I was just a newborn when my mum had a recurrent nightmare. She was swimming in the ocean, holding me in her arms. Suddenly, I started slipping and she couldn’t catch me back. I sank to the bottom of the water as if I had been dragged from the surface by mysterious forces.
When she was pregnant with me, she almost miscarried. The midwife urged her to consult a therapist.
“Madam, I don’t know what the source of stress in your life is, but if it goes on you will lose your child.”
At 40, driven by a strong desire to have a second and last child, she decided to consult a psychiatrist to pull herself together. After only a few sessions, the psychiatrist, a specialist of the infamous “cluster b”, which includes narcissistic, histrionic, sociopathic, and borderline personality disorders, asked her the following question:
“Isn’t your companion a bit of a mythomaniac?”
My mother laughed at him. She couldn’t have been lied to for so many years.
The following week, worried for the father of her future child, who had to be hospitalized for a week due to his cancer, she decided to call his parents. Maybe they had heard from him.
I can only imagine her reaction when they told her that he was actually on vacation in their country house. They had never heard about a cancer.
Her world fell apart. She knew my father’s unpredictable temper was abnormal, and she had suffered during pretty much all of their relationship. But he had convinced her he would become a better man because learning he had cancer had been a profound shake.
Here is what he said to her when she left him:
“If it’s a girl I’ll steal her from you, if it’s a boy I’ll never give him anything.”
I was a baby girl. A 14 years-long legal battle ensued, at the end of which a judge finally changed the shared custody order so I wouldn’t have to visit my father anymore. Thanks to therapy, my Mum and I were able to understand that my father had a narcissistic personality disorder.
A person with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is more than narcissistic
Like all personality disorders, narcissism exists on a spectrum. We can all be comforted by our egos when our peers give us negative feedback. We all have trouble in judging our worth and the legitimacy of our actions objectively.
However, people who bear an excessive narcissistic tendency have built a personality around an infallible “I” who cannot tolerate being challenged. A sense of self to which unlimited freedom would be granted to protect their fragile ego. A self that can destroy if it feels attacked. At the edge of paranoia and delirium, an irrational ego that goes into fits of rage because it cannot manage its emotions (this is a common characteristic of patients in the cluster B).
The mental health damages of having a parent with NDP are forever engraved in a child’s mind.
NPD patients need to be in control
Raised mainly by my mother in a village of 400 inhabitants in the middle of the French countryside, I received the free-range education that revolts so many parents on the other side of the Atlantic.
My hair was never carefully combed, nor had I worn clothes that I could not get dirt on. In fact, my mother always watched me from a single eye, or rather ear, and would eagerly admit that only a cry of terror or a deathly silence could indicate that I was in danger.
But when my father came to pick me up, the rules were not the same. He watched me at all times, directed my every move. He picked the cloth I wore until late in my childhood, and show disgust for the bowl cut my Mum famously styled my hair with.
He was so paranoid that he came to my bedroom several times every night, with a flashlight, to check if I was breathing. A creepy thing he continued to do until my teenage years.
He decided when I could play and with what toy. He took care to determine which children I could talk to but ended friendships I’d made once I got too attached, or if I revealed the sordid details of his parenting methods.
Often, he’d forbid me to do my homework, pretexting it was a waste of time. If he was always interested in the way I appeared in front of his friends, he hardly cared about my education.
One day, while I was about to return to my mother’s house, I realized I had lost my diary, a gift he offered me. At the age of seven, barely knowing how to write, I was thrilled about the present. When I returned the following week, I learned that he “stumbled upon it”, and that he read it thoroughly. He did not refrain from reproaching me, in another nervous breakdown, the unpleasant things I had written about him. The shameful girl I was had filled a page with big letters “Daddy is grumpy”.
A few years later, he gave me a cell phone. Of course, I was too young to have a use for it. Besides, none of my friends owned one. So when I wasn’t playing “snake” I texted my mother, who was at the other side of the room, with sweet love declarations. My father, who, by some subterfuge, had been able to get his hands on the device, imploded with jealousy. I preferred giving him back the object of discord, rather than get myself into more trouble.
People who suffer from a NPD are unable to manage their emotions
I was terrified when my father entered narcissistic rages. Almost every day, he unleashed his fury for senseless motives.
The first time I used the electric toothbrush, my gums bled.
“Dad, I’m afraid my teeth will fall out if my gums bleed”.
There followed hours of anger, my father exhibiting erratic behavior, bordering on insanity, kneeling on his bed crying and shouting.
“What have I done to God to get a child like this?”.
A sane person couldn’t understand why someone would make such a story of their child acting silly.
Another day I asked him for permission to play in my bedroom while we were watching his favorite childhood movie. I think he took it very badly because he started screaming for hours, threatening my mother and insulting me.
I never knew what his reaction was going to be. I tried to be as quiet and invisible as I could, so he wouldn't notice me. He often asked me trick-questions, the ones I knew if I answered wrong, I’d get in trouble.
“When we’ll see the judge, will you sit on your mum or daddy’s lap?”
I was horrified at the thought of being taken away from my mother to be put into my father’s custody, a fantasy he entertained, and which he did not mind telling me about.
Narcissistic people are capable of anything to crush their opponents
Of course, my father hated my mother. He often saw himself throwing her in jail.
One day, I went to his place after getting head bugs, I must have been 5 or 6 years old. He was so paranoid that he thought my mother had injured my head (that would apparently explain crusts I got after scratching). He forced me to say she hurted me. As I refused to accuse her, he became furious. I was a liar, I had to talk.
He took me to the police station. Sitting in the waiting room, I was very impressed. He pointed to a teenager who was coming out in handcuffs accompanied by two policemen.
“See, you’re going to be like this if I don’t raise you by myself, a little thug”.
Throughout my childhood, he must have brought me to the police station a dozen times for ridiculous reasons. He was convinced that he would bring down the only person who dared to stand up to him and leave.
Narcissistic patients can act in a perverse manner
When I was 4, I started to dislike fish. This wouldn’t have gone far if my father hadn’t put his foot in it.
He couldn’t stand the idea that his daughter wasn’t perfect, especially when we were in public. He served me a dish that I didn’t like at least at one meal a day for several years. I had to eat pretending I had never felt the slightest bit of disgust. When I got halfway down, I was nauseous. If I dared to say that I didn’t want to eat anymore, he would go into a rage that could last for hours.
He probably thought he had successfully rehabilitated me when he took me to a seafood restaurant with some friends. He ordered for me a dish of fish, perfectly knowing how I felt about it. I knew I couldn’t show anything in front of his guests. After a few bites, I felt unresistible nausea. Fearful tears ran down my cheeks as I swallowed my mouthfuls. I knew what to expect when we’ll be back to his appartement.
To keep up appearances, he apologized to his friends:
“It’s because of her mother that she’s like that. She’s crazy.”
I think it was the last time we’d met them.
People who suffer from NPD don’t know they suffer from NPD
Imagine a staunch defender of the flat earth. To him, the planet can’t be a sphere, it’s a conspiracy from the scientific society of the Illuminati-lizard-pedophile-democrats.
Well, for that person, every time his conspiracy theory is contradicted, a cognitive dissonance crosses his mind. To lessen the dissonance, which the brain doesn’t like very much, he will comfort himself in the idea that people who don’t believe him are wrong.
For a narcissist, his entire life rests on the inability to question himself. He cannot be wrong, make a mistake, or misbehave.
It is often said that you should never tell someone that he is suffering from the NPD, at the risk he could turn violent. This is, in my opinion, the worst dissonance a person can feel. What if his whole life he hadn’t been the great person he imagined himself to be? These are people who have often committed morally or even criminally reprehensible acts throughout their lives. How do you deal with the guilt of a lifetime? It’s impossible.
A few years ago, I asked my father the following question:
“Do you think you made some mistakes as a father”?
He refused to answer, flushed with anger. How could I have dared to suggest that he wasn’t a perfect father?
“Your mother planted all sorts of ideas in your head.”
What ideas was he talking about? I don’t know. I think it must have awakened in him a vague memory of past mistakes, which he continues making every day that he is alive. Incapable of facing them.
It is difficult for the judicial system to protect the children of parents who have a NPD
When I was a child, my mother took me to see a child psychiatrist hoping it would help me cope with my distress. The therapist made me a promise: the things I’ll say in her office room would never leave the room.
I kept begging not to see my father again. I clung to the doors when he was picking me up. I must have been 7 years old when the psychiatrist told me she could help me not see my father anymore. For that, I had to tell everything that was going on so that she could write a letter to the judge. As a child, it was difficult to describe what was happening. Psychological abuse is much more difficult to explain than physical abuse, especially when you are 7 years old. I tried as best I could to tell how much my father scared me.
At that age, of course, I had no idea that judicial procedures require the parties to be informed of the exhibits they will bring against each other.
My father saw the letter written by the therapist.
When I went to his house the following weekend, he had a special greeting for me.
“You said lies about your father? he yelled. And your mother, she sent you to see a shrink! I knew it, you are insane, like your mother!”
For the next few years, I didn’t say a word at the therapist sessions. I wasn’t blaming her, but what I wanted to say was stuck in my throat.
“If I speak, he will make me pay for it. Last time he put me through hell. I’m scared. You can’t understand, you cannot protect me. If you try anything, you may hurt me even more.”
Behind these thoughts, which I still vividly remember as they crept through my mind without finding the courage to be spoken out loud, were trapped many other stories of psychological and verbal abuse.
Psychological abuse is what we call an “evil proof”, in France where I live. It is impossible to verify. People who have a narcissistic personality disorder only act up when they are in the private sphere. Unless they are filmed or secretly recorded, it is difficult to demonstrate that narcissistic parents hurt their children’s mental health. However, these methods of proof are inadmissible in court.
Narcissistic personality disorders are still very difficult to diagnose. Patients almost never consult by themselves. I strongly believe my father’s pathology relies on a violent type of mechanism of defense, which makes it almost impossible to obtain any sincere statement from him. Around his peers, my father exhibits the typical perfect and charming behavior of narcissistic people. He was able to fool psychological experts in the past, as expertises often rely on a single session. In addition, psychiatrists almost never meet real narcissistic patients, as I said earlier, they don’t go to therapy. Why going to therapy when you are perfect?
I hope one day, we will find an efficient procedure to spot narcissistic abuse and other forms of psychological and verbal abuse on children. My Mum was never able to prove abuse in front of a court, and I waited 14 years to obtain the modification of my custody order.
Sometimes, when I recall those disturbing memories, I share them with my mother. I’m surprised by how little I told her when I was younger.
“I thought I had already told you this Mum.
- No, you might think you did, but you didn’t, I’d certainly remember if you had”.
Recently, I thought back about one piece of memory I had apparently kept silent during all those years.
“I remember that, when I was about 3, I was sitting on the backseat of my father’s car, crying, but making as little noise as I could, murmuring “I want to see my mummy”. I knew that if he heard that, I’d get in serious trouble, but I can’t say what was it that I feared exactly. In fact, I only remember the fear itself”.
My mother starred at me, seemingly moved.
“Actually, one of my first memories with him was that time when he took me on a train.
- I know, you were just a baby.
- I couldn’t stop crying, asking for you, Mum. I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t bring me back home. I don’t know what he did to me ,later that evening, but it was, without a doubt, the last time I ever cried or manifested any distress in front of him. I knew it was forbidden.
- How could one do that to a baby? She replied. If I had know at that time? You weren’t even speaking yet!
- I don’t know how you’ve done to handle the situation, how you simply could bear with it for 14 years. I can’t picture having to put my child in the hands of someone like that.
- Well, I’ve dealt with it, one day at a time. It was terribly hard, especially when you were a baby. You know, I’ve drawn a recurrent nightmare for many years: You were just a newborn, and I was holding you in my arms. We were in the ocean, when suddenly...”