Healing the Lasting Damage After Narcissistic Abuse
| Healing After Narcissistic Abuse Takes more than Time, Alone | Updated |
People who have been subjected to narcissistic abuse may suffer long-lasting symptoms that adversely affect quality of life afterwards. The cluster of symptoms commonly associated with narcissistic abuse could be diagnosed as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) or Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome.
I use narcissistic abuse here as a general catch-all. An abuser responsible for creating the psychological problems associated with narcissistic abuse may not necessarily be diagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The kind of psychological and emotional abuse considered here could be meted out by people afflicted with a number of disorders, but particularly, cluster B personality disorders of which, narcissism is only one. Sociopaths, histrionics and borderlines all also fall on the spectrum of cluster B personality disorders.
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In my own experiences, I couldn’t say for certain where, exactly Tina landed on the Cluster B personality scale. She exhibited destructive traits that overlapped into antisocial, borderline, histrionic and narcissistic personality disorders, but as far as the damaged state induced in a long-term partner of someone suffering a cluster B disorder, it’s generally the same result.
Narcissistic abuse takes many forms and the exact nature of it can depend on the type of narcissist (or other cluster B disordered person) you’re dealing with. Covert (or vulnerable) narcissists and histrionics might attack in passive-aggressive, under-handed ways while overt narcissists and sociopaths might directly belittle and rage at their victims. Borderlines are also prone to frightening fits of rage, but may behave more covertly as well. All of them tend toward dishonesty and gaslighting is the most insidious kind of lying. It’s a deliberate campaign aimed at making a person doubt their own sense of reality.
Narcissistic abuse is aimed at gaining control and a sense of superiority through manipulation, humiliation, fear and destruction of a victim’s self-esteem. It’s especially mind-warping and traumatic abuse because the person doing the torturing simultaneously claims to love his or her victim profoundly!
Of course, “my” Tina also had co-morbid substance abuse issues to contend with and it’s been said that all addicts are narcissists. Because of that (and other factors) it’s not possible to be certain what behaviors stemmed from what disorder. My therapist once advised that it’s hopeless to try to pinpoint it, but that seems like a natural instinct of many (or most) who experience this kind of abuse.
Among the worst and most persistent fallout I personally experienced after surviving narcissistic abuse and gaslighting was loss of confidence in my ability to reason. That’s a commonly reported problem among victims (see: Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse).
I experienced decision paralysis for a long time after leaving Tina for good. I was constantly second-guessing myself and as a result, everything took much longer to accomplish. A lot of things had to be sidelined. Even simple decisions seemed to become mind-benders.
One day, after a few months on my own, I was standing in the bakery section of the grocery store, deciding on a treat. I picked up a box of tasty-looking donuts. I noticed apple fritters. I haven’t had those in a long time. Do I like apple fritters? I think so. Maybe I should just get the donuts…
I stood, contemplating the two boxes for a good five minutes before I became aware that I must have looked pretty odd just standing there, staring back and forth between two $4.00 boxes of pastry. Even realizing how long I was taking, it still took another minute or two to break the decision paralysis and put the apple fritters in the cart.
That’s just one example. It was daily struggle. Even deciding which T-shirt to put on could be a challenge, but that was just minor stuff. More importantly, I lost confidence in my ability to do complex work. I had to cease all political involvement, for example. I couldn’t even fathom how I used to give speeches, testify at the state legislature or devise legal arguments and strategies. When I thought of those things, which had been my professional work for a decade, I felt completely overwhelmed and asea.
Gaslighting is no small thing. It’s extremely harmful. It warps a person’s whole sense of reality, destroys confidence in their mental prowess. It can take years to dig out and recover from this kind of psychological and emotional abuse.
My former user and abuser (it wouldn’t be accurate to call her my ex-girlfriend or fiance, because I’m fairly certain she never actually thought of herself that way), Tina had managed to convince me that I was the problem – that it was all in my head. I was misinterpreting what I saw and heard. My memory was faulty. I was being paranoid, possessive and unreasonably jealous. She suggested that I needed psychiatric medications because something was wrong with me.
When she was getting phone numbers from other men at the bars, there was a perfectly valid and innocent reason for it. When she wanted to spend weekends with her “former” sex partner, it was just to spend time with his sisters. When she came back all marked up with intimate bruises or bite-marks, that was just from her mom’s boyfriend, Scott who worried that his hands weren’t strong enough to inflict pain and bruising on a woman anymore. Evidently, that was supposed to be a perfectly normal and innocent explanation. How dare I question it?!
I was essentially trained over a course of years to doubt my own judgement. “Word salad” and gaslighting kept me confused and off-balance. It’s especially malevolent behavior that causes lasting harm in order to rob a person of their free will, manipulate and control them.
How can one make rational decisions in one’s best interest without a clear understanding of the circumstances?
My conscientious nature combined with conditioning to walk on eggshells around Tina’s moods and an occasion when I actually did get something quite wrong all led me to be very cautious with my suspicions. After years of gaslighting, questioning my own judgement became commonplace.
Tina convinced me that I needed anti-depressants because I was sad and confused and terrified about Tina’s relationship with her supposedly platonic friend Nate becoming inappropriate. Sure, she lied about staying with her girlfriend in order to sneak off to his hotel room for the weekend, but I was overreacting. “I mean, what are you going to be like when I really do something wrong?” Tina asked me, accusingly.
Once free of Tina’s direct influence I was able to begin reassessing numerous past incidents with eyes newly free of scales. Behind every door, it seemed, was fresh torment, humiliation and chagrin. Difficult realities slowly replaced contradictory memories that had been clouded by cognitive dissonance (or my semi-conscious avoidance thereof).
New revelations come unbidden, often enough that it caused undue rumination. Humiliating and painful memories played on a relentless loop. The emotional flashbacks made it feel like I was freshly experiencing it all again – over and over with no abatement in intensity.
Documenting all of that is one way I began coping with it all and trying, in particular, to dispel feelings of shame and embarrassment.
I always thought of myself as a reasonably intelligent man. I got far on my wits so I struggled with understanding how I could have been so astoundingly stupid for so long! How could denial and loyalty to someone who had so little regard for my feelings override the advice and urging of truly caring friends and family? They tried to warn me, but my reactions to those well-intentioned warnings were generally either hostile or dismissive.
More than once in my life, I’ve seen men in similar situations. I judged them harshly for their willful ignorance and tolerance of obvious abuse. but I found myself that poor sap. My pride made that hard to accept.
Loss of faith in humanity in general is a commonly reported symptom, post-narcissistic-abuse. I had that in spades. My cynicism was ratcheted up at least ten notches after the reality of what I’d been through began to set in. My ability to trust other human beings plummeted to almost nil and the parts of me that were designed to form bonds to other people were closed indefinitely for repairs. I don’t know if those particular repairs will ever be complete. That’s long-lasting damage.
Before I met Tina, I didn’t experience chemical dependency to the point of withdrawals. I hadn’t ever felt the need to get counseling and I wasn’t taking any medications for anxiety or depression (I called them “my Tina Pills” for years). The relationship was toxic. Tina was worse for me than booze, but harder to quit.
On the positive side, over the years since quitting Tina, I got reacquainted with an earlier version of myself. The happier, curious and artistic guy I used to be (before I fell into the crazy-making fantasy world of narcissistic abuse) began to resurface. It took effort. I’ve written before that narcissistic abuse doesn’t create a “time heals” kind of wound. One needs to be proactive about recovery, as well.
The damage caused by narcissistic abuse can’t be looked at as “merely” psychic. There is a major, measurable physical component that needs healing just as much as one’s soul and psyche. It can be done, with patience and effort.
Time can’t be regarded as the only factor, but it also can’t be discounted entirely. The efforts required to heal will take time. Some of it might take a long time.
I’ve gone from spending my non-working hours ruminating in a dark bedroom to learning to fly. Literally. I’m working on a pilot’s license. I’m drawing and creating music. I’m writing books (and not just about narcissistic abuse). I worked at it with determination and though I’m not fully whole, I’ve made tremendous progress in that direction. There is lasting damage, but I’m getting better by degrees, all the time.