Fairy Tale Turned Nightmare: The Narcissist in Prince Clothing

One of my favorite movies as a young girl was Cinderella. Before I possessed the ability to think with too much reason or logic, I could imagine no better scenario than the man of my dreams coming to rescue me from my wretched existence. The problem with this state of being, however, which lasted into my late twenties, is that my situation was never actually that wretched thus I didn’t need actual saving (at least not by someone else). Attached as I was to the fairy tale, however, it was no big surprise when I met the man who I thought came from my girlhood fantasies and fell hard and fast in love without any fairy godmother to hold me back for a moment and say, “Now hold on just one damn minute!”

Instead, I jumped in headfirst without blinking, believing him after only weeks of dating when he declared his never-ending love and that I was his soul mate. My prince had arrived, it seemed, and — without even trying on the shoe to see if it fit — I was convinced when he said I had brought meaning into his meaningless existence. I was everything he had ever wanted, dreamed of, hoped for, and he proved it daily by smothering me in love and affection. The screenplay I had written for my love life was now coming true on the big screen, and as though he were the actor and had been given the script, he offered an Oscar-winning performance for his leading role as “the man of my dreams.”

I didn’t have time to think, to reflect, to question. After all, I was the woman he had been searching for all these years. He couldn’t keep his hands off of me; we made love often, sometimes five or six times a day. Not an hour went by that I didn’t hear from him. He wrote me love notes, poetry, he recited poems in public, he told everyone who would listen that I would be his wife, that I was the mother of his unborn children.

Consequently, there was nothing I could do but freefall into his love and ride it like a rollercoaster with my eyes squeezed shut. It was frightening as hell, but I didn’t want to get off.

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Love Bombing

A common tactic used by Narcissists that involves excessive and exaggerated demonstrations of attention and affection in the attempt to move the relationship forward as quickly as possible.

Everything my Prince did was perfect. Everything he said was perfect. He had memorized every line in the script of my love life by heart, and within our first year together checked off every last quality I had been looking for in a man. Doubting my own fortune at having found “the one,” he quelled all suspicion in his explanation of how fate had brought us together. We must have known one another in a previous life, he said, and after a long search on his part, he finally found me.

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Grooming

Just like a predator moving in on its prey, a Narcissist is calculated in the attempt to maneuver a victim into a more vulnerable position by claiming a special connection, which sets the stage for the victim to accept future abusive behavior.

Over the years, while the fairy tale wasn’t exactly following the script I had written, I still maintained my commitment and gave him everything without question and without reservation: my kindness, my loyalty, my love, my forgiveness…over and over again.

If only I knew then what I know now about being an…

Empath

A highly sensitive person who feels and often takes on the emotions of others at the expense of their own emotional well-being.

I was bursting with forgiveness and understanding. I had to be, otherwise I would have had to pay attention to the multiple red flags that had begun to pop up like dandelions in my yard, which also joined the whispers in my head that hinted something wasn’t quite right, things didn’t add up. Maybe if I had had time to be alone with my thoughts and examine why my gut instinct appeared to be betraying me by suggesting my fairy tale wasn’t as it seemed, I might have noticed the cracks that grew like spiderwebs in the foundation of our home. But it was easy to ignore any warning signs when he exhibited such remorse each time another side of him had been exposed — or rather, a side of him that I had found out about.

Yes he behaved badly in the past, he admitted, even tearing up sometimes in embarrassment. He wanted me to know that he hated the man he used to be, thus I became helpless to feel anything but sympathy for him. He was just misunderstood, he said. Deep down he really was a good person and wouldn’t hurt anyone on purpose. Especially me.

If only I knew then what I know now about dealing with a…

Pathological Liar

A common trait of Narcissists who lie habitually and incessantly, and often with no rational, to suit their own needs and without concern for others.

Not much time would pass before I happened to trip over another red flag in my path that made me not only question our marriage, but who exactly I was married to. But each time he swooped in with such speed and drowned me in such love — the kind that reminded me of our original love story — that I couldn’t help but become dizzy in his grasp, even questioning my own intentions in assuming such terrible things about him.

How could I actually think he would do that (whatever that happened to be each time)? Like when I suspected his attraction for and acting out on that attraction with teenage girls… “They’re just kids!” he admonished. I hung my head in shame and promised never to make such assumptions again. I loved him, after all, and I was his soul mate, he said. He was a changed man and it was all because of me.

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Hoovering

Named after the Hoover vacuum, it’s the way Narcissists can “suck back in” their victims by exhibiting stellar behavior if they feel their secrets are at risk of being found out. This tactic utilizes a returning to the love-bombing phase in order to convince victims to stay.

Within a short period of time, we became the couple who had it all and I indeed felt like a princess, though one in Cinderella’s shadow who had to hide the misfit shoe in my Prince’s closet of skeletons. He showed me off like a new car. Everyone wanted to know our love story and I became an expert at telling it. Of course, I left out the smaller pieces, such as those unpredictable moments that would appear and disappear so quickly it was easier to pretend they didn’t happen at all, like the names of women that popped up here and there, everywhere, and then nowhere.

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Normalizing

A Narcissist’s stratagem to desensitize a victim to inappropriate or abusive behaviors, including manipulating victims to accept something that is in direct conflict with their own basic code of behavior.

I had never known a man more magnetic or charming. In the beginning, when I was the sole target of his charisma, it made it easier for the inquisitive side of me, the one interested in the truth, to slip away. Years later as he began sharing his charm with other women, saving less and less for me unless I had something he needed (such as approval or sex), I had subconsciously resigned myself to being in the audience of his one-man show.

Going out with him socially became a spectacle. I stood to the side, in awe of how he transfixed a room and captured every ounce of attention there was to be had. Everyone loved him, or so I believed. His allure was the bait on the line he fished from, reeling in the attention of any woman in his immediate presence, no matter their age nor if they were married or not. All that did matter was that he could make them smile, giggle, or laugh, which sated him with a result that I could no longer produce.

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Supply

The insatiable need of Narcissists to gain the attention, adoration, and attachment of others for the sole purpose of confirming their false sense of superiority and entitlement.

In my marriage, I soon found myself emotionally exhausted, unable to focus on anything outside of getting through the day. I blamed everything on myself. Then I blamed it on having three kids. My Prince, who seemed to have been covertly replaced by an oppressive dictator, disagreed with my self-diagnosis. The children weren’t the real reason I was such a mess, he said. It was because of me, and because I couldn’t handle my own children (they always became “my” kids in times of discord, “his” in times of putting me in my place, and “ours” in times of intimacy or social unity). He compared me with his sister, with other mothers we knew, and with American moms overall: They could all do it, and successfully so, why couldn’t I?

At the time, when I had three boys under the age of ten, I didn’t think I was asking for much. Once in a while on a Sunday I would ask to go grocery shopping by myself, and once I asked if he could watch our infant and toddler while I went to get my teeth cleaned. Figure it out, he told me, like every other mother does. So I imagined a scenario where I would hold my baby — nurse him if needed — while my foot hung off the dentist’s chair and rocked my toddler in his car seat. This never happened, of course, which cemented my inadequacy as a mother. I compensated by going to the dentist over two years later, when my two youngest were in daycare.

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Ambient Abuse

An undetected current of maltreatment created by Narcissists, which fosters an atmosphere of intimidation, fear, and instability for victims. This is often viewed as the most dangerous type of abuse.

The last few years of my marriage there were days when I wouldn’t leave my house, the swollen blue circles under my eyes from all the crying making it appear as though I’d been hit. But he never hit me. On numerous occasions he would place his hands around my neck, professing his love while squeezing, admitting he could kill me he loved me so much. He always let go, however, just as I got dizzy or needed a breath, after which he broke down and cried while promising he’d never actually hurt me. I learned to remain stoic during these rituals since fighting back only escalated the situation, then listened patiently while he reminded me how lucky I was to have a man who loved me so much, a man who would put up with me considering all the trouble I was.

After over a decade of being worn down emotionally to the point of questioning my own sanity, along with nearly giving up on arguing over what I remembered to have happened and what he said had happened, I convinced myself that, yes, I was lucky to have him. Any trust I had in myself and my own instincts couldn’t hold up to his version about my emotional state, which revealed a woman who was insecure, needy, and even crazy. And I did feel crazy, especially when I couldn’t keep even a basic timeline of events straight according to him. How about when you said this… I asked. I never said that…he answered. How about when you did this…? I accused. I never did that. I think you might need help, he countered, then added, I’m worried about you. And so I began to worry about me too, believing I must be crazy and he was right: I was lucky he stayed with me at all.

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Gaslighting

A Narcissist’s favorite form of mental abuse that includes brainwashing or convincing an otherwise mentally healthy person that her understanding of reality is false. With this technique, victims begin to doubt their own memories, even questioning their sanity. The term is from the 1944 movie, “Gaslight,” in which the villain used this technique to drive his victim crazy.

My social life coming nearly to a full stop, I retreated to an isolated existence of home and children, though he still “allowed” me to have dinner with my only two friends every month or so. I was also allowed to travel and visit my mom in another state, and once I even went to a high school reunion with some old friends. Wherever I went, however, upon my arrival home I was met with his questions that were more insistent and persistent as the years went on: What did I talk about? Did I talk about him? What did I say? Who did I see? Did I get together with any old boyfriends? Did I find that man in the restaurant attractive? The man at the Christmas party? Why was I lying? Did I cheat on him? Did I think about cheating? Why wouldn’t I just tell the truth?

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Projection

A psychological defense mechanism — and a common trait of Narcissists — where one “projects” their own undesirable thoughts, feelings, or actions onto someone else in order to seek acquittal from their conscious. Example: accusing a victim of cheating when it is actually the accuser who is cheating.

Days, months, then years passed as my fairy tale love story became a distant memory to the point where I wasn’t sure it had happened at all. I didn’t know this man who now walked around me, ignored me even while sitting across from me at the dinner table and eating the food I had prepared, while I used every muscle trying not to cry in the face of his silence. I cried often: while doing the dishes, standing outside on the porch in the middle of winter, sitting in the bath, lying in bed next to him. His presence was felt only in the small breeze that walking by me created, as if I weren’t a human being but instead a piece of furniture that got in his way.

If only I knew then what I know now about the…

Silent Treatment

A preferred weapon of Narcissists. A passive-aggressive form of emotional abuse in which displeasure, disapproval, and contempt are exhibited through nonverbal gestures (such as glaring or walking around someone) while maintaining verbal silence.

The last few years in my marriage I put myself into an emotional coma in order to avoid all feeling. This wasn’t a conscious choice by any means, but one of survival: when I knew he was lying again or found out about something he had done, it became easier to deal with if I was numb. Of course, I was wholly unaware that there were also more insidious forces at work designed to keep me in a weakened and lethargic state, tactics that were successful insofar as I remained clueless to their presence.

If only I knew then what I know now about…

Dosing

Small and temporary revivals by the Narcissist of the love bombing phase.

Denial

Narcissists will deny their actions even in the face of physical proof.

Bait & Switch

Luring victims back in with kindness and affection, once they are “hooked” the Narcissist switches back to being demanding, inattentive, and cruel.

Because of the tender physical state I existed within, plagued by stomachaches, nausea, and panic attacks, I also didn’t have the strength or energy required to face any additional traumas, such as when I found out he had been hiding money, lying to our friends about me, or his new “friendship” with a group of immigrant girls in town for the summer, which included going to their parties and buying them liquor since they were underage.

Daily life took on somewhat of a dream quality to it, though it resembled nothing like the dreams of my girlhood but more of a nightmare that I kept waking up in a cold sweat to. This watering down of my soul enabled me to find temporary shelter, as I bided my time in the eye of the storm while waiting for the other side of the hurricane to hit. I hid, I cowered, I retreated, and nearly gave up on the hope of anything ever being good again.

Until the day I found myself in the office of a psychologist who was an expert on…

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

A personality disorder in which the individual has a distorted self-image, unstable and intense emotions (such as anger and rage), is overly preoccupied with vanity, power, and personal adequacy, and has an exaggerated sense of superiority over others. Narcissists are known to be overly critical of others, demanding, self-absorbed, and arrogant.

While I didn’t know then, I knew now that my life would never be the same once I learned I had been the victim of…

Narcissistic Abuse

A form of abuse that creates a dark and confusing tunnel for victims to exist within, and who sometimes spend years unaware that a Narcissist has intentionally and maliciously created a world to isolate, demoralize, and dehumanize their victims.

While I didn’t know then, I knew now that my marriage had never been a fairy tale. Yet while this part of my life had come to a tragic end, this is where my love story actually begins, and it’s a story that started when I was a girl, forgot about for a couple decades, then returned to in the face of recovering from trauma and abuse. Turns out I did need saving. And I did need to be loved.

So I became my own knight in shining armor and loved and saved myself.

I was a victim. But I am no longer a victim. This, however, was due to the journey I committed myself to take in understanding what exactly I experienced in my relationship with a Narcissist, which included educating myself to the language surrounding it. With this knowledge, I was then able to forgive myself, recognize I was not the one with the problem, and take responsibility for my own growth and emotional development upon escaping the situation.

Above all, my eventual peace and freedom came because I granted myself the time and space necessary to heal my wounds. Unlike all those years ago, today when I look in the mirror I immediately recognize the woman staring back. She is brave, she is strong, she is resilient, and she is full of love and compassion that is without limits.

The one thing she is not, however, is crazy. And as I finally figured out, she never was.

If you believe you might be a victim of Narcissistic Abuse, my hope is that through your own education and empowerment you will gain the tools necessary to help you escape your suffering, leave the darkness behind, and claim your space in the light of freedom.

Because as Maya Angelou once said: When you know better, you will do better.

*original piece published with Elephant Journal in October 2015