Listen to the story:
Walking around my neighbourhood at 2 a.m., I’m shuffling through music on my phone trying to turn my brain off. I stormed out of the house after a heated argument with my partner Eli.
They were messaging a friend, and my jealousy overwhelmed me. There wasn’t anything wrong with what they were doing, but being rational has never been my strong suit.
I mean, am I not their partner? Why were they okay with giving their attention to him? Who the fuck did this guy think he was, and why did he think he deserved their attention over me?
So, I raised my voice. I got verbally aggressive. I threatened separation. I called them a liar. A cheater. They were the problem. Fed up, I walked downstairs, leaving them in tears.
I slammed the door with all the frustration in my body. I knew I would have to explain to my counsellor why this was not an ideal response, but I didn’t care. I was so angry, tomorrow didn’t matter. I barely cared about today anymore.
I knew if I wanted to, I could make Eli the “bad guy” in my mind and convince myself it was their fault. If I backed down, I would be weak and unconfident, and my brain wouldn’t allow that. I mean, how could I be wrong?
I didn’t always think like this. I didn’t always blow small arguments out of proportion. I didn’t always make myself the victim in situations where I’m wrong and I know it.
If I make them feel bad enough, I can get myself off the hook.
But tonight is different. My brain isn’t working that way. It angrily barraged me with a single stream of thought.
You’re wrong. You’re being shallow and pathetic. Get your ass back in there and apologize in every way you need to until Eli will have a conversation with you if they can even forgive you for what you did.
I ignored my brain. My stomping echoed down the empty street, working like a metronome, sating my anger with every step. As my body relaxed and my footsteps softened, the metronome disappeared. I could hear my mind start up again, and the barrage continued.
I turned my music louder. I didn’t want to hear my thoughts. They were wrong. I’m not shallow, or pathetic. I just want to be alone. I deserve to be alone. I deserve this horrible empty feeling.
It’s terrifying, having my inner monologue unleash a salvo of self-destruction. Thoughts of my shortcomings and failings. It’s been like this for the last 13 years or so. But, I recently found out it’s partly because I have narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD.
Listen: A Conversation with Eli, Part One
I was diagnosed with NPD six months ago. My counsellor told me about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the reference manual for therapists and mental health professionals. In it is the list of traits used to explain and diagnose NPD. Different traits are present in different people with the disorder. Things like grandstanding, a sense of importance in oneself, and believing oneself is more important than others are just a few traits listed.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a spectrum. I’m on the lower end of it. That’s not to say it’s not bad. It’s enough to have caused irreparable damage — to my family, the people around me, and my reputation. I’ve done that to myself, so it’s hard to feel any kind of way about it.
Experts can only estimate how many people have narcissistic personality disorder, which makes the disorder incredibly difficult to manage and diagnose. NPD is somewhat similar to other personality disorders, like bipolar disorder, or schizotypal personality disorder. They are linked in a few ways, like high impulsivity or excessively high goals.
There is no cure. There is no medication I can take to make things better. All I can do is make personal and behavioural changes over a long period of time.
It is entirely up to those of us diagnosed to make a difference in ourselves. The biggest issue is, what narcissist truly wants to admit that they are the problem? Not many people come forward to get the help they need. Because of this, there is little research on NPD and narcissism.
My counsellor said there are two ends of the spectrum: grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Grandiose involves a sense of entitlement, grandstanding, and thoughts of personal superiority.
Vulnerable narcissists are like grandiose narcissists in a few ways: lofty goals, excessive admiration, and entitlement to people’s time. The biggest difference is a vulnerable narcissist has low self-esteem and will constantly put themselves down so that others will bring them up. It’s a tactic used to fish for compliments to continue holding a false sense of superiority and confidence to navigate the day.
I’m a vulnerable narcissist. I fear the truth in vulnerability. The pattern goes something like this: if I appeared broken to others, I had to explain myself or talk about my past. To avoid talking about my past, I would build relationships with people who were open about themselves, using things they said to get an “in” with them and others like them. Being surrounded by people like that meant I didn’t have to be vulnerable.
But, this means my self-image is non-existent. If you self-degrade long enough, you eventually start to believe yourself. I can present as confident and charming — even on my worst days — because I can fake those traits.
That’s what allowed my NPD to go undetected for so long, and therein lies the biggest problem with NPD for me personally: I have no genuine empathy. I use feelings as a manipulation tactic. I understand why people have emotions and feelings, I just don’t have them myself.
Picture it like telling a robot about emotions. The robot could pool the knowledge together and have a conversation. The robot wouldn’t feel those emotions, but it could use them.
I use my understanding of emotions to lie and manipulate my way through situations. I can fake emotions for my benefit. To truly feel them, though, is impossible. At least, that’s what I thought — and I have my stepson and partner Eli to thank. Before they were in my life, I didn’t know what feeling love was like, and it took almost a decade to understand why.
Eli is non-binary, easy-going, fun, and incredibly in tune with their emotions. My stepson has more emotional capacity and understanding at his young age than I could ever imagine. I want to break the generational traumatic cycle because I want better for them.
It was only seven months ago when Eli told me I had a problem. I fought tooth and nail to persuade them I didn’t. But by the end of the night, I had admitted what I was doing all along. I was hiding. I just didn’t know why.
According to the DSM-5, narcissistic personality disorder stems from a few things: childhood trauma, genetic traits from parents, and the environment during the developmental stages of life.
For me, NPD is a product of various types of childhood trauma — experiences I never bothered to look at in a deeper way. They are a part of me, and they have held me back.
I haven’t faced my younger self and explained that the things that happened to him were not OK. I haven’t had the mental fortitude to process it. It’s something I’ve planned to work on with my counsellor in the coming weeks.
When I think back to the difficult moments from my childhood, I get upset. I was only a child. I didn’t need life lessons then. I needed the freedom to be a kid. I needed to be able to trust and confide in my parents and guardians. I needed a connection.
My parents divorced before I was five. It affected my brother and me differently, yet we lived in the same house with the same rules. Out in St. Jean Baptiste, we didn’t have to worry about getting into trouble or staying out too late. Our town had a population of 300 or so people.
We were carefree. I had an outlet for my energy. I could go to the park or play with the neighbourhood kids and never worry about getting kidnapped or getting lost. Everyone knew everyone.
But with the divorce and my mom not around anymore, my dad had to drop everything and take care of my brother and I. We were forced to move to a cheaper place in Winnipeg.
I blamed myself for my mom leaving. I was a rambunctious kid, acting up when I was angry. At that point, I wasn’t yet diagnosed with ADHD, and during bouts of under-stimulation, I would lash out violently or emotionally. I was never taught how to register my emotions or even how I should feel. My dad’s extended family hated my outbursts and blamed my mom for them. I overheard the awful things they would say to my dad:
“Oh, he’s just like this because of his stupid mother. You should have made a better choice in a wife.”
I wanted them to leave my dad alone. He worked so hard for us. I wanted them to shut up. So, I started to try and control my emotions instead of letting them dictate how I responded.
Life in Winnipeg was different from the country. I had to be watched all the time because of the neighbourhood we lived in. My dad worked hard every day as a single parent to provide for us.
He would leave for work early and come home in the evening. This meant my brother was responsible for walking me to school in the morning and babysitting me after. My dad not being around as often was hard, but having my brother — my protector — felt good.
He promised me he would always be there.
The problem was he was only a kid too and had his own traumas. I was often stuck walking by myself or with other students. I got used to being alone.
When I turned eight, my brother got into a bad crowd at school. He stopped walking me home or to school entirely. He would leave the apartment door unlocked or tell me to climb in through our unlocked first-floor window. He would go off and drink, smoke, and do whatever he could to numb his feelings. He seemed lost.
My brother and I had abandonment issues. I wouldn’t tell my dad that my brother didn’t walk me home. I started protecting him and making excuses.
I put pressure on myself to be the “good kid,” so my dad wouldn’t worry. I had to mature so my dad could focus on providing. And, if I wasn’t as bad as my brother, clearly I was fine.
Growing up, I don’t remember anyone in my family expressing emotions other than anger. When everyone around you is numb, you grow up learning that being numb is how you survive.
I don’t blame my dad or my brother for anything. I only blamed myself. If I was better in school, if I was a better brother, if I was a better son, my mom would be around…my dad would tell me he was proud of me, my brother would let me in.
It was my fault.
By the time I was 12, my anger settled, and I found joy in some things. My mom was back in our lives for bi-weekly visits after my dad won custody of us. I had a good group of friends, and school was going well. I played on my school’s basketball team, and I ran track and field. Things felt in place.
Then my brother ended up in an ATV accident outside Ste. Agathe.
My mom called my dad in hysterics, saying my brother was in the hospital. We raced to the car and drove frantically to Victoria Hospital. When we arrived, my mom was crying. The doctors told us there was a good chance he wouldn’t make it.
The emergency workers told us what had happened. My brother and his friend were drinking when they crashed into a ditch. My brother was knocked unconscious. He rolled into the sludge-filled culvert and got water in his lungs.
I was forced to acknowledge the reality that he might die. The hand that life had dealt him was unkind, and he made some questionable decisions. But he didn’t deserve to die.
I wanted it to be me. He had already been through so much. If I could, I would have swapped places with him. I wanted to protect him from the pain, the way he used to protect me. He looked so vulnerable lying in a hospital bed, a series of tubes running down his throat, pumping oxygen into his lungs.
For a moment, I was OK with dying. I just wanted my brother back.
After a few hours, by some miracle, he came to. The ventilator was removed, and he was breathing on his own again. I’ll never forget his first conscious words to me.
“You can’t break steel,” he said, eyes filled with tears.
What a dick. At least he made a full recovery. But nothing was the same after.
I spent high school on autopilot. I created a mask, a combination of my ego and false confidence, to navigate friendships and relationships.
This made it hard to care about anything at all. I had interests that would come and go. I had the same group of friends since elementary school. I couldn’t branch out and grow because that meant being vulnerable.
I could continue lying and telling bullshit stories to escape conversations. High school was where I let my narcissism run rampant until it consumed me.
I was very thankful when I got closer to my friend Katie who lived in the U.S. We had been friends for a while, but in high school, it developed further. We would play Xbox for hours on end. I would pretend to fall asleep, and when my dad went to bed, I stayed up until two in the morning just talking with her. I felt like she understood me.
We would tell stories about life at school and at home, and we would talk about our struggles. We would do video chats and talk on instant messenger, enjoying each other’s company. I had no idea just how brutally I was treating her.
I can recall a few times when I crossed the line. I pretended I had amnesia just to see how she would react. I made up ridiculous lies and scenarios to see if she would leave. I did anything —everything — to make sure she would never leave like my mom or my brother. Looking back, I see how awful and disgusting this behaviour is. I told her anything and everything to try and make myself out to be worthy of her time.
Then, I met Eli.
During first-period gym class, my friends and I would act like jackasses and kick volleyballs and soccer balls at the wall. I kicked a stray volleyball and it slammed into the wall inches above Eli’s head. They shrieked.
They looked up at me. I apologized because I was aiming at my friend sitting near them. They were the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I didn’t really get nervous, but damn, I had butterflies.
“Hi, you must be Jason. My friends have told me a bit about you.”
They shuffled their feet back and forth slightly, their shoes squeaking on the gym floor.
I mustered up all the fake confidence and macho bravado I could.
“Thanks. What’s your name?” I asked.
Eli. Their name would live rent-free in my head until February when they asked me to the school’s Valentine’s Day dance. I declined. In my mind school dances were for dorks and desperate teens looking to get laid. Especially Valentine’s Day dances.
But soon we grew close and would hold hands through the hallway during breaks and on the way to class. We finally decided to make our relationship official a couple of months later.
But then the rumor mill got a hold of us. Eli was viciously attacked, misjudged, and lied about. I couldn’t stand the things being said about them, but I only cared about how it affected my reputation. I broke up with them via text a couple of weeks later.
I know. I’m an asshole.
Within a few months, Eli left for Toronto to get away from the horrible things people were saying. I’m not free of guilt. I chimed in and took snipes at Eli too. I was angry and hurt that they left me. I dated a close friend of theirs for a couple of years. It was the most toxic, verbally abusive, and manipulative I’ve ever been. In senior year, we broke things off, and I spiraled.
I hadn’t heard from Eli in all that time, but I knew they were back in the city. I also found out they were pregnant. I wanted more than anything to reach out, but I was terrified.
Eli must absolutely hate me.
In March of my graduating year, Eli sent me a friend request on Facebook. I accepted and sent them the classic line.
“Hey, stranger, long time no talk. How are you?”
They messaged back — I couldn’t believe it.
We talked that first night until four in the morning. We regaled past events, how we got here, and what we were doing. I answered their questions with the usual lies and bullshit I was used to telling people. But this time it was different. I hated myself for lying. I hated that none of the things I was telling them were true.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Eli didn’t believe me. They didn’t fall for the usual charm and manipulation. Eli changed.
It was the first time I didn’t want to keep going the way I was. But, old habits are hard to break.
Listen: A Conversation with Eli, Part Two
For a decade, I had no idea who I truly was. I had no idea who or what I wanted to be, or how to feel. I knew I just needed to be something.
I want to give my stepson a positive role model to follow. I want to be a better husband to Eli. The problem is the gap in my emotions.
I mean, why would anyone willingly open themselves up to someone just for the potential disappointment, arguments, stress, anger, sadness, and everything in between?
This is one of the questions I’ve always wondered about silently. It’s something I still struggle with. I’m worried I don’t feel these emotions the way I’m supposed to.
Sometimes it feels like I’m sitting outside of my body, watching someone else play this ridiculous version of me.
I know one day I’ll feel emotions. I know one day I will understand where my love for Eli and my stepson come from. I know one day, my NPD won’t control me, I will control myself.
There are things that people with NPD can do to improve: practicing mindfulness, sitting with uncomfortable emotions, learning when to speak and when to remain silent, and understanding your voice is just one in a sea of others who deserve to be heard.
I am not the centre of the world, and people do not owe me a damn thing. It’s a realization I wish I came to sooner because there are millions of people like me out there.
But I’ve pondered enough about this for now. So I start heading home. There’s a long overdue conversation I need to have with Eli. I need to apologize for my behaviour. Apologize for all the years I was crumbling. Apologize for continuing the cycle of generational trauma for my stepson. I switch to my lo-fi music playlist and walk back home.
As I walk in the door, Eli is on the couch waiting for me. I take off my boots and jacket, stuffing them into their respective places. I keep my distance, sitting on the floor in front of them.
Eli speaks first.
“I’m sorry,” they say.
I shake my head back and forth, my voice cracking.
“You have nothing to apologize for. I’ve been completely awful to you, and I was reactive and shitty to you when you did nothing wrong. I let my jealousy completely take over, and that’s not fair.”
Tears are welling up in my eyes. I rarely cry, but at the moment, every emotion I can understand hits me all at once.
Eli looks at me.
“I know you’re trying. I can see you putting in the effort. I know we’re important to you, but tonight you really hurt me.”
I can’t hold my tears back anymore. My voice trembles.
“I’m going to keep working on it. I’ll keep going to counselling. I don’t want to be this way anymore. I’m so tired. I know that killing myself isn’t an option, but it’s all I want to do. I just want this internal suffering to end.”
Eli and I look at each other, wiping away the tears streaming down our faces. I get up, and they stand to meet me. We hug.
“I know I have to keep working on myself. I’ll get better. It won’t be soon. But I will be able to manage this. If I keep trying to be a little better today than I was yesterday, I’ll eventually be where I need to be,” I say.