As most of you know, I am an insulin-dependent diabetic. Unless you are also an insulin-dependent diabetic, however, you may not know what that means in practical terms.
As a child, I was so petrified of needles that, should an injection be prescribed, I would literally climb under the doctor’s examining table (actually a real table, with four wooden legs) and wrap my arms and legs around a stout wood table leg and scream like I was being tortured. It would take two adults to unwind me from the table leg and hold me down on the examining table so that a third party could give me the shot. Today, 60+ years later, I get at least five needle pokes per day, four of which I do for myself.
Like most diabetics I know, at first I was reluctant to accept the diagnosis but as long as the treatment consisted of pills and diet, I was mostly ok with it. Where I was not ok was with the requirement that I stab my finger at least once daily and squeeze out a drop of blood to check my glucose levels on the little machine the doctor gave me. The fingertips are one of the three most sensitive regions of the body1 and I was expected to stab myself there at minimum once per day and to do without qualm or niggle.
It was a nightmare. Even though I was not yet injecting insulin, this felt like a massive violation of my body autonomy. While no longer as petrified of needles as I was in childhood, I was still uneasy about them (I faint when I have blood drawn if I watch the procedure) and the idea of willingly poking a sensitive fingertip until blood ran just seemed ghoulish and too much to ask of a person.
I will admit that I tried it…and for my troubles I got bruised fingertips, insufficient blood to make the machine work, and frustration trying to “milk” my poor abused finger for more blood. It was not a happy experience and I soon stopped altogether. Then came time for my semi-annual HbA1c test—the diabetic’s tattletale test—and the news wasn’t good. I do not remember what my level was at the time but this test, which gives a reading of your average blood sugar level over the preceding six months, informed my doctor that my blood glucose was not well controlled and earned me a scolding.
So I had to give it another try. I had to find different ways to try to get blood, I had to chance lancets more often (sharp lancets are less likely to cause bruising and pain), I had to put my kit where I would see it so I would remember. And I had to steel myself against those old childhood terrors of needles and poke my sensitive fingertips with a needle every morning. Because you can’t effectively control your glucose intake if you don’t know what you blood glucose readings are.
Then it was discovered what we thought was some kind of grim intestinal disorder was actually a severe reaction to my diabetes tablets and it was announced that I needed to be on insulin. One of my Worst. Nightmares. Ever. come to life. Multiple shots every day…that I had to give myself. In the stomach. For the rest of my days. It was a worst-case-scenario come to life.
I had a choice to make. The doctor would no longer prescribe the pills that made me so ill, she would only prescribe injectable insulin, so my choice was to take it—meaning learning how to inject myself multiple times per day with a—horrors!—needle or forego treatment altogether. There was no middle ground here, it was one of the other.
The choice I had to make was, for me, very difficult. My diabetes was not severe, I could live a number of more years with it, without treatment—but not without side effects. Without treatment I would eventually lose feeling in my feet and be at risk for amputation like my great-grandfather. I would have increasing difficulty with my vision until blindness set in, like my cousin Mike. I would eventually have kidney issues that could land me in dialysis on a regular schedule, like my husband’s auntie. The risks I was contemplating were huge—and pretty much assured to come to pass—was I willing to end up blind, with no legs, strapped to a dialysis machine two or three times a week, just to avoid sticking myself with a needle? Did that seem rational? Of course not.
But acknowledging the irrationality of it didn’t do anything to alleviate the fear or the pain of the needles. It was a very difficult choice to make because on the one hand, my very life was at stake—and on the other hand I was looking at a life of inflicting pain on myself multiple times a day. My definition of a “good life” did not extend to self-torture.
The reason I tell this story is that the adult children of narcissists often face similarly difficult choices, choices between maintaining an unhealthy status quo and making a change that may very well be painful. Narcissistic backlash against us for finally standing up for ourselves, Ntantrums and rages and retaliations, smear campaigns and undermining and more, all loom before us when we contemplate taking that first step into autonomy. It follows us as we begin the journey to becoming fully independent beings, and depending upon the determination of our Ns, may follow us right up to the point that we have gained the strength to say “No more!” and enforce strict boundaries against their incursions into our lives and our peace.
But are you actually doing what you need to do to achieve your individuality, your independence, your autonomy? Or are you doing what I did with that blood glucose monitor—give it a few tries, focus on the negatives, then quit, going back to the old avoidance and pretending that things will be ok, hoping things will work out without any effort or input from me?
You have to make the hard choices, not the easy ones. You have to feel the pain, whether it is a needle stick or facing the fact that your own parent has betrayed you and felt no remorse for it. You have to confront the pain, feel it, weep over it, acknowledge that it sucks and it hurts but that you have to do this in order to get where you want to be.
If you are not making the hard choices—saying “no” without excuses or reasons and sticking to it in spite of backlash from the Ns—then you aren’t doing what you need to do to root them out of your life and your psyche. As long as you take the easy way out—placating, agreeing, hiding, making excuses, or allowing yourself to be shamed or browbeaten into compliance—you cannot progress, you cannot heal, you cannot become your own real self.
After that disastrous HbA1c test I got serious about monitoring my blood sugar. A high morning reading means “easy on the carbs” for the day, a low reading means toast with breakfast or two slices of bread on the lunch sandwich, or pasta for dinner. Those readings dictate what comes out of the freezer for dinner and how I will prepare it: nothing dredged or crumbed or battered on high reading days, ice cream for dessert on low sugar days. They also dictate how much insulin I will need to take: if the morning reading is high, then the breakfast insulin injection needs to a bit higher than usual. Any way you look at it, I need those readings…and that is the hard, the painful part.
I looked for ways to make the blood sticks less painful. Sometimes my entire fingertip would be bruised—sometimes I could barely get enough blood for a reading, other times I dripped blood on my nightgown and sheets because I couldn’t stem the flow. Sometimes I had to poke two or three times to get enough blood for a reading. It was hard, it was painful…I had to do it every single day and on high morning reading days, multiple times a day to make sure the glucose level was coming down. It hurt and I didn’t want to do it but I realized, after that test, that it was time to grow up, to stop being that child so afraid of a little needle poke, and to be the adult who does what is necessary, even if it causes pain.
And so I got creative, asked other diabetics, even a doctor in my family, for hints on how to get blood without the bruises and tenderness and eventually learned that sticking to the side of the finger pad still provides blood but avoids the concentration of nerves in the centre of the tip. I learned that pinching a bit of flesh and squeezing it before inserting the insulin needle made the injection less painful. I learned ways to reduce the pain, if not eliminate it, and by doing it over and over and over again for several years, a painful finger prick is a warning to me to change the lancet, not an excuse to quit doing what I need to do t manage my diabetes. I had an appointment with a cardiologist this week and when he asked “How is your sugar? Is it controlled?” I was able to answer with a confident and true “Yes, it is under control” because my morning readings have been within the acceptable zone for months, now. I am doing what needs to be done in order to adequately and appropriately deal with my diabetes.
What about you? Are you doing what needs to be done in order to adequately and appropriately deal with the Ns in your life and the inappropriate coping mechanisms you have developed over the years? Are you facing the hard and painful stuff and working your way through them? Or are you like I was, giving it a couple of half-hearted (and unsuccessful) stabs, then backing away with “this is too hard” or “I can’t do this” or “this hurts too much”? Sometimes what you need to do to fix a problem is painful—excruciatingly painful—do you think having my gall bladder removed was done with a magic wand or with a scalpel and a lot of blood? But as painful as the procedure was, it put an end to the unpredictable and excruciating attacks of biliary colic that awoke me in the middle of the night and sent me screaming to the ER. That surgery was painful and it took weeks for my digestion to get used to the constant stream of bile from my liver but eventually everything normalized and I was permanently relieved of the recurrent and increasingly painful gall bladder attacks.
Healing from narcissist abuse is like this. It hurts. Let me repeat that: IT HURTS. But like my insulin needles or the gall bladder surgery, they are the hurts that eliminate or prevent greater or on-going hurts. It is the cautery iron that stops intractable bleeding, the labour you suffer and endure in order to look your new baby in the face. Avoiding it, avoiding the pain of confronting and mastering your fears brings you nothing but more and deeper fear.
And nobody can fix this but you.