Recently, I came across this article on the Guardian website. It’s an interview with Danu Morrigan, whose mother was a narcissist, which means she needed the whole world to revolve around her would viciously put down other people, mainly her children, while appearing all ‘sweetness and light’ to the outside world. In the end, the only way Danu could cope was to cut contact with her mother completely. Reading some of the comments, it seems that respondents were divided between those who had experienced similar situations and taken similar action, and those who couldn’t understand why one would want to break contact with parents. My own parents weren’t narcissists, but did have various issues that made my own childhood somewhat difficult, and this article got me thinking… How should one react to people within one’s own family who behave abusively? It’s notable that most people would tell someone with an emotionally, physically or sexually abusive partner to run for the hills for their own safety, but many don’t take the same view about family. After all, blood is thicker than water, right? I don’t claim to have definitive answers, but I wanted to reflect on my own experiences.
My earliest memories are not exactly happy. Both my brother and I have, I think, suffered from the fact that mum was too busy either cleaning or recovering from cleaning (this used to be a six days a week, every week, thing – she had OCD) to play with us, and physical affection was non-existent. We were told we were being good if we were basically invisible. Now, I’m not pretending I was an angel and was never a precocious brat, but the way things were was pretty horrible. My dad was very short-tempered and mum was so panicked about ‘mess’ that I felt I was always walking on eggshells.
Going into adolesence, things got worse, for the most part because my brother, who is autistic, got ill and my mother struggled to cope, my gender dysphoria was getting far worse as I went through puberty, and I struggled at school as I stuck out like a sore thumb. I had caring responsibilities that I was scared to mention to other adults in case the dreaded social services swooped in, so I didn’t go out much. Add to that the fact that I was doing well academically and I got a pretty hard time from some of the other kids. Thus, both home and school life were troubled and tense. Things got to the point that at fifteen I was suicidal; if I did something well I was told not to be big-headed (not that I was – I was pathologically shy!) and if I did something wrong I’d be reminded for days on end . Leaving home at 18 was a complete relief.
One of the things about being in an emotionally violent environment is that often the things that happened would have been in isolation pretty trivial, but the point is that it was like a dripping tap, a constant addition of more and more till it was overflowing. I deliberately haven’t gone into specific incidents, as much as anything because it can be hard to convey to others what it was like and be taken seriously, but I can certainly understand what Danu was getting at with the story about the handbag. Like many others who’ve come from such environments, I made bad choices when it came to relationships, and my ex was emotionally, physically and sexually violent. Getting out of that relationship was one of the hardest and best things I’ve done. A few months after that, I had a breakdown, and from there have gradually been able to rebuild my life. God has done some pretty amazing healing.
Thanks to some amazing friends, a fantastic and incredibly patient minister, some great counselling and the love of my partner, I’ve been able to start on a journey of forgiveness, and have learnt that people who say ‘I love you’ do not all turn into abusers. It’s been tough, and though the scars have healed significantly, they still twinge sometimes. I wouldn’t wish the breakdown and depression on anyone, but they are (thank God) largely in the past now. It’s taken five years, but I’m getting there, slowly but surely.
Deciding to forgive (and it was a conscious decision) wasn’t easy. For a long time, I held onto the anger I felt, partly because I got it into my head that if I didn’t stay angry then it meant that what happened didn’t matter, and partly because I was convinced no-one liked the ‘real me’, but they might feel sorry for me. That’s not easy to admit, but for a long time it’s how things were. Letting go involved taking the risk, on myself – am I lovable for my own sake? I guess that I’ve gradually learnt that the answer is ‘yes’, and as much as anything else, getting to the point of being able to begin gender reassignment is a result of this journey of self-acceptance.
A key part of that journey has been learning to see my parents and my ex as human beings, if that makes sense. It’s easy to blame one’s parents and to forget that they had a huge amount of shit to deal with and had been through a lot of pain themselves. Reading the article helped to make a lot of sense about why my ex was like he was; his mother sounds like a classic narcissist, and I suppose growing up with leaves its scars as much as my experiences of a less bad situation did to me. She certainly scared the crap out of me while being deeply concerned that the rest of the world thought she was wonderful. I suppose it’s no wonder he was so messed up.
None of the above is to excuse what happened, but learning to see those people as human beings and not simply monsters, as well as accepting that I made mistakes and was a prat sometimes, has really helped me to let go of the anger. I reckon (though have no proof) that I’m not the only one to have had therapy, as while when I went back up north a few months ago some things were as crazy and dysfunctional as ever, so much has changed for the better. I now have a reasonable relationship with my parents, though having clear boundaries is essential. I can see why someone might make the choice to cut off their parents; I thank God that I haven’t needed to do that, and have been able to focus more on the good stuff that happened in my childhood alongside the bad. Having said that, I want nothing to do with my ex ever again.
I suppose it comes down to the fact that one has to make a judgment about how to maintain sanity and safety. I can have a relationship with my parents and with God’s help, try to focus on making the ‘now’ good rather than letting the past take over. The barriers would be just too high with my ex, and I fear I’d be putting myself in danger. It’s not a case of blood being thicker than water, so much as reconciliation of a sort not always being possible…