I Have Stockholm Syndrome

by Elizabeth Broadbent

When you think of Stockholm Syndrome, you might think of one of its most famous cases: Patty Hearst. In 1974, she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, who wanted to ransom her to her rich-ass dad, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. But while she was kidnapped, Patty actually developed sympathy for her captors. She changed her name. She began joining them on bank robberies. She even helped extort money from dear old dad.

Despite pleading Stockholm Syndrome at her trial, she was sentenced to a hefty 35 years, which stood until Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979. Score one for our favorite Georgia democrat this side of Stacey Abrams.

The term “Stockholm Syndrome” comes from a Swedish incident in 1973. Four bank tellers were taken hostage by two career criminals for a total six days. When the standoff ended, the tellers had actually developed a “positive relationship” with their captors. Stockholm Syndrome is also known as terror-bonding or trauma-bonding, and can happen not only in high-profile criminal cases, but in cases of abuse.

And I’ve got it.

What Gave Me Stockholm Syndrome

The easy answer: having a narcissistic mother gave me Stockholm Syndrome.

The hard answer: I spent a childhood deprived of authentic love and attention. My narcissistic mother constantly tore down and scapegoated me. I’ll never forget when she turned to me and said, “You didn’t have any friends at Rainbow [my elementary school], and now you don’t have any friends here [in middle school]. It’s your fault.” I was told constantly that I had no common sense. I dreaded driving home from my riding lessons: my mother used that time to tell me every single thing I’d done wrong (after she’d corrected me each time I rode by).

I was always wrong. I always failed. I was a loser, baby. Soy un perdedor, as Beck says.

In narcissistic families with more than one child, one becomes the “golden child,” the enabler, and the other the scapegoat. My younger brother (then sister) was named after my mother. He was allowed to grow his blonde hair down to his butt and constantly told how beautiful he was. My hair was always cut off. My brother rode in the front seat by default; I took the back without question.

To put it mildly: this fucks with your head.

I could go on and on. But in a narcissistic family, as Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW says, “The unbearable betrayal of abuse and rejection must be walled off and denied… The child believes it is their badness that is responsible for the caregiver’s cruelty. This offers false hope necessary to survival.” So to survive, I had to believe I was bad — and my mother, the narcissist, was good and right. Every lie she told me, every failure she pinned on me: all true.

Moreover, I was forced to normalize these “terrifying dynamics” to “mitigate the threat of psychological annihilation.” Translation: if I hadn’t convinced myself this literal insanity was normal, I’d have utterly lost my shit and thrown away all hope of parental love — obviously not an option for a small child.

I am still not divorced from that hope. Hence the Stockholm Syndrome.

I’m Working On It

Because of this gigantic-ass mess that resulted in a case of Stockholm Syndrome (my therapist prefers “trauma bonding,” but it’s my problem and I claim Stockholm Syndrome, because it makes me feel less lost), I have CPTSD: complex post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’m in trauma therapy. The main goal, in my book, is divorcing my desires from “trauma responses that make Mom happy” and turning them into “what I want for myself.” Except first, I have to figure out what my trauma responses are.

Like: I always wanted long, blonde hair. Wait: no, I actually didn’t. My brother was praised for his. I wanted to make my mother happy.

Like: I always wanted to be supermodel skinny. Wait: no, I didn’t. As a child, one of the only things my mother praised me for: my very low body weight. Hello, anorexia. You came to call because I wanted my mother to love me. I’m still wading my way out of that shitshow, and it’s really fucking hard.

I Also Have To Stop Excusing Her

Not only do I have to stop the trauma responses to cure my Stockholm Syndrome, I have to stop caring. And that may be the hardest part. My husband has to remind me: She did this to you. Do you remember when she didn’t call on our son’s birthday? Think of how they must feel when they loved having her live in this state for two years, and she dropped them like they were nothing. When I begin to say, “I feel bad for her. I don’t think she understands what she did wrong,” he has to hit me with our kids. While I can deny my own pain, I’ll cut a bitch for my sons.

I worry that she’ll read this and think, “What a horrible, ungrateful child. All of these things she’s talking about either happened by accident or are grossly exaggerated.”

But she spent four decades calling me a horrible, ungrateful child. What the fuck is this article going to change, except give her something to wave in front of relatives to prove her point? Narcissists like to be the center of attention, and they like to pretend they’re better than everyone else. Scapegoating me as an ungrateful brat fits neatly into her narrative.

Except maybe she genuinely believes all these things, and someone made her a narcissist, anyway. Should she really be blamed for a psychological disorder she probably can’t control? Is this a generational curse I somehow managed to break, and she’s its rotten fruit? If that’s the case, can I really hold her accountable?

Remember your kids.

This is battling Stockholm Syndrome: desperately scrabbling to divorce yourself from someone else’s needs, and trying to stop excusing their abusive behavior. This. Is. Hard. As. Hell. Unless you’re the child of a narcissist, you cannot understand the difficulty of finding an authentic self outside the narrow paradigm of your hope for a parent’s love. My husband admits he doesn’t understand.

Some days I cry. Some days I rage. I swear I’m getting a Bruce Cockburn line tattooed on my arm: I’m gonna kick the darkness til it bleeds daylight.

That’s all I can do.