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“Darling I didn’t abandon you, you were taken from me. Your father lied to you,” mom corrected me. I gasped, motionless. It had taken my mother over 20 years to share her burden. I believed her.
During my senior year, I boarded a plane to South-East Asia and spent four months living with a stranger. I hadn’t seen mom since I was 10. Everything leading up to that moment had been surreal. Dad had magically found mom’s little black book. The next day we talked on the phone.
“This is your mother,” the voice said. Suddenly she was there, embracing me fervently at arrivals.
My earliest memories are a blur of exuberant dinner parties, dusty construction sites, and foreign nannies. Dad made his first million flipping houses.
When the financial crisis hit, mortgages ballooned and our lives unravelled. My parents' relationship steadily deteriorated, ending abruptly in a messy divorce. Mom complied. She was old-fashioned; dad’s 24-year-old mistress was pregnant.
Mid-term, dad pulled my sister and I out of elementary school. Nanny dressed us carefully in our weekend clothes. We were going on an adventure. Like grown-ups, we were to travel alone -- age 7 and 10 -- from London Heathrow to Nice on the French Riviera. Dad was in breach of the divorce settlement; mom shared joint custody.
“Where’s mommy?” I asked, uncertain. We hadn’t said goodbye.
“She’s abandoned you, forget her, you have a new life and a new mommy now,” he said softly. I believed him. I had no reason not to.
We were collected at the airport by a short dark lady, my stepmom’s younger sister. It felt weird and unfamiliar: the small holiday apartment, the cigarette smoke, our vodka-guzzling captor, and her daughter.
Then suddenly dad was there, with my stepmom and half-siblings. He was building our new home: a 7-bedroom Mediterranean villa with waterfalls, swimming pool, and sea view. I found out later the escape had been carefully planned. Dad disappeared after embezzling $1 million of company money.
My father would be attentive and charming when he wanted something. He showered my naïve stepmom with gifts: a Louis Vuitton handbag, diamonds and a VW golf cabriolet. Then suddenly his business trips increased in frequency. Dad was away for days at a time.
Before long, he’d bought a Mercedes SLK, moved to a condominium and was only around on the weekend. My “new mommy” became my primary carer.
My dad’s wife resented her new life. But more than anything she resented me. I was mom’s spitting image -- the lovechild of dad’s previous marriage. She hardened. And I became the outlet for her anger, enduring physical violence and emotional abuse.
I deserved it. "I sacrificed my best years to raise you,” she would say defiantly. Dad knew. He was aloof and detached.
I was a fairly unremarkable 7th grade student. I was dreamy, studious, and I kept to myself. One evening, I made the decision to put an end to my stepmother’s abuse. I jumped from the bedroom window, and landed smoothly in the driveway. Now what?
It was spring. And all I was wearing were jeans, ankle boots and a thin cable knit sweater. In my haste, I hadn’t thought things through. Hours later, a police officer found me in the garden, confused and shivering. After a night confined to the family sofa, I was banished to a private boarding school.
Contact with my siblings soon dried up. Dad told me I’d become a bad influence.
“It’s too upsetting for them to see you,” he’d say gently.
I missed my little sister. Just like mom, I was deleted from her life.
The summer after I met my mother, I was determined to cover up my past. I applied for a scholarship, found a flat-share on Craigslist, and took a part-time job at Pizza Hut.
Refusing dad’s money -- and living within my means -- was my first step toward taking control over my life. With my newfound financial independence, dad had lost his main leverage.
For awhile we settled in no-mans land. It was awkward. Dad would call every day complaining about my stepmom. He’d find excuses for why he couldn’t be part of my life. When he felt anxious or needy, the phone would ring incessantly. The conversations were always intense and self-absorbed. I would listen, burdened with the responsibility.
We would see each other occasionally. Our encounters were always brief. His secretary would arrange for us to share a taxi ride. Or I’d meet him at the conference venue for breakfast. Sometimes he’d express remorse for being an absent father. Most of the time he didn’t.
Why did I go with it? I loved him. And I was desperate for his approval.
The second year of undergrad, I decided the situation had to change. I took time off my summer job, booked a plane ticket, and arranged for us to spend the day together. I waited at his office. Hours passed. Annoyed, I told his receptionist I’d be at the local coffee shop.
He was furious. It was raining, I didn’t see or hear dad approach. I only remember being yanked from my chair and dragged by the neck onto the sidewalk. Without losing grip, he pulled me across the square and past the bank. He paused a moment before shoving me to the ground.
I fell, hitting my head on the wet tiles. I lay helpless, my hands protecting my face -- dad’s menacing figure peering over me.
“She’s my daughter. I can do what I want,” he explained to the gathering crowd.
I still found excuses for him. When I graduated valedictorian, Dad didn’t turn-up to the commencement ceremony. Our relationship declined, slowly.
For a while I thought I could handle him. I believed that if I changed my expectations, we could build a constructive relationship. I felt in control. The “new me” was able to set boundaries. I wouldn’t talk to him unless I had the mental headspace. I was in therapy; I wanted to make things work.
I got married on a sunny -- but chilly -- day in may. We’d gathered an intimate hodgepodge of relatives and close friends. Mom couldn’t make it. The air was crisp, and the mood was joyful. Dad tapped the microphone, clearing his throat. He’d come without my stepmom, and was visibly distressed.
“I’ve written a speech but I can’t remember it now,” he said stunned. “I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. I know it hasn’t been easy.” He sounded sincere. “I’m proud of you,” he concluded. Tears rolled down my cheeks.
Dad sat down, lost. Only a handful of guests understood the significance of what had happened.
5 months later, I rang, ecstatic to share our happy news. “I'm pregnant!”
Dad’s reaction was emotionless. “Can you afford a baby? How is work going?” he asked, changing the subject. I felt sick.
As my belly grew, a veil lifted from my childhood. Twenty weeks pregnant and hormonal I curled up in bed -- a sobbing blob. The dog dutifully watched over me. He plopped his fluffy white body by my side, listened to my belly and dried my tears with his little pink tongue. I’d realised: When dad remarried, he’d started afresh. I was a casualty of his past. He’d moved on with his life.
“Darling I didn’t abandon you, you were taken from me. Your father lied to you,” the words from my mom rang in my ears. Mom and I spoke every week. I stroked my pregnant belly; everything made sense. I knew deep down my father’s behaviours were dysfunctional. I had so many unanswered questions. I wanted to understand why. Why would a father treat his family so badly?
I threw myself into research. There were others like me: ACONs -- adult children of narcissists. I was stunned by my discovery. Dad demonstrated all the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder: “a grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with power and unlimited success, a need for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy…” The list went on.
“I need space,” I told him calmly.
“You’re bipolar and depressed,” he retorted.
Dad stalked me. All our phones would ring, incessantly. He hated losing control. When I screened his calls, his messages became angry and demeaning. By the time the email offensive began, I could see our relationship was toxic. And I vowed to protect my unborn baby.
I’ve since stopped all contact with my father. I struggle coming to terms with my decision; it’s not easy to acknowledge someone you love is incapable of empathy. It’s not easy accepting dad has NPD. But by accommodating him all these years, I enabled him. My love gave him control.
And I’m happy to have reconnected with mom. It hasn’t been easy to undo all the hurt. But over the years I’ve learnt to know her, she’s become a dear friend.
Today my path to healing comes with self-acceptance. Putting words to my trauma has allowed me to find peace. I’m no longer a victim.