Six years ago this week my mother died, and left behind an extremely painful legacy.
It’s always hard when someone leaves this world with unfinished business. Death is so final, and at least while the person is alive, there’s always that small chance that maybe, just maybe, things might change. Whatever “things” might be. That differs for each of us.
I guess one of the hardest thing to come to terms with is that someone is not the person you wanted, or needed, them to be.
I will freely admit that I have struggled to come to terms with what my mother left behind. That final blow, which I wrote about here, was incredibly painful. However, I also realize that it was not a one-time thing, not some kind of ultimate ploy to deliver the greatest amount of pain possible upon parting. Part of my internal reckoning with my mother’s legacy is to accept that, while she exhibited behavior that was bizarre, crazy-making and very painful, she wasn’t entirely conscious of what she was doing.
My mother belonged to that minority of people who are devoid of the capacity for self-honesty. Something in her made her always blame others for her shortcomings. She was genetically unable to truly empathize. And she was unable to put her behavior into a normal context and see its fucked-upness.
It’s hard to say it, because you’re not supposed to talk this way about your parents. Also, others may have their own take, and may have known a completely different woman than I knew. But I’m going to say it anyway: my mother was a narcissist. She was afflicted with a condition known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Author and psychotherapist M. Scott Peck called people like that “people of the lie”. Still others call them “toxic”, “emotional vampires”, or even “pyschopaths”. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous describes them thus:
[They are] men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.
These “unfortunates” can be very dangerous. Often they are masters of disguise, and have a special gift that allows them to emulate emotions that they don’t feel. Moreover they have an uncanny ability to divine the weaknesses in others, to zero in on vunlerable spots, to manipulate, and use others to their advantage.
Ultimately that’s what it’s all about. Using others to their own advantage. Without the ability to truly connect or empathize, others become merely a vehicle for satisfying the narcissist’s needs.
It’s not their fault. They are constitutionally incapable of doing anything else.
Growing up as a child of one of these people can be devastating. Since everything revolves around the narcissist, the child learns that his or her needs are worthless. Any attempts at asserting their own individuality are quashed. The nature of narcissism is such that narcissists cannot endure people being different from them. They need that mirror, that narcissistic supply, because without it they feel they don’t exist. Obtaining that supply from children is easy, because a child is both vulnerable and dependent. The relationship a narcisisstic parent has with a child is designed to keep the child that way, at all costs. This includes using something called gaslighting – tactics to make the child doubt his or her own reality. It also incorporates removing a child from an environment in which they can grow at a normal rate – in other words, in which they can assert an independent identity. Both happened in my case.
Over time, the child begins to feel that it exists only as an extension of the narcissist, to meet the narcissist’s needs, much like the narcissist’s arm exists to meet his or her needs. In some cases, like my own, the child may develop Stockholm Syndrome, where it gives up trying to fight the narcissistic parent and surrenders to the brainwashing that is being applied. Ultimately, breaking free of that malignant and insidious conditioning was the most difficult task of my life.
So last Tuesday, the anniversary of my mother’s death, I did not post a picture of her on Facebook with a wistful message about how much I missed her. I don’t miss her. I said goodbye to her a long time before she died – said goodbye to the nurturing mother she never was, goodbye to the person I needed her to be. I don’t think of my mother very often, but when I do, I mostly feel sad. Her life was tragic. It was tragic because it is impossible to have a successful life when you are forever blaming other people, never taking responsibility for your own shortcomings, and trying to get your needs met through manipulation. And by the end, my mother was backed into a corner, in her mind and in her life.
I know that somewhere, deep down, she wanted to be a better mother. And in all fairness, she wasn’t always bad. She could be kind, especially in the early days. She stepped in to rescue me, for instance, in the incident I wrote about here. But at the end of the day, she wasn’t able to nurture, to cherish, to support, to mother. She was driven by a force that was anti-life. I still shudder deep in my bones when I think of living inside that dark energy, and thank my creator every day for allowing me to escape, for giving me the wisdom and strength to recognize darkness, and to cleave to the light.
Thank you for sharing this. I think my own experience has been quite similar, but I need more time to consider it. Well done to you for such bravery, and for your ability now to look back with such considered intelligence. I am so glad you are sharing this in your blog. All the best, Jennifer
Thank you Alda for sharing this with us. I am able to read your words with hope because I
sense that you have recovered your life. When you learn to love yourself only then can you
love others. The past can destroy us, can burn us out with anger. The wonderful thing is you have not let the past destroy you….the Phoenix has risen again in Reykjavik x
How sad, but how encouraging that you found the strength to endure and share your experience with others so that they may find a ray of hope and understanding in their own lives. I had an emotionally distant mother and while it caused me to become something of a loner I was determined that I would be there for my own son. Our road certainly hasn’t been without it bumps, but he will never be in doubt that I love him and will be there for him.
Datt inn á þessa sorglegu sögu. Takk fyrir að deila þessari sáru sögu.
Thank you so much for sharing this. This kind of emotional neglect and manipulation continues to affect people throughout their lives. Good that you recognise it and can find ways to handle it. I will share this with my sister. I appreciate and enjoy your published and internet writings very much. Thank you very much.
Your post has been an open tab on my computer since the day you published it and the alert landed in my inbox.
As with the first post on the IWR, I needed time to digest it, time to face my own demons. I had never heard the term gaslighting but I was horrified – although not surprised – to find out that I could apply it to my relationship with my genitor.
When I finally plucked up the courage to go and visit her late 2011 to try and mend what had always been a dysfunctional relationship, she failed to understand what I was trying to do. Part of my endeavor involved bringing up the issue of domestic abuse against children. Much to my horror, it made her laugh. She laughed even harder as I broke down in front of her, sobbing and shaking with 35 years worth of repressed emotions. Rather than comfort me, she announced with a shit-eating grin that she was going for a walk and she left me standing there. A few days later, I left and vowed never to return.
And yet, I still live with permanent guilt, that of being the unworthy daughter, the daughter who “walked out” on her old mother, the daughter who never calls, never writes. I know that I haven’t yet broken free from her toxic spell but at least I have gotten a lot better at protecting – and nurturing – my heart and sanity these days.
What I really wanted to say is that I find much solace – and hope – in your words Alda.
Thank you for your honesty – I know how much it hurts. xo
Alda, this post moved me quite a bit. For me, it was my father who was the toxic one. My older sister who is a therapist referred to him as King Baby. I have so many painful memories associated with him. He lived on for 13 years after my mother died and I always felt that he was just too mean or too scared to die. I do not miss him and did not cry when he passed. The confusing part for me was always the fact that he did have a good side, a wonderful sense of humor, a playfulness when he was in the right mood, a lot of wonderful knowledge. His best friend said at his memorial, “you were a son of a bitch, but I loved you”. I still don’t feel I can say I loved him. Thank god for those gifted psychiatrists who help us find the way out of that darkness. I sure needed one!