Occasionally, I get a good case of wanderlust and work up big ideas like, "we're going to go camp for five days and go see the Liberty Bell and NYC and drive and drive." And so I followed this wander-lusting idea to Chincoteague Island. Chincoteague captured my imagination when I was a girl and read pretty much every book Marguerite Henry wrote, including "Misty of Chincoteague." I had heard this was no dreamy world in a book, but that it really existed. There is an event every year called "pony penning" where the herd of wild ponies on Chincoteague and the Virginia side of Assateague are gathered, driven to swim for a few minutes across a channel, then brought to auction as a yearly fundraiser for the town's Volunteer Fire Department. I had no idea when I scheduled our camping trip that we were arriving during pony penning...the biggest deal of the year. Luckily, we were able to procure a camping spot that allowed us time to explore the charming village atmosphere of the island, for two nights.
We arrived at the campground at roughly 9 pm and set up our tent. The warnings about mosquitoes were true. Nonetheless, we slept and woke up to the snuffling of miniature ponies, and llamas who were kept in a marshy field right behind our tent. We went to Chincoteague beach as soon as we could. It was beautiful and there were trails and a lighthouse but I couldn't tear my kids from the beach. We saw plenty of ponies in the marshes and it is an incredibly beautiful place.
The second night, it rained and rained and our trusty tent stayed nice and dry. But the campground wasn't very nice and we decided we needed to move.
Now, I'm a talker and during our Chincoteague stay, in between beach time, we ran into a pony penning event. The saltwater cowboys, as they're called, were going out to the marshes and field to round up the South herd for auction. The North herd would join the south herd on Monday for an early morning run on the beach, then they'd be readied for the swim. People brought chairs and lined the fences in the hot, hot sun to watch the cowboys bring the horses in. That was a treat because we got to interact with the locals, who had named all of the horses and were a tight-knit group. The charming town reminded me a lot of Gilmore Girls' fictional town Stars Hollow. And then, those famous ponies!
In talking with the locals, I learned about Assateague State Park in Maryland. Just an hour north, we again got lucky and were able to procure a tent site on the beach for the next three nights. We found out it was entirely possible to fall in love with a place. If one loves the idea of horses, the smell of horses, the habits of horses, and the look of horses, one loves this place. We got to combine tent camping with horses and the ocean. What bliss!
But adventures are not adventures without some foibles and mistakes made. We ended up with terrible night weather for camping and our tent was not strong enough to withstand the wind. Rain, we could handle. But the wind that came with it flattened our tent completely. After reassembling our tent twice, we made a makeshift tent out of the van and used the back hatch as a tent roof. That worked beautifully and we fit one queen air mattress on the ground and the other queen in the van. Having lost our van storage, I was able to put our necessities under a tarp and weight it down.
We were warned about the horses. They're kind of like big raccoons only they just stand there if you try to shoo them away. They are always looking for food. You will be fined if you feed or touch them so you can't treat them like pets. They have to be shooed away through loud, clanging noise.
When we arrived, we were visited by five horses who snuffled around looking for food. I think they just like to socialize a little too.
I have to gush about the bathrooms. They were almost spa quality. I almost cried when I saw the bathrooms because the Chincoteague campground was run down and not very nice.
We spent the next three days fully immersed in the beauty of the island, falling asleep right next to the waves, playing on the beach, walking with wild horses on the beach, and keeping our cooler full of ice. It was HOT.
I highly recommend this trip. There are no hotels on Assateague but I think the National Park (which is right next to the State Park) might have cabins. We found out there are people who camp there every year in the same place and so a community of familiars is built. There were a lot of teachers there (smart!). The people in our loop were so nice and we made new friends. And as a bonus, camping is cheap. I spent as much on camping as I would have on one night in a hotel room.
We fell in love. We have found our "happy place" and will definitely return to the magic of Assateague. After being on the island, the city sounded so much less alluring and home and our own animals were calling, so we wanderlusted back to where we began.
Next time, though, I will plan differently for pony penning week. We didn't see the swim because we were on Assateague and we would have had to leave at 3 or 4 am to make it in time to Chincoteague. We were tired and wanted to see more of the beach.
Thousands of people come for the swim and next year I might spring for a hotel room on Chincoteague and make that our last night so we can experience that too. I will take more sunscreen, more bug spray, and a lower, stronger tent. Less food requiring the cooler, although we did cook eggs and grilled cheese on my trusty iron skillet. Oh, and we even made ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese. Oceanside camping is a little different than other camping I've done, in this case, because of the wind and weather. The breeze at night is wonderful but it gets extremely hot in the day. The water in the ocean is COLD. Much colder than Florida beach water. No offense to Florida and I do wish the water were warmer, but I prefer this Maryland beach.
I was told it is best to book your campsites a year in advance. Yes, a year in advance. It's an 11 hour drive from Louisville, through pastoral Delaware and mountainous West Virginia. Cell service is spotty which will certainly reduce your stress level.
I didn't get a crab cake but I really wanted to. Next time for sure. There were lots of stands that served organic coffee. You can surf there.
We returned tanned, blissed, and full of each other in the most loving way. It felt so nice to connect with my little family in this beautiful place.
Here are some pictures from my phone:
Maybe it was you, the woman who sat in her therapist’s
office listening to an explanation from the DSM on what “narcissistic
personality disorder” is, with regard to your ex. Maybe you were the woman whose ex finally received an official diagnosis: “antisocial personality disorder” or “borderline personality
disorder” or some combination. Maybe no one told you, but you learned through
domestic violence professionals who helped you. You learned that your ex has an
incurable disorder and that he is too arrogant to seek help or even listen to
how he’s affected you. You learned that it is damaging to be involved with
someone who is so consistently demeaning, controlling, selfish, dishonest, and
abusive and began to untangle your own trauma issues. The mental health
professionals you sought for advice told you the only thing to do is to go “No
Contact”, for the reason that you cannot expect any semblance of normal,
healthy relationship with this person. You’ve learned about “flying
monkeys”-people who are enablers of the disordered, and you’ve cut those
enablers out of your life. You learn to accept the situation and let go,
realizing that this person can never accept influence, never value you as a
human being, and will never change. As you heal and grow, life for you without
an abuser or disordered person becomes increasingly hopeful, safe, and sweet
Except, you had children with this man. You can’t completely
go "no contact" or avoid situations where you have to work together. Except
“working together” in the spirit of mutuality, cooperation, and doing what’s
best for the children is incompatible with his disorder.
And to top it off, your kids think Daddy hung the moon. You're the one who put in long hours of changing diapers and nursing and trying to juggle playdates and your job and you had a grown person who instead of stepping up to be supportive and helpful, was checked out and off doing what he wanted, when he wanted. The children may or may not know the depth of the abuse. They may or may not have witnessed
direct verbal or physical abuse. But they understand, innately, the hierarchy
an entitled parent sets up. And they intuitively know that Dad thinks Mom is
worthy of contempt and ridicule. Despite this, they still believe that this parent who has
exhibited unmitigated cruelty towards their own mother, who manipulates
everyone’s lives through family court, who refuses to support his children
financially and instead works behind the scenes to ensure they have an
unnecessary struggle, who hates their mother, who consistently hurts someone they love- is a person who is trustworthy
and loves and cares about them. Even though they've never actually seen or experienced their disordered parent being unselfish and supportive, their normal is set at a lower standard because it's all they've known.
There are plenty of tools in an abuser’s toolbox to use
the children for dominance and control. A disorder does not go away because
that person scapegoats someone or a new wife enters the picture or there
are children involved. It’s pretty much the nature of personality disorders to
have distorted thoughts and behaviors. And there are very, very few who seek
help or recovery.
How do you reconcile your ex’s “good daddy” act and your
children’s developmentally appropriate tendency to live in that fantasy with
this behind the scenes hatred of you? These are your children to love and
guide. Their father abandoned the marriage and refuses
to be a team player in co-parenting. But your children love and want both
parents. Their father is locked in to a compulsion to control and an extreme
entitlement that he cannot fix. You understand how much that hurts. And you
understand that it hurts the children when their father models a constant contempt
for you. This affects your relationship with your children in different ways.
Acting like a good dad on the surface while undermining the other parent
without appreciating how this affects the children is gaslighting. It’s a
performance when really that parent is dominating and dictating. Ultimately, it's child abuse. Depending on the severity of your ex’s disorder, this could
ex frequently using family court to work out co-parenting issues while
depriving you of common courtesy and financial support and holding to a double
standard. The goal: to financially cripple the mother (and the children, by
proxy, making this child abuse) therefore, maintaining control
ex initiating a custody battle as a response to your calling out his abuse
issues or again, to maintain control. Depriving a child of their
healthy mother through lying, ruthless use of financial advantage to
disadvantage the other, and enemy-making is abusive to a child.
the other parent, either openly or passive-aggressively, thereby teaching
children the subtext of abusive control: “your mother is incapable and unworthy
and less than me. I have to dictate to her what to do and how to do it because
she is too stupid to contribute to your major life decisions.”
smear campaigns to punish you for speaking out or not doing what he says
enforcing the children’s loyalty to him and their participation in family
-emotionally abusing the children through tight control and harsh parenting methods, as well as denigrating their parent whether they denigrate verbally or not
as if he is in charge and can make decisions unilaterally, thereby effectively
erasing your influence and diminishing your role
the children to turn against you, reject you, and join his “side” and disparage
you. This is called “domestic violence by proxy” because it is using the
children’s loyalties to punish a loving mother. Withholding from her what she
desires most: a relationship with her children, is punitive and cruel to the
children. The underlying message is, “your mother is crazy and she must never
get what she wants”.
But what can you do to help your children? How do you
reconcile the fact that they love a person who lacks empathy and whose judgment
is impaired by an incurable disorder?
There are several things you can do. First, commit to your
own healing. Having children means you must have contact with your ex. Family
courts do not understand the impact of personality disorders, and they see it
as a rights issue. Even the disordered have the legal right to raise their
children. Who cares if this produces more narcissistic, sociopathic, wounded people in
the world. However, there are things you can do to mitigate the damage and guide your children towards emotional health.
-Teach them how to take no for an
-Teach them how good it feels to be
validated and loved, and guide them towards learning to validate the opinions
- Teach them full expression of
feelings and self-awareness
-Teach them about gaslighting, emotional abuse, and dishonest manipulation in an objective, indirect way, just like you might help them with their math
-Teach them to resolve conflicts by
using a restorative justice model: if you hurt someone, you make a
repair, and you are able to apologize
-Teach them that their voice counts.
While they are young, they will have very little power in their relationship
with their father, and they will live in the fantasy world of the very young.
My son, who is 8, told me that when he is older he will work at a Lego store
but only two days a week because it would cut into his job as a paleontologist,
and then he would find time between jobs to be an inventor. This is a beautiful
aspect of childhood-this innocence in imagination. But that kind of magical
thinking also applies to working with people who are disordered. Children are just not mature
enough to speak up for themselves against an abuser. Still, teaching them and
modeling having a voice can help. I have
a friend who points out characters in movies, such as the witch in
“Tangled”. You can learn a lot about gaslighting and manipulative tactics from
most any Disney movie. Pointing out where the character grew to say, “no more
lies” can give children an imagination of what is possible when you use your voice,
and that there is a way to have courage.
--Teach them that their preferences
and desires matter, but that they must also consider others. There is a give
-Teach them emotional intelligence
all the way around, by modeling through your own relationship with your
children. Do not be afraid to directly confront issues, have hard
conversations, and provide solid guidance to your children. Adopt a policy of 100% freedom of expression, that your house is a safe place to do that
-Teach them healthy boundaries.
Narcissists and their families tend to engulf their members, making boundaries
blurry and permeable. Help your children recognize who they are as unique
people rather than letting a narcissist define and dictate who they are.
-Be a role model. Be aware of your
own issues and triggers, especially if you have c-PTSD or PTSD from the
relationship. Be gentle with yourself and model self-care. Self-care is as much
about taking care of your feelings as it is about taking care of your physical
needs. If you ended up with trauma issues because of a narcissist, your
children are likely to a) also have trauma issues from not being seen, heard,
or taken into account or b) cope by becoming narcissists themselves. It’s
difficult when the worst outcome would be for your children to end up with all
the selfishness, control, lack of empathy, dominance, and retaliatory traits of
their father. But you cannot always prevent that.
-Be aware that when your children
go through their teens, they are likely to switch teams as they become more
developmentally narcissistic. No, they are not necessarily becoming
narcissists, but are simply exhibiting the egocentrism, lack of decision-making
capacities and poor impulse control that marks their age. The trouble is,
narcissists do well with other narcissists, and narcissism runs in families. So
of course, you are on “higher alert” during this age. Get your children into
counseling, keep talking to them and keep lines of communication open and do
not take any dismissal personally. In fact, use this age to teach boundaries
because even though they demonstrate bravado, they are subject to the influences
of peers and often naïve. Keep teaching them the importance of good character.
A cluster B’s parenting style is less of a parenting style
and more of a management style. They need to control the appearances of the
situation, micromanage details, and judge and correct. To them, children are projects who
need to be aggressively fitted into their mold. Children who become their own
person are threatening in a dysfunctional family. To that end, they make
decisions without considering the children or the other parent while appearing
to be actually doing the work of parenting. They are like the managers who come
into the office, work everyone into a frenzy, then retreat to their office. No
sense of teamwork or fair play.
But you can work to make sure your children have a mother
who, through monumental effort and growth, comes to the place where she can
handle this. Grow out of the victim mindset, even though you have been targeted
for every ounce of destruction your ex can wreak on you. Your ex himself will
have dibs on victim mindset even as he is the one victimizing. He will continue
to model retaliation, control, and unending bitterness while he accuses you of
those very things. He will teach the children no skills related to cooperation,
because he cannot do that himself. He will show the children that things and
appearances matter more than people. He will teach them selfishness and how to
reject people when you don’t get your way, no matter how devoted and loving
that person was.
It’s not fair, it’s not right, and cleaning it up is
painful, messy, and lasts a long, long time. But you can use this situation to
clarify and grow yourself. Through oppression, you can grow wise, strong, and
clear enough to show your children what really counts: unconditional love.
Hold your ground, warrior women. Don’t let anyone tell you
“mother” is less than or more disposable than “father”. Love your children
fiercely, heal yourself, and hope always comes. No matter what your situation,
know that you deserve complete grace. And so do your children. Let them love, let them learn their own way to forgiveness, don't judge them and protect them fiercely from influences of shame and blame. They will come to see their father through adult eyes some day, and you will be there to help them pick up the pieces when they hurt over their awakening.