Lessons in Narcissism and Recovery

An American living in our times would be forgiven for diverting their gaze from narcissism as an odious and rampant practice of the higher reaches of our society. I remember one of my husband’s favorite stories was from when he’d shot the film Doc in Almeria, Spain back in 1971. He’d been on location for several weeks, and after recounting seeing someone kick a dog in the street, was told “It starts at the top with Franco.”

James Greene, 1971 as James McLowery in Doc

Yeah, well, I think we’ve beat the Spaniards on this one. So clear is the directive sent from the upper reaches of our government that the expected trickle down effect has infiltrated every corner of our society, Ponzi schemes, to #MeToo to the latest scandal in college admissions. All are fundamentally based in the tenet that my needs/truth/reality overrides yours or anyone else’s.

I’m here to tell you that sometimes narcissism is healthy if exercised in a confined timeframe. I can’t yet tell you the acceptable outer boundaries of healthy narcissism, because I haven’t yet navigated them, but some examples are:

  • Around the birth of one’s child
  • Around the care of loved ones
  • Around the death of one’s partner

There may be other examples of appropriately prescriptive narcissism. My direct observations have to do with all three bullet points above. Not sure what our Franco-equivalent in the White House would say are the rationalizations for his extreme narcissism, but I’m pretty sure they are none of the above. But then, as a (hopefully temporary) narcissist, no one’s pain is worse than mine, right?

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 24th Street Theatre, here in South Los Angeles. Running through May 19th, based on the young adult book by Kate DiCamillo, the play recounts the travails of a uniquely fashioned charmingly narcissistic china rabbit. Edward’s miraculous journey unfolds through his travels and travails, and his awakening from narcissist to empathetic being, able to learn to love again after his own loss. The 24th Street Theatre does consistently beautiful work with minimal and very theatrical elements, and again, here they don’t disappoint.

Director Debbie Devine has guided her cast of four, accompanied on a piano throughout by Bradley Brough through the intricacies of this rabbit’s tale (sorry, couldn’t resist). Funny, moving, tear jerking and ultimately satisfying, the afternoon unfolded with a welcoming curtain speech by Co-Artistic Director Jay McAdams, contextualizing this theatre’s imprimatur on the play (first production utilizing spanish supertitles, created for the production, as well as the consciously simple aesthetic which the theatre embraces). From the moment I entered the lobby of the theatre, I found my visit one of inclusion. Awkward in my singleness these days, I’m challenged in going out to see something on my own, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. It was opening weekend of the play, and the lobby was filled with 24th Street Theatre family members, board members, critics, adults, children, neighborhood folks. The step and repeat with a stool and two bunches of carrots was heavily utilized. I enjoyed seeing families posing with the carrots and huge smiles on their faces.

(I’m sorry, Jay and Debbie, issuing a spoiler alert.) If you are in the LA area, please come see this play. If you aren’t, you can benefit from a reading of this magical book.

Like Edward, I’ve been going through my own miraculous journey since my husband’s death in November. In the early phases of his rabbit destiny, Edward is cocooned in the loving embrace of his young girl owner Abilene Tulane. He wants for nothing, so embraced and supported is he. A bunny of privilege, his clothing is stylish, his position in the household secure. Then comes his loss, from which it appears he may never recover. His life pretty much goes to hell. I recognize, wear these phases of bunny privilege, then loss. The life going to hell part is less applicable, unless you describe sessions of unprovoked tears, increased impatience with things and people and a general weariness and disinterest in participating as hell. I don’t afford myself that luxury. I know that it is a process, and as hard processes go, they are not hell. They are opportunities for growth and improvement and learning.

The tears, weariness and disinterest describe the immediate aftermath of a loss, even if you are lucky as I have been, to have the consistent support of family and friends. Eventually, after the public grief cycle has “ended,” after the memorial, the funeral, the life celebration, the next phase begins. It is one of solitude with a lot of acting involved. To sustain the Edward Tulane metaphor, this might be construed as the “scarecrow” phase. Utilized as a deterrent to others, surrounded by shiny objects, the grieving widow/er is still out there in the field, showing themselves to be fierce, smiling, but feeling emotionally empty and suspended. This might be why I chose to purchase the bracelets and distribute them to my grieving friends. Upon receipt, their thank yous were heart-felt, but also tinged with a recognizable sadness and fraught with questions I don’t have the answers for.

How do you keep f&*king going?

I can keep f&*king going, but why should I?

And for me, the moment one night 34 years into my sobriety, five months into my solitude, this week, I stood in front of my cabinet in the kitchen and looked at a corked bottle of red wine left over from one of my recent visits by friends, thinking to myself, “well, no one would even know if I had a glass of red wine right now.” I promptly uncorked the bottle and poured the remaining wine down the sink. It really scared me.

The one reassuring element of this scarecrow phase is that I find myself surrounded by other scarecrows. I’m not alone in the field. Nor are any of us. I want you to hear that.

None of us is doing this human thing alone.

I’m reminded of that every day, yesterday in the hallway in the DRC as I greeted a colleague who has been on leave for several months. We clung to each other sobbing amidst the coming and going of our colleagues. In her I recognized her challenges and loss; in me, she recognized my loss and challenges.

If you were to read my bed-side table stack now, you’d be worried but really, I’m in a research phase, to prepare me for the work ahead. Because of my loss, my bunny tale, if you will, people have been reaching out for support during their own challenges. I want to say when they do, “I don’t know any more about this than you do!” And I’m certainly not an authority on caregiving, death, or anything related to human loss. And yet, I do have the capacity to listen and hear and try to help. In my own limited scarecrow capacity. As do you. And certainly my friends do.

Emotional Check in this morning with my Pals via Skype – three different time zones. So sustaining.

From now through May 19th, if you live in Los Angeles, you can and should see The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 23rd Street Theatre. It will help you in your recovery. Aren’t we all in recovery from Narcissism?

Vulnerable Adult

When I see it in writing, and in light of this afternoon’s events, it doesn’t seem nearly as amusing as it did this morning on the WhatsApp chat with my friend Susan, freshly returned to her home in South Africa after what could only be called an appalling return trip.

She had come all the way from Cape Town for my husband’s life celebration. We’d had a wonderful weekend of visiting with family and other friends, and on Monday evening, somewhere between the plane’s arrival at Heathrow and her return to her flat in London, she realized she’d lost her passport. Or it had been pickpocketed. After doing what most of us would do in that situation, freak out, she searched the American Embassy website, found the earliest appointment available, (Friday at 7:45AM). She clearly wouldn’t make the flight to Cape Town scheduled to leave on Wednesday evening.

Susan is one of the most capable women I know, and by the time she had regaled my friend Bob and me with her story, she was well on the way to solving the problem. She described it as a generational problem which a quick call to her father in Florida straightened out.

His phrase “You’re an American” ringing in her ears, she walked into the American Embassy at 8:00AM the next morning, and out at 9:07AM with her replacement passport. Made the flight that evening, and “Bob’s Your Uncle.” Thanks, Dad!

Chuckling, she described herself as what some would call a “Vulnerable Adult” – further defined as the guy who leaves his car doors open, or his front door open, or his car keys in his car with the car doors open. When she used this term, I laughed in recognition.

I didn’t know it was an actual sociological term in the UK. “A person who is 18 years of age or over, and who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness and who is or may be unable to take care of him/herself, or unable to protect him/herself against significant harm or serious exploitation.”

I laughed not because I recognize the description. Lately it describes me (in need of community care) but prior to that, our son. My husband and I raised him. He’s much better now than he was at 18. But I did just have to overnight his car keys to him that had been left in a bag left behind after his Dad’s life celebration last weekend.

First, I went to the UPS store, and as we prepared the package, the clerk looked skeptically at me and asked me a question.

Does this key fob have a lithium battery in it?

Umm, I don’t know.

Then I googled it.

Yes, it does have a lithium battery.

Then we can’t ship it from here. You’ll have to take this to the main UPS office tomorrow so that it can be sent certified mail. It might bring the plane down if it explodes.

What?

It wasn’t until the next morning when I was standing in the main UPS terminal that I realized if Chris hadn’t left the keys in his jacket pocket in the toy bag on the floor of my apartment, he’d have carried them onto the plane with 300 other people carrying lithium batteries in car key fobs in their jacket pockets. After pointing this out to the clerk, I got ridiculously peeved then when she still made a phone call to make sure I could ship the keys. $69.28 later, I left the UPS store, having successfully shipped the overnight package to my vulnerable adult and very much feeling like a vulnerable adult myself.

This afternoon I returned to my apartment between shows, and was walking through the lobby when I ran into one of my neighbors, Marilyn. Marilyn and her husband, Jerry are one of the nicest couples in the building. Jerry, who walked with a pronounced limp, instantly endeared himself to me about ten years ago, when we first moved into the building. Every morning, when I would walk our dog, he would double over and fuss over Lizzie, making her tail wag madly. He and Marilyn were always together – they were poll workers together at every election. She’s an audiologist, and drove what looked like a former police cruiser, and I would frequently see them early in the morning doing a car shuffle because they only had one parking space in the building. I think Jerry’s a teacher.

In fact, today may have been the first time I’d ever seen them apart. At this year’s Christmas party, I had been greeted by the two of them heartily and Marilyn had given me a big, reassuring hug and encouraged Jerry to do so, as well. (You may recall I left that party quickly, after losing it at a kindness uttered by another neighbor.) Now I saw Marilyn walking toward me in the lobby.

You and I have something in common.

I stopped walking, chilled, because I realized instantly what she was saying.

My husband died on Thursday. (two days ago) He was at work and they called me to say he was unconscious. Then they called again to say he was at the morgue.

What is going on in the world right now? I stopped and clung to Marilyn with a ferocity she certainly didn’t want. She wanted to keep moving. Looking over her shoulder, she almost accusingly said,

You threw yourself back into your work, didn’t you?

No, Marilyn, I took some time before going back to work. Please be kind to yourself. Take a little time off before you go back.

But I was talking to her back as she moved quickly toward the garage. I heard her muttering about losing it, needing to get back to work so she wouldn’t lose it. I recognized first hand her abrupt departure, her anxious gait, her restlessness, the vacancy of her missing companion. Reminded me of the forlorn looking pigeon on my porch this afternoon, huddled in the rainy downpour. It may not be technically accurate, but the term vulnerable adult suits many of us right now.