Sunday, January 31, 2010

Really Mean Old Parents

Hah! I called that one!

Recently, a neighbor complained that the elderly man who lives next door has horrible, selfish adult children who've abandoned him in his time of need and rarely visited.

The old guy is a character and seems nice enough, but then again, so did my narcissistic father who turned me into his emotional caretaker and sucked me dry. I know for a fact that some neighbors and family members called me a horrible, selfish, ingrate because I rarely visited after I left home.

"Who knows?" I told my neighbor. "Bob (named changed) might be an okay guy, but he might be a nasty, abusive parent. There may be a good reason his kids don't visit. Or you may be right. They could be selfish pigs." My neighbor conceded one never does know what goes on behind closed doors.

Well, the door opened wide enough for me to get a peek inside and it wasn't pretty, folks.

The maligned horrible, selfish adult daughter had taken her father out in her car and when I was walking by, dog in tow, I heard her explain - nicely - that she needed to get going because she'd left her dog inside all day and she needed to let him out and go potty.

Bob responded by saying, "I don't give a shit! What do I care? Get the hell out of here?" (This shouted in the ugliest possible tone of voice, complete with flailing arms and twisted facial expression)

"But Dad!" the woman protested.

"I said I don't give a shit about you or your goddamned dog. Just leave, dammit!"

I fled the scene, grateful the old bastard wasn't my father. Now I'm not saying the old coot was a narcissist. Maybe he was just a Difficult Old Fucker. And no, the man does not have dementia. By all accounts, he's sharp as a tack. Some neighbors think he's funny. Maybe he's funny around non-relatives. To his daughter, who came to help him, he was a Really Big Douche Bag.

And you know what I'm betting? He was always like that to his kids, hence the lack of visits.

In witnessing that one minute exchange, I imagined a lifetime of emotional abuse endured by this woman who finally solved her problem by limiting contact. Because of her decision, she may also come in for public scoldings by scandalized neighbors or family members who know nothing of her situation and don't care to, more concerned about voicing their indignation.

Adult children with really awful aging parents who need them after abusing them have few choices, especially if there aren't financial resources to throw at the problem.

The best choice (in my mind): OUTSOURCE...limit contact...make sure they are cared for but don't do it yourself.

If that option is not available, you have my complete and utter sympathy. Really. It's awful to finally come to terms with the kind of parent you have, just in time for said parent to begin declining...further requiring your time and energy. Oh, the tragedy.

I can only imagine the state of mind the poor woman left in as she drove away from her father's house.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Managing a Narcissistic Parent

As I catch up on comments made during my (unintended) absence, I came across this:

buddy said...

My daughter decided (with much guilt) to not invite my parents to her child's baptism because "I really want to have a special event that's not about Grandpa." I could have cried because I realized that ALL of our holidays, weddings, graduations and other family events are ALWAYS about how we planning to deal with my dad.

Buddy's daughter made the right choice, as bad as it made her feel. No doubt, Buddy was supportive even though he too felt bad that his father couldn't safely be invited to such an important family event. It's possible that Buddy's daughter was setting the stage for the future...putting the interests of her child before the grandfather after enduring a lifetime of ruined occasions. I cringe thinking of how this narcissistic grandparent must have behaved for the granddaughter to make such a difficult (brave) decision.

My own father ruined: the birth of first daughter (drama involving "bad back"--back never to pose problem again); birth of second daughter (visited with mother in early stage Alzheimer's, kept secret, then left me alone w/mother, newborn and toddler...mother hallucinates, endangers baby and runs out into the street). Instead of bonding w/babies, I was attending to parental needs. Husband took care of babies.

Besides the trauma of having a narcissistic parent, there's also the additional challenge of MANAGING THE NARCISSISTIC PARENT. This is a constant, anxiety provoking exercise, filled with anger and resentment that you can't have a semi-normal Thanksgiving or reunion like other families where Aunt Clara nods off because she drank too many wine spritzers or the 40-year old twins start sniping like teenagers.

We're not talking about the usual family dysfunction. We're talking about trying to ward off the narcissistic parent or grandparent going nuclear because they are not the center of attention. The worrying often begins weeks before the event. What would it be like if we didn't invite N? Wouldn't that be nice! No, we can't possible exclude him! That would be mean! What if N found out? Okay, we'll take turns sitting with N and divert him so Ashley can open her birthday presents and, for once, enjoy center stage. How can we keep N from making a toast and speech that goes on for an hour? What if N starts going on about how hard he worked and starts listing everything he's done for his ungrateful brats?

We become expert at running through scenarios and planning exit strategies. We're fast and nimble at scurrying about, trying to limit the damage...making excuses, smoothing down ruffled feathers, always trying to appease our parent so we can just get through the fucking event without a major meltdown. And when we finally get home, we realize...nope...despite our best efforts...the narcissistic parent or grandparent has done it yet again! Ruined another occasion.

Even going out to a simple breakfast with my narcissistic father was an exhausting experience. He'd leech onto the waitress and talk her ear off or turn around and start yakking at the poor people trying to enjoy their meal next to us or have some sort of drama because another family was seated first or the waitress slighted him because she forgot he always had three eggs instead of two.

Of course, the narcissistic grandparent is not capable of actually helping with the grand kids. They don't do usual stuff like running them to the potty during a restaurant meal or occasionally babysitting or making them cookies or calling when Ashley gets a fever of 103. They are good at talking about how upset they are about Ashley's fever or that they were putting aside money for Ashley's college education, thereby endangering their own retirement.

The truth is...there IS no way to manage the narcissistic parent or grandparent. We try. God, how do we try. Sometimes, we go through extraordinary lengths to contain them, not unlike some scene out of Jurassic Park when the T-Rex is on the loose. Our narcissistic parent careens about...wrecking havoc...except we can't go running away, screaming. When we look over our shoulder, panting and desperate to escape, we discover we're actually chained to them!

Unfortunately, the only way to manage the narcissistic parent or grandparent is to haul out the bolt cutters and cut the chain and say, "bye-bye!"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

No Empathy...Zip...None

Had a totally frustrating conversation with an old friend. We were discussing how our parents (may) have impacted how we turned out. My friend has a Difficult Mother and a Difficult Father.
She kept saying all parents are imperfect and went on to say so-and-so's dad did this...and her mom did such-and-such but, ultimately, it's up to us to get past it and fix ourselves. Agreed.

However, this is her way of saying, "You're whining...we all had Imperfect Parents and let's move on, shall we?"

This is what makes having any sort of conversation about the perils of having a narcissistic parent with someone who's never had one. In the case of my friend, she kept trying to assign my parents lack of skills on their cultural traditions and (sadly woeful) lack of education and sheer ignorance. Sure, that's true to some extent. However, my (adoptive) father had narcissistic personality disorder and my (adoptive) mother was self-absorbed.

While my friend's mother was indeed Difficult and did some real numbers on my friend rendering her an insecure mess, we're talking about a whole other level of mind- boggling nuttiness when we're talking about the truly narcissistic parent.

The difference...and it's a BIG lack of empathy. A shocking lack of empathy for the child. If I had to cite one difference between the Difficult Parent and the Narcissistic Parent it would be the lack of empathy.

For example (I wrote about this at length elsewhere, but I'll recap here), I remember a bizarre conversation with my n-dad after I'd discovered that I wasn't adopted until about a month old. I wanted to know where I was for that month. At the hospital? In a foster home? There was no record of it in my paperwork and the adoption agency said that was confidential information and to ask my adoptive father. So I did.

First, n-dad was surprised that I was a month old when I came to them. He thought I was a newborn. Second, he had no idea where I'd been during that time and said it made no difference to him. I said it was important to me. He said not to worry about it, it made no difference to him or my adoptive mother where I'd hung out for a month as an infant because all that counted was that they'd "got" me. No matter how much I tried to get n-dad to recognize my need to know, he couldn't register it. He could only keep repeating that it didn't matter to him.

At this point, I was clearly distressed. My dad couldn't seem to register that, either. He got angry because I always pestered him with questions about where I came from. When I said I needed to know about my background, he said I didn't because where I came from wasn't in the least bit important to him. The funny thing is my adoptive father had always made a huge, stinking deal about his suspicion that his own father may have not been his biological one. Oh, the irony! Growing up, I had to listen to how traumatizing this uncertainty had been and was expected to sympathize. Yet, I did have biological parents out there somewhere, but that was no big deal.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lack of Pride in Achievements

In the last year, I went back to school to begin retraining....almost 25 years after graduating from college.

I worked very hard and earned A's. Not only did I find the whole back-to-school experience very satisfying, I was consciously pleased with myself for rising to the challenge of disciplining myself to study.

As I checked my grades online and whooped aloud, it occurred to me that I'd never felt truly satisfied when I went to college the first time.

I was never one to jump up and down that I'd passed a difficult class or that I did much better on a test than expected. I don't remember feeling any pride in being the first one in my family to go to college. I don't remember being excited that I'd landed an internship. I didn't go out and celebrate when I got a job in my field. I just sort of bumped along, doing one thing after another.

Today, I'm proud of how hard I worked and what I managed to accomplish back then...while working to support myself and my education because my self-absorbed parents refused to shell out a single dime. During my college years, my father refused to loan me $50 between paychecks. My mother never sent a single box of cookies, a sweater for the colder climate, a card to cheer me through finals.

Now I think I finally understand why I never felt any joy over any hard-earned accomplishments:

1. When I tried to tell my narcissistic father about anything I'd done, he didn't hear anything I was saying and quickly cut me off, interrupting, so he could get back to his favorite topic...himself. When people asked him what I was majoring in, he had no idea. If asked the title of my job, my father couldn't say.

2. When I tried giving my self-absorbed mother updates about my milestones in higher education, she'd say, "Uh uh, how nice for you," in a mocking tone which reflected her anger that I'd chosen to go away to college and "abandoning" her. Then she'd pass the phone to my father or hang up. I stopped calling her after the first year. I gave up.

My achievements were either met with disinterest or a cold, punishing silence. Later, when I graduated and tried asserting myself by disagreeing with one of my father's endless opinions, he'd call me a "nobody know-it-all who thought they were better than everybody else just because they went to college."

So now I get it. I really get it. I didn't feel a sense of accomplishment because my own parents could care less. Every time I did something worthwhile, the price was a pound of flesh. I believe I became joy. The most I could muster was a wan smile and, "yeah, that's nice," but there was no reward...and at the time I didn't have a firm enough sense of self that would allow me to feel any pride. My initial motivation at success was to find a way to live as far away from my parents as possible. In my mind, if I failed, I'd have to move back home. There was no way that was going to happen.

When I finally (recently) emotionally detached from my narcissistic father...and didn't have his voice or the voice of my mother running in my head...only then was I able to feel satisfaction in simple things like earning a good grade, mastering a new skill, cleaning the entire house, getting through a to-do list. That's how powerful narcissistic parents can be...they not only suck your energy...they also zap you of feeling like you accomplished something...even when you have.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Warning Others About a Narcissistic Parent & When YOU are Sick

Susie left a comment on the post, When Your Child Has a Narcissistic Parent...which offered some excellent advice that, frankly, didn't occur to me. (Check out her entire comment in earlier post)

She wrote:

I have cancer and my N-parents love to push the envelope/get attention during my visits. So, I simply told the staff about them and that I do not wish to have them in the room with me. The staff made up some excuse and when my N-father tried to barge in during my treatment, the staff threatened to call security because he would not comply with "policy".
The key is just to get people's attention. They become more sensitive to the behavior when you say, "My ex-husband is a narcissist who displays very inappropriate behaviors. *explain and identify behaviors*. I wanted you to know in case he acts inappropriately in front of me, the other staff, my child etc. If _____ happens, this is what you say/do:_________" More often than not, when people hear the word 'narcissist', they will help shield you from the destructive behavior of the N-parent. Just remember, the only things you can change are: yourself and your environment. You cannot change a N-person!

First, I'm sorry to hear that you are dealing with cancer. As if having that isn't enough, it must be especially challenging not to have parents who can give you - for once in your life - honest-to-goodness love and support. Barging in on your treatment? If it wasn't so awful, it would almost be comedic...given that you are a grown woman. There's something very symbolic in there about extreme control and acting as if you're a helpless little girl of five.

There's a lesson for all us in how you handled that taking charge and protecting yourself. (Oh, that's what that looks like...some of us may say...lights finally going's not trying to be nice and complaining to our friends about the parental's bold, it's direct, it's firm...and damn, it's straight-up acting like an adult!)

I wrote about this before, but once upon a time, I was going through the whole biopsy ordeal and made the big mistake of telling my father. He was greatly upset. Not because he was worried about me, but because I might die and then who would take care of him. That's exactly what he said. Then he kept calling to find out the results and repeatedly said, "You don't know what you're putting me through!" as if I'd conjured the breast lump just to freak him out.

After that, I finally...finally believed that the parental well was as dry as my husband kept telling me. I guess I'd always thought that if I ever got sick...with something narcissistic father would be there for me. Somehow, my dire situation would (magically) transform him into a father who cared about his daughter and put himself second. But my father was so childlike and self-centered...that he would never be able to do that.

So after that, I stopped telling him anything. If I ever developed a disease - I vowed - I'd keep it a secret. If I got a flu, I denied it. I simply couldn't stand to hear his reaction.

My cousin, who has a narcissistic mother, always downplays whatever illness she has because her mother seems to become even more difficult and histrionic when my cousin has the nerve to be sick. The result is that my cousin's arm could be hanging off and she'll cheerily tell you it's a flesh wound. She's dragged herself to work with pneumonia. She's trained not to think of herself and, sadly, this has extended to her own health.

For some of us - okay, me - it takes an event like being told, outright, by your parent that your real value is the service you provide...the attention you give. What other way is there to interpret that statement? You are finally faced with the butt ugly bald truth of your pathetically futile, one-sided relationship with your parent. There's no excuse like, "my father just has a hard time expressing himself...inside, he really loves me." It's profoundly shocking to learn your parent doesn't love you, at all, "even in their own way," expression I have come to despise because for narcissistic parents, it's just a lame excuse posed by ignorant friends and family who have no idea what the n-parent is like when other people aren't around.

That said (OMG...Curb Your Enthusiasm had a great take on the whole "that said" phrase on one of its most recent episodes w/Jerry Seinfeld)...finding out that your n-parent could care less about you is very liberating...the first step toward true detachment if you are still struggling with denial about your parent(s).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Catching Up on Your Comments

I've begun catching up on the comments that some of you left while I was away on my long, unintended absence.

I've started at the top of my inbox and working backward. Since I plan on getting back to everyone, it may take some time.

Anybody see the movie Squid and the Whale with Jeff Daniels as the narcissistic father? I think the movie does an excellent job of showing just how lonely (and twisted) life can be for the children of self-absorbed parents.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Your Child Has a Narcissitic Father (or Mother)

A woman left an anonymous comment asking for advice because her son's father is a narcissist.

Readers...please feel free to share your thoughts.

I suspect one could spend a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to limit your child's exposure to the toxic ex-spouse, but due to the custody agreement, that might not be possible. (If your ex is anything like the Michelle Pfieffer character in the movie White Oleander, he'll relish any opportunity at child-free time.)

If there's not much you can do in that direction, then I'd do everything I could to provide a safe, loving, nurturing haven for your son, a haven where he is free to express and explore his feelings, to develop his identity without manipulation and guilt, a place where he can recuperate and regain his sense of self...a place where it's all about him...where he can be respected.

I'd read all I could about the art of "mirroring" your child. For example, if he cries because he fell, instead of telling him to quit crying and that it's just a little boo-boo when it's a broken arm (not that you would!), say that the fall must have really hurt and carefully inspect the damage. If he says he hates his first grade teacher, nod and ask why he feels that way. Sorry. You probably know what mirroring is but, just in case.

I believe it was the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, author of Drama of the Gifted Child, wrote somewhere (of course, now I can't find it...damn) something to the effect that the impact of a narcissistic parent could be offset by another parent, another member of the family, a family friend. I found this an extremely hopeful and powerful statement. You may not be able to control your toxic ex-spouse, but you can try to become the best parent you possibly can by practicing mindful parenting.

Sliv in a comment wrote that the father of her young child lies, steals and cheats to get his way. I have to admit, I have no direct experience with that kind of diabolical/malignant narcissist, but I suspect that as the non-narcissistic parent, you'd almost have to go into mirroring hypermode to counteract the damage.

Having never had a parent who mirrored, this was something I had to learn how to do with practice, finally achieving some level of competence just in time for the fun teenage years, when you're just dying to give advice and that's the last thing your kid wants to hear (five words strung together constituting nagging). So even if you have the lousy luck of having narcissistic parents and, maybe not surprisingly, a narcissist for a spouse or ex-spouse, it IS possible to improve one's parenting skills by educating ourselves and making a mindful effort!

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Sheesh. I'm shocked an entire 1.5 years have passed since my last post. Never intended to be away for that long. In fact, I had every intention of returning...quickly.

The best part about blogging is reading and learning from your comments, so I was both astonished and thrilled to find that some old readers continued to share their experiences and that new people have found their way here in my long absence. (Welcome newbies! You are not alone! And you're aren't crazy)

It will take me some time to catch up on all the comments...and the kind, supportive emails that some of you have sent.

So here's the explanation of what caused me to disappear:

My (narcissistic) father got the boot from his assisted living facility. Unlike people with Alzheimers who, for the most part, continue to be mobile, my father has Lewy Body dementia which finally confined him to a wheel chair...after a period of repeated falls. That, the incontinence and his extremely difficult behaviors became too much for the facility to handle 24/7.

I may not like my father - and have finally come to accept this - but I realize that I don't have to love him...I just have to act as morally and as responsibly as I can...which meant finding him another place to live where they would take good care of him. Pronto. So of course I freaked out. If a pricey assisted living facility couldn't handle him, what the HELL was I going to do? After a month of frantic searching and scrambling, I found a board and care run by an amazing Latina woman. Spotless! Homemade meals! Just a few residents! He liked the new place much better...all around a big improvement. It took me a couple months to quit worrying that the owner was going to call and say she and her staff couldn't handle him because he's so mean. WHEW.

Then I got caught up in the whole college tour thing ....then my daughter graduated HS...then I went back to college myself to retrain...then we got daughter settled at college...then I wanted to spend time with my younger daughter who was devastated because her sister and boyfriend left for college at the same time....and on and on...

Suddenly, I actually had a life that - for the first time in YEARS - didn't include phone calls from my father that made me feel horrible or guilty or depressed or furious. His dementia had progressed to the point where his moods seemed to stabilize and he became much, much less needy...probably because he was growing more disengaged.

The last year has been a reprieve from the sentencing that was handed down at the time of my adoption placement...when I landed a needy, childlike narcissistic parent and a self-absorbed adoptive mother. Oh, the freedom! The joy! I didn't have to think (much) about him. I could enjoy my children and my husband. I could go out to dinner and not worry that he'd left numerous, unpleasant messages on the home phone. So I've been taking an unintended break from the whole narcissistic parent thing.

For those of you saddled with a narcissistic parent, you know what I'm talking about...the burden of their existence. So we take our breaks where we can.

There have been some surprising, interesting triggers, though, over the last year and I'll write about that next time.

Since my schedule has changed, I plan to post about once a if you leave a comment, it may take me a bit to respond.