Note from Kristi:
I am happy to welcome Michelle Mallon as an ongoing contributor to the blog! Look for more of her posts in the future.
If you had asked me what happened, I would not have been able to explain it to you. I couldn’t tell you who was at fault either. “Was it my fault? Was it his fault? Was it intentional? How did this happen? And why wasn’t he trying to help fix what happened?” I said “Why?” in my head more times than I could count. I was completely and utterly broken and I had no idea how or why it happened. I was so lost. Everything about my life was so different now. It was as if I had gone from being a woman who had her head screwed on nice and straight to a person who couldn’t tell you for sure what color the sky was. I felt completely and utterly broken.
The best way I have come up with to describe this is that it felt as if I was trying to put pieces of a broken puzzle together. This “puzzle” in its entirety symbolized the way in which I understood my entire life—each piece representing various milestones, different important relationships throughout my life, all of my accomplishments and failings. Everything that made up my life as I knew it could be represented as a piece of this puzzle. Together those pieces represented who I believed myself to be and what I believed I could become. For most of my life, those pieces made a picture that made sense. I could take the pieces out of the box and put them together in ways that fit. I may not have always been proud of the picture they created, but I at least understood the picture and how it came to be. I knew why each piece was where it was. I knew what pieces represented parts of my life that I wanted to change and which pieces represented things that I held very dear to me. At any point in my life prior to this, I had the power to change the new pieces I was creating to make the overall picture look more consistent with how I wanted my life to be. Suddenly I was beginning to realize that my “puzzle” no longer made any sense at all. Not only did the pieces no longer fit together or make sense, I had no idea how to adjust the new pieces I was making with my life choices to alter the final picture my puzzle was creating. Something terrible had happened and I could not identify what it was or how it happened. All I knew was that nothing made any sense anymore and I felt powerless to do anything at all about it.
And this feeling alone prevented me from feeling any sort of control over being able to feel safe moving forward with my life. As a result, I began to learn that finding my way back meant figuring out how I got to where I was. I couldn’t move on and I sure as hell couldn’t protect myself from this ever happening again if I didn’t know what just happened. Putting that puzzle together meant everything to me.
Now at first I tried to do the things that had worked for me in the past. I spent a great deal of time trying to rearrange the pieces of my puzzle to try and make them fit. I knew from experience that sometimes the pieces got bent or I was looking at them with the colorful side down making it hard to see where they fit. But if I put enough effort into looking at the puzzle from different perspectives, I could put it together. Not this time. No matter what I did I couldn’t make those pieces fit.
Then I tried to convince myself that maybe I didn’t need to put that puzzle together. As time went on I was being told by people around me that I just need to move on not knowing “Why?” or “How?”. To others it sounded as if I just needed to accept that reality and move on. They had no idea that this was impossible. You can’t move on after being nearly destroyed without knowing the “Why?” or the “How?”. Without these answers, you know it is likely to happen again. You know full well you were lucky to have survived this ordeal. Another one would surely do you in.
As much as I wanted to be able to believe I could move on not putting that puzzle together, the reality was I couldn’t. I had no way to protect myself from this ever happening again if I didn’t understand what happened in the first place. Nothing I had ever encountered before in my life gave me the framework I needed to put this puzzle together. My entire world had been rocked and destroyed to rubble. I was standing in a lonely, desolate place where trying to find the missing pieces seemed overwhelming. There was no one to ask for help. I mean, there were people there, but at times it seemed I was speaking a different language. Or perhaps, they had assumed I had lost my mind based on the questions I was asking and the things I was saying. Somehow, I had gone from being a person who “had it all together” to a person who had absolutely nothing. I had lost my sense of who I was, though it wasn’t amnesia. I could remember back to being a person who had a strong sense of who she was and where she needed to go in life. In fact, it hurt so much to know that I had come from that place to where I was standing now and I had no idea how to get back. And everyone around me seemed to be reacting to me as if I wasn’t the person I used to be. I was utterly and completely lost, alone and afraid. If I could have at least known how I ended up in that God forsaken place, maybe I could find my way back. But the truth was, I really didn’t know how I got there. All I had was a small box with a broken puzzle—clues that I believed might help me find my way back.
And that is when I realized that my entire life depended on me putting that damned puzzle together. I was stuck in a prison that I couldn’t figure out how to get out of. I couldn’t move on without understanding what happened. That wouldn’t really be moving on. That would just be “existing.” And simply existing was still a life prison sentence for me. It was unacceptable.
What I didn’t realize was that in that lonely, desolate place in which I found myself after the abuse, there were people there who spoke the same language I did and could have understood my questions if I would have been able to find them. The problem was, I didn’t know these people were there. I couldn’t explain what I had seen and experienced without the missing pieces of my puzzle. All I had was sheer determination that I was not going down without a fight. Even though I couldn’t find my way back to where I had been before, I knew that place existed. I could remember it. Really, that was about all I had—the memory of knowing that at one point in time, I knew who I was. And I knew one thing: Who I had been was a person with life, vitality, passion, intelligence, optimism, strength, honesty—a whole host of things that I did not have now. And that was where I started.
Those parts of me had been stolen and I wanted those things back. They were mine.
Slowly, I began to learn that there were things about this puzzle that were not making sense; there were pieces in that box that shouldn’t have been there. I couldn’t really tell you how those phony pieces made their way into my box. I wanted to believe that maybe I had put them there, but that didn’t seem like something I would do. I had spent my life carefully selecting what went into that box and what didn’t. As much as I wanted to believe I put those pieces in the box, I knew I hadn’t. But the problem was, they were still there. Somehow, they had gotten into the box. I must not have been guarding that box as carefully as I thought. How did I get so careless? Careless was not something that described me…. At least not before the abuse.
It took a lot of time for me to figure out which pieces in that box were fake. The fake pieces symbolized twisted and distorted information I had been fed over time that had slowly become a part of my belief of who I was. In fact, this process of slow brainwashing was so subtle that I couldn’t even distinguish the fake pieces until I found more of the pieces that had never been in the box in the first place. The pieces that weren’t there in the first place represented important things I still had to learn—new words like malignant Narcissist, grooming, gaslighting, soul murder and trauma bonding. There were things about life I thought I knew simply because I hadn’t encountered anything to challenge my beliefs yet. That new information—the missing puzzle pieces—was crucial to my journey. And slowly, I was beginning to see that.
But I wasn’t just putting my puzzle together. I had kept all of the phony pieces that had somehow found their way into my box. I began to put those pieces together as well. Slowly, ever so slowly, I was starting to put together a puzzle that would shock me. What I found was that the picture the pieces of my puzzle created was a very different picture from the one that the counterfeit pieces created. In fact, nothing could have prepared me for the image I would see when I put all of the phony pieces together.
The counterfeit pieces, when put together created an image of a hideous, evil, dark side to human nature of which I was completely and totally unaware. In fact, what I was finding was something I didn’t want to believe. Those fake pieces created the hideous image of an emotional vampire—a person so hollow and shallow with no sense of remorse or shame for the destruction they cause. Prior to the abuse I endured, I had no idea what a malignant Narcissist was. I knew what abuse was and I knew what a Narcissist was. If someone had asked me if I knew what it meant prior to the abuse, I would have assumed it mean abuse perpetrated by a Narcissist (a shallow, vain person). And at some level, I would have been right. But in so many ways, I would have been wrong. I would have thought I understood. I could see why all of the people in that lonely, desolate place were avoiding me. What I was describing to them was frightening. Having no real understanding of this type of abuse, those whom I tried to ask for help couldn’t comprehend what I was saying. Or maybe it was too scary to try and comprehend. The truth was, prior to what I went through, I wouldn’t have wanted to believe me either.
But what I found to be even more astonishing was the discovery that there were people I knew who had seen monsters like this before but had no idea these were monsters. In fact, what I was beginning to see was that people who had endured this kind of abuse often times were left believing they were deficient in some way when the relationships crumbled. For some of these people it had been years since the abuse occurred and they had begun to move on with their lives. However, the haunting, nagging memories of having failed to prevent the destruction of a relationship they cherished was a sign to them of what a failure they were. What I discovered was even more people with puzzles that had been corrupted over time. When they looked back in their puzzle boxes, they too found things that were missing and things that shouldn’t have been there. Here I thought I was the only person in the world to have experienced this horrific abuse. It turned out that there were a lot of people who had experienced this and internalized it. They believed their abuser’s insistence that there was something wrong with them.
I began to see that unless they became aware of the extent of what they went through, those counterfeit pieces would remain in their puzzle boxes. The result was the very real potential for them to experience even more abuse from future Narcissists who were on the lookout for wounded, vulnerable people… just like them.
And it is because I know what it feels like to be so lost with so little hope of ever finding my way back home that I will continue to talk about and write about what I experienced. It was because of survivors before me who were strong enough to keep talking and writing that I found my way back to who I am. For that, I am eternally grateful.
So it was in putting this puzzle together and realizing what the final picture looked like that I realized I had to write about this. I have found that there are countless others with broken puzzles, trying to find missing pieces so that they too can survive. That haunts me every single day. I think back to my own journey, how difficult it was and how I almost didn’t find the missing pieces. Knowing how hard I searched, I realized it should not have been so difficult or taken me as long as it did to put this thing together. The reality was that my story is painfully common. And the truth is, it shouldn’t be.
And that part has to change.
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Michelle Mallon has a Master’s degree in Social Work from Ohio State University and currently teaches in the Computer Science & Engineering Department at OSU. Her understanding of therapist abuse came after she was emotionally abused by a psychologist to whom she had taken her two young children for counseling. Now an advocate for victims of Narcissistic Abuse, Michelle is currently working with the Ohio chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) to create a CEU program to prepare social workers to effectively help these victims. For more information about this endeavor, click this link http://www.naswoh.org/?page=mallon.