Being in recovery doesn’t make us immune to bad decisions or unhealthy relationships. Here are some of the lessons and insights I’ve learned from my most recent toxic relationship.
I sat in the morning sunlight attending my favorite zoom meeting. A friend of mine had just given a thoughtful ten-minute lead on the 7th step, and I raised my virtual hand to let him know how much I appreciated it. I was in the middle of a sentence when the man I was seeing walked into the kitchen to make coffee.
“Layin’ it on a little thick, huh?” he said. My face turned red and I felt a hole in my stomach. I turned off the camera and microphone.
“Can you please not insult me about what I share in a 12-step meeting?”
“I’m just breaking balls!”
I froze. Later in the day, safe in my own home, I texted him as gently as I had learned to do when I attempted to get a need met from my own toxic parents, couched in compliments.
He apologized, but then the phone immediately rang with what was finally hitting me was his pattern—DARVO, a toxic way of protecting the broken self in which the offender will Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.
“I am not questioning intention,” I remember saying. “I am telling you this hurts me, and I am asking you not to do it.” Immediately the conversation turned to how bad he felt—I was expected to make it okay for him that he hurt me.
Suddenly an image came into my head of my mother crying on my shoulder about what a terrible mother she was. It all clicked. The past six weeks of my life in Technicolor.
I suddenly saw his behavior for what it was
He’d been insulting, lying, rejecting, and exploiting me the whole time—and until this moment, I kept getting upset but then backing down when he gaslit me. At the beginning of our relationship, he’d told me that he could, “look past what I say in meetings and what I say on stage to see that I am a good person.” An ominous warning that I failed to heed. Instead, I internalized his words so hard that I stopped sharing. I stopped performing. The only reason I had chosen to share that morning was that I had something positive to say—something I was hoping would escape his criticism. It didn’t. When someone uses you as a scapegoat for their own insecurities, there is nothing you can do right.
I would get triggered when he said horrible things to me, but every time I brought them up, he didn’t mean it that way. I was overreacting. If he didn’t like something, it was objectively bad, something to be made fun of. “Gross,” he said when I offered him a Lime Lacroix. “That’s ALLLLL you.” Yet the first time he went down on me he could only seem to find my urethra, and spend twenty minutes afterwards repeating the phrase, “Everyone is different.” Nobody, sir, is that different. One by one, I watched him do, to me, every single thing that he complained about other people doing. He did these things while accusing me of projection. How meta.
And then my red flag bucket runneth over.
Why I say he’s a narcissist
According to @Covert_Narcissist_Info on Instagram, “It’s normal to have a sudden eye-opening experience about who they were, suddenly see the truth of what they did, and feel used. It’s finally over. Now everything becomes more and more clear, and it’s also scary how much they’ve pretended and how many things you misinterpreted. “
It’s important that you know that when I call this person a narcissist, I am pointing to a set of observable patterns of behavior.
Ramani S. Durvasula, author of the book “Don’t You Know Who I Am” says, “I struggled with finding a word for people who through their words, behaviors, conduct, attitude, and emotional expression consistently devalue, dehumanize, invalidate, and abuse other people. Calling someone a narcissist is not a clinical diagnosis, it is descriptive and no different than identifying someone as friendly, or kind, insensitive, or rude.”
How did I fall for this?
Recovery, both his and mine, made his narcissistic behavior trickier to spot. Here are some mistakes I made, and things to watch out for in your own romantic relationships in recovery:
1. I mistook his need for validation for genuine interest:
As someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), I get anxious about rejection. This person was texting and calling me constantly. It had been so long since I’d dated that I’d forgotten what normal connection looked like. I’d finally gotten on board with who I was and liked that person. I thought this guy saw that too. Look how often he wants to talk to me, I thought! He likes me so much! He’s so available! Little did I know, he had a pattern of running from himself into relationships that covered his entire recovery. I was just next on the list of women he would use to regulate his self-esteem until he pushed them away.
2. I fell for his use of platitudes in the place of genuine insight:
In the Psychology Today blog, 52 Ways To Identify A Covert Narcissist, this is number 20. (Horrifyingly, this man did every other thing on the list as well.) This warning sign was hard to spot because 12-step recovery is full of platitudes, and we use them all the time. What I failed to observe, however, was that empty platitudes were all he had to self-reference with.
3. I gave too much credit to the length of time he’d been dry:
This person had been sober for nearly ten years, and I thought that meant he had been through the major personal growth I was experiencing. I hadn’t been able to get sober until I was able to be honest with myself and others, and I didn’t think that anyone could. I didn’t notice that he had scores of acquaintances but no close friends and no sponsees. I didn’t see the constant onslaught of alcoholic behaviors.
4. I pathologized myself:
This was the first relationship I’ve had not only in sobriety but also in which I was in active recovery from and owning the fact that I have BPD. Romantic relationships are often the most triggering experiences for this disorder, and I was happy to believe him at first that the problem was my BPD. I cut all other toxic people out of my life, I went off my medication, I worked triple time on my dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills, and did coaching between sessions with my therapist. Not even after dunking my head in a bucket of ice water because I was having another panic attack over something horrible he’d said to me that “he didn’t mean that way” did I see that my mental health wasn’t the real issue. I was convinced I was acting out of my BPD. And I was—just not the distrustful, paranoid, externalizing side. A close friend and DBT therapist Mary Tobon pointed out that I was acting out of the other side of my adaptation—the one where I don’t trust my perception of reality or that I am worthy of love.
5. I got caught up in magical thinking:
The day before I met him I’d declared to the universe that I was ready to date, that I was willing to believe that I could attract someone. The next day he showed up at my comedy show to surprise me. That must be God, right? Two of my best friends started dating men at the same time I met him, so clearly it was meant to be. Right?
I believe in synchronicity—coincidences beyond chance—coming from my higher power to guide me. But in this scenario, I was not being guided to a good time. I was being guided toward important lessons.
6. I still don’t know my worth:
I am so much more confident than I used to be—in my friendships, in my abilities, in my worth as a human. But every single relationship I’ve ever been in has been abusive. I also have a mental illness, am 40 years old, and have an Onlyfans. For those reasons, I thought no one would want to date me. If I’m really looking at it, underneath all of that I still believe that I’m fundamentally unloveable and will use any external thing to prove it to myself. I got so focused on whether or not he liked me that I forgot to look at whether or not I liked him.
7. I felt like I had to:
Everyone from my friends to my dad was always trying to convince me that I actually did want to have an intimate relationship. The world is not set up for singles. When I traveled through Italy, waiters did not know what to make of me: a lone woman who didn’t drink having a romantic dinner overlooking the Amalfi coast, solo. So when I was finally in a relationship, I felt like I would be a failure if I left. Plus, he liked me. He said everything was fine. I was just misinterpreting. Nobody’s perfect!
8. I thought there was a fully formed person in there, if I could just connect:
A big failing we have when dealing with emotionally immature people is thinking that if we can approach them just right, there will be a person capable of love in there. I thought I could somehow be good enough to overcome his mooching, his inability to be present in the bedroom, his rejection of any romantic gesture not instigated by him, the constant put-downs, the lies, the projections, the fact that there only seemed to be space for him to be a comic, the competition. Sure, he got so jealous of my new podcast’s success that he quit his own podcast … but everyone has stuff! Sure, when I had a tweet go viral he said he hated twitter but then spent the next week desperately trying to go viral … but everyone has stuff! He’s in the program, he’s working on it, I told myself. I should just be patient and stop judging. What if I quit before the miracle happened?
I got out, and I’m working through the aftereffects
The last time I saw him, I caught myself secretly putting my dog’s CBD oil in his tea in an attempt to make him less antagonistic. That was when I recognized how trapped I felt. A friend said I didn’t seem happy and my sponsor pointed out that I could leave. Together we came to the conclusion that the safest thing to do would be to text and block him.
I was raised by narcissists, I’d been married to one, I’d dated them. It was hard to admit how susceptible I still was. It was trickier to spot when I wasn’t (yet) being physically abused, when the insults were backhanded compliments or framed as jokes, when I was in a program and a therapy where I was constantly reminded to look at my part in things.
But sometimes my part is holding on to things that hurt me. And so I let go.
A few days later, a box arrived at my door. I opened it to find it full of literal trash I’d left behind—a package of butt wipes with one left, a disposable Tupperware, a burnt piece of sage, and an amends letter.
The 9th step states that we make amends to people that we’ve harmed, except when to do so would injure them. When going to make an amends, we are to first ask ourselves if that person wants to hear from us. (I had blocked him.) From there you are supposed to ask if they are open to receiving it. To force an amends down someone’s throat is not recovery; it’s pure ego. On the page I found a final gaslight. “I know it hurt you that I said I could look past your history.” No! I screamed to my apartment. You said what I say on stage NOW. What I do for work NOW. What I share in meetings NOW.
I was still taking who he was and how he treated me personally. I was still unable to forgive myself for falling for the exact type of person I’d been trained to fall for. The next few weeks, I sat in the meeting where I’d met him. I squirmed while he told sad tales from his childhood, apropos of nothing. I had to be there. I’d booked the speakers for the next month.
I eventually stopped being mad at myself for being triggered by his toxic behavior. I am still upset, and that’s okay. I’m embarrassed that I’m still upset, I’m embarrassed that I fell for it, and I’m scared I’ll fall for this again.
The last meeting we were in together, he shared about how his fancy college degree doesn’t keep him sober, but service to others does. He failed out of college. He doesn’t have a degree. He stays sober by abusing people, projecting, and punishing them for everything he hates about himself that he cannot own.
My sponsor always says, “Your peace has to come first.” I realized that the people I’d booked to speak in the coming weeks were my friends. I could tell them it was no longer healthy for me to go to the meeting and ask them if it was okay to cancel. They all supported me. I am capable of healthy friendships with people who have empathy.
My guard is back up, and I have more work to do. But I still believe in love.