Chronic Illness as an Adult Child of Narcissists

Living with chronic illness as an adult child of narcissists is not easy to talk about.

The pain is chronic and widespread. The exhaustion is REAL. The management of symptoms is a full time job.

Living with chronic illness as an adult child of narcissists is not easy to talk about. Many of us who suffer with it feel pitiful. We’re afraid we’ll be seen as defective, bothersome, and complaining. It’s not enough that we have orphaned and alienated ourselves by cutting ties with our mothers and never having anything to say on the subject, we also have debilitating physical illness that not everyone can relate to. So, we keep it to ourselves and only show up on those days when our pain is tolerable enough to interact with other human beings. We don’t mention that we were on the heating pad all day to spend a couple hours feeling human at a Christmas party. We don’t announce that we will probably be sore the next day from the adrenaline-fueled time we had by being in the company of others. We don’t say anything about the procedure we’re scheduled to have the next week, because it, in all likelihood, will be as ineffective as it has every other time, due to the fact that scar tissue is crowding the area that needs the treatment and getting people’s expectations up is just silly. It just isn’t worth the effort of helping others understand, so it isn’t worth mentioning.

As adult children of narcissists with chronic illness, we don’t want to make people feel badly about our pain. We don’t want to be pitied or preached at. We don’t want to be dismissed by hearing about how someone’s pain was cured with magnets or diet and being told we can live pain-free if only we buy this or do that. We don’t want to feel abnormal or be a burden. We don’t want to be asked how “it” happened or what we did to ourselves, because we have no earthly idea why our discs started rupturing at nineteen and how we ended up with a syndrome that causes widespread pain for no apparent reason by this seemingly imaginary web called fascia. Only those closest to us know our sleepless nights and our days spent in agony, to the degree we are willing to share. We don’t like shining a light on our illness because, no, we don’t love being in pain, and, yes, we would do anything to get better. We realize most people are just trying to be helpful, but it doesn’t make it any easier to explain we’ve tried everything we could think of or afford with it feeling like we haven’t done enough to heal ourselves.

This physical pain is likely caused and compounded by psychological trauma and the messages we received from early childhood development. In fact, when we started to get sick or became debilitated by pain, our childhood caregivers mostly likely used that weakness against us to further shame us or abuse us. The psychological battle of emotional abuse that elevated our heart rates and continually released harmful chemicals into our bodies began to have long-term physical effects that became chronic and life-changing. Our bodies became a living, breathing testament to the abuse we survived and the shame we carry. To talk about our physical pain is to reveal our inner shame, and sometimes, we just don’t have the strength to withstand anything but love, patience, acceptance and empathy from other human beings.about:blankREPORT THIS AD

For a long time, I was ashamed to admit to my own therapist how debilitating my pain is. I was in his office to figure out why my marriage was so tumultuous and the reasons why I cut contact with my own mother, father and sister. I believed I would be thought of as attention-seeking or overly-dramatic if I were to reveal how much my pain affected my life. I was ashamed that not only was I struggling emotionally, relationally, and psychologically, but that I was physically drowning as well. It all seemed too much for any one professional to handle. My physical pain was being addressed by my medical doctors and my psychological pain was being addressed by my psychologist. Depending on the professional I was seeing, my anxiety was due to my pain or my state of mind, never both.

To complicate matters, the healthcare system is broken. After fifteen years of being treated for multiple ruptured discs, complications after surgeries, migraines, Fibromyalgia and Myofascial Pain Syndrome it has only recently been suggested I see a pain psychologist and that the healing of my mind may aid in the treatment of my pain. I have been to surgeons, pain clinic doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, and bodyworkers. I have undergone every treatment available and tried every exercise, medication, and supplement recommended. I have been misdiagnosed, operated on, tested, injected, poked, prodded, studied, and analyzed and suffer the consequences of each. The most helpful treatments recommended by my pain clinic doctor, such as Myofascial Release and acupuncture are considered holistic and not covered by insurance, making it impossible for someone who can’t work full time to afford. It’s a vicious cycle that seems to lead only to frustration and feeling victimized. Like the Catch 22 of being raised in a narcissistic family, this scenario lends itself to enhancing the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Some days, my will to get out of bed is nil. Every inch of my body is painful and inflamed, all the time. The 1 to 10 pain scales at the doctors’ offices are confusing to me because I can’t rate a pain that is like a constant ringing in my ears with intermittent spikes throughout the day. The exhaustion I feel just breathing is all-encompassing. I feel let down by my body and disappointed in myself for not being healthy and robust. I feel like a failure who lives in hiding and puts on a mask to present to the world. I sometimes wonder if it’s my pride that keeps me from being vulnerable or if I’m just too damn tired to answer the questions I’ve answered a thousand times before and hear the well-meaning and ill-informed advice I have often received. I worry that I will sound defensive or appear as a victim, so I avoid the uncomfortable exchange altogether. I hate telling my partner that I’m in extra pain because I feel like I am less of a partner when I’m physically weak and emotionally exhausted.

I have come to realize it’s not false humility or unhealthy pride that keeps me from opening myself up. It’s self-preservation. I’m not always strong enough to take on someone else’s opinions or misperceptions and not let them affect me. I can say I don’t care what people think all I want, but I know that I do. It takes practice, and it’s definitely not something I’ve mastered.

As a healing adult child of narcissists, I realize a lot of what I feel has its roots in the internal messages that are replaying inside me. I was taught that seeming blessings and cursings directly correlated with my standing with God — that my suffering was a curse due to the fact I hadn’t learned my lesson about whatever area of life my mother thought I was failing in, and that only by throwing myself on the altar and begging mercy and forgiveness, first from her and then God, could I be healed. And I did. Repeatedly, ritualistically. For years. I filled journals full of lamenting and begging because I was told I was garbage. I wept bitter tears day after day about how sinful and disgusting I was. I went to church and did everything my mother told me to do, chiding myself for the times I would do it begrudgingly then begging God’s forgiveness. I would admit to things my mother wrongly accused me of and take responsibility for things that had nothing to do with me, all in the hope that I was earning extra credit and would be rewarded by being healed.

I have felt like a failure because well-meaning people have told me their success stories and how they were healed by this miracle thing they tried because it backfired or did nothing for me when I tried it. In my eagerness to please everyone else, I fed the lie that I was being punished with chronic pain. So what if someone else is living a pain-free life now since they slept on a magnetized mattress topper and became a vegetarian. In fact, good on them! And, I mean it. Judging myself for not being able to physically heal myself is just perpetuating the abuse I endured for over thirty years. My harsh inner critic is lying to me and I really have no right to listen to it. Stopping the harmful messages begins with identifying them as harmful.

Being present and aware of all that is going on inside of me helps me worry less about what is going on around me so that I can have the space to heal, both physically and mentally. This is what yoga and meditation allow me to do. Together, they make my physical pain more tolerable and help calm my inner self so that the pain and anxiety don’t join forces to keep me locked inside trauma. Most days, lately, my body listens and I can breathe a little

If you are an adult child of a narcissist struggling with chronic illness I highly recommend reading a book called The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. If you are young in your healing from narcissistic abuse, I recommend having your therapist take a look and walk you through it — or at least to give him/her an understanding of what you may be going through. The mind and the body should be treated together so that we can become whole.

Be well, Lovely 

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