How narcissism and identity are very much like falling off a gate.
When I was eight years old I ran away from the person I loved most.
Grandma was staying with us because our parents were vacationing in Atlantic City for a week. I had a twenty dollar bill, a months’ allowance saved. Someday soon, I was going to run away to New York City. I was eight and had been planning this for months. It wouldn’t be the first time I left home—or last—but it didn’t happen the way I’d been planning, this time. I didn’t mean to run away from her.
But somewhere during the week, Grandma got confused about how much cash she’d spent, and called me into my room to ask me if I’d taken the $20 bill from her purse. She was sitting on my bed, her purse on her lap. When I denied it, she asked me again, repeating the question until I snapped and ran from her. I ran out of the house, and for blocks, until my lungs felt like they were on fire and my legs would fly out from under me.
I’d run off without any money in my pockets. This wasn’t the way I’d planned it, but since I couldn’t go back, I continued in the direction of the city. I walked, for hours, until after nightfall and I was lost. I found a shopping center and called my uncle who took me home to his house for the night. Not much was said before he returned me to my parents, who were due home that morning.
This story is coming out again for me in therapy, making me think, making me distant. I spend long hours cleaning up digital poop in “Zoo Tycoon 2” to distract me. I work on telling this story, and answering to my own satisfaction, why it is coming up for me now.
The public breakdown of Hugo Schwyzer has made me think about how public to make my own mental health related suffering. The internet is a public space—even our email is read. I believe that we as citizens of an online community have to have ways of creating accountability. I pride myself on being out: sharing our stories is celebratory, healing, connective. Even before the internet made it so easy to share, I always intended to tell my own story: always, since I learned to write. But not just for others. I need to understand my own story. And so I write it. And then I edit. I revise, reframe for other audiences.
Being mentally ill has a way of erasing credibility and expertise in some people’s eyes. It’s as if everything is a lie, nothing can be trusted, there is no real “self” to know. I worry that there are too many facets for me to know, more than normal people. There’s aspiring, and then there’s believing in your own branding.
The reaction to Hugo online, among people who know him slightly or not at all, also reminded me of how I usually deal with his kind of madness, which is to run away from it. Narcissistic personalities are particularly beguiling, at first. I’ve fallen for a few. But these vain and greedy souls take their energy from people like me, who watch from a safe distance, and much more from people who step directly into their energy fields, or respond to their flirtations. Narcissists must be at the center of attention, this being the only way they can handle the deep conflict they generate.
Charming, intelligent people who can surf the waves seem deep and balanced, but they are more like skimming stones, leaping to avoid sinking. They don’t know quite who they are, and with this, I sympathize. I compare their self image to my physical sense of self. It took me a long time, well into adulthood, to develop enough proprioception that roller coasters made me feel sick instead of pleasantly dizzy. Narcissists only know they exist because of their effects on others, and the way you rock a baby to teach its inner ears balance, they must constantly rock the boat to roil others, to know who they are in the world. The high school drama that most of us outgrow, remains necessary to them.
I take people like Hugo to heart, because we both suffer from our mental illnesses. The breakdowns, the relapses, the suicides: every one is a cautionary tale for me. There was reporting last week of a young man who had struggled with an eating disorder and anxiety, even posted an encouraging recovery video on ED. I wonder what it means to succumb: when all of that takes you. I want to know the details, to not only avoid these fates but to feel safe. Falling can feel that safe. It has for me every time I’ve experienced the sensation of being near death. One time I was hit in traffic on my bicycle, and another time, long ago, I was thrown from a swinging gate. Each time I found myself flying through the air, the hard ground coming fast toward my head, and there was nothing to be done about it. Time stretched, allowing time for panic to dissolve, regret to flicker, for a clear image of the end. There was no sound, only full, long nanoseconds of understanding.
The fact that Hugo has landed back at his parents’ house is, to me, a personal nightmare. I have a history of running away. Part of me still doesn’t forgive me for turning back, the time I ran away from my grandmother when I was eight years old.
The story that my husband likes for me to tell people about her is the one where she doors a guy in an Astoria mall for stealing a parking space. My grandma Cascio was a lover and a fighter. But she was so much more, and most of what she was, I’ll never know, because I was her grandchild: blood and generations cleaved us. The most important thing to know about her was that she always made me feel like I was her favorite: special, protected.
After my uncle brought me home to my parents, I was broken down. I don’t even remember their reaction when they came home from their trip, anything they said to me. I remember that for months, it felt like, I could not look my grandmother in the eye. I acted like I was angry at her, and I was—for not trusting me, for thinking me a thief. But mostly I was hurt too much for her apology to work. I could not apologize for running away. How could she have believed that I would steal from her? Didn’t she know how much I loved her? For me, it wasn’t a lie: I loved her more than anyone else in our family.
Immediately after my grandmother died, I began my transition from female to male. People who I thought knew me well were stunned and disbelieving when I transitioned, while others shocked me by having seen what I thought was so well hidden, and took my coming out to them in stride. I was humbled, repeatedly. There was so much I didn’t know about the people I thought I knew so well. I like to think my grandmother would have accepted me as her grandson, if she had lived to see me. And yet the timing is undeniable.
Image courtesy of the author’s grandmother, may her memory be a blessing