One of my father’s favorite sayings had just three words: “Wrong again, Buckwheat.” I was Buckwheat and I was wrong. Again.
With one thing and another, by the time I reached my twenties, I felt totally invalid as a person. The very Fact of My Existence was, and still is, something I find existentially terrifying. It was absolutely unthinkable to displease anyone, “own my space,” “take care of myself,” make eye contact or even look myself in the eye in a mirror. I couldn’t understand how everyone else seemed so confident with existence, having friends, getting angry, standing up for themselves, having fun. I couldn’t allow myself to have a (non-happiness) emotion until I first Googled it for validation and prior authorization to have said emotion. But, even then, I couldn’t and still can’t weep out my own pain.
Six years after going No Contact, things are better but not perfect. Although I can now look myself in the eye without cringing, the temptation to believe that becoming An Invisible Person Will Solve Everything is strong with me. If I like something, it picks up a taint automatically because Wrong-Again-Buckwheat likes it. Which leads us to a little nothing of quote from that paragon of all psychological wisdom: Downton Abbey.
I jest, of course, but this profound quote stuck in my mind even though it’s so short that if you cough, you’ll miss it. It’s spoken in Season 6, Episode 9 by Mrs. Patmore, the cook of Downton Abbey, to her kitchen maid, Daisy.
Mrs. Patmore: Do you know your problem?
Daisy: I bet I soon will.
Mrs. Patmore: You despise anyone who thinks well of you. If a man should like you, you think he must be rubbish.
Daisy: That’s not true.
Mrs. Patmore: Isn’t it? You were soft on Alfred, mad for him when he only had eyes for Ivy. But when he made a play for you, you’d have nothing to do with him.
Daisy: That’s different.
Mrs. Patmore: How?
Mrs. Patmore is 100% right! When you feel like an Invalid Person, everything in your life is invalid by association and rubbish by extension. Likes. Dislikes. Emotions. Preferences. Selections. Moral choices. Hobbies. Interests. Talents. Car. House. Yard. Pets. Possessions. Career. And yes, even your spouse.
You could marry the coolest guy or the most beautiful woman on the planet and then wonder what in the world is wrong with them for marrying you, Wrong-Again-Buckwheat. They become tainted by association by virtue of loving “rubbishy” you.
Mrs. Patmore was right. She had Daisy’s number. Low self-esteem on steroids. And why not??? Our narcissist spent years destroying us. They were our nearest, our dearest. They knew us the best. So they must be right that we’re rubbish. It’s not an illogical conclusion to make.
Luckily, it’s dead wrong. The only INvalid thing about us…are the opinions of the Personality Disordered Person who slowly, patiently, consistently destroyed our self-esteem. While claiming to be so logical and black-and-white, their perspective was skewed by three main things: 1) self-loathing, 2) guilt and 3) projecting #1 and #2 onto us.
Only lately have I come to realize that the person narcissists appear to loathe the most (us!) is the one they know they’ve abused the most. They see us as their walking, talking guilt trip. And so, they attack their guilt trip. Time and time again.
I’ll never forget the half-approving, half-disapproving expression in my dad’s eyes when he looked at me. Almost like he wanted to draw back and avert his gaze. Now that I think of it, he did avert his gaze. Even when he said “I love you” and our family was big on that, the tone of his voice was always, “I love you…anyways…despite who you are despite my best efforts to raise you otherwise.” Full approval and acceptance were always one “if only” away. If only…from the top of my head (hair too short) to the bottoms of my feet (I walked wrong), there was just something “if only” wrong with me, preventing him from being able to give me enthusiastic, unconditional love.
I didn’t realize until recently that it really had nothing to do with me.
It had everything to do with him.
Intellectually understanding that is one thing. Emotionally grasping it, quite another. Living like you Exist and Matter takes an awful amount of commitment, sacrifice (oddly enough) and a real concentrated effort. It’s much easier to neglect yourself and just take care of others.
You can be making great strides in taking great care of yourself when wham! Something happens and you find yourself discombobulated, forgetting how to live, slipping back into the old patterns of self-loathing, self-punishment and self-neglect.
Which brings us to today. Things have been a bit intense here lately. Michael’s in and out of hospital. Lots of soups and Jell-Os and puddings. Worry. Stress. Prayer. He’s on the mend now.
Instead of running towards the things that make me happy in this trying time, things that could buffer me from stark reality, I found myself running away from them.
Well for starters, I feel like a “real adult” will face pain raw and head-on, quite forgetting that adults buffer their pain all the time with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, gambling, workaholism, OCD cleaning (me!), other addictions, etc., etc. And I’m always unreasonably afraid that, after my Dad made it so angrily, abundantly clear that adulthood and freedom must be earned through proving yourself worthy (not given a la the Age of Emancipation!), I live with a ridiculous terror that if I’m not 150% adult and perfect all the time, my Daddy will show up, rip my “Adult Card” out of my wallet and bust me back to my childhood bedroom because I don’t deserve adulthood anymore.
That’s my silly terror…based on real events.
Another reason I avoid things that I like is simply because I like them. Ergo they’re rubbish. Automatically wrong. Invalid. Less than. I’m ashamed of them. Because they’re mine. Just like everything else of mine is tainted by its association with me, the things that bring me comfort must be wrong too.
Things I’m actually, unreasonably ashamed to even mention tho’ they’re not bad. Passions I’ve mentioned before, but always with a sharp in-draw of breath lest I be shamed for them: reading about great chefs and their haute cuisine; fine foods, properly prepared; great masters paintings; classical music and musicians; the 1940s and Paris of my imagination. These are the things that make me feel uplifted and comforted, like nothing bad can get at me if I envelop myself in them. An imaginary world where the strong emotions of my real life are buffered and filtered and softened, like those old movies shot through a silk stocking to give them a hazy glow.
Am I wrong to crave this buffer?
This reminds me of an oft overlooked passage from C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. The context is Senior Tempter, Screwtape, advising Junior Tempter, Wormwood, how to keep a Christian man away from his previous religious fervor when it cools and wanes. But the quote applies perfectly to feeling that our true interests are decidedly invalid and the surprisingly difficult task of respectfully and mindfully Taking Care of Ourselves:
As the uneasiness and his reluctance…cut him off more and more from all real happiness…you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do….You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room….so that at last he may say…“I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked”. …to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like…
Did he nail it…or did he nail it!? In That Hideous Strength, Lewis goes on to give this concept more of a face in the thoughts of Mark Studdock as he sits in jail:
There were no moral considerations at this moment in Mark’s mind. He looked back on his life not with shame, but with a kind of disgust at its dreariness….
He saw himself making believe that he enjoyed those Sunday afternoons with the athletic heroes of Grip while all the time (as he now saw) he was almost homesick for one of the old walks with Pearson — Pearson whom he had taken such pains to leave behind.
He saw himself in his teens laboriously reading rubbishy grown-up novels and drinking beer when he really enjoyed John Buchan and stone ginger. The…perpetual assumption of interest in things he found dull and of knowledge he did not possess, the almost heroic sacrifice of nearly
every person and thing he actually enjoyed, the miserable attempt
to pretend that one could enjoy Grip, or the Progressive Element,
or the N.I.C.E. — all this came over him with a kind of heart-break.
When had he ever done what he wanted? Mixed with the people
whom he liked? Or even eaten and drunk what took his fancy? The
concentrated insipidity of it all filled him with self-pity.
When we existed within narcissistic abuse, “dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what” is exactly how we lived. I suppose it became a habit. We learned how to get by under abuse; no one ever taught us how to live a real life.
My narcissists worked especially hard on me. Seems like the harder they worked, the more screwed up I got. But I can change a tire, reglaze windows, bake bread or do the taxes thanks to their teaching. The only things I didn’t learn are the ones that really matter.
- How to be happy (not the fake, smile-all-the-time kind)
- How to have an equal, I-exist-too relationship
- How to have a lasting friendship
- How to stand up for myself and not feel bad about it afterwards
- How to get angry and not feel guilty afterwards
- How to understand people – the interoffice politics, which people are working an angle or have ulterior motives and agendas
- How to co-exist in a world where everyone has different opinions and beliefs
- How to be part of a community
- How to share, give back, volunteer and help others
- How to accept help, gracefully, from others without offering them money
- How to have drive, gitty-up-go and volition
- How to take care of myself and enjoy my life
- How to know what is “fun” for me
- How not to feel guilty and ashamed just for being me
Those life skills are much more important than being able to change a tire. You can’t call AAA for that stuff!
So here’s the challenge: To see ourselves as an equal Child of God, not some second class spawn that crawled out from under a rock. The Bad People are the ones who made us feel this way. We’re not bad people.
Challenge #2: Figure out what you really enjoy.
Challenge #3: Actually have the guts to learn it, do it, study it, be it, visit it or eat it!
It’s hard work. It takes effort and yes, sacrifice. But we must do it. How dare you deny a Child of God pleasure and fun, happiness and hedonism? You wouldn’t treat a narcissist so unkindly…so why are you so mean to yourself!?
Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m preaching to the choir now. Wrong-Again-Buckwheat out. You have the conn.