Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Art of NOT Feeling

Got a call from my narcissistic a-dad.

Not all that long ago, such a call would have been upsetting and triggering and would have left me churned up and tossing and turning all night.

I've hardly thought about it all.

Tonight, I experienced that phone call in a totally detached manner. I was able to roll my eyes and hang up the phone.

I'm trying to analyze this a bit because it goes to the very root of the issues I still struggle with today, in middle age, which are: feeling invisible and not taking myself seriously or respecting myself.

Here's how the call went:

A-Dad: Is that you, Nina? Did you send that candy I asked for?
Me: No, not yet. I had to go-
A-Dad: But I asked for that candy yesterday. Why haven't you sent it?
Me: Well, it's because I-
A-Dad: I really need it soon. When can you send it? Oh, did I tell you that my shoulder is....(goes on about the agony he is in)
Me: Oh, that's too bad, okay, I'll call your doctor tomorrow to see if....etc.
A-Dad: How are the girls?
Me: Fine, they-
A-Dad: (interrupts) How's Butchie? There's a disease that's going around killing dogs, etc. How's ______ (my husband)?
Me: Oh, he's fine too, but he's-
A-Dad: (interrupts) Well, about my shoulder, let me tell you (goes on again)...and when are you going to send that candy?
Me: Maybe tomorrow. I went to the dentist today and I'm...
A-Dad: Well, I really need that candy so don't forget. And don't forget to call the doctor about...You know, I really love hearing your voice. I get so lonely.

What I was TRYING to tell him, over and over again, was that I'd gone to the dentist and could hardly talk. At the end of the call, I practically had to shout that I was in such pain I had to go. I needn't have bothered. He totally ignored it. And before anybody reminds me that my a-dad has some dementia...yes he does, but this is the same treatment I got when I was a kid. I remember is clearly. Desperately trying to tell him something that happened to me at school or about my big plans for the future and he'd interrupt and talk about something somebody had done to him that had pissed him off, then get angry that I wasn't sympathetic enough. I was probably twelve.

By cutting me off and failing to let me finish a sentence or acknowledge what I just said or express any sort of empathy is....horrible. But I'm an adult. A grown-up who's lived in the wider world and had lots of therapy.

But to treat a CHILD that way? It's monstrous. How frightening for any child to remain so thoroughly unacknowledged.

No wonder I had no idea of how I felt...about anything. I was treated like I didn't exist...except to serve. I am only "loved"...not because of MY voice but because of my ability to listen and support and because I do things for him.

Was skimming through Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child and came across this quote: "They have all developed the art of not experiencing feelings, for a child can only experience his feelings when there is somebody there, who accepts him fully, understands and supports him."

Miller was actually talking about mothers. My mother was self-absorbed, too, in a different way. She was threatened by any emotion other than happy. A sad Nina was NOT allowed. She slapped me once for crying over a boyfriend because I'd scared her.

So I didn't feel. Not for the longest time. At least not true feelings. About many things, including my adoption.

If you have parents like these, adopted or not, read every book you can about emotionally detaching from them. If you can afford it, find a therapist who specializes in the aftermath of narcissistic parents. If they are destroying you and making a misery of your life, cut them out of your life or, at least, put up some very big boundaries that look like the fences in Jurassic Park to contain the T-Rex. But see? In the end, even that fence wasn't even strong enough.

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25 Comments:

Blogger Erika said...

when i was a child when i closed my eyes i actually felt numb like i wasnt there. i felt completely invisible.it got so bad that i was afraid to go to sleep cause i thought that i wouldnt exist.
ive spent a lifetime numbing.

10:24 PM  
Anonymous mia said...

I am putting up the fence too. My mother called yesterday and said she was getting ready to call the police because she hadn't heard from me in three days. She is NOT happy with the fence. Ugh.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Nina said...

Erika,

It's interesting to find out how others coped with being both desperated needed - for the wrong reasons - and discarded at the same time. Thank you for that. It's oddly comforting to hear from others who know what it's like b/c explaining it is crazymaking in itself because, often, narcissists are so cunning they can pass as normal!

MIA! Yippee! Good for you. Ya know, my husband goes a MONTH without calling his parents (not so nice either btw), but when they do talk, it's no big deal...no guilt. My girlfriend, who IS close to her 83 year old mom talks to her, maybe, once a week. And our parents wanna call the police after one day. Talk about a TETHER. And there you are, a busy wife and mother with TONS to do. But I getcha! I missed calling my dad ONE night and the next day he left a bunch of messages freaking out that I'd been killed in a car accident. That's not love. That's MANIPULATION all dressed up as concern. Stick to it, Mia!

8:35 AM  
Anonymous mia said...

So true Nina, so true.

Can you imagine the police showing up on our door and us saying "sorry officer but we just talked TWO days ago!" LOL

1:58 PM  
Blogger LeRoy Dissing said...

How to be human without being inhuman...a tough thing to do. I have thought about this before Nina when reading your posts. It just strikes me that to compensate for a narcisstic parent who has no boundaries, people want to throw up an "iron curtain". It seems as if it is over compensating to balance out the trauma suffered since childhood. I have wondered whether going from one extreme to the other causes a person to lose something important. I am not judging just making an observation. I see no one has totally disconnected from their narcisstic parent/aparent but I wonder if doing so totally is really that healthy. If it came down to self-survival one could/should do it? OR should it really have to get to that to cut it off? I have more questions than answers but I do agree totally in establishing/maintaining healthy boundaries like you have.

Hope you have a great weekend! As always, great post for thought.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Nina said...

Leroy, Mmmm. I suspect it depends on the type of narcissistic parent one has. For example, my a-dad. He is not barnyard dog mean. He is inconsistent. When he gets his way he acts jovial and happy enough. It makes dealing with him unpleasant, but "doable"...but dealing w/him is a moral obligation. My a-cousin is also a narcissist and she is VICIOUS and abusive. Her daughter has had no choice to cut off the relationship b/c her mother and she is better off for doing so. There may well be an element of retribution for the bad treatment we got as kids when we throw up boundaries as adults. Children of narcissists lost something already...and lose more all the time. It's a no win situation. We either continue to "take it" or lose bits and pieces of flesh.

11:22 AM  
Blogger LeRoy Dissing said...

Nina...agreed. I think each situation needs to be evaluated by the person being taken advantage of to determine if it is healthier to just "let it go" rather than trying to salvage something that never was there to begin with or worse, to continually be drained dry. Thanks for the perspective!

12:32 PM  
Anonymous justenjoyhim/judy said...

Still reading, Nina; just haven't commented in a long time. I always get so much from your posts.

This last post was like a lightbulb for me. There must be, as in all things, degrees of narcissism. The interrupting and cutting off sounds like my mom, but much more so in recent years as she's gotten older and since my dad died nearly 20 years ago. And to some extent one of my sisters. Degrees here, not nearly the extent of your father, though.

No wonder my husband has always said that when I'm with my family I tend to "disappear."

Anyways -- yes, very frustrating not being able to finish a sentence or having everything be about them. Glad you're able to distance yourself from his illness these days.

~ Judy/JustEnjoyHim

11:48 AM  
Blogger Elise said...

Hi Nina,

Nice to read another post.

When I had contact with my mother, I made no dent in her consciousness. Her life is in tatters, yet still she'll accept no help, no suggestions, no constructive brainstorming about how to make things better --- from me or either of my intelligent, capable, energetic brothers (both attorneys).

She wants to hold the reins so tightly that it's all that matters --- holding the reins. doesn't seem to register that she's in a ditch and has been for years now.

I'm tired of being invisible, of not being respected (hell, I'd settle for "heard"), of having my offers of real help ignored. All she wants is help maintaining her unsustainable, house-of-cards lifestyle...the one that doesn't acknowledge that she's old, she needs assisted living, she needs help. I've told her that if she works consistently with a geriatric care manager, I'd be open to coming back into her life. So far, no dice...

I can't do it any more. I don't know about whether it's the best or healthiest response, but it certainly FEELS healthier than having contact with her, being her door mat, and tacitly saying "it's OK".

It is NOT OK. Never was. But certainly even less so now. You're on your own, mom. Enjoy the ditch...at least you've still got the reins.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Nina said...

Nice to hear from you, Judy!

My first mom sounds a bit like your mom, although I'd call her self-absorbed...not narcissistic. Relatives say she's always been a talker, but has got much worse w/age and is prone to interrupting. We tend to blame lots of things on aging and, no doubt, it does cause changes. BUT, my adoptive aunt was close to 80 when she died and up to the end, she was loving and gracious and caring and she just made you feel so special b/c she'd really listen and look into your eyes. She was that way when she was young and that way the day she died. It's good that your husband noticed about you disappearing when you're around your family. It's validating. And shows that he's caring and observant.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Nina said...

Elise, With some people (like your mother), no real choice exist. They are so obliterating, so disregarding, that it's annihilation (sp?) of the self OR compliance because putting up boundaries simply doesn't work. Your mother sounds on the extreme end of the scale as far as narcissists go. Did I mention my new therapist, who specializes in n. parents, said most of his "healthy" clients - by necessity - cut ties? I found that comforting. Getting an elderly parent to accept the necessity of moving into assisted living is tough enough when they really need it, but when they are narcissistic...it becomes a NIGHTMARE. Hopefully, your mother will be forced by circumstances to working with the geriatric care manager which, btw, is an excellent decision. Even though you're not engaging w/your mother out of self-protection, it sounds like there's stuff you are still doing to monitor the situation from afar...kudos!

12:20 PM  
Blogger Celera said...

With respect to Leroy's comment, I am completely estranged from my afamily. This was my mother's decision as much as mine -- she put down terms that were unacceptable, and she knew they would be. She made this decision for my adad and sister, as well, and they accepted it. I tried to reconnect a few years ago and got more of the same.

I think Leroy's concern is a valid one, but maintaining contact wiht the NPD person is not always the best or only way to keep your humanity. You have to share that love and kindness with other people who are able to receive it.

Also, my mother is not someone I could have allowed to influence my children. Long after I stopped being afraid of her for myself, I knew that they didn't need someone like her to be a factor in their lives.

4:03 PM  
Anonymous Judy said...

Self-absorbed -- yes, that sounds more accurate, actually. Because in truth, I don't think she's truly narcissistic. There was once when I pointed out a time when she brought a difficulty of mine back to herself and she said that she had felt guilty about that ever since it happened. I don't think a narcissist would feel that way; I think a narcissist would again guilt the person saying that. That was my ex-husband.

Sooo . . . yeah. Self-absorbed. Thanks, that's a much better word. And yes, aging does bring out certain aspects of a personality more.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Erika said...

ive struggled for the past 10 years with the relationship with my mom. there is intense guilt there if i "cut her off".but staying in the relationship meant realizing that we would never really have a real relationship.she contacts me when it suits her, on her time and schedule.when something better comes up i can get dropped pretty fast.the needy times though can get really unbearable.

ive tried the best i can to put up boundaries and refuse to play into the happy family routine.as long as i can keep a comfortable distance and deal with her on neutral turf it is bearable.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Erika said...

just a quick after thought, spending time with her actually means denying who i am and denying what i endured.

i think thats why its so hard.that and knowing it will never change.

7:50 PM  
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