I have just returned from England. I hadn’t visited the family since my father passed away in February last year. It should have been a pleasurable trip but wasn’t.
My mother is now 94 and still lives alone in her own home. The recent phone conversations I had had with her had taken bizarre twists. She insisted she had visited countries such as China, India and Peru that I knew she hadn’t. She repeatedly told me of a village she had been to in South America (the location kept changing) where girls had been thrown off cliffs into a raging river as sacrifices to the gods. Often she didn’t answer the phone although I rang at times when I knew she was home. My siblings thought she was just playing a new game. Over the years she has perfected a surprising number with which to taunt us and we now do not know what to believe. In my opinion, she has a narcissistic personality disorder but that has never been, nor ever will be, diagnosed.
It was immediately apparent her short-term memory was diminished. She had forgotten the day I was coming. She greeted me without her front teeth which she was looking for when I arrived. Like all narcissists she has always been particular about her appearance, so this, in itself, was odd. She professed not to have any milk but two pints in a plastic bag mysteriously appeared in the kitchen after I had bought some. My query drew a blank look. Apart from the memory loss, she is unstable on her legs but will only use a stick when she is out of the house. Inside she prefers to hold on to furniture. She also stands on her chair lift.
The next day a neighbour arrived. This kind lady had been doing mum’s shopping, cleaning out the fridge, sorting the recycling and other small jobs. She now has cancer herself and was anxious about mum’s well-being. It was clear she no longer wanted the responsibility for my mother and nor should she have it.
A stressful and emotional time followed for me. Under normal circumstances I find mum difficult and have to shield myself from the negative energy that emanates from her. She perceives herself as a victim and is prone to play the ‘poor me’ martyr role. Nothing is her fault and everything she thinks has gone wrong with her life is because of her father or mine.
There’s nothing wrong with me!
My task was to put systems and processes in place and so remove the responsibility from her charitable neighbour. There was much opposition. According to her, there was nothing wrong with her and she could manage on her own. I pointed out she at least needed someone to do the shopping and gave her two options: staying in her own home with carers coming twice a week or going into a home. She didn’t want either and was vociferous in her objections.
I arranged a care company to visit and discuss options for care. She was charm personified to the male owner and ignored the lady Care Manager. She was rude to the volunteer who came to pick her up for the church lunch club whilst they were there as she was enjoying chatting to the young man about South Africa, her country of birth. The carers came. She was rude to them. She didn’t need them, she wasn’t ‘doolally’ and didn’t know what they were there for even though we had already had that conversation yet again earlier in the morning. Now I am no longer there, I’m sure she will try to dismiss them. She would prefer it if I went to live with her and look after her myself but I have to preserve my sanity.
I am not ‘doolally’!
It is difficult to explain to anyone who has not had to deal with a person with narcissistic personality disorder, the emotional stress and anxiety it causes. If you relate instances of their behaviour, it seems unbelievable. It is even harder when it is your mother that is the narcissist and someone whom society deems you should love and care for.
I was constantly on edge. As a child, I had learned to tiptoe around her. Her moods could change rapidly and I never knew how she would react to any event. To the exterior world she was always charming as long as the company she was in was of the right social status or was wealthy. I suspect she wasn’t so charming to those she deemed inferior. Behind closed doors, we never knew where the next explosion might come from. After Dad moved into a nursing home, there were many in which she threatened to kill herself as life wasn’t worth living. (This wasn’t because she missed him and we did alert her doctor.)
When I was 9, I was playing with two friends at an old mill. It was in the winter and the river was swollen. I fell in fully clothed and couldn’t swim. My two friends pulled me out and we spent about half an hour trying to dry out my winter coat as I was afraid of what mum would say if I went home soaking wet. Anyone who has experienced a grey English winter’s day will realise the futility of the exercise but such was my fear.
During my stay this time, I cleaned out the freezer whilst she was upstairs performing her lengthy morning ablutions. My stomach churned the entire time I was doing it and not because of the state of the unidentifiable, dried out or frost covered pieces of meat wrapped in cling film. It was at the thought of how she would react if she found me doing it. I am now in my early sixties and yet she can still produce in me the fear I had as a nine-year-old child. There were other tasks that needed to be done. I surreptitiously removed papers from the many, many piles that had accumulated around the house. Each time I went away for a day or two they seemed to multiply. I scrubbed the kitchen sink which she had told the cleaner not to clean. Her disapproval and antagonism enveloped me but I carried on anyway.
Do you even love me?
She subjected me to the full barrage of narcissistic weaponry: shaming, guilt tripping, patronising and belittling. It was relentless. I was exhausted when I went to bed each night even though I had done little. My aim was not to lose my temper and to keep the irritation out of my voice. I didn’t succeed on the latter but at least I didn’t shout at her, pack my packs and leave as I had done on previous occasions. I ignored the poor little old lady who plaintively told me she had loved me from the day I was born and asked if I even loved her. I didn’t respond to the comment she had always been able to talk about anything with her mother but she couldn’t talk to her own children. To many this would seem harsh and cruel. To me, it was self preservation. I have 60 years experience of her manipulations.
I am proud I stood up to her and refused to be drawn into her games. She is used to being in control and getting her own way. Dad disliked conflict which enabled her behaviour. The advice for anyone who has a person in their lives with a narcissistic personality is to go ‘no contact’ or, if you can’t do that, use the ‘grey rock’ approach. Whilst my father was with us, I could not stop contact although I had reduced the number of phone calls. This was the first visit since dad passed away. I didn’t engage much in conversation. She was never interested in my opinions if they did not agree with hers and she was always right. Now all mum’s thoughts and conversation are focused on her early life in South Africa. She appeared to delight in telling me about the sad or early deaths of people she had known, but that is nothing new. I can remember being frightened as a child with some of the stories she narrated about people dying in tragic circumstances.
I could see the vulnerable old lady in her. It grieved me she wouldn’t permit me to help, but that has always been the way. If I didn’t help, her response was “my mother said there wasn’t always going to be someone around to help so you have to do everything yourself”. If I helped, I was taking control and ”nobody was going to tell her what to do”. I would never win on that score.
Nobody is going to tell me what to do!
She wore me down eventually, I returned home tired, depressed and feeling guilty that I could have done more/been kinder/less impatient. This is typical, I believe, for anyone who has been involved with a narcissistic personality. I promise myself each time I will not return but I succumb. She is, after all, still my mother and I have to live with my conscience.
A week later, two yoga lessons, a reiki healing session, some meditation, sleep and solitude and I am back on the way to my ‘happy place’. I hope that when the time comes, I can accept my age and its consequences gracefully. The trip has reinforced my determination never to be like my mother. I just have to remember that when I am 94! (But I’m sure my daughter will have tucked me up into a care home long before that!)