“From romance to hell and back again”
How Louise Carver survived the most dangerous love of all
where are you going? At least, let me drive you to your parents’ house.” It’s a moment I’ll never forget: that busy Joburg road at 1.30am, and me trying to convince Jim*, my partner of two months, not to leap out of my car into oncoming traffic. How had I come to be this desperate, shocked and heartbroken?
For the answer to that, I would have to go back to the night I thought I’d met my dream man. Rugged, unexpected, adventurous and childlike in ways that appealed to my need for fun, Jim* was not at all like the suave, high-profile men I’d dated before. He showed me pictures of himself in the great outdoors. Most of all, he seemed like someone I could truly connect with, someone who would see the real me – sensitive and introverted behind the public persona.
And it seemed I was not the only one who was interested. I came home from the party to find a Facebook message – an invitation to go out for a drink.
And so began two wonderful months. Jim* wasn’t extravagant. Instead of gifts and fancy restaurants, he gave me endearing experiences: picnics in the park, long sensual baths, backgammon marathons and hours of talking. Here was the sense of family I’d longed for.
And so, when he told me that he lived in his parents’ spare room, drove his mom’s car and was “between jobs”, I was determined to overlook the bright red flags and to see beyond his situation. By the time he’d admitted to being blacklisted, I was so in love that I didn’t even question what this might mean. (It emerged later that he’d been jailed for fraud, information he never shared when we were together. Funny that.)
If anyone had told me I was about to commit three years to a man with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), I’d have said they were mad. As I saw it, narcissists lived at gym, pulled duck-face selfies and loved mirrors. But while this vanity is an aspect of a certain type of narcissism, it has very little to do with NPD, which is about finding someone to manipulate, destroy and discard when their uses run out.
True to NPD behaviour, Jim* began in what is known as the Love Bomb phase – the stage when the person with NPD says and does wonderful things to hook his prey. Hence the dedication and enticing talk of long-term plans. He really listened to me, too, although, in truth, this was just his way of gathering information for future manipulation.
According to psychologists, the Love Bomb phase lasts two to six months, but I believe the phase I experienced was on the shorter side because of my work. People with NPD hate to see someone else get attention and will think nothing of sabotaging an event, holiday – or, in my case, performance – to regain the spotlight. Hence the night of my show and Jim’s* threat to jump out of my car.
Unbeknownst to me, he’d talked loudly throughout my performance, even when my manager asked him not to. And he drank heavily when we went out to celebrate. But things seemed fine until we drove home. That’s when he went quiet and dived for the door. “I can’t do this,” he screamed.
Shocked and surprised, I begged him to let me drive him to his parents’ place, and I thought he’d agreed until we reached a suburban stop street. Without a word, he got out and walked off. All I could do was go home and lie in the bath, feeling numb. What on earth had happened? And on a night that should have been a wonderful combination of my new love and a career highlight!
Of course, I should have ended things then, but I’d fallen for Jim* in a big way. And the crazy thing was that he SMSD to say he didn’t need the “admin of our relationship”. Was this the man with whom I’d shared so much? I asked if he was absolutely sure? Yes, he said, he was.
As it happened, I was leaving for Russia that day and I knew I had a long trip ahead of me. What I didn’t know was that I was about to experience the first part of a vicious cycle in which the person with NPD sees how badly he can treat his partner and still have them come back, begging for more. If this was a self-esteem test, I tanked.
“His eyes were so hate-filled they seemed to have changed shape.”
After a successful music career since my teenage years, I saw myself as confident. But I’d confused self-efficiency (belief in future actions, performance or abilities) with self-esteem (how we perceive our value to ourselves and others). Deep down, I believed I only deserved love if I was successful. All of which made me perfect fodder for a narcissist: fodder better known as a codependent.
Codependents will do anything to avoid feeling abandoned, a lesson often learnt in childhood where it’s easier to bury feelings than go head on with a difficult parent. And while I don’t want to detail my childhood, let’s just say I was groomed for a difficult man. My feelings stayed safely in my music and although I’d been unhappy in relationships, fear of abandonment kept me in abusive cycles, the worst by far being with Jim* and his NPD.
No sooner had I landed in Russia then he messaged: “How was the flight? Hope you’re safe?” Gut instinct and sense told me this was weird. Who leaves a partner dramatically, then acts as if nothing happened? But my codependency kicked in and I had a rush of excitement and relief. My love was still in my life!
And with that I was wide open to the classic NPD tactic known as hoovering. As its name implies, hoovering comes into play after a breakup, row or silent treatment (all of which would follow), and it may come as an apparently sweet message, call, email or romantic social media post. Whatever the method, its aim is to lure their prey back into the cycle of courtship, abuse, manipulation, rage, rejection and seduction.
Why did I fall for it? The answer is one Jim* must have seen at the start: codependents are addicted to drama, as if the vicious cycle were emotional crack. Deeply in love, I was also frozen in fear.
Back in SA, we met for coffee and after a few weeks of hoovering, we began again. That was when he made two announcements that should have had warning bells going off like a symphony.
First, he said, “women find me really attractive, so don’t be surprised if they pick me up.” Then there was his ex. “My best friend,” he said. “You’ll have to accept her if you want to be with me.” Shocked at myself, I agreed. It was only later, after researching NPD, that I learnt that there was a name for this manipulation: Triangulation.
Triangulation forces the NPD’S partner into excusing flirtations – and into blaming others for it. (‘He can’t help it if they pester him,’ is what I was supposed to think.) It also worked to make me feel jealous, inadequate and lucky to have this charismatic, handsome genius in my life.
Ready for commitment and having invested huge emotional energy in
Jim*, I showed off my codependent skills again and accepted his ex. In the process, I created a relationship free of boundaries and self-protection.
And it wasn’t as if he would accept anything else. We went away for what was supposed to be a romantic break, and on the drive back, I tackled their relationship. “At least, don’t walk the dogs with her,” I begged, for walking the dogs had been a special thing we shared. But he was adamant. “I’ll do what I like. You can’t control me.”
Even as I agreed, I knew something inside me had died, but he pulled over and gave me a huge hug. “I’m so happy you’ve accepted everything,” he said.
You’d think things would settle after that, but the next day he announced that my “problem” was that I didn’t prioritise him while he prioritised me. I tentatively replied that if this were so, he wouldn’t insist on seeing his ex. It’s hard to explain his rage. All I can say is that it was terrifying. “I thought we’d sorted this! You lied,” he screamed. His eyes were so hate-filled they seemed to have changed shape.
The shocks kept coming. He would binge drink, go AWOL, give me days of silent treatment. But he could be so charming that many of my friends thought he was great, and those who didn’t were reluctant to comment, seeing how in love I was.
The amount of weed he smoked also caught me by surprise. I’d be working, while he spent most afternoons at the ex, smoking. I knew this was not acceptable, but my self-esteem was shattered and I was in survival mode, desperate for happiness again. And when I dared to tackle his habit, the fury that rained down was unbearable.
But of all the tactics applied by those with NPD, the one that really turns once-confident people into an anxious, confused, depressed wreck is the psychological abuse called gaslighting. Slow and deliberate, gaslighting echoes techniques intelligence operatives use to ensure that their captives no longer trust their own memories and judgment. And because it is subtle and used over time, it’s hard to spot until you find yourself walking on eggshells, sure you’re losing your mind.
There were constant accusations that I was selfish, never listened and didn’t understand him. The downgrading might be joking or aggressive, but time after time, I was petrified by his cold blue eyes – and apologising for things that did not require apologies.
One event stands out particularly clearly. It was towards the end of our relationship, after yet another breakup, and having been without him for three weeks, I was dedicated to fixing us. When he suggested taking the dogs for a walk, I was keen. I came home early, but he wasn’t there and his phone was off. I waited for ages, then left a cheery message to say he shouldn’t worry.
Well over an hour later, he called to say he would meet me in 10. Confused, I asked if he’d heard my message, as I was already walking the dogs. He screamed so loudly that I held the phone away from my ear: “I never listened! I was wrapped up in myself!” On and on. Desperate to end the abuse, I offered to keep a record of our arrangements, so I wouldn’t mess up again. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is gaslighting in action. Like being fed small daily doses of arsenic, so you have no idea why you’re slowly disappearing.
It all ended three years after our fateful first meeting. Jim* casually mentioned that he would be going to a music festival with his ex, as agreed. “I’m sure I would have remembered,” I replied, eliciting the usual accusation that I didn’t listen.
When I told him I would have loved him to come for lunch with friends, he simply walked out and drove away. As usual, I sent a message: “I’m so sorry. Where’ve you gone? I shouldn’t have tried to get you to come.” His reply: “I’m sick of this.”
By this stage, I was on anti-anxiety pills, so I popped one and went for lunch, feeling so sad. I called and called, but he was giving me the silent treatment and ignored them. He finally responded the next day – to say we were “done”.
I don’t know how, but I drove to the studio to find refuge in work. But my producer, Mark, took one look at me and put his foot down. “You need help,” he said. “Call your mother.”
My mother had been waiting to help and she flew to Joburg immediately. In lioness mode, she made sure I ate and got me into therapy. And my friends gently picked me up and helped me on.
A week later, Jim* began hoovering, but thanks to my mother and therapist, I blocked him. In fact, my therapist said it would have been almost impossible to rescue me from his abuse if I hadn’t got help when I did. I also researched NPD – and learnt how hard it is to escape the cycle without supportive family, friends, a good professional and self-education.
I’d always used work for distraction and solace, but I learnt meditation and mindfulness and allowed myself to really feel the massive pain, sadness and confusion until it passed.
NPD hasn’t had much attention, and people with the disorder get off on other people’s pain, cause havoc and move on to the next victim. That’s why I’m sharing my story: to shine a light for others. If I help just one woman, that will be an achievement.
Nine months have passed since I ended it with Jim* and recovering from the damage is the hardest thing I’ve done. But recovery is possible – and there is peace and happiness at the end of it. I am living proof of that.
“It’s like being fed small doses of arsenic, so you have no idea why you’re slowly disappearing.”
“If I help just one woman, that will be an achievement.”