant flair. She looked perfect whenever we went out. I was a country club kid living in a fairly wealthy world – we spent considerable time at our local tennis club – and I still remember the women commenting on how handsome my dad was and how gorgeous my mom always looked — Dad driving up to the valet in his convertible Mercedes Benz with my mom at his side. She was the belle of the ball.
I guess this is why for so long it didn’t seem odd to me that she demanded that my brother and I call her, “Pretty Mama.” I was trained to do this from a very young age, but did it without complaint or question for so long and without even realizing how weird it was to be forced to call her that. Calling her “Pretty Mama” wasn’t a joke or suggestion, it was a requirement. You know when some kids try using their parent’s first name and the parent kindly corrects them and says, ”no dear, you call me mom.” For us, it was “Pretty Mama.” When we were young, we did so happily because she was beautiful – it was a term of endearment to me. But as we got older and stopped taking her demand so seriously, occasionally calling her mom, we learned that all hell would break loose due to our error. Her fits of rage were so extreme that it simply became easier to submit and call her “Pretty Mama,” which seemed like a relatively small price to pay. We continued to do so well into our adult years. In retrospect, while I admired her beauty greatly, all of my life she actually scared the hell out of me. My “admiration” of her was from a distance just like the admiration of those who saw her in public – not as a child of his mother. This is how it is for the child of a narcissistic parent. The constant push and pull; the yoyo of “relationship” with a narcissistic parent whom you could never fully please.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until long after I had so many traumatic experiences I cannot recount them all, I endured 3 long-term horrendous and abusive adult romantic relationships myself, I completed residential rehabilitation for a serious alcohol addiction that had lasted 20 years, and I engaged in several months of intensive therapy where I came to understand that my mom has an undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder. Having that clarity helped me to finally name the emotional abuse I had endured all of my life. Someone asked me recently when the abuse started for me, and my answer was, “there was no start.” I didn’t know anything different than her constant criticism. It always was there. My brother’s and my existence was to make my mom look good to the world. And when we didn’t, which it seemed we never really hit her mark, she would rage, scream and hurl deep character assaults on each of us. In my family, not one of us was the scapegoat, we both were.
As a child of a narcissist, the script of my life was predetermined by my mom before I was born. My brother and I were her puppets, and unless we made her shine, we were worthless to her. We were constantly striving to win her approval. But her approval of anything we did was strictly dependent on the public acclaim she would receive for our accomplishment. As soon as we returned home, it would all change. No celebration lasted outside of her public forum. She paraded us as twins (we weren’t) for years, dressing us in the same outfits anytime we went out. I was born a brunette and my brother was a blonde. But in the 4th grade when blonde kids were all the vogue, my mom dyed my hair blonde. It was so embarrassing. I left one school year as a brunette only to return the next school year as a blonde. To put this into perspective, I was in elementary school in the 70’s when it was virtually unheard of for a kid to dye their hair at that age. I had no desire to have blonde hair. I mistakenly thought my brown hair was fine. “Pretty Mama” did this for Pretty Mama. The blonder I was, the more like a twin to my brother I looked, the better it was for her. But by the time I entered the 5th grade, the fun wore off for her and I returned to being a brunette. What message was I supposed to receive from this?
By the time I was around 8-10 years old, I was very chubby, insecure, anxious, and had no friends at my school. I was the one kid who sat alone for lunch every single day. No one wanted to play with me. It’s not that no one paid any attention to me, it was the type of attention I was paid that harmed me deeply. I was bullied and made fun of daily while not a single adult or child did anything to help me. It was torture. I cried every day. The worst thing about it was that the berating and bullying I received at school was matched, if not surpassed, by my mom when I went home. Throughout the years of bullying and peer rejection, my mom never, ever (not once) came to my defense, intervened for me, spoke to the administrators, comforted me or wiped my tears. Instead, the fact that I had no friends and I was the target of every bully on the playground was an embarrassment for my mom. It horrified and annoyed her, as if she was the one being bullied.
I remember vividly the day a family member surprised me by picking me up at school and taking me out to lunch off campus. I recall the outfit she wore, the car she drove, the meal I ate. For that one day, because of the love and care of a single person, I did not not have to face the loneliness and despair that the playground provided me every other day. That day, I learned for the first time what it was like to be seen and loved. It remains one of the most significant events of my childhood.
I remember another incident when I was about seven. I loved how beautiful the family crystal collection was and desperately wanted to make believe I was entertaining guests with it. One day, I grabbed one of the silver trays and gathered some Waterford crystal glasses, cloth napkins, silver spoons for stirring, and a crystal pitcher which I filled with sparkling water, ice, and sliced lemons. Then, I borrowed my mom’s beautiful, fancy, and expensive cocktail rings, which I had seen her wear so many times, putting one on each of my fingers, before I began my kid-version of a cocktail party. When I heard her footsteps just before she entered my room, I quickly hid my hands under the bedcovers. She saw the crystal display and started raging. “What is going on in here?” “What kind of sissy faggot does this?” Then she pulled my hands out from under the covers, saw the rings, gasped in horror and grabbed my wrists so tightly that she bruised them while she dragged me down the hall to the vanity in her bedroom suite. Sharing this today reminds me of the scene in Mommie Dearest when Joan Crawford made her daughter sit at her vanity and angrily cut little Christina’s hair off while Christina cried. Just like Joan, my mom sat me in front of the mirror at her vanity table, ripped the rings off my fingers one by one, made me look in the mirror and humiliated me for what felt like hours. She screamed what a disgrace I was to her. My dad came running in and took some of her wrath as she blamed him for raising a boy who acted more like a girl. She shamed me deeply that day. I was child playing make believe – imitating my parents, no less. But in that moment, make believe was taken from me and I was so humiliated.
Days and days on end, my brother and I would walk on eggshells waiting for the barrage of insults and condemnation that would come our way from our mother. We never measured up to her standards…until we did. And this only happened when she could parade our accomplishments to others to make her look good (even those accomplishments she did not think were noteworthy until she noted that others saw them as strong). Until then, we would be deposited at the country club after school and we would be forced to wait for her on the front steps of the club. She was always late to pick us up, sometimes by hours. I remember racing inside to call her from the club’s landline (way before the day of cell phones and texting) to see where she was and racing back to make sure I was on the stairs when she finally arrived. She rarely ever answered the phone; my calls were usually met with a busy signal which meant she was at home chatting on the phone rather than picking us up. We always knew what the ride home would be like by what we heard when her car drive into the parking lot to get us. If we heard screeching tires and brakes slamming, we knew that the ride home would be filled with a barrage of insults and blame for the fact that she had left her personal life to pick up her children.
Where was my dad? He worked. He came home, poured martinis before dinner to unwind. He sat with us through dinner and that was it. He was not connected to me emotionally. He never stood up to my mom. He was silent. He managed his own stress and fear, provided financially for us and, for him, this was more than enough.
Today, I am an openly gay male in my 50’s. From the time I was about 5 years old, my mom was appalled at what she saw as feminine traits in me. In those days, it was taboo for boys to portray any so-called feminine traits. Homosexuality in upper class America was neither discussed nor tolerated publicly. Bear in mind that I barely knew what a homosexual was, let alone that I identified as one. My mom berated me repeatedly in a vain attempt to turn me into the man of her choosing. From the time I was four or five, she relentlessly attacked me screaming phrases like, “You little faggot,” “You’re the daughter I never had.” She called me “sissy boy,” or a “pathetic little girl.” She told me, “You’re an embarrassment of a boy.”
It got so bad that when I was 14, she demanded I find a male mentor whom I could emulate to become a more “masculine” boy. She gave me two weeks to find someone. I quickly identified a guy who was 3 years older than me, a senior in my high school and someone who seemed to me to be a great guy. We became fast friends. She was thrilled about it, loved him, and gained renewed faith that I could turn into the man she needed me to become. In a short time, my male “mentor” sexually seduced me and later he continued to molest me repeatedly. I was dying for love, so I did not fight it. I was far too young to make healthy decisions about physical intimacy, but he took advantage of my immaturity and desperation. I never told anyone about it until many, many years later. Obviously, I couldn’t speak a word about it to “Pretty Mama” when it happened because she surely would blame it all on me. In fact, I myself couldn’t believe it was anyone’s fault but my own. Rather than blaming my perpetrator who was solely responsible, I blamed myself, wondering why I couldn’t get anything right. Many, many years later, I fully disclosed the molestation, but “Pretty Mama” dismissed it and, to this day, remains in contact with my abuser as if he never raped her son.
My high school years were miserable for me. In my freshman year, I tried my first beer and immediately recognized and relished in the the calm it gave me as it went down. It was surreal. I suddenly felt momentary freedom from anxiety from just a few sips. Alcohol became my escape; the way I dealt with her abuse and the molestation I experienced. That first sip was the beginning of a decades-long alcohol (and drug) addiction. In some ways it was a form of perceived rebellion, a sense of independence. But truth be told, I never really escaped the tight control of my mother. Alcohol never gave me the freedom I pretended it gave; I used it to numb the internal pain and anguish that never dissipated. I depended on drugs and alcohol because I had nowhere else to turn. Growing up full time with a narcissistic parent, I never learned how to have healthy relationships. I never learned how to love myself or to recognize and receive healthy love and support. Instead, I experienced years of pain, abuse and addiction. Fortunately, neither my brother nor I became abusive.
As I stated at the beginning, I didn’t fully realize that I had been abused my whole life until I was in my 30’s. By then, I had come out as a gay man. I had three significant romantic relationships with older men from whom I was unconsciously seeking the nurturing that a parent should have given me but never did. I attracted three narcissist boyfriends, two of whom were serious alcohol and drug addicts, and one who was addicted to being horrible to me. At 33, in a moment of divine clarity, I admitted myself to a residential treatment facility and became sober. Six months later, I started therapy and quickly learned that I had a full blown serious panic disorder, which I’d had for countless years, requiring medication. Previously, I had been admitted into the hospital five times without anyone properly diagnosing me. Gratefully, I finally found a professional able to properly diagnose and treat my condition.
Of course, some of my life’s significant events “shocked” Pretty Mama. When I came out as gay to my family, she told me she had no idea and was flabbergasted to hear this. That’s the first time I really called my mom out on her insanity. I said, “Mom, you’ve been calling me a faggot since I was 5. You knew before I knew.” She cannot change this reality to meet her needs.
When my parents visited me at the rehab facility, she feigned shock to learn I was an alcoholic. She asked, “Where did this come from?” She proceeded to tell me that she only ever had ½ a glass of wine or one glass because “My god, I couldn’t afford the calories!” And, in keeping with how she chose to revise our history, my dad only had one martini before dinner. The real fact is that she never limited her alcohol, she was smashing drunk at the end of every party, and drank every night (sometimes starting during the day). My dad’s one martini before dinner was really four martinis before dinner and then he had wine with dinner. My grandpa used to awaken each morning to a shot of whisky. My aunt drank to drunkenness on a daily basis. The real life narrative was that I was born into a family of alcoholics. I was just the first one who was brave enough to admit it.
When Mom found out I was seeing a psychiatrist, she was threatened by him and wrote a letter to my extended family telling them that I was a drug addict notwithstanding my sobriety (coming from the prescription medication addressing my anxiety disorder). She silenced me by telling them that the psychiatrist was filling my mind with all types of lies about my childhood. She played the victim by telling them how heartbroken she was to lose her beloved son to the craziness therapy was causing and, of course, all she really wanted was her precious boy back again. I had been so proud of myself and the accomplishments I was making because of rehab and therapy. And there she was once again dismissing each and every one of my victories and using them to put herself on center stage by steering my family’s pity and attention to her.
That is when I wrote her off. Becoming sober and spending significant time with a counselor who is an expert in the type of abuse I endured saved my life. In time, I learned to set very strict boundaries with my mom. I completely cut her off for a few years, unwilling or able to speak with her at all. A significant part of my healing process had to start with me understanding the dynamics of my childhood and beginning to forgive my parents for my own healing, not for them. I couldn’t hold on to the bitterness that unforgiveness can breed. For years, I built her up and defended her, keeping her on a pedestal no parent deserves. I needed to see her as human and broken. As part of my healing process, I wrote her a letter which I never intended to send, but I kept it and filed it. One day, she called me out of the blue and asked why we were estranged. She asked if I hated her. “No, mom, I don’t hate you. But if you really want to know, I can read you something I wrote.” After I read her my letter, for the first and only time in my life, she said, “I’m sorry.” Then, she immediately turned the subject to her horrible upbringing and blamed everyone else. She became the victim, once again. I told her, “Mom, I don’t understand why you chose to take all of your hurt and anger out on your two innocent sons rather than on the people who caused you so much pain.” Nothing about her upbringing took away her power to choose how to respond.
As both my parents are in their later years, I am choosing to see them now and again, but on my terms and only with strict boundaries in place which must be respected. I will never be with them at their house, on their territory where she can control me and where I am likely to return to walking on eggshells immediately. I also will not allow them to control the schedule or the dialogue wherever we are. I know I need to be very consistent and rigid with my boundaries or she will find a crack and enter in. For my health and well-being, I cannot allow that.
Today, I am a successful, competent, well-adjusted man. I have very strong friendships and a good relationship with my brother. I have been sober for 20+ years and have no intention of going back. I consciously choose to continue my healing journey and to maintain peace and joy in my daily living. I hope that by sharing my story others experiencing narcissistic abuse will seek out therapeutic help from someone as experienced as I had. Learning what truly constitutes a healthy relationship and how to set firm boundaries with those who are chaotic and harmful will open the door to a fulfilling and meaningful life.