I Think You're Crazy
The Friday before break, we sat in the pew-style seats of the hookah lounge. You finished cigarette after cigarette with vampiric fervor, sucking each one to nothing before burying it with the bodies of myriad dead L&Ms. Your smoke, harsh and astringent, always clung to my hair and burrowed in the threads of my shirts. Most nights, I’d unhook my bra and hold the cups to my face, inhaling the musk of floral perfume and bitter ash. The smell would sting my eyes, make them water gratefully.
You said: “I’m the most manipulative person I’ve ever met.” I said, no, that can’t be true, don’t talk about yourself like that. It’d always been my impulse—naïve, reckless—to take your side. Sometimes the slavishness of my own loyalty embarrassed me. It never occurred to me that it was my admiration, naked and craven and, I see now, utterly degrading, that made you keep me around.
These are the nine diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in DSM-V (“Five are needed to be eligible for the diagnosis”):
· A grandiose logic of self-importance
· A fixation with fantasies of infinite success, control, brilliance, beauty or idyllic love
· A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
· A desire for unwarranted admiration
· A sense of entitlement
· Interpersonally oppressive behavior
· No form of empathy
· Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
· A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes(i)
As a child, I used to punish myself with punches to the head. They were best administered when I was nude and sopping wet, i.e. when I’d just emerged from the shower and stood shivering beneath the chugging vent. I’d bend over, maximizing my own disorientation, and pummel my right temple as if I thought it’d crack, piñata-style, and beget me sort of reward. The first impact made me stagger, the second dizzied me, the third made a mobile of stars spin before my eyes. If I felt inordinately woozy, I’d switch to open-palm face slaps, tenderizing my right cheek to the point of scarlet redness. And then, spent, I’d towel dry and flick off the fan and toddle to my room for bedtime.
It never dawned on me that I equated love and punishment. It should have, considering every love I knew came intermixed with pain: my dad’s as he kowtowed to my mom’s every command; my sister’s as she strove the obey the Bible’s sundry laws; my own as I clawed for a smidgen of the world’s notice. In my mind, how hard you tried defined your relationship, and your relationship wasn’t worth squat if it didn’t hurt.
Beneath the narcissist’s aura of charm, friendliness, and expert social graces, he or she has a dark side…they insist they are always right, their way is the only way, and anyone who dares to challenge them will be discarded or severely punished. (ii)
We stood on your balcony one winter night, laughing hysterically because Perry had just hocked a loogie onto the windshield of a car five stories below. When the owner of the vehicle, a beefcake frat boy, sauntered into view, we collapsed on the concrete and howled until tears painted our eyes. When we looked down again, the car had disappeared into the night.
Casually, twirling an unlit cigarette between your fingers, you said: “The first thing I do when I become friends with someone is figure out how to destroy them if they ever cross me.”
I widened my eyes, took a step back. “Even with me and Perry?” I stole a frightened glance at Perry, who raised his eyebrows smugly (in hindsight, knowingly).
You grinned, lit the cigarette. “Not with Perry.” “With me?” I gaped at you, my mind stuttering to a stop. I wondered how you could have ever, even for the slimmest of moments, thought I’d cross you. I wanted to marry you. I was 20 and stupid with infatuation and I would’ve done anything to please you.
But you shrugged, drank in the moment, lavished another drag of nicotine.
Lurking beneath the surface of people who use others to their own advantage is psychology’s “Dark Triad.” Defined as a set of traits that include the tendency to seek admiration and special treatment (otherwise known as narcissism), to be callous and insensitive (psychopathy) and to manipulate others (Machiavellianism), the Dark Triad is rapidly becoming a new focus of personality psychology.
The technical definition of the Dark Triad, as stated in Jonason and Webster’s article, is rather daunting: “the Dark Triad as a whole can be thought of as a short-term, agentic, exploitative social strategy...” (p. 420). This means, in simpler terms, that people who show these qualities are trying to get away with acting out against others in order to achieve their own ends.
People who score high on the traditional Dark Triad measures show a pattern of behavior that in fact combines the worst of all worlds…When someone gets in their way, they act out aggressively to take what they want. (iii)
We were in the hookah lounge when Perry received the notification that he’d gotten second place in our program’s poetry competition. He slammed his hand on the table so hard, I flinched. “Cunts!” he bellowed, his beady eyes framed on you. “I guess you won it.”
You beamed, your fingers flickering over your keyboard as you rushed to check your email. I watched, mesmerized, as your mood shifted from elated to disgusted. You growled: “Nothing yet.” The words seemed to cause you physical pain. I knew how important this competition was to you; Elizabeth Bradfield was the judge, and Elizabeth Bradfield was one of the few people you deigned to admire. It seems obvious now that you only admired her because you expected the feeling to be reciprocated.
I waited the requisite length of time before excusing myself to use the bathroom. I couldn’t breathe as I sat on the frosty toilet, unlocked my iPhone, and navigated to my inbox. Please, I prayed to the page as it loaded, please don’t do this to me.
My first unread message was a note of congratulations.
I called my dad, hyperventilating with anxiety.
A narcissist is a completely self-absorbed person. There can be no other gods in an extreme narcissist’s world, regardless if they say they believe in God or not. In practical terms, a narcissist is God in his/her own imagination. (iv)
In your writing, you always compared yourself—and your family, and your lovers, and basically anyone in your good graces—to characters from Greek mythology. Only gods and goddesses could approach the heights of your profundity, the depths of your complexity.
When you found out I’d won the poetry prize, you called me—drunk, from the sound of things—late at night. I knew why you were calling, held the phone a few defensive inches from my ear, cringed at your salutation: a curse, loud and sloshing.
But you and I both know it wasn’t that prize that got me permanently spurned; it was the one before it, the one that came with more money and more recognition. You entered that competition cocky, already savoring the nectar of victory. I entered apprehensively, only half-daring to imagine success, more convinced that I’d finally get proof of how stunningly inadequate I was.
It was the sum of those two wins that sealed my fate. As you so delicately worded it via (drunk) text: Alaina, because I know myself to be more than you ever will be, I’ll say: I think you deserve the worst the world can give you. I think you’re crazy.
It took years of therapy for me to muster the courage to ask, why? I’d never been one to talk back to you (after all, who was I, a mere mortal, to challenge the dictum of a Greek god?), but I’m not 20 years old anymore. I’m not so easily manipulated. I’m not so readily convinced that I’m a terrible person for stepping outside the prison of your ego.
A narcissist, one who possesses an exaggerated sense of self-worth, is unable to handle criticism or perceived ‘attacks’ on his self-worth. They often become angry because of these perceived attacks and typically lash out in revenge. The narcissist’s ego is out of proportion and so are his or her reactions. Real or perceived disrespect or rejection brings an immediate hostile reaction known as Narcissistic Rage. (v)
Your rage infiltrated my social circle from every angle. There was the house party where you accosted my friend Mike. The time you harassed Sam in the middle of College Avenue, berated her for continuing to associate with me. The time you badmouthed me to my favorite professor and trusted mentor. The time you told our Advanced Editing professor how I was a libelous cheat. The time you spread that rumor about me—you know, the kind of rumor that (if true, which you know it wasn’t, not that you’ll ever admit it) could get a person thrown in jail. The times you posted barbs about me on social media and wrote a (legitimately libelous) essay about me.
But worse than all your cheap shots was my internalized hatred. Ever the master manipulator, you knew how to choose a lackey who’d believe your lies. Every time you insulted me, I believed it. I heard “I think you’re crazy” and thought, my god, I am crazy. I lived in your trap for years, running on a treadmill of my own perceived guilt—running and running and never getting anywhere.
Victimized extreme narcissists are on the constant prowl looking for any gullible soul that will believe their version of calamity whether it is real, exaggerated, or fictitious. What they claim makes their calamity different is that it is worse for them. Beware of this kind of extreme narcissism. It is just as selfish and manipulating as that of a pompous egotist. The moment they see that you don’t “fully” cooperate and act with extreme concern for them, serving and pampering them, they will eliminate you from their list of “loving” folks. They may even badmouth you and gossip or slander you as being selfish and uncaring. (vi)
I wonder if you knew that Perry plagiarized almost all of his poems. Part of me believes you did, that you used it to keep control of him, marionette-style. What would have happened if he had beaten you in the poetry prize? What if he’d also beaten you in the other, more lucrative prize? Would you have exposed him? Or would he still have been useful enough to let live?
If I remember correctly, Perry was just as obsessed with mythology as you were. Maybe it flattered you, the way he lifted your subject matter, the way he adored your talent—but could only compete with it through theft. That must’ve been the biggest ego trip imaginable, thinking that someone would risk his career to run in your league.
How Do You Handle a Narcissist Who Wants Revenge? Be everything that they want and more. If you have to deal with a narcissist long term, it helps tremendously if you: a) look really good, b) know exactly what you’re talking about, c) make sure that your own behavior is above reproach (this is critical), d) perform better than they do (at work or in some sport that they like). All the above can be very difficult to do, and take time, but will certainly put you in the position of power. (vii)
Unfortunately, I don’t have Megan Fox’s body and Scarlett Johansson’s face. I don’t know everything about everything. I’m constantly making mistakes both catastrophic and minor. I’m not queen of the writing world (or, rather, of any world). What I am is someone who’s weathered the prolonged emotional abuse of an extreme narcissist. What I am is someone who, as a timid and insecure and gullible young woman, walked through a shitstorm of Narcissistic Rage and lived to tell the tale. What I am is a testament to hope. My narcissist is not, and probably never will be, vanquished. My narcissist is lurking all the time, reading my writing, obsessing over false memories, dreaming up new ways to ruin my day—my year—my life. My narcissist is psychopathic and relentless. And yet, despite all my flaws and weaknesses and vulnerabilities, I haven’t let my narcissist get the best of me. Whenever I hear the narcissist’s voice in my head—that condescending, liquored-up drawl of I think you’re crazy—I smirk and tell it: not today, Satan! (Or, as my narcissist would prefer: not today, Greek god!) I’ve found that the best way to get under a narcissist’s skin is to keep laughing. To keep living. To keep refusing to play dead.
(i) Romm, Joe. "What a Top FBI Profiler Taught Me About Extreme Narcissists Like Donald Trump." Alternet. Independent Media Institute, 7 Dec. 2016. Web.
(ii) Burgemeester, Alexander. "The Narcissist and Revenge." The Narcissistic Life. N.p., 2014. Web.
(iii) Whitbourne, Susan Krauss. “Shedding Light on Psychology's Dark Triad.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, LLC, 26 Jan. 2013, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201301/shedding-light-psychology-s-dark-triad.
(iv) De Victoria, Samuel Lopez. “Narcissists Who Cry: The Other Side of the Ego.” PsychCentral, 2010, psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/03/29/narcissists-who-cry-the-other-side-of-the-ego/.
(v) Burgemeester, Alexander. "The Narcissist and Revenge." The Narcissistic Life. N.p., 2014. Web.
(vi) De Victoria, Samuel Lopez. “Narcissists Who Cry: The Other Side of the Ego.” PsychCentral, 2010, psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/03/29/narcissists-who-cry-the-other-side-of-the-ego/.
(vii) Anonymous. "How Do You Handle a Narcissist Who Wants Revenge?" Blog post. Narsissisten2011. Wordpress, n.d. Web.
Alaina Symanovich is an MFA student at Florida State University concentrating in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Superstition Review, Sonora Review, The Offbeat, Fogged Clarity, and other journals. In 2016, she was awarded Best of the Net for her essay "The M Word."