When the stigma is from within: A story of my feminist values and a narcissistic mother

I’ve seen my mother face domestic violence since I was a child. Growing up in an environment where individual liberty and self expression had no space for existence, I soon learnt to survive by making myself invisible. But in my most private thoughts, I always felt the need to fight for women’s rights. Maybe it was the violence I saw the women in my life were facing – mother getting beaten by father, aunt getting cheated on by her husband and so on. Or maybe it was the fact that I attended a girls’ school, where the teaching staff were all women. I knew how women can be self-sufficient and live with dignity from the example my teachers set. I also knew that many women live disempowered lives and needed support. It was maybe because of this reason that I felt an overwhelming need to protect my mother, to save her from a violent world and to give her warmth and comfort. The problem with this decision? I was only eight when I made it. Was this even a true choice, I am yet to understand.

It wasn’t easy seeing my mother getting hit violently every time something minor went wrong. Once, my mother tried to kill herself. She doused herself in kerosene and was waiting to lit the match. I don’t have a strong memory of this incident but throughout my childhood and teen years I often wondered how much pain my mother must have been going through if she almost chose the most painful way to die – by burning herself. I couldn’t understand how she continued to live on, feeding me, clothing me, paying my school fees, and meeting all my needs by struggling to live with an abusive husband and a low-paying job. Seeing her struggle, only heightened my need for protecting her and to see her happy and joyful. Over the years, I’ve never seen my mother happy and until a year ago I tried with my everything to make her happy. Isn’t that what it means to be a feminist? To support the disempowered gender in your life? 

As a 24 year old woman, I live with anxiety. It is like running a 200 mile race but you are sitting in your home, on your chair, with nothing going on around you. I’ve been in therapy for nearly three years. Therapy isn’t easy. Some days you get all the soothing calmness you need, and other days you feel like a ruffled bird after a storm. One of my friends recently exclaimed about how hard she found therapy to be. She thought that therapy would be like a spa treatment and hadn’t expect to cry during her sessions. We laughed about it, thinking how the word doesn’t really stand for all the things it means. In our modern lives, there are different “therapies” sold to make us feel better. Packages of holidays, massages, relaxations, and so on that help us feel instant happiness. Are the promises that these therapies offer even real? Am I going to feel a self-esteem boost by getting my face massaged with different chemicals? I think it depends on the person. I am not going to try to make an assessment of it. Coming back to the topic of actual therapy, the difference is that it helps you get in touch with your truth. It doesn’t soothe you with distractions or pampers you with comforts. It rather  shows to you all the truths about yourself. Sometimes truths can be bitter. 

Recovering from an abusive relationship with a narcissistic ex, it took me seven months to start seeing minor progress in therapy. It took me more than a year to feel emotions of love that I had so far reserved for everybody in my life but for myself. I started seeing myself as a person capable of love, empathy, intelligence, and creativity. These seem like simple aspects that every human knows that they are capable of. But having lived with imposter syndrome for the most part of my life, and being part of highly competitive academia and having felt  like my qualities don’t matter, this knowledge was a tremendous improvement. As soon as I started feeling emotions of love towards myself, I broke several dysfunctional patterns in my life, including the one in my romantic relationship where I tried to nurture my partner the same way I tried to nurture my mother. That was the only way I knew how to love. It felt great to break free and live an authentic life. It felt life-altering to be in touch with my creative side and discover the immense potential that life on earth can offer me. I was high on life. Then the loneliness hit me. 

In the throes of the second COVID wave, I went back home to my family, fearing an event of a sad, lonely death. I knew through my therapy sessions that my mother was a narcissist and I needed to set boundaries with her. But the loneliness won and I ran back home hoping that “this time it will all be different because I am strong and happy now.” Everything did indeed seem alright. I spent more time at home than I originally intended to. I even felt like I had my mother figured out and thought that she wasn’t all that bad. I knew that we had a complicated relationship but I thought it was okay because she cannot help but be the way she was. While everything seemed fine inside my mind, my body was chronically in pain. I had a crippling feeling of my body giving up on me. Living with pain everyday as a 24 year old woman isn’t easy. On the one hand, you feel like all your friends are way ahead of you in terms of physical fitness. On the other hand, you count your blessings and see how you can still fix yourself because you are still young, so treatments and lifestyle changes work better on you. I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis after a series of harrowing  appointments with different doctors. I don’t remember being upset about the diagnosis but I was in a state where I felt like I can find a way to reverse the illness, if not that, at least manage it well. So I began researching diets and exercise regimes that I can practice to change my predicament. I spent hours on Reddit reading about real life accounts of people who successfully managed to live with the illness. My days were anxiety fuelled, with the hope that I can somehow “fix” what I was. I don’t disagree that my condition is workable and there is still hope but the way I went about fixing it, frantically reading scientific literature on the condition, and trying to weigh in which diet it going to help, I was in some sense, running away from my problem – fixing a problem so fast that I will not remember that it ever happened. But it did happen, and it is a part of me and that lack of acceptance is sometimes the only problem above everything.

From here it was a downward spiral. I went into a series of melancholic thoughts with a complete sense of strangeness to the world, unaware of why I was even alive. My anxiety was so bad that I felt like my body was amorphous, with no sense of head or toes. Doing all the self work over the years, I knew at the level of thought, that my life was meaningful and that I am not going to feel like this forever. I also knew that doing all the things that is right to the self like setting boundaries and eating healthy is going to help me. I was a functional human being, who was doing all the right things and who knew all the right answers for my existential questions. But why then, was I feeling dreadful? I couldn’t accept my feelings. The way I saw it, I solved all my problems, so why am I not able to feel happy? I remembered the things that made me happy, but now they filled me only with a sense of dread. I felt horrible for not being calm and being okay. I thought I knew better than that. I even felt that something is wrong with me if I’ve tried everything and nothing is working. That was an eerie moment of hopeless that I don’t wish on anybody else.

I was fighting with my conditions – Depression? Anxiety? ADHD? Codependency?  What do any of these even mean! I felt tired to do any more self-work and had thoughts of giving up. I’ve worked hard, for so many years to help myself, why then am I still feeling MISERABLE! I now realise that this was the stigma that was active inside my very head. The people around me were mostly accepting of my mental health condition, but I couldn’t accept it, because “How many times am I going to fall in the same rut and feel awful? Why am I so stupid? Something must be wrong with me if I don’t feel better after all this self-work.” I was beating myself up for all the real emotions I was feeling. And worse of all, I completely lost touch with my reality. I forgot that my mother was narcissistic and it was affecting me. I was only seeing my end of the symptoms but failed to see the other side. 

 Why did I lose sight of what I was going through? I realised that it was because of the constant  invalidation that I faced at home. The invalidation was so powerful that I live with an enormous sense of self-doubt and helplessness. I feel like I remember in some part of my brain, how to live with this situation, but I cannot seem to feel them or put them into practice. I am back in therapy, trying to understand what is stopping me from being aware of my reality. I don’t know the answers. But I do know that I bond with my narcissistic mother by falling ill. It is the only way that I can get love from her. The worst part, I am becoming a physical extension of her, where I have all the ailments that she has. It sounds scientifically inaccurate. How could I be my mother? I have a mixture of different genes and all of them, not hers. Narcissistic parents create mirror images of themselves in their children. Probably they feel in control when they do it. I understand all that but why am I believing that I am extension of my mother and falling sick! I am yet to explore. But I do have some sense of understanding on how my values as a feminist clash with the need to protect myself from my mother. My mother is a victim of patriarchy whether I like it or not. So every time I try to make sense of my troubles and place the cause on her actions, I feel guilty. I hate the labels like  “narcissist”, “codependent” and so on because labels pathologise people while the structures behind the conditions remain unaddressed. If my mother didn’t face abuse as a child, and if she learnt to love herself despite her unloving parents through psycho-education, she wouldn’t be perpetuating an inter-generational trauma that seems to have a timeless quality to it. Breaking generational patterns take self work but structural change is needed as well. How can I be true to my values as a feminist while hating my mother for causing me pain? I know that I am not being true to myself when I self-betray myself to help others or make excuses for other’s choices. This is the reason behind self-invalidation and self-blaming for not being able to “keep it together”. So yeah, the stigma is within myself. And if I wanted to be a feminist and see structural change in the world, I cannot do it without empowering myself. And sometimes, self empowerment means seeing the flaws in all discriminated against genders, not to villainise them, but to see the effects of their behaviour on us. I am learning to accept this. It might take some time. Until then, I wait. 


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