Pinpricks

There is a scab on my upper lip. I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but one can only assume I cut my lip at some point. I am used to these random, little physical annoyances: scrapes, bruises, aches, rashes. A finicky inner ear, a penchant for brusque movements, and a fussy immune system have made these an inevitable fact of life. Shit happens.

But this past Sunday, I was to have dinner with my parents, so this shit was bothering me more than it did on previous days. I knew my mother would comment on it and take it as evidence that I’m an irresponsible monster who fails in at least three fundamental ways to take proper care of herself. She wouldn’t have anything to ask about my work or say about current events, but she would likely find a couple more things to mention about my appearance when she was done with the scab. This sense of dread clouded over the hours before I headed out to meet them, making me anxious and restless and irritable.

Scab or not, this is pretty much how I feel every time my mother and I make plans. Fortunately, I see her fewer than a dozen times a year.

I have been reading the subreddit /r/raisedbynarcissists and finding it so fascinating. Though I am loath to apply this label to my mother, I can still relate to a lot of the discussions being held there. Children of narcissists internalize a lot of damaging treatment, and don’t realize until they are (sometimes much) older that none of that garbage was normal or acceptable. I feel I had it relatively easy—hence my reluctance to brand my mother as an outright narcissist—but it’s ridiculous how something like a scab can still ruin my entire afternoon before a dinner reservation.

As a kid, whenever I fell ill, my mother would reprimand and blame me. It was my own fault for not eating enough vegetables, not taking enough vitamin supplements, not sleeping enough. When I had menstrual cramps violent enough to induce vomiting, it was my own fault for being so weak and pathetic (and I had better toughen up if I ever wanted a baby, because pregnancy would be ten times worse!). To this day, I still hate letting anyone, especially anyone’s mom, know when I am sick or suffering. When someone asks if I am feeling unwell, I get this jolt of simultaneous fear and touchiness, and a reflexive urge to deny, deny, deny in my congestion-muffled, cough-accented, dead-giveaway voice.

I call these words or events “pinpricks,” moments that dampen your day or fill you with half a second of apprehension due to negative associations. Like PTSD triggers, only not so severe.

Outlook sounds are pinpricks for me, too. Yes, as in Microsoft’s email program. I don’t use it anymore, since my current job has us all on MacBooks and G Suite. However, my husband occasionally uses his work laptop at home, and gets calendar reminders and new emails while doing so. Every time I hear those notification chimes, I freak out for a flash because I feel as though I’m about to step into a meeting with my old manager or read an infuriating message from him. My old manager was a textbook embodiment of professional insecurity, hired for a job he had no idea how to do. He took it out on me constantly. I started staying home most days to avoid him and stopped working hard; I spent my workdays watching Netflix and playing video games, instead. My life became pretty comfortable this way, yet I would cry every Sunday night because of the impending work week. It’s been a year, and those trifling noises still get to me. It’s kind of funny, but mostly weird and unsettling.

I think I would actually deal with the noises better today if I did continue to use Outlook at work. By avoiding them, I’ve kept them frozen in my mind with all their old, sinister overtones. I haven’t had opportunities to override those associations with new, positive ones from my current job. I’m not saying this is the way PTSD victims should deal with their traumas—obviously, I’m no psychologist—but in my personal case, with my pinpricks, facing the music would probably be more conducive to healing.

Which is why I still continue to see my mother whenever she is in the country, despite all the chafing and discomfort. I have been more vocal about her inappropriate behavior and she has surprisingly been getting better about it, slowly but surely. That Sunday dinner, she didn’t wind up saying a word about the scab on my upper lip. We even managed to make some real conversation. If she can get better, then perhaps there is hope for me, too.

Gas Lights

One evening, my mother returned from a routine grocery shopping trip with a six-pack of “YoBaby” yogurt. My brother and I were eight and ten years old, respectively. With such large, unmissable images of laughing infants plastered all over the packaging, this seemed a hilarious lapse of judgment even for someone who didn’t really speak English.

“Did you not notice all the babies?” we asked her. “Did you forget how old we were? Is this your way of announcing that you’re having another kid?”

“It was good deal,” she said, exasperated.

A few days later, the YoBaby mysteriously disappeared from the refrigerator. Being at an age when I fretted constantly over whether my every move was cool and mature, I certainly hadn’t gone anywhere near the stuff. I forgot about it altogether until weeks later, when we were looking at Shop Rite coupons and came across one for yogurt. I burst into laughter. “Hey, remember that time when you bought us that yogurt for babies?” I asked my mother.

“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she answered, seeming offended at the very suggestion. I was bewildered. I thought I caught a glimmer of humor in her expression, but couldn’t be sure.

Over the years, however, there were so many more of these kinds of incidents that I stopped finding humor in them—and instead started vacillating between irritation and concern.

At dinner parties, my mother liked to tell family friends—de facto competitors in Asian-American child-rearing—how much I looked forward to being a lawyer someday. I couldn’t recall ever having expressed such career aspirations. Perhaps I had once asked her a question about the justice system. While some of my peers complained about their parents pushing them to become doctors, I was relieved yet offended that this was a dream reserved only for my brother. As the television doctor Mindy Kaling once wondered in her memoir: why not me?

Other times, my mother would combine, confuse, or confabulate aspects of my brother’s life and mine. “They are such picky eaters. Don’t like try new food,” she would tell her friends, when it was only my brother who steered clear of vegetables and unfamiliar substances. When she tidied up the house, my books, CDs, and even T-shirts would often wind up in my brother’s room. “She is shy,” she would apologize on my behalf to new acquaintances, before they had the chance to address me and hear the mouthful I had to offer on current events.

The three of us were pondering the dinner menu on a family cruise when a server passed by with a plate of beef and noodles in brown sauce. “That wouldn’t be any good,” my mother declared. She had a tendency to improvise rapid-fire judgments and believe them to be immutable truths. I sighed internally.

A few minutes later, she pointed to the menu and said, “What do you think, beef teriyaki?”

“I don’t know, but you already said you didn’t want it,” I said.

“No, I didn’t. When did I say that?”

“Just now. The server had a plate of it, and you said it wouldn’t be any good.”

“That didn’t happen.”

“Yes, it did!” My voice rose involuntarily, as if the correct decibel level might jumpstart her memory. “You always do this. You always assume things without any basis whatsoever, and then you paint the rest of us as liars!”

The years of putting up with all the reinvented narratives and adamant denials finally took their toll then. I spent the remaining two days of the cruise drifting in and out of events alone.

An explanation for my mother’s behavior, as well as a glimpse of her destiny, manifested during our family vacation to China. My parents pulled my brother and me out of school two weeks before winter break, and we divided a month between both sets of grandparents. It was my brother’s and my first time meeting them all, but for our maternal grandfather, it was already too late. One minute, he would be smiling and asking us about American schools. The next, he would be shouting, “Who are these children in my home?”, terrifying us into corners and under tables. “What are they doing here? Who the hell let them in?”

That’s what’s happening to her, I half-jokingly thought to myself one random day, years later. My mother was only forty at the time of the YoBaby purchase, but it must have already begun creeping through the recesses of her mind, subtle and insidious as the shadow of a snake. Yet the more I considered it, the more I felt obligated to be seriously concerned. How much worse would it get? What would we do about it? How much longer did I have?

My relationship with my mother has been asymptotic from the beginning, slowly approaching a limit resembling love. When I finally connected my grandfather’s savage senility with her own self-gaslighting, I felt sorry about the inevitability and sorrier that I didn’t feel something more. Here was a woman who had spent my childhood trying to suppress my individuality and conflate it with my brother’s; admonishing me whenever I fell ill because it was somehow my own fault; telling me I only needed to go to a respectable college in order to find a respectable husband; and rejecting my words and experiences in favor of her own expectations or imagination.

And yet, my mother had been passionate about endowing us with childhoods rich in activities and opportunities. She clipped coupons for hours on end and suppressed her materialistic urges for years so that we would never have to forego a school field trip, and could have even have the occasional family vacation. My brother and I were enrolled in music lessons, athletic teams, Chinese school, and summer camps. Although we didn’t necessarily enjoy all of these at the time, we grew to appreciate the experiences when we got older—just as our mother always said we would.

When I collapsed from a nervous breakdown during my first year of college, my mother drove the six hours round-trip to take me home. I had kept silent about my condition for years prior to the incident, because I so dreaded and hated her preaching. But instead of lecturing me for being sick, she tried to be supportive and find help. When you come from a culture that has only recently begun to acknowledge depression as a “real” illness, this means a tremendous deal.

Thus, here also was a woman who loved me and always tried to make me happy; who wanted to help with any task or favor, regardless of scope; who genuinely believed all this was for my benefit and wellbeing.

One night, our plans to go out for dinner in my neighborhood were foiled by a sudden, raging tempest that hit right when my mother arrived at my apartment building.

“Can we stay in and eat here? Do you have any food?” she asked.

All I had were pasta ingredients, but my mother had always found marinara sauce repulsive, calling it “that disgusting red stuff.” I had never seen her try it once.

“I do,” I said reluctantly, “but you wouldn’t like it.”

“Yes, I will! I like anything you make!”

I prepared some spaghetti with marinara sauce and served it to her. Before she even took her first bite, she declared, “It’s so good!”

I sighed internally, amused, annoyed, worried, and feeling a little something like love.