Moonrise over the Collegiate Range, Colorado

The Stars Do Shine for You and Me

So many of us carry worry and shame because we don’t believe we are truly down-deep-if-they-really-knew-the-true-person-inside lovable. I believe narcissists and sociopaths also have this fear at their core, and some of them even go so far as to use it as a reason for trying to control and exploit the same fear in others, to ensure they are lovable, dammit.

I saw this play out so many times in my childhood, as my father used my mother and then my stepmother as props in some play or game he was always rigging so he would come out the winner.

I think it is often the thought of the children that changes things for battered women. I don’t want my child to grow up thinking this is what love looks and feels like. There has to be more to it than this.

I was thinking of my daughter when I finally decided to break off all contact with my father several years ago. For years, I’d been giving him chances to show me he’d changed as much as he told me he had, but the evidence had been mounting that he hadn’t changed. He still told ugly jokes about women in the presence of women (me), he couldn’t apologize to me for things he didn’t remember, and every time he had the opportunity to apologize even for the damage he could not remember inflicting, he instead chose to say, “This is who I am. Take me or leave me.”

So I left.

And I had a little girl by that time and had seen the red flags a-flyin’ every time he talked about her. Even before he had met her, his comment on our adoption was that the country we chose had “some of the most beautiful women in the world.” And what if she’s not beautiful? I thought. When my father saw a picture of my daughter on my aunt’s (his sister’s) camera, which she showed him during a visit to his place in Mexico, he said, “Oh, she’s getting away from me.” My aunt found that touching and shared the story with me later; I on the other hand found it creepy. I would have found it touching if he’d said, “I’m missing so much of her life – she’s growing up so fast!” But that isn’t what he said.

Our last interaction was a couple of years ago when he called me to say he wasn’t sure what kind of vendetta my mother had against him but he was in town and wanted to meet so he could “share his perspective on things.” I rolled my eyes when I heard his voice mail and called him to say that no, I didn’t feel any need or wish to meet and hear his perspective. He said, “I was hoping we could hide the hatchet.” But no, he had called at the wrong time and my blade was right there between us, honed and glinting in the bright sun, so I said goodbye. Maybe he wasn’t aware of this, but the expression is not hide the hatchet. It’s bury the hatchet.

Now I think my father has had far less self-esteem than I believed he had, and also that he simply had (and perhaps still has) no idea how not to try to manipulate people to get them to do what he wants or what he thinks they should be doing.

Now I’m not saying I’m a great parent, because sometimes I’m not. But I try to be present, kind, and respectful. Love isn’t a wedge or lever for me the way it is for him. When you’re around him, if you have a connection, it is something he will eventually try to exploit for his own benefit. He asked but I said no to letting him stay with my family during his visits to town because I was afraid he’d start messing with my head. I knew he would say something to me that he wouldn’t think of as mean. And later on, I knew, he would trade on our conversations, using them as fodder for conversations with friends, to prove to them that he was a “good father.” He would call what he did “dispensing advice” or “sharing his hard-earned wisdom” or something equally self-exalting, and I’d be hiding out in my room, shaking my head and licking my wounds, saying, What the hell just happened here and why do I feel so shitty when all I was doing was letting a family member stay at my house? And all I would have wanted from our conversations was connection and perhaps a spot of encouragement that I was on a good path.

When I look at the #WhyIStayed meme that has blown up on the Internet since Janay Rice apologized for her role in the actions of her fiance, Ray Rice, who was caught on videotape punching her in the face to the point of unconsciousness and dragging her out of an elevator, I feel so fortunate I didn’t internalize my father’s shame. I think often this is what happens to vulnerable people who have abusive narcissists in their midst.

Now I look at my father and see that his shame must have been vast. I don’t know whether it was about losing a child or other things, too. But I see how his shame spilled over, sucked up all his energy for anything positive, and infected my mother and stepmother and me and my sister. We are all still fighting our way to sanity and peace in our own way. I think every one of us in the family nearly drowned in his deep swamps of sticky shame.

But some of us got other messages along the way, too. When I heard that “Don’t tell” and “We can handle our problems ourselves” are just myths perpetrated by abusers to isolate the people they want to manipulate, my ears pricked up. That advice felt like a foothold on a cliff path. I used it to step up and see a little more, and then started to look for other wisdom that would help me gain more perspective.

I talked to my teachers and school counselors about what was really happening at my house and why it was so hard to go home after school. I found friends I could rely on, and people who cared about me. I started dating a boy who turned into a man who loved me in a way that wasn’t mean and controlling. He trusted me with his love and his whole self and in doing so encouraged me to fully love and be my whole self. I learned to move and stretch and explore and interact with friends and make things — to do the things I need to feel whole and human and loved and loving. I don’t do as much as some, and I do more than others, but none of that really matters because I do what I can, which on many days feels like no small miracle.

Riding horseback on a good day

We had a sweet old German Shepherd, Charlie, when I was a teenager, who I loved, and I loved our rapscallious little Pig-dog when I was little. But for years after Charlie went to the Great Farm in the Sky, I was afraid of dogs. I worried about them smelling my fear of them, and that made me even more reserved.

Then I noticed that the cats and dogs in my life seemed aware of when they were being treated well, or badly. I felt deeply saddened when I saw people with pets they didn’t care for, because I could see the sadness and despair in the eyes of the pet. I felt thanked by my pets or other animals when I helped them. I learned how to invite trust by reading about Monty Roberts’ methods of interacting with horses. Being loved by someone truly loving helped me, but animals also lit a spark of compassion in me that has since flickered and blazed into a wonderful source of warmth and light in my life.

When I learned that animals perceive fairness — right and wrong — I felt elated. It was the greatest validation of all those times as a child I had suffered through emotional, verbal, and physical violence all around me and felt, This can’t be all there is. I know there’s love and truth and justice. For me.

So if you are stuck somewhere because someone has told you that the stars don’t shine for you, that you don’t deserve to feel the warmth of the sun on your face and peace and love in your heart, that the inner, you-est you isn’t lovable, please listen to that other, inner, truer voice that knows this isn’t right.

Deep down inside, like the animals around us, we know we know we deserve love and peace and care and protection. Every one of us. What we don’t need is to perpetuate the bad advice and manipulations of anyone who wants to keep us from becoming our best selves. As Buckaroo Banzai says, “Don’t be mean; you don’t have to be mean.”

If you are in the clutches of someone who has convinced you that you are less than worthy of everything good in the world, I hope you can find that flicker of hope within and allow yourself to realize your true right to pursue your own happiness. Be kind to yourself, and to others, and I’m pretty sure amazing things will happen. You deserve it. We all do.