A reader shares her thoughts about her elderly narcissistic mother and hopes others can join in the conversation:
I am the youngest of four children. My parents were married 61 years, and devout Catholics. Outwardly, we probably appeared to be a wholesome family. In reality, the dysfunction was severe, and centered around my mother, who was and continues to be a hypochondriac and a narcissist.
When I was growing up, my mother was always intensely focused on illness. We had the usual run of childhood infections and fevers, and her reactions to these was usually disproportionate to how serious the illness was.
Or perhaps I should say, whether it was sniffles or a delirium producing fever, she reacted with an intensity that seemed comforting in some ways at the time, but which I recognize now as being part of her NPD.
Fortunately, none of us faked illness to get attention, because that certainly was the time she was most attentive. She could ignore us and be completely disinterested in us at other times.
This preoccupation with health matters began with herself; apparently she was a hypochondriac from an early age, stemming from surviving a ruptured appendix at the age of eleven. She had a number of ‘scares’, such as seeing blood in the sink after brushing her teeth convincing her that she had leukemia. I remember a ‘pilgrimage’ to a Catholic shrine when she discovered she just needed to floss.
When my oldest sister and brother were very little, my mother had a sort of nervous breakdown. Having been a spoiled youngest child herself, having two children thirteen months apart when she was in her early twenties was too much for her, and my father took her on a trip to Florida.
My father was a very sweet person, and I credit him with any normalcy we had, however, he was a classic enabler, and totally mesmerized with my mother. He could have tried to protect us from her, but I’m not sure what the cost would have been. He did what he could to work around her to provide us with family vacations and outings she would otherwise have probably nixed.
There was always a general feeling of not wanting to displease my mother. She could be provoked to anger and drama very easily, and we quickly learned not to press those buttons. She used the silent treatment often when she was angry with us. Being the youngest, I think I got ignored more than anything, which was actually better.
She didn’t parentify me the way she did my oldest sister (eleven years older than me), who was expected to help out and behave well beyond her years. I was allowed to be childish, although I was probably a ‘lost child’.
My brother (ten years older than me) was the black sheep of the family, always pushing my mother’s buttons and almost always in the scapegoat role.
My next older sister (three and a half years older) was somewhat pitiful in my mother’s eyes; she would refer to her as ‘my hard luck kid’. She seemed to think she was always being taken advantage of, and of course, there was blame and shame attached to that. If you were naive, it was your fault for being too trusting. If you had a falling out with friends, you made a poor choice to hang around with the wrong people.
We slogged through many years of this pattern, with periods of being in or out of my mother’s grace, all of us accommodating her in one way or another. My brother was the exception, being the one person who would stand up to her, sometimes with violent results.
Eventually, we all grew up, got married and had children of our own. Although I distanced myself emotionally from my parents during my teens and early twenties, seeing some of the dysfunction most clearly at that point, I grew closer to them after being married for several years, and especially after having children. The desire to share your children with people who appreciate them is very strong.
I lived in the same town, maybe less than two miles away from my parents, and saw them or spoke to them daily. I would have called us ‘close’ at that time. We spent a lot of time with them, and when my mother would criticize my husband, he reacted in a joking way, as if it was a quaint foible of hers, and I normalized this, as well. He would tell her something, and she’d be very skeptical, then when he was proven correct, she’d say “Mike, I don’t know why I don’t trust you!” That got to be a favorite tag line of his.
Her ugly negative nature would surface at times, especially if we were vulnerable. When my daughter was not quite two years old, she got an infection which settled into a neck abscess, and had to be surgically drained. This was the kind of situation into which my mother would insert herself and thrive on the drama, talking to doctors, exaggerating the situation.
When my daughter’s surgeon came to see us after the procedure, he had a smile on his face, saying everything had gone smoothly, and my daughter was fine, and should heal completely. Thrilled with the good news we’d been waiting and hoping for, I turned to my mother, who said, “Oh, sure, don’t let them fool you, they always say that; believe me, your daughter is one SICK little girl!”
My sisters and I always say, no matter how long we know my mother and the things she is capable of, she never fails to appall us, and this was one of those times. I felt enraged, and I wanted to tell her to get the hell out of the hospital, but of course, I did not. My mother was always allowed the most outrageous behavior, and could say horrible things with impunity.
The event that changed everything about the way we viewed our family was when my brother announced that he’d been charged with sexually abusing a neighbor’s son from the time the boy was ten until he was sixteen. Of course, he denied it.
But the kicker was, it wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of such a thing. When I was in all girls Catholic high school, he taught math at the all boys Catholic ‘brother’ school, the high school he’d attended as a teen. His mentor there, a Christian Brother, had two nephews, and my brother was called upon (or made himself available) to watch the boys on several occasions, even overnight.
The boys eventually told their parents that my brother had molested them, and he was arrested. My oldest sister, who was a lawyer by that time, was enlisted to help find the best criminal lawyer in the city. She was also enlisted to go and appeal to the Brother that my brother couldn’t possibly have done these things, which she dutifully did.
In the end, he was advised to plea the charges down to a misdemeanor, and was told to get counseling and given probation, no time served. My father and sister went to court, and when they came home, my mother was hysterically furious with them.
She stayed home through all the unpleasantness, and when they came home and told her about the cherry deal my brother got, she accused them of selling him out, of being lower than snakes and rats. She punished them with silence for a long time after that. And here we were, over twenty years later, and he’d been accused again.
Initially upon hearing it, she came closest to accepting that it had to be true, and I was falsely relieved. Then she went into full denial mode, and she and my father expected us on board, too.
At that point, my oldest sister and I were having a hard time believing someone could be falsely accused more than once in a lifetime, but we were uncertain. We knew he was a hotheaded smart-ass, but we didn’t connect it to being sexually creepy.
We partly didn’t understand child sexual abuse, and we were partly just in denial over our brother being charged with such a thing. It was decided that my next older sister wouldn’t be told, because we couldn’t trust her husband.
She’d married a narcissist just like her mom, and he made no attempt to conceal his distaste for spending time with my parents, which wounded my mother’s fierce pride and ticked her off completely, reinforcing her opinion that my sister was a pathetic doormat.
A few months into the situation, it was decided she had to be told, and she reacted without shock, thoroughly convinced of his guilt straight away. A few months after that, this middle sister finally revealed to me and my oldest sister that she had been sexually abused by my brother for many years, starting when she was about five or six years old (and he was twelve).
At that point, all our denial disappeared, however, she was adamant that this information not be shared with our parents. It would only hurt them, and nothing would be gained, she said. I was the most upset by this, because at that point, I felt my parents and I were ‘close’. I couldn’t imagine keeping this huge secret from them! But I understood it wasn’t my place to out her, so I lived with that secret for several more months.
The idea that my brother’s wife might be deluded into believing him, because the first charges had been kept secret from her, was bothering us sisters more and more. We decided to contact her, and set up a meeting where we would tell her about his past. His wife, however, told him we wanted to talk to her, and he contacted my parents, who called me to their home to speak with them.
I was treated miserably. My mother said, “Who is telling you that you need to talk to (my brother’s wife)?” I said, “Nobody…I guess, my conscience.”
I’m sure my mother wanted me to admit my oldest sister was putting us up to this, so she would have someone to blame. Then my mother said, “I hope your moral rectitude serves you well when you’re looking down on me in my casket!” She also called me ‘Holy Saint Mary with a Halo Over My Head’. I became angrier and angrier at how outrageous it was for them to be mad at me, when I was just trying to be decent, and coming to it quite late, at that, since my sister-in-law could have known nearly a year earlier.
Eventually, I left their house, feeling so unjustly maligned. Shortly after, my parents drove to the state next door (where my brother lived) to confront him, because my mother claimed she felt there was a reason I was so sure of his guilt, something I wasn’t sharing. As if his being charged twice wasn’t enough.
She could have come to the conclusion that I had been abused by him (something, by the way, I have no ‘pictures’ for, but which I suspect could have possibly occurred when I was very young, too young to have clear memories). But somehow she concluded it must have been my middle sister! I think she claimed the Holy Spirit enlightened her!
She asked him directly, and he admitted it, continuing then to pathetically deny he’d done anything to the boys.
Meanwhile, at some point, having had our ‘meeting’ thwarted, the middle sister said, ‘Screw it’, and just called up the sister-in-law, and told her not only about the former charges, but also about her own abuse. The sister-in-law did not exactly express shock. It’s clear to me now that she knew things we didn’t know, even while we felt so horribly guilty hiding what we knew from her. She stayed with my brother; they are married to this day.
All of this ridiculous drama sent my mother into a fury, and she cut us all off, not speaking to us for many months. I put my house on the market and sold it, planning to move, and she found out from the proprietor of the local burger joint. My father went along with this silent treatment.
Unfortunately, my sister did not decide to come forward until it was too late to affect my brother’s court proceedings. He once again made a plea deal to reduce the charges down to a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to a year of work-release and counseling.
My sister did contact someone after his sentencing, and that may have slightly affected the terms of his probation after his work-release came to an end. He wasn’t initially allowed to move back into his home with his wife and eleven year old son, although it wasn’t too long before he was right back with them. He was placed on the sex offender registry in his state and will be on it until 2017.
I almost hate to spend so much time on this crap about my brother, from whom my sisters and I have been estranged ever since. However, it was this whole debacle that caused all of us to seek therapy, and shed much light on the whole family dynamic, and my mother’s narcissism.
A few years ago, my father died, and we had to have some awkward contact with my brother, who came to see him in the hospital and was present at the wake and funeral. Losing my father, my mother also lost her main narcissistic supply, since we haven’t been so eager to play the roles she always set up for us throughout the years.
She struggles to regain control, manipulate us, and rewrite history. She is now 85, and while she seems much sturdier and rather healthy compared to a typical person that age, she’s absolutely obsessed and frantic over perceived health problems and discomforts.
Our biggest problem is to sort out what we should reasonably do for her and help her with, being that she is an 85 year old widow living alone, without buying into the destructive garbage she has tried to deal us all our lives. She is miserable, and for years she has alluded to a meeting she says she wants to have, to ‘clear up some misconceptions’, and she refers to how my middle sister has ‘hurt her to the core’.
This meeting never actually happens, because she never sets it up, although none of us says we would be unwilling to take part in it. My speculation is that she wants to clarify that she had no idea her son was sexually abusing her daughter in her home, and the thing she’s so angry with my sister for is my sister’s remark that my mother was ‘in denial’ about the abuse.
Thus, implying, of course, that on some level she knew, but didn’t want to know. The bottom line is, she puts way too much importance on the awfulness surrounding my brother being the cause of all the conflict between us.
She wants to somehow, in spite of that, reclaim the idea that she was the ideal, concerned mother, whereas even if you took the horror of incestuous abuse out of the equation, she treated everyone miserably. But she was so worried when anyone was sick! It’s just that she was worried about the wrong things, you see!
I sometimes accompany her to doctor’s appointments, or go through some paperwork with her. I try to be available for reasonable requests for help. It’s easy to slip into avoiding her, and while I don’t feel the intense guilt and shame she used to be able to produce in me, I do feel some guilt at times if I haven’t spoken to her in two weeks or more.
My sisters go through the same feelings. We try to take turns, but I am not working and live the closest, so just by virtue of convenience, contact falls to me more often. I’m hoping that this blog can help sort some of this out.
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