In March of 2020, the United States found herself in a state of unprecedented lockdown due to COVID-19. The sudden and prolonged disruption to our daily lives had a profound impact on our mental health, leaving us feeling lost and disconnected from the world we once knew. As we struggled to cope with the stress and isolation, those of us who were single found it particularly challenging to meet new people and form meaningful connections. Meanwhile, those in stable relationships had a distinct advantage thanks to the power of coregulation.
Indeed, the collective trauma of the pandemic served to unearth unresolved trauma buried deep within our subconscious. For many of us, the experience triggered a complex form of PTSD, brought on by a combination of new trauma, childhood trauma, and the systemic trauma of living as a minority in this country. In some ways, this epidemic of ComplexPTSD can be seen as a badge of honor earned in the pursuit of the American Dream.
As the pandemic dragged on and the mental health crisis deepened, a new division emerged in our society: the haves and the have-nots of empathy. Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, became a valuable commodity, and those who possessed it were better equipped to navigate the challenges of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the discussion around narcissism intensified as more people sought treatment for their mental health. The question on everyone’s mind was whether we were seeing a rise in narcissism or simply a greater awareness of it.
While it’s true that the pandemic may have given rise to some new narcissistic tendencies, it’s important to recognize that adversity does not necessarily change us; rather, it reveals who we truly are. In the face of any negative circumstance, we are presented with a choice: to stay the course or to make a change. For narcissists, this choice often leads them to double down on their beliefs and behavior, using the incident as an opportunity to demonstrate their superior resilience and unwillingness to succumb to any negative circumstances.
My father’s upbringing is a poignant example of how mental illness and trauma in one’s family are easily passed down from generation to generation. Both of his parents struggled with mental health issues. His mother, Esther, was a source of love and support when she was well, though her frequent ‘nervous breakdowns’ left her bedridden for days or weeks at a time. My father’s father, Milton, on the other hand, was dropped off at an orphanage when he was just five years old, and the scars of that abandonment seemed to have followed him throughout his life. His abusive behavior towards his wife and son likely stemmed from a sense of powerlessness and anger that he had been unable to shake.
My dad’s brother was classified in school. Back then, they didn’t have ADD and dyslexia, so he was classified as learning disabled or “LD”. My dad claimed as a result, his dad went easy on his brother and he wasn’t asked to do any chores. While that may be true, science has told us that it’s likely his brother was favored because he was the eldest. This was an injustice that my dad never got over.
My father’s abusive tendencies may have been triggered by memories of his brother escaping consequences for bringing home an unsatisfactory report card. For someone with unresolved trauma, triggers like these can cause them to regress emotionally, acting the age they were when the original trauma occurred. They may also experience emotional flashbacks, where they relive the emotions associated with that traumatic event. It’s a reminder that our past experiences shape who we are in ways that we may not even be aware of, and that healing those wounds is an ongoing process.
Interestingly, I don’t just have ADD, I have a bit of dyslexia too. And it’s a little atypical and I didn’t know till I started getting treatments where they collected data about my brain. I always knew that I struggled with sentence structure, I just didn’t realize there was a biological and physical explanation. My brain SPECT scan showed a traumatic brain injury to my left temporal lobe, the area that processes language. When I got brain mapping done in conjunction with neurofeedback they said I had post concussion syndrome.
My father absolutely refused to consider that there was something wrong with my brain. When I got bad grades he would throw a tantrum. Between report cards were daily interrogations and constant reminders of how “unacceptable” I am. Some of his greatest hits include, “what are you an idiot”, “he’s like a 2 year old”, “when are you going to wake up and die right” and my favorite, “why can’t you act like a normal person.”
My father was intelligent and logical. At least, outside of me. I knew school was everything to my dad so why in the world would I do poorly if I was capable of doing better? Why would I choose to get yelled at, punished and ridiculed at home? And why did he absolutely explode on report card day? The only explanation I could think of is that he was ‘triggered’ by my learning problems, whether it was a remembrance of his brother or the embarrassment or shame of having a child that didn’t excel at school.
Typically, people in dysfunctional houses are traumatized when they are babies. That’s because of the innocence of a baby. For example, if a parent was grossed out changing a diaper that could be seen as rejection and traumatize the baby.
I don’t know my dad’s originating trauma though we know he was raised by someone who was traumatized at 5 years old. And we know that my dad grew up poor. And we know the most traumatizing event that happened to my dad. He was about 21 years old and had just graduated college.
As he was walking home he could see a crime scene up ahead. He knew what happened. She finally did it, he thought. And it turned out his premonition was correct. His mom, Esther, took her own life.
At first, he was sad, just like anybody would be after losing a parent. And he blamed his father for how he treated her. He was already dating my mom at this time, she’s the one that told me this story.
After a while he got tired of feeling sad and became angry at his mom. After all, she chose death over motherhood. She was selfish and abandoned him.
And that made him angry. And there was a religious aspect to it in the sense that his mother endured the antisemitism of Vienna growing up. I believe this made him angry at God as well.
This left him emotionally scarred. Anger is technically a step ahead of victimhood on the consciousness ladder. And anger is a great motivator. And he was never going to feel sad again – it felt bad and was non-productive.
He got to work and started making money. Then he married a beautiful woman, my mom. Then he became a homeowner. He did all that by his damn self, no help from God or another human. And he proved that his interpretation and approach to the world was correct!
Once someone gets to that conclusion they are done growing. They created the life experience they wanted and are a master of the universe. Master’s don’t back down and thank a higher power, they double down on themselves.
And when someone goes through a trauma and instead of properly processing and healing they get angry, it’s game over. A Narcissists is born at that moment. That’s because they didn’t need to be sad. They were able to pick themselves up after something awful happened and so should everyone else – sorrow is for the weak. And his mom was selfish.
Anger is a great motivator and as a result my dad went on to gain financial success. And he married a beautiful woman. When these things happen you have a Narcissistic Master of the Universe! They are now 100% sure that they know the way and anyone that doesn’t agree is an idiot. In fact – they love that word! When you meet someone who says, “idiot, they are all idiots” make note of it. They just told you who they are.
And so my getting upset about school being hard for me was a sign of weakness to my father. And not being exactly as he is, meant that I was wrong, that I was some kind of idiot. And the way to overcome being an idiot is hard work. I couldn’t get A’s but I could get B’s and you could lead a decent life as a B student. You go to a B college and get a B job, but you make a living.
I got my memory back from therapy. And you know what I don’t remember? Ever getting an embrace or ever hearing my father say “I love you”. And I forgave him anyway. Why? It was an accident. He was that way by default – he didn’t set out to abuse and alienate me. He tried his best. He could only parent from his perspective.
He would say that he loved me and did everything for me. He would bitch about all the money he spent on my mental health without ever realizing that being a nurturer and having compassion is free. He didn’t mean to traumatize me, it was an accident.
And I forgave him anyway because that’s the only way I could heal and the only way I could give him the opportunity to do better. Only, by the time I got the help I needed and forgave him he was sick. And it seemed as if he was beginning to see how he impacted me. He seemed to soften and it seemed as if he knew his time was running out and he was trying to make good before he left.
He died a year ago tomorrow. On this day last year I saw him for the last time. He said “thank you for being here” and I thought to myself, of course I’m here, I love you, you are my father. I said to him “I’m sorry to see you suffer. I love you.”
He was deliberate in all that he did, except abusing me. He was not aware. He was the Accidental Abuser.
His tombstone reads “beloved husband and father”. Indeed he was.