Ten years from now, I will describe this year as painful, exhausting, and intermittently terrifying. Hopefully, I will be describing it that way. I plan to be alive 10 years from now, even though just lately the 1930s-Germany cosplay makes me pretty nervous.
The thing our country reminds me of most this year is my house, during high school. I grew up in rural Ohio and we didn’t have internet — the web was new, and very expensive. We were pretty cut off, and somewhere on the line between grifting and starving a lot of the time, especially before I was old enough to work.
We didn’t have people over.
We were also those weird kids, so people didn’t have us over much either, not at first. I learned how to be friendly and not just a weirdo by the time I was halfway through high school. I’m 40 now, and I’m still working on being real friends, especially now that I’m stuck back in the house with just my family.
If you’re reading this and you miss me, I’m sorry, and I’m trying.
When I think back on that time, it’s dark in the house, and it’s damp, and it’s always November, even when it’s summer outside.
My parents divorced when I was in middle school, and my mother remarried a narcissistic pedophile who — according to the family counselor we had — probably had borderline personality disorder. He was a nightmare: you couldn’t say or do anything that made him angry, or he would scream in your face, assign punitive chores, or hit you. After a year or so, once he’d made my mother refinance the house, he quit his job and stayed home, the better to do cocaine and terrorize our family.
One, very small, example: Once, my brother had sassed him somehow, or done some chore badly, and apparently when John (the stepdad) confronted him, my brother wasn’t apologetic enough. John grabbed him by sticking his fingers in both of my brother’s nostrils, pulled up, and dragged him out into the yard.
I don’t know what happened next. My brother might have caught a beating, he might have had to do yard work with John standing over him and hitting him, he might have just screamed into his face. If my sister is correct, he might have raped him. My brother can’t tell us, because he doesn’t remember.
I don’t remember either.
There is some very interesting research on trauma and memory — apparently, we can make up new traumatic incidents around traumatic experiences, and traumatic incidents can also elude the conscious mind. There’s also a bunch of studies about dissociative amnesia and repressed trauma memories that mean that whatever my siblings and I remember, it’s definitely partial, and only partially true.
So I won’t tell you more stories. But I know how it felt.
Everyone in the family learned the feeling of being in a bubble where nothing makes sense, where the reality you wake up into tomorrow will almost certainly have nothing to do with the one you’re living in today. When you live in an abusive house, you always have to be paying attention to your face, your voice, your language, your every thought to make sure that you’re landing in the least damaging reality.
Everyone learned not to say anything outside the family, in case word got back to him. Everyone learned not to talk to each other. Everyone learned to read the wind, and to disappear when it was getting stormy. We all learned not to trust anyone. We all learned to lie.
I was lucky: I was too old for the worst of his attentions. It’s a privilege being the good, responsible eldest child when younger children get ignored, beaten, screamed at, and raped. We all were hit; we all got woken up early or late at night to do extra cleaning because of an imagined slight or something done slightly less well, but some of us had it worse than others.
When I was 18 and in college, I moved in with a drug dealer 8 years my senior to get out of that house.
At first, when you start being abused, you think all you have to do is get through is to change yourself, that you can make everything copacetic by being small and quiet. Maybe that works for some people. Most abusers need more. Narcissists definitely need more.
They will push you, just a little at first, and then farther. It feels great, like falling into love, if you’ve been properly prepared. At first.
Then it doesn’t feel great, and you say something, and they say it will never happen again, if you’re just good. Just better. Just do what they want. Why are you so mean?
And then it does, even if you do what they want.
And each time you try to make yourself less, and each time you do they’re worse, because they are looking for the hit of your bad feelings. They’re looking for chaos, the chaos is the point. Only cruelty feels normal, and so to feel normal they are cruel.
Every day has different rules, and you wake up wondering what they are.
When your abuser — and this can be a parent, a lover, a friend, a boss — when that person sees you might be slipping away from them, or sometimes just when they are having a bad day, they will tear into you. They will come apart.
You might come apart too.
That’s the goal, anyway. Your abuser, your narcissist, wants you to come apart. They want to pick at you until you crack, they want to make sure you are thinking of only, always, ever them.
The true goal of the narcissist is to live rent-free in your head, every minute of every day. They won’t change; they can’t.
You have to get out, and when I was in high school the only way out was through.
My narcissist controlled my family until I moved out for good. After I moved out, my mother decided that he was too much trouble to deal with without my help, and she kicked him to the curb. When he left, he stole a bunch of her stuff and she had to take the Sheriff with her to get it back.
Sometimes I tell part of this to people, and they ask why if things were so bad no one noticed us, but if you’ve lived it you know. Like so many abusers, he made you look away. He told stories about what kind of people we were, and why we deserved bad things.
He hid the worst of it.
He was invariably charming to outsiders; he had no trouble getting them on his side. 25 years later, there are probably family friends and family members who will not believe me, or will think I’m exaggerating.
Maybe I am.
I don’t think so, because the body remembers, and this feels the same.
This year, this country feels like the clenched fist that was my high school career. With the virus, and the dark cesspool that is this political campaign, and being endlessly stuck in the house, I am once again trying to hold a brave face on things and keep quiet and be small.
It’s hard to go back here, but at least I have the skills. I’m watching a lot of people who didn’t grow up with narcissists fall into despair.
I have written only a few articles here since my father died last fall. I can now only do music from my spare room, and in Zoom meetings, and in socially distant backyards. I can’t go downtown because 100,000 college students came to school and threw Covid parties.
And I don’t know what the next steps are like. I don’t know what’s coming.
I got out in high school because one narcissist in one house, even if it’s the house where you live, is simple to escape. It’s not easy, but it sure is simple.
This year? Not simple.
I don’t know how to run from a whole country where the rules keep changing, and everyone’s lying, and no one talks to each other. Moreover, after I left the drug dealer, I grew. I’m louder now, I’m angrier now, I’m not good at being small.
If I were a better writer, or a more practiced one, I would give some sort of wrap-up here, something pithy, or tied to the news, or just smarter than I’m capable of being. I’d give some sort of solution, or at least some kind of historical tie-in or future plan.
I don’t have it.
But I can provide a coping mechanism, for now, and I can tell you that if you’re feeling confused, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and frightened, that it is not you.
The coping mechanism is to make a detailed, reasonable plan, and then not look at the end of it. Figure out:
- What you want to do
- What the steps are in that thing
And then only look at the very next one that you have to take. You do that, and you do it until that step is done. Only then do you look at the next one. There’s a book I haven’t read, called “Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On.” I don’t know what it’s actually about, but that title is the essence of this idea.
And the reassurance is this: it’s not you. You’re not crazy. This is awful, and right now people are pretending that it isn’t awful, it’s fine. We pretend that this is normal, and that the rules are the same day-to-day, and that if we just find the right philosophy or article or show or moral or meme we can make sense of all of it.
It’s not fine.
I’m not going to tell you why it’s not fine: you know, or you wouldn’t have read this far.
Nothing is fine, and it’s normal to feel terrible about it.
And just like my house in high school, the only way out is through.