I suspected I was married to a narcissist. That reality snuck up on me over the years and wasn’t apparent at first because he wasn’t the classic, bombastic self-congratulating type.
I would discover that Sam was a more obscure variant of narcissist, called a communal narcissist. He envisioned himself the greatest and most deserving of attention/approval/accolades, but not because he was the most handsome or the smartest.
Because he was the nicest. He purchased others’ approval with the currency of being the ultimate “good guy.” The most caring. The most selfless. The most generous. Sure, he’d give you the shirt off his back, if you didn’t know him. He’d be happy to initiate that transaction because his shirt would buy him a whole lotta, “What a great guy that Sam is!”
It was one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place. People would ask about him and I’d say, “He’s such a good guy.”
Unless, I came to discover, you were his “loved one.” Sure, he’d leave work in the middle of the day to give a ride to a poor, single mom, from some random Facebook group, whose van had broken down. “What a great guy!” Unfortunately, that great guy had never, in 8 years, attended one of his disabled daughter’s 4 times per week therapy sessions because he “couldn’t get away from work”.
Behind closed doors, he would lament how no one appreciated him. Why did everyone else get all the things?
“They don’t deserve it. I deserve it. I’m a way better person than they are.”
He’d seethe with jealousy at his friends’ good fortune. He’d bemoan his struggles with money and relationships and work. His resentment at the world for not rewarding his generosity was palpable.
In the meantime, he neglected his family. When he was home, he wasn’t actually there. He’d be staring at his phone or his laptop. He’d eat seperate meals and go to bed early to watch movies or porn. If I dared share with my friends or my sister any frustration having to do with our relationship, he would cut me to the quick for violating his “right to privacy.”
His trauma was deep.
I believe that, “Sam is such a great guy!” , is the only thing that kept him from putting a bullet in his brain. To this day, he spends most of his free time courting praise from groups (mainly on Facebook) loosely described as “friends”. He buys the drinks. He carries the packs of tired friends on hikes. He gives the discounts at work.
He keeps waiting for the weeping wound in his soul to finally be plugged with accolades from acquaintances that declare him to be the thing that, deep down, he doesn’t believe he is: good.
70% of mental health professionals cannot identify a narcissist without speaking to their families.
Suburbia. Chain stores and churches. Even the way the sun shined seemed generic and insincere — although no one else seemed to notice.
Brandon was a greeter at the local Walmart. A sweet, young man — at least 6'6", no more than 20 years old.
“Welcome to Walmart”
“Thanks for shopping at Walmart”
He spoke with a severe speech impediment, and his gaze wandered anywhere but in contact with other eyes. He rocked back and forth and flapped his hands intermittently. Brandon’s left shoulder sank lower than his right, and his pants were always too short. I imagine it was difficult to find pants with an elastic waist that were long enough for him. An elastic waist was the kind of thing you notice when you also have a child with a developmental disability. They are easier to tolerate from a sensory perspective and can be helpful when there are fine motor issues present, too. Snaps, zippers and unforgiving fabric can be challenging. My daughter also wore elastic pants.
Brandon’s smiles and waves were the best part of going to Walmart.
Living in a fairly small town of about 30,000, I’d occasionally see him in the community with his dad. He was a good dad. Always teaching. Helping. Guiding. You’d see him modeling, hand-over-hand, how to swipe his card at the credit card machine at the checkout or prompting Brandon with the words to buy himself a movie ticket.
He was a good dad.
Sam and I rarely went to the store together. It didn’t happen more than once every few weeks.
I remember the day I saw Sam choose a candy bar from the checkout. It was uncharacteristic. I asked why he bought it and he said, “I got it for the kid.”
The kid…The kid…The kid?….Wait, no……
“Sam, honey, no. You can’t give Brandon a candy bar.” It seemed so obvious that I expected him to stop in his tracks and be like, “Oh yeah. Duh. What was I thinking?” Instead, he ignored me and kept walking toward Brandon, as if on a mission. A mission of goodness and generosity.
I felt panic. I watched it unfold and cringed.
They were far enough away that I couldn’t hear the exchange, but the discomfort in Brandon’s expression was obvious. Sam extended the candy bar to him, and Brandon didn’t know what to do. Who was this stranger giving him food? He looked panicked and his eyes darted around for help. Of course, he did. Nothing he was taught about what he was supposed to do at work included taking food from people he did know.
Sam pressed the candy into Brandon’s hand and walked out of the store with a self-satisfied look on his face. I tried to hold back the tears welling up in my eyes.
Sam didn’t consider what would happen next. That Brandon wouldn’t be able to explain the candy’s presence in his pocket to his boss at the end of his shift or to his dad when he came to pick him up. That if Brandon were accused of taking it from the checkout, he would be unable to communicate a defense. That Brandon would likely get in trouble if he decided to eat it right there while greeting customers, but that he might have issues with impulse control. That the adults who cared for Brandon would wonder where it had come from and be concerned. That Brandon very well may have had dietary restrictions, like many autistic and disabled people do, that precluded him from even eating it. That Brandon relied on the adults around him to tell him what to do and that, when handed this candy bar by an adult, he didn’t know what to do.
That candy could cost Brandon his job or his health. It shouldn’t have been difficult for Sam to realize this, himself being a father to a disabled daughter.
I saw fear in Brandon’s eyes.
It broke my goddamn heart.
I walked past Brandon, pushing my cart. He was distracted by the candy in his hand and didn’t say, “Thank you for shopping at Walmart.” He just stared down at the candy in his hand.
“Goddamn, AJ. It’s just a fucking candy bar. I’m just trying to do something nice, okay??? Get off my ass. You’re such an uptight killjoy sometimes.”
For Sam to be unaware of what Brandon needed was to be ignorant of his own autistic child and her needs. Which he was. And he’d rather gaslight me than stop to consider the implications of his behavior. That reality hit me like a punch in the gut.
It wasn’t nice.
It was self-serving and inconsiderate.
It was narcissistic.
At the expense of a vulnerable person.
The tears that day were for Brandon, and myself, and our autistic daughter. How could Sam know so little about her special needs after almost an entire decade of living in the same home with her? How could he not understand that other special needs people had similar limitations? That they relied on us for support and protection? How could he be so self-absorbed?
Then again — maybe I was wrong.
Maybe I was just an uptight killjoy.
Maybe it was just a candy bar.
After all, Sam was such a great guy.