Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sweet Potatoes, Narcissism, and Parents Who Hoard

"Sweet Potatoes, Narcissism, and Parents Who Hoard." That sounds like the title of an academic paper, no?

In my previous post, I described a ritual that took place at almost all of my childhood family's holiday dinners: my mom would insist that I loved something that she had repeatedly been told (by me and others) that I had always disliked.

A friend of mine from read my post, and she forwarded a quote to me from a page about parents with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) :
Narcissistic Parents must be in control. No matter what. A Narcissistic Parent controls his or her children by dictating how these children should feel, should act, and the decisions to be made. This can lead to adult children of Narcissistic Parents being unsure of what they, themselves, like and want out of life. These Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents never learn to be autonomous and make his or her own decisions.
I've heard other children of hoarders discussing the possibility of hoarding being intertwined with NPD, at least in some cases. I recognized that there might be some validity to their assertions, but I hadn't given it a lot of thought. Along comes the quote mentioned above, and I feel like I've been hit on the head with a Clue-by-Four!

While I am definitely autonomous (perhaps to a fault) and can make my own decisions, the rest of that paragraph is right on target, both in terms of how my mom behaved and the question of knowing what I want out of my own life. I used to think I knew what I liked and what I wanted, but I've come to realize how much of "me" has been about fulfilling other people's expectations of those things, rather than developing my own expectations.

Since realizing this (probably only around a year ago), discovering what I "like and want out of life" has been my greatest objective and my greatest challenge. I wish that I could say that I feel like I have been making progress. I think it would be more accurate to say that I have been, and continue to be, developmentally disabled in this area. I'm in my forties.

Anyway, the article that my friend sent to me, the somewhat awkwardly titled "Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents Resources", is well worth reading. I think that around 90% of it is directly applicable to the dynamics in my family.

Mom was a hoarder, and she almost certainly suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She wasn't the only one who suffered.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hey, Sweet Potato!

(The following is adapted from a post I made earlier today on the Children of Hoarders Yahoo! support group. The context was a comment about parents thinking they know more about their kids than their kids know about themselves. Sure, in some respects, that's true, but in other respects? Well, read on...)

Holiday dinners were the only time that we would have sweet potatoes when I was a kid. My sisters liked them, and when we grew up and started having holiday dinners at my sisters' houses, sweet potatoes stayed on the menu.

At every such dinner, the sweet potatoes would be passed around the table, they would reach me, and I would politely pass the bowl to the next person without taking any sweet potatoes for myself.

I don't like sweet potatoes.

I don't actually hate sweet potatoes, but they are pretty darned close to the bottom of the list of foods that I am willing to eat. Starvation situations only. Zombie attacks. Nuclear winter. Your basic apocalypses. Like I said, it's not really hate.

Every time, every year, my mom (who was a severe hoarder) would be upset that I did not take any sweet potatoes. More than upset; shocked and stunned, really.
Mom: "But Joe! You love sweet potatoes!"
Joe: "No. I don't like sweet potatoes."
Mom: "But you always eat them!"
Joe: "I don't remember ever liking sweet potatoes, and I don't 'always' eat them. We go through this every year. We've done this for at least thirty years. I might have had a spoonful of them once in the past, just to humor you, but I do not like sweet potatoes."
Mom (with feeling!): "You're terrible!"
Sisters: "Really, mom? Do we have to start this again?"
Mom: "I don't know what's wrong with you people!"
This wasn't some fun little tradition that families joke about. Mom was serious about this. Sometimes the sweet potatoes would be the start of the holiday arguments; sometimes they were just a preamble. (I didn't hate sweet potatoes, but I did learn to hate holidays. Holidays were a time for drama in my family. I'm more of a comedian. A topic for another day, I think.)

I know, I know. You're asking, "Why not just skip serving sweet potatoes entirely? Just serve something else!" We tried that one year, and my mom thought we were just terrible for doing so. "Everyone has sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving! It's not Thanksgiving without sweet potatoes!"

The thing is, mom was an extremely intelligent woman with an amazing memory. I really think that she wasn't kidding: she deeply and truly believed that I loved sweet potatoes and that I had loved them throughout my entire life. It's as though she simply refused to let any evidence to the contrary take root her brain, since she knew that I loved sweet potatoes. I think she finally started to accept the truth around the time I turned 40.

I don't know how much (if any) of my mom's fixation on her son's very special relationship with sweet potatoes might have been tied to cognitive patterns related to her hoarding behavior, how much might have been related to some other psychological issue, or how much was a simple exaggeration of any parent's mistaken memory of their child. What I do know is that once an idea became planted in my mom's mind, it was almost impossible to dislodge it, no matter the evidence against it.

I realize that the sweet potato story sounds like, well, small potatoes, and it's possible that it has nothing to do with hoarding behavior. Nonetheless, countless stories like those, over issues large and small, day after day, presented a major challenge in the relationships between my mother and her family.

Update: Shortly after writing this post, a friend sent me a quote from an article about Narcissistic Personality Disorder that might relate to my mom's focus on my relationship with sweet potatoes. I wrote a new blog post to explore that subject: "Sweet Potatoes, Narcissism, and Parents Who Hoard".