Not so long ago, I joined a Facebook group for abuse survivors, in hopes of finding support and encouragement. While I was encouraged and supported in the best way an anonymous person on the Internet could be, I felt there was too much reliance on the word “narcissist.” As I tried to find intelligent solace in reading members’ posts, I discovered many people playing the martyr. (I had observed that behavior in my own mother). Many of these people seeking and offering advice probably suffered from some mental or personality disorder as well.
Though I was certain that my husband was a narcissist, I was unconvinced that this label could be applied to my mother. I suspect she suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD). The two disorders have similar, even overlapping, traits. They often are distinguished by emotional instability and a distorted perception of one’s identity. Narcissists such as my ex-husband often exhibit arrogant behavior and a high sense of self-importance. He often told me he “could easily get somebody else” but insisted nobody would want me.
Despite the decline I saw in his mind from the many years of alcohol abuse, he believed he had superior intelligence. Much of his time was devoted to sharing his great mental prowess through esoteric online forums. He referred to his excessive use of time as “studying.” The lack of involvement with family affairs paled in comparison to the fury that was inflicted upon the home when he abused alcohol. On weekends, I used to pray that he wouldn’t come home until it was time for him to go to work. My prayers were frequently answered.
Narcissists do not feel empathy for others, whereas individuals with BPD display fleeting moments of empathy. As a child, I longed for the moments when my mother was experiencing one of these fleeting pangs of empathy toward others. It meant I would not get backhanded. It also meant I would not be called one of the litany of names she had reserved for me. She was very creative in devising new insults and had a dramatic flair. Those living with people who suffer from BPD usually feel like they are walking on eggshells.
Though it may be difficult for some people to live with narcissists or BPD individuals, many victims have the resources to deal with the trauma they may experience. Some families are strong and supportive and make it easier to love people with personality disorders. Unfortunately, many lack the ability to maintain a relationship with such people, either by lack of social supports (extended family, friends, and mentors) or by the choice of their loved ones.
With my narcissist, I was unable to care for myself and my young children when faced with verbal and emotional abuse. I suffered from depression and became impaired by the mental breakdowns I experienced with the narcissist in my life. He refused to work and pay the utilities, though he always had money for a pint of liquor. When I tried to obtain a job, I depended on him to care for our kids, but he would drink, pass out, and leave the children on their own. I wasn’t able to stay in this situation.
The BPD family member in my life, my mother, showed empathy and compassion toward me at this juncture in my life. However, when she invited me to move into her home, things became explosive. I couldn’t tolerate such abuse now that I had two children to raise. I had to flee once she started cursing at me in front of my children.
I hadn’t expected our relationship to be unsalvageable, however. When I tried to reconnect with her, she literally slammed the door in my face. She spread vicious stories about me to my sister and aunts, all the while playing the part of the victim. If and when I managed to bump into her at family functions, she tearfully and dramatically exited, letting everyone know how disturbed she was by my mere presence. She told my sister, as well as my ex-husband, that she wanted nothing to do with me. She had disowned me.
Real or perceived abandonment is one of the most feared things by people with BPD. I suspect that my swift departure was construed as abandonment by my mother. I wished that I had realized that she suffers from a personality disorder that requires others to respond with patience. I was afraid of her and did not want to be kicked out on her terms. Fear drove me away but I hadn’t intended for it to be a permanent vacation.