A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Did I Make A Mistake?

Karen left a comment on my last blog entry informing me that Brendan was probably a sociopath and not a psychopath.  The research I did before I posted my last three blogs indicated that the line between being a psychopath and being a sociopath is blurred.  They both are classified as Anti-Social Personalities.  There are some differences, but then sometimes psychopaths have sociopathic tendencies and visa versa.  Brendan may have been either.  In any case, psychopath or sociopath, both are mentally ill.  That's the most important point I can make.

How do you treat the mentally ill that are prone to violence and deception?  With compassion and organized support.  You don't label them as hopeless.  You make room for them in the society.  Maybe you even set up communal environments for holistic treatment.  You identify the problem as early as possible, in childhood preferably, and get those children the help they so desperately need.  It's very possible that sociopaths as well as psychopaths have abnormalities in their brains.  Perhaps they are born with it or they develop the abnormalities through environmental factors, particularly abuse of one sort or another.  I say don't rule out treatments such as medication and therapy.  Don't give up on people because you feel threatened and repulsed by them, especially when they are handicapped.

Pema Chodron has said many times that we are all in the same boat, which is one way of saying that we are one people.  How a tribe treats one of their own who has mental illness says many things about the tribe itself.  For some tribes, their mentally ill become shamans, for others perhaps great warriors, so sometimes they find their place within the group.  But in other tribes the mentally ill are abused, even made scape goats, often locked up.  It's easy to justify that behavior when you label someone as violent and disruptive to the tribe.  And so there came into being the crime and punishment philosophy and approach.  This philosophy and approach has been around for a long, long time.  Adam and Eve committed a crime against God and so were cast out of Eden.  And then came Cain who murdered his brother Abel.  Generation after generation, all the way up to Jesus.

What's extraordinary about Jesus is that he not only challenged this eye for an eye mentality, he infused compassion into his message.  People turn a blind idea to it so often, but there's no way around it -- Jesus said "Love your enemies."  What's not to understand here?  And who did Jesus hang out with?  Probably a few psycho/sociopaths amongst other people who were judged by society and who were suffering because of it.  Some people were moved by his message and followed him, others were deeply threatened.  Jesus was tested to the limit.  He was one person who had to walk the walk and not just rely on empty words.  He was killed for preaching mercy.  On the cross he said at least two things:  "God forgive them for they know not what they do." and "God, why have you forsaken me?" Even on the cross he still had mercy in  his soul and yet he was suffering so much.  He was still human and not a god, which is why his story is so poignant.  There's no doubt in my mind that he was a very good man. In a lot of ways he was a very ambitious man.  He wasn't looking for material wealth or status.  What he wanted was to move people's souls to get them to be the very best they could be.  That's real power, that's spiritual power.

And before Jesus, there was Buddha who expelled himself out of a man made Eden to seek the truth and to find a way to end suffering for all beings.  Again, he didn't say that he was seeking to end suffering for the "good" people and not the "bad" people, but for all people.  He did this through compassion and this compassion flowered alongside wisdom and he became enlightened.  He taught people to love themselves and all others, regardless of what they did or didn't do.  I wonder what Buddha thought about the very sick and violent people he met.  I imagine that his compassion was so great as to include them in his heart.  Compassion started out as the practice of his life, but I believe after he woke up he no longer had to practice, he just was always compassionate, it had become his way of being.

Am I wrong to try and follow the Buddha and Jesus?  Was I wrong to try and love a person that they would have tried to love, too?  Shouldn't their examples mean something to us in our everyday lives?  I know deeply and personally that it is very difficult to love someone who, in a sense, works to block intimacy, which includes love and compassion.  More than that, who might be hardwired to be a difficult person to co-exist with.  I know what extreme fear feels like.  I also know how fear distorts the truth too many times.  And it's the truth that I care about.  My fear and my resentment were the natural result of having been abused repeatedly, but to remain in that state, that would have been a mistake.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ghost Of A Young Man -- Part Three

Cautionary Note:  I wrote this before I had done thorough research.  I may have misdiagnosed my ex-boyfriend.  He may not have been a psychopath.

I left Brendan on the last day of July in 1995 when my parents were visiting.  He said the wrong thing at the wrong time, some kind of put down of my parents who had, in effect, been supporting him for over five years by letting him stay with me without intervening.  This one put down put me over the edge and I became determined to go to my parents and stay with them for a while to gather up my strength and go forward without Brendan.  My heart was already numbed up after years of abuse and of watching him sink deeper into his addiction.  Now it was me who was lacking in empathy and that lack allowed me to leave him.  I knew I had been a good girlfriend to Brendan in that I was faithful and generous.  I knew that I didn't deserve to be treated abusively.  I knew that he was going down and was holding onto me in desperation, pulling me down with him.  I had given him many opportunities to get outside help; if he had committed to working a recovery program by going to support groups, going to anger management classes, and getting therapy I knew that I might have stayed with him.  But he didn't put in the effort and he tried to sabotage my efforts to get help for myself.  He gave me no choice, but to detach.  He sabotaged my attempts to love him repeatedly and consistently.  I know he didn't feel good about himself.

Typically, psychopaths do not seek out help, which has led some researchers to claim that they are incorrigible.  I think one of the reasons why Brendan held onto me so desperately and was jealous of losing me to someone else was because he knew that I was genuinely trying to help him.  I tried to set a good example for him by being faithful, dependable, generous, trusting and honest as far as I was able to without him attacking me.  He kept anticipating that I would betray him.  His underlying insecurity was strong and fostered his pervasive ambivalence.  Either I was too good for him or I was the scum of the earth.  It didn't help that he probably slept with other women sometimes, though he never confessed to that.  Instead of owning up to his own betrayals, he projected them onto me.  If he had been raped by his father, which is the ultimate humiliation for a boy, not only would he have justification for hating his father, but also for hating himself.  What happens when you can't trust the people who are supposed to love and take care of you?  What happens when you see yourself as weak, ugly, impotent and somehow defective?  On the one hand, you start a lifelong habit of blaming others and of being suspicious of people's motivations.  On the other hand, deep inside you see yourself as undeserving of love, of being somehow the scum of the earth.  This is an impossible way to live, hating others and hating yourself at the same time.  Something has to give.

People tend to react to having been seriously abused in two basic ways.  Either they reject their abuser and vow to never become abusive or they identify with their abuser and become abusers themselves.  Though Brendan talked about hating his father and said several times that he wanted to kill him,  he also respected his father.  I think his father's father had been an abusive alcoholic, but this didn't stop Brendan's father from becoming a successful lawyer.  Brendan's father was intelligent, had a good sense of humor sometimes, was good to his wife and was responsible in many ways.  He had acquired the status necessary to live in a wealthy suburb.  I think secretly Brendan wanted to be more like his father and to win his approval.  Part of why he stayed with me was because his father approved of me.  My father was even more successful than his father and he was also an Irish American, which somehow was important.  That I had a good college degree, grew up in New York City and appeared to be intelligent and courteous was also a plus.  And finally, that I was willing to have Brendan live with me was the biggest plus of all.  I'm positive that Brendan's whole family was very relieved to be rid of him because he had been so disruptive.  I think they hoped that I would be a good influence on him, that I would re-direct him away from criminality and violence and towards finding a place in society.

I did influence him to reconsider his prejudices.  His parents were Anti-Semites and homophobic and because I had had Jewish friends and a half Jewish boyfriend Brendan seriously abused me.  I also had been drunkenly sexual with a couple of my friends when I was in high school and though I never became homosexual or bisexual, Brendan would at times treat me as if I were diseased.  No matter how badly he abused me I never changed my belief that Jewish people and homosexuals were just as worthy of love and respect as anyone else.  Inside I stood up for myself and them and I knew that Brendan was wrong.  I was proud of myself for that because fear and intimidation and violence can cause people to follow the bully so to speak and adopt prejudiced beliefs and behaviors.  Obviously Brendan had adopted his parents' prejudices and when he reviled me, he was actually reviling himself, the part that worried over whether he was a "punk" because his father had raped him.  He must have thought that sodomy was for rapists and degenerates.  But then that thinking led back to identifying his own father as a rapist and degenerate, led back to his core hatred which he imposed on me, instead of his father.  The Catch 22 is that while he was hating me, and indirectly his father, he was acting like his father which led back to hating himself.  It was a complex and vicious cycle.

And so I left him, gave him back to the care of his family, back to those that had betrayed him.  They tried to do right by him out of concern and maybe guilt.  They got him into a rehab, then they bought him a car and probably helped him to get a job.  I totally withdrew from him.  I didn't answer his letters.  I stopped answering the phone.  I was still both resentful of him and scared of him.  Now I really believe that Brendan loved me enough to let me go.  In his way, he respected me for rejecting him and taking care of myself.  About a year and a half later I got a letter from him.  He told me that several months before he had gone to a party, had drunk alcohol and used heroin, and then got into his car and began a fairly long drive home.  He nodded off while driving and drove off a cliff.  A police officer rescued him, but the damage was done, his spinal cord was severed.  He stayed in a coma for weeks and woke up to realize that he couldn't walk.  And so he reached out to me again.

At the time when he got in touch with me I was in the process of applying to the local university's art school.  I was trying to move on with my life, but I was isolating myself from people and had no friends.  Emotionally, I was still very numb and yet I was lonely, but too damaged to get into another relationship.  At times I was detached and self-hating.  In some ways, because of the abuse, I became a bit psychopathic myself in the sense that I was isolated, detached, a bit cynical and self-hating.  Maybe I felt like I wasn't fit to be with others, as a result I became self centered, unwilling to reach out to others and become responsible towards them.  I took care of my own needs, but not other peoples.  My heart was pretty closed.  Superficially, I was doing well, but inside I was quite sick.

Egotism is the belief that you are separate and more important than anyone else.  Most people believe egotists have a high estimation of themselves, but I believe egotism evolves out of self-hatred.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Two extremes.  Psychopaths learn early that they are not welcome.  Society has an unfortunate habit of behaving badly towards those who behave badly.  Psychopaths lack in empathy and so does a lot of society towards them.  Self-hatred comes from not being accepted in the group.  That's when an individual starts falling for the lie, that they are separate and not part of the interdependent web of life.  I fell for that lie and though I couldn't live completely outside of society, I did stay close to the periphery.  It is not surprising that Brendan and I should have been attracted to each other.  We both didn't fit.  We were the misfit couple.

I went to see him at his sister's house.  I knew pretty quickly that I was still attracted to him, but I was wary because I was lonely.  I decided to try and be a friend.  I could not accept even the idea of being his lover again or of taking on the responsibility of taking care of him.  But I did visit him once a week for several months.  He wanted me back as his girlfriend and when I said no, he began to be suspicious that I was getting involved with someone.  This led him to become jealous and obsessive and he fell right back into being abusive.  My reaction was swift.  I shut him out of my life again.  I stopped answering the phone or letters.  I didn't give him an inch.  I had learned to become callous.  I had gotten accepted at the university and I told myself that I wanted to have a fresh start.  I thought maybe I could get well enough to meet a good man and have a baby.  I pushed Brendan away and then I let him go.

After having a successful year in art school, I became acutely ill with psychosis.  The schizophrenia that had lain mostly dormant in me bloomed.  Several months into it, before anyone knew, I was told by the voices to call Brendan and tell him that I thought I was a reincarnation of Jesus.  And that's what I did.  Brendan told me that night that he had been about to kill himself when I called.  It was a relief to talk to him about my delusions.  I was very detached from people, but I still felt an emotional connection to Brendan.  I was the one who was desperate now and Brendan stepped up and tried to be my friend.  Floridly psychotic, I drove the hour and a half ride up to visit him in his apartment.  I think I was manic.   Again I felt attracted to him, to his face and hands and voice.  He said he still loved me.  I stayed overnight and that's when the voices put me in Hell on Brendan's kitchen floor while he slept.  It was absolutely terrifying, very traumatic.  It was so bad that I don't know if I ever went back to Brendan's apartment.  But I did call him nearly daily and told him each time that I loved him, which actually was true, as far as I was able to love anyone.  Brendan's spirit was rather broken and he still veered towards being suicidal.  He told me this and I told him that I wanted him in the world.

That first year of acute psychosis was the worst year of my life.  I was consumed by it.  The voices threatened Hell and so I did what they said, but they didn't tell me to go visit Brendan.  Six months later, tired of waiting and caught up in more jealous thinking, he called me up and demanded that we become a couple again.  I told him we had to be really good friends before even considering it.  He said we were really good friends.  I told him not yet, and then he hung up on me.  The phone rang once more, but I didn't pick up and the next day I got a phone call from his sister saying that he had taken his life.  He was 28 years old.

Can you love a psychopath?  Yes.  I know because I did.  Does a psychopath deserve to be loved?  God yes, in some ways more than most, especially when they've been abused at a young age.  They didn't ask to be born with a brain anomaly that would put them at such a disadvantage.  I think there's a Native American saying that goes something like:  Don't judge a man unless you've walked many miles in his shoes.  Living with Brendan for five and a half years and knowing him for a time after his accident let me come close to doing that.  Right from the beginning I knew that he was suffering.  Alcohol and heroin became his harsh, controlling, humiliating mistresses.  I tried to provide a refuge for him, a safe place to heal from abuse.  I wanted to provide him with a healthier home, a way to access love, to stop hating himself and others.  For a while I believed in the power of love, but I learned the hard way that it is just not enough.  Brendan needed structured outside help.

He needed to enter into a community and be accepted there.  He needed to end his isolation.  I could not be a community for him or give him the validation that he needed.  Before he could do anything about healing himself, he had to abstain from using addictive drugs.  He needed support groups and friends to help him stay strong and committed.  He desperately needed a good therapist, a therapist with some skill and sensitivity in working with psychopathology, abuse and addiction.  He needed to be trained with other men on how identify and manage his angry impulses, his triggers.

The tricky thing about reaching out for help is that you have to have a certain amount of love for yourself, enough to make yourself vulnerable before others.  Brendan told me on my 28th birthday, when we had been together only a few months, that he had murdered someone to pay off a large cocaine debt when he was seventeen.  I know this haunted him.  It bound me to him in a strange mixture of sympathy and fear.  Several years later, when he had been in a rehab for a while, during one of the times when I had left him, he told me that he had confessed to his crime to the people in charge there.  They gave him some kind of test and said that it didn't happen, but I remember him mentioning it again after he had been paralyzed.  Was it a delusion or was it a reality?  Either way, Brendan believed he was a murderer and I think that's why he never really reached out for help and maybe even why he punished me for trying to love him the right way.  He was labelled a "bad seed" by the time he was six years old and because people tended to believe the worst about him, I think he believed it too and acted the way he was expected to act.  It was a bad position to be in, but at least it was a role he could play in order to fit into society.  But if he had murdered someone, he crossed a line, and for him it was a line of no return.  He judged himself, found himself guilty and never consistently reached out for help.  And so he let himself suffer.

Brendan was an important teacher for me.  He taught me by negative example and positive example.  I learned about the enormous effects of childhood abuse, how it can mark a person's soul and set in motion more dysfunctional relationships.  I learned about the viciousness of addiction and how it can lock an individual into patterns of cyclical self-abuse which in turn often leads to the abuse of others.  The combination of childhood abuse and addiction would make it very hard for anyone, but for a person with psychopathic tendencies it lowers the odds of personal success drastically.  And yet despite the bad odds, Brendan showed a certain amount of endurance, patience and humor.  This was particularly evident after he became paralyzed.  He said at the time that he had tried hard to live on the periphery of society, but his accident put him right in the thick of it because people had to take care of him on a daily basis.

Like all of us, psychopaths start out innocent in infancy, but show signs of behavioral problems in early childhood.  How they are treated in the first six years of life is crucial.  Perhaps they need to be shown and taught in special classes by highly empathetic teachers.  Perhaps parents need to be taught how to deepen their own empathy in order to be good role models for their afflicted child.  The tough love approach to "bad" behavior is totally inappropriate for a psychopathic child.  All it does is to teach the child exactly how to be abusive and not only that but it reinforces the idea that aggression is a socially acceptable response to hard situations.  I do believe that a loving, structured environment in childhood and into adolescence can give a psychopath a fighting chance.  By the time I met Brendan, who had been exposed to the tough love approach repeatedly, I think he had already given up on himself.  By then people didn't call him and out and out psychopath, but I'm sure he knew and internalized the stigma.  I know he was very lonely.

There are millions of psychopaths in the world.  In the US alone there might be 2 or 3 million, approximately the same number as schizophrenia sufferers.  You can find a percentage of them in prison, another percentage involved in criminal activity but clever enough not to be caught, and the rest fitting into society in one way or another, some even financially successful.  Psychopaths know that they are different from others very early in life and yet they do what all humans do -- imitate, learn and adapt.  Sometimes they try to hide their disability and other times they flaunt it, but most of the time it is with them like a shadow.  There are those in our society who condemn these individuals, quite a few in fact.  In my view, this is a lazy, irresponsible and callous stance, the mirror image of the more negative psychopathic qualities.  Such irony.  You cannot teach love and good behavior through hate and bad behavior.  Our penal system is deeply flawed.  Yes, our society is flawed and psychopaths naturally and perhaps unconsciously reflect that.  I think anger and judgment come from fear.  I learned from personal experience that deep seated fear is corrosive because it is self-centered and self-protective.  It distorts the truth, blocks out the bigger picture.  You can't have a bigger picture without compassion and without it you stay stuck in small mind and you perpetuate the problems that you say you're trying to solve.  I'm not saying that it is easy to understand and work with psychopaths, usually they are deeply entrenched in their patterns by the time they reach adulthood.  But they are human, they do have a disability, they do suffer and they are capable of being reached.  The mentality that some people deserve to go to heaven and others deserve to go to hell is immature at best and hateful at worst.  We are one people.  It's time to grow up.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Ghost Of A Young Man -- Part Two

Cautionary Note:  I wrote this before I had done thorough research.  I may have misdiagnosed my ex-boyfriend.  He may not have been a psychopath.

When Brendan and I met, we both probably had abnormalities in our brains that caused us to feel different from others.  I had been hearing voices for a couple of years on and off, but didn't dwell on that because the voices didn't try to overtake me and also helped me at times to cope.  I was socially withdrawn which made me more self-centered and self-absorbed.  I shamed myself for still being dependent on my family, which in turn made me self-conscious around others and insecure.  By the time I had moved away from New York City to live in Western New York near my brother I had been isolating myself from intimate contact with others and I was lonely.  I was 27 years old, but in my spirit, because I had sheltered myself for so long, not working or forming serious relationships, I was closer to being an adolescent than to being an adult.  For the first time I was living alone; I had a home and a car and a couple of cats and enough money to pay my bills and have a little extra each month.  My plan was to become a freelance photographer because I had been studying photography for several years.  I had saved up enough money to buy a good darkroom sink and I had a darkroom made for me to work in.

The only two people I knew when I first moved were my brother and his good friend Richard who was the soccer coach for the state college in town.  My brother was the assistant coach and he encouraged me to come to practice and watch games.  So I started to do that; I brought my camera and began taking pictures.  Soon I became the team photographer.  I quickly got attached to the team and attracted to some of the players.  One young man on the team approached me one day and began flirting with me.  I must have responded to the attention strongly because soon I invited him over to my house.  I was a mostly straight person; I got drunk on my own occasionally and I furtively smoked around half a pack of cigarettes a day from time to time, but that was it.  I quickly discovered that he was part of the subculture of young college age kids that had decided to commit themselves to drug use, promiscuous sexuality and music.  I was foolish, lonely and horny; I let myself be seduced.  There were several team parties at my house.  I started getting drunk, smoking pot and I became sexual with this one young man.  Most of the time I wasn't around real adults and the adults I did know didn't pull me aside and caution me and so I went blindly on, deeper and deeper into trouble.

To young, manipulative, self-serving men I was an easy target.  I felt so ashamed of myself and so guilty for having more material wealth than other people that I shared everything.  I met Brendan on the soccer field because he was one of the players and also because he was friends with the young man I got involved with.  On the surface I thought they were two pot smoking hippies who loved music and playing soccer.  In reality they were both budding psychopaths.  Very quickly the young man got tired of me.  I was too needy.  At that point Brendan saw his chance and he made a play for me.  He told me that his friend had cheated on me and lied to me.  He presented himself as the more honorable and honest one willing to sacrifice his friendship in order to defend me.

For a while the story got even more complicated, but suffice it to say that Brendan began living with and off me.  Many psychopaths are parasitic, working only intermittently and they lack long term realistic goals.  This was true of Brendan.  It took me months to realize that he was both an alcoholic and cyclically abusive towards me and that this was not a new pattern for him.  So far all this sounds very sick and bitter, but the real truth is that it was bittersweet.  There was a lot of darkness and yet there was also a lot of light.  The portrait of a psychopath that I've found online creates a caricature of real human beings.  Yes, Brendan could be charming, grandiose, manipulative, a liar, remorseless, impulsive, irresponsible etc...etc...., but there were plenty of times when he was down on earth like the rest of us.  It was that Brendan that I was deeply drawn to.  This was Brendan without all his defenses up.  Even if a person does lack empathy for the pain of others, this doesn't mean that that person can't have genuinely good feelings or feel love or attachment or be perceptive.  And not everything is about manipulation.  Some things are just about being in the moment and finding some joy in life.  I'm sure it varies from psychopathic individual to psychopathic individual just how much you lack empathy.  I'm sure that negative environmental factors, especially in childhood, such as poverty and violence, serve to  deaden what is left of empathy making the individual too detached.  Brendan did have a heart.  I witnessed him being good to children and animals and respectful to elderly people.  He responded well to simplicity, honesty and openness.  In the beginning that's why he responded to me.  I gave to him freely and tried hard to understand him and accept him as he was.  I wanted to be his friend and to help him.

Some researchers say that psychopaths have a grandiose sense of self-worth, but the flip side of that is self-loathing and a kind of fatalism.  Brendan was smart enough to know that he was not like other young people, no matter how badly he wished he was.  He was different, disturbed...abnormal.  He respected me in part because I was bright and I had a college degree, whereas he didn't do well in school and dropped out of college twice.  His father, a staunch Republican, would shame Brendan by making jokes at his son's expense.  His father was physically bigger than Brendan and he had the status of being a successful corporate lawyer.  Brendan knew he couldn't compete with that and wound up internalizing the shame.  We were kindred spirits; we both knew that we were different from other people, we were shame based, we were socially withdrawn (me more than Brendan), dysfunctional and yet despite the cycles of addiction and abuse, we had a sense of some health in the midst of all that.  There were some good things about both of our childhoods.  Brendan grew up in the suburbs, but often explored the countryside and living with me he had the opportunity to be a simple, country man.  He loved nature, fishing, biking, basketball.  He mowed the lawn, chopped the wood and stoked the fire.  Sometimes we cleaned the house together and took care of our many cats.  He was a pretty good rhythm guitarist and often sang Grateful Dead tunes.  I think he was relieved to no longer be living with his family and he took some pride in me and some comfort in having a home.

But Brendan was a hardcore alcoholic by the time he was 19 and I began to notice that his abusiveness tended to happen when he was rather drunk.  I told him that I thought he was an alcoholic.  It didn't take him too long to agree, but he refused to get help.  I began to see him as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde type of person; sometimes he'd be relatively normal and other times he would fairly suddenly transform into this monstrous, self-inflated, totally remorseless person.  He might start out blaming someone that he knew, but eventually he would start blaming me.  When he got into his psychopathic zone it seemed he became larger than life to himself.  He was this self-righteous demi-god who had nothing but contempt and revulsion for me.  To me, he wasn't Brendan anymore, but a stranger.  That was my first experience with witnessing someone in a psychotic state.  He was way out of touch with reality and on the verge of acting out violently.  I was trapped in a house in the country with a drunken madman.  Not just a few times, but many times.

What exactly was he doing and where did all this rage come from?  He had an incredibly deep ambivalence towards his family, especially his father.  He told me that his father had raped him several times, maybe even when he was a little boy.  I'm sure that he partially blamed his mother for not protecting him.  From what I could gather she always stood by her husband.  He hated his family, but he never severed contact and if I tried to put them down, he would get very defensive.  He was still emotionally bound to them and to whatever abuse happened in that household.  Perhaps they all betrayed him somehow, but they were his only family.  In effect, I became an extended part of that family for him, but that meant I would betray him, too.  Or so he convinced himself.  For him, I probably played many roles in his psychodrama, to the point where he stopped seeing me.  It was terrifying to be used as some kind of pawn in his mental illness.  I couldn't reach him at all and just had to go through what I began calling in my journal "useless torture".

As he got sicker from addiction and unresolved mental illness, so did I.  Repeatedly I left him, only to return.  But while I was away I began reading books about alcoholism and domestic violence.  Somehow I showed up at an Al-Anon meeting and bought a daily reader there.  I learned that I was codependent on Brendan, that I was a part of the problem because I was an enabler.  I was directed to put the focus not on him but on myself.  I was taught to take care of myself as best I could under hard circumstances.  All this gave me permission to begin to detach from Brendan and all his many problems, so that I could study my own problems and work towards some solutions to them.  I wanted Brendan to get help and was even willing to work with him, but he would not and he tried to come between me and the help I needed from support groups and, for a short time, a therapist.  I began to have faith in a higher power.  A year before I left Brendan for good, I started praying to be released from the relationship.  During that time he began doing something that I only learned about later.  He began snorting (I think) heroin.  I could tell he was intoxicated, but I assumed he was drunk and when I asked him he remained firm that he was not drunk, but he wouldn't admit that he was intoxicated.  This flat out denial made me feel as if I were losing my mind.

End of Part Two

(I'm going to work on Part Three today.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Ghost Of A Young Man -- Part One

Cautionary Note:  I wrote this before I had done thorough research.  I may have misdiagnosed my ex-boyfriend.  He may not have been a psychopath.

My ex-boyfriend Brendan took his life 13 years ago and, in some ways, I've been living with his ghost all these years.  Deep inside I think I knew that  he was a psychopath, but I never stuck the label on him until a few days ago when I read a list of traits of a psychopath.  It's been a shock to me to finally wake up out of my denial.  The problem with the list is that it is only part of the picture, albeit the most damning part.  From what little I've read on the internet, those who have studied psychopaths say that they are hopeless, without any redeeming characteristics, worthy only of being shunned by society or being put in prison or even killed.  While I certainly understand the reasons behind this condemnation, having lived with a psychopath for over 5 years, I know in my heart that it is an unjust attitude and position.

Certain studies have shown that there are brain abnormalities in psychopaths.  This makes them lack empathy, which in turn makes them not pick up on signs of fear and distress in others.  I witnessed this type of apparent callousness in Brendan at the climaxes of his abusive cycles.  At those points no amount of begging or sobbing could reach him.  In my eyes at the time this made him a temporary monster.  I know I called him evil to his face at least once and in my mind I compared him to the stereotype of a Nazi.  It's natural for some people to learn to become callous towards others in reaction to having been abused, but what if physically, in your brain structure, you had a predisposition to it even before ever being abused?  And then what if you had been abused in one way or another, as Brendan said he was by his father, and went on in reaction to this to cultivate that budding abusive personality?  By the time I met Brendan at the tender age of 18 he had made his abusiveness part of his identity, though I didn't know it at the time.  I didn't know that he had a reputation for being a skillful fighter and that some of his friends even admired him for it.  One of his best friends once called him "a lean, mean fighting machine."

So Brendan was born with a disability that got exacerbated by environmental conditions, primarily by having been abused by his father.  This disability led him to show signs of behavioral problems when he was only 4 or 5 years old when he got kicked out of either nursery school or kindergarten for being repeatedly aggressive towards some of the other students.  When a little child can't read the faces and body language of other little children, he (or she) can't follow the cues to modify his (or her) behavior.  Children naturally have a lot of energy and curiosity and all that enthusiasm can easily get out of control.  Hence the need for good role models, usually parents and teachers, who firmly guide the children towards basic forms of self-discipline.  Children are naturally self-centered, but when you take away the ability to empathize with others, an ability that normal children have, you are left with a pathological egocentricity much of the time.  Unfortunately, egotism is arrogance and arrogance leads to testing limits and testing limits with others often involves crossing the line into aggressiveness.

Children learn by mimicking language and behavior, but if you take your heart out of it, it becomes a lesson in learning to manipulate people and situations in order to get what you want.  Brendan was taught to be manipulative by his family, friends and teachers.  Initially, I really don't think he knew any better.  He knew he had to survive and in order to do that he mostly followed the group.  The group taught him the value of being charming and it helped that he was attractive, physically agile and good at athletics.  Not only are human beings intelligent and therefore manipulative, we focus on a reward system for learning new behaviors.  Overtime Brendan learned that if he was courteous, attentive, perceptive to the cues that he initially kept failing to see in childhood, people would be nice to him, give him things, do things for him.  And in his case, they did.  This was due in part to his living in a wealthy suburb with other kids who had stuff to offer.  He learned to get drugs, sex, people to do his school work, places of refuge from home.  He played the role of a popular, though sometimes out of control, jock, the star soccer player on his high school team.

But despite his popularity in some circles, he invariably crossed the line into anti-social behavior.  Part of that behavior had to do with the ease with which he could lie, especially to authority figures like his parents and teachers and cops.  He started drinking alcohol when he was 12 and by the end of high school he was an alcoholic.  He experimented with all sorts of drugs and because these drugs are all still illegal, he began to identify with the subculture of dealers, especially inner city dealers who were often African Americans living in poor neighborhoods.  Like a typical wealthy suburban kid, he was drawn to the city and looking for drugs gave him a reason to go there.  Not all drug dealers are stereotypical, but I'm sure Brendan came across quite a few who were.  In order to be a successful criminal you have to have to be good at lying and manipulation of people and situations.  Charm can help, but knowing how to defend yourself is a necessity.  Criminals have to be tough or non empathetic towards the people that they are trying to con.  Maybe he thought it was a challenge to deal with these dealers.   Maybe he recognized them as being similar to himself in some ways.  But ultimately, he couldn't deny where he had come from, a place that valued status and there was little status in becoming a criminal and, for the most part, he didn't become one, except later on in the way he treated me.

Brendan didn't get the guidance he needed from a role model he respected at an early age.  From what I can gather his father started being tough on him early on, probably when he began showing behavioral problems.  Unfortunately tough love on a psychopathic child does nothing to teach him about empathy. Instead it teaches the child about resentment, hostility, aggression.  It teaches him the need to be manipulative and to lie, especially to authority figures who misuse their power.  It also teaches the child exactly how to be abusive to others.  I really believe that when Brendan abused me, he was imitating some of his father's attitudes and behaviors towards him when he was young.  Unknowingly I think he used me as a scapegoat.  I became a symbol for his father, whom he very much wanted to punish, despite his ambivalence, and a symbol of himself as a child.  In a weird way Brendan sometimes abused me to toughen me up to the realities of the world, the way his father had done to him.

The last thing Brendan needed was to be taught more about the value of aggression.  He knew quite well about it from an early age.  His father paid for him to be trained as a boxer in a misguided attempt to direct his son's aggressive urges into something somewhat socially acceptable.  Though Brendan could be a skilled street fighter, he didn't make it in the ring where he had to follow certain rules.  But some of his friends still admired his ability to fight and this gave him a wider reputation.  All of this was poisonous to his spirit, but fairly natural because of the abnormalities of his brain.  It's not just that he slid into what was natural for someone with psychopathic tendencies, but he was actually encouraged to do so.  Some people seem to say, don't be violent except under certain circumstances like for police officers or soldiers or defending yourself, your loved ones and your property or putting violent criminals to death.  And in some television and movies, the heroes have to be tough, that's part of what makes them "cool".  Fantasy films abound in violent behaviors and conflicts.  Many video games, the same thing.  Sort of an eat or be eaten mentality.  To someone with an emotional deficit of empathy this is extremely counterproductive.  It's a mixed message coming from all over the place and fosters ambivalence.

The truth was that though Brendan could fight well, he confessed to me that he really didn't like it.  And interestingly enough, when he moved in with me the incidents of him getting into fights was nearly nonexistent.  I never even saw Brendan fight someone else.  He would terrify and humiliate me and do other things, but he didn't punch me, except for once when he gave me a black eye.  I think he knew very well that he could really damage me that way, so he reigned it in even when he got into a hateful mood.  One thing he didn't reign in was his verbal abuse, that would go on for hours along with physical threats and acts of humiliation.  During those times he was often drunk and definitely psychotic.  His psychosis was temporary, but focused on jealousy.  This was not normal jealousy; this was malignant jealousy and it ate him up inside and it made me extremely vulnerable to sudden attacks.
He had told me early on that he could get very "insecure".  I had no idea about the extent of what he meant.  And it is very likely that it was he who was sleeping around and once again transferring his guilt onto me and punishing me for an imaginary infraction, thereby avoiding taking responsibility for his actions.

End of Part One.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Response to Stigma

"Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons.  These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places."
                                                                                                 Wikipedia -- "Social Stigma"

I've been very fortunate in that I haven't experienced personal stigma until recently.  It took me a while to realize that my old friend had most likely succumbed to it.  I can only guess that the reason she decided to turn away from me had to do with the fact that I continue to be mentally ill.  Not only that, but in this blog I am vocal about it.  The irony is that I am vocal about it in order to fight the very response she gave.  Then again I can understand and even sympathize with her human self-protective response.  People pull away from the mentally ill out of fear and just plain ignorance.  I have done it, too.  I remember living in New York City and riding the subway and coming upon all sorts of mentally ill people.  I reacted to them the way most people did, by keeping my distance and shutting down.  Yes, I felt sorry for them, but the very unpredictable nature of their illness kept me on the defensive.  I even worried that one of them might somehow attack me.  Needless to say, they never did.

That was a long time ago before I got noticeably sick myself.  Experiencing severe mental illness has softened me and given me insight.  It has also caused me to become rather reclusive.  I believe that being reclusive has protected me from most of the stigma that some of my peers have experienced at work, in school, with family members and friends.  So when my friend, who responded with enthusiasm to my initial contact, became totally withdrawn from me after reading some of my blog, I had no experience with it.  I was naive in thinking that she might have a strong sympathetic response to the severe struggles I've face in life.  I even hoped that she might find things to appreciate in my writing and creative work.  I didn't even think that she might become repelled by my honesty about my illness and my process.  Only when it dawned on me that she had taken up my offer to step away because she was uncomfortable did I realize that I had made a mistake in approaching her so openly.  Only then did I realize that I had put her in a difficult position, overwhelming her instead of slowly, gently getting to know her again.

The truth seems to me that we both acted poorly, but for me there is the lingering sensation of this new found stigma, this internal tattoo on my spirit.  I've been trying to shake it since soon after we made that initial joyful contact.  That's why I waited a week and a half to write this blog entry; I wanted to see if I could truly let go, but it is hard to let go of the feeling that I am ugly and unworthy.  Not only that, but it is hard to let go of one of the few people in my life who was close to me for a time in my youth.  I think she holds the answers to the things that I've forgotten about when we were both very innocent and inexperienced.  I know it's been such a long time since then and we have changed, but my love of who she was is still alive.  She may have shut the door, but I still have the urge to try and open it a crack in hopes that someday it can be fully opened.  The I Ching has counseled me well saying that it does no good to try and force someone to do something that they don't want to do, but they also said that she would never try to make contact again.  This really saddened me.

This is a loss for me undoubtedly, but it is also a loss for her.  Just as I think she holds the key to a vital part of my past, I think that I also hold the key for her.  I knew her just before she began to transform into a woman.  She changed a lot after we stopped being friends.  The biggest change for me was her coldness.  All the while she was acting coldly to me, I was feeling warmth and regret towards her, but, being me, I withdrew and watched her from a distance.  I couldn't get past that barricade of coldness.  She even wrote a little about this in a letter she spontaneously sent to me after her dear cat died during the summer of 1981 while she was away in France.  She wrote:  "My childhood seems to be farther from my reach and even I am a little more distant or perhaps stranger."  And she was, so distant that she became a stranger to me.  And yet, she had heart enough to think of me after her cat died.  I also remember writing her a letter for her 18th birthday when we were both at college together, though not friends anymore.  I forget what I wrote, but I know I put my heart into it and I heard from someone that after she got my letter she was crying in the bathroom.  That really touched me, but we didn't renew our friendship.  I think that was because she had changed too much.  I was changing also, but not as much, not as quickly.  I was only 18 years old at the time and yet I was nostalgic.

Not so much has changed and I'm nostalgic all these years later for a time, a place and a person long gone.  But no, I continue to believe that who my friend once was is a part of her and that her heart is sensitive to me, if hidden and sore.  I seriously considered writing her an apology, but it seemed as if the moment for it had passed and that she would not welcome me in any way, shape or form.  Then I thought, just give her time and maybe try again to contact her again in the Fall.  She may have no intention of ever contacting me, but that doesn't mean that I can't try once more.  I'm planning on sending her an audio tape.  I thought maybe if she heard my voice she might feel some sort of connection to the me that used to be and that exists now.  There's just something about hearing a recording from another person.  It's genuine; you can't fake it and I have a lot of practice with being as sincere as possible.  So that's the idea I have.  I don't know if I'll do it, but I might.  And, of course, she may not listen to it even if I did send it, but I will be hoping that she gives it one try.  If she doesn't respond once again, maybe then I'll be ready to really let go.

But the time is now and now I'm feeling the ache of rejection.  I can only hope that her encounter with me, however brief, makes her more aware of what it means to suffer from mental illness.  I hope that I have sparked some curiosity in her that broadens her understanding.  I apologize to my readers for going on and on about this, it's just that it takes time to go through the process and, even if I wanted to, I can't rush it.  So this and all the lessons to be learned are what have been on my mind lately and this is what I have to offer.  One of the lessons I must absolutely learn is that I cannot keep internalizing shame.  I do have an invisible disability, but that doesn't mean that I must apologize for it or for being who I am.  I have made serious mistakes before.  I am more than willing to apologize for those.  Those are things I've done and not the essence of who I am.  Who I am is good enough.  So now I'll work to fight the natural tendency to stigmatize myself in response to being stigmatized.  If any of you have experienced stigma you need to remember that most of all.  People can be hurtful, but don't you continue it by hurting yourself.  Affirm what's good about yourself, admit to what's not and let it go.  Now I have to see if I can follow my own advice.  It may take a while, but I'm on the path.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Letting Go

Acceptance is letting go.  There are stages to go through before you get to it.  Your starting point is love, but something happens, some kind of conflict or hard life circumstance, and you move into shock.  The change causes you to feel a deep insecurity, which in turn leads to self-protective defensiveness, even anger.  There's a period of denial and some self-pity.  You wonder, how could this have happened to you.  You don't accept responsibility for the part you played; you run away for a time.  But you find yourself missing the goodness and the love that you started out with, but seemed to have lost.  This leads to sadness and regret and back to the beginning of the circle, to love.

In order to accept and let go, you need to reconnect with your heart.  Before this happens you can get stuck at the different stages:  in insecurity, anger, denial, self-pity or regret.  That is all very human and natural, but it's not pleasant and if it goes on too long, it can damage your spirit.  Hopefully you realize this before it gets to that point because it is much harder to let go when you take a vested interest in holding onto a fixed, negative position.  You have to realize that you are not fighting a war.  What's happened has happened, so take responsibility for your part, feel the sadness and the love, if you're able to, and open up your hand and let go.

Go with the flow of life, accept both your strengths and your weaknesses, love yourself, love others, and those you can't love, try hard to be tolerant of.  If you find that you can't be tolerant, then just move off.  Don't hurt yourself by holding onto resentment.  Let go, relax.

A sensitive and open heart and a clear mind is called bodhichitta in Buddhism.  To cultivate it in yourself, so you can connect and help others along the way, is the essence of being on a spiritual path.  It brings you close to an awakening -- to enlightenment.  It reminds you of what is most important in life and that is the heart/mind connection, compassion and wisdom in one, forever interconnected.  The heart provides the checks and balances for the mind and the mind does the same for the heart.  That's harmony.  That's the yin and yang in balance.

If you can awaken your heart and mind together, you can let go of the grasping that causes you to suffer.  When you do, all the problems, both real and imagined, start to fade away.  You take what you need and leave the rest.  You walk away, but with an open spirit.  By letting go in peace, you put an end to the conflict and return to freedom.  You leave the door open.  You remain with an unarmored heart and a clear mind.  You keep love as your foundation.

The freedom you encounter now is full of new, fresh moments.  Your heart and your mind are stronger for what you have gone through, if you can but see it.  That's one of the challenges of life, finding the constant within the vicissitudes.  All those ups and downs can make you lose sight of what matters in any given moment.  Change is a constant, but so is love if you cultivate it.  So go out there and plant some good seeds and grow your garden.  Don't look back except to remember where you've come from  and what and who it is that you've loved.  Never forget the love, even if it is long gone.  It will always enrich you.  (Good luck Colette!  Bon chance!)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Small Mind, Big Mind

Worldly success is not a measure of how emotionally or intellectually mature we are.  Those of us who suffer from chronic or acute mental illness must not assume that we are not as rich in inner resources as someone who has reached a position of authority.  Inversely, it is just as important for those in positions of authority to not assume that their achievements mean that there is no inner work to be done.

The proper use of power is wonderful; it is the yang element in full bloom.  It gets good things accomplished.  It is strong and firm, yet balanced and just.  It allows for the open flow of communication. The improper use of power begins to erode the strong foundations of good intent.  That's where the real trouble begins, deep inside of us, in our hearts and minds.  Even before one takes any negative action, there is a shift away from the open mind of pure power towards the closed mind of tainted power.  This takes the form of anger, resentment, jealousy or just worry and insecurity.

In Buddhist terms this shift is an example of the preoccupation of "small mind."  This is our ordinary, discursive mind, also called grasping mind or monkey mind.  This is the place of ego which feeds the illusion that one's Self is solid, central, powerful and real.  This is the place where all of us fall into delusion, regardless of our history of mental illness or our various levels of external success.  All of us share in the common humanity of having egos.  The point is not to get rid of the ego, but to get to know it, understand it, befriend it.

Pema Chodron has said that ego comes down to "a slight misunderstanding of the true state of reality" that can lead into interpersonal conflicts, even wars.  This misunderstanding divides us from each other.  If we were to see clearly, we would see that we are all made of the same stuff, and beyond that, we are all interconnected.  Egos put us in the dualistic mindset of "good" and "bad".  Egos set up hierarchies like the caste system from the Brahmin to the Untouchables.  This is the core of the misunderstanding, the erroneous distinction that serves to keep us each to our own country or neighborhood or group.

I have written a little bit about the importance of building bridges between people of conflicting views.  If we can't do it in our daily lives with the people we meet, how can we hope to overcome global conflicts?  That's some of the power I see in taking a Buddhist perspective; it only works individual by individual, from inside out.  The more of us that take small stands here and there, the more of that good power, that Buddha Nature, gets spread around and the deeper the roots go.  It may take a while to see the fruition, but, with patience, I believe we shall.

Buddhist call Buddha Nature "big mind" or natural mind, wisdom mind.  It's the place of inspiration and insight.  It's the place where we can let go of our ego trip.  Small mind wants to "fix" situations and people; it is all caught up in itself.  Big mind lets go of the desires to control.  It goes with the flow of ever changing times and is, as Pema Chodron has often said, comfortable with uncertainty and "the fundamental ambiguity of being human."

Most of us stay somewhat stuck in small mind, but never permanently; there are always windows of opportunity, times of inspiration or insight.  It is up to us to recognize the difference between being all caught up and being in harmony with our surroundings and other people.  The first step is just to see it without doing anything about it.  Just look at yourself as you are and sit with it.  Learn to sit with the discomfort of realizing that you are closed off and stuck.  It is learning to accept yourself and others in the present that allows you to make the transition into big mind with its broad and balanced perspective.   Then you can relax with the uncertainty of things without needing to grasp onto anything to try and "fix" it.  Then you can accept even the people that cause you conflict.

I got caught up in some small mind thinking this past week, but then I realized that I was hurting myself and I opened up, let go into the gradual cultivation of lovingkindness for myself and my old friend.  To be compassionate and tolerant is the proper place for me and her and all of you.  Outer appearances can be deceptive and inner essence can be obscured.  The only way back to clarity is by letting go of superficial judgments and, let's face it, a lot of our judgments are superficial, especially when we measure people and situations based on success or failure.  It's not the judgments that hold us together, it's the purity of our hearts to forgive and be forgiven.  It's love.  What would the world be like without love?  Love is wise, hate is foolish.  Why do so many people proclaim that hate is wise and love is foolish?  It's a misguided, self protective measure that only escalates one's personal insecurity.

Bonds formed when we were young go deep, whether we like it or not.  But the depth of the bond is like pure, fresh water from a well.  It can revitalize and sustain us through hard times and easy times, but we have to go to the well and drink; it won't come to us.  My heart is open and receptive despite the uncertainty.  I drink from the well and hope others will, too.

Monday, May 7, 2012


Last week, at the tail end of my birthday, I sent an email to Colette.  She responded enthusiastically in a short email.  She said that she was going to defend her dissertation for her PhD that very afternoon, but that she would check out my blog.  Later that afternoon, I sent her a short email congratulating her and telling her that there was no rush in her responding to me.  And so I've been waiting.

Waiting is hard, but I wanted to give Colette the room to explore.  Honestly, I don't know if she's had the time to explore this blog.  Getting her PhD must be a very big deal, a major life achievement and she could be busy celebrating with family and friends.

While I've been waiting, I've turned to consulting the I Ching, an ancient Chinese oracle, for information and guidance.  I haven't consulted the I Ching in quite a while;  I'm cautious with it.  I know I have the tendency to get obsessive about asking questions and studying all my books to piece together a response.  This time I leaned in that direction, but then pulled back.

The I Ching is not just about divining the present and the future, it's about striving to live morally and ethically.  The goal is to become the "Superior Man" -- a leader or a sage, nobility.  You can't do that without repercussions if you are self-centered and selfish, or what the I Ching calls being the "Inferior Man".  So when I ask the I Ching a question (I use an online computer program), I try to stay open and ask good questions.  The real challenge is in interpreting the response.  I have many translations and interpretations of the I Ching.  It is an intuitive process and time consuming, but it is also a good challenge, a way of staying receptive to the truth.  Of course, you have to believe that an intelligent and acutely sensitive psychic presence is directing you, seemingly through the wisdom of chance, according to a strict moral code.  Obviously I do believe.

Still, interpretation can be highly subjective, and therefore, inaccurate through personal bias.  So while I'm gathering up impressions, I am cautious.  Also, life is fluid and full of changes.  If I ask a question at one point it will not stay there statically.  Life marches on.  The key is to learn to go with the flow, what the Chinese call Wu Wei, and not overly attach to any one answer.  The I Ching's philosophy is that life goes in cycles.  Waxing and waning, like the moon.

One question I asked about Colette was what hexagrams best describe her spirit.  One of the hexagrams I got in response was number 14, Great Possession.  In Hilary Barrett's interpretation in her book I Ching: Walking Your Path, Creating Your Future, she writes "Great Possession means you are rich -- maybe in material goods, maybe in less tangible assets, like knowledge, wisdom, power, energy, talent or relationships.  Whatever form it takes, you have something real and potent in your possession." (p.56)  Part of that richness appears to be due to both her work and her circle of friends.  I think she's been discussing her response to me with those friends and they have been guiding her and cautioning her.  She seems as if she is in good hands and that some of the discussion has been joyful.

My interpretation of Colette is that she is trying to find a balance.  She doesn't want to be too hard on me, but she doesn't want to be too soft either.  She is sympathetic, yet conflicted.  The I Ching's advice to me is to not interfere, to let her go through her process.  I did decide yesterday to write this blog entry because I still need to express myself and keep going.  Staying silent for too long is no good either.

And so I've been waiting, but the fear that I have offended her or put her off creeps into my thinking from time to time.  The situation is sensitive.  I am exposed with all my strengths and imperfections, but I chose to put myself in that position.  I wish we could just join in open communication and gradually develop a bond and heal old wounds.  Maybe we can.  That would be wonderful.  But maybe that's not  where she's at in her life.  Getting her PhD is pulling her into the future, into new opportunities.  I am someone from deep in her past; she might not want to go there.

Whether she chooses to embrace me or distance herself from me, I will abide by her decision.  It will be okay.  I respect how far she's come in life and I want her to do what's best for her.