You know the story about your house catching on fire, right? (Or in the case of Munch's painting, when your house is overrun with Virginia Creeper). You don't grab a bucket and put out the flames yourself and you don't grab snipping shears to clip climbing vines at a slower pace than they can scale the walls. It's time to give up the pretense of self-sufficiency and call in the professionals. That means calling fire trucks to put out the fire destroying your home and if you have a serious problem with Virginia Creeper, telephoning agricultural specialists with herbicides powerful enough to control this rapacious 'weed'. A smidgen of Virginia Creeper is lovely but too much smothers a house in no time.
I wrote a little bit about Supportive Friends and how we might withdraw from intimacy by referring suffering friends to therapists rather than struggling within ourselves to empathize with their pain. We might fear saying something wrong--or our own sense of well-being may be threatened when someone is grieving and we aren't sure how to soothe their pain. Most of us fear making other people's pain worse by saying something stupid which we manage to do at some point or another. Like going to a funeral and knowing you're supposed to comfort the bereaved when the only thing coming to mind is: nothing.
Speaking for myself, I don't always know what to say and have made the erroenous assumption that a friend was asking for advice when I didn't have any to give. Feeling as though we're supposed to 'resolve' a friend's pain interrupts listening which is probably all they wanted us to do anyway. No pressure to fix their problems, just show them we care. Anyway, rather than repeat what I’ve already written, this post is about what we need to do when our lives become unmanageable; as in: “The house is on fire, you blessed idiot! A bucket of 12-step is insufficient to put out the flames and Home Depot’s Round-up is an ineffective counter for too many creepers!”
In other words, when nothing you say or do results in a healthier relationship and your life has become unmanageable, even absurdly creepy, it’s time to call in the professionals. (Maybe y’all will give me the liberty of comparing narcissists to ‘creepers’ because a little bit of narcissism is attractive but a whole mass of narcissism blocks out the sunshine and tears holes in your roof.)
Call me the Metaphor Madonna. It’s okay. Someone commented about my writing once, suggesting the Metaphor Police should follow me around the Internet. That hurt, but after reading about writing effective metaphors, she had a valid point. Well, this is a blog not a literary canon so in the words of Steve Martin, “EXCUUUUUUUUUSE MEEEEEEEEE!”
When we’re overwhelmed by the narcissist’s ambush (shocked would be a better word for it), we may not be thinking clearly and in that case, someone might need to gently suggest therapy to keep the creeping crud from taking over our brains and hearts. I didn’t mind people encouraging me to go to therapy when it was clear, even to me, that my thinking was stinking. I appreciated their tender concern. It meant they knew me well enough to realize I was not acting like my ‘normal’ self and they wanted the "old me" back almost as much as I did. There's nothing as quite as scary as feeling like you don't even know who you are anymore. Let me tell this short story:
Just prior to finding out a rapacious vine was clinging to my husband like strangulating ivy on a street lamp, he was creeping around the house like a blind man who could no longer see where he was headed. Then out of the blue, our master bedroom caught on fire while he was out of town. That’s right. The attic caught on fire while I was sitting on the floor rifling through magazines. Suddenly, the overhead lights went out. At first, I thought about going to bed and changing light bulbs in the morning but for some crazy reason I collected a ladder from the garage to check the attic. (Who does that at midnight and why wasn't my psychic intuition telling me to check motel slips for double occupancy???)
To make a short story long, the master bedroom attic was on fire. The pesticide dude had tripped over a canister light that day. When I turned it on so I could thumb though a stack of Architectural Digest piled next to my bed, the broken light arced, smoldering nearby insulation. It only took a couple of hours but eventually ceiling joists caught on fire, leaping joyfully for the roof.
I ran to get my daughter and said, “Hey, my bedroom is on fire. Will you come look at it with me?” Which she did, promptly validating my perception that indeed, flames were licking the timbers. “What should we do?” we asked each other like a couple of dim bulbs ourselves.
“I’ll get the yellow pages”, I suggested. So we walked down to the kitchen to use the phone.
“What should we look up?”
“I dunno”, she said. “Maybe see where the closest fire department is??”
Which of course, took another five minutes scanning pages wondering where fire departments were listed. Government agencies? State departments? Where the hell was the fire department’s telephone number and heaven forbid I should call the wrong one and cause a ruckus. Finally my daughter had an idea that seemed completely genius. She called 911.
“What is your emergency?” the woman asked.
“Well,” she said, “I don’t know if this counts as an emergency but our house is on fire.”
At that point, she handed me the phone. Madame 911 asked, “Is there anyone sleeping in your house right now?”
“Yes. My sister and my nephew are sleeping in the bedroom wing, pretty close to the fire.”
“You need to wake them up and get them out of the house.”
“BUT”, I argued, “my nephew has school in the morning and it’s after midnight.”
She repeated, “I want you to wake up everyone in the house and go outside. NOW. Stand on the grass and do NOT go back in the house. A fire truck is on the way. Do You Understand Me?”
By that point, my brain circuits were lighting up again (not on fire though you might think there was a burnt roast in my cranium or at least a pile of rocks). She kept me on the line while my daughter woke up my sis and nephew. As soon as I told the woman that everyone was headed outside, she let me hang up the phone.
Once we were outside, we could smell and see smoke billowing through the roof, strong enough to make ya cough but get this: inside the house, there was no smoke. No smell. Everything appeared to be safe and normal. Not to write another metaphor about the narcissistic relationship or anything but you can probably make the connection yourself.
Within a couple of minutes, fire trucks were lined up in the front yard and a crew of men with axes had hacked through my beautiful ceiling, burning holes in the wool carpet as embers fell from the attic. It was basically horrifying to tell you the truth. Not only because I loved that dream house with all my heart but because I couldn't trust my brain to know what to do in an emergency. This was a stunning revelation about the relative unimportance of intellect when it comes to a crisis.
“If you had waited only two more minutes,” the fire chief said, “Your whole place would have burned out of control. That’s an old shake roof you've got and there’s no way we coulda salvaged your home. Even with four fire trucks. You’re lucky you caught that fire in the nick of time.”
Yup. I caught that fire in the nick of time---but the creeper destroyed our home anyway.
When you suspect your relationship is narcissistic or finally understand that narcissistic parents raised you as child, 12-step is a good start on getting your life in order. But 12-step is kinda like grabbing a bucket of water to dowse a bonfire.
The point of this post is to let people know from my traumatic reaction (or is it more accurate to say: inaction?) what happens when we’re frightened or stunned by the unexpected. You may not be thinking clearly. In fact, you probably are not. In that case, a professional therapist, familiar with narcissistic relationships, can squelch smoking embers before they grow into destructive flames. A friend who’s known you for a long time and loves you very much will likely suggest calling a therapist---not because she thinks you're crazy, but because she knows you're not.
Once you've gotten your life in order, you’ll wonder why you didn't think about calling the professionals earlier.