|By Michelle Mallon, LSW
I remember as a grad student working towards my MSW at The Ohio State University, I would occasionally feel humbled by the recognition that I had so much to learn in order to truly make a difference in the world. I don’t recall ever thinking for one minute that I would have everything I needed to be an effective social worker in that two year time period in graduate school. I fully expected that my learning would continue on for the rest of my life. And as it turns out, I had a fairly realistic view of what Social Work would be like. The learning never stops. For many of us, it’s what draws us to the profession.
I think back to all of the theoretical frameworks I learned, all of the time spent learning about and analyzing the various components of the DSM and the many, many hours I spent preparing myself to go out into the world to “help people”. I thought I at least had everything I needed to start out on my mission when I graduated. I believed it would just be a matter of taking all that I had learned and moving forward with an open mind and a having a lifeline to resources that would constantly keep me on top of my game. It turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The past three years of my life have been the most agonizingly painful years I have ever experienced. A simple act of choosing a provider for psychological services for my two young children proved to be the most terrifying turning point in my entire life. I recall that prior to meeting with this psychologist to get my children counseling, I was a vibrant, capable, passionate, independent woman. I was juggling two different professional careers and I volunteered nearly all of my free time to my children’s schools and our church. I was a strong woman who stood up for what she believed in and worked hard to do what was right. By the time I last saw this psychologist nearly two years later, I was a shell of the woman I had been before. I was totally and completely dependent on him for nearly every decision I had to make. After I refused to see him any longer, I spent months primarily confined to my house, afraid to go anywhere or speak to anyone. In fact, I really wasn’t even sure who I was anymore. I was in a state of shock, totally confused about what had actually even happened during the course of the time I knew that man.
Although I didn’t seek him out for counseling for myself, somehow I ended up seeing him for nearly two years. He had convinced me I needed to see him to help my children. Believing him that this could only help my children, I agreed. Soon after I began to see him, he referred the children out. And somewhere in a haze of countless individual counseling sessions and group counseling sessions with this man, I became the object of the most heinous emotional abuse I have ever experienced. Because he seemed so competent and caring when I first began to see him, I ignored alarm bells that were going off in my head as upsetting things began to happen. The most frightening part- the abuse was so insidious and covert that when I refused to see the abusive therapist any longer, I believed for nearly an entire year afterward that the deterioration of that relationship was my fault. I was led to believe that if I had just tried harder, listened more carefully, trusted more fully, I could have prevented the loss of a relationship that I had truly valued at one point in time. I am still not sure which was worse, the abuse itself or the period of time after I refused to see this man but had no idea that nothing I did could have changed the course of what happened. But most startling was that despite the fact that I no longer saw him, I continued to self-destruct. My life was crumbling around me. It was truly terrifying.
Shortly after I refused to see the abusive therapist any longer, I got up the courage to see a new therapist in an attempt to get some perspective and closure about what had happened. But even getting a complete set of clinical records from the abusive therapist for the new one was impossible. He refused to give a diagnosis, a treatment plan, diagnostic work and nearly every clinical entry he provided was illegible. I had been seeing this man for almost 2 years but I couldn’t tell the new therapist what he had been working on with me because I really had no idea. And he refused to tell her. I was so confused. I really didn’t know what was real anymore. I couldn’t trust my own perception of things. The abusive therapist had convinced me that I was just “misperceiving” everything that had happened. In fact, he pointed out numerous times that he was the expert, so the problem must be me.
Despite not having a firm sense of what really had happened, the subsequent therapist knew enough to know that something went terribly wrong in that relationship and helped me file a lengthy ethical complaint with the Ohio Board of Psychology. For me, filing the complaint had been a step toward trying to gain some perspective over what happened. I was still confused about so much of what happened. Perhaps the Board could obtain some of the clinical information the abusive therapist had refused to give the subsequent therapist. But, almost a year after I refused to see the abusive psychologist, I was still searching for answers. The board refused to release any of the clinical information that was obtained in the course of their investigation to my new therapist. They completely dismissed the 15 point ethical complaint that my current therapist and I co-filed. In fact to this day, I still have no idea what my diagnosis was or what the goal of therapy with this therapist even was. Even worse, I was being told that I should prepare myself to never know the truth about what happened.
For nearly a full year after refusing to see this therapist any longer, I spent every waking hour of my time trying to make sense out of what happened with him. I would never be able to move on with my life if I didn’t understand it. How can you protect yourself from something so devastating if you don’t know what it is? My brain was like a tape recorder repeating the same segment of recording trying to make sense out of everything. I just didn’t understand any of it. I was too broken to recognize that I suffering from PTSD as direct result of the abusive relationship.
And then nearly a full year after I refused to see the abusive therapist any longer, it happened. After searching tirelessly on the internet for something, anything that might explain what I had experienced, I sat in shock as I realized I had finally found the right set of keywords. I remember the feeling of utter relief when I found other people saying they had seen the same thing I had seen. The terms “malignant Narcissist” and “psychopathic Narcissist” came up time and time again. And while I was very familiar with the term “Narcissist”, this particular manifestation of it was something I had not studied or heard about prior to the abuse I endured. This was very different from the self-centered and vain type of person I learned about in college. This was something far more covert and destructive.
But yet, I was finding that what I had experienced wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, this wasn’t some phenomenon that happened only in client-therapist relationships. No, this was a terrifying situation that occurs all too frequently in families, workplaces, schools, religious organizations, romantic relationships- pretty much anywhere that two or people interact. Everywhere that people are involved, this can and does happen. No one is safe from what I went through. In fact, parental Narcissism seems to be one of the most common and destructive forms of Narcissistic abuse. It seems so much has been written about it, yet so few even know what it is. At times, it has seemed that this entire phenomenon is a closely held secret that very few people truly know anything about. Despite the fact that all that I was reading seemed to be written by a people who knew exactly what I was talking about, very few others had even heard of this. When I tried to communicate to people around me what I had experienced, it frequently felt like I was speaking a totally different language. In fact, based on the reactions I got from people around me, it sometimes felt like I was telling people I had seen a UFO. I felt utterly alone.
After I began to find books and articles explaining some of the predatory tactics malignant Narcissists use to obtain their Narcissistic supply, I began to understand why I had been so confused and helpless by the time I fled the abusive relationship. I had slowly been led to trust someone who knew precisely how to lure innocent, unsuspecting people in. Slowly over time as I trusted him, he began to undermine my ability to trust my own judgment by repeatedly telling me I was misperceiving things that I had actually been correctly perceiving. He had learned so many very intimate details of my life- my fears, my desires, my goals in life. And then he used them one by one to manipulate me. It was all so very slow and subtle. I began to think about what powerful weapon my abuser had that made this type of abuse so effective- the complete lack of awareness that there is anything so purposefully orchestrated that can be so evil. Nowhere in my graduate training, nowhere in the first 14 years of my professional career had I ever learned about this type of emotional abuse. I never saw any of this coming because I didn’t believe this kind of abuse existed.
As I began to pull my life back together and reclaim my identity, I became increasingly concerned about countless other victims I was finding on Facebook forums created for victims of Narcissistic Abuse by survivors of Narcissistic Abuse. Even more disturbing was the flood of reader comments after rare articles about Narcissistic Abuse that sounded like this, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe there is a name for this! I thought I was going crazy.” Some victims expressed that they had endured abuse like this for decades because they had been convinced that they just weren’t trying hard enough. And far too many of these victims were saying that they had sought out counseling during or after the abusive relationships they endured and were told they just needed to try harder. Here were people who clearly knew something wasn’t right doing exactly what we as professionals would tell them to do- seek out counseling. And yet, in doing that, these victims were being further harmed.
The fact that these areas of support on social media exist may on the surface seem to be a good thing. However there is tremendous danger involved with these sites being the primary source of support for survivors of this type of abuse. The survivors who come to these sites are all in different stages of healing. They cannot all understand each other and this puts a huge strain on what they can and cannot understand about phases they haven’t yet gotten through. And for the most part, the administrators of these sites are not licensed or trained professionals. Victims are helping victims. Unfortunately, victims who are “further” along accidentally say things that come off as insensitive to those just starting out. Plus, with this type of abuse, healing is very painful and full of stops and starts. For many victims, they are also overcoming PTSD and any trigger can set them back indefinitely. When this happens, their life lines to support are sometimes temporarily cut off. But even more disturbing is the fact that the forums are typically “open forums” which means anyone can post and reply. There are deeply troubling situations where abusers have assumed fake names and begun posting contradictory information which has resulted in victims being further confused. Without having a primary support of a mental health professional devoted to helping a survivor make his/her way through the very difficult work of delving into his/her own life to understand what occurred, the hope of a survivor reclaiming his or her life is significantly reduced. As a result, the likelihood of being revictimized by another Narcissist is significantly increased.
I have recently begun contacting some of the individuals and groups around the world who are trying to increase awareness about this type of abuse. I have made a number of important contacts. In Ireland, England and Australia there are pockets of groups trying to educate mental health professionals about this very common cause of PTSD symptoms which our clients are presenting. Here in the United States, there is very little. For far too many of these victims, the road to healing after this abuse is hidden. Victims are desperately searching for the answers to help them begin to recover. The problem is that there seems to be an astonishing lack of awareness despite the fact that awareness, insight and understanding seem to be the keys that can unlock the prisons for so many of these victims.
And this was my experience as well. It seemed that in terms of finding the road to healing, I was on my own. But the truth was, I shouldn’t have been. I was doing all of the things a person should do to find healing. And yet I had come up empty for far too long.
So what will you see when these victims come to you? When these victims arrive in your office, they typically resemble anxious, confused and sometimes even paranoid clients who are trying to understand how they have gone from being a happy, fulfilled person to one who feels like they don’t even know who they are anymore. They usually have some idea that a part of the problem is the continued failure of a relationship they cherish. They rarely have any idea that what they have endured is abuse. In fact, if the abuse is successful, these survivors are actually under the impression that there is some strategy to resolve the problem that they just haven’t thought of yet. The point is that they have no idea they are victims. In fact, they cringe at the label “victim”. Since these victims frequently believe that more open communication and a stronger commitment to see the relationship through is the answer, they seek out help from mental health professionals to try and brainstorm what they haven’t yet considered. It has probably never occurred to these people that there is absolutely no resolution to their relationship problems. And because of this, it may take time to help your client recognize that they have done everything humanly possible to make the relationship work and that it is actually the other person (the one absent from therapy) who has been purposefully sabotaging their attempts. In fact, one of the causes of the PTSD symptoms is the victims desperately searching for some possible strategy they have missed that could resolve the conflict. Louis de Canonville writes,
“They will look like any other client coming into your therapy room for the very first time. They are probably most likely to bring in an issue that is quite mundane and recognizable; such as, they are feeling depressed, having panic attacks, or the feeling that they cannot cope. They have no idea that they have been living in a “war zone” with a narcissistic personality in command (either in the past or in the present). ”
The difficult task of helping survivors break the hold these abusers have on them is a particularly challenging one. By the time they show up in your office for help, they are frequently traumatically bonded to their abuser. And these survivors see this unbreakable hold as further evidence that something must be wrong with them. Without proper insight that the magnitude of the bond is reflective of the severity of the abuse, these victims see their current state as a further evidence of a flaw within themselves.
Louis de Canonville describes the insidious nature of this abuse and the lifelong effects it can have if not addressed and treated:
“Therapists need to be seriously aware that narcissism is a very complex disorder that creates a lot of suffering, both to the person who has the disorder, and to those people who have to live with the disordered narcissistic behavior on a daily basis. When I speak of narcissistic abuse, (abuse that can lead to Narcissistic Victim Syndrome), I am speaking about a form of abuse that is very insidious. What I mean by insidious is that the abuse is covert, cunning and often indirect. This form of abuse is often carried out in a subtly and clandestine manner, because narcissists go to great pains to avoid being observed publicly as being abusive. This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde behavior of the narcissist (loving one minute and totally enraged the next) can inflict great harm on the victim. Understandably, the fear, distress, confusion, inner turmoil, and chaos that they experience leaves them “walking on eggshells” in order to avoid further conflict with the narcissist. The effect on the victim over time can be very crippling indeed. I liken narcissism to a parasitic worm that manages to penetrate under the skin, where it is out of the sight of witnessing eyes, but is free to injure or consume its host slowly, leaving trauma or disease in its wake. By the way, the narcissist can manage to live on inside the victim even after they manage to escape; it is as if their “seed” goes on.”
Without the professional understanding that there truly are some interpersonal relationships that are not “both parties equally at fault” this could go very badly for victims. As the client tries to explain just how “crazy” their whole situation seems it is up to the professional to understand what the client does not: the client is not crazy. In fact, they have given this relationship more effort than most people would ever have imagined giving. These are people who are willing to explore every option with you, including those options that might imply that they need to work harder. Moreover, they are very much hoping that there is something they can do to make the dynamic different. To hear that the relationship has been set up to fail is the last thing they want to hear or accept.
One of the most frightening realities of what this failure to recognize, diagnose and treat means for these survivors is that until they come to intimately understand how they have been manipulated to endure this type of abuse and believe they were at fault, they are at significant risk for falling prey to another Narcissist. Most adult victims of malignant Narcissist abuse will begin to realize as they become aware of what has really been going on in the abusive relationship that brought them to your office, that this was not the first time they have endured this type of abuse. It is not uncommon for victims to slowly become aware as they gain insight into the extent abusive situation that they have endured parental Narcissism as a child. It is as if the previous abuse has primed these people into tolerating additional abuse as adults.
It has been a very long and difficult road for me to reclaim my identity, but I have been able to take this horrific experience and transform it into something that is helping others. But I am but just one person. Getting to a point where victims of this type of abuse will be recognized properly diagnosed and effectively treated by the mental health professionals who will most likely see these victims at some point in their lives will require a concerted effort on the parts of many. We must do all that we can to be in a position to help these victims when they seek us out for help.
I would like to thank my abuser for giving me an insight into something I would have never truly understood before. This painful part of my life is now something that I can now use to help the countless innocent victims of malignant Narcissistic abuse. For that, I am truly grateful.
For anyone interested in learning more about this serious threat to our clients well-being, we are creating a CEU course aimed at helping mental health professionals recognize, properly diagnose and effectively treat the victims of malignant Narcissistic abuse. This is a very complex issue and trying to do it justice in this newsletter is simply not possible. Victims of this abuse have been seeking us out for years and most of us have not helped them the way we need to. Narcissistic abuse is not a new concept. In fact, this type of abuse is as old as social interaction itself. The problem is that, in part because the people who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder rarely ever seek out help for this disorder, we have not effectively addressed its destructive effects on the people who live, work, socialize and interact with these dangerous people. We must be ready to help the many, many victims of this terrifying form of emotional abuse.