By Darrah Belle
I recently sat down with my narcissistic father for a mid-afternoon chat. He had just woken up from a nap and asked me how I was doing.
“Mom told me you are going through a hard time,” he said. “How are you doing?”
Like the goldfish that continuously forgets that the pink plastic castle will meet it’s billowy face every time it circles the tank, I always forget that the labyrinth of my father’s “love” is a maze I’ll never master. Ever. And peeking around every ivy-imbued corner will be another opportunity to be hurt, offended, pissed off, or worse yet, ignored. But, he was asking about my life—something he rarely does—so I fell victim once again.
“Well, yeah. It’s been a really tough year,” I began.
The truth is, it has been one of the most challenging years of my entire life. My fiancé (and the father of my child) and I broke up and my daughter and I moved out of the family home and into a much smaller living space. Our daughter started preschool, which was a rite of passage for sure, but a transition for a first-time mom. In the midst of this turmoil, I had my identity stolen by a man that I dated briefly. I cut off my hair, lost about forty pounds and dropped out of a certification course I’d been taking online due to the stress I was enduring. Suffice it to say; it’s been one helluva year!
As I tried to entrust my father with this information—making myself vulnerable to his constant criticism—I sat back into my brother’s La-Z-Boy recliner and pasted my palm to my forehead. I got about three sentences in when he interrupted to share a story about himself. I listened and then tried to circle back to answering the question “how are you doing?” Nothing worked. He was intrusive when I needed sensitivity; judgmental when I needed compassion; lecturing when I needed silence; and hurrying me through the conversation as though something or somebody more important was just around the bend.
And that’s what hurts the most. I feel constantly rushed through life. Sometimes if feels as though nobody really listens. Really listens. Actively shuts the hell up and hears what another person is saying. And not saying. Because it’s not just about what they say. It’s about what they leave out and why they trail off certain phrases and sentences and why they choose the words they do. Where their intonation falls. The gray areas. The bolds. The italics of the conversation.
If you’re not fully-engaged and listening to somebody to begin with, then you can’t know the gray areas, the truer intentions behind their choices. Essentially, you can’t know them.
And, really, my dad doesn’t know me. And that’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes.
I gathered up all of my pent-up anger, rage and frustration and I let it filter out of me in droves.
“What’s your point?” I screamed.
“You-need-to-listen-to-me!” he said, drawing out every word as though he were talking to a young child. The same way he used to talk to me when I was a young child and needed him to listen to me. Not unlike right now.
“Charles Manson is dead! You’re not Jesus. This isn’t the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t need to listen to you.”
And with that, I packed up my daughter’s diaper bag and left. Happy Thanksgiving.
We haven’t spoken since. But that’s not a surprise.
What makes the conversation all the more devastating is that my father nearly died almost a year ago to the day. He survived an emergency surgery against all odds. In ICU, I watched my father face mortality. I saw my father cry. He became weak and feeble and in that state, his heart opened up in a way I have prayed for my whole life. He slowed down and listened more. He used a walker and then a cane and to me, that cane was the symbol of his internal need for something other than himself to get by.
However, as his body healed, and the cane got stowed away in some dark closet, so did his vulnerability. His stoic resolve and combativeness returned to take its place. But, for about six months, I got to experience what it might be like to have a father.
On Facebook and other social media outlets, we all sprinkle our fairy dust about, proclaiming the joys of the holiday season and absconding like a jewel thief with a computer screen full of “likes.” What we are NOT saying is what lots of us are thinking. Yes! The holidays rock. They are my absolute favorite time of year. But they are also complicated and stressful and anguishing, especially if you have endured years of abuse at the hands of a narcissistic parent or toxic family member.
They are lonely! They kind of suck if you are single. They are a reminder of all of the trials and tribulations you muddled through for the last 365 days. The holidays are a recipe for Hot Toddies, pumpkin pie, potato pancakes and disaster.
If you are an adult child of a narcissist or alcoholic (or both), the holidays are filled with memories of a time when you could not leave when the abuse began. They are reminiscent of one of the many times your abusive father stood at the lectern of the dining room and insulted your sister for her weight or your brother for the way he ate his mashed potatoes or ranted and raved about how the food your mother cooked was too hot for his delicate tongue. And he could shoot daggers into your young eyes in a way you will never forget, in a way that said “I hate you for existing” and you could only squeeze your knees together, stomach in knots and study your plate.
So the next time you ask somebody “how are you doing?” and you have the time to listen, give it a shot. That is the magical way emotional intimacy is created. That is the way a childhood abuse survivor feels seen. And, it is the antidote to a season of giving physical gifts, by offering something much more meaningful: emotional ones.
Darrah Le Montre is a writer, devoted single mom and student at UCI. Her work has been published by Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Fix and SuicideGirls, among others. She’s obsessed with Cracker Barrel biscuits, country music and all things Southern. Join her monthly e-newsletter Darrah’s Club!
Follow Your Bliss…xoxo