SHARED BY AMELIA BENNETT
There’s a racquetball lodged firmly in my throat. My eyelids are burning, and the back of my head feels cold and heavy, like an icy hand is pushing my gaze toward the ground. A plastic device shaped a bit like a bean and roughly the size of a car-key remote is buzzing intermittently in my left hand; I’m holding its vibrating twin in my right. The muscles along the backside of my left leg are in full-blown spasm—I have never experienced anything like this before. I open my eyes and express my concern about these twitchy muscles to a slight brunette sitting a couple feet away. The beans stop jumping for a while, and she explains what’s happening.
I am reprogramming my brain, right here in a dimly lit office on a Thursday evening in December. My therapist specializes in trauma, and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a big part of my treatment plan. While I have experienced some conventional traumas (what my therapist calls "Big-T Trauma") in my life, what we’re working on right now is a bit sneakier. It’s trauma caused by long-term, systematic emotional abuse. About a month and a half ago, I awoke to the startling realization that my father is a toxic narcissist.
By the time I realized there was something seriously wrong with our relationship, I was already putting boundaries in place. I hadn’t spoken to him in about three months, and I was limiting his contact with my daughter. I started noticing similarities between myself and others raised by narcissists, and I even started to feel a bit hopeful. Maybe the car wreck I thought my life had become wasn’t as bad as I thought. Maybe I wasn’t even driving the car all these years.
My memories of what our relationship was like in my early childhood are pretty foggy, but they’re consistent enough that I feel I can trust them. Dad is yelling at me for crying. Dad is yelling at me for not knowing how to ride my bike the first time I get on it. Dad is yelling at me for failing to understand something he is trying to explain.
Here’s the strange part: he’s not even necessarily raising his voice. He’s a pretty loud talker in general (many narcissists are), and he’s an experienced vocal performer who really knows how to project, so if he were truly yelling the neighbors would know. In rural New England where I grew up, that would be something of an accomplishment, but he’s smarter than that. My dad can yell without raising his voice. He has these pale blue eyes, and when he’s decided someone needs to be dominated they turn into freezing cold lasers.
As his child, I always needed to be controlled. I saw those eyes an awful lot. I finally saw them for what they were last July, and unless things change, I may never see them again.
The first time I stood up to him all hell broke loose. For a couple of years, my parents had asked me to store an antique cabinet in my guest room. It came to no harm during its tenure in my home and was returned when they were ready for it. On a subsequent visit to their home, I placed something momentarily on top of the cabinet and was sharply chided as though I were untrustworthy with my parents’ belongings. I explained that there would be no damage, and my father responded by ignoring my explanation and making a vocal demonstration of moving my item.
I don’t recall the specifics, but I felt hurt and—more importantly—disrespected by his lack of trust in me. I had been trustworthy enough to have this very piece of furniture in my own home for years when it was convenient for my father, but now that it was convenient for me to briefly place something atop it I could not be trusted.
I gathered my daughter, told my father and mother that it wasn’t appropriate for me to be treated that way, and I left. My daughter and I climbed into my car in the driveway, and I came undone. I was hurt by his treatment of me over such a silly matter—and shaken by my ability to set a boundary, to be unwilling to tolerate that treatment. This upset in the balance of power resulted in some shit hitting the fan at my parents’ home, but there were really no lasting consequences other than my decision to start standing up for myself (and standing up for my mother and daughter).
The Last Straw
It would be about four or five years before another significant incident occurred—once again, at my parents’ home. Late last spring, I came to the unhappy realization that I needed surgery to remove my gallbladder. What ought to have been a simple outpatient procedure stretched into a couple days at the hospital and several more days of convalescence at my parents’ home, while my husband was on a rare out-of-state visit.
I felt like a horrible burden on my parents—especially my mother, who did all she could to accommodate my weakened state and limited diet—and I was weepy from the strong narcotics I was prescribed. I was eager to be off the medication as quickly as possible, and as a result I was sleeping very poorly and in a lot of discomfort. This all exacerbated my emotional state.
On my first full day home from the hospital, I became tearful with frustration and discomfort when my mom brought me a few bites of bland food to eat. My father got up from watching TV in the next room and came stomping in to where my mother and I were. I can guarantee I wasn’t on my best behavior—I was stoned, for Pete’s sake! My father yelled some choice words, and advised me to “get a grip!” I was furious. I would have left right then if I’d had any capacity at all.
The last straw occurred just a couple months later. I was meeting up with my parents, so my daughter could go visit with them for the last week of her summer vacation. A conversation about bank fees turned into a shouting match in the parking lot, where my father sarcastically referred to me as "Mother." I will admit to flying off the handle—I told him he should call me mother because someone needed to teach him some common decency, and his mother clearly had not done so. He shouted that he was done and stormed off to his car. I took him at his word, and we haven’t spoken since.
Beginning to Heal
About three months later, I started therapy. It wasn't my first round of treatment, and it’s not likely to be my last, but it was my first time dealing with these issues. My brother and I are both classic narcissist’s kids: perfectionistic, inclined to over- or underachieve, and afraid of success while craving approval. I don’t know what all will be involved in the healing process, but I’m willing to put in the work. And while I know I am not without blame, I also know I don’t have to be a victim.
It’s tricky navigating grief over the loss of your father when he’s still alive. It’s tricky because he lives with my mother on the other side of town. It’s tricky because she and I are very close, and I don’t want to put her in the middle of things, so we don’t visit as often. It’s tricky because he’s convinced I am entirely to blame for our toxic relationship—and he is good at finding evidence to support that conclusion. In his mind, he needs to look no further than the fact that I’m seeing a therapist. That must mean I am mentally ill, while he’s just an innocent bystander. It’s not him, it’s me.
My therapist is helping me understand how our unhealthy relationship has taught me behaviors that are reflected elsewhere in my life. I am learning to identify my unhealthy thought processes and replace the lies I have told myself with truths about who I am. I am beginning to identify the ways in which I sabotage myself whenever things start to go well for me and how I berate myself for the resulting failure. I am learning that I deserve safe relationships, and that I can help create them. I have a long, long way to go.
I listen, I nod, and I fill a tissue with tears (and, quite honestly, a lot of snot). I probably do the tissue at least twice because I am generous with my tears—much to my chagrin—and my tears are like a snot assembly line. I don’t mean to be gross, but snot is everywhere. I use another tissue to wipe my hands before I pick the jumping beans back up to finish my session. I cannot wait to be finished. This work is exhausting and expensive, and I hate it. But it is my lifeline, and it is keeping me alive. I close my eyes again, and the racquetball slowly turns to ice, then melts away. My shoulders lift, pushing away the weight against my neck, and my tears stop falling. I surround myself in safety and engage all my senses in imagining that calm place.
I feel lighter when I leave, although it will be an hour or more before my leg muscles finally stop trying to escape through my skin. My body is slow at releasing stored emotion, but I know for certain it is letting go.
I am still in the trench, but I am beginning to believe in the sky.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amelia Bennett is an editor for Stories from the Trenches. You can also find her at Bookwife.com, where she helps others discover and share their stories—whether for print, public speaking, or brand development. If you are in a trench, she encourages you to call a hotline, find a meeting, or see a therapist. To learn more about EMDR or other types of treatment, contact a professional in your area.