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.
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.