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.

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Snapshots

A friend asked the other day, “Remember Elaine from our high school? Did you hear she got married to an NFL player?”

Of course I remember Elaine. We were in the same fourth-grade class, with a borderline psychotic teacher who would go on epic rants and flip over students’ desks whenever they upset him. That year, the school offered free weekly music classes to those interested in learning to play an instrument. We both signed up for flute lessons, and the school ordered elementary étude books for us.

Somehow the music teacher fell under the impression that Elaine was no longer interested in the lessons. Either she missed the first class or two, or something got mixed-up with her registration. He crossed out her name on the book’s printed label, wrote in mine, and gave it to me.

The following week, the book was missing from my desk. Elaine confronted me about stealing it, and told me with a matter-of-fact smirk that she had taken back what was hers. I snatched it back a few days later while she was outside during recess. She enlisted the aid of two friends, and this little war continued for several more exchanges.

Eventually she demanded, “If this is your stupid book, why does it have my name printed on it?”

I didn’t have an answer. It never occurred to my eight-year-old self to take this to the music teacher for one.

Somehow, I know I ultimately won the war because I was able to keep up with the lessons without having to get a new book. I played in school and community ensembles, winning auditions and awards. Twenty years later, I still play gigs today.

Elaine never wound up doing anything music-related at school. She and I never spoke again after that year.

When the friend mentioned her name, I felt a jolt. The mind can be such a strange and powerful thing, with the way it discards information deemed no longer necessary for survival. The conflict with Elaine had frayed my nerves and chafed at an already anxious temperament. It had made me doubt my own sanity. Worst of all, it had marked the defining moment when I realized I was not one of the cool, confident kids like Elaine and her posse.

Yet some years later, the memory of it was buried entirely. After high school graduation, so was all memory of her existence—until it was suddenly exhumed by my friend’s question.

The mind tends to reduce events and interactions to fragments and snapshots. I remember my fourth-grade teacher shaking a classmate’s possessions out of his desk, but not a single lesson from that year. I remember Elaine only as a haughty, annoyed fourth-grader, brandishing my own book in my face. Does she remember me as a spiteful jerk who kept stealing her book for no reason? Does she blame me for singlehandedly discouraging her from studying music forever?

Most likely, she doesn’t think of me at all (especially if she is now happily married to a professional football player). We flatter ourselves with the assumption that others expend mental energy on us as we might want or expect.

After high school graduation, the school organized a party at a local college campus. Someone from my fifth-grade class approached me at the tables of catered sandwiches and asked if I had indeed climbed onto the roof of the school some weeks ago. Yes, I had—though I didn’t really know why I did it. “Power to you,” he replied, raising a fist and nodding respectfully. I didn’t really know why he respected that, either, but I was amused.

The next time I encountered this fellow again was at our ten-year high school reunion. He approached me at the bar and asked if I remembered climbing onto the roof of the high school. How did he retain this useless piece of information for ten years? We had been in the same school system since the fifth grade; why was this the only thing he seemed to know about me? What about all my musical accolades, academic achievements, and scintillating personality?

The knowledge that most people don’t think of you the way you think of you can be a double-edged sword. It can be disappointing or embarrassing to know that your interactions with others have been reduced to only the lowlights. On the flip side, most people aren’t obsessing over (or even noticing) your stumbles and trips, which can be quite liberating.

Best thing to do, as with most things in life, is try to have a good sense of humor about it.