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The Internet of Estranged Families

Sites like r/raisedbynarcissists let children who don’t talk to their parents talk to each other.

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Jun 17 2016, 3:00pm

Photo: Shutterstock

She's ill, she's a narc and she drinks and that elevates it. Despite no contact I still love her, I still miss her, but I stay strong every day to stop from breaking that NC as it won't ever get better because she doesn't see her problem.

"NC" here stands for "no contact", describing the relationship, or lack thereof, between the OP and their mother, the "narc," or narcissist.

On Reddit's /r/raisedbynarcissists, a community of over 97,000 subscribers, cutting off a relative entirely is a common occurrence. "This is a support group for people raised by a parent with toxic, self-absorbed or abusive personality traits, which may be exhibited by those who suffer from cluster B personality disorders," the forum's description reads.

The parents described here range from weird and casually irritating (annoying their children for money); to sadistic (body-shaming); ominous ("disappearing" elderly relatives); and occasionally downright evil (think murdering childhood pets). The one thing they all have in common is that they have somehow pushed their children away.

Some of those posting to /r/raisedbynarcissists are adults who have spent years estranged from their parents, establishing a hard-won security and starting families of their own. Others are teenagers still living at home and planning their escape. In some cases, you can track a member's progress as they gradually move further and further away from their troubled homes.

"No contact" is rarely exactly that when social media constantly tempts parents to approach or even stalk their kids

One popular recent post on "preparing and safeguarding for the worst" sheds light on the perennially unstable nature of life in such a home: "Create an evacuation bag. It's a complete possibility that you'll be homeless with no more than ten seconds to spare if your N goes crazy."

The post goes on to detail how to ward off physical attacks, and advises that readers hide their valuables, plan an escape route from a nearby window, and always sleep facing the door.

SeaTurtlesCanFly is the handle used by one of the moderators of /r/raisedbynarcissists, along with other subreddits in the "RBN" family. I asked her over Reddit messages about how the mods handle some of the more dramatic situations which appear, comments implying that a member's life is in danger, or that they're in danger of committing acts of violence themselves. She said, "If possible, I will ask mental health professionals that I know personally for advice. When there have been situations where a person's life seemed in immediate danger, we have contacted the admins to let them know. What happens after we do that, I have no idea."

This is just the start of the estrangement web. Raised By Narcissists has many spin-off subreddits, none of which have acquired the same popularity (Tough Childhood, Raised By Flawed Humans), but many of which serve a necessary purpose for estranged children (RBNLegalAdvice, RBNBookClub, NRelationships), and some which simply offer an outlet for frustrations only their community can understand (ShitNsSay, TrolledByNarcissists, NarcsintheWild).

Distinct terminology is used within /r/raisedbynarcissists and other forums for estranged children. There's Out of the FOG, which stands for "Fear, Obligation and Guilt", traits common to victims of emotional abuse. "ACoNs" are adult children of narcissists. Nouns are prefixed with "N" to indicate the suspected (or, sometimes, diagnosed) narcissist, i.e "Nmom", "Ndad", "Nuncle". Sometimes parents are referred to as one's "birth giver and sperm donor", as if to diminish familial intimacy in words. "Flying Monkeys" are friends of the narcissist sent to communicate with the child on their behalf, an allusion to L. Frank Baum's Wicked Witch of the West who sends her minions as messengers. "Nkids" are narcissist children, though /r/raisedbynarcissists forbids all mention of them, because this is a place meant solely for talking about narcissist parents.

Screenshot of r/raisedbynarcissists.

Despite constant use of the term "narcissist", the mods do not stand for armchair diagnosis. On the forum, "narcissism" is most often used as an umbrella term for a collection of behaviors, rather than the personality disorder of the same name:

Because narcissists rarely seek care, few of our spouses, friends, etc. have a formal diagnosis. So in this space, "narcissist" is a term used loosely to refer to a variety of conditions, and is not used in a clinical sense. We are not professionals and cannot diagnose anybody.

The term "narcissist" is mutable, however—it's also used by estranged parents who gather in another ecosystem of forums to talk about their children.

Estranged parent forums, like like Estranged Stories, Daily Strength's estranged parent forum, and RejectedParents.net, differ in tone from those of estranged children. There's an emphasis on the pain caused by estrangement, with stories of contact lost through addiction, mental illness, or manipulative relationships, told by parents for whom it's hard to feel anything but sympathy.

But then there are the stories with mysterious omissions and glaring inconsistencies, the kind which leave you asking who the narcissist really is. Sometimes there'll be a sudden leap from family life as usual to bitter estrangement, with the reasons why left thoroughly unexplained. It's sometimes unclear who is the "narcissist" here: the parent, or the child.

Posts vaguely allude to old conflicts ("Her teen years were edgy, but we made it through") or issues long buried in the past ("The problem started to surface when my wife and I divorced 12 years ago… They chose her. It's a long complicated story that I won't go into now."). Sometimes it's very clear that the author is angry ("She's mad that I didn't believe she had 2 seizures and that I told her to go to hell") or oblivious to how their child might view them ("i left 2 messages where they are staying but no response. at this point it looks like he does not want me in his life for some reason"). The forums become circular chains of affirmation from fellow estranged parents, but the causes of estrangement are rarely mentioned.

Issendai is the pseudonym used by the creator of "Down the Rabbit Hole", a website which collates information from estranged parent forums. Issendai grew up with addiction issues in her own family and is now in her forties and based in the US. She first read estranged children forums as a way to cope, before finding her way to their counterpart, the forums for estranged parents.

Long before talk of "safe spaces" entered the cultural lexicon, forums provided just that

"At first I read out of a train-wreck fascination; then I read in the hopes of finding a way to get through to the estranged parents," she said. This proved fruitless, however. "Now I read to explain the abuser's mindset to abuse victims." The site is frequently cited on /r/raisedbynarcissists and popular with its members, though estranged parents have launched something of a minor backlash against her.

One psychologist called familial estrangement a "silent epidemic", and at least one study found that one in 10 mothers had an estranged child. Epidemic or not, estrangement is now more visible thanks to the internet.

At the same time, the internet complicates these conflicts themselves; after all, "no contact" is rarely exactly that when social media constantly invites users to approach or even stalk people.

A screenshot from a post on r/raisedbynarcissists.

This is certainly the case on estranged children forums, where members speak of even their Reddit profiles being stalked and parents reaching out on Facebook by posting "guilt memes". Raisedbynarcissists sometimes gets invaded by members of rival estranged parent forums, SeaTurtlesCanFly told Motherboard, and individual parents will also to find their kids through the forum.

"When this happens, the mods usually drop everything to address it and will keep a very close eye on the poster whose parent is stalking them," she said. In one case, a parent posted their child's Reddit password and used their account to post fake apologies for previous comments.

There is something unfathomably grim about estrangement forums, but what's interesting is how they push the power of online community to its limits. Long before talk of "safe spaces" entered the cultural lexicon, forums provided just that. SeaTurtlesCanFly listed the positive effects /r/raisedbynarcissists has had: "We see reports of people taking their power back from abusers regularly. We see posts from people learning to set boundaries. We see the magic that is a person who is having their feelings about the abuse they have suffered validated for the first time."

There is no way of knowing which side of the story is the right one, but then the online experience has always been a subjective one. We choose to believe what we want to believe. And in the case of estrangement forums we choose who we turn to for help, not the basis of blood ties, but on the strength of shared experience.

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