For the last weeks my son has been watching episodes of Breaking Bad. While I condemn his not watching with the original audio, I like to come into the living room, pick up on the plot wherever he is in the series and wonder how messed up characters can be. With every scene I watch the realisation that meeting the wrong person at any time can have a disastrous effect on your life. Once a path is taken it seems impossible to find your way back to how things were before. Worst of all is when we finally break free of someone bad, but they come back to pull us down again.
But when do we realise, we let a toxic person into our life?
And what do we do when we realise, we have been there before and are about to step into the same trap again?
The realisation of living an unhappy life felt like drowning to me. I felt isolated, numbed, and suffocated. All the sunshine that once had surrounded me was only visible from beneath the surface. I missed the cheer and laughter of friends around me. I missed intellectual exchanges in the library or rather the cafeteria next to the library. I missed being heard and most of all understood. Constant nagging about your appearance, questioning your ability as a newly established mother and criticism of the people that surround you sunk my spirits. My enthusiasm for decorating was dampened as much as any other growth of personality. I lost touch with myself. I once showed a picture of me in the flat I then shared with that person and the ‘that is not you’-remark of my friend shot like an arrow into my heart. No, I do not like white walls. No, I do not like angel figurines and no, I would never again wear what I wore in that picture.
But how could this have happened to me? How could I have not seen this coming?
There is a lot of shame in admitting you could be manipulated by a person who is half as smart as you. There is a lot of shame in having seen the signs, but to have ignored them. There is a lot of shame in being subdued in more than one way.
I still feel that shame.
I did not know it then, but I know now, the only reason I finally broke free and re-surfaced was my son. There was no way my son would grow up in an environment like this. Back then I claimed that I could only raise a happy child if I was a happy mother. It might not be as simple as that, but it was enough. Two other things helped me a lot in starting my dive back to the world of the breathing. I met someone who sparked in me a feeling of being interesting, attractive, and unique. The other one was my friends and family who had their arms and hands under water to pull be back. Without them fishing the cheerful version of me might have been lost.
So, I was breaking back to be who I had been. My son and me moved into a sunny apartment. The walls were painted in the brightest of colours and I bought the coffee I liked. I gave a lot of thought to what I liked. When speaking of that flat I refer to it as my freedom-apartment. I thought I was free at last, back to making my own decisions and detached from all the negativity that sunk my spirits.
But did I?
The only means to execute control over my life was the child. My weak spot. Everything was cloaked under his claim to have to see to his son’s safety. He had to inspect the room my son slept in. He ordered a curfew for us, saying we should not be outside after dark. Imagine. I have a university degree. I am a teacher. Yet I remember one evening of coming home from my parents, my mother and me hastening through the park while the sun had already set. Me desperately watching out for this man’s car completely drowning in fear for being caught outside after dark. What was even worse than my own emotions were those of my disbelieving mother, who could not understand what exactly I feared.
What did I fear?
I feared to lose my child. To have him taken from me. To be dragged into court. He had already read and saved all my emails and chats after the separation, boasting to friends that he could prove to any court what a bad mother I was. My father, keeping a cool head and doing a very good job in cooling mine, pointed out how nicely him confessing to breaching my privacy would be in court.
Of course, the child had to rotated, living one week with me and one week with the father. Fathers, this is how you get out of paying child support. I wonder how many other father’s park their children with their mothers during their work time although it is their week. I knew what he did, I did not care. All that mattered to me was that I saw my child every day. The drop off times became earlier, the pick-up times later. Although my son was very young at that time, he still points out the doorway under which we sometimes waited for more than half an hour because of delays in arrival caused by either traffic jams, turbulences at work or whatever fib came to his mind. The irony of me functioning as his charge-free day-nurse but otherwise being presented as a wild and incompetent mother is completely lost on him.
The scheme of swapping every week was given up when my son turned three years old. Until then I still picked him up after kindergarten and had him with me until his father made it through the ever-worsening traffic. One time the new girlfriend picked him up and when I showed up the next day the kindergarten teacher asked me how my son’s father could afford a nanny, for he claimed the woman was exactly that. My son became a big brother shortly after and the man finally acknowledged that it would be for the better if the child stayed with me full time. Once you have to control two women, one has to go unsupervised.
My strategy moving forward was to give in, restore harmony and kill with friendliness. This is my strategy to the day, and it is failing. It is failing because it only works in his favour, not in mine.
I fought for child support, just to be talked into paying below the minimum amount. Why did I do that? To make him stop pestering the kid about how little money he has and talking him into living with him half the time. I do not care about any money; all I care for is the child. Friends and family shake their heads. They are reasonable. Working shifts as a prison guard, living thirty kilometres from my son’s school, friends, sports-club and drum lessons – how would that work? It would not work in favour of the child.
Yet, fear got the better of me.
I pay for all his activities, all his excursions, all his hobbies and everything that helps him grown into the beautiful person I know him to be. This includes invisible braces that underline that he is not only beautiful from the inside. I am the chauffeur, cook, manager of the calendar, therapist, shoulder to cry on and most inelegant cheerleader. Do I ever ask for his father’s support? Never. Pride and being tired of hearing excuses prevent me from requesting. Do I care, not much, as long as I do not have to engage.
Whenever I engage, there is a nasty remark, and like words are weights, I am pulled under water again.
Like yesterday, when my son did not want to go to his father’s. He claimed to be unwell. In the months prior my son had been open with his father about rather staying at home and not visiting him for a weekend. The boundary my son set was accepted. Or so I thought.
So, unwell he was, and the visit cancelled. He got better over the course of the day and met with my boyfriend’s son who he regards as best friends/brothers he had chosen. I did not feel good about it, for fear of prosecution. And prosecuted we were. The day ended in numerous calls to both our phones, requesting a status report on the teenager’s health. In the end I called back, explained he got better and that we were not at home. Or as my friend Marielle put it when I told her – I placated.
I want this to stop.
I want to make the step from rationally knowing I am the best mother my son could have, to emotionally standing above any accusation thrown my way.
I do not want to be pulled under water whenever that name appears on my phone’s display.
I do not want to feel the suffocation of all my liveliness, whenever this person engages with my life.
Actually, I want to step out of the water. I want to walk away from the lake and stride towards the sun.
The more I read on the topic, the more I came to understand, I am not alone in this.
Survivors of narcissistic ex-partners – any pointers?