Thursday, August 7, 2014

Adult Children of Narcissists: It's Not You, It's Them

I had this post rattling around composing itself in my head overnight, after talking to my mom last night, which means it's time to write it down.  Not everything is funny all the time, (actually, most of life isn't funny, most of the time), but I needed to write this one and get it out of my head and off my heart. 

I can already promise you, I'm going to go long on this one.  It's been hard to write, and even harder to hit *publish*.  

Where to start?

If you know me, and most of you don't, you may know that my parents divorced in 1988, after 21 years together, and about 18 months after our house (that we built) burned to the ground.  I was barely 18; my brother was 12.  My dad was, (and is) an alcoholic, womanizing narcissist with the IQ of a genius, the motivation of a sloth, and the wiliness of a fox.  He was born with the proverbial silver spoon, to wealthy parents who worshipped him and would have given him the moon, if he'd done what they wanted (Yale doctorate, the Air Force, marry a socialite, and live in a mansion on the beach at Ocean City). 

Instead he started drinking, smoking, and philandering in prep school, and he just never stopped.  Even after meeting my mom and spending 21 years married, he never stopped.  He pretended to be sober and even dragged himself to church for about a decade in the 80s with us, while spending exactly no time at any job, but lots of time scribbling new business schemes on napkins and rambling about black helicopters.  He never expressed any interest in us as a family or his responsibilities as a husband and father, unless there was credit to be taken.  He was good at showing up when we were getting awards for stuff.

When I was 16, our house burned down, while my mom was visiting back east in DC.  Three days away, by train.  In fact, it caught fire the morning she was getting on the train, so she got to sit there on a train for 3 days, knowing that she was coming home to:  Nothing.  Rumors abounded that he had set the fire in order to avoid a) bankruptcy and foreclosure or b) having to say that, hey, I hate being married and having a family.  Can you please go away now? So, maybe he did…no one knows but him.  Either way, it worked out pretty great for him, one might think, except for the part where we all still didn't go away.  We're funny that way.

After the fire, our family moved into a rental.  We had a fundraiser and got a bunch of lame second-hand stuff given to us so we could have clothes and shoes and chairs and beds and plates, and our family rolled along under the pretense that we were still a family, in the sense that we all still shared an address.  He started working out of town, which is code for…living a separate life in another town with his new girlfriend(s).  Mom made sure that my brother and I didn't see anything wrong for about another year and a half, until she finally took a hint that maybe this guy just doesn't want to BE HERE anymore. 

 She took my brother and moved back to Vermont, leaving me in Idaho to finish my last 3 months of high school and live on my own, one month shy of my 18th birthday.  I had been dating my now-husband/hero/best friend/soul mate for about 8 months by then, so she couldn't have dragged me with her if she'd tried.  I'm glad I stayed, but it wasn't an easy place to be at 18 years old, with a closet full of *nothing you recognize from your childhood*, a failed plan to get to college, no money or job, and my dad waving his new girlfriend in our face.

My POINT today is that, all these years, we have kept in touch with this man.  We have (and yes, I mean, EVEN MY MOTHER) actually met and accepted many of his various girlfriends along the way.  I truly liked several of them.  Nice women.  Smart women.  Women who were willing to listen to his BS story and carry his weight for awhile, until each one realized they needed to get away from this self-aborbed man before their lives imploded.

My mom spent her married life telling herself that if only he'd get sober, he'd be OK.  So, we watched him go through AA and get sober, after they divorced.  He stayed sober for 10 years, (for real), and you know what? Nothing changed.  He was still the same soul-less narcissist whose stories are all basically just lies…only he tells them in such a way that you believe them, and you realize that he seems to believe them, too.  That is when you realize you may be dealing with a mad man.

We watched him, after 10 years of sobriety (though still a narcissistic center-of-his-own-universe kind of guy), get involved with yet another new woman.  She liked to have wine with dinner, and she can have had no earthly way of knowing what she was encouraging, but he started having "a glass of wine with dinner.  We're all grownups here.  I can have a glass of wine with dinner.  I'm fine."  This fairly quickly escalated downhill.  Fast-forward to today, where it's more like a "glass of scotch with brunch".  Or two.  There have been years where I knew he was coming, so I stashed my Christmas-baking mini-bottles of rum and brandy in the back of my baking cabinet, and after he had gone home, they were all empty.  He did sneakily leave the ones at the front of the cabinet, still somewhat full, but the ones in the back?-- EMPTY. 

WTH? Really?  You have to sneak my rum?  Just ask me…you can have it.

We have all have tried to include him at various holidays through the years.  My mom, God bless her soul, has stayed in our home for the holidays with him here, and there is no crazy drama.  There are no fights, no tears, no recriminations.  They actually laugh together a lot.  They've known each other the longest, and she's honestly possibly the only person on the planet who has been involved with him, and yet still will speak to him, and she has the least reason of anyone alive.  If that's not grace, I don't know what is…

These days I usually go about a year or so without talking to him.  He'll call once a year, usually right before his birthday (and 3 weeks AFTER mine, but who's counting), and mention that it's his birthday coming up.  Me:  Oh.  Right.  Yeah, happy birthday.  Mine was 3 weeks ago…

I wouldn't expect him to remember it, though, because as the story goes…he wasn't even home the night my mom went into labor with me, and no one could find him to tell him she was in the hospital. Their parents were all frantic. Where is he? We are at the hospital! It turned out he was spending some *quality time* with one of the cocktail waitresses at the bar where he worked that night, so he couldn't be bothered to be there for something like the birth of his first child.  So, yeah…I can see why he'd have a hard time remembering that date.

The last few times I've called him, he has begun to sound like a weepy old drunk, which means I called too late in the day (4:30 p.m.? really?) and he's already had too many.  Our conversations will go for about five minutes, and then he starts mumbling and sounding slurry and then…wait.  ARE YOU CRYING RIGHT NOW? Do NOT be crying.  I can not even deal with crying drunk mumbling. 

I hang up.  Wait…no, I don't hang UP.  I nicely say-- What? I'm, uh..having trouble hearing what you're saying, so I'll let you go, Dad.  Talk to you later.  I love you.

Yes, I still say that.  Even so.  Even though I will have a hard time attending his actual funeral for just lack of effing interest, I still say that.  When I love someone, I just…do.  Which makes me sad to even write, because I know he probably doesn't.  Not that *I'm* not love-able, but that he's NOT CAPABLE of feeling it.  Maybe narcissists really can only truly love themselves.  Maybe they truly are missing that part of their soul or their conscience that can feel empathy or love for anyone but themselves.  What a sad place to be, never knowing what it is to love someone else, not even your own children.  What a lot of love to miss out on.

I can't change that for him, and he's running out of years.  He's already had an aneurysm repair and some heart stuff, and he's been smoking and drinking hard for almost 60 years, so yeah, NOW might be a good time.  But I'm not holding my breath.  

After a lot of years of anger, tears, frustration and pain caused by this self-absorbed, charismatic, intelligent, damaging man, the three of us have, indeed, forgiven.  We have all, in our own ways, given up hope of change--yet we stay in touch.   We don't forget the past, so much as we seem to paint our past with that hazy airbrush of time.  We smile and say 'water under the bridge'.  We remember the crazy fun of growing up in the 70s, in a cabin in the woods.  I remember a childhood I loved, where my mom kept the dysfunction carefully out of sight.  Through that hazy filtered light, we have been able to spend time this man, who destroyed our family and has left a trail of tears behind him all his life, and we can break bread and laugh together.  But somehow, I always come away from those times feeling battered and angry and cheated, all over again.  I can feel tears that haven't been shed, even now.

I woke up with that feeling this morning, but I had sort of a revelation, too.

After talking to my mom last night, I was reminded yet again that this man took himself out of this family (or never really joined it), A LONG TIME AGO.  I realized that maybe it's just *us* who aren't getting on board with the whole concept of:  Divorced And Moved On.

Leaving aside the fact that he spent their whole actual marriage and my childhood not being present in our lives, unless it was to take credit for me being a smart kid or my brother being the best soccer player on the team, we have somehow been blind to the fact that, when they divorced, he expected to actually be DONE with all of this parenting/family stuff.

How did we miss that?

Mom still sends him Christmas gifts.  WHOSE EX-WIFE STILL SENDS THEM FREAKING CHRISTMAS GIFTS??! This was not an amicable split.  He cheated with every woman possible, for the length of their entire relationship.  He overlapped the end of their marriage with the next woman.  He is not sorry that we're not around.  He doesn't miss us.  I'm beginning to think that he can't, for the life of him, understand why we still keep turning up.  He is getting to where he can't even remember our names--that is the extent of his familial warmth.

The last time he was in town was September 2012, when he called to let us know he'd be in the area (not to see US, mind you--he has friends here.  We just happen to also live here).  They were here for a long weekend, so he came to our house with his latest lady-friend (who I haven't bothered to get to know…I'm sure she's nice though).  He hadn't been here in about 5 years, yet he still managed to walk into our house, straight through the living room, and out the back door, where he lit a cigarette and wandered around my back yard, leaving me inside with…"I'm sorry, what was your name again?" Unbelievable. 

The kids were at school, so he and the lady-friend followed me over to our school, where our youngest had a volleyball game, so I thought, "Well, OK then.  Grandpa can watch her game."  We sat down, and my oldest girl showed up to watch (and possibly see her grandfather...)  He immediately mixed up BOTH their names and called them each the wrong name.  He was watching the game and was like, "Yay, Sabrina!" …Sabrina was sitting right next to us, so she's like, "Um.  I'm. right. here.  That's Sydney...on the court." 

He then managed to find a reason why they couldn't stay to see Sydney WIN THE FREAKING GAME, because "We really have to go".  I was like Where?? You're on vacation, and it's 4:30.  Stay and watch the last 8 minutes of this game.  Nope. Had to go.  

My kids looked at me like WTH Mom?  I can't even-- just-- nevermind.  It's not you.  Trust me, IT IS NOT YOU. 

It's taken me a lot of years to get where I believe that, without doubt.  I was blessed in that I didn't spend the after-divorce years wondering if it was my brother's and my fault, or what if I'd been a better kid, or what if this or that.  He wouldn't have stayed, no matter what was different, because his life is about him and what works for him, and nothing else.  It's not me.  It's him.  

I did spend a few years refusing to admit that all my uncontrolling midnight crying bouts and borderline suicidal thoughts could have meant I needed some help, but they passed.

I was also blessed in that Mom hid the crazy stuff from us.  I grew up liking my dad.  I didn't know there was a mess behind the scenes, until they separated.  I didn't grow up with abuse, or belittlement, or feeling abandoned.  He was never around, but I remember believing he thought I was pretty special, (except I was pretty sure he wished I was a boy).  

As it happens, I like how I turned out, thanks 100% entirely to my mom, and in spite of whatever he was or wasn't.  I met a man who I find smart and sexy and fun and honorable, who thinks I'm awesome, too, and we haven't carried these issues with us into our marriage, and I would thank God fasting for that fact, except that I don't really fast.  

Sadly, I have heard so many stories of people who grew up with a similar parent…and are in such a different place.  A harder place.  A painful, unhappy place that follows them around for years.  I wish I could hug all of them and tell them it's going to be OK, and that it's NOT THEM.  

I have to remind my own girls that they don't have a grandfather involved in their lives, but it's NOT THEM.  It's him.  He's the one who's missed out on some really amazing people, by not getting to know any of us.  That doesn't make us any less amazing.

My stories are always long, so if you're still here, thanks for listening while I ramble on.

My original point started with my conversation from yesterday with my mom.  She just got back from a visit to California to see her sister.  My dad happens, and I literally mean he happens to live less than 2 blocks away from my aunt.  What are the odds?  So, it is completely not unusual for my aunt to literally bump into him when she walks her dog.  Every day.  And of course, when mom visits my aunt, she will stop in at his house (because--hello, she was literally walking past his front yard) and go-- "Hey, I'm in town.  Let's get together for a quick visit."

Last night she told me that she did exactly this, last month when she was there.  They made a plan for her to come by at 1 p.m. the next day for an iced tea on the porch.  She went over there the next day, and she, his lady-friend, and my dad sat on their front porch for a total of about 20 minutes.  Then she said he simply got up and went inside.  She thought he was going for a drink and coming back, but when he came back out, they had this conversation:

Him:  Well.  It's time for my nap.

Her:  What?  You're kidding, right? I've been here 20 minutes.

Him:  Nope.  I'm going in now.

Her:  Oh.  Wow.  OK…well, I guess I'll see you maybe next year or something.

Him:  Yeah.  Unless the creek rises.    (whatever that means)

And he went inside, leaving her with the lady-friend.  Not like there's a lot to talk about THERE, so she left.

Listening to her tell this story made me start thinking about this whole thing with him over the years, and I realized something.  He really did check out of our family a very long time ago.  He really doesn't care what we're up to and doesn't need or want to be in touch with us.  Why we keep reaching out to him is beyond me anymore. 

The door closing behind him in that story, really just sort of clarified something for me.  I've been out of touch with him long enough to feel like it doesn't matter, and I'm not mad at him, but somehow it feels more final now.  I get it.  We should all get it, with him.  It's like a silent scream of why won't you people just go the heck away? And I finally really let myself hear it.

For anyone out there who has lived any variation of this story, I just want to offer you a long, hard hug and a smile, and these words.  IT'S NOT YOU.  IT'S THEM.  

It's. Not. You.  That's all.                 


  1. So well written. I'm glad you hit publish. Sometimes as hard as it is to hit publish, it's like a release when you do. I've had many posts that i was too chicken shit to hit that button.

    1. Jennifer. Thanks! I didn't mean to go off like that, but, yes, I feel tbetter. You can probably imagine how much I appreciate your comment..And that you read the WHOLE thing. There should be like a door prize for reading all the way to the end of that one!

      My brain has no backspace key, apparently.

  2. I don't even know where to start.'s very dusty in here. Secondly..while the circumstances were WILDLY different, they were also exactly the same. I mean, my dad is still with my mom..he didn't leave us...but he never loved us. I wasn't protected from that, though..I knew how very little he wanted to do with his kids from a very young age. I stopped liking my dad by the time I was 8 or 9 years old.

    I'm glad to hear you say that it's not you. I also want to say that you are far from alone in not really caring about going to a funeral. I don't want my dad to suffer in the same way I don't want any humans to suffer...but I don't care if he is walking the earth or under it...I can't.


    And I would so accept your hug right now.

    1. Thanks! It was a little dusty here yesterday, too.

      I hate that you weren't protected from that.

      I guess mine *liked* us enough (I never felt that he didn't, or doesn't). He just...could never grasp why he needed to be more involved or committed.

      It reminds me of that line from the old Lion in Winter movie, where the middle son tells Henry II, "You don't think of ME much", and Henry says, "MUCH?...I don't think of you at ALL."

  3. That wowed me. Seriously. My variation was more jagged in that my mother never liked (or wanted) me for reasons that may or may not have included racism (dad's Puerto Rican; mom's Jewish which is a whole other issue since she made me believe I had no race other than "Jewish"; which is of course NOT a race really...)

    But definitely included resentment and jealousy because my father loved me to pieces. I grew up being screamed at, told I was "bad", teased because my hair is curly, teased because boys' size "Regular" clothes fit me better than girls' clothing, told that certain things I confided to her either didn't happen or that I probably dreamed it.

    I've had trouble blogging about it since it always sounds like an attack. I know life isn't always funny. You seem to have dealt very well and should be proud. :)

    1. Thanks! Ah that's a hard story...

      It is hard to write. Our past is our past, but sometimes I'm finding that some of it is best left behind the closed door, with no looking back.

  4. Replies
    1. Actually, thank you. You kind of inspired me to put these thoughts into words.