Narcissistic Abuse Recovery: From Victim to Survivor and Thriver
I won’t lie to you or candy it up. Recovery from narcissistic abuse is one of the hardest things you will ever be tasked to do. And the worst part is that you will most likely do it alone and without any real closure. It crushes your soul to know that while you struggle to let go of the past and try to manage the anguish of lost hope for the future, they have already moved on effortlessly as if you never existed, all memories wiped clean, completely erasing you along with any trace that you ever existed. It is selective amnesia. It is complete annihilation.
The road to healing is not linear, and there is no quick recipe to end the suffering you must endure. Friends and family will not understand what has happened and may abandon you during the nuclear fallout that follows an extinction-level event such as this. Often, you come off as the scorned mate who is simply bitter and angry and ready to slap a label on things for spite. They may tell you to stop the drama and just get over it and move on. It’s okay if they do not know the truth or understand abuse recovery dynamics. They were not there, so it shouldn’t matter if they jump to illogical conclusions. There is nothing logical about the disordered mind of the one who torpedoed your life, so it’s best to let it go and focus on the things you can actually control. There are things you can do to facilitate healing and maximize wellness, and that process is what you can and should take charge of in this crisis. So grab your most rugged gear; it’s going to be a long, hard battle to survive.
First, you must understand exactly what has happened to you. You must determine if, in fact, the person you are dealing with has a personality disorder. It usually is not clear until the very end when the mask comes off and you get an up-close and personal look at what has always been hiding underneath. If and when that happens, there is no doubt that this is no regular, normal event.
For me, even though I knew there were issues with infidelity and incompatible moral values, I focused on what worked, and there were many things about my marriage that worked beautifully. We had a partnership that thrived on teamwork, and we established a domestic life that performed well on every level — smoothly, cooperatively, equally. The balance of power was shared, and we were helpmates in ways that were mutually beneficial for many years. He was everything I ever dreamed of. And when the bad times came, which they invariably always did, we quickly and efficiently swept them under one of our beautiful rugs in our beautiful home. I did not have the ability to really look at it and see it as a sign of serious trouble. Even when it escalated and manifested as undeniably ‘serious trouble’, and what some might even call criminal acting out, I was complicit through my silence and inaction. What could paralyze someone so completely that they fail to protect themselves and the ones they love from being violated and abused? Fear withers you, paralyzes every part of your being, turns your feet to stone and your mind to mush so you cannot escape or move towards the exit. It is a learned and conditioned helplessness effectively making you a prisoner of your worst nightmares. I never understood why some women stay with men who beat them. Narcissistic abuse is no different. Now I understand with painful clarity why victims are immobilized. There are layers of reasons why you can’t act in defense and leave the situation, and none of them ease your guilt or the condemnation you receive from those like your children and family members who suffered right there beside you and can’t understand why you stayed. They knew all along and begged for you to see what they could see so clearly, and they don’t understand now the reasons you don’t just feel relief that the crazymaking perpetrator of chaos is gone.
No one will probably ever fully comprehend the complete scope of abuse that erodes an individual’s ability to take control of a malignant situation unless it happens to them. I certainly didn’t. But now I am humbled and understand things that I never dreamed possible.
We were both impaired as we cozied up and did the dance of dysfunction. His narcissistic personality disorder and addiction coupled with my dependent personality disorder and codependent tendencies were a delicious yet poisonous brew. I believed we were the architects of our future, cooperatively designing a life together that would sustain us, fill our hunger, quell our demons, and bring unlimited happiness and fulfillment. I thought we shared a common vision to create a life that was respectable and substantive, rich in serving our students and making an impactful contribution to their lives while creating a future that would be comfortable, secure, and filled with grand adventures, extensive travel, meaningful experiences. It was all an illusion.
How can one explain such cognitive dissonance and delusions? He showed me exactly what I wanted to see. He provided fertile ground to build a false world that he never fully bought into. It seemed like everything I had ever hoped for. But a closer look revealed disturbing patterns and a lack of the necessary tools to construct anything of lasting value. It was a facade — a false front like a movie set. The ethics required to govern action and steer away from danger were absent. I could have named it if only I had paused to look a little closer. But enough about his lack of remorse or empathy or conscience. Let’s take a closer look at the person in the role of victim and hopeful survivor in an abusive relationship to examine what compelled them to attach to a narc in the first place, then take a look at how to avoid repeating the same mistake over and over again.
When children are very young, if they do not experience a trusting and nurturing attachment to their parent figure so that they can grow and leave this comforting cocoon when ready, they develop an anxious attachment style filled with fear, abandonment issues, and clingy, needy, possessive, and anxious attitudes toward their partner. This type of attachment is called an insecure attachment style. These people may find themselves looking for someone who is selfish, emotionally unavailable, and manipulative. Narcissists are like sharks — powerful predators who can smell blood in the water from miles away. An injured person with childhood wounds is the perfect supply for the person with NPD. It is a match made in hell.
Once in the relationship, the trauma bonding begins, and there is a kind of cult-like brainwashing that causes victims to rally around their abuser in a Stockholm Syndrome Patti Hearst kind of way. It makes it impossible to leave the relationship as you make yourself a willing hostage. Trauma bonding, a term developed by Patrick Carnes, is the misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings, and sexual physiology to entangle another person and feed on their energy. This kind of bonding makes it hard to enforce boundaries, thus we compromise our values and the line regarding what we will accept in order to hang on to the relationship. Many primary aggressors exhibit extreme behavior and push the boundaries on a regular basis. For example, they may actually tell you the lurid details of their misbehavior to elicit a panicked and desperate response, thereby getting the reward they seek.
Growing up in an unsafe home gives later unsafe situations more sticking power. There is a compulsive need to recreate a similar dynamic so it can be healed or overcome or fixed in some way thus creating a happy ending for everyone once and for all. It’s just that it never works that way. This all has a biological basis beyond any learned response. It is trauma in one’s history that makes the landscape rich and fertile for trauma bonding to occur. Because trauma often causes numbing around many aspects of intimacy, traumatized people often respond positively to a dangerous person or situation because it makes them feel something, feel alive, feel human. If they can learn to see that part of the attraction is a natural process resulting from childhood wounds, they may be able to understand those feelings and manage the situation more intentionally.
Intense relationships also tend to hijack all of a survivor’s ability to relate to others leading to a chronic state of overload and feeling overwhelmed. While it is very easy to become attached to a chaotic and disordered person (they are usually exceedingly charming, charismatic, and sensual), it is simply not possible to form a consistent internal object representation about them. When separated from the dysregulated narcissistic partner, the urge to make contact is most often irrationally intense. There is a biological craving for the emotional intensity that no normal relationship will satisfy. This, in turn, provides a feeling of being totally alone and empty, and the only way to remedy the feeling is to return to the abuser. It explains why it is so difficult to maintain ‘no contact,’ and it functions in much the same way as an addiction to a drug like heroin. The only way to avoid incapacitating pain is to indulge in the drug thus increasing the dependency with every use.
Another reason victims stay is that they, along with everyone else involved, buy into ‘the con’. A common controlling maneuver is to deliver a mix of many true statements and a few lies which are commonly known as the ‘mindf*ck. Next, they are masters of ‘word salad’ that is nonsensical circuitous talk designed to deflect, diffuse, and disable. Try asking a question, expecting accountability, or eliciting an apology. They are not going to give you what you seek. Any effort to confuse or cause doubt can be called ‘gaslighting’ which describes actions that 1) make another person believe he or she is crazy, and 2) discredit the person by making others think they are crazy. Con artists also ‘minimize’ the problems and make you believe that you might be reactionary or overly dramatic when that would be a normal response under the circumstances. They are also known to ‘blame shift’ and never accept responsibility for any of their actions. We’ve all heard of “blaming the victim” and this is nowhere more apparent than in toxic relationships where the perpetrator refuses any accountability for their misbehavior. A ‘betrayal bond’ occurs when you develop a strong attachment to a person or an addictive process that is destructive to you, yet you cannot walk away. Betrayal can be defined as when someone you trust lies to you, cheats on you, abuses you, or hurts you by putting their own self-interest first which is a foundational dynamic in a relationship with a Cluster B personality disordered individual. After a period of time, the victim suffers from ‘cognitive dissonance’ and does not allow them to recognize what is real from what is fiction.
Victims don’t leave for other reasons even more insidious. Their attachment style, empath abilities, and codependency all contribute to a mindset that becomes a prison that keeps them tethered to the narcissist. We think we can fix them, heal them, love them back to health. We have such deep empathy for the abuses they suffered as a child, but ironically, the things that damaged their development and created their dysfunction are also the same things that took away any capacity for them to feel empathy for other human beings. And isn’t that one of the most important things that comprise our humanity? We can try to enlighten them about integrity, morality, and honor, but these are meaningless concepts to a person with no capacity for ethics, compassion, remorse, or conscience. Sadly, a person without these things is a dangerous predator. They cannot feel another person’s pain, they do not know what love and intimacy are and cannot experience it, and they feel a void that can never be filled. Accepting that this is their fate breaks the hearts of the ones who genuinely love them since it means they are lost and beyond salvation or redemption.
So victim mentality makes you feel like a pathetic, used up shell of your former self? You prefer to rebrand as a survivor? Prepare for the biggest challenge of your life.
After accepting the reality of the situation, the next step is to focus on self-care and recovery. You have been deeply in love and pathologically attached to an illusion. Accepting that your reality is not reality at all and never was is an enormous task. It requires a team that can address each of the pieces that need healing. I immediately began screaming from the rooftops that I was on fire and needed someone to throw a bucket of water on me. I had no shame since it was not my fault. I reached out to everyone and anyone in hopes of a helping hand. You will learn a lot about who you know and which ones have what it takes to help you. Some of the people I thought might come to the rescue retreated and left me to burn. Others that I barely knew or did not know at all stepped up to douse the flames and wrap me in a blanket. I was burned and bloody and raw as I prayed for death to end the suffering, but once past the shock of it all, I summoned enough strength to want to survive. I located doctors to prescribe neurotransmitter blockers for the incapacitating panic attacks, professional therapists and life coaches to help me heal my wounds, support groups for narcissistic abuse recovery, Christ-centered programs at the church like Divorce Care for spiritual strength, healers in the alternative medicine community to cleanse my chakras and cut the energy cords, people I could call anytime day or night when I went batshit crazy with the dark thoughts and memories. It felt like I was moving through days in a fog with phantom feelings of the missing limb that had been severed from my being. I built a support network that could help me survive. No one could do this work alone regardless of how strong you think you are. There is nothing typical or ordinary about it, and the walls you must climb are formidable.
4 months out, I still feel underwater much of the time. I am profoundly lonely, sad, and grieving. I don’t sleep much, can’t watch tv, and never listen to music because they are all triggers and gateways to meltdowns. I’m not sure when this period of mourning will end, but I know to be patient and hope for the best as I try to reconstruct a life without the man who could not be what he needed to be for either of us. I know he has tossed me in the pile of disposable items he no longer needs or ever thinks about. It is that loss of history, the invalidation of our many years together. . . almost two decades he was my husband, it is that complete eradication that harms me the most.
To everyone who knows someone who is experiencing something like this, to friends and family, please be kind. Do not forsake us in our time of need because you do not understand what is happening to us. We need you. We need empathy and forgiveness and patience and love. Narcissistic abuse recovery is not like anything you have ever experienced. It is real.
I don’t exist for him. Our marriage never existed for him, either.
He remembers nothing. And the little bits and pieces that linger like dust are twisted and deformed so they do not resemble the truth of our time together. He has packed me away and cataloged me on a shelf far in the back of his mind, all locked up neatly and tightly. That is what destroys me every single day. Not being alive or real or having a history that can be mourned and honored and treated with the respect it deserves. A marriage deserves all of that and more. But for him, it’s like it never happened. He moves on with false joy and wild dreams, feeding his insatiable hunger, a sublime predator. His life will always be missing the things that matter, and those who love these hollow men will carry the memories and mourn them as we move forward with hope for a tomorrow that is brighter than today.
We have to survive to help the ones coming up who will encounter this living hell next. We have been initiated into the club, we are part of the tribe, and we have an obligation to survive so we can show compassion and help others through their suffering. That is what makes us human. That is how we heal.