Unhooking from the Narcissist : Our journey in the Wilderness

I am not as preoccupied with narcissists and narcissism recently as I was for all of those confusing, painful years when I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on with my last romantic partner and my families responses to my own grief and emotional pain over years.

Learning about my own emotional neglect from childhood which I have shared about in other posts helped me to see how I was set up for this kind of relationship by an unmet and unfulfilled pit of emotional hunger and need.  Finally finding myself a completely emotionally available therapist who is capable of 100 percent empathy has helped me enormously and without this I may still have been left alone starving in a lonely cold wilderness of confusion, repressed anger, thwarted longing and self blame, which is where a lot of us carrying these kinds of wounds end up.

In the past  I have thought of this situation as being like a hungry dog starving for scraps and yesterday I read just such a description of the same thing on another blog.  Reading about other people’s struggles to unhook, the utter pain and desolation of finally recognising that we are powerless to effect any change or get much in the way of recognition from those whose love, attention and respect we longed for I am filled with compassion, but a part of me also is anxious for them to unhook, knowing the back lash that comes when we try repeatedly to engage and point out what is happening to them.  In the long run frustration and the bitter pain of repeated disappointment and outrage is the bitter medicine we must swallow in order to learn how essential it is for our emotional health and sanity to unhook.

In this quest it helps enormously to have somewhere we can go to vent the pain.  The narcissists in our life won’t hear us, and in fact we will be blamed or made to feel ashamed for trying to point out how their lack of empathy is wounding us.  This does not mean that we should not express how we feel to them.  Their response to our attempts to do this may make some change, in some cases. In other cases we will be hurt again and our quest to be heard will fall on deaf ears.  Painful as this is it will show us who and what we are really dealing with and help us in the boundary creating process which is our first line of defence against investing in further painful relationships where old patterns are repeated.

In her book on emotional neglect  Running on Empty, therapist Jonice Webb helps us to learn to develop the skills of  connecting with and learning to express our emotions.  Tapping into our feelings is the most important tool we have to deal with the painful consequences of being raised in families and by people where true emotional expression of all the feelings of our true self were not permitted or blocked in some way.

Jonice recommends that when we have any painful emotional encounter we need to speak about it with someone and unpack the feelings.  This is where I do believe sites and blogs which give us air time are so important, most especially if we are struggling in the wilderness alone and without close friends or a good therapist.  We need someone as we cannot heal totally in isolation and there is a saying in recovery circles “we are only as sick as our secrets”.

I was helped in my own recovery online at a very critical time of pain when I found an wonderful blog by an adult child of narcissistic parents late in 2013 who was a long way along in her own healing process.  She kindly published a poem I had written about the past most recent painful relationship with a narcissist on her own site and then recommended I start blogging myself.

I was deeply unsure how my writing would be received but I made a tentative beginning and when my oldest sister died I was so grateful to have a place I could pour out all of the grief.  At that stage I was struggling to find a good consistent therapist.  I was carrying a huge bag of unresolved trauma and rage, much of it turned in upon myself for feeling I had failed in not recognising how stuck I had been in unhealthy relationships and how poor my own inter personal boundaries were.  I had a lot of work to do to learn to love and forgive myself for wounds that were compounded and were never my own fault in the beginning.

I feel so blessed now to know I am a long way along the road of healing.  I can now recognise red flags.  I am able to set boundaries.  I have made several attempts to express and process my pain with family members.  The first reactions were typical of narcissists but in the end when I held my boundaries my experience has been that there have been some changes.  My only remaining sister actually apologised to me a year or so ago.  Other attempts to address pain have not gone so well and I have been blamed, but by holding firm and refusing to engage in their ‘change back’ tactics I have been able to unhook.  I can now even laugh at things that would have sent me into a rage just over a year ago. In short I feel I have reclaimed my life and my energy through the tough process of mourning, raging, being confused, spun about then reconnected at a deep level with my own emotional truth.

I am very proud of the fact that I have managed just over a month’s break now from my therapist.  She has been sending me a little email every week, which is what I asked for when she left.  I am getting very excited as we will be meeting tomorrow afternoon and there is so much to share with her.

I think this break has been important as I have had so much loss, there have been so many times others have walked away from me and there has been no way to process that pain or resolve things.  Katina’s return after this break will be a reminder to my soul that leavings don’t always necessarily result in endings.  Thought I know in time my therapy will end, I will always have the good Katina inside me, that fully loving consistent presence that my mother could not be due to her own wounds and history.  I cannot fully express how this relationship has helped me.  It is easier to unhook from what is unhealthy when we have a healthy place to go, that is what I have learned.

Family scapegoats who carry the rejected feelings get sent out into the wilderness, or we have to escape there to find some kind of safety and connection, even if it is only with ourselves and the terrible pain of our w0unded and torn about insides.  In that wilderness a lot of healing can happen for us if we seek it in the right places (and we may have to go to a lot of wrong places on that journey too).

In that wilderness many of us come home to the starving child or ravenous hungry dog inside of us that needs so much succour, nurturing, feeding, empathy, self soothing and healing.  And hopefully in that wilderness we find other scapegoats too, those who understand and mirror our wounds, those who help the wounded scapegoat to recognise they we not ugly ducklings but a beautiful swans still seeking that true family and place of belonging which is the true home of our soul and can only be found deep within and in fecund rather than desolate places.

The unravelling

Heart spiral

I am beginning to realise that the stories we tell about things, can either make our bodies tight, or in telling the truth to someone who hears the truth beneath the words and opens us to that truth, we can unravel.  I unravelled a lot today in this afternoon’s therapy session.  Then when I spoke to my Mum later and heard of the health challenges she is facing due to unshed tears I felt my body grown tight and my heart restrict.  I came home, hugged Jasper and cried.  The tightness unravelled then.

In a week my therapist, lovely Katina goes away for just over three weeks, back to Greece.  This may be a simple fact but what it evokes for me are other absences and leavings, the ones consciously chosen by others that left me feeling so alone and affected me deeply, and the one’s forced upon them and me by fate.

The first leaving was when, at age 3, my big sister Jude married and moved to New Zealand.  Turns out of all my family, prior to her stroke when I was 18 my big sister was the most available and nurturing presence for me, at least until other concerns took her away.  Her leaving at the age of 3 had a huge impact,  I felt it today in my cells as tears fell.  I was reminded of how I lost her at least four times, first at age 3, second when she turned to business, following the rest of the family and then became sick from overdoing it, third when she had her stroke and fourth when she died 2 years ago.   These were not absolute losses, as she left and returned and was then claimed by her own terrible experiences of abandonment and pain, she was still with me at times and we were deeply connected but they were significant losses never the less.

There was the loss of true feeling which got buried with the meds, when she was later diagnosed with Bi-Polar (at that time manic depression – which is I know now really Complex PTSD, never truly named in her case).  There were the emotional outbursts which I understood and am learning to understand more these days through my reading and my therapy.

Today I was reading about Alexithymia in my book Running on Empty : Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.  Alexithymia is the tenth symptom of emotional neglect as outlined by Jonice Webb in this book.  I’ll share the others in another blog.

For those who do not know alexithymia is about undifferentiated emotion.   Webb writes :

Alexithymia denotes a person’s deficiency in knowledge about, and awareness of emotions.  In its extreme form an alexithymic is a person for whom feelings are undecipherable, both their own and other people’s.

According to Webb those who suffer in this way tend to suffer from feelings of irritability.  There is a saying in the Al Anon literature about a state of being irritated and full of discontent.  We could explain this to mean a state of suffering a jumble of undifferentiated emotions we don’t fully understand or are not fully connected to.

Emotions that are not acknowledged or expressed tend to jumble together and emerge as anger… (they) refuse to stay down… they erupt as small spurts of irritability that hurt others.

People with alexithymia tend to turn to substances when the feelings they suffer but cannot articulate or sort out become too much.  The alcohol numbs for a time, but since the underground feelings are being medicated and not felt, there can be no insight, no healing and no sorting through of emotions.  There can be no unpacking of trauma.  And no meaning made as a result.  The consequences lead to ruptured relationships, emotional isolation and even suicide in extreme cases.

Reading about alexithymia in the park today I suddenly gained a great insight into myself, my family and the AA fellowship.  It occurred to me that in the first 10 years of my sobriety I was trying to emerge from a state of alexithymia, but often sharing with others who also were alexithymic and that was a futile exercise bound to end in frustration.  I had a two sisters and lot of other relatives who were alexithymic and a lot of other people around me who started to get pretty anxious when feelings buried in this state began to emerge and seem to rock the structure of life and relationship.

It was great news to become aware of this issue of alexithymia today.  I have struggled to understand before and I didn’t have a name for what this state of being was.  I was able to share it with my therapist who explained it to me further.

Healing from alexithymia involves, according to Webb

Helping suffers become aware of their anger, irritability or frustration.

Teaching them to sit with emotions rather than stuff or repress them.

Helping them to pry open the lockbox called anger and to label and experience all the emotions that are stored within it.

There is absolutely NO WAY medication can help us to unravel in this process.  We need others around us who are emotionally literate and aware, who have an insight into what emotions and states of being underlie the anger : grief, fear, sadness, loneliness to name a few.  And then we have to enter the lock box of our hearts which may have a bramble of barricades built around it.  We have to remove these and open the locked door and descent the spiral staircase to discover what is lies buried deep within.  We have to tap the underground river we find at the bottom of that staircase which contains all the buried emotions and learn to swim in it, rather than drown or be erased.

It was such an enormous relief today to feel the true sadness I feel at Katina going away. At other times I am sure I would have denied the feeling and suffered all kinds of body symptoms. We could explore what happened at other times when I was left and I could express all the feelings I have around leaving, endings and loss.

There is an adult part of me that knows I can survive.  There is an aware part of me that can connect all the missing links and love the little child who felt so alone and at times feels she will always be left.   How grateful I am for this.  So grateful.