'Mum starved and neglected me': The realities of living with a narcissist

‘Before I found out about her adultery,’ Bethany* says, ‘Mum told me that it was my fault she and my dad got divorced.’

To most parents, this would be an absolutely unthinkable thing to say to their child. But Bethany’s mum isn’t like most parents.

Not only did she blame her for her ‘messy divorce’ from Bethany’s father, she also pitted her and her sister against each other, and did everything she could to alienate her from her father. She hid letters she wanted to send him, and even forged a fake letter, pretending to be Bethany, telling her dad she never wanted to see him again.

‘She said that, because I was an easy kid compared to my sister, she couldn’t bear how much my dad would love me compared to her, and that it was tearing the family apart,’ she adds.

‘This was psychopathic, I now see in hindsight.’

From the outside, Bethany’s home life looked great, but inside it was a painfully different story.

‘We’d go on these crazy holidays every year,’ she recalls. ‘We went to Disney World every year for like 10 years, but she would take us for a $5 [£3.93] buffet for breakfast and say: “This is all you’re getting for the day.”

‘And as someone who’s always had a high metabolism I’d be starving by 10am. And I was 10 years old, so I’d have ice cream and jelly beans for breakfast, and really not set myself up for the day.

‘She’d also get in these massive rages and would abandon us in massive car parks in a country with guns and sexual violence.’

While Bethany feels like she doesn’t know enough about narcissists to use the word to describe her mother, she did tell us that her mother’s cruelty meant that she ‘related a lot’ to a previous article we’d written on the subject.

Meanwhile, Emilie* has no problem assigning that label to her grandfather.

‘Even as a kid,’ she says, ‘I could tell that he was very manipulative.

‘He would always make comments to make people feel bad about themselves, especially with me, my sisters and my female cousins. He’d make comments on our bodies; very awkward things about gaining weight, and about starting puberty. He even made comments about my cousin’s boobs.’

Emilie describes her mother’s father, who both her parents were estranged from by the time he died in 2020, as a narcissist who was always ‘particularly demeaning to women’, and ‘extremely misogynistic.’

‘[My siblings and I] managed to just find a way to ignore him until my parents cut him off,’ she adds, ‘and then we didn’t have to deal with him anymore.

‘Cutting toxic people out of your life, even if they’re family members, is always going to be beneficial, but it’s a very hard decision to make.’

Both Emilie and Bethany chose estrangement over continuing to stay in contact with the family members who made their family lives hell – and neither of them regrets a thing.

In Bethany’s case, the decision to cut ties with her mother could well have been life-saving. She says that as a teenager, she developed issues with food and her ‘mental health was in the absolute gutter’.

‘As tends to happen to kids with f***ed up mums,’ she jokes. ‘I was literally like 30 kilos by the time I was 17, but she told me that I had to get sick enough before she would let me get help.

‘I once got rushed to a kid’s hospital to take me in as an inpatient right away because I couldn’t sit in a car without falling asleep.

‘My hair was falling out – I was really, really, really unwell and had no bone density left, and she refused to let them hospitalise me because she wanted to look after me at home.’

Bethany goes on to describe how her mother, who suffers from bulimia herself, would recommend Bethany still exercise and suggest she lay out all the food she’d need to eat for the day as part of her recovery meal plan.

‘Obviously, it looks like a vast amount – you never see how much you eat in one day in one place,’ says Bethany. ‘And it was horrendous. She’s a nurse, which is why I think she got away with it, but my God, was it toxic.’

Bethany doesn’t personally believe what she was going through was an eating disorder as such, because she hasn’t struggled like that since she left her mother’s home.

‘It was self-harm,’ she says quite frankly. ‘I wanted to die. I wanted a way out of this incredibly toxic home.’

Two months after she turned 18, Bethany tried to take her own life and ended up in hospital.

‘I remember being parked on a hospital bed in a corridor, and mum coming to find me and saying: “Well, I called your sister, and she screamed.”

‘And she said it with this weird smile on her face. It was horrendous.’

Trauma Recovery Coach and Clinical Hypnotherapist Ronia Fraser tells Metro.co.uk that narcissistic parents simply ‘lack the capacity’ to be receptive to their children’s needs, and only see their kids as extensions of themselves rather than individuals in their own right.

This can lead the children to feel like they’re never good enough.

‘[Narcissists] are so absorbed with themselves that they will guilt and punish their children for having emotions,’ she adds.

‘Love is always conditional and depends on performance, achievements and personal sacrifice. Love and affection are only used for manipulation and emotional blackmail, and they can and will be withdrawn or withheld at will to punish perceived shortcomings.’

Ronia also says they have a strong tendency to respect neither boundaries nor personal space, along with their kids’ needs in general.

So how does Ronia suggest we handle narcissistic family members? By keeping contact to a bare minimum, and never being alone with them.

‘It is absolutely vital to implement and enforce solid boundaries,’ she adds. ‘This in reality can be much easier said than done, as someone who grew up in a narcissistic family is conditioned to be unable to set boundaries.

‘Having said that, it can and must be learned.

‘It’s also important to understand that people only do what they can get away with it, so setting boundaries may put a stop to that much easier than one thought.’

Emilie’s estrangement caused a big rift in the family, with some of her relatives feeling that her parents went too far in cutting her grandfather out of their lives. When we spoke, this rift was still in the delicate process of healing in the wake of his passing.

As you may have guessed, Ronia does not agree with the idea that estrangement is a bridge too far for anyone struggling with their mental or physical health because of a narcissist.

She says: ‘”Blood is thicker than water” does not apply. There is no excuse or justification for abusive behaviour – family or not – and it is absolutely OK (and possible) to walk away from narcissistic family members despite their best attempt to guilt-trip you and give you all the reasons you supposedly can’t.

‘You cannot heal in an environment that makes you sick in the first place.’

The final straw for Emilie’s family came over dinner one night around seven years ago.

‘My grandfather was being his usual difficult self,’ she recalls, ‘saying all of these awful things, and at some point, my dad just had enough of it.

‘I think everyone was always annoyed and angry, but as my mum’s husband, I think he also felt quite protective of her. He was so tired that she kept having such an awful general vibe with her dad.

‘So he just basically kicked them out of the house, and he said: “We don’t want anything to do with you anymore, you’re out of our lives. It’s over.”‘

As for her mum, she confessed to Emilie that she ‘would never have had the courage’ to take a stand against her father herself, so she felt very grateful to Emilie’s dad for doing what was right for them.

Meanwhile, Emilie she says she was proud of her parents for instigating the estrangement, and, even though she was a bit concerned about the fallout among the rest of the family, she didn’t miss having her grandfather around.

In addition to setting boundaries and potentially going no-contact, Ronia also suggests working on healing yourself.

‘It is important to find professional support. And yes, it’s absolutely OK to ask for help,’ she says.

‘Always remember: you can’t change them or what has happened, but what you can change is how you feel and therefore react to it.’

After Bethany’s suicide attempt, she wound up in a daycare programme for her mental health. It was a therapist there who first suggested that her turmoil was down to her relationship with her mother and helped her work through rebuilding a relationship with her dad.

Then she went to university where the distance helped put her relationship with her mother even more into perspective, and within a few years she was in a much better place.

But one day, after receiving yet another ‘barrage’ of abusive texts from her mum, who was saying things like, ‘You’re such a disappointment’ and ‘The whole family is so fed up of you’, Bethany finally realised these things weren’t true.

Their relationship continued to slowly degrade from then on until finally, she messaged her mum asking for space and time to ‘reconsider and process’ their relationship.

‘I felt the effects of losing contact with one parent when I was a kid, and it was devastating,’ Bethany says. ‘I always felt like there was a part of me that was missing. But it’s been years without my mum, and it’s the opposite feeling.

‘It’s more like “Oh, thank God.” I finally feel like myself.’

*Names changed/last names omitted to preserve anonymity.

Degrees of Separation

This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.

Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.

If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]

Do you have a story to share?

Get in touch by emailing [email protected].

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