Seeing Clearly: Hidden Mental Illness in Men I’ve Loved
Would you beat this child with a stick?
What’s done is done
One more second chance would be enough
Only on the brink can we see so clearly
— “Nocturne, ” Tesseract
How could I have been conscious on this planet for the last 50 years and not know I was swimming in poison? Born into it? Later choosing it? It was all fresh water to me, but some pools were clearer, cleaner, even sparkling. How is it I am just now discovering that my father had a hidden but severe mental illness and that I’ve repeated that pattern more than once with romantic partners?
When Mental Illness Sneaks Up on You
When I was a little girl, someone pointed out to me a woman on the street, eating from a trash can. She was dirty, hair wild and greasy, clothes smelly and torn. She had that look in her eyes like a cornered animal, a mix of helplessness and desperate fear. She was the image of madness in old British literature I was later to study in school.
Then someone whispered to me, “Don’t look. That woman is mentally ill.”
But I looked anyway, and for all these years, the image of that woman is how I’ve thought of mental illness. I’ve always equated it with being unable to function in society, unable to communicate, unable to be productive and creative and hold down jobs and long-term relationships. I never considered mental illness as a possibility for men (and women) who are charming and eloquent members of the community, church deacons, gleeful volunteers, compassionate friends, power wielders in their companies and talented experts in their careers, outwardly loving daddies and partners. I never considered mental illness as something that can be hidden by high-functioning, seemingly normal people who are secretly deep in emotional pain and yet…and yet bludgeoning those closest to them in ways that outsiders will never believe. Outsiders get the best of them–the offers of compassionate help, the charm, the witty conversation, the intense romance–but they cannot sustain the exhausting facade 24/7 for those closest emotionally, and that’s where the abuse begins.
Would you switch her legs until they bled?
I tried to speak out once before–before I knew what to call it, before I understood just how it’s affected my life–but a few relatives decided I must be a brat and a liar, something most people know me not to be. My few minor revelations, even as a woman in my forties, were met with hostility and disbelief by people who thought they knew Daddy. They’ve shunned me ever since, and that’s okay with me. They were part of the problem, part of a deeply dysfunctional extended family. But I wasn’t a brat, I’m not a liar, and I’m no longer the little girl who didn’t dare speak up for fear of being beaten until she urinated blood.
My friends who love astrology would tell me that what I’m going through right now is a reflection of my Chiron return, the asteroid personifying deep wounds and healing. They would point out that I’ve been through a recent Chiron conjunct Ascendant, Chiron conjunct Chiron, and now a Chiron conjunct Sun. I guess that means I’m facing a lot of old wounds, cleaning them out, maybe giving them a chance to heal but oh, God, these past 4 years have been ablaze with both healing of new wounds and new wounding that I don’t if it can ever be healed.
My life and everything I believed about myself and about love turned upside down in October 2013. I’d barely had time to blink from a particularly bad heartbreak when an old boyfriend came back into my life in November. I was dubious at first, but–like with several former romantic partners–I’d never gotten closure from the way our relationship had ended, and I needed to know why there was always an emotional wall I could never get beyond in several of my more serious relationships. Clarity came hard and fast, made me question every romantic relationship I’d ever explored, from 16 to 52. And it made me question my own mental health.
Oh, I know my issues. No worries. I’ve been tested in earnest. I’ve spent the last decade in deep self-inquiry to understand myself and dispel my shadows. Am I there yet? Please? At least now I know what caused my own issues with being a people pleaser and enabler.
What I learned from this old boyfriend was, among other things, that he struggles with more than one personality disorder. He is not the man I remember, and yet, he is there, a shadow behind the illness that was once just a shadow of him. He’s heavily medicated but his mental illness is progressive. He’s been professionally diagnosed, but these traits were largely hidden throughout his entire life, worsening at around age 50 to the point where they became obvious and he could no longer function as the charismatic powerhouse I’d known him to be and had loved him as. Somehow, I’d just never thought of suddenly being 50 years old and developing a mental illness that would interfere with career and relationships, but there it was. And it had been there for decades, hidden, growing more severe every year.
First, it made me wonder if I, too, might completely lose myself at mid-life. I learned that mental illness often makes itself known at this point. Worse, stress will amplify the traits of personality disorders that create insurmountable problems in everyday lives.
Next, I started looking at various romantic relationships in my life, particularly the more serious ones. Not all my relationships have been unhealthy–let me emphasize that for the sake of at least one man in my past–but at least 3 or 4 qualify for the textbooks, and that doesn’t include a couple of platonic friendships. Of these unhealthy romantic relationships, one was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and two others were strongly suspected of it; another had mild to severe forms the majority of the 9 criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), though I’m unsure if he was professionally diagnosed. I suspect so, but that he hid it from me for fear I would abandon him as did one of the NPD’s.
Then, while I was still reeling from this revelation, it struck me that Daddy had 9 of the 9 criteria for BPD–and none of them mild. Everything in my life flipped upside down when I started remembering a few–just a few–samples of his behavior over the years.
I’d heard of BPD a few times but thought it was nothing, really. The problem was with the somewhat outdated name itself: I thought borderline meant mild or undetermined rather than on the borderline between neurosis and psychosis. The misleading name is sometimes instead referred to as Emotional Dysregulation Disorder, Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, and Emotional Regulation Disorder because of the intense anger, fear of abandonment, and impulsive relationship problems that are common traits.
I know now why some of my counselor friends tell me that BPD is the worst of the worst of mental illnesses because it’s usually untreatable or untreated whereas other mental illnesses are medicated and managed–though my research has shown that talk therapy and willingness to pursue help has had some successes and more hope than I initially thought. Fewer than 3% of the population is believed to suffer from BPD, and yet, here I am with two important men in my life as textbook cases of it. Sheesh. Now I understand how these things look–not just because of my unchosen relationship with my father but also because of chosen relationships with men I’ve loved–the underlying rages, exaggerated fears, the distorted all or nothing thinking, the push-pull manipulations in relationships, the abandonment fears juxtaposed against actively driving away loved ones, the uncontrolled emotions, the desperate need for someone else’s strong emotions to act as surrogate for what they cannot express themselves, the self-isolation, the emotional and physical abuse, the idealization and devaluation, the inexplicable mood changes, the roller coaster of every single freaking day.
I was born into a nightmare, but to me, it was just normal life. One man’s mental illness crippled my understanding of healthy relationships, a legacy to be passed down to my children who saw my own unhealthy relationships and make their choices as grown women out of reaction to their own childhoods. But let me show you how my “normal” was when I was growing up.
Would you take out your frustrations on this child?
What One High-Functioning Borderline Personality Disorder Looks Like
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.
And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
When I was in my teens, I was introduced to a man in my hometown who immediately spat out that he knew exactly who I was. My daddy was often at the same watering hole and always bragging on his perfect daughter to the point where the man was just sick of hearing about me. “Wait,” I said, “you’ve got to have me mixed up with someone else. My dad’s never said anything nice about his kids. At least not to us.” Then the man gave details of my accomplishments that Daddy had told me the day before “weren’t worth nothing.”
Damn. So he did know how to form gentle and loving words with his mouth and push the sounds out over his vocal cords. Later in his life, when he was in the hospital more, I frequently heard him called nurses “Sweetheart” and “Sugar” and wondered who this man was. He never once in my memory called his wife or children any such endearments.
At home, with no one from church around, he told me on a regular basis–and by regular, I mean daily–that I was worthless, sorry, no good, not good enough, not worthy of anyone’s love, never good enough. Oh. And that I was his little princess and beloved long-awaited daughter and no one would ever love me more. To me that meant I must’ve been a disappointment. He never used that word, but its shadow over me was heavy. No matter how much I accomplished, how well it was done, how hard I worked. It was simply never good enough. His approval was impossible to win. He withheld his love and approval at all costs while keeping us as close as possible physically. The last time he saw my report card, I was in middle school. Daddy, who’d been a C-student at best, looked over the card full of A-pluses I’d presented with pride and pointed out the awful, ordinary A. Other kids got paid for B‘s and even C‘s, but not me. If I got an A-minus, I cried on the bus home because I was afraid I’d have my legs switched with a limb from the pear tree that I loved. I didn’t hope for money–just a pat on the head that I’d done a good job…and that I was worthy of love. Instead, he launched into one of his famous tirades. How dare I not make all A-pluses? What was wrong with me? Why, if that’s the best I could do, he might as well yank me out of my school and send me to a different one where (insert variety of racist remarks here because he was most definitely a racist and a gleeful one at that). It didn’t matter that I was usually in the top one or two students in my grade, regardless of which school I transferred to, because it was just never, never, never good enough.
Damn. But that was indicative of my childhood and adulthood as well. Nothing would ever be good enough, at least not to my face. He idealized the people who abandoned him or treated him like crap, but for those of us who stuck by him, we were devalued and criticized constantly. He did not drive me away physically until three months before he died–he controlled our proximity and manipulated that for decades–but he certainly did drive us away emotionally long before I told my mom that I just couldn’t take the toxicity of my monthly visits anymore or expose my children to his negativity, and that I wouldn’t be back until his funeral. Had it not been for wanting to see my mom, I would have cut ties with him years before.
Nothing I said was worth believing. Not because there was reason to doubt my word. Because I was worthless, of course. Because I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about. And because he was so concerned with how he and his family might appear to outsiders. When I was around 5, we took in an abused dog that soon after attacked me, missing my throat and tearing into my jaw and face instead. I still have the physical scars, though professionally laser-ed down by a wonderful doctor, but the psychological scars were worse. I kept explaining that I hadn’t done anything. I’d never done anything to the dog but pet him gently on the head. Once. Why had our new pet attacked me? I hadn’t done anything to provoke the dog, which should never have been brought into a home with a child. We knew the dog had been abused by mean kids in his previous neighborhood and that’s what I represented to him…another mean little kid with a broken bottle or rock to taunt him, so he got me before I could get him.
While my mom filled out paperwork at the doctor’s office, Daddy carried me into the exam room but stopped to tell me not to tell anyone I hadn’t provoked the dog because no one would believe me. My parents did not euthanize or immediately get rid of the dog that marked me for life. No. That dog bit me 7 more times–every time I stepped out the back door, he’d run up and draw blood–before they finally got rid of him. My mom asked me years later why I didn’t tell anyone about the other 7 times. Hmph. Because I wouldn’t have been believed. Because my pain and fear after being bitten in the face by an aggressive animal wasn’t reason enough to upset the dog’s previous owner. Because the message was that the dog was more important than I was. I’d told the truth, and it hadn’t mattered.
Damn. And people wonder why I’m a stickler about the truth and about my reputation for not being a liar. There is a part of me that still needs for people to believe that I was honest about the attack and to stand up for ME.
There was always, always, always some kind of drama going on when I was growing up. It didn’t stop there, of course, but I wasn’t in the middle of it all the time once I left home. “Always gotta have something going,” a family friend once said of the extended family. Sometimes, it was drama that Daddy stirred up, like imaginary slights from my maternal grandparents, that resulted in my mom, my siblings, and me not being allowed to see our Grandma as punishment for her doing…I have no idea what. Sometimes it was drama with the narcissists and pathological liars in the extended family where sibling dynamics played out on a multi-generational scale with multiple cousins, aunts, and uncles over a 60 mile radius. Some of that, he contributed to, but most he didn’t actually initiate. His relatives reflected his illness in many ways, and I distanced myself from them as much as possible. For one reason, I was just as afraid of them. As a child, I’d seen my little cousins repeatedly picked up by the wrist and slung into the wall because they’d dirtied a diaper or cried. Indelible memories! I couldn’t go to adult relatives for help–they were at least as bad or worse than at my own father. On the rare occasions when drama was quiet in his side of the extended family, he’d start something up with mom’s family or become embroiled in someone else’s drama in the church, which was a another hotbed of dysfunction and a big reason for my distaste for organized religion. There was never more than of a week of serenity in my home when I was growing up, or after, until he died.
Damn. I grew up on a roller coaster, never knowing what mood he’d be in, which drama we’d be living, and happy to see him focused on drama outside our home because otherwise, it was turned inward on us. There was never a peaceful moment, and all of us who shared a roof, food, and air with him walked on eggshells daily, never knowing when the next tirade would break loose or which of us would get the physical, verbal, or emotional brunt of it. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Mother’s Day were usually the best opportunities for him to be an ass to us, and I remember very few Christmases that were not ruined either by him or conflict from his extended family.
I have vague memories of being so young that I couldn’t finish a 6-ounce bottle of Coke and a palm-sized bag of Tom’s peanuts when I went to town with my daddy. Normally my failure to finish my snack would have made him angry, but not on those trips. Those were the special times with him when I was his little girl. This is the part my daddy modeled for me as the epitome of a mate in his role as the first man in my life, of what my romantic partners would later be–his easy smile; his flirting, gentle, soft-spoken, charming manner; his notepad full of “figuring” that showed an analytical side; the way he made anyone who spoke with him feel like she was the only girl on the planet; the way he talked to me like I was his angel, special, important. My mom would stay home while he took me with him to take care of business in town. I thought those were our special times. Yeah. All the pretty secretaries would ooh and ahh over me. Pretty women with their heavy eyeliner, white go-go boots, hair piled on their heads, hems higher than arms length, giggling and telling him what a great daddy he was.
Damn. I’d thought I was special, but I was just chick bait. As I got a little older, I ended up in the lobby with my Coke and peanuts, bored, waiting for Daddy to finish flirting with the women at the businesses we frequented, and I ‘d sit in the hard plastic chairs, feet swinging because they didn’t reach the asbestos-tile floor, dropping salted peanuts into my glass bottle of Coke and eating the soggy peanuts as I chugged my drink. Once I was old enough that I might mention his shenanigans to my mom, he was no longer interested in taking me to town. His attention to me stopped soon after that. I was no longer special and he no longer cared to show me off to the pretty secretaries.
I was old enough to be potty-trained but still small enough that I could squat, hunched over, my torso between my knees, and duck-waddle under the Impala to hide from him when he was on a rampage. My family refuses to tell me what happened that day, but I remember bits and pieces. And I remember, too, that most of my discipline afterwards fell to my mom, who dressed me in pretty doll-baby dresses in hopes that he wouldn’t hurt me. The bits and pieces I remember include me being told not to go in and out that door one more time while playing in the yard, being yelled at for venturing to the edge of the yard where there were pale purple petunias that grew wild, going back inside to go to the bathroom, being yelled at for going through that door one more time, a big hand beating my bottom and warning me to hold still or it would hurt more if I wriggled my fleshier bottom away from the blows, being told that if I cried I’d be given something to cry about. I remember being sent back outside to play and being very subdued, hiding around the carport, between the car and the house, not wanting to be seen, my bottom still stinging. I remember desperately needing to go inside to the bathroom but terrified of another beating for coming in before I was called. So instead of risking parental wrath again, I found a hidden place outside to pull my panties down and squat in a clean place…where I peed pure blood. I remember the trip to the emergency room that evening and the tension between my parents.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn. A physician I dated a few years ago told me that urinating blood–and I don’t mean blood in urine, but red, red blood–was sometimes a result of a beating where the lower back was struck hard and kidneys were bruised. But I learned to be stoic about pain at an early age, enough so that I’ve had problems as an adult with making an ER doctor understand the severity of my pain. In a household where you didn’t show how much you were hurting because you’d be given a bigger dose of pain if you did, you swallowed the pain and bore it without tears, if you could. I’ve had more than one physician dismiss me for not being hysterical as “you’re obviously not in pain,” only to find out my lab tests were off the charts and I was facing a life or death situation and still I could not properly express the extent of my pain.
I was in the sixth grade when Daddy’s favorite uncle started coming around every Sunday, bringing me gifts. Pearl jewelry–to this day, I dislike most pearl jewelry–expensive clothes, all sorts of trinkets. Eventually, he asked me to walk him to his car and to hang around in the yard with him, unsupervised. Daddy idealized the old man, so I was expected to be grateful for the attention, which was making me more and more uncomfortable, even though I was too sheltered to understand his “attentions.” Every Sunday, I got more creative. I feigned illness. I convinced Jan to invite me to her house to play all afternoon, which made my uncle mad that I’d not been home for his visit. I kept trying to tell my parents that I didn’t like walking the old man to his car and being alone with him or the promises from him to “take me for a ride to town.” But Daddy insisted I not stir up trouble and not be disrespectful since the man was driving 50 miles a week just to see ME and bring ME gifts. I think the truth was, my dad enjoyed the visits and was afraid my uncle would disassociate if I wasn’t around. I was insurance that he’d keep coming back. And come back he did…until the Sunday he’d planned for us to take a drive together, a Sunday when I probably would have been raped. The Sunday after I’d prayed for someone, anyone to stop him from coming back. I always thought I’d killed him because my prayer was answered and he died of a heart attack before he could molest me yet again. And all the while, Daddy insisting I entertain the old man he admired and idealized.
Damn. Oh, damn. Damn. Oh, God damn. Didn’t he get it? A 70-year-old man was sticking his emphysema-tasting tongue down my throat and his arthritic hands down my pants and I was begging for someone to just make this stop instead of sending me deeper into the lion’s den. And 30 years later, when my dad was confronted with the truth of the weekly molestations, you know who he blamed? The 12-year-old kid who knew no more about sex than that women had monthly cycles and our bodies were “wonderfully made” by God and that at some point in my life, I would have a husband who would plant a seed. The man he idealized and trusted over his preadolescent daughter was a known pedophile who had, I later learned, been run off by a number of parents of young teen girls in his hometown. But not MY dad. He blindly worshipped the damnedest people.
Would you send this girl to keep a known pedophile company?
I could–and will–write an entire book about my experiences with him and how his distorted thinking affected my life, but I’ll spare those details for now. In his later years, after I was an adult, he had less control over me, particularly when I wasn’t financially dependent on him any more. But he had other ways to control me, usually with his guilt trips and his health.
Whereas many borderlines do themselves harm or threaten harm—I was on perpetual suicide watch for years with one long-time dear one–I don’t recall Daddy ever overtly trying to kill himself. Hmmm, though I do recall him doing some rather dangerous things at times, putting himself in situations where I’m surprised someone didn’t just lose it and shoot him. I remember times when he waved a pistol I didn’t know he had–not at me, though I suddenly recall ducking once when he threw a hammer at my head because I didn’t know the difference between a ratchet and a lug wrench he’d asked me to retrieve from a toolbox. When he developed insulin-dependent diabetes, he continued to eat ice cream. He refused to take care of his own medications and put that burden on my mom, right down to putting eye drops in his eyes and doling out his pills. He liked to remind all of us of how sick he was…or maybe wasn’t?–to keep us close at hand.
But worse than that was the drama surrounding sudden falls or stirring poison chemicals with his bare forearm and nearly killing himself. How many times did we come home from something–anything–that didn’t include him, even an orthodontist appointment, where we were punished by the finding him sprawled on the floor and in need of medical attention? Bad on us for leaving his presence for an afternoon. Better not leave him ever again. Next time, he might be dead. What about the time he waited angrily for two family members to return from a 30-minute trip to the hospital cafeteria and as they neared his hospital room, he got down on the floor and pretended to have fallen out of his hospital bed, all our fault for not making him the center of attention for the first time in 3 days of constant attention? Or another hospital stay when he was mad because I took my mom home to sleep in her bed after 72 hours instead of the hospital chair and to get a real shower–and then next day he paid us back by throwing himself out of a wheelchair? He meant to upset us, but it just ended up delaying his surgery and getting the nurse in trouble who wasn’t able to keep him from lunging out of his wheelchair.
The very last drama I endured with his health was 3 months before he died. His health was most definitely failing and I, a newly divorced working mom, was making frequent visits whenever I could. Each visit was so toxic that the girls and I drove back home crying and depressed for days. The girls had stopped wanting to visit him, and I was emotionally beat up with guilt if I didn’t go see him…and depression and bitterness if I did. I could walk in the door and be greeted with stinging criticism before I put down my car keys. The last time I visited him at home was my breaking point. My mom had been a 24-hour a day caregiver for over six years at that time, and she had run to town for medicine or food, which of course meant he was angry at being left alone for a whopping 30 minutes. When she came home, she found him sprawled on the bottom doorstep with a light scrape on his forehead. We later came to believe he had knelt at the brick step and scraped his forehead across it before his simulated “fall.” What happened next was typical of life with Daddy and his high-drama, high-maintenance all-attention-on-him tactics.
My mom called me to let me know that Daddy had fallen and hit his head. He was asking to see me. And the girls. One last time. I walked away from my work. I left immediately for my parents’ home in Georgia, but first, I had to kowtow to my ex-husband and get his agreement to swap custodial visits for the kids. I’d never had to ask him to alter our visitation agreement before but since–based on what I’d been told–my dad was in serious condition and might not last until the next weekend, he agreed. I so hated having to grovel during a contentious time so early after our divorce, and to have to take the girls with me during his scheduled days with them. But I did.
While I was driving to my parents’ house, other phone calls were made to my siblings, saying, “Your daddy’s fallen and hit his head. Lorna’s on her way with the girls right now.” Leverage. Manipulation. Daddy had decided he wanted all his kids with him for a day or two and he played the “I’m injured and dying” card.
When I walked in the door, he was sitting in his chair, watching TV loudly, smiling and laughing about something…with a little, tiny cut on his forehead and no bruise. He was downright giddy to see us and expected my brothers to show a little later. Me, I was livid. I’d dropped everything to be there and he was just playing games. As usual, he hit me verbally with some unkind remark about how I was dressed and turned up the TV when I tried to talk to him. When I left, I told my mom I wouldn’t be back until the holidays or the funeral, whichever came first. I had to save my sanity somehow. I had to protect my kids from the roller coaster Daddy had us on.
I did see him once after that, at Thanksgiving, but he was in the hospital. The entire family was home, and we visited him in the hospital, but at home…for the first time any of us remembered, home was peaceful. No yelling, no manipulation, no cold shoulders, no silent treatment. Just peaceful.
He died a few weeks later.
We didn’t mourn him.
At his funeral, people came up to us to pay their respects. They told us what a wonderful man he was. How compassionate. All the volunteering he’d done for the church over the years. How he’d helped someone fix something at their house when he wouldn’t bother to help us at home. How he’d bailed someone’s kid out of jail and given someone else’s kid money for a camp. Things that were incongruous with the man we’d lived with. Things he never would have done for his own kids, who stayed within the law and within the family’s faith. To the people at his funeral, he was such a fine family man, a fine Christian man, a long-time deacon and Sunday School teacher. He put so much effort into building relationships with other people while he alternately ignored and beat us down verbally and emotionally…and sometimes beat us physically.
One man, a family friend, was honestly tearful and grieving, and he told us how Daddy had been so good to him and his family and had treated him like a son. And I thought, No. Daddy never stripped off his leather belt, doubled it, and doubled it again, and then broke it across your back because you looked at him the wrong way or didn’t move fast enough or didn’t hear him calling you from the other side of the yard. I know you loved him, but you haven’t earned the right to say he treated you like a son. You can still take your shirt off in public without worrying who might see the lashes on your skin. He may have been like a father to you, but not like MY father to you.
Would you tell this straight-A student she’ll never amount to anything?
How Borderlines and Narcissists in my Childhood were the Prototypes for Men I’ve Loved
I will find a center in you.
I will chew it up and leave,
I will work to elevate you
Just enough to bring you down.
— “Sober,” Tool
Even with the deep spiritual introspection going on in my head right now, I can’t say I’m at a point of forgiveness. I can’t even say what exactly that I do feel. Distance. Perspective. Seeing the ugly truth behind the curtain, I don’t doubt that my father loved me, but I know that because I’m an empath and not by his words or his actions. My status as a high-level empath brings the situation to an entirely new spin.
The greater benefits for me in this new enlightenment is not just in looking at my family of origin but my dad’s family of origin. He had one of the most dysfunctional families I have ever seen, and while I’m unsure if there were other borderlines in the extended family, I do remember a rather incredible magnitude of narcissistic traits among family members who had a direct influence on him as well as on his wife and children. I was too young to see and understand everything, but of what I did see, I am firmly convinced now that both borderlines and narcissists shaped my childhood and my beliefs about what constituted a happy family as well as romantic partners.
His own life was shaped by the mental illness of others and he in turn shaped mine. I hope this hasn’t shaped my own children’s lives too negatively. When my older daughter was still in diapers, she wriggled her little hand out of mine and made a beeline for a busy street before I could catch her. Until that day, she’d had her little hands swatted exactly twice–both times for trying to stick bobby pins into an electrical outlet. Once I’d hauled her away from the street and back to a safe place, I instinctively felt my hand go up–raised above my head, open palm, fingers rigid, thumb tight against my index finger–and in the instant I was about to bring it down against her tender flesh, I turned my palm into a fist and swore I would never do to her what was done to me. I would not raise a child in abject fear and loathing of me, even for things I could condone as her “own good.”
This is where it ends, I told myself. I would not pass down the legacy of abuse to another generation. It would stop with me.
It is only now at 52 and looking back over my major relationships with borderlines and narcissists that I finally, finally understand that Daddy might have served me better if his aim with that hammer had been both better and fatal.
I’d love to say that I’m not a magnet for men in romantic relationships and women in a close friendships that are mentally ill or at least bear many traits of mental illness. But that would not be true. Or it may be that we are all magnets for such things but we never step aside and look at our lives that closely. As I’ve already said, I have had significant relationships that were healthy but the ones that resembled my family of origin and the matriarchy my dad was born into have far outnumbered what most people would consider normal or healthy relationships.
Part of that comes from expectation. When I married my first husband, I felt an echo of my childhood the first time he and I argued. The fight we had was mild. Over nothing. We’d been together for 5 years at the time, but now we were married and that looked different in my expectations. He whirled around and glared at me. It’s the kind of thing that might cause other women to roll their eyes, or curse loudly, or just glare back. Not me. I went into a full shoulder raised, head tucked in cringe. I expected him to strike me. He didn’t. He never in all the time we were together hit me, physically. I rarely argued with him, and a big part of that was because I always wondered if disagreeing with him on the slightest measure would push him over the edge and result in a beating…or maybe a hurled hammer.
Although I didn’t choose my relationship with my father, I did choose relationships with more than one man with a borderline or narcissistic personality. Yes. My own choosing. I chose relationships with people who played with my emotions regularly and treated me like crap. My friend Tonya used to take me aside once a month and plead with me, “When are you going to leave this man? You deserve so much more!” It got to the point where I was seeing her less and less often because I didn’t want to have to explain to her how important that relationship was or how much that man meant to me. I didn’t want to have to defend the relationship every single time I had a conversation with a friend who tried to tell me it wasn’t normal.
To me, it was more than normal. It was wonderful. You see, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being normal and 10 being full-on disturbed behavior, my dad was a 9.95–I’ll give him credit for never having sexually abused me. For me and the family I was born into, 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s weren’t normal. They were ludicrous, non-existent. They were romance novel fantasy. In the family I grew up in, 7’s, 8’s, and more often 9’s and 10’s were our normal. I fell in love with and bonded with 7’s and 8’s on the mental health scale of badness. When things got rough in the relationships, I toughed it out.
Because that’s what you do when you’re the daughter of a borderline.
You learn to be codependent. You learn to please. You learn to be quiet. You learn to sacrifice your own happiness and be glad to do it. You learn to arrange outcomes so that, if not you, at least the borderline or narcissist can be happy, because if they’re not happy, you’re not going to be allowed to be happy. Or at least they won’t be as angry or as upset. You learn to not have your dreams because they’re not as important as the other person’s. You learn to be selfless. You learn to be a martyr. You learn to be a good girl who doesn’t disappoint anyone else. Even if it means you’ll never have the things you want most.
Would you tell this little girl no one else loves her as much as you do…but that she’s worthless?
When I saw familiar family traits in the men I loved, I shrugged it off. To me, it was just normal. Hurtful, yes. Annoying, yes. But still just the normal part of a relationship. The difficulties and turbulence all relationships have. After all, this is real life–not a category romance novel with minor conflicts that could be solved with better communication and a happily-ever-after ending that would begin with a ring on my finger.
Women from truly functional families met and adored the same men I did, but once the shenanigans and high drama started, they wouldn’t put up with it. They recognized that those behaviors weren’t normal. That they were manipulation. Yet the difference between these men and my dad gave them all knight in shining armor status.
People who knew Daddy via his facade and even family members who saw behind it or at least suspected it will shun me for what I say here now. And if you’re one of those people, reading this from back home, passing it around and pointing and gossiping among yourselves and saying what a horrible and disrespectful daughter I am for finally speaking out after half a century of silence…well…fuck you. You were part of the problem. Not a single one of you ever intervened. But I’ll give you a smattering of profanity here that I rarely use in normal conversation and you’ll preoccupy yourself with that and miss the point completely because in doing so you can absolve yourself of your own inaction and as usual, lose yourself in criticism of others rather than trying to better your own soul.
And if you want to shun me for the rest of your life and refuse to speak to me, I won’t miss you. There is no silence that you can ever bestow on me that can ever be worse than my daddy’s routine 6-week silent treatments punctuated only by the grace he said aloud and angrily at each meal where we sat down to otherwise icy silence.
And if instead of shunning me, you want to say something cruel and cutting, no worries. Not even in your wildest dreams could you ever match Daddy’s withering verbal abuse, whether in a screaming, eyes-bulging hissy fit or something brutal and mumbled. I grew up with a Grand Master. You can never hope to compete.
There will be others who will read this and say I’m brave for speaking out when I could not speak out as a child or a teen or at any point between my birth and the night he died and even after for years. I don’t kid myself: I would not be speaking out now if he were still alive, not for what he might do to me but how he would take it out on my mom. Unlike other adults with mentally ill parents, this is not a boundary I have to worry about being obliterated anymore. My losing battle with him is done…but I’ll probably always battle his ghost.
But I’m not brave. This is simply a new, raw discovery. A painful truth for me to work through, seeing for the first time how my life was structured since childhood for relationships full of promised smorgasbords but servings of crumbs. Now that I’ve seen behind the curtain, maybe all that will change. Maybe I’ll see the signs early and ditch the guy before I fall for him. Or maybe I’ll see the signs and be more demanding and understand that bad behavior isn’t normal. Maybe my future relationships will be more balanced so that I get what I want. So that support for my dreams isn’t in word only. So that I have someone in my life who can be a partner to me in every way.
But as for brave? Brave isn’t speaking out about the past or even the present. Brave will be if I can dare to let myself fall in love ever again.