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Christmas, Miracles, and Narcissists

This is a story of being deep in relationship with a narcissist, long before having any idea of what narcissism is; a story that I hope captures how murky, flimsy, and upside-down everything feels in that space.

It’s also a Christmas story with a little miracle.


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The thought was one of those makes your spine straighten- not quite an epiphany, but a realization whose time has come. Something with more meaning beneath the surface than above it.


I was going through my stash: the unassuming plastic grocery bag- handles tied tightly shut- that contained all the love I could possibly cram into my young daughter’s Christmas stocking. There was one for my husband, too.


The stocking had always been my favorite part of Christmas mornings as a child- an unfamiliar bulge in fabric that had hung limply for weeks- despite random inspections, just in case- a bulge that meant the jolly old elf himself had been there. Somehow anything retrieved from the depths of a Christmas stocking felt more special than if it had been wrapped and under the tree.


It turned out that being a stocking filler was as satisfying as being a recipient, and I collected little things for throughout the year that would stoke my daughter’s sense of magic on Christmas morning. Passing this sense of anticipation and wonder onto my child was worth giving Santa all the credit.

As I went through these sacks of stocking-destined goodies, my spine straightened with the realization that my own stocking was going to be as empty Christmas morning as on Christmas Eve.

My husband was ambivalent about Christmas- he disliked receiving gifts as well as giving them. His childhood Christmases had been stressful and though our daughter’s joy made it tolerable, Christmas still just wasn’t his thing. I tried to get him useful things that were maybe just a little bit more indulgent than usual and then release any expectation about how he would receive them.

Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1912

I sat there, on the floor of my closet, and pondered what to do about my own stocking. Suck it up and pretend to be okay with it being empty? I’d done it before- it felt like the appropriate mom/ martyr thing to do. But I also really needed some magic in my life. I needed to feel like a bit of the love and care that I put into Christmas were reciprocated. I needed someone to notice that I needed things.

I could ask my partner to fill my stocking. Depending on his mood, though, he might mock me or pop a can of WD-40 in my stocking, and then say I had no right to complain, since he’d filled my stocking just like I asked. These options seemed worse than empty.

It was very slowly becoming impossible to keep denying that my husband wasn’t a very nice person. Not to me, at least. His criticisms, insults and temper seemed to be less and less grounded in reality. The first thing he did whenever he walked in the door was to check the sink for dirty dishes- never mind that we didn’t have a dishwasher and both prioritized homemade food for our daughter. If the sink wasn’t empty, his haranguing might go for half an hour. Recently, I’d been excited to meet him at the door and show off an empty and scrubbed sink, thinking this might take just a little of the tension out of our relationship. He’d looked at me blankly, then scanned the room and started in on my about the clutter on the kitchen table.

He’d had an affair, and we’d agreed that the only way to possibly continue our relationship would be through real and deep changes. Those changes seemed to have been abandoned, but I was being accused of not being able to let go and move on.

More and more, I was just avoiding him.

A reckless idea came to me: I could just fill my own damn stocking. Is that absurd? Is that allowed? It felt…. unseemly. It also felt like a very old key being fit into a very old lock for the first time in ages. I could give myself the magic I needed. I could be the one to validate my own needs.

The next day was Christmas Eve. I needed to make a trip to the store anyway, so I resolved to get some treats just for myself while I was there.


Will Moses

•••


The jolly atmosphere of the fancy grocery store was a relief from home. Christmas music and red, white & green packaging everywhere made even the thick crowds seem more amiable than oppressive. I filled a basket with a few dinner necessities, and many more frivolities: bath salts, fancy spices, the good chocolate. Shopping like this- for myself, of all the people- felt illicit and delicious at the same time. I didn’t even try to find the shortest line, just savoring this sense of warmth growing inside me. It wasn’t to last.


When it was my turn to load up the conveyer belt, I noticed that the line behind me had doubled in length. The checker and I exchanged holiday pleasantries and my heart sped up a little to see that I’d spent nearly a hundred dollars on things that I didn’t absolutely need. A voice in my head asked me who I thought I was. It was my husband’s voice. I swiped my card in defiance of it and drummed my fingers in time to the music. And then the friendly checker asked me to swipe it again. My heart sped up a little more, even before the checker confirmed that it had been declined.


I flushed. My belly clenched. The room spun. Obviously this was a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be here, shouldn’t be doing this, how could I be so self-indulgent? I knew there was enough money in my account, though, so I formed my voice into an awkward apology and asked the checker to excuse me to call my bank. Then I walked four feet away, turning my back on the line, like a child who thinks that they can’t be seen if they can’t see anyone else. But first I stole a look at the couple behind me in line- they looked sleek and mildly irritated and I begrudged them the easy, humiliation-free life I imagined them to have as I tried to disappear in the middle of the holiday bustle.


By the time I got through to a live human at my bank, the sleek couple had paid and gone and the checker- with two other employees now involved- was motioning me over. What could this mean? Was I going to be notified that my unpaid-for items couldn’t be held any longer (it had been all of seven minutes- possibly much less)? Would I be scolded for the terrible timing of the inconvenience I’d created? I felt like a frightened child.


As I reached them, phone to my ear, the bank assured me that my balance was fine and there shouldn’t be any problem using my card, at the very same time that the checker informed me that the sleek couple had paid for my groceries.

I wish I could say that my anxiety melted in the sunshine of this minor Christmas miracle. My wishes and needs had been fulfilled- not by myself, but by the universe in the form of a bank mix-up and the generosity of strangers. In that moment, though, I was entrenched in more shame than I could see over. It was all I could feel.


I’m sure I turned bright red. I didn’t need help. Help should be reserved for other people. I wasn’t deserving- I had been buying champagne for God’s sake! I thought of chasing the couple down to pay them back- to thank them for their generosity and then make it clear that I could take care of myself. But the goods had been paid for and the couple was gone, so instead I got out of there as quickly as I could and just sat in my car and sobbed.


I drove home and never said a word about what had happened.

Tasha Tudor

After dinner that night, I went by myself to a small church for Christmas Eve service. I needed the music, the hymns of hope and triumph. 'Whys' and 'whats' kept circling in my mind. I felt responsible- even guilty- for the events at the grocery store. Beneath this layer, though, what I was really puzzling over was this: something inside me seemed to be broken or missing, but I could not figure out what it was. I sat, once again in the anonymous warmth of strangers, feeling numb and vacant.


A few Decembers later there would be an incident that would end my marriage for good, but on this night, I just let the music wash over me and breathe life into my emptiness.


Back at home, I took down three floppy Christmas stockings and cured their emptiness, anticipating my daughter’s pure delight as she rummaged through hers, and just hoping my husband would find something to be happy about in his. I filled them with tokens of my unwavering care, my desire for their happiness, my absolute belief in their goodness.


Norman Rockwell

Finally, I turned to my own stocking. Troubled as I was by the universe's show of generosity toward me, there wasn't much I could do but accept it. With equal parts reverence and uneasy gratitude, I began to put things in my stocking. They were trivial things, but they represented intangibles that I needed to believe I deserved: self-love and acceptance, the attention of something greater than myself, gentleness and patience, worth, and finally- the tender magic reserved for hearts that have been smashed more than they've been repaired.


I can’t say that I noticed my spirit filling out along with my stocking. At the time, I only knew that something about this ritual felt right. It felt much better than martyrdom.


I filled it right to the top, and went to bed dreaming of Christmas morning.

Gyo Fujikawa

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Epilogue: As a single mom for several years now- and someone who's knowledgable about (and healing from) the insidious effects of psychological and emotional abuse- I no longer have any reservations about stuffing my own Christmas stocking or buying myself presents.


It's a form of self-care. It's also good parenting, since a mom who feels taken care of and resourced benefits my daughter far more than a mom who's depleted and resentful about always being the care-giver and never the care-receiver (and let's be honest- I'm that mom sometimes too).


What do you do to find a balance between giving and receiving- at the holidays or any other time of year? Please share!

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