Thinking Problems

By Juliet Elisabeth 04/17/15

AA and narcissism sometimes goes hand-in-hand. If AA is better suited for narcissists, then it is ill-suited for me.  


Don't freak out but... I actually agree with something I learned in AA: Drinking problems are really thinking problems.  

Hazelden states that addiction thinking involves constant thought of using a drug, or alcohol, because of denial and excuses. I never suffered denial drinking because I knew why I chose to get drunk. I worried less about other people and how to communicate effectively when drunk. Partially because of my dysfunctional upbringing, and lack of help on how to react to it, I've mostly sucked at relationships with others my whole life.

The answer is simple yet complicated. I am the scapegoat daughter of a narcissistic mother. Suddenly, at age 12 when I began my period, my mom started treating me distantly and criticizing me constantly. I was blamed for little things repeatedly: Hiding her car keys or clothes on purpose, leaving lights on that I didn't turn on, not listening to a conversation I was not even present for. "You were there," she'd say. "Are you calling your mother liar?"

Not once in my life did I ever hear my mother admit she was wrong. When I was eight, she estranged her entire family because they didn't agree with her. They were evil and turned the whole town against us. "They are liars," she said, "They want everyone to think I'm paranoid." As a teenager, I was told my teachers thought I left the classroom in tears because they thought I was a cocaine addict. I trusted nobody, never knowing if what my mom said was true or not. As long as I was isolated socially, others would not know the secrets I kept.  

I finally had enough when I tried to join debate club but a tidal wave of panic forced me to run out of the room crying uncontrollably. I just couldn't talk without freezing up. There was no one I could turn to for help. Would I choose fight or flight? At 18, I dropped out of high school and married someone I barely knew. The thrill of making a rash decision replaced the anxiety I felt. Oddly, it seemed like my relationship with my mom improved with me being away, but I couldn't understand why.    

Two years later, I discovered evidence I thought proved my dad was unfaithful to my mom, and I ran back home. If I could fix this for my mom maybe she'd love me again. Maybe their marriage was the real root of all our problems? My parents, my older brother Ben*, and I all went to family therapy. By the end of the hour, everything was my fault because I snooped on my dad. My mom was allowed to label me a mentally ill alcoholic without anyone questioning it (or sticking up for me), because my mom is never wrong. What the fuck just happened here? 

I went back to therapy the next time with just my mom.    

"We're here because I want to help my daughter," my mom says. Would she lie to the therapist?

The therapist asks me how I feel. "I want help," I say, nervously touching my fingers.  

"We tried counseling before," my mom explains. "When she was 16. It didn't work."  

"I was too angry," I say. "I told my mom I felt depressed when I was 12 and she didn't do anything. But I stopped asking for help because thought I could fix myself. I didn't want to be a burden to her."

"Julie, you can never be a burden to me. When you were little you used to come to me with your problems, I don't know what happened. When you were 15 or so you decided you hated me." Lies.

"I never hated you, Mom. When I was 15, I showed you and Dad I was cutting my arms and you guys did nothing but give me lotion. I went to school the next day and had to cover my arms with long sleeves. I didn't want to get you in trouble for not helping me. I told you since I was 12 I was crying all the time. You said it was hormones. I felt like nobody cared."

She shook her head as the therapist took notes. "I took her to counseling, but Julie likes to play the blame game. I admit I was depressed once because... Because my brother was molested as a child and... I'm a teacher... I have no relationship with my brother because he hates me. And this did make me very depressed.  I think Julie saw that and I told her over and over 'you are not me.' She knew that." It's never her fault, it's her brother's fault and my fault. Why does she say everyone hates her?

"You told me not to trust your brother or anyone in your family but that has nothing to do with me, Mom. You didn't get me help you gave me an intervention."

Her eyes become huge, and her voice turns stern and dramatic, "Do you want to tell the therapist or should I? Julie would sneak out and worry me to death. The rules never applied to her. I've read about kids who have opposition to authority. That was my daughter. I didn't know where she was at three in the morning. As you can imagine my heart leapt out of my chest. A mother's intuition and love is always there, no matter how old her babies get." She participated in theater her whole life, is this where she honed her acting skills?

"I'm sorry for that, I really am. I told you I was sad you wouldn't let me see my friends. It's not like I asked to see them every single day. I wasn't a bad kid, Mom."

She interrupts me, "You couldn't see your friends because I couldn't trust you, Julie. But you still like to play the blame game, don't you? You snuck out the house to have sex, you were drinking, making me look like a fool. But I love you no matter what, Julie."

"You wouldn't let me out—" My words fall onto the floor... She half-laughs, half groans. "That's not true! You had a job. You went to school. You saw your friends."

"I lost friends because they thought I didn't want to see them. They laughed at me in school. They thought I was lying when I said I wasn't grounded. They thought I was avoiding them on purpose. Other parents didn't treat their kids like you did!"

"Then were those really people you'd want to call friends? The grass isn't always greener on the other side. When parents are too permissive, those kids get into more trouble. Did you ever think those friends of yours were jealous you had a mother who loved you? And I wasn't the disciplinarian, her father was." Why does she do this? Why are her answers so... weird? It's never her fault. I correct her, "Mom, he wasn't home to make the rules. You were."

"Julie isn't good at being alone, you see, she never liked being at home. She doesn't like having to listen to her parents who love her very much."

"I did listen to you, that's why I was home all the time. But that's why I snuck out that summer. You wanted me home for no reason and then you'd just watch TV and call me out there to watch it with you. It's more like you couldn't be alone, and you wanted me to be stuck there with you. Listening to your stories how other people hated you."

"That's not true, Julie. I saw people. I went to the grocery store, didn't I? I had a teaching job."

"You didn't work since I was in third grade until my junior year," I tell her. "You were home all the time before that. Dad would come home whenever he wanted. You let Ben out whenever he wanted to."

"Well Ben was more responsible, and he had a job." I tell her I had a job, too. She says Ben didn't treat her like I did. "But as a mother, you love both your children equally." There is no way to argue this point but it is impersonal. It's detached from her feelings towards me. "She didn't want to obey her parents. Teenagers often think they know more than adults do."  

I tell the therapist my mom lied to adults around me, telling them I was on drugs. She gave me an intervention and I was honest I'd had at most 6 or 7 beers my entire life at age 16. I tried pot a couple of times. Dad walked out of the room.  

"Parents make mistakes. I'm not perfect, but I always put a roof over your head, and three meals a day. There are children who are less fortunate who would never talk to their moms the way you talk to me. I tried everything but I never stopped loving Julie." I'm right here. Why are you talking to the therapist like I'm not here? I ask, "Why am I even here?" 

"Don't you want to figure out why you feel the way you feel, Julie?" My mom gives me huge puppy dog eyes. I look at the therapist. Why isn't she helping me out here? I don't know what to say without having my mom challenge it.  It's making me feel crazy, and I know I'm not crazy. There's something wrong with my mom and I look like an asshole if I say that. I love her and I'm not trying to hurt her. I'm not an asshole. I'll never be able to talk to her or anyone! I'm scared to say anything else, it will just get twisted around.

"Mom, I always loved you. I love you. I don't blame you for everything. Some things I'm mad about and I don't want to dwell on it. I just want to be able to talk to you." The therapists asks if dwelling on things is something I struggle with. Do my thoughts race? They're racing right now. Sure. I'm dwelling on bad stuff right now, so sure. I don't know. Maybe I do need more help.  

"Julie, there's something wrong if you're 21 and still angry at your mom. If you have something wrong that you might need medication for, I think that would really help you, Julie. I don't want my problems... and they were so long ago, Julie... to hurt you anymore. But you have to tell the truth. You have to tell me what happened, Julie. What did my brother do to you? Oh my, oh... I never wanted my problems to become yours, but if my brother did anything to you..."

"He didn't do anything, Mom! I was just depressed and I wanted you to help me. Stop blaming your brother. I don't want to hear his name anymore. It has nothing to do with him!"

"You're angry, Julie. But you're not angry at me, I know that. I know that because you don't want to talk about what really happened." What is she talking about! "But that's why we are here. So you can talk about it. If you're bipolar, if you're an alcoholic, you need to get help. I want you to get help."

"Mom, you're not making any sense, I was 12-years-old and asked you for help because I wanted to kill myself!"

"See!" She clasps her hands, almost enthusiastically, then places her palms on her knees. "When a person talks about suicide that is very, very serious. And this is why I'm worried about Julie" I can't even talk...  


It would be a decade later, with the help of a new counselor, that I was able to understand nothing I could say or do would ever fix my mom. But I can learn to communicate better in other relationships, and set boundaries with unhealthy people. In healthy conversations, a person doesn't dictate the other person's emotions. 

NPDs fail to recognize other's emotions, are unable to see when they harm others, and tend to monopolize conversations. They are good people and want everyone to know that, and if they don't know that, NPDs become angry.   

Later on, I was taught in Alcoholics Anonymous to believe I was the narcissist: self-centered, manipulative and unable to show empathy. For me, because I grew up with an NPD parent, this was projecting my mom's personality onto me. I was keenly sensitive to members bragging about being humble today and receiving applause for speaking about their humility.  

Some mistakenly perceive negative remarks about AA as a personal attack, which is a trait of NPD to jump to the conclusion everything is somehow about them. It's not always about you, right? Some narcissists may be in AA, but not everyone in AA is a narcissist.  

The fact is, I had too many conversations with others involved in AA that seemed to mirror conversations I had with my NPD mother. The only way to avoid an NPD argument is to not be involved in one. If AA is better suited for narcissists, then it is ill-suited for me.  

Juliet Elisabeth is a writer and artist. She is also a former court mandated attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her activist cause for 12-step alternatives in Ohio is the AARMED with Facts blog.
Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Juliet Elisabeth is a freelance writer and independent contractor as a research analyst focused on the healthcare field; also an artist and mother of two. Activist for choice in recovery treatment. Her blog is AarmedWithFacts.