So, um, what if everything I know really is a lie?
February 4, 2018 1:35 AM   Subscribe

How do you process and recover from discovering that large chunks of your past may have been fabricated or embellished by an abusive family member?

Without getting too specific, this winter I had an alarming experience with a narcissistic parent which featured attempts at physical violence against me. More alarming during both the immediate experience and the aftermath was the degree of gaslighting involved. Attempts to protect myself physically were characterized as being "crazy" or "aggressive" and my actions were later mischaracterized to family members as physically and emotionally violent when I was simply--and calmly--attempting to remove myself from the situation. I ultimately was able to leave and we have had very low contact since. I should note that my childhood was full of verbal, emotional, and sometimes physical abuse by this parent, though it had been a very long time since our relationship had escalated physically. My parent described my behavior as similar to the behavior of my other parent, who is deceased and passed away when I was young.

During my childhood, my parent had characterized my other parent as similarly abusive, "aggressive," and "crazy." However, I never observed any of this, and in fact, an objective review of my own experience suggests that it was my narcissistic parent who was the abuser. I'm in my forties, but had believed their account of events until very recently. This weekend I was discussing these events with my spouse and it felt like suddenly everything fell into place. We were kept away from family who might have questioned my parent's version of the events, which, in fact, they did do on occasion when we saw them. They were dismissed as out-to-get my narcissist parent.

It's possible that the reality was some mixture of the two possibilities, but my other parent is gone and there are very few people who I could speak to in order to illuminate any objective truth. I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me. I'm in therapy, and will be going this week, but would love to hear recommendations of readings, non-religious self help recommendations, or personal accounts of moving forward from this kind of paradigm shifting realization to tide me over until then. The world feels very bleak and very bizarre right now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
From my experience, seeking external validation about how abusive or messed up one's childhood was (especially from anyone involved in the abuse or nearby at the time) is a waste of time and an extra stress burden; the most healthy thing you can do is focus on your own internal sense of validation.

I grew up with parents who were at best emotionally neglectful and at worst emotionally, verbally and physically abusive. One parent is now dead (though in my case it was the more abusive parent who died), the other one is very gaslighty and also cramming down their own remorse/willingness to admit how bad things were as hard as they can (or so it seems); I also have a sister who is five years younger and who had/has a different relationship with both parents and experienced the household abuse culture very differently.

When I first started working on family/past trauma stuff in therapy, I was very hung up on the idea of needing external proof that things were indeed as bad as I thought they were. And this isn't surprising, really, given that gaslighting-heavy and emotionally abusive situations are often all about making the person being abused question their own sense of reality, outright denying the abused person's feelings when they voice them, etc. I didn't have a solid enough sense of my own experiences (and I'd repressed and buried a ton of the worst of the abuse), for reasons that were explicitly to do with having been abused, to feel confident in my own assessment of the past, so it felt pretty natural to want external validation and reassurance.

However, neither of the people who were there at the time were able to give me that validation. My surviving parent because she has no interest in remembering or admitting to how bad things were (again, this feels like a self-preservation thing, plus she has a significant history of total emotional dishonesty). My sister had a totally different experience of being parented by the same people - though still abusive in some ways, she got a lot more care and protection from being the youngest and physically smaller/cuter than I was and thinks I have a way too extreme take on how bad the abuse that I experienced was because her experience was different.

What this means for me is that the only two people who were also there are are also not reliable narrators for a bunch of complicated reasons which are still components of the overall culture of abuse in the house I grew up in. They are not (and may never be) capable of objectively validating my experiences. In the early days of working on this in therapy, I felt deep despair when I started to realise this - like I could never prove it was true that such bad, damaging things happened to me, so how could I even believe them myself properly and begin to process them?

What I realised slowly was that the only person whose validation I could rely on was my own, with help from neutral third parties like therapists and friends who would listen and say stuff along the lines of, "yeah, that does sound like a really lousy and traumatising way to treat a dependent child". I spent a lot of time listening to the ideas of people who genuinely believe that no child or person deserves to be torn down, undermined, beaten, gaslit, etc., people for whom no kind of abuse is acceptable. And I slowly started to integrate these ideas and let myself be reprogrammed until I started believing similar things. There are still parts of me that struggle with this but on the whole I've grasped the basic idea - no amount of abuse is okay and there are no ways of inflicting it or reasons for inflicting it that make it okay.

I also did a lot of work on shoring up my own truth. Not objective truth, because objective truth doesn't exist (one of the perpetrators is dead and the other perpetrator and victim are in a lot of denial because that's less painful and messy for them than confrontation). No one kept a video log or a diary of what went on. Any objectivity has been lost with time. There will never be a person, conversation or artefact that says directly to me, "yes, everything that you thought was terrible was indeed terrible, and it was all true and you weren't making any of it up."

My own truth is the truth I've built based on my own memories (including experience memories and memories of emotions), and by spending a lot of time thinking about the ways in which the legacy of this abuse still continues to impact my life even though I'm a free, healthy adult and I have the power to make sure no one ever treats me like that again. Even after doing a lot of hard work and therapy on this, I still encounter situations multiple times each day where I find myself thinking, "well, this would be a lot easier if [abusive thing] hadn't made me less able to deal well with [this aspect of life]". I keep hold of those things as part of my truth. Sure, my mother can still claim that a bunch of bad stuff didn't actually happen or wasn't anywhere near as bad as I thought, but it's harder for me to believe her over my own lived experience when I get daily and weekly reminders that a lot of my emotional and social responses are still trauma-informed even after lots of time and therapy.

This has worked well enough for me that I can now merely roll my eyes when my surviving parent tries to claim I've totally misremembered an act of abuse and I'm blowing it way out of proportion, rather than moments like these feeling like deep, shattering blows to my fragile sense of reality and self.

So, in summary: try to let go of the idea of objective reality and objective validation, as chances are this doesn't meaningfully exist; instead, work on your own sense of past reality (ideally with help from a trained third party like a therapist) based on your memories, experiences and the ways in which these still influence how you think and behave. Spend time recalibrating your own ideas about how people deserve to be treated and what the right way to treat other people is (particularly if you have any long-term feelings of having deserved to be abused because of reasons given by your abuser(s) to justify the abuse), and let this inform your sense of reality as well.
posted by terretu at 2:35 AM on February 4, 2018 [55 favorites]

I also did a lot of work on shoring up my own truth. Not objective truth, because objective truth doesn't exist (one of the perpetrators is dead and the other perpetrator and victim are in a lot of denial because that's less painful and messy for them than confrontation). No one kept a video log or a diary of what went on. Any objectivity has been lost with time. There will never be a person, conversation or artefact that says directly to me, "yes, everything that you thought was terrible was indeed terrible, and it was all true and you weren't making any of it up."

I hesitate to add anything because all of what terretu wrote is just so right on. I'll just say that a moment of perspective shift for me came after observing my daughter and how she talks and interacts with me and it has healed a lot of wounds for me with my own mother. And those wounds stem, in part, from a feeling that she didn't protect me enough and, in fact, may have been resentful of me due to all the abuse I "attracted." Which is, you know, fucked up. Children don't attract or cause abuse. But this particular moment was about a turning point in childhood where she did protect me, in her way, and certain things did get better. But what I realized in observing my daughter was that, actually, I had never told my mom the whole truth. She actually didn't necessarily know my truth. My truth was locked in my head, protectively and defensively. I didn't even tell the therapists who we all went to as a family and individually the whole truth. This revelation some 30 years after the fact just about knocked me to the floor.

And I did actually have a conversation with my mother about some of this and it was healing enough. She wanted to ask me more questions and I ultimately said, "Look, I'm only now realizing that I never told you a lot of stuff. And, frankly, I can't be a reliable narrator anymore to what happened in my life as a kid. But I will say, it was worse than you know and I don't want to hear anymore about my abuser's troubled childhood and big heart." And, to her credit, she's never waxed rhapsodic about my abuser to me again. Which can feel like some crazy gaslighting! But her objective truth is somewhere else. She saw another part of him, of course, as an adult with history, etc., and found her own ways to forgive him but that's not the journey that I'm on and that's not the truth I'm seeking.

Anyway, I just send good vibes out to you wherever you are. I'm still coming around on all this stuff and it's so hard. You're not alone in this struggle for truth. And even though I don't know you, I'll say, you were a likable, good kid. You were a joy. You were curious and good hearted and you deserved every happiness. This is the truth of children. Robbing them of that is a crime.
posted by amanda at 8:50 AM on February 4, 2018 [6 favorites]

I also had a narcissist parent and also struggle with this. Gaslighting is one of the most insidious forms of abuse because it lodges in your brain and causes you to doubt your own experience constantly. I'm sorry you went through this.

There are some good resources I know of more generally about recovering from narcissist abuse. One is the Reddit /r/raisedbynarcissists , which can sometimes be heavy on the 'sharing my trauma stories' angle, but that might help you to see that you are not alone in these experiences.

The other is Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up's Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents

Apparently (though i haven't tried it myself), group therapy is particularly effective in addressing this.
posted by softlord at 8:51 AM on February 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

As much as it seems like it would help to get the story straight, it's not possible. (Especially with narcissists, who often have a very different face they show to the outer world.) There will always be things that affected you growing up in this situation that you won't explicitly remember. Sometimes, something scary will have happened to you only once, but the threat of it happening again keeps you on edge for years. The something doesn't matter in specific as much as recognizing how it affects you in daily life now. I get tense every time I hear dishes being put away noisily, and I just have to work through it consciously every time it happens. I will probably never access what it was specifically about the noisy dishes and what that sound heralded, but I can notice my reaction now and talk myself through it.
posted by xo at 9:40 AM on February 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

The paradigm shifting realisation is a good thing - you are developing your own sense of reality and a story of what happened. This is great! But painful because you were probably punished for doing so when you were young. The process by which you develop and hold on to your truth will be different to mine, but you can do it.
The book "The Narcissistic Family" by Pressman & Pressman helped me a lot. A huge part of the problem is realising it was actually bad - you're doing that! As terretu indicates, then its working out how it affected you and healing. In the book, it describes a technique about realising everyone gets to have their own thoughts/feelings/desires/needs/wants about different things - you can imagine these as a box. You get your own box and no one else gets to interfere with, alter, or change it. It's yours. They get theirs - they can tell you about it, but it doesn't change yours.

You get your own box - you get a version of events. Your family does not have to agree. They will hate that. You will feel horrible. That's the child abuse talking - in healthy families, everybody gets a truth and no one is deeply threatened by anyone else's.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 12:13 PM on February 4, 2018

I was startled by your post title - I struggle with this as well. My sympathies. I live in your world, too, but I've been aware of it for longer, it sounds like. My process started about eight years ago or so. What's helped me is lots of counseling, reading about dysfunctional families, writing, and letting myself feel as crazy, sad, angry, and frustrated as I felt in the moment, because I was shifting my entire worldview and that's a lot, regardless of how I wanted to minimize it from moment to moment.

It doesn't sound like you were the scapegoat growing up - it sounds like the other parent was given that role - but it's still a disorienting moment to realize that what you were told all of your life wasn't true. Reading Reddit's (heavily moderated) raised by narcissist's forum (as mentioned above) was really helpful for me in showing me the patterns. I was skeptical that my mom was a narcissist for a long time, until I read so many stories from hundreds of people that sounded exactly like my family, word for word. It was eerie, and I couldn't explain it away anymore. You might see your family in those stories, too.

I didn't see a gender reference in your post, but I also recommend Will I Ever Be Good Enough by Karyl McBride. It's intended for daughters of narcissistic mothers. It's fairly general, but the patterns are really clear, and the stories she chooses are helpful.

I hope no one minds me linking, but I actually started a blog to start writing about this process for myself and to try to help other people by telling my stories. At least two of the posts deal with looking at the same story with new information thirty five years later. It's almost physically painful.

One thing I want to caution / warn you about is the possible loss of your extended family members. However they responded to Parent A about their complaints against Parent B, they may respond to Parent A about their complaints against you. Your history with them may not matter, your years of relationship may not matter, your time spent may not matter. I've seen it and heard stories from others time and time again. The upset party will make themselves so unpleasant to the extended family if they don't ostracize you, that they will buckle under and do it "just to keep the peace" --- just as they have for a long time regarding Parent B. It's not nice, it's not fair, it's not the right thing to do, but it's called enabling for a reason. Parent A will have their victory and you will be out in the cold.

I'm not a fortune-teller, but I can tell you what might happen based on what I've seen. I would be thrilled if that does not happen. Just please be careful and plan for worst case scenarios.
posted by knitcrazybooknut at 1:40 PM on February 4, 2018

I dealt with this, going from my parents' household which was...bad...straight into a long term abusive relationship. I suddenly realized when I got out of that relationship that I had no idea what real life was and what I had experienced, because not only could I not remember much but what I did remember was tainted by gaslighting from my abuser and the stories I told myself to support the abuser's version and keep myself from additional harm.

I really strongly agree with others above that therapy, journaling, reading about others in similar situations, etc, can help. Ask for reality checks with people you trust, whether partner or therapist or internet strangers, about things you remember, and about things you do/feel.

The most helpful thing for me has been realizing that I might never know the "actual truth" or even have clear memories of a giant chunk of my life, which is horrible, but it is what it is. Once you've accepted that you don't have to have the objective facts or the full and complete story from all sides, it becomes a lot easier to sort through things and either figure them out or decide you don't want to spend any energy on it. Nobody ever has the complete objective truth - abuse or no, we all live in our own little worlds to an extent.

One last thing. You are not a court of law. You do not need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this person met these four criteria of emotional abuse to the correct degree and therefore you are now a valid victim because clearly this abuse happened. You do not have to have had the worst abuse possible in order to be in need of help dealing with the fallout of it. You do not need to have realized it immediately. You do not need photos, videos, written proof, a signed confession, witness statements, police reports, or anything else. Anyone who says you do, or says "well it wasn't that bad, was it?" or any of the 1,000 "at-least"s and "what-about-their-side"s that people like to ask is probably someone you shouldn't talk to about this (or maybe anything else).

I wish you luck and good support on your journey, I hope you find some answers and peace with the lack of full and complete understanding of the objective truth of everything that happened.
posted by polychromie at 2:35 PM on February 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

I grew up with a parent who had some form of mental illness. Bipolar and possibly narcissism, plus alcoholism. Its really difficult to make sense of the world, to have a place in the world, when you grow up with serious dysfunction. I do think it helps to recognize positive traits and experiences, just to keep your balance.

Great book about dealing with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder, also useful for dealing with anyone who has poor boundaries, is manipulative, highly dramatic, etc. Stop Walking on Eggshells. I stopped participating in my Moms crazy, and did my best to have an actual honest relationship with her. It was only partially successful, but I consider it an achievement. I tried to learn compassion for my Mom, because she experienced a lot of struggle.

No, you wont get an actual objective version of what happened. I agree with other answerers that you can learn to sort out and accept your own version, and your own version may change over time as you remember things more clearly and have a chance to shine a different light on your personal history. You may not have learned it as a child, but you deserve love and acceptance and a place at the table or anywhere else.

Reach out to fiends, be kind to yourself.
posted by theora55 at 8:01 AM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

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