To be honest, I didn’t even know it was hope I was missing for a long time. That realization didn’t come until much later. But the process of getting to a place of hope, where I could hear and absorb God’s promises, began with looking at the places where I had missed out. Even though this wasn’t how I thought about it, I now know that I had to look at the past and grieve it, to make room for a better future.
Let me be perfectly clear. My primary father figures have been absent, both physically and emotionally. For a long time, I insisted that the initial abandonment of my bio-dad happened when I-was-too-young-to-remember (nonsense), so it didn’t affect me. This was perhaps my greatest form of denial and idiotic hubris to date. Yeah, I know that kids who don’t have father figures in their formative years have “daddy issues” [insert a list of signs that I myself was exhibiting], but that’s not me. Really. I’m different. I finally admitted the genuine distress this caused, in my soul and in my body.
I also faced the truth of my second father figure was an actual, diagnosed narcissist. This has been and continues to be a journey. I learned that a lot of my service-oriented tendencies had absolutely nothing to do with serving other people. They were a left-over from a rocky childhood, during which keeping everyone happy felt like a matter of life or death. This was difficult to accept. I had thought serving others was one of the better parts of me, but it was actually an unhealthy tendency to be a doormat. A lot of “facing things” happened, I tell you.
Now, I have no wish to vilify my family. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Nothing to do with people is simple. The fact of the matter? My step-dad was raised by a truly abusive mother and a father who drank bourbon in silence, every night. My step-dad has done and is doing his best, I am certain. No one sets out to be a menace to those in their care. I have accepted this and have accepted that he had a very un-stellar childhood. At the same time, I am not going to pretend that he didn’t hurt me. He was abused. That was bad for him. He is a narcissist. That has been bad for me. These must be held together.
Encountering him at 8 years old changed me deeply. Before that point, my mom has been very clear. I was extremely outgoing, confident, talkative and able to engage anyone I met. I liked to be alone, too, and very much enjoyed the things I enjoy now—writing, reading, art, my own space—but they weren’t refuges from the outside world. I was 8 when she married. By the time I was 11, I had developed the habit of comforting myself with suicidal thoughts. I was detached (obviously). I didn’t talk much. I trusted no one. I was the “quiet one,’ and felt like a charity case. But I didn’t care enough to be bothered. I watched my life go by, like a movie. I had no dreams, hopes, or future plans. I threw myself into whatever I did, but only because there was nothing beyond the present. I was convinced I would not live past the age of 22.
When she found my favorite stuffed animals, throats marked red and strung up around my room, like unfortunate recipients of wild-west justice, my mom wanted to get me into therapy. My step dad said, “She’s fine.” The image of our family had to be preserved. Fortunately, by the grace of God, I did make it. Not everyone does.
The process of disappearing as a person is a curious one, since you can’t actually do it. I remember feeling like what I cared about and what made me “me” was slowly being stripped away, not all at once, but piece by piece. Perhaps having all of it taken at once would have been better. I don’t know. But I do know that the process itself eventually convinced me to be complicit with it, that it was better to give myself up willingly. And that turned into not wanting anything at all. Hallelujah. I had cracked the code. The trick is to not want anything, because then nothing can be taken from you.
Unsurprisingly, this was when I began reading copious amounts of literature, both spiritual and otherwise, to which I believe I owe my survival. Never underestimate the power of writing to save someone. I desperately memorized whole swaths of movies, books, quotes. They could never be taken from me. I developed the ability to stop caring, as soon as I sensed what I wanted might be used to control me. When unjust punishment came, I retreated into my mind. I could do this in the corner. I could do it alone in my room. I could do it in the car. I could do it at the dinner table. I could even do it with people talking, all around me, even at me.
If you think this might be a form of poor adjustment, you’d be right.
The good news is, this survival mode is not uncommon for people raised by or married to narcissists! So I wasn’t that weird, after all. The bad news is, you cannot live a joyful, abundant adult life in survival mode, looking for every angle, afraid to care and have it be wielded against you like a club. But, when I finally decided I needed help, I wasn’t thinking that way—I just wanted to stop feeling helpless and pathetic and like a failure.