- Ferera Swan
What Surviving A Narcissistic Smear Campaign Taught Me
I spent most of last year in a state of prolonged stress and anxiety over losing everything I’d worked so hard for to attain: my livelihood and my first home. In the aftermath of what has become one of the most significant lessons in my adult life, I’ve chosen to write about it after nearly a year of silence. As someone who is still fully coming to terms with being raised by an adoptive parent with narcissistic tendencies, I’ve spent most of my life preferring silence over speaking out as to not disappoint anyone, but I feel a sense of responsibility to share this story. Telling it is fundamental to my healing journey as an adoptee and woman of color.
While information pertaining to these events is available via public record, names have been changed or omitted for privacy. This is an account of my personal experience.
Two years ago, I began sharing my lived experiences as an adoptee with a spotlight on the not-as-popular yet critical focus: adoption trauma. As I rediscovered my love for writing, I discovered my voice as I began speaking my truths. Having spent most of my life as a people-pleaser, I found this process both difficult and empowering. At the same time, I started to notice a shift in some relationships which soon began a cascade of events that would ultimately transform my perspectives on friendship, racism, and self worth.
When one hears about narcissistic abuse, typically partners or parents come to mind—not coworkers or friends. I met Blair years ago at work when she was a new hire, but our friendship didn’t begin until after she moved on to a different place of employment. Over the years, we celebrated birthdays, enjoyed lighthearted conversation over happy hours, building what I viewed as a genuine friendship. When a position opened up in our office again, I rooted excitedly for her return. It all started (or so I thought) with me showing up to work one morning with what I thought was simply a cold creeping on. Unable to find someone to cover for me, I arrived, feeling well enough to work. By mid-morning, I felt feverish, so I went to the Urgent Care center where I tested positive for the flu. Feeling sick, angry at myself for being sick (adoptees, I know many of you can relate), foggy, and lightheaded from not having eaten, I hastily returned to the office to retrieve essential belongings so I could head home. As I’m scurrying out the door, anxious to leave, arms full, Blair loudly exclaims her outrage at my presence—kicking her feet in the air toward me, shooing me out with exaggerated hand motions in between covering her nose and mouth. Another coworker sat at her desk, observing the scene. Caught off guard and a bit alarmed, I made a firm remark before walking off. When we’re feeling sick, sometimes we also feel more vulnerable. Something about Blair’s elaborate demonstration of disgust and rejection triggered my deepest, most primal wounds. Instead of sending me off with get-well-soon wishes, she sent me off with concerns about our friendship. Yet, pondering the possibility that this experience could somehow strengthen it, I chose to make earnest attempts to communicate how her behavior made me feel—particularly from the perspective as an adopted person. Our friendship had always rested somewhat on the surface, and I was hopeful that an honest conversation would perhaps deepen our understanding of one another and maybe even our friendship. From across the table at a restaurant, Blair launched a series of attacks with projection, blame shifting, distraction and self-victimization tactics. This went on for a good while, and I was aware of what was happening. At one point, she said, "Don't you see how caring I am?" No matter how I approached it, the conversation would circle back around to some form of finger pointing. No thoughtful collaboration, just blame. I spoke slowly, pointing that out and breaking it down to basic feelings—still, there was simply no empathy coming from her direction. But then she accused me of purposely showing up to work with the intention of giving everyone the flu. In that moment, I realized two things: it was either a genuine struggle for her to understand or she was fully aware and didn’t like the fact that I was calling out her behavior. Regardless of which one it was, and despite leaving the restaurant on somewhat amicable terms, I knew that boundaries were going to be necessary moving forward. Circular conversations continued over the following weeks where Blair seesawed between being tearfully remorseful and dishing out projections. A part of me hoped for some kind of breakthrough, despite what my intuition was telling me all along. This was a mistake I've worked hard to forgive myself for. Aspects of what I was navigating felt familiar, and my natural response activated—the one where I extend myself beyond what's mentally or emotionally safe for me because maybe—just maybe—more compassion is just what this person needs to know that they're allowed to have it for themselves, too. Blair's display of increasingly odd and controlling behavior made it easy for me to pull back. While I was unaware of her having an official diagnosis (though it's important to note that because most toxic individuals are unable to self reflect or see anything wrong with their own behavior, many are also unlikely to attend therapy), I was undoubtedly dealing with classic patterns of narcissistic abuse, and I refused to be a victim of it any longer. I could tell she struggled with my resistance. At one point, I caught her recording our conversation with her phone. I got the sense that maybe she was trying to “catch” me saying or doing something wrong. One day, she stood in my office door, fire in her eyes, accusing me of urinating on the bathroom floor. On a separate day, I found a single picked flower on my desk—I was alarmed to realize that she'd entered my office without my knowledge. It honestly took everything in me to remain calm in what had already turned into a highly toxic environment. To protect myself, I began distancing myself and “going no contact” where at all possible. Despite my requests for her to disengage personal contact, she continued to attempt communication so I finally sent a professional email requesting all personal communication to cease.
When you only see someone a handful of times a year for a couple of hours at a time, it can be hard to detect signs of an abusive person. Those who are covertly narcissistic can also be especially hard to identify. I am intuitive, but Blair had a way of presenting herself so differently. Perhaps there was also a part of me that was in denial—how did I not see these things before? Then again, this was the first time she'd ever experienced me standing up for myself. As an adoptee, I’ve spent much of my life giving chances where I should’ve walked away and tolerating treatment I should’ve never allowed—all for what I always wanted to believe to be true at the heart of every single person I’ve ever cared about—that despite mistakes and imperfections, there is still hope for a healthy relationship. With Blair, I felt like I was watching a mask fall off in real time. A part of me grieved over who I thought she was, but a bigger part of me felt relieved to exit the toxic friendship. Thankfully, our work positions didn’t require much verbal interaction. Life went on, and nearly a year had gone by. Then the first letter came. A complaint containing shameless, falsified information had been filed against me with my professional State board. My heart dropped. My hands shook. I knew immediately, Blair was behind it. Two months later, a second complaint very similar in nature was filed. Both complainants—one female, one male—shared my profession, but I had zero history of social, personal, or professional relationship with either, so the fact that these complaints were written with such hostility along with extensive misrepresentations of my work was just incredibly bizarre.
What did she promise to these people in return for their favor? Or worse—what kind of lies was she spreading about me?
I was beyond baffled. Those with whom I’d established over a decade of professional relationships with were also baffled—these characterizations were the antithesis of what they’d personally experienced through working with me over the years. I would later find out that there were almost two handfuls of women and one male that were ultimately named, and that apparently, I was the topic of discussion at a Christmas party. Those who were familiar with my work ethic and knew me personally were confused at why these people would put their neck out for Blair at the risk of tainting their own careers to hurt the career of someone they either didn’t know or had never even met before.
Some began to treat me differently in the workplace. Those who had previously said “hello” in the halls would avoid eye contact. It wasn’t long before I discovered that my former “friend” had been targeting me from the beginning, hard at work for months, making her rounds, befriending those in the building and work community (especially those who shared my profession) in an effort to fulfill one purpose: completely smear my character and destroy my reputation. When friendships and/or relationships don't work out, most healthy adults agree to disagree and move on—they don't invest their energy into an elaborate narcissistic smear campaign. Imagining Blair’s desire to plot something so malicious with the intention of putting my livelihood in jeopardy filled me with rage, hurt, and relentless anxiety. All because I set boundaries once I figured out who she really was. The fact that she was willing to put her own career on the line in the process was mind-blowing, too. Blair had mastered a credible exterior and knew how to use it to her advantage. She was skilled at emotional manipulation, and there was no doubt she was playing up her polished, maternal demeanor with these people—the same that I had fallen for, too—all under the guise of “concern.” On a desperate quest for retaliation, she collected her flying monkeys and sent them out to do her dirty work.
I’m surprised I didn’t descend into insanity. Processing this whole ordeal was nothing short of a nightmare. Day to day, I’d shift frantically through a variety of emotions. I lived in constant worry for the outcome. What if I lose my home? I had full confidence that I had not done anything to put my license at risk—but as an adopted person, facts aren't enough reassurance when it involves potentially suffering great loss, especially due to injustice. The fear hit too close to home.
There was a timeline and procedure the Board required in order for this to be resolved, and I drafted detailed responses, waiting for the meeting dates to arrive. As challenging as it was, I kept quiet about what I was experiencing at work for nearly an entire year—deep down, I had unwavering faith that, in time, the truth would eventually come out. I had to understand that I couldn’t change what people wanted to believe about me—if they wanted to believe something false, then I didn’t want them in my life anyway. Putting my focus on taking care of my own mental/emotional health, I increased the frequency of therapy sessions and exercised more self care. I discussed the situation with only those I trusted. I was beyond grateful for my network of strong support.
Interestingly, Blair went on a leave of absence just as the peak of her scheme was unfolding. In the interim, however, I discovered perplexing details through trusted sources that twisted the plot. Around the time I had the flu, I recall Blair expressing interest in pursuing my same profession and feeling excited for her to start school. She’d later verbally reveal her interest in pursuing my particular position—clearly, to someone she didn’t think would disclose that. As it turns out, the second complainant (the male) was the program director at her school. But what I learned next I consider to be worse and incomparable: During a conversation with a separate trusted source (again, someone she didn’t believe would disclose information), Blair had made an incredibly repulsive, racist remark. I remember how in that moment, it dawned on me that all of the people involved were White—I was the only woman of color. In the midst of just trying to make it through each day while doing my job and keeping a smile on my face, though, I honestly hadn’t considered these facts or their implications in quite the same way as I do now. As a transethnic adoptee who has had a complex relationship with race growing up and as someone only recently beginning to actualize as a woman of color, I’m learning that in all experiences:
Race always matters. At the end of the day, there was a White woman attempting to sabotage my career in order to take from me what I had worked so hard to earn—and there were other White people who didn’t even know me, helping her attempt it.
Nearly two decades ago when I was going through school, there were painful yet cherished hurdles along the way that have now faded into distant memories. I’d survived a serious car accident followed by a two-month hospitalization. A tumultuous relationship with someone I deeply cared for had ended. I’d moved to a different city. I’d found my biological families and reconnected with my biological mother. So much life happened in what felt like a blink of an eye, and at the end of what felt like a long, chaotic ride, I successfully passed the Board exam.
I reflected on these events as I drove to the meeting in my favorite suit. Only the first complainant was present, and towards the very end, everyone in the room witnessed her reaching for my hand across the table, mouthing “everything's going to be okay.” I’m still kind of scratching my head on that one, but I chose to be kind. The meeting itself was traumatic, but I boldly spoke my truth. Numerous times throughout this process, I'd been told by close friends: "You can't defend something that doesn't exist." And that's the very thing an abuser wants you to attempt. All unfolded as I knew in my heart it would, and ultimately, both complaints were dismissed.
Several people have asked why I didn't file a counter complaint in the very least. After all is said and done—libel, slander, even theft (I later realized) all took place, and it can be proven that statements were made frivolously. I've thought about it, but karma is not my job to carry out. Ultimately, these are people who went out of their way to hurt someone else; this reflects their inner state. I am grateful I am not these people.
Empathetic individuals tend to be desirable targets for abusers. I'm way more vigilant these days—I'm getting better at allowing myself to trust my own intuition without guilt; practicing discernment, and exercising self-care. By nature I’ve always been an optimist, but I’ve learned that not everybody deserves the benefit of the doubt. Not everybody has good intentions. Not everyone wants to see you succeed, and unfortunately, sometimes they turn out to be people you believed you could trust. While this experience was horrific, it revealed strength, courage, and resilience I never knew I had. Navigating boundaries in relationships and healing from abuse has been an ongoing journey for me. I’m finally making peace with being disliked by some so I can make more room for self-compassion.