Let me tell you a story. About my mother. This happens not so long ago when she is in her eighties. Still living alone. When every little thing sets her off. Like gravity, houseplants, soap, me.
Her pantry is near empty so off we go to Trader Joe’s. I hope the lunch rush is over and we can get in and out quickly. Yes she needs food. And I need St. John’s Wort because I can tell she is itching for a fight. I grew up knowing her wild moods come on like a sudden thunderstorm in summer. I get good at taking HER temperature. I get good at sensing when it’s time for me to hide in the bathroom or play the piano or sit in the dirt under a tree.
I should have turned the car around and gone home but she would have thrown a tantrum. Screaming is bad enough, but in my late model Saturn, with the windows rolled up, it’s an echo chamber and there’s nowhere to run. She sets off a stink bomb and it feels like I’m inhaling the toxic molecules of her pissed-off world. Let’s just say that being around her is exhausting.
So I opt for the open aisles of Trader Joe’s. Sometimes they play old school Sinatra over the sound system. I could use some “Fly Me to the Moon” as mom pushes her cart through the sliding glass doors into a swarm of shoppers–zigging, zagging, grabbing stuff however and wherever they can. Is this the day before Thanksgiving or something? It’s like everybody–and their mother–is shopping at TJ’s today.
I get a cart too, trying to put a little metal between me and her. I have a bad feeling about this… I don’t like crowds. But somehow I’ve learned to get all quiet inside and stay in that place until I feel safe. My mother, on the other hand, goes ballistic. I always thought the best birthday present I could give her–ever–was a day at the nearest paintball arena.
Suddenly it happens. A man pushes his cart into my mother’s lane. Right there by the bags of shredded cheddar. She glowers at him but then her face turns ugly and twitchy. All she needs is green paint and the pointy black hat from The Wizard of Oz to make this wicked witch vision complete.
I am standing some ten feet away, next to the Fuji apples, as I watch the scene quickly unravel. No one knows I am with her or she is with me. I am all at once an impassioned observer watching what happens when mental illness goes public.
She screams. She bellows. I think she accuses him of something just short of murder. I can’t remember the exact words. But I watch the other shoppers move backwards, leaving a large semi-circle of angry space occupied by one crazed woman and “the guy with the cart.”
What I am watching is what I have felt for years. She spits venom and I move away. I see the shoppers doing the same thing. It’s a strange kind of relief. Relief that others are affected in the same way. Enough to get their asses into a safe zone. I’m on lockdown too, like my feet are frozen in cement. Just me and the Fuji’s.
Then the man speaks. He gets in my mother’s face. He faces down her bullying and tells her to “watch your manners.” He may have apologized or mentioned how busy the store is. I blank out. But this I do know… She shuts up. Like she just swallowed a tube sock. How did he do THAT?
Having set things straight, the guy turns his cart around and disappears into the throng of shoppers who, almost in slow motion, tentatively step back into the empty space. The cheese section soon returns to normal. Well, nervous normal.
I am mortified and I also know I have to leave my hiding place to retrieve my mother. She may be mute right now but that won’t last for long. I have to get her out of there and quick.
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There are any number of personality disorders and my mother is a poster child. I am not talking about your average (albeit obnoxious) me-me-me stuff. No. This is what pathological narcissism looks like in full bloom at Trader Joe’s.
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We trudge to the car in silence but once her seatbelt goes click, my mother unloads. “That nasty man. That nasty, awful, mean, terrible man…I want to kill him…” This is her mantra ALL the way home.
“But mom, you started it. You yelled at him first. It was busy and people were bumping into each other all over the place.” One more time I forget you cannot reason with a pathological narcissist because they are ALWAYS RIGHT. Try explaining the internal combustion engine to a frog, why don’t you. It just goes ree-deep, ree-deep, ree-deep and you end up having a conversation with yourself.
Ironically I know my mother is enjoying every minute of this. It’s great theater and my mom is a born actress and ANY spotlight will do, even the cheese section at Trader Joe’s. Her gregarious, ribald personality has fooled a lot of people. For a long time. Ever the drama-queen, a day without taking aim at somebody or something is like a day without food. Her critics be dammed. “I will destroy them.” She’s smiling as she says this. A smile with a little twist of arsenic.
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In this election year I confess that my “mother buttons” are pushed and flashing red. I have heard the words pivot and temperament bandied about. As in “will he pivot?” As in “does he have the temperament to be president?” I smell my mother’s vibe.
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With mom there is no PIVOT. When she develops dementia we tell her the new medication she is taking is a vitamin. It’s really Zoloft and within 48 hours this psychotropic drug has modulated her moods–to such an extent that her new caregivers say she is delightful. My pugilistic mother is delightful… But she is drugged and losing her mind. If you want to call that a pivot…be my guest.
As for TEMPERAMENT… Ever since I was little, my fervent hope is that one day my mother will wake up and “get it.” That all her stuff will melt away with the morning sun. I love my mother and I just want her to be nice. To be normal. I want to sit down over hot chocolate and ginger snaps and have a conversation with her. Like when she talks and I listen and then I talk and she listens. Such a little thing that most people take for granted.
To the end my mother does not have the capacity to look in the mirror. At herself. To see her part in her own suffering and the suffering she causes others. She’s too busy blaming everyone else. She cannot bear criticism or dissent. You cross her, or just disagree with her and she will hold you in contempt. Until you give in. Suck up. Or die. If someone else is getting the attention she thinks she deserves, she blows a gasket. Compassion? Empathy? They come with too-many strings attached. When her friends do not glorify and adore her she casts them aside. She refuses to see a therapist. She refuses to take medication. “Why should I? I’m not the one with the problem. YOU are…” she snorts. When it’s always someone else’s fault there is no “getting it.” There is no adult in the room.
My mother got old but she never grew up. And then she died.
In my experience, as a daughter, this is the temperament of a pathological narcissist. I feel like Cassandra, from Greek mythology, sounding the alarm that few will hear. The only people who truly understand are the ones who have walked this path. Who have tried to love, or just get along with someone like my mother.
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This is a sad story indeed–for my mother and everyone who cared about her. But mom is not the villain here. She was robbed. At every turn she was robbed by this awful mental illness and it sabotaged her relationships, her smarts, her ability to make sound decisions, her dreams, her capacity to love and be loved in return.
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But life goes on. I do my shopping run at Trader Joe’s early in the morning and relish the stillness in the air. But sometimes I look at the Fuji apples and remember. Sometimes I reach for a small block of Baby Swiss…and remember.
When I was a little kid, music saved me. It saves me today. In these uncertain times I fear we are in for a VERY bumpy ride. A ride I know well. You may want to get a ukulele.
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If you are interested in learning more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) there is a plethora of information online. You can start with Wikipedia. CLICK HERE.