In fact, the Cadillac’s original color was blue, not white.
My bad. I’m sorry. That’s what happens when I write my column with a migraine.
Speaking of migraine, I once fell in love with a very charming, very handsome man. He wined me and dined me; he lavished on me flowers, jewelry, CDs, live concerts. His parents were kind and still married. He didn’t frequent bars, sleep around or hit me. We liked the same music and movies. He was funny.
It was a blissful romance for years. Until it wasn’t. I ended it, the tiniest sliver of my sanity intact.
I spent years in therapy trying to figure out why I was unhappy with him. During some particularly trying times, friends remarked on his selfishness. I dismissed these comments out of hand. He cleaned all the snow and ice off my car, filled my gas tank and changed the oil for me. He stopped to help every time he saw a motorist stranded in a ditch. Those didn’t seem like behaviors of a selfish man.
A few months ago, I reconnected with a college friend, who told me my ex’s behavior sounded like narcissistic personality disorder. She recommended some books and I researched the affliction online. At long last, a light blinked on.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is also known as malignant narcissism (MN). I like the latter term best because it reminds me of cancer — and, in my experience, excessive narcissism is an emotional cancer.
Narcissism isn’t all bad. A moderate level is necessary for each of us to maintain healthy self-esteem. It’s when narcissism repeatedly undermines our relationships and wounds others that it becomes dangerous.
The NPD Association identifies seven common traits of MN. My former partner had six.
The most harmful was his need for control. He made the major decisions in our relationship — including where we lived, what car we purchased, when we would have children and how many. When I didn’t agree with him on these issues, he feigned interest while I explained my point of view, then coolly responded that he based his choice on the advantages to me; he made it seem he was thinking of me above all.
Ultimately, however, his choices benefitted him and hurt me.
His need for control was so great that he limited my access to our finances. He hid the checkbook, banking statements and bills. This was before online banking. So, I never knew how much money we had or how much we owed.
While a stay-at-home mom, I was completely dependent on him for money. He would often give me a small amount of cash on payday, and when I went to the store a few days later, I would find my wallet empty. When I confronted him, he claimed he needed the money for gas or some other necessity.
Friends say I’m smart and talented. So why did I stay in a toxic relationship with an MN for so long?
I was gaslighted.
The term comes from the 1944 movie “Gaslight,” in which a husband repeatedly flickers the lights while convincing his wife that the flickering is her imagination. He wants her to believe she is insane so that he can steal from her while she languishes in an asylum.
Now my partner didn’t go quite that far, but he did try to convince me that our relationship problems were all in my head; that my perceptions, intuitions and reasoning were faulty, and my migraines and depression were proof and symptoms of my “wrong think.”
Gaslighting is brainwashing.
Maybe it sounds like I blame my ex for the deterioration of our relationship. I don’t. I blame his MN.
The resources I’ve found at narcissisticpersonalitydisorder.org have helped me to better understand why my ex behaved the way he did and why I responded the way I did. For the first time since our breakup, I feel the beginnings of forgiveness and healing. I don’t believe that he is the villain and I am the victim. The villain is MN and we are both victims. Our child, too.
My ex will likely never seek treatment for MN. The MN makes him believe that his relationship problems are the fault of others, not himself — so why would he need treatment?
But I am learning to deprogram myself. I am shedding the misbeliefs he drilled into me that I am naïve, incompetent, weak. I am beginning to see I’m loveable and gifted, a good friend and mom.
It’s a good beginning — for my daughters and for me.
— By Kelly O'Toole, a Tribune community columnist