A mother holds up her child.

A mother holds up her child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had a very powerful dream this morning. I was sharing a prison cell with a lovely young woman who didn’t seem to belong there since she seemed so nice. I was a cop who had been falsely accused of a crime (Ok I was Olivia Benson from SVU. I love that show!) When I was released and almost out the door, my cell mate came running up to me and said joyfully, “I finally know who I am!”

I puzzled over the meaning of that for awhile and then I remembered the Dr. Phil show that was on last week about maternal narcissism. Something about those women reminded me of my mother.

Now let me say off the bat that I don’t think my mother was a monster or that her behavior was as extreme as the guests that were featured on the show. However I recognized the distinct lack of empathy towards others and the tendency to make everything about themselves as traits that my mother exhibited during my childhood.

I have wanted to understand for a long time why my mother behaved the way she did, why she took my minor mistakes and misbehaviors as an attack on her. I am in a unique position where I can understand mental disorders from personal experience and therefore I have felt that if I can understand her then I can forgive her. However I know that she was not bipolar or depressed, although she could be moody at times. Her behavior was consistent towards me, regardless of her mood at the time.

This isn’t really about blame, it is about wanting to have compassion for her in order for me to move on.  And also having compassion for the child I was, knowing that the problem was not that I wasn’t “good enough.”

When I was four years old my maternal grandfather died. My mother’s relatives lived way on the other side of the country so we didn’t see them often. However we did go and visit them sometimes in the summer. Apparently I was very close to my grandfather, although I can’t remember him now. We visited with the family the summer after he died, and when we got there I was running around the house asking where “grampa” was.

My mother got furious with me, because she had already told me that he had died. I was “embarrassing her” in front of her family. She felt that they were judging her about not making me understand that he was dead. I have no idea whether they were or not, but that was the way she perceived the situation.

Somehow it never occurred to her that it was unrealistic to expect a four-year old to comprehend what death was. She made the situation all about her, and made it all my fault.

When I was a year and a half old and my sister was four and a half, our older brother died. I doubt that my sister understood completely what had happened, but it was made more real to her because she went to his funeral and his gravesite. She understood that he wasn’t coming back. In essence I think she understood the concept of death much better than most four-year olds.

Ironically, I don’t even remember the incident that my mother told me about and maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big deal except that I heard the story my entire childhood. It was all about how I had “shamed her” in front of her family. This was a continuing theme during my entire childhood that any perceived or real misbehavior was an attack on her.

My sister has told me that she felt that a lot of my mother’s behavior was due to ignorance about age-appropriate behavior in children. I have no doubt that this was true. But there was something even more basic that was wrong with her. She was completely unable to have empathy towards me. She couldn’t put herself in my shoes, not even for a minute. She was allowed to have feelings, but I wasn’t. As a result I felt completely abandoned and alone my entire childhood. She was physically there, but emotionally she checked out. Worse of all, I thought I deserved to be alone because I was such a “bad” kid.

I should have been allowed to grieve for my grandfather. Instead I was told to completely ignore his life and his death. I don’t even remember him now. I was young of course but I wonder if I might have remembered something about him if I had been allowed to mourn his loss.

Back to the dream I had this morning. This prisoner in my dream obviously represents me. And “knowing who I am” means knowing that I was an innocent child and that I can set myself free instead of remaining “locked up” forever. And freeing myself means that I can free my mother as well.

Update: Although I have worked in the mental health field for many years as a peer supporter, I am not a professional and my expertise is in helping those with bipolar disorder. I am not very familiar with personality disorders. As I have learned more about narcissistic personality disorder, I have figured out that my mother did not have all those symptoms. Still, her inability to feel any empathy towards me does fit, even if nothing else does. So I am keeping this post up, with the hope that it may help others.