When she went to college, Ali of Portland, Oregon, was surprised to find herself telling a friend that she hated her father. The friend asked if her father had abused her, and Ali replied, “He loved me too much.”
Around this time Ali began to have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including panic attacks and nightmares about her father. Buried memories of him brutally beating her older brother surfaced. “My father was always picking on him. He’d swat him on the head and beat him with a belt,” she said. By the time her brother was 9 (and Ali 2) he was using drugs and stealing. As a teenager when he was placed in a high-security juvenile facility, their father disowned him.
“That was the last straw for my mother. She had wanted to get out of the marriage for a long time, and she finally left, saying she would never abandon her son,” explained Ali. By then Ali was 12 and since both parents wanted full custody she was given the choice by a judge which parent she wanted to live with. She desperately wanted to choose her mother, but she feared her father’s angry reprisal and felt responsible for his happiness, so she chose joint custody, living half the year with each parent. “My father had always painted himself as the victim in every situation, and I was still young enough to believe him. He also had been disabled in an accident by then, so I felt sorry for him.”
“Creepy and Weird”
Ali said at that point in her relationship with her father “things got creepy and weird.” He would often take her in his camper into remote areas for weeks at a time. “He would force me to kiss him on the lips in a soft sensual way, and if I wore a skirt or shorts he would touch me on my thighs.” Sometimes Ali would wake in a panic in the night curled in a fetal position backed against the wall, seeing her father tiptoeing out of her bedroom. She said she has searched her memory and still doesn’t know if any overt sexual abuse occurred.
As she got to be an older teen, her father began stalking her. “He would show up during school field trips, pretending it was a coincidence, but that seemed crazy, and it began to freak me out,” Ali said. When she started seeing boys, her father followed her around on her dates. During her months with her mother, he would show up and sit in his car looking at Ali through her bedroom window. Her mother took out a restraining order against him, but he continued to show up, parked just far enough to be beyond the legal boundary line.
Poverty and Alcoholism
Ali described life with her father as one of extreme poverty shadowed by his alcoholism. “We lived in a tiny trailer stuffed to the ceiling because my father was a hoarder.” The trailer was so dilapidated that once the roof caved in. Ali said he would often drive drunk with her in the car. She described one night when her father was swerving around the road, and an angry driver passed them and flipped them off. “My dad pulled over, got out one of his guns and loaded it. It was terrifying, but luckily the other driver was gone before we got back on the road,” she said.
Ali said during her time with her father she felt constantly trapped and isolated. She attempted to avoid interacting with him by studying hard, doing extra credit, and, when she was finished with her homework, pretending to study by reading more books. She also played sports year round, always on scholarship, and began dressing to cover up her body.
Ali had long felt that her relationship with her father was unhealthy and disturbing, but it wasn’t until she entered therapy in her early thirties that she began to name her experience. Her counsellor identified her father’s narcissism and her role as a so-called golden child, and helped her recognize the ways he had violated her boundaries.
State of Terror
Although Ali’s father never hit her, he often raged at and lectured her about why he was right and she was wrong. She said she learned to be a self-critical perfectionist to avoid making mistakes, and she became intensely guarded because he would find ways to use innocent details against her, also classic narcissistic behaviors. “He’d go off, his nostrils flaring and the whites of his eyes showing. I was terrified of being beaten and learned to do everything I could to please and not incite the violence,” she said. “My fear of my father lead to me being a people pleaser and sacrificer to survive. In retrospect I feel like I was groomed to be a victim.”
Ali has struggled with establishing healthy boundaries, a common problem among adult children of narcissists (ACoNs). It took time before she found a loving and supportive relationship, but once she did she was still afraid of getting married. “I eventually realized that it was because I couldn’t stand the idea of my father being at the wedding and seeing me in my wedding dress.”
At that point Ali decided to go no contact from her father. She sent him a letter and an article about narcissistic covert incest. “That’s when the scapegoating began,” she said. “He went public with the family about me victimizing him and my mother brainwashing me against him, and he roped my grandparents [his parents] into it. My grandfather wrote me a blaming letter, and my grandmother started calling.” Ali’s panic attacks returned, and she chose not to read or listen to their messages. Instead she had her therapist and husband field their attempts at contact to make sure “nothing truly scary was happening.”
Ali wrote a final letter to her father, explaining that she needed time to heal. Not long after getting married she found out her father had died. About his death, she said, “I felt numbness, and sadness that we never got to reach a resolution. There was also a certain amount of relief that he wouldn’t be stalking me. I didn’t have to watch my back anymore.”
I asked Ali if she had any idea what might have lead to her father’s narcissism. She said, “I believe that my father’s mother is also narcissistic and that he tried hard to win her love and didn’t get it until he became disabled. She talked about what an ugly baby he was and covered him up.”
Ali described her own mother as an amazing person, who has been in a loving marriage for the last 20 years and owns her own business. She explained that her mother came from a dysfunctional family and got pregnant with her brother while still in high school. Ali’s father, four years older, then moved her away from home to Alaska, isolating her.
“When I finally showed my mother an article I found about narcissistic covert incest, she said she was so happy that I was finally ready to talk about the family and process my father’s problems,” Ali explained.
Ali said she is starting to be more public about her family history, as a way to heal and also help others. She recently shared a story she wrote about her father at a reading event, Get Nervous, in Portland. “It’s a shameful history and hard to admit. Listeners were very supportive, “she said. “When I was coming to this understanding there was so little information. I think it is important to be more open.”
As for having kids of her own, now at 35 Ali feels ready. Like so many ACoNs, for a long time she worried she would continue her family legacy and harm her children with her tendencies to be controlling and perfectionist. “For the first time in my life I feel like I’m not having PTSD,” she said. “Now I’m happily married with an incredibly supportive husband who understands and helps me focus on the future and step out of old dysfunctions. It’s a forever battle, something I have to be aware of all the time.”