20 Mar 2015

A fictional essay: On being sucked in and churned up by a narcissist

I was reading Quora the other day in the section about psychology and relationships - it had come up in my email feed and I had, as ever, become engrossed.
The question was about being in a relationship or a friendship with someone with a personality disorder such as narcissism; the kind of person who can suck your very soul out of you and never give anything back... and you let them, even make excuses for their behaviour, because they can't help it, can they?

It's happened to many of us in the past; it's certainly happened to me. You tell yourself, sometimes for months or even years, that they'll come good- they'll be who they could be if you just support them or help them...but they never do.

I haven't written fiction for a while, so busy have I been with my special needs work, but this inspired me, so I put the Quora replies and my own experiences together and created this fictionalised account. 

I confess, I'm not an overly tolerant person. But every once in a while, someone comes along who sucks you in without you realising what's happening.

No one else can understand what the attraction is. They're not hugely clever or funny or bring you any kind of joy. And everyone else can see that they should be kept at arm's length. Except you.

They have a neediness about them that resonates with you, somewhere deep within your soul. Some similar experiences, some past angst that chimes with your own past. Then, in the blink of an eye, they have you. You become endlessly forgiving of behaviour you would never tolerate from even a young child, but you almost see them as your baby. They need you. And being needed can be intoxicating.

You can forgive them stupid mistakes and missteps, careless hurts, things they do without realising the effect it may have on others. It's not their fault after all. And sometimes it isn't, quite, but there were always steps they could have taken to ameliorate the harm they've spread around, if they had looked outside of their own need for just one moment.

You can take it, you think. You're strong. Again, repeating, that they can't help it, they need you. You can't abandon them. You couldn't bear to see them hurt. Seeing yourself hurt, well, you can live with it.

Everyone around you is surprised at your new tolerance because you aren't especially known as a "people person". But with this particular person, you feel a connection that means you can forgive them pretty much anything.

Perhaps a traumatic childhood, a devastating adolescence, you see it, damn it, you lived it, and you know that while you managed to develop a resilience that enabled you to claw your way to the top, they developed a vulnerable charm that would have people come running. It is a dishonest picture though, because they could have coped and drawn themselves up as you did. But they preferred to wallow in the pit of others' pity; a soft cushion. Poor me, feel sorry for me and when you stop I'll make you wish you hadn't.

They are passive aggression personified but they would loathe you for mentioning their deficiencies, so you don't. You protect them. They, on the other hand, have no hesitation if you should make a mistake. You will be treated to days, perhaps weeks of glowering silence and sulks deeper than the Slough of Despond. 
To them, the obvious agony you feel at your error is incidental to their need to punish you until they decide you have suffered adequately, or as it seems to them, ensure you understand and regret letting them down. And the kicker? They won't even realise they're doing it.

You have handed your power to them to use against you and you don't even realise it.

And still, and still, your empathy holds firm. You can see their deep gash of an emotional scar of past hurt that they carry around, unwilling to let go of. Hidden to most, they know how to find the people, like you, who can see it and then they use their undeniable charm to draw you in to help them tend the gaping, raw wound.

You want to help - you need to help - because there but for the grace of God and your own bloodymindedness goes you. Something inside you needs to fix this person. A challenge, if you will. The proof that you can go through hell yourself and bring that experience to help someone else.

You try, for far longer than you should. You might give them knowledge, time, assistance, money, things, definitely love -  things you do not really have the time or energy or permission to give away.

You make excuses for your tolerance. Well, they do love you so much ...or perhaps they said a kind word once over this or with that. If it wasn't for them you never would have done this or that, you insist... but none of it is true. They did nothing but take and everyone knows it, had them bang to rights from the start, except you. What an idiot you feel!

You have given, willingly given, to help them, and they took, repeatedly, never seeing that a friendship is a two-way street.

In the end, you have to see that takers are takers. They are toxic. You are sucked in and imagine that you can make a difference, a positive difference to their life.

But they have any number of people around them who feel the same way. They cultivate them. They land on their feet every time. Girlfriends, boyfriends, colleagues, family, friends. They find people to emotionally leech off and make them feel pity and love and a need to help. And, you make sure you never disappoint them because you never want to again see the pained reproach in their eyes, in their voice, in their words or in their heavy silence. And you are sucked in.

Though in your heart, somewhere, you know it is futile.

Because sometimes people are so self-destructive, hopelessly so, that it seems they are aware of what they are doing.  But they are not, they just can't stop.

They can't say the hard words like I love you or appreciate you or even sometimes (often) say, look, I'm sorry I hurt you. I didn't mean to, I didn't think what it would do to you. Your emotions are not their concern.
They can't imagine anyone hurting as much as them.They just watch as everything crashes around them. They make enemies, but even their enemies pity them. If they ever do apologise for something they've done, it will only be because there is something in it for them or because something bad will happen to them if they don't.

They can say the words, but they have no meaning and even when you tell them what effect their behaviour has had, to show remorse or make real amends never happens; that would be admitting they really were wrong.

They promise people who love them things they never intend to fulfil. Yes, we'll do that, one day. I'll be that for you. Just. Not. Yet. Someday. But they'll let you down, every time. And you'll never know it until it's too late. They ruin lives, not least their own.

They may appear to have a bleeding heart empathy for tragic causes, but truly they feel nothing but their own pain. It's so vast that whatever attention you give to them is swallowed up without leaving a trace like a gaping, voracious black hole. People try to help. They fail, because no one has reserves big enough to fill the void.

Can they be helped? Can they recover? In the end, it's down to them truly admitting their need and finding help. But not just any help, finding the right kind of help in the right place, independent of enablers so they can finally stand on their own two feet and look at who they really are.

Are they ready for that? Will it ever be time to stop leaving a trail of destruction and damaged people in their wake?

That includes you. One day you wake up and see things differently, the scales have fallen from your eyes. You've been hurt so many times and your friendship, the push me-pull me affair it always was, is permanently over and you hope you've escaped before you're too deeply scarred. Even though you said many times that you'd always be there for them, whatever they did, your self-respect finally woke up and you realised they would never do anything for you.

The narcissist meanwhile moves on easily, slithering away to hook some other unsuspecting soul. In their world you simply no longer exist, other than as their bad memory of someone they could no longer control.

Their charm, that 'poor, injured-me, please take care-of-me' charm means they have always got away with so much, protected by apologists who still think they'll come good, a constant triumph of hope over experience. You know this; you were once among them.

These are the ones who clean up the mess left behind, even when the narcissist's behaviour - sometimes breathtakingly risky behaviour - has broken hearts, threatened their job or their reputation or even that of their employer.
And sometimes, the protector is the last to know the true extent of that which the narcissist has kept hidden.
That is, until someone else finds out who isn't prepared to keep it secret.