Part I – Facing Myself for the Very First Time
During the summer of 2014 I was going through a terrible crisis of identity. My life was a shambling mess of a thing, and I was actively hiding from it; doing my best to distract myself from the day-in, day-out dramas of my own inner conflict. For years, I’d been lying and exaggerating, manipulative and controlling, selfish and self-centered. I put myself first in all things – and made sure everyone around me knew just how important, and intelligent I was. If you didn’t do things my way, then you were a complete idiot – and there was no getting around how right I was about everything. And if you didn’t agree, or you had thoughts of your own, then I’d respond with anger and vengeance – in a very subtle and passively aggressive way – chances are, you would never knew what hit you.
Meanwhile, on the inside, I was terrified of everything and everyone. I had no idea of who I really was – I was so busy trying to protect layer upon layer of massive denial that I didn’t have time to be me. Instead, I watched TV, played video games, and disappeared into the world of tabletop roleplaying. There was so much guilt and shame in my life; so many reasons to hate myself – I had absolutely no interest in being with myself – everything I did was about escaping me; about taking my mind off of what I was hiding from. I had no friends, was completely disconnected from my family, and used my romantic relationships as my only anchor in the world – but still kept even those at an incredible distance from myself.
I’d been living in Seattle for several years – since leaving the Air Force in 2000. I’d tried Buddhism out for about a year or so in 2004, visited with a couple of mental health professionals, taken antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications, tried different diet and exercise regimens, become vegan, and attempted a host of other things; all in an effort to ‘figure out what was wrong with me’ and ‘find some semblance of peace’. Nothing really worked. At best, I was told I was suffering from ‘perfectionism’ – at worst, I was told nothing at all. No one seemed to have an answer for me – no one seemed to have the solution that I was looking for. And so I remained caught up in a world of self-limiting defeatism that, outwardly looked like it was working, but inwardly was eating me alive.
Coming up on the summer of 2104, I was living with a longtime girlfriend who I’d been with for about 6 years. She and I had a tenuous relationship at best. We spent most of our time in our home offices on opposite ends of the house. We ran errands and did a few chores together, and we slept together at night. But outside of a few general conversations about her work and about mine, we didn’t really have much to say to one another. We were roommates who shared a bed. She was obviously unhappy with me – but she endured, I think, in the hope that one day I’d turn things around and grow up. And she was dealing with her own psychological angst and issues. As with most couples, we were getting exactly what we needed from each other, even if it was completely unhealthy.
It was during the August/September timeframe that I really started to notice just how dark my inner world had become and how miserable I really was. I owned my own information security consulting firm at the time and had just wrapped up a huge contract. There was money in the bank and all of my bills were paid in full, so, as I often did, I decided to stop working for a while. I would sit in my office at home and play games – games that were meant to include social interaction – but I just played them by myself. Sometimes I would play so late into the night that I wouldn’t go to bed. Instead, I’d just crawl into my office recliner as the sun was coming up – moments before my girlfriend would be getting up – and pretended to be asleep.
When I wasn’t playing games, I was watching TV. And I was watching some really dark television programs. It was actually the television programs that started to clue me in on just how lost I’d become and how much I was hurting on the inside. I was actually enjoying them. Not just their entertainment value, but their darkness in general. I found myself deeply disturbed by this revelation and something inside me began to ask ‘is this really who you want to be?’. So in September, I began to look more closely at my behavior – at both my internal and external patterns of thought and expression. Having studied psychology quite extensively, I pulled out my copy of the DSM-V and started flipping through symptoms. After looking at every diagnostic profile, my eye settled on Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
I really had no idea what that meant, but it was clear to me that this was the most detailed explanation of what I was experiencing, so I started to research narcissism. I was horrified by what I found! The narcissist was, by all accounts, an unfeeling, uncaring, monster; completely incapable of human connection and completely incurable. I died a little bit inside as I was reading up on what I was and felt something stirring inside me that could only be described as hopelessness. But at the same time I was absolutely determined not to be the monster. It may even have been the narcissist inside me that cried out ‘I will prove them all wrong’. Whatever it was, I decided then and there that I would do whatever it took to get better.
Several things happened all at once. I located a psychologist in the area who had experiencing treating people with narcissistic personality disorder. I found a book on neuroplasticity and our innate ability to heal our brains. And I started to pay very careful attention to my thoughts. I remembered some of the breathing techniques that I’d learned during my stint with Buddhism and began to practice them – but not actively, which was quite interesting. The breathing technique just sort of came forward on its own – and it was very different than it had been when I was practicing it before. Instead of meditating on the cushion, I would just find myself doing things around the house and in my life, watching my breath move in and out at the tip of the nose. It just felt natural.
The first time I was supposed to see the psychologist, I bailed. I was simply too afraid and hadn’t worked up enough courage yet. A week later, I tried again. I remember sitting in that chair, in an almost statuesque form, unmoving and unflinching, filled with a terrible dread. It was like an hour long panic attack, but I refused to get up and leave. I absolutely had to get better. So, for the first time in my entire life, I threw off every shackle and dropped every guard. Through a rain of tears, I opened up about everything and didn’t hold anything back. Absolutely nothing was left on the table. I answered every question, admitted to every falsehood, revealed every secret. I felt completely open in that moment – and it was the most freeing experience I’d ever had.
Suddenly my world began to open up in a brand new way. I dove into reading books about narcissism, neuroscience, and the healing power of the mind. I also started to practice what I called ‘radical self-honesty’ within my own inner world; examining the content of every thought that came through my mind and asking myself where the thought was coming from. I started to look at how I was behaving and what I was doing from the position of an observer studying – almost scientifically – the inner workings of my own mind. I took stock of the masks I was wearing, and, no matter how painful it was, I started to ask myself who I was behind each mask. Within the space of about a month, I began to experience myself in a radically different way.
At that point I had already started writing, openly, about my experiences. I was participating in a chat forum for people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, and was documenting my entire journey on a website that I’d set up called ‘thehealingnarcissist’. I wanted to have a way of sharing my journey of inner exploration with others who were suffering in the same way I was – even if I didn’t know where that journey was going to lead. More than anything though, I wanted to offer hope. It was quite clear to me that all of the literature on narcissism was written in a manner that almost assured healing would be impossible – and yet that was not what my study of neuroscience was telling me. It’s also not what my experience was telling me. It began to feel as though the label was a self-fulfilling trap.
<Read Part II – A Radical Shift in Perspective>