December 18

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Reality and Narcissism

When Apryl was four years old, her dad and I bought her an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen and as soon as we handed it to her, she threw it on the ground and asked for another. I wasn’t going to give in because I knew she was just testing me to see if I’d bow to her every demand. She was always trying to see what she could get away with, see if she could get a reaction out of me. I wasn’t giving in. She threw her ice cream cone on the ground, she doesn’t get another. Too bad. Maybe she’ll learn for next time.

My mother told this story, and others like it, constantly. At church, at school, at holiday gatherings. All these stories about how I was this selfish little shit trying to push her buttons all the time, trying to get her to do everything for me, begging for attention. I grew up believing these things about myself.

I am selfish.

I only think of myself and nobody else.

I’m only looking for attention.

I like to irritate people.

I like to make people serve my every whim.

I’m antisocial.

I don’t think before I act.

I am manipulative.

I ended up hating myself for being this person, but the problem was, it never felt right. Deep down below all of these qualities hurled upon me, there was a person who was nothing like that. But how could I find that person, my true self, when everything that was reflected back at me was from some other reality?

Three weeks ago, I spent Thanksgiving with my father. It was the first Thanksgiving we’ve spent together in my adult life and certainly the most genuine and honest one I’ve ever had. My dad told stories from his childhood and my childhood, and for some reason, he told the ice cream cone story.

When Apryl was four years old, her mother and I bought her an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen and they piled the ice cream so high on that cone, I’ve never seen anything like it. As soon as we handed it to Apryl, I saw it sliding off the cone and knew there was no way we could stop it. It went straight on the ground and Apryl was so sad. I bought her another one and made sure it stayed together.

 

“Wait, what? The ice cream slid off the cone on its own?” I asked my dad, as I’d never heard this story from anyone else’s perspective. My parents divorced shortly after the ice cream cone incident, so he’d never heard the version my mother had been telling everyone for 25 years.

“Yeah, it just fell right off of there. I felt so bad for you.”

“Mom always told me that I threw it on the ground just to see if she’d buy me another one.”

“What? Why would you throw your ice cream on the ground? You hadn’t even taken a bite of it. That’s ridiculous.”

Hearing my dad’s perspective of this ice cream cone story completely shattered everything my mother had been telling me about myself for the past 30 years. How can two people, who shared a life, have such completely different views of reality? So I’m not a manipulative piece of shit trying to get people under my control—ice cream is just melty sometimes. I knew it!

Reality is a strange thing. Conscious reality is subjective—people can experience the exact same thing in completely different ways. But the truth is not subjective, and the way to get closest to the truth is to combine everybody’s subjective realities to make sense of the world. So what was the truth in the ice cream situation? I’ll never know exactly, but considering that I was four years old and probably didn’t have the cognitive skills to even question whether dropping an ice cream cone would make another one appear—and knowing that I am not a manipulative person and never have been—my father’s perspective is probably closest to the truth. But still, I wonder, am I just choosing the narrative that’s the easiest to swallow?

Three months ago, my mother told me that the things I wrote about in my memoir were not the way they happened. She told me I have false memories. That was not the way she remembered it. I have a distorted view of reality. This book is about my own stories of rape, PTSD, addiction, coming out, and healing—my mother was not even there for most of it, and she certainly wasn’t in my head. But still, I wondered if I’d made everything up. Am I just looking for attention? Am I exaggerating? Am I just completely delusional? It was a complete and total mind fuck. What is even real? What I’ve known to be real for several years now is that my mother is extremely narcissistic.

Children with a narcissistic parent often question their reality because true clinical narcissists cannot see their actual children and do not accept their needs. Check out this article to learn more about qualities of narcissistic mothers. In the meantime, I will continue searching for the truth.

Apryl Pooley is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, researching the effects of trauma on the brain and author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir

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