Mental Health. Such a tidy sounding set of words meant to be a surrogate for something so chaotic, unpredictable, and at times, crippling. But isn’t that what we do to protect ourselves from things that frighten us? Surely the best way to inoculate ourselves without even approaching the subject is to wall it off with a label. Put it in a closet, brick up the door, and put a fresh coat of white paint over it. Maybe a flower arrangement or placard to memorialize the day we conquered it with words.
Last blog I said I would try and explain my father’s personality disorder, and the toll it takes on our family these days. I don’t have a clue how to encapsulate it except to tell you a bit about my childhood. Bear with me.
My dad is a highly intelligent, handsome, self-confident man with a super quick wit and corny sense of humor that can quickly win over strangers. A charmer. Every conversation I can remember with him ended with the words, “I love you,” and I’ll remember that as the most important lesson he ever taught me. His house always felt like a safe place. But a duality has always existed that wasn’t as noticeable when we were younger.
The world always seemed to be unfair and unjust by his account, and a kid is going to trust their parent. Constantly having to switch jobs because his bosses were “arrogant a*******” that were intimidated by his ideas so they didn’t promote him, 3 failed marriages that weren’t his fault, broken relationships with siblings that had slighted him. I have an uncle I’ve only seen at a wedding and a funeral, and that seemed normal. That’s not normal. But according to my dad, when his brother dies he’s going to be in for a shock when he realizes he’s not God. Now, I’m not so sure we wouldn’t get along, because I have a hunch most of their conflict stems from jealousy of his brother’s financial success.
What twisted their concept of family so terribly? I know their father was abusive. Maybe that’s enough to cause your one retired sister that lives in your town to not visit you at the hospital or cancel going to support you at your brain surgery because she had to take her grandkids to a hair appointment.
When I was a teenager I’d received odd parental advice like, “Women are evil. Focus on your guitar and don’t get married till you’re in your 40s or you’ll never go anywhere.” Never mind that I have an amazing sister, and he would say that in front of her. I’m still fighting to overcome that. Not that I ever believed all women are evil mind you, but the absence of any positive parental advice on how to approach relationships in a healthy manner can really mess with you. Now I understand that he had severe psychological problems, but my youth along with only spending every other weekend with him made me blind to them.
Recently, while venting to our mom about how ridiculous this has all become, she said, “I think you’re just now meeting our father, and it sounds like he’s working on his 4th and 5th divorces.”
Definition - Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. You may be generally unhappy and disappointed when you're not given the special favors or admiration you believe you deserve. Others may not enjoy being around you, and you may find your relationships unfulfilling.
This diagnosis put a lot of things into focus. Like why when we would confront him about needing to quit smoking he would get angry and try to change the subject as quick as possible instead of actually discussing the problem. Why he was never interested in going to see his last wife’s art exhibits that meant so much to her. Why he would complain about the food I fixed him when I was taking care of him even though I’m an amazing cook. It just wasn’t fixed the way he’d always fixed it. Why he would prefer to be waited on like a king at the hospital and trick everyone into doing even basic tasks for him instead of wanting to be an independent man. Even today he had a nurse take his socks off for him. It’s about control and feeling like he’s the center of the universe and absolutely infuriating.
My sister and I refuse to be manipulated any more by pleas of “if you loved me you’d help me”, or “I just need a little TLC.”, but where that leaves us is in an awkward headspace of disbelief, anger (at times hatred), mixed with being flat out embarrassed and ashamed of our father. When I see him ask a nurse to help him sit up knowing full well that he can do it himself with no effort whatsoever, I have a veritable Fox News ticker in my head scrolling “Bill Cook - Lazy Mother &^%$er”. I know that’s harsh. I fully understand that, and I don’t enjoy feeling this way towards my father. I’d prefer to be proud of him and respect him, but it’s the truth of where I’m at, and I write this in hopes that if someone else is struggling with the same thing, they know they’re not alone. It’s my current battleground. In any other relationship I believe the healthy thing to do would be to distance myself, but you can’t do that with your dad.
I have always been the level headed person with infinite patience that doesn’t get worked up over much of anything. But dealing with him has effectively shattered that version of myself. I believe God is showing me how to embrace brokenness and lean on him and my community. To feel more deeply. To speak my heart to others, and see what new forms of connectedness grow in my relationships from it.
This season has been a desert, but I am positive I will come out on the other side a stronger, wiser, better version of myself.
For now, if you don’t mind, pray for me.
William T Cook