As a little girl, I knew my mom was different than other moms.
Other moms were kind, caring, and affectionate.
Mine was harsh, cold, and inattentive.
Other moms took their kids skating and to the playground.
My mom only offered me the back of her head as she watched her morning-to-night schedule of television shows.
Other moms played with them.
I eventually stopped asking my mom to play with me; the answer was always “no”.
When my friends would return to school after a sick day, they’d tell of their time spent cuddling with their mothers and watching cartoons. They bemoaned being back at school and wished they could have stayed home longer.
I, however, couldn’t wait to get back to school after a day spent sick at home. For me, those days consisted of being forced to stay in my bedroom alone; I was only allowed to come out to eat a meal or use the washroom. And then it was back in my bedroom, while my mom watched her lineup of daytime television. I have one memory of getting to watch “The Price is Right” with her on a sick day, and her reasoning was because the illness had been so severe it had warranted that small privilege. Consequently, I couldn’t wait to feel better and get back to school; back to my lovely elementary school teachers who bestowed on me the warmth and kindness I so yearned for.
I knew my mom was different than other moms when I scraped my knee after skidding out on my bike on the road one afternoon. I shrieked with horror to see the blood mixed with gravel, and feeling the tiny rocks and sand embedded in my wound. Hearing my screams and crying, my mom stormed out of the house, pulled me by the arm across the yard, and hollered at me for making a scene. I was rebuked for my reaction and for causing her embarrassment. I shouldn’t have cried like that. I learned that when I was hurt, to close my mouth and not have any needs; my needs got me in trouble.
I knew my mom was different when I spent an afternoon with my godmother and her son when I was about five years of age. We went for a walk to the hill at the water tower, and I fell and cut my knee on some broken glass. I remember holding in my hurt, and bracing myself for the tongue-lashing over the even small show of emotion. I had been taught what happened when I cried or expressed my needs. But instead, my godmother lovingly carried me to the nearby Family Resource Centre and Preschool, and bandaged me up with the supplies they offered. I remember my little heart bursting over how kind she had been; why wasn’t my mom like that? Oh, how I wished my mom was like that. Being jealous of other people’s loving moms was something I would become accustomed to.
I knew something was different with my mom as I grew older, too. As I got more vocal in my teenage years, I was berated for being argumentative. She never listened to me. When I approached difficult topics with her, she threw up her hands, became the victim, and never heard the thoughts I would share. I learned to scream and holler in frustration, which only caused me to get in more trouble (but at least it offered some temporary release). I had so much anger well up in me; but my parent – my guide in this life – refused to help me with it. In fact, she was the fuel to the flame, and then would defend herself in it. She never sought to draw out my heart and hear what the anger was about. She didn’t want to know. And so I held it in and suffered alone.
I knew all there was something different, something was “off” about my moms compared to other moms I saw, but I figured, “It’s just how she is”. There was no one who understood, my siblings just shrugged it off, and I was left feeling alone and bewildered.
I started biting my nails in early elementary. I developed a rich fantasy life as a young child; during the many hours that I was banished to my room, I would imagined someone coming to save me. I easily developed crushes on boys, because I yearned for the love I didn’t get from my mom, or from my enabling father who was a workaholic and emotionally absent. As a teenager, I started rebelling; I started abusing alcohol in grade 10, and by grade 12 I was partying every weekend. I dated guys who weren’t good for me. I lied to everyone around me because I didn’t want them to know. At 20, I was diagnosed with depression and started taking medication. I was still biting my nails.
But mom was just mom. She was just different than other moms. Oh well.
Meanwhile, I was falling apart and didn’t know why. I was drowning my wounds in whatever I could find that was still socially acceptable enough to appear normal.
And the worse part was, I was berated by my mother for the very symptoms she had caused. I was gross because I bit my nails; I should stop. I was persecuted emotionally because I had rebelled. I was dirty because I had done the unspeakable (have sex before marriage). I was crazy because I struggled with depression. All of these things were used as tools against me, and reasons why my thoughts and feelings were never validated. I was ostracized and my failings and my flaws simply made me easy prey.
Into my early adult years, I started getting help and healing for the wounds. I began pulling back the layers slowly, and started realizing that I was not the problem; I was not crazy, and I was not the cause of the emotional symptoms I had experienced. Maybe I wasn’t just flawed, after all.
But the dynamics with my mom continued.
I remember one situation very clearly, that marked the beginning of my pulling back from her. I was pregnant with my first child, and we had been visiting my parents. My husband had to go back to work, so he left and I stayed a couple of extra days by myself. While out and about shopping with my mom, the subject of a particularly toxic ex-boyfriend came up (he had been abusive to me in very similar ways that my mom was – and he may as well have been satan incarnate, for how much she liked him). I mentioned that he was a friend of mine on Facebook (because at this point, I had healed from the relationship and only saw him as someone who had once been important to me); my mom was indignant at this, and responded that her and my dad had seen he was on my friend list. She got very upset, and tore up one side of me and down the other; how dare I keep in contact with such a terrible person? How dare I keep in contact with him when I am now married? Did Kris know about this? I assured her he did and didn’t care, that he trusted me and didn’t feel threatened by some dysfunctional guy I had dated when I was 19. I called her out on her awful behaviour, and told her how ridiculous she was being. How was this about her, I demanded to know? How did she have the right to be hurt – of all things – about this decision I had made that did not affect her?! Of course, that escalated it further, and she clammed up, as she always did when she knew she was beat. With lips pursed (I can still see this common expression of hers so clearly), she didn’t say another word to me. We got back to their place, and I went my room and wept, pregnant belly shaking. I couldn’t believe she had treated me like that, carrying a child nonetheless. As I lay there, I wrongly assumed that if she knew just how upset I was, she would surely feel remorseful and make it right with me. (I can see now that I suffered for many years with Stockholm Syndrome and trauma bonding – the only way to explain that I still had hope that she would be kind.) I went upstairs to speak with her, and got another tongue lashing; her defenses all came out, she threw up her hands as she’s always done, and reminded me why she was the poor victim of her disrespectful daughter’s awful behaviour. This was a small turning point for me: that she would be so insensitive and abusive to me – while I was carrying my child – didn’t sit right with me. I was starting to see that this had always been the norm. But seeing it and trying to beat it didn’t stop it.
Her abusive behaviour and manipulations continued, and only worsened as I started speaking against it. She has perfected the victim deflection, and my enabling father took part too. I started putting up boundaries, and they reacted harshly. The Christmas I was pregnant and near my due date, my anger finally blew one day. Tired, overwhelmed, and annoyed, I lashed out at them for not helping at all when they stayed with us; I was carrying a child and was not feeling well, and thought that was normal that parents would want to help lift the load off of their pregnant daughter. But instead of help once they knew how I felt, they tore into me about how ungrateful I was and how ridiculous it was that I expect help; my dad told me later that “my behaviour” had ruined Christmas for everyone.
One of the last times we stayed with my parents, this abusive dynamic played out yet again; they locked my husband and I (pregnant with #2 at the time), and our 2 year old son, out of their place after we had gone to the beach early one morning. They didn’t call to tell us they were leaving and didn’t leave a key. When I confronted my mom after hours of driving around waiting for them to come home, I was told I was being mean, and given the usual run-down of victim-speak. I now knew that this was the norm, and there was no working things out with her. But I was the problem, right?
Not knowing what else to do, I continued to speak my mind, willfully hoping they would eventually hear me; the conflict only escalated. They started trying to find reasons for why I was acting like this towards them, but never pointed their fingers inward. Even though I had been off of anti-depressants and feeling great for a number of years by now, the family made assumptions that my “poor behaviour” was due to depression, or I wasn’t handling mother hood very well. They couldn’t understand why I was acting the way I was. I was clearly the problem, not them.
With two young boys now in my life and in my heart, I delved further into healing so that I could be free to be the mother I needed. I wanted to be the mother I wished I had. And as it turned out, motherhood became my redemption. Motherhood was what opened my eyes, over a period of many years, to what I was really dealing with. I started waking up to realize that I could never imagine treating my children the way my mom treated me.
I took my kids to the library and the park, I sat on the ground and built train tracks, I chased and wrestled and giggled. I was open to hear my kids tell me when they hurt my feelings, and I owned it, apologized, and made it right. None of these were things I had experienced as a kid. And I began seeing that how I was raised was not normal. It was the opposite of normal. And it had affected me greatly.
Motherhood showed me that what I had experienced growing up (and as an adult) was not just “mom being mom”; it wasn’t just that my mom was different than other moms.
As I delved more into this, and began reading about it, I was shocked to fully realize what I had experienced as a child had a name. There were words to describe what I had been victim to.
Psychological abuse. Emotional abuse. Neglect. Gaslighting.
My mom wasn’t just harsh. Or dysfunctional. Or just different from other moms. My mom was abusive. My family system was abusive.
In addition to this, I came to learn that my mom has the covert version of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And that is what they do to their children. The lack empathy, they project, they defend, and they neglect. They look after themselves first and foremost, and lack the basic instincts to care and nurture for their children beyond the basic necessities. They twist the truth, make their children question their sanity, and are never open to hearing and reconciling conflict. But will tell everyone else you are the problem.
Narcissists are incapable of empathy. If you look to them for the nurturing, caring, and empathy that you needed as a child and a mother should provide, you’re looking in the wrong place. They will not provide it, and looking for it will give them another reason to rebuke you for your errors and prey on your weaknesses.
All of that is just one part of the abuse. The second part of the abuse is that they will never admit these things; they will never own any of it, never mind change their behaviour when they know how it affects you.
People with NPD can never recognize their faults. In their minds, they just don’t have any. They’ve never done anything wrong, therefore there is nothing they need to take responsibility for. If you’ve been hurt, it must have been your fault. If you bring something to their attention, they will flip it on you and become the victim. They will tell you things like “I’m always the problem”, or “I can never do anything right” to avoid having to own their actions and apologize. (And this act works with many of the people around them. Some of these mothers have Munchausen Syndrome, in which they also create illness in order to be seen as weak and remain the victim.)
And change their behaviour? Never. They don’t need to change. It’s you who’s the problem. And on top of it, if you address their behaviour, your memory and your sanity will be questioned.
They will round up an army around them who will take their side and who will defend them to the death; they will always make excuses for their poor behaviour. “Mom just doesn’t know any better.” “She doesn’t mean anything by it.” “Don’t be so hard on her – she’s old.” She is an expert at appearing weak to remain the victim; as long as she is the victim, she will never have to be responsible or have to change her behaviour. And she will always have a group of people who she has convinced of this, so anyone who questions the dynamic becomes the monster. Never her.
She will gaslight you, and raise her children to be expert gaslighters too; if you have a problem with her, you must be depressed. That memory of her lying to you or hurting you? You’re remembering wrong, that never happened. You’re just being over-sensitive and making a mountain out of a molehill. That’s silly. And her army of supporters will do the same thing to you.
She will project onto you the very thing she is and does. She was the one who struggled with depression and lied about the purpose of that little blue pill on her placemat every night, but it must be you who has depression and isn’t ok. She was the one who acted poorly and hurt people’s feelings, but somehow it’s you who does that. She was the one who hurt people and could never apologize, but she will find a way to say that it is you who always does the hurting.
But the worst part of all of this, is that it’s hidden. People outside of the family will rarely see these things; heck, people inside the family are often blind to it too. Narcissists are experts at keeping up a facade of being a great person, a great mother, a great wife. But behind closed doors, they are something different.
Nobody knew my mom locked me in my room every afternoon until I was 6 to make me take “naps” while she watcher her afternoon line-up of soap operas. Nobody knew my mom forced me to stay in my room for days at a time when I was home sick. Nobody knew my mom never taught me about sex and periods. Nobody knew my mom lashed out at me and never heard my heart. Nobody knew my mom didn’t comfort me when I needed it. Nobody knew my mom, ironically, was the biggest reason I needed comfort. Nobody knew there was a little girl who was dying inside who was waiting for someone to come and save her.
But no one came, because no one knew.
Survivors of narcissistic abuse usually suffer alone, because it’s often not obvious what is being done to them. If they were to speak out, people usually don’t believe them. Very frequently, the siblings themselves often can’t or won’t acknowledge it either; either they were the golden child who didn’t receive the same poor treatment, they’re suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and can’t see or admit to the abuse, or they are fearful of speaking out.
Sometimes we ourselves have a hard time pinpointing the abuse. We spent a lifetime being gaslighted – told we were crazy, too sensitive, imagining things, or simply telling lies. Our inner guidance system is like an engine who’s wires have all been disconnected, so trusting our gut is something we have to relearn. Many of us who have suffered this type of abuse have a hard time trusting ourselves, because we’ve spent so much time suffering alone and coming to the conclusion that maybe we really are the crazy one. No one else seems to notice, so maybe we are the problem after all.
What also makes the abuse difficult to see, is that Narcissists work really hard to keep up a facade that would refute anything that would accuse them of their behaviours – they are often well-liked people, are active in church communities, and even adopt children (more on that in a coming post, as I was adopted). We don’t have physical scars to prove what was done; we only have a wounded heart and the lingering symptoms of trauma (nail biting, depression, anxiety, trust issues, hyper-vigilance, just to name a few). And, we’ve been taught to be silent.
Often we’re not only taught to be silent, we’re threatened to remain so. To speak out would be to expose the lies and the entire dysfunction system that the family works with. The narcissist has their army’s full loyalty, and anyone speaking out will be the victim of more gaslighting, smear campaigns, and control tactics.
Speaking out is literally to stand in front of a firing squad.
Well, here I am. I am speaking out. Let the weapons fire.
Is it easy to speak up? No, it’s not. Isn’t it disrespectful to speak up, to tell the stories of others’ flaws without their permission? No, it isn’t. The very person who tries to hide the truth is the one who needs to be exposed. A person who sees the wrongs they have done, and have sought reconciliation, aren’t scared of their stories being told; only the abusers who are still hiding their abuse are the ones who are scared. It is not my job to protect the very people who should have protected me and didn’t. It is not my job to protect those who hurt me and have never sought to make it right. It IS my job to be honest, and to heal.
So honest I will be. Because to heal, we need to speak. We need to expose this stuff, so that even while we’re in the arena bleeding, we can let someone else know we’re here in the thick of it, and we’re doing okay. Honesty about our stories encourages other people to step into the arena to take back their life. Sometimes we need to see someone else do it to know that we can, too.
Because maybe there is someone out there who also knew their mom was different. But hasn’t been able to really put their finger on it.
Maybe someone reading this is finally having their abuse validated, and feels a glimmer of hope thinking that maybe they are not inherently unlovable and worthless.
Maybe this will help someone who has struggled because they didn’t have the love and nurturing they needed as a child. I hope this helps someone out there know that it wasn’t them who was the problem. I also hope it helps someone realize this isn’t normal, and that they were done wrong.
So if you are also a survivor of the psychological abuse from a narcissistic mother (or any narcissist, really), I want to say, I’m glad you’re here. Your experience is valid. Your feelings are valid. You are not crazy. You are not the problem. You are worthy of love and empathy. You are loveable. Having a narcissistic mother leaves a child alone and damaged, but the damage is repairable.
There is hope.
Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. – Ephesians 5:11