“Sometimes I don’t know who I am or what I want,” I heard myself say, during a coaching session, earlier this year.
My husband snickered when I repeated what I had said. I laughed along too, but recognising how sad that truth was, troubled me.
“Well, it’s obviously not working,” he scoffed.
The truth was, it was working and only months later, our marriage was over. Neither my husband nor I realised the consequences of the journey I was starting. In the search for my self, I would have to reject his.
I had sought help with a coach (Danie) to manage surging stress levels from a new teaching job. Every day I cried and felt at breaking point.
After almost a decade working overseas, I had accepted a role in a state school. I could not manage the behaviour and was out of my depth. I took sedatives to dull the anxiety every night. And in the day, I mentally re-played my failures on a constant loop when I should have been playing with my daughter.
I felt pathetic and incapable as a teacher, and guilty for being a bad mum.
During our coaching sessions, Danie asked me to list my core values and boundaries. These being the essential psychological ingredients in understanding and protecting one’s identity (self). This exercise proved almost impossible for me to complete. As tragic as it sounds, I had never thought about what mattered to me before.
I was a chronic people-pleaser who placed the needs and wants of others before mine.
My values? What were they?
And I never said “no,” even if deep down I wanted to. It was easier to accept feelings of personal resentment than disappointing someone else.
This pattern of behaviour was normal to me and gave me gratification. Knowing I was able to accept anything anyone asked of me, made me feel resilient. I was capable at something—being a doormat.
Over the course of our sessions, I noticed my attention switched. Instead of work issues, I found myself trying to resolve personal problems instead. I could not pinpoint what was wrong, but there was an inkling that my marriage was not quite right. I read self- improvement books and tried harder to be a better wife.
The coaching meetings with Danie came to a natural end. I acted on my unhappiness with my job by handing in my notice. The concerns I had about my relationship were placed in a box, to deal with another time. But the lid cannot have been secured tightly enough.
The enforcement of lockdown put additional strain on family life. Both my husband and I had to work from home, as well as entertain and educate our young daughter. Without negotiation, those tasks landed on my shoulders. He often slunk off to his office only appearing at mealtimes. His needs more important than mine.
During our daily exercise, when we met other people, he proclaimed lockdown was a blessing.
“It’s wonderful to be able to spend so much time as a family,” he would say.
My confusion re-surfaced. This did not reflect the reality I was experiencing at home. But I kept quiet and rationalised his inconsistencies. After all, everyone was feeling the tension in their own way. Perhaps this was his.
It was not until our daughter had a minor—but traumatic—accident that the lid popped opened again.
My husband had taken her to a local park while I was allowed an hour of me-time to do yoga. They returned earlier than expected, cutting the session short. She was hysterical when I opened the door; while in contrast, he was emotionless.
As her blood-stained fingers cradled her mouth, my eyes searched his, looking for an explanation.
His face was blank—completely blank.
“She’s knocked all her teeth out,” was his reply.
All, I thought? That cannot be right. What a strange thing to say.
Other things were odd too. He had not carried her home but made her walk the fifteen-minute journey in pain. Later, in A&E, he complained about the waiting time because he was hungry. Days after, he sunk into a deep depression about the long-term effects on her beauty of losing four front teeth.
For a short while, I made excuses for his unusual behaviour. It must have been disturbing to witness the accident where I had not. He was in shock. That was all. But I could not stop turning the events over and over in my head. They were not the actions of a normal person.
It seems that every article I read or podcast I listen to nowadays warns against narcissists. Yet, three months ago, I was still ignorant. Narcissism was nothing but excessive vanity, which most people show from time to time. I did not know that Narcissistic Personality Disorder was a diagnosable condition. Less still, believe that my husband might suffer from it.
In my marriage, I recognised that I was unhappy and resentful most of the time. But these were familiar feelings from childhood, and I had developed coping strategies. I was an expert at excusing his anti-social behaviour as I had done with my parents.
When it became too hard to excuse, I formed my own diagnosis. At best, he had depression, at worst, a brain tumour.
Why else would he be this difficult?
Fifteen years ago, our story was a fairy tale. Me, the fair maiden, swept off my feet by the handsome prince charming. He filled my gaps and gave me the validation I had longed for all my life. He knew me better than I knew myself. With him, I was stronger, less concerned by the views of others, better at defending myself. He echoed my dreams to travel, have adventures and live a life less ordinary. He completed me. We were soulmates.
It was not long though before the criticism began. Did it start with my weight? I hardly remember. It was many things. He said I made no effort for him. He angered at my reluctance to take part in yet more of his depraved sexual acts. And he became frustrated when I questioned financing his whimsical projects. Confusion took root. What had felt easy and right was now difficult and wrong. But pain was my companion, and I knew what to do. I blamed myself.
In truth, the relationship had always teetered on shaky foundations. I was not a fair maiden but a damsel in distress, with unresolved childhood traumas. He was no prince charming; more a black knight with his own tragic history.
He had not rescued me from a fortress bearing strong walls that had protected my identity. He had found me drifting, exposed and defenceless. Open to his abuse. I held a torch light to all the dark corners that no-one else had seen before. I revealed everything. The pain. The shame. The regret. But he accepted me. ALL of me. And for a brief time, made me feel worthy of love. We acknowledged that we had shameful histories, but together it was us against the world. Prisoners of our pasts. We were cellmates.
To a narcissist novice, we appeared completely different. Me, the incorrigible people pleaser whilst he was the habitual manipulator. In truth, we were opposite sides of the same coin with more in common than not; we both lacked a healthy sense of self.
Disgusted by their true self, narcissists alter their own reality to create a false one. To maintain this façade, a narcissist will feed from others. Because this need is primal and linked to their own survival, they will act with a sense of entitlement. Narcissists do not like asking, and take what they want while people pleasers keep giving. Until the door mat finally refuses to be walked upon anymore.
Which is what happened to me.
When my daughter had her fall, I figuratively took a blow to the head, too. What followed was something akin to an epiphany. All the work I had been doing connected. The coaching exercises, self-improvement reading, affirmations. Everything. And once I knew the ugly truth, I could not return to how life was before. I owed it to my daughter. I owed it to myself.
When I sought to end the marriage, my husband acted exactly as expected, and attacked my decision. He called me selfish and said I was the only person benefitting from it. I cannot deny that I felt a huge amount of responsibility being the one to split the family up. But the alternative was worse.
Despite the pain, tears, and confusion, I realised that I did have one unquestionable core value to my name. Being a mother to an incredible daughter. Where nothing else in my life made sense, the genuine unconditional love I felt for her kept me sane. I knew for certain that I could not allow her to grow up in a toxic household, as I had done; or knowingly sentence her to a lifetime of low self-esteem, confusion and worse.
I am now in therapy. Slowly, I am learning to tune into the very faint voice that exists within me. The volume increases a notch each session. I have good days and I have awfully bad ones, but the latter pass.
This is a journey along a one-way street where there is no turning back.
As Danie says, the road will have potholes and I will fall into a few no doubt; but I am moving in the right direction. Towards my self.