When ‘Disabled’ Meets ‘Narcissist’ by Mi Nguyen

Photo by Darina Belonogova

Frankly—if I were a villain, this would be my origin story.

TW/CW: domestic violence, sexual assault

We met in 2016. I was a 20 year old aspiring creative. He was 38 and had reached virality as a performance artist in NYC, and on the internet. I dreamt of being a muse and of a love that transcended our differences. Like Cutie and the Boxer—the quirky, elderly Japanese art duo with a similar age gap, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. I suppose this was the first red flag, but I was too young to know. It all seemed romantic to me.

He had a dark past but seemed kind enough. He was distant and cold towards me for a while, which I understood given his personal situation at the time, and I agreed to a casual relationship. “We’ll see where this goes,” I thought.

Then I stumbled on an article that his ex wrote and published. She was also around my age, another artist, and she was outing him on the internet for being abusive.

I thought to myself, “Maybe the relationship ended badly and she just wanted to publicly smear him.” He just didn’t seem like that kind of person. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.

A few weeks later, he scheduled a date with me and another girl. Both at the same place and time, just to see how it would unravel before him. We were speechless. I later learned that he was quite keen on playing sick jokes like this.

We had some nice memories, but these bizarre moments —unexpected and fleeting power trips, or slips that revealed glimpses of some sort of hidden sadism—seemed to dot our timeline, with moments of “repentance and redemption” in between. It just didn’t make any sense.

I felt like a saint, with the way I often forgave so quickly and generously. The days turned into months, into years, and all of the painful chaos in the beginning faded as we settled down. He had a toddler son, and he needed someone to play the role of step-mom. He seemed like he was slowly changing for the better, for the sake of his child. He was “ready for a family.”

I liked to say that I always saw the good in him, and “knew” that he would eventually get there. I wanted so badly to water him and revel in his growth. I thought that my kindness would make him kind.

We teetered and tottered for a year or two, and I ended up having a weepy phone call with his mother one night. She told me to leave once I felt like I was walking on eggshells, holding my tongue, or anxiously avoiding provocation. Narcissism ran in their family, she explained, and his father was the worst. She wished she had divorced him sooner.

She then asked if he had ever been physical with me, and at the time, I was genuinely offended by the question. It later turned out that she knew her son better than anyone, as most mothers do. I’m not sure how I missed this warning. We eventually decided to go to couples’ counseling and I took it as a sign that things were finally going in a healthy direction. I thought that maybe it was the push that we both needed to better ourselves as individuals and to work harder on our relationship. It seemed like it was going well, and we moved into a lovely new apartment together in New Jersey. Like a nightmare, I suddenly fell devastatingly ill at the beginning of this year with myalgic encephalomyelitis, and I had been convinced that this man had grown enough to become a caretaker for me. Of course, that is what we all expect from our partners, and that is why “In sickness and in health” is one of the most commonly used wedding vows.

In actuality, sickness brings a blindsiding series of storms. Becoming disabled meant that I was not who I was anymore. I wouldn’t be able to do all the things that we used to do—I couldn’t go out, stay up late, dance, or go to shows. I stopped making art. I started to look frumpy and, well, sickly. Sex was different. I’m unable to work, so all financial responsibility fell on him. I couldn’t co-parent very well. I didn’t have the capacity to do housework so everything was always a mess. Every responsibility we once shared had shifted to him, plus a few more on top.

I felt like I, as a person and a partner, had more “cons” than “pros.” And I knew he was bound to snap at some point. He was the type to chase hedonism, and I felt like I couldn’t provide much.

I spent many days heavy with guilt. I wanted to be helpful, and I wanted to be fun and desirable. The future began to look uncertain as my health wandered into unpredictability. I constantly wondered: Could we sustain this? For how much longer? Will things get better before we reach a breaking point? Will we ever get married? Is this even the person I see myself marrying anymore?

With the illness, I became increasingly dependent on him. From picking up medication to transporting me to my appointments, and everything in between. I had days when I couldn’t move and I only wallowed in bed. I couldn’t really go outside by myself anymore, or see my friends. I saw my family occasionally, but only if they felt up for the drive to my place, which was an hour away from them.

He held this over my head at times—Threatening to not pick up my medication and leaving me to figure it out for myself. I was incredibly vulnerable.

We both grieved a lot, but somehow I was missing the empathy that I needed and expected from him. All the stress piled on and neither of us were coping well. I began to feel stuck. I lost my independence, I felt terribly sick, and we constantly argued over the smallest issues. I started to dread seeing him when he came home from work. I could feel myself tense up in a panic once he walked through the door. I began involuntarily holding my breath.

I didn’t want to start fights, but he always seemed to pick them with me, or he knew how to push all the right buttons. It was so exhausting.

Unexpectedly, he started using my illness to jab at me.

“You’re bedridden and you don’t do sh*t.”

It was a new low. This is not a caretaker. This isn’t even a friend. What kind of person would use a debilitating and incurable disease to insult their partner?

I was disappointed and disgusted beyond words. I felt stupid for being hopeful, and for trusting that this person was willing to go through this difficult journey with me. Of course, that’s the thing with narcissistic abuse. You are always made to believe that some of it was your fault, whether it was your bad judgment and naivety, your provocation that somehow warranted whatever response you received, or whatever else.

Everyone’s feelings are valid. Unhealthy and damaging responses as a result of those feelings are not. From there, it all escalated so quickly. I’m not even sure what happened. Whatever unfolded in the past few weeks is a blur to me.

What I can say is, in the end, I moved to my parents’ apartment in an emergency. My friends drove a great distance to me in the middle of the night. Police were called. I only brought with me a few changes of clothes, medication, and some new scars and bruises on my neck, from someone who didn’t think twice about pinning a sick fragile person down by the throat.

When I got home, I reached out to the women I had been purposely pitted against. Just seeing their names and faces made me feel awful, but only because they remind me of how awfully I had been treated. His behavior was entirely his fault, and none of these women deserved to be used in his sick games.

His obsessive pursuit of control extended beyond me. He needed to feel control over other women as well. He found pleasure in creating non-existent competition among us all, misrepresenting us to each other, and organizing run-ins “by chance.” If not run-ins, he would take multiple women to the same places on separate dates and mention the “last time he was there with _____.” I wonder what the staff of these places must have thought. How humiliating.

He needed to constantly surveil the social media pages of his exes. He did this to mine as well, and even sifted through my personal messages a few times behind my back. He needed to see what I was saying about him. He said he needed to know whether his exes still thought of him, whether their lives had been made worse after he left, and that I wouldn’t “get it.”

I got it alright. He was a fucking creep.

Infinitely self-absorbed and delusional. It took me a long time to realize that none of their traits are things that I lack. The years of comparison took a toll on me, and the new disability ripped out whatever was left of my self-esteem.

I tried explaining to him how I felt about my illness, and how it made me feel extra insecure, especially when we are both unhappy. It was made worse when I found out he was still meandering around the social media pages of his ex despite my discomfort about it. I asked her to block his account because it must be disturbing and uncomfortable for her as well; they broke up nearly a decade ago.

I poured my heart out and sobbed about how I am deteriorating, and am terrified of the uncertainty of our future. How I needed understanding and support. How I needed to feel secure and reassured that I am not a burden. His immediate and only response was that he needed to clear things up with the ex now that I’ve intervened and painted him out to look bad.

I felt my soul disconnect from my body. And that was it. It was over. I had tried my best to communicate and was not heard. I had been neither respected nor prioritized. This was not the person for me. It began to crumble in the most violent way at that point. Unfortunately, I also found out that fight or flight still kicks in even when you are this ill.

I am most grateful for these women who have been incredibly kind, offering their support to me and sharing some similar unpleasant experiences of their own. He had a pattern, and these were his past victims. I know that now.

As I recently found out through speaking with them, he had sexually assaulted someone around the same time as when I was planning his son’s 4th birthday party with his ex-wife. I taught his son how to ride a bike that summer. We had gone on a family camping trip.

Yet here he was, brutally terrorizing a young woman on the street at night, unbeknownst to me. I had to rethink the authenticity of the entire relationship upon hearing this. I suppose I had spent the last 5 years living a lie. He wanted to be able to maintain an illusory family and a wonderful home life, but he also wanted to be his true awful self when no one else was watching. 

I’m not sad, though. My nice memories of our relationship have been tainted with reality, and with the constant accumulation of trauma throughout the entirety of it. I realized that I lived with so much anxiety, stress, and guilt when I was with him. It’s all gone now, and I can finally be myself comfortably. I lived with both the difficulty of my illness and with someone who hated my illness. It seemed like he hated me a lot of the time. He probably did.

Today I’m grateful to be able to focus entirely on my health and healing. My days aren’t so gloomy anymore, and I’m not so worried about what comes next. Despite the scarred throat, I can breathe now.

This is a good thing.

If you or anyone you know are experiencing signs of domestic abuse, visit https://www.thehotline.org/get-help/ or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233

(SAFE) or 1–800–787–3224 (TTY)

Mi Nguyen (she/they) is a Vietnamese-Cambodian, kink-positive disability writer and digital artist. Mi was born and raised in Little Caribbean, Brooklyn, and dabbles in the local NYC hip hop scene, producing events and doing PR work. Mi was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, POTS, fibromyalgia, and a few other conditions in their early 20s. Now their work focuses on raising awareness about under researched chronic illnesses and disability rights.

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