Not too long ago, I read an Abbreviated Life (by an author I’ll let you google) and the experience of the author felt strangely familiar to me. Not that I was an only-child, or I grew up in a New York penthouse, or was the god-daughter of a mid-century artistic luminary. None of those things. Rather it’s the author’s account of her relationship with her narcissistic parent that resonated with me.
I know to be weary of labelling people. We’re all capable of displaying less than admirable behaviours in response to stress, threat and pressure. But there was a pattern in this book that I recognised, and maybe offered some explanation for how I feel and where I sit now.
We’d just moved to a new country town and my parents had invited some of my dad’s new colleagues around for a barbecue. I was in early primary school and quite a precocious “chatterbox”, by others’ accounts. At some point I said something at the barbecue that must have been embarrassing. I remember my dad turning on me and being sent to my room. I was confused and upset to be separated from everybody. After the barbecue was over, my dad yelled at me saying what an embarrassment I was, how could I do this to him, and “children should be seen and not heard”.
I wish I knew what I said. It was probably funny (out of the mouths of babe, and all that). But I’ll never know. He doesn’t remember these things.
I know on its own that anecdote sounds pretty innocuous. It probably is. But as a little girl, these incidents were confusing and stressful. It wasn’t difficult to upset my dad, but it was difficult to anticipate what might upset him. Interacting with him kept you in uncomfortable suspense.
It wasn’t uncommon to hear growing up that you’d RUINED EVERYTHING or this was the WORST FATHERS’ DAY EVER. We were a constant cause of catastrophe and disaster. Until we weren’t. Sometimes we’d be showered with unexpected (and unwanted) acts of generosity. But these gifts and displays of affection could only be accepted with trepidation. There were always strings attached.
Dad would take you to buy something that you didn’t want. Ugly boat shoes. A garish watch. A drizabone. If you resisted his generosity, he’d get angry. You were ungrateful and selfish. If later he observed you didn’t wear the item he’d chosen for you, he’d also accuse you of being ungrateful and selfish. Or if by some fluke, he actually gave you something you valued, he would regularly remind you that you were somehow indebted to him. Either way, it was best to avoid my father in a magnanimous mood.
In my late teens, my dad was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The diagnosis didn’t mean much more to me than another degree of difficulty. For a while he used the diagnosis as a get out of jail free card. I’m like this because of my bipolar. George (he would throw in his psychiatrist’s first name into every conversation) says you need to tell me you love me. I need to know you love me. George says you need to support me more. George says that you need to be more understanding.
I felt resentful. We were three teenagers struggling with anger and loneliness. We were all drinking too much. Taking risks. Doing drugs. Putting ourselves in harms way.
We had a home and parents and security and safety. And I know the value of those things. But we were each alone, isolated and suffering. And I don’t think our parents noticed.
A strange corollary of managing my dad’s volatility, was a strange compulsion to comply, to please – to fly under the radar. On the inside, I felt an overwhelming anger and pain – but it was a feeling I couldn’t express (without alcohol). Instead I could please people. I could ‘be good’. Comply.
This is not a good thing.
Picture a teenage girl, unseen by her parents. Dropping out of the world. Drinking too much. Being ‘good’ for people who don’t care for her. Complying with things she doesn’t want.
You can guess what was happening.
I remember wagging school and graffiting a toilet door somewhere in the city. I drew a picture of myself as a doll, with “the right holes“. I was 15. And I never resisted.
My parents didn’t notice that I was always “staying at a friends”, that I lost 15kg, that I was disappearing before them. I would cry secretly in my bedroom and the pain was intensely visceral. My belly would ache. My heart was being crushed. I was dying, or wishing I would.
But you know, I missed out on being dux at my school by .05 – and that’s what mattered. My dad was the school principal and he knew my results before I did. In fact, he’d told all his friends and organised a barbecue to celebrate – long before I even knew.
I was so upset. I felt robbed by my dad. This wasn’t my achievement. He’d made it his. But I was accused of petulance when I got upset. Don’t ruin a good day, I was told.
But if you ask, I had a happy childhood. I was privileged, middle-class. And all the stuff that happened, particularly in adolescence is too difficult to explain. How do I account for the darkness and trauma, when I’m promised I had a happy childhood? I was loved. I am loved. People care for me.
And they do care for me, but in a way that encroaches upon my agency, that I feel treats me like a possession or property, rather than an independent woman. When my ex-husband left me, my parents were perhaps more devastated than I was. Divorce was incompatible with their religion. My mum asked “what will I tell people?” I was upset, but also felt a sense of freedom. A burden lifting; hope. My dad took it upon himself to write a letter to my ex-husband urging him to return to me. His letter said that I was suicidal, that I needed him. I wouldn’t cope without him. At the time the letter was sent, I was backpacking somewhere in Cambodia and hadn’t spoken to my parents for weeks.
Upon my return, my ex-husband urgently contacted me thinking I was about to end my life. I was actually in a good place – until he told me what was contained in the letter from my dad. I felt a horrible violation. And anger.
Who and what am I to them?
I am upset that news of my pregnancy is everyone else’s business. It’s not my story to tell. I feel like I’m 15 again, and my feelings and needs are being stifled. I complain to my brother by text that people who don’t care for me a now privy to my private news. I say that my boundaries are being broached. That I’m not being shown respect. He replied that of course, EVERYONE cares about me. EVERYONE is proud of me. This is exciting news for our family. I should respect others’ need to know. I should be nicer to our parents.
I don’t know if I can do this.
What right do I have to complain if everything is done out of love and care and pride?
What do my wishes or needs matter?
It’s difficult to find space for my feelings and my experience in this relationship. I feel like I am transported back in time, and it’s easier to go unnoticed, slip under the radar, comply, ‘be good’ than resist people who seem oblivious to you as a competent individual.
When I think about my dad, I don’t know if I am describing narcissism – but re-thinking through the past with that framework has at least helped me see something about myself. I never understood my tendency to conform and surrender, even while I hated myself as I did so. I see it now as a strategy to avoid or at least minimise conflict, to ‘get it over and done with’ as quickly as possible.
I’ve got to stop thinking of having a baby as a source of conflict. I feel a sense of dread. I brace myself in anticipation that I will be trampled over, bullied into something and situations I don’t want by people who promise they love me, care for me.
But it doesn’t need to be that way, does it? Is being accused of being selfish the worst thing to happen? Is hurting or offending my parents lethal? It’s time I grew up.