It’s recently come to my attention that I’m a bitch. Yes, I am. I fully embrace the term. To me, “bitch” means a woman who is ambitious, assertive, who has a goal in mind and sees it through. I believe in my case, it’s because I’ve finally taken control of my destiny and the chips are falling. As chips will.
All my life, I’ve felt a little off, a little out of it. I’ve never quite understood how people do the things that come easy to them: make friends, understand social niceties, make small talk, have a party in which people attend, be a sparkling host, not say the wrong thing, not put their feet in their mouth. I might be accused – and rightly – as being a bit uncouth. I think that’s the word that should be engraved on my head stone. Mixed messages have led me to believe that you should both not say anything lest you offend but you should also ask questions, speak up, when unsure. I’m always unsure. I never quite know what’s going on, how to act, how to tip, when to tip, when to say a thing and when not to. I’ve discovered how to navigate social media a bit better than I have real life and I’ve said things and acted in ways in real life that I regret. Shame, I know well. Quite intimately. But I’ve always, always felt a bit misunderstood. No, not a bit. A lot. A whole lot.
It took years and years to figure out why this is. I was raised by wolves. You laugh but I was actually raised by a wolf’s near cousin: the narcissistic mother. A person who, by turns, zeroed in on every flaw and then pulled back and ignored. I had immense freedom as a teenager, when I shouldn’t have had it, except when my private diaries and letters were being read. Those items were hers because they resided in her house. Fair game. I was belittled, criticized, compared and contrasted. Ignored. I am probably the most skilled person in this county at the silent treatment because it was practiced so skillfully on me growing up. It’s a default. I hardly know I’m doing it until I do it. I don’t know quite how to handle conflict head on and become the thing I hate the most from others: passive-aggressive. It pains me to write this but it’s true.
So, I’ve been in “daughters of narcissistic mothers” recovery for a few years now. Hi, I’m Mary Marvel. I’m what author Karyl McBride calls the ‘high achiever” result of growing up this way. She says this in an interview at Psychology Today:
One of the main messages that gets internalized when your mother is narcissistic is, “You are valued for what you do and not for who you are.” So Mary Marvel is constantly trying to prove to herself that she does have worth, by mastering different endeavors.
So, I’ve done and done and done for years in the hopes that if I give enough, I’ll get back. The thing is…it doesn’t work.
These daughters learn a distorted view of love. They learn that love is about “what I can do for you and what you can do for me.” They may be overly dependent on their partners, or choose people who are entirely dependent on them. A healthy relationship, meanwhile, is based on the back and forth of interdependency.
I may have mentioned that I had to say no to a very time-consuming commitment and that it lost me friends. And one wonders whether they were friends at all if the result of my having to stop what was unsustainable was silence. Oh, silent treatment, you’re so good at being bad! I seem to run up against the same things time and time again.
I fell into a marriage that seemed good. For a long time it seemed good. But then I’d always known that I was uncouth, ill-educated (my god, I mispronounced Evelyn Waugh’s name in front of English majors! The shame!), and obnoxious. I liked the wrong things, I believed (or didn’t) in all the wrong things and went about letting this information out into the world in all the wrong ways. I wasn’t raised so much as I was allowed to live in my mother’s house, locked in my room at nap time because I was “hard to handle”. I think you would call that normal toddler behavior but to my mother, who preferred to have the illusion of parenthood without investing the emotional work, I was “mischievous” and “naughty” and “uncooperative”. I was taken to more than a million art show openings and trotted out to be adored but was never taught how to talk to people, how to engage with them. I was window dressing. And I learned that the only way to be loved and accepted was to do and do and over achieve and do some more.
Thing was, I failed at over achieving. I hit a wall in smarts. I wasn’t really allowed to go too far or expect too much. I wasn’t encouraged to travel or set my sights on something bigger, farther away. So I stayed and made do. And I did. God knows, I know how to get things done.
And what I excelled at was marrying another taker. Someone very familiar. Someone I could fall into a comfortable co-dependent relationship with who’d keep me from getting too much, rise too high. My writing? Pffft, it wasn’t all that. A published essay? Exploitative. Nothing to brag about. But I was needed. I was needed to do pretty much everything. And I did it. I got on that hamster wheel and I ran so fast I almost turned to butter.
When I had expected to be loved and cared for and congratulated (“Hey, I know why I feel so bad. I’m pregnant!”), I was dismissed (“I could have told you that.”). When I finally had a Mother’s Day of my own to celebrate – all I’d hoped for was a “you’re doing a good job” – what I got was a snide, “You’re not my mother.” The spiral continued down and down into darkness until it almost consumed me.
When I turned 40, grasping the sides of the post-partum depression pit I’d slipped into after the second child and pulling myself up, I had to know what in the hell was wrong exactly. It had to be me, right? That had to be it. I was a nasty, snarling, bitter, complaining bitch. Never mind that I was never comforted. Or hugged. Or worthy of taking out for pizza and cheering up. Or worth taking the children out of the house for and NOT being told, “Enjoy your time alone. Hope you’re happy.” So that I could do the taxes. Or the laundry.
So, I began to read. It’s what I do – I research. I read Betty Friedan. But…that wasn’t quite it. I was a working mom (of course I am!). I was the breadwinner. I already had it “all”, so to speak. There was more. I found another book and then another and finally I hit the jackpot. Narcissism. My jaw dropped. My mother. Someone had captured my mother so completely, I couldn’t believe it. And so I began to work on that. Therapy hadn’t solved this problem, books had.
But then I learned what such an upbringing does to the rest of your relationships and it wasn’t good. Except that I finally recognized it for what it was. Naming your disease is half the battle, right? Admitting to yourself what you are and how you got there was something, yes? Yes, but only the beginning. Particularly when your other half really had no interest in why you were the way you were. Why should he care? I just needed to stop yelling and being angry! Why was that so hard to understand?
And so now, I’m freeing myself, extricating myself from something that had become poisonous to my soul and….I’m a bitch. But I’m growing used to it. I’m embracing my bitchiness. What else can I do? I’m not perfect and never will be. I have recognized my short comings but won’t be a victim of them. I will continue to recover and perhaps I’ll reach a point where I say something funny that isn’t also a bit embarrassing. Or, I’ll not say the thing I was thinking because it would be misconstrued. Or, I’ll finally, maybe, learn how to live like the well-adjusted people in the world. Assuming there are any.