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The Beautiful Grind

Surviving Circumstance - A fictional series highlighting the traumatic impact behind the epidemic of narcissism

CHAPTER SIX

ILLUSION OF CHANGE YET TO COME

“I don’t think that G-d left me or that I left G-d. I just think we got in a fight, that’s all.”

Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes

During my nine month rebellion I had managed to keep my grades up, score high on my SATs and apply to seven universities. By the end of senior year, I was only addicted to two things – cigarettes and checking the mailbox. 

When my older sister had been applying to university the lion purchased a book by US News & World Report of the 250 best colleges in the United States.  It provided a two-page summary on each school and I poured over the pages.

The lion told my older sister (the golden child) that she would be attending his alma mater.  But, I was not good enough for such an institution.  He told me I was going to go to The Ohio State University.  Unless I received a poor grade on a test, then he’d threaten me by telling me I would be attending the University of Cincinnati. I’m unsure what he had against either one of these schools and he never elaborated on his sentiments.

I dreamed of changing my name and attending UC Santa Cruz in California.  My mother wanted to call me Samantha and the lion lobbied for Alexandra.  Both pressured me to make this decision before I started college.

I craved stability. After my parent’s divorce I hadn’t lived in the same place for more than a year or two.  I longed to stay in the same place for four years, which at that age resembled eternity. 

In my mother’s house, I was told I could go to any university located between Washington DC and Boston.  Why this region?  I was told it would cost too much to fly home for Thanksgiving.  Reflecting on this now, I ponder if they were concerned the distance would make it harder to control me.

At the time I was just grateful that I was going to college.  Many kids my age didn’t have access to education and I counted my blessings and did as I was told.

My number one choice from available options was New York University.  I applied early decision and was rejected before Christmas.  Now cherry trees were blossoming and I was waiting to hear from three other schools who were solid choices and three back-up schools where I had less than zero interest.

The day the envelope arrived from Boston University my heart began to race before I even opened the letter.  It was BIG.  The size of a folder.  And it was thick.  I ran into the house and took the basement stairs two at a time.  My parents had been working out with their personal trainer and I wanted to open the letter together.

I spring boarded into a scream as I read the word “accepted”.   I crashed on the couch in a storm of excitement and started leafing through a brochure they had sent with the letter. 

The first response I received was from my step-father, “well, that’s great, but we can’t afford it.” His words were sharp and course spoken with great speed and finality.

I was shocked. Money hadn’t been mentioned during any discussion of college.  When I was looking at schools and applying I had never been told to consider budget.  Why now?

It was the only school I applied to in Boston and since breaking-up with my ex-boyfriend this had become a distinguishing factor.  He had a bench warrant out for his arrest in the state of Massachusetts.  He was terrified of going back to prison.  I doubted he would come after me there.  Safety and stability all rolled into one.

Boston University was the perfect school for me.

I was denied financial aid.  In the end, my parents paid most of the tuition.  I received a scholarship that covered part of the tuition.  And I took out student loans to cover the remaining balance.  This was the first time in my life I incurred debt and the thought of it was debilitating.

I worked two jobs over the summer to be able to cover the costs of my books.  I used graduation gifts for a trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond and purchased the items I needed to take to school  During the year, I worked to pay for utilities and spending money.

I often wondered if my siblings had student loans too.  Maybe my parents couldn’t afford my education because I was the youngest and they had already paid to send the other kids to college.  Maybe they just didn’t believe I was worth the investment.  Maybe it was punishment for running away from home.  Maybe they thought I was just going to do drugs and not study.  Maybe they thought I would take school more seriously if I paid for some of it myself.  I don’t know.  Our house resembled the Unites States military in many aspects.  We had a very strict don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

All I knew was that there was some hidden condition I had not met. 

In our home, giving was always conditional.

In the years that followed, every month when I paid that bill I heard the sound of shattered glass and envisioned corned beef and cabbage hitting the ground.

If I had known I was going to be paying for my education, would I have applied to schools on the west coast too?  If I had been brave enough to move out, why wasn’t I brave enough to go to school where I wanted? The thought had never crossed my mind.

Maybe they never had any intention of paying for my full education, but waiting to tell me until after it was too late to apply anywhere else was another form of control.  A way for them to keep me on the side of the country where they wanted me.

It’s difficult for people to understand the impact of narcissistic abuse, but it’s also difficult to characterize the abuse itself.  Victims often appear hysterical and unable to pinpoint the specific offenses of their attackers.  And unlike physical abuse there are no cuts, bruises or broken bones to be documented. 

Why did I run away from home? Was the chef just the more controlling of the abusers?  Is that why he won that game of tug-o-war? Was it just because I was a drug addict and they grounded me? It’s incredibly common for abusers to keep their captors addicted to drugs or alcohol as it makes them easier to control.

Why did I choose to live in a one-car-garage instead of a fancy house with a swimming pool?  Why was working full-time in addition to school “better” than living at home?  Why was that the less painful of the two choices? 

I still have more questions than answers.  The older I get, the more I try to learn about psychology and what happened to me, the less I’m able to comprehend the events themselves or their full impact on my life.  Being able to say out loud that I am in a lot of pain, is in itself a lot of progress.

When I was a child, I found it exhausting to constantly be explaining everything to adults.  They never seemed to understand anything on their own.  The older I get though, the less I seem to know and now I’m the one who needs to have everything explained to me. 

Aging brings with it newfound humility.  But, sometimes I still watch myself overcompensate with arrogance and assertiveness.  I worry this is a learned trait.  I worry I’m becoming a narcissist myself.  Perhaps sometimes in order to correct an issue, you merely have to admit how much you don’t know. Information always trumps ignorance.

Narcissistic abuse is a serious form of abuse that is estimated to affect somewhere between 60 and 158 million people in the U.S. alone (Bonchay, 2017). 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline website defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship”.

Creating a causal relationship between the narcissist’s behaviors and what characterizes them helps to identifying specific actions used to gain control. 

They tend to target co-dependents and people who are vulnerable in other ways, for example, someone who has recently lost a loved one or job.  They use compliments and flattery to make you feel special as they charm and disarm.  They also play with difficult emotions like shock, awe and guilt to maintain control as they go hot and cold to engage a type of intermittent reinforcement.  

Thank you to Psychology Today for this list of characterizations, which elaborates on specifics:

  • Verbal abuse — Belittling, bullying, accusing, blaming, shaming, demanding, ordering, threatening, criticizing, sarcasm, raging, opposing, undermining, interrupting, blocking and name-calling in a context and frequency that involves malice.
  • Manipulation in the form of covert aggression.  On the surface the words seem harmless or even positive, but underneath there is hostile intent.  Anyone who has been to the south is familiar with the phrase “Bless your heart”
  • Emotional blackmail including threats, anger, warnings, intimidation or punishment meant to invoke feelings of fear, obligation and guilt.
  • Gaslighting – intentionally making you distrust your perceptions of reality or make you believe that you’re mentally incompetent
  • Competition and one-upping
  • Negative contrasting – comparing you to themselves or other people
  • Sabotage – interference with your endeavors or relationships for the purpose of revenge or personal advantage.
  • Exploitation and objectification – using or taking advantage of you for personal ends without regard for your feelings or needs
  • Lying to avoid responsibility or meet their own ends
  • Withholding money, sex, communication or affection
  • Neglect – ignoring the needs of a child for whom the abuser is responsible.
  • Privacy Invasion – ignoring your boundaries this could include going through your belongings, phone, mail or denying you physical privacy by stalking
  • Character assassination or slander – spreading malicious gossip or lies about you to other people
  • Violence – blocking your movement, pulling hair, throwing things or destroying property
  • Financial abuse – controlling you through economic domination or draining your finances through extortion, theft, manipulation, gambling, accruing debt in your name or selling your personal property
  • Isolating you from friends, family or access to outside services and support

Most people don’t understand the true blows of emotional abuse or the impact of prolonged narcissistic abuse.  It’s hard for people to empathize with what it does to your mind and your distorted worldview is difficult to explain. 

To me I often felt like I was trapped in the movie Being John Malkavich.  I still inhabited my mind and had my own thoughts, but I was unable to express them or act upon them.  It’s as though I was not the one living my life, but I had to deal with the consequences of their manipulations. 

The trauma bond turned me into a marionette doll.  The bond itself doesn’t change how you feel about the person, only how you act.  In these types of relationships there’s a dynamic at play and the narcissist is best served by keeping that dynamic running. 

They do not want you to change. 

Frank Underwood was right – treading water is the same as drowning.  If you remain constant and are not allowed to change you stay stuck in the same place indefinitely.  Change is growth and without it you remain in a stagnant state trapped within their vicious cycle.

I didn’t expect to have a grand life, but I wanted it to be mine.

Join us next week for Chapter Seven as we move to Boston and discover the far reaching impact of repetition compulsion.

The goal is to shed light on the current epidemic of narcissism in our country. It is also my most sincere hope that this story will help people who are survivors of abuse or suffering with mental illness to find not only solace, but salvation. 

Bonus points if it also sparks a national dialogue about how the prominence of this destructive personality trait is shaping future generations, altering the fabric of our culture and impacting our society as a whole.

Wanna Read More?

Introduction – Part One

Introduction – Part Two

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

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