When I first learned I had a toxic relationship with my dad, I leaned on my wife and friends, but I also found support in online groups like r/raisedbynarcisissts.
As hard as these stories are to stomach, sometimes reading or listening to someone else’s experiences with domestic abuse helps me better understand my own. That’s part of why I write this column: you might feel the same way.
I kept seeing a pattern of toxic partners and parents sabotaging their targets to strengthen their control over them.
Sabotage can start as small microaggressions, like being told, “You’re hard to love,” to wreck your confidence. Eventually sabotage can lead to toxic people hurting your opportunities for making art, building friendships, finding work, and searching for love (or casual hookups—whatever’s your thing… I can’t judge).
When I see stories about sabotage, they hit home. My dad would frequently try to sabotage my relationships with other people, like with my mom and my friends. I could probably cherry pick a few, but my relationship with Maria is the one that stands out most.
An Adventure to North Miami
The day I met Maria was harrowing. My entire high school speech and debate team was nearly killed on the way to our first competition of the school year, and again a second time on the way back home.
After one of our beloved speech and debate club coaches left the school, we got stuck with Mrs. Reddemann as our new club sponsor. She was new to the school, fast approaching retirement age, and completely incompetent at everything she did. So of course they handed her the keys to one of our biggest school buses, which she would use to endanger the lives of everyone on the road.
Reddemann drove us from Ft. Lauderdale to North Miami, which was not a complicated or long drive. You head south on I-95, and you’re pretty much there in thirty minutes. South Florida has several key north-south arteries that run between Miami, Broward County, and Palm Beach County. You really can’t fuck this up.
I was sitting at the back of the bus with my friends when we noticed the bus drifting in between lanes. No big deal at first.
“We’re going to die,” I said, as we laughed uncomfortably.
Then she drifted in between lanes a second time. And a third. And a fourth. And then again when someone tried to pass her on the right-hand side, which caused the other driver to swerve off the road and slam their horn. Those of us in the back weren’t sure how to react. Some of us laughed.
“Did you see that?”
“Umm, are we going to die?
“Should we call the police to come save us?”
“We don’t even know where we are. How can they find us?”
The rest of the bus started to notice something was wrong when we ended up on a two-lane road and Mrs. Reddemann tried to take a U-turn. But that’s no small feat with a gigantic school bus, surrounded by medians, and being glared down by angry Miami drivers (Fun Florida fact: To ensure your safety, assume every Florida driver keeps a gun in their car, which is legal without a permit).
Eventually, after a few dozen three-point turns (not an exaggeration), Mrs. Reddemann turned the bus around, pulled over at a gas station for directions, and got us to the North Miami Beach High School tournament in time before it started.
After the first round, I saw Maria hanging out with her team in the common areas of the school. Between her blue hair and some punk rock pins on her backpack, she was hard to miss.
Me being a goofy punk rock dude with spiky hair and some shitty punk logos scribbled with whiteout on my backpack, I wanted to say hi and talk punk stuff.
After taking an hour to build up some courage, I walked over to where she was standing with her team and said, “Hey, I like your pins.”
“Thanks,” she said, turning around to engage with me.
“I’m Will, by the way.”
Maria, I soon learned, was an outspoken anarcho-feminist. She was anti-war, anti-Bush, and volunteered for a Miami chapter of Food Not Bombs. She also loved ska, Alkaline Trio, AFI, and all things TSOL and Jack Grisham. Before the tournament was over, we exchanged numbers.
(Let’s stick a pin in the tournament and come back to my second near death experience of the night later.)
Over time, we bonded over music, hitting up record stores, going to shows, and exploring Miami. At debate tournaments, we’d try to sneak off to empty rooms and hallways to make out.
Maria didn’t have a car, so I usually went to her. Getting to hang usually meant hour-long drives to Miami, or else she had to take Amtrak commuter rails, which included walking home through Miami neighborhoods where she didn’t feel safe at night.
She was shy and reserved around my friends and new people, but when it came to leftist politics and women’s equality, she was a firebrand. Standing up to my dad, she was fearless.
She had a showdown with my dad I could never forget, but some of the details are lost to me. I’m struggling to recall them, not because it didn’t happen or it wasn’t that bad, but due to the way our brains respond to stress.
The Way Home
After the North Miami Beach High School debate tournament ended, we got back on the bus to return to our high school, where our parents would pick us up.
This time, Mrs. Reddemann decided to take US-1. Where I-95 is an interstate highway, US-1 is an older highway system (and also one of the longest in the United States). Stoplights and lower speed limits make the drive a bit slower, but US-1 is also less stressful and less congested.
Rain made visibility low, but as passengers we weren’t too concerned. We were having fun rehashing the tournament, and some of my teammates were busy razzing me about getting Maria’s phone number.
Our fun ended when the bus came to a rolling stop in middle of the highway.
“I’m not moving this bus until I figure out what’s going on!,” said Mrs. Reddemann, which she shouted in response to whatever the fuck was going on inside her brain.
Everyone got quiet. All we could see outside the windows was pitch black night and the rain beating against the windows.
“She’s going to get someone killed,” I said quietly to my team at the back of the bus. “No one can see us in this rain.”
“Yeah, but who’s going to talk to her?” someone else said.
After a moment of silence, my friend Chris started to stand up from his seat. “I’ll do it,” he said, resigning himself to whatever abuse Mrs. Reddemann would throw at him.
He walked to the front of the bus at a careful pace and spoke gently to Mrs. Reddemann, who remained in the driver’s seat.
Though I could barely make out what he was saying, I could see his demeanor: scared, but calm and measured. When Mrs. Reddemann raised her voice, he got quieter.
After a tense few minutes, Mrs. Reddemann put the bus in drive and Chris returned to his seat. The next day, several parents complained to the school, and Mrs. Reddemann was banned from driving students anywhere.
Recently, I asked Chris if he remembered what he said to Mrs. Reddemann that night, and unsurprisingly, he said he couldn’t recall.
Not only did this happen more than fifteen years ago, but stress plays a role in our brains recording memories.
Despite allegedly being an intelligent species, our bodies still respond to danger in a primitive way.
I live in Florida, so if an alligator came after me or if Walt Disney drones came to assimilate me into their corporate hivemind, my body would recognize that I’m in danger and would put me into fight-or-flight (or sometimes known as fight, flight, or freeze).
With fight-or-flight, your brain releases naturally occurring hormones like glucocorticoids to get your muscles and the rest of your body ready to respond to imminent danger.
Thanks to these hormones, my mind would focus on surviving, and my muscles would be primed to start hauling ass. That’s the result of thousands of years of evolution, which got us all here today.
Though we have this cool ability to ready ourselves for danger, the hormones come with a catch. Sometimes we get in arguments with the people we love, and then our brains sense danger, and we can get irrationally angry (fight), we might storm off (flight), or we just shut down and can’t handle anything (freeze—that’s often me).
These same chemicals have a side effect of sometimes inhibiting parts of your brain from recording memory, which is probably why Chris had trouble remembering what he said to Mrs. Reddemann, and is probably why I can’t recall details of the fight between Maria and my dad.
I couldn’t tell you why or when Maria was at my house (was it prom night or were we going to Warped Tour in 2002?), but I know the gist of what happened.
We were about to step into the garage to leave when my dad said something degrading to me. This was his way of exerting power over a teenager who was getting older, asserting independence, and dressing in a way he didn’t approve of or could control. These put downs happened so frequently that I just ignored them and moved on, but I didn’t get to this time.
I was opening the door for Maria when she stopped, planted her feet on the ground, turned to my dad, and said “You can’t talk to him like that.”
That’s when my fight-or-flight kicked in, and the details get hazy again. I don’t remember any words spoken, but I remember the emotions running high. While my brain was hitting the flight button, Maria’s brain was going into fight mode. I tried to gently nudge Maria out the door, but she refused to budge.
Maria was 5’4” and barely weighed in at one hundred pounds. I’d be hard pressed to describe Maria as physically imposing, and yet she challenged a stocky, karate-loving, gun-toting meathead in his own home who was yelling at her until his face turned bright red.
After what felt like an eternity, I got Maria to disengage from arguing and leave. Sitting in my car afterward, I was stunned by what happened. Though I was upset that Maria argued with my dad, I knew she was right. I was unable to work through my emotions at the time to comfort Maria or thank her for what she did.
Maria was the first person to ever stand up to my abuser, and I didn’t realize it then, but what Maria did that day was brave and badass as hell.
My dad was pissed. I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t let Maria visit our home, and a few weeks later he forbade me from seeing her at all. At the time I thought it was about classism: Maria was from a working-class family, and my dad was a classic 1980s yuppie (a man focused on money and the appearance of financial success). Often he said he wanted me to date girls at my private school, but I wasn’t that interested in them (and they weren’t all that interested in me—I can’t blame them).
Recently, I made the connection to Maria’s transgression against him and his reaction to sabotage us. The truth was that Maria was unafraid of him, and without fear as a weapon, that made him powerless over her. He couldn’t manipulate her or control her, so she had to go.
He tried to get rid of her to maintain his power over me, and in the end he succeeded. We broke up a few months later, despite talking on the phone every night and making plans to see each other in secret (I pulled this off once by lying to my parents about being in a study group).
We stayed friends and remained in touch, thanks to MySpace and LiveJournal. A few years later I visited her at her punk house in Miami, and she helped my Gainesville friends The Monistats get a house show nearby (they played their set with a condom over the microphone after a singer from an earlier band took off his clothes and shoved the mic up his ass).
I lost touch with her as people made the transition to Facebook from MySpace, but hopefully we’ll reconnect again in the future.
My dad’s sabotage didn’t end with Maria. After my parents divorced, he tried this tactic again against my mom. The sabotage started with obvious lies about her, and after she started dating an old friend, he demanded I break off contact with her, which I refused.
At the heart of every toxic person is fear and insecurity. When they order you not to see your beloved friend or take an opportunity, they’re terrified you’ll grow and outshine them.
These toxic people want to control you, and sabotaging you is a path to power over you.
Often we give up our power without realizing we do. Toxic people will wear you down with insults and emotional abuse under the guise of jokes. Once we become accustomed to having our boundaries violated, they can try to manipulate us further.
Our friends, family, and partners aren’t supposed to drag us down—they’re supposed to build us up. That seems so simple, but to me it’s a revelation.
Sabotage doesn’t start out of nowhere, and I can’t promise that you’ll be able to steer clear of people who will try to sabotage you. Sometimes people don’t show how toxic they are until after you’ve developed a deep relationship with them.
I know these tips can be hard to be proactive about, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your boundaries or comfort levels to appease someone who is actively trying to violate them. And you don’t have to let people in your orbit who do.
Enforcing your boundaries doesn’t have to be complicated. You can say, “I don’t appreciate that,” or “You can’t do that.” That simple strategy worked for me when dealing with my narcissistic father. He understood right away what I was telling him, even if he didn’t really apologize for his actions.
If you can get comfortable enforcing your boundaries, you’re less likely to fall for someone’s sabotage and abuse. You don’t deserve to be mistreated, and you have the right to pursue your passions wherever they take you.
Will Kenneth lives in Jacksonville, Fla. ALL > Descendents. (Facebook | Instagram | w o l f m a n w i l l [@] g m a i l)