The Lonely, Self-Absorbed Contrarian: On Elizabeth Wurtzel

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s latest bizarre piece in New York Magazine has unleashed a tremendous and understandably negative reaction in the feminist community. I’ve written critically about Wurtzel before for the LA Times, but today at Role/Reboot, I’m trying for a more sympathetic angle. Here’s A Difficult Woman: Why Elizabeth Wurtzel Is A Narcissist Who Still Matters. Excerpt:

Wurtzel doesn’t repudiate her old call to prioritize autonomy and adventure over security, but she does acknowledge that it has all come at a price. “Convention serves a purpose,” she has decided; “it gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis.” And Wurtzel is in one hell of an ongoing crisis: “I have spent an amazing amount of my life in tears,” she writes. One can almost imagine the glee with which anti-feminists might read that. If it hasn’t been written already, somewhere some pious defender of traditional gender roles is cobbling together a schadenfreude-drenched column in which Wurtzel appears as the ultimate object lesson about the dangers of feminism. Indeed, part of the fury at Wurtzel now is that her self-indulgent train-wreck of an essay provides such an easy cudgel for social conservatives to use against progressive young women.

As exasperating and bewildering and narcissistic as her essay is, there’s a way in which Wurtzel is doing something more important than indulging herself at our expense. Her work is defiantly at odds with the dominant writing today about gender, defined as it is by long Atlantic articles that eventually become books. This is the era where ambitious women are advised to settle for Mr. Good Enough, warned that their own achievements have brought about the end of men, and sternly reminded that they can’t hope to have it all. Yes, it’s an era of incredible feminist activism, but it’s also an age in which even many progressive women’s voices encourage women to diminish their expectations. To Wurtzel, that emphasis on sober compromise is at the heart of what’s led to our “world gone wrong.” She may be more self-absorbed than ever, but she’s also doing what she’s always done: playing the lonely contrarian.

Empathy Can Be Learned: Overcoming Narcissism, One Day at a Time

An earlier version of this post appeared in December 2008.

A couple of years ago, I put up this post about overcoming my own mental illness. In particular, I wrote in response to this post by the Happy Feminist about her relationship with her narcissistic father.

In my years in and around the mental health system, I was consistently diagnosed not with depression but with a personality disorder. More precisely, I was regularly described (by several psychiatrists) as having “cluster b” personality disorders: Narcissistic, Antisocial, and everyone’s favorite, Borderline. Based on the traditional criteria, I hit each and every one of the criteria for the last of these, and many of the crucial ones for the first two. From late adolescence until the cusp of thirty, as I cycled in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals, these diagnoses were offered again and again. And in my 2006 post, I talked in general terms about my recovery, conversion, and transformation. But I didn’t get much into specifics.

I’ve corresponded a bit with Jan at Planetjan, who has written quite a bit about dealing with folks with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (See her first, second, and third excellent pieces.) She wrote something that stirred me up a bit, for understandable reasons:

How is a personality disorder different from mental illness? I had a hard time initially wrapping my head around this one. A mental illness (schizophrenia being the most widely known) can be treated, with varying degrees of success, with medications or cognitive therapy. Most mental illnesses are caused by brain cell synaptic disruptions, most of which are believed to be genetic in origin. I have friends who are bipolar and as long as they take their meds, any symptoms subside and they feel and act relatively “normal.” Mental illnesses typically present themselves in late adolescence or early adulthood. The onset of the mental illness is often sudden and profound. A mental illness descends over a person’s personality like a heavy wool blanket feels on an already warm summer night.

A personality disorder, on the other hand, is all pervasive. The DSM-IV describes a personality disorder as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

With mental illness, a person’s personality is blanketed, or suffocated, by the onset of the mental illness. But the personality of someone with a personality disorder is virtually interwoven into every fiber of that blanket. Unravel the blanket and you unravel their personality.

So someone doesn’t have a personality disorder; they ARE the personality disorder. These personality traits are so deeply ingrained that they defy change.

Bold emphasis mine.

I’ve heard this distinction between mental illness and personality disorders before, of course, though rarely so succinctly expressed. And of course, it brings me up short. Looking at my life narrative, three possibilities suggest themselves as a response to her position (widely but not universally held by the psychiatric profession) that personality disorders “defy change”:

1. Despite being diagnosed with cluster B disorders again and again over more than a decade by a number of doctors, perhaps I never really had a personality disorder — the shrinks were wrong. I just met a whole bunch of the diagnostic criteria, but not the disorders themselves.

2. The diagnoses were correct in the first place, and I’m fooling myself — and a lot of other people — when I claim that I have “overcome” the pernicious influence of these disorders on my psyche and my life. I may have gotten better at disguising the NPD and the Borderline characteristics of my identity, but they still dominate my identity at its very foundation.

3. Jan, and a great many doctors, are wrong. Personality disorders, as powerful as they are, can be overcome.

I want to believe #3, and most of the time, I do believe #3. I seldom give much credence to #1, largely because of the preponderance of evidence over a fairly significant period of time. I do worry, less and less as I grow older, about #2. The fear that I am broken, “maimed from the start” by an aspect of my identity that can be hidden but never erased, comes up occasionally. I know that I have aspects of my personality which continue to meet the diagnostic criteria for at least some of the named disorders, even if I do what I imagine is a very credible job of keeping them from becoming manifest and obvious to others. Continue reading

Can Handsome Men Be Faithful?

My Tuesday column is up at The Good Men Project: Can Handsome Men Stay Faithful? Excerpt:

…I identify a bit with Anthony Weiner, as I suspect quite a few men do. I was a bright, nerdy kid in high school with grades as high as my dating prospects were low. The girls on whom I had crushes considered me the dreaded “nice guy, but”—the sort in whom they felt comfortable confiding their own stories of heartache over sexy, tough, bad boys. As the pop psychologists would say, I had low social/sexual capital.

In college, things changed. I lost a little weight and got a more flattering pair of glasses. I also found a confidence that honestly seemed to materialize out of nowhere. I remember the shock I felt at 20, standing at a party, clutching a red cup of beer in my hand, and realizing that the pretty girl standing in front of me was flirting with me. Like so many guys who bloom a bit late, I went through a lengthy and regrettable period where my main focus was on seeing just how much my growing social capital could get me.
I was married and divorced twice before I was 30, and chronically unfaithful through both marriages. I wouldn’t call myself a sex addict, but like Anthony Weiner, was hungry—even desperate—for validation. The actual sex I had with women was less important than the thrill I got from knowing that someone new was willing to sleep with me. I was chasing affirmation more than orgasm. The thrill wasn’t in getting close to new naked skin, the thrill was in knowing that yet another person found me desirable. It was as if I were trying to collect evidence that I wasn’t that nerdy, awkward boy whom everyone had teased in high school.

Just as Anthony Weiner was more interested in having women praise his naked body than in seeing their nudie pics, I cared as much about being told I was “hot” as I did about sex itself…

Read the whole thing.

Weinergate, penis pics, and the longing to be hot

In response to Anthony Weiner’s press conference yesterday in which he admitted using the internet to send semi-nude pictures of himself to young women, Irin Carmon suggests at Jezebel that this latest scandal is — like many others before it — rooted in male narcissism.

All over the Internet, men are photographing their own bodies and sending the shots to women who are maybe not their wives and girlfriends. It’s a risk for most any non-professional, but it’s one that predictably costs male politicians like Anthony Weiner — and the men before him — so much more. So why do they do it?

“Hottttt.” That’s the Facebook comment on a video of Weiner speech that launched Meagan Broussard’s Internet flirtation with the Congressman, complete with cockshots clothed and maybe less so. “You’re so hot,” was Rielle Hunter’s opening line to John Edwards; eventually, he thought it was a good idea to make a sex tape with her.

In the Venn diagram of narcissism, the overlap of men in political office and men whose sexual narcissism verges on self destruction is increasingly visible. If you want to blame the Internet for anything, blame it for manifesting — and giving an outlet to — what surely must have always been present: Men (and they are still overwhelmingly men) who not only want your votes but for you to adore their waxed pecs. And they think they can get away with it.

Carmon isn’t entirely off base. But she misses the key point, though it’s one she hints at. “Hot” has such extraordinary power in these men’s lives not because they are all narcissists (though some may meet the clinical definition of that term) but because they so rarely hear the word. Powerful men who risk everything to send pictures of their penises or pecs to strange women aren’t filled with cocky self-regard. They’re filled with a desperate hunger for a very specific kind of validation.

In a piece I wrote for the Good Men Project in March, I suggested:

So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.

I’ll bet Anthony Weiner doesn’t doubt his own intellectual or political abilities. Like many men who are good at what they do (and Weiner has been one of the most able members of the Democratic caucus for years), he exudes a confidence that borders on arrogance. I don’t think that’s feigned. But like so many men sliding towards middle age, there’s an unmet hunger for sexual validation. Men like Weiner know women may be attracted to their power or their status, but they want more — they long for validation that their bodies aren’t gross and disgusting. They want to be “hot.” Continue reading

“Turning down the volume on KHGO”: reflections on overcoming a personality disorder

A couple of years ago, I put up this post about overcoming my own mental illness. In particular, I wrote in response to this post by the Happy Feminist about her relationship with her narcissistic father.

In my years in and around the mental health system, I was consistently diagnosed not with depression but with a personality disorder. More precisely, I was regularly described (by several psychiatrists) as having “cluster b” personality disorders: Narcissistic, Antisocial, and everyone’s favorite, Borderline. Based on the traditional criteria, I hit each and every one of the criteria for the last of these, and many of the crucial ones for the first two. From late adolescence until the cusp of thirty, as I cycled in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals, these diagnoses were offered again and again. And in my 2006 post, I talked in general terms about my recovery, conversion, and transformation. But I didn’t get much into specifics.

I’ve corresponded a bit with Jan at Planetjan, who has written quite a bit about dealing with folks with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (See her first, second, and third excellent pieces.) She wrote something that stirred me up a bit, for understandable reasons:

How is a personality disorder different from mental illness? I had a hard time initially wrapping my head around this one. A mental illness (schizophrenia being the most widely known) can be treated, with varying degrees of success, with medications or cognitive therapy. Most mental illnesses are caused by brain cell synaptic disruptions, most of which are believed to be genetic in origin. I have friends who are bipolar and as long as they take their meds, any symptoms subside and they feel and act relatively “normal.” Mental illnesses typically present themselves in late adolescence or early adulthood. The onset of the mental illness is often sudden and profound. A mental illness descends over a person’s personality like a heavy wool blanket feels on an already warm summer night.

A personality disorder, on the other hand, is all pervasive. The DSM-IV describes a personality disorder as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

With mental illness, a person’s personality is blanketed, or suffocated, by the onset of the mental illness. But the personality of someone with a personality disorder is virtually interwoven into every fiber of that blanket. Unravel the blanket and you unravel their personality.

So someone doesn’t have a personality disorder; they ARE the personality disorder. These personality traits are so deeply ingrained that they defy change.

Bold emphasis mine.

I’ve heard this distinction between mental illness and personality disorders before, of course, though rarely so succinctly expressed. And of course, it brings me up short. Looking at my life narrative, three possibilities suggest themselves as a response to her position (widely but not universally held by the psychiatric profession) that personality disorders “defy change”:

1. Despite being diagnosed with cluster B disorders again and again over more than a decade by a number of doctors, perhaps I never really had a personality disorder — the shrinks were wrong. I just met a whole bunch of the diagnostic criteria, but not the disorders themselves.

2. The diagnoses were correct in the first place, and I’m fooling myself — and a lot of other people — when I claim that I have “overcome” the pernicious influence of these disorders on my psyche and my life. I may have gotten better at disguising the NPD and the Borderline characteristics of my identity, but they still dominate my identity at its very foundation.

3. Jan, and a great many doctors, are wrong. Personality disorders, as powerful as they are, can be overcome.

I want to believe #3, and most of the time, I do believe #3. I seldom give much credence to #1, largely because of the preponderance of evidence over a fairly significant period of time. I do worry, less and less as I grow older, about #2. The fear that I am broken, “maimed from the start” by an aspect of my identity that can be hidden but never erased, comes up occasionally. I know that I have aspects of my personality which continue to meet the diagnostic criteria for at least some of the named disorders, even if I do what I imagine is a very credible job of keeping them from becoming manifest and obvious to others. Continue reading

Self-awareness good, navel-gazing bad: some thoughts on men, accountability, and the lesson of Kyle Payne

Cara, Jill, Belledame, Renegade Evolution and Jeff are just a few of the feminist bloggers to take on the disturbing story of Kyle Payne, a progressive feminist blogger and anti-pornography activist in Iowa. According to the Iowa Independent:

An Iowa blogger who claimed to use activism and education to promote “a more just and life-affirming culture of sexuality” for women, especially those women who have been victims of sexual violence, has pleaded guilty to photographing and filming a college student’s breasts without her consent.

Kyle D. Payne, 22 of Ida Grove, presented his guilty plea Monday in Iowa District Court for Buena Vista County. He agreed he was guilty of felony attempted burglary in the second degree and two counts of invasion of privacy, a serious misdemeanor.

At the time of the incident, Payne had been employed by Buena Vista University as a dormitory resident adviser. Police reports indicate that while attending to an intoxicated and unconscious female student, Payne reportedly assaulted and photographed her. The guilty plea entered Monday did not include assault charges. Tips received by police and campus security following the incident led to a 10-month investigation that resulted in Payne’s arrest in February.

There are other allegations on some of the blogs that Payne had child pornography on his computer as well, though I haven’t been able to find any substantiation — if anyone has more info on that aspect of this case, please include it in the comments.

It’s always immensely disheartening when any advocate for social justice is discovered living a life in contradiction to his or her professed values. In my initial comments on the subject at Jill’s, I wrongly implied that there was something particularly troubling about a “male feminist” betraying his commitments. I noted how angry I was that a young man who shares the same passion for sexual equality that I do had done such a thing, and I worried — and indeed still do worry — about the negative impact Kyle Payne’s appalling behavior will have on the public perception of feminist men. Some of the commenters on the thread pointed out that my concern was at least partly misplaced; Kyle’s real victim was the woman he attacked, and worrying about the impact on progressive men distorts the real impact of his actions. I think that’s right. Continue reading

A rambling post about blogging, hubris, narcissism, and the longing to be liked

This will be my last post for a week. We’re off to the Philippines tomorrow night; I’ve got lectures in Makati City (Manila) next Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ll be home to Pasadena late on Thursday of next week, and then off on another trip as of January 16. I will post about the Kabbalah and Christianity lectures next Friday, deo volente.

(Just as I finished the last sentence, one of the chinchillas in the next room made an “I’m having a dream” call — a series of little grunts signalling not distress but something else. Perhaps just a desire for me to come into the room and make cooing noises to all of them.)

Re: Iowa. Thrilled by the strong turn-out, and deeply moved by Barack Obama’s speech. I said before that if Romney and Edwards were the nominees, we’d have debates between two immensely handsome, articulate men who struggle with slickness. But a debate between Obama and Mike Huckabee would be a thing to behold; two consummate “outsiders”, two men running on two differing visions of hope, two men who have an extraordinary ability to connect with a wide variety of people. The establishment right has underestimated Huck’s political skills. The left better not make the same mistake by assuming he won’t be the GOP nominee, and if he is, that he is unelectable.

Re: blogging. I’m not going to complain about the criticism I’ve received here and elsewhere for yesterday’s post on evangelism, feminism, purists and popularizers. But it reminds me of what I like least about blogging.

I’m an ENFP, and though I enjoy writing, I enjoy conversation more. When I’m talking with someone, I feel so much more confident, so much more at ease. I’m at my best “off-the-cuff”, with as few notes as possible. (I’ve got these two, two-hour lectures next week on a topic I’ve never talked about — and I’ll go up with a few quotes scribbled down and nothing more. I love the thrill of improv, the challenge of constructing a coherent argument extemporaneously. That’s not laziness as much as it is thrill-seeking.) But over the course of a debate or a conversation, there’s so much more opportunity to avoid misunderstanding, to avoid the accidental infliction of hurt. I know others feel the opposite is true, but honestly, I’m more careful with the words I speak than with the words I write, even though I write far more slowly than I speak. Continue reading

The system worked for me: more thoughts on Cho Seung-Hui and the response to serious mental illness

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings and the revelation that the culprit had been hospitalized in the past for profound depression, the conversation has turned to the various ways we treat mental illness. Some have called for draconian measures. Jill at Feministe provides this quote from someone named Beth:

If you ask me, if we are going to let these crazies run free, not forcing them to be institutionalized, then we need to goddamn well do a better job of protecting the public from them. There’s a reason why they used to be locked up, and it was to protect society. Virginia Tech totally dropped the goddamn ball with this guy; there’s no reason why they should have to educate dangerous people. I know, it’s all about wishy-washy liberal ideals–can’t deny someone with mental illness their “right” to a college education…

I have only occasionally touched on my own battles with mental illness. (See here, here, here, here).

I was first diagnosed with mental illness in college, back in the spring of 1987. After a very violent episode of “cutting”, I was placed on the first of what would be many “5150s”. A 5150 takes its name from the California code that allows 72-hour involuntary “holds” in locked psychiatric facilities for those who are considered a danger to themselves or others. I was 5150ed in April 1987, April 1990, June 1996 (two separate occasions) and June 1998. I was a voluntary admit in June 1989. It totals half-a-dozen stays in locked facilities. (My worst time of the year has always been spring; I tend to be at my lowest between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. I have many theories why, but this ain’t the time.)

I was lucky, so lucky: all the hospitals I was locked up in (both in Berkeley and Los Angeles) were private. They were good places, for the most part. In most I stayed only a few days, but in June 1996 (after two suicide attempts three weeks apart, the second nearly successful) I was placed on an “extended” fourteen-day hold. I talked about my various diagnoses in this post; as I said then I was usually described as having a heavy-duty case of “cluster B’ disorders: Narcissistic, Antisocial, and above all, Borderline Personality Disorder… Doctors frequently added phrases I remember vividly, like “with psychotic features or “prone to micro-psychotic episodes.”

At Feministe, a reader named Psyche wrote:

The real problem is that there aren’t really intermediate states between involuntary commitment (the experience of which, at least the way our mental health systems works now) is comparable to being arrested in terms of humiliation and unpleasantness. Perhaps worse in terms of the dehumanization and total loss of agency. And locked wards in mental hospitals, even the best ones that money can give you access to, are pretty much the last places you want to spend any time, especially if you’re a borderline functional person, you’re surrounded by people who are by and large incapable of sustained social interaction, in an environment with very few distractions, and with no privacy and no control over how you spend your time.

Well, yes and no. Mostly “no.” The locked wards I’ve been on (for, as I said, as long as a few weeks at a time) weren’t Club Med. But they weren’t prisons, either. I’ve spent time in five different locked facilities (I was only hospitalized in one place twice), and I was always thrilled to leave. But while I was there I generally felt safe, cared for. Each time I was locked up, it was after an episode where I had done something so self-destructive that it was obvious to me (and to everyone else) I couldn’t care for myself. Yes, these “psychotic episodes” were brief in my case; I was able to return to functioning (including working on a dissertation and teaching) within a short period of time after release. (I even wrote a paper in one psych ward.) Though I was fortunate in the sense that my illness was more episodic than chronic, I am also clear that all five of the locked wards on which I found myself were places where I got good, competent, even loving care.

I can still remember the faces of the various psych nurses who took care of me. I often ended up in the wards with physical injuries that needed attention (usually cuts or burns); once it seemed likely I had damaged my heart and my kidneys and my liver with one particularly nasty overdose that led to an extensive stay in the ICU before being “released” onto a 5150. (A whole lot of Ritalin and Anafranil and Klonipin, if you’re keeping tabs — quite a cocktail of about 100 pills. I’ve had my stomach pumped three times, and vomited up that charcoal stuff they give you another time or four.) The nurses who took care of me were sometimes loving, sometimes brisk, but always, always, they made me feel safe.

I ate a lot of fruit cocktail (always served in locked wards, it’s a staple.) I made moccasins in occupational therapy. I sat in community meetings with the paranoid schizophrenics and the bipolars in the full bloom of their manic episodes. I read back issues of Reader’s Digest and National Geographic. Two years apart, I watched England lose two heartbreaking matches (to Germany in Euro ’96 and Argentina in the ’98 World Cup); I was hospitalized for both. I was in a locked ward for Tiananmen Square in 1989, and watched the coverage of Khomeini’s funeral. (I was lucky — most of the wards had cable.) I read all of Davies’ “Deptford Trilogy”; even now, rereading it as I have a couple of times, it brings back those days. And oh my, did I smoke. I had my visitors load me up with packs of Parliaments and Marlboro Reds (and once, a few Djarums.) I haven’t smoked in years, but I puffed away with the best of them every time I went behind the locked doors.

I know I was lucky in many ways. I was a young white, not unattractive male with insurance. I was well-spoken and articulate, and tried always to be polite. (Once, when I was in restraints, I apologized profusely to the nurses who catheterized me, saying that I felt “dreadful” that they had to do this for me.) I was also obviously no danger to anyone other than myself. When I was in Northridge Hospital in 1998, I wandered the halls in Tigger slippers which the staff seemed to find cute and endearing. My illness often made me pathetic, but it rarely made me nasty when I was in the acute stages. (Outside the hospital, I could be very antisocial.)

I was lucky too, in a sense, that when I was “in an episode” my behavior was so bizarre and dangerous that I was instantly 5150ed. Had my illness been less obviously destructive, I might have resisted voluntary hospitalization (something I only consented to once). I know many people struggle with family members who refuse to seek help; I am so fortunate that my disease left me with no illusion that I could function or survive without treatment!

I am grateful that privacy laws kept my condition from Cal when I was an undergrad, UCLA when I was a grad student, and PCC when I was a professor. I can disclose my medical history now because I have been healthy for nigh on nine years, with little fear of the darkness returning. I am very concerned that the reaction to the Cho Seung-Hui situation may lead to calls to deprive those who seek treatment for mental illness of these basic and essential rights. What good would it have done to have me removed from school, fired from my teaching position, held longer than minimally necessary? Am I more of service here where I am or rotting in an institution? After eleven years and six hospitalizations, I might well have been considered a prime candidate for long-term commitment to a mental facility. Blessedly, the system allowed me to return to my life, to my family, to my duties as soon as I was able to do so. In my case, folks, the system really worked.

Medication, intensive therapy (including a couple years of analysis on a couch), growing older, and a Twelve Step program (or three): all of these played vital roles in my recovery. God’s grace allowed me to get still enough to make use of these tools. My story turned out very differently than that of Cho Seung-Hui. But if he is the face of where the system failed, let mine — for those who know me — be the face of where it worked.

A long post about mental illness and transformation: replying to the Happy Feminist

I’m a bit nervous about putting this post out there. Here goes.

On Tuesday, the Happy Feminist wrote a long and powerful post about her gradual realization that her father meets the clinical conditions for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  As often happens after a diagnosis is made (or at least conjectured), the person making the diagnosis (in this case, Happy Feminist) experiences the tremendous relief that comes from having everything suddenly make much more sense.  Happy writes very candidly and eloquently about her experiences growing up with a profoundly narcissistic father, and I honor her honesty and her forthrightness.   Happy concludes her post:

I guess this post has turned into something of a therapy session but if feels so good to have a coherent explanation for things that were not only hurtful, but awfully confusing to me as a young kid.  And the other good part is that I am feeling the first stirring of pity I have ever felt for this person.  Being a narcissist sounds like it is ultimately even more miserable for the narcissist than for anyone else.  The narcissist’s fear of rejection causes him to behave in ways that ultimately lead others to reject him.  It’s an awful cycle, a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy. And there is no hope for the guy because he will never in a million years admit the underlying problem.

I left a comment beneath that post that sparked another post from HF today.  What I wrote was:

From the other side of the coin: years ago, I was diagnosed with a whole "personality disorder cluster". This was back in the days of the DSM-III, and I was one self-destructive, self-involved, egocentric puppy. One shrink had me pegged as "narcissistic personality disorder/borderline personality disorder" with (drumroll…) "psychotic features."

I don’t think the good doc was far from the mark. I also worked my ass off in therapy and had a religious conversion, and while I can’t say I’m free from narcissism altogether, I’m a damn sight better off than I was. Change does happen, though it is always a matter of both grace and willingness.

I’m grateful that HF responded well to that.

One rather obvious distinguishing characteristic of this blog is my repeated insistence that human beings, particularly men (the sub group of humans with whom I am personally far more familiar, having lived as one for nearly forty years) are capable of far more dramatic change than many think possible.  I know that some of my readers find my repeated "calls to transformation" to be tiresome, repetitive, and annoying.  I have no doubt that some folks who might otherwise have become regular visitors to this blog have left in exasperation, because my conviction that we can and should transform is so obvious and so heavy-handed.  Trust me, I’m working to tone it down.

Obviously, at least in the blogosphere (but not in the classroom), I rely a good deal on my own personal experience.  I often allude to a troubled past, sometimes only in generalities.  (I call it "colorful" too often.)  I don’t like sharing details out of respect for the people in my life who read this blog, and out of respect for the fact that my underage youth groupers are also regular visitors.

But my belief that self-destructive, self-absorbed, clinically narcissistic men can become radically new people is born of personal experience.  As I wrote at Happy’s place, I’ve got lots of experience with the mental health system.  Between 1987 and 1998, I was hospitalized six times against my will.  My behavior had become so unstable in one way or another that I was a danger to myself and to others, and I was "placed on hold" in a variety of public and private locked wards.  Four times I was released within 72 hours, but on the other occasions my holds were extended, as I presented a continuing danger to myself and to those around me.  At my nadir, I narrowly avoided a court hearing that could have resulted in me being placed on a conservatorship, with another adult making long-term vital decisions about my care.

The episodes that preceded these hospitalizations were dramatic, pathetic, and characterized by violence and histrionics.  Alcohol and drugs were involved a couple of times, but not always.  But for years and years, even when I wasn’t getting hospitalized, I struggled with poor impulse control, with profound and obsessive self-involvement, and deep, agonizing despair.   Though my serious battles with mental illness first manifested when I was a nineteen year-old sophomore, I managed to graduate from college, go to grad school, finish a variety of degrees, and get a full-time job.  I also got married twice in those bizarre and turbulent years. I was very much a "Jekyll and Hyde"; polite, easy-going, and self-effacing in public and incapacitated with fear, rage, self-loathing, and pain when alone.

I can’t count all the therapists I saw in those years.  In and out of hospitals, I saw psychiatrists and social workers, MFCCs, MFTs, LCSWs, MDs, Ph.Ds.  I got many diagnoses, but usually I got hit with what I mentioned at Happy’s place: a particular cluster of personality disorders.  If you read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I was usually described as having a heavy-duty case of "cluster B’ disorders: Narcissistic, Antisocial, and above all, Borderline Personality Disorder.  Lots of summaries are out there, but this jives with what I usually saw written on my medical records (I always kept copies of my medical records, and for years studied them with obsessive fascination):

Antisocial: This personality disorder is characterized by irresponsibility, inability to feel guilt or remorse for actions that harm others, frequent conflicts with people and social institutions, the tendency to blame others and not learn from mistakes, low frustration tolerance, and other behaviors that indicate a deficiency in socialization. Less-precise labels psychopathic personality, psychopath, and sociopath are often used as synonyms.

Borderline: This personality disorder is characterized by some of the following symptoms and traits: deeply ingrained and maladaptive patterns of relating to others, impulsive and unpredictable behavior that is often self-destructive, lack of control of anger, intense mood shifts, identity disturbance and inconsistent self-concept, manipulation (form of coping) of others feelings for short-term gain, and chronic feelings of boredom and emptiness.

Bold emphases are mine.  Doctors frequently added phrases I remember vividly, like "with psychotic features or "prone to micro-psychotic episodes." 

These descriptions were me, completely and utterly and unmistakably.   Those who know me now will surely think I exaggerate.  But ask my first wife.  Ask my second wife.  Ask a great many other women I dated in that time period.  Ask the friends with whom I spent every waking moment for a month, and then cut dead without reason or explanation.   My first two wives were both undergrad psych majors.  My first wife was the first to call me a sociopath, but not the last. And though at times I would be crippled by guilt, for extended stretches (months), I would pass through my life as if in a dream, caring no more for those who loved me or needed me than for perfect strangers.  (Actually, like Happy’s Dad, I was often much more concerned with perfect strangers, the sort who wouldn’t actually make demands on me, than I was with wives, lovers, friends or family.)

And pharmaceuticals?  Don’t get me started.  Forget what I took illegally, I can remember being prescribed (at various times, for various reasons): Elavil; Anafranil; Lithium (for three years); Prozac (with the lithium);  Haldol (tough to write a graduate paper on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo while whacked out on Haldol, but it can be done); Wellbutrin; Thorazine( can’t write a paper on that, though I tried); Klonopin (my favorite, yum); Valium; Buspar.  I got addicted to benzodiazepines fast, and getting off those — well, let’s say that’s the toughest drug I’ve ever had to kick.  I am sure there were other meds I was on, but don’t remember. If you know anything about psychotropic drugs, you can tell that they were trying to treat multiple different things in very different ways.

My spiritual rebirth, which began after a June 1998 suicide attempt, changed me at my core.  I have no clinical or rational explanation for what happened.  I know only that in despair in what I believe will be the last ward I will ever be locked in, I got on my knees and asked God to take over my life.  I had prayed those words in a similar posture before, but never with such abject despair, such brokenness, such certainty that I was close to death.  And though I didn’t get a white light right away, I got a sense of peace that has only grown and deepened.

But God coming into my life did not make my personality disorders and addictions magically disappear.  God’s grace enabled me to get quiet and still enough to do the work I needed to do to transform.  His grace also gave me the sense that it was possible to achieve lasting, enduring change.  I went to therapy still (for four years after my rebirth), but this time, I worked and didn’t play games.  I went to twelve step meetings.  I began going to church.  I went through a prolonged period of voluntary celibacy.  I prayed constantly.  I began working out more intensely.  And the changes in my character, in my heart, in my world view began to come.  They are still coming.

I know we live in a confessional age.  We’re cynical about "once was lost, now I’m found" narratives, and rightly so!  We’ve heard them too often, and we’ve been burned by the likes of the lamentable James Frey.  But if the alternative to conversion/transformation narratives is a sense of helplessness about the possibility of real change, I’d rather the marketplace continue to be flooded with stories of hard-won miracles.  In some ways, my story is fairly mundane; in other ways, it’s fairly dramatic.  And if nothing else, my story makes clear to me (and perhaps to others) that addictions, personality disorders, and mental illnesses can — through a combination of grace and exhaustive, long-term effort, be overcome.   Especially with mental illness, a clinical diagnosis only describes the past and the present, not the future.   Where there is even a tiny spark of willingness to change (and inside some pretty rotten, crazy people, that spark can be found), there is reason to hope.  I don’t write to give false hope to those who love the mentally ill and the chronically addicted.  But as one who has worn the handcuffs, felt the restraints, been locked away and medicated to the point of incontinence again and again, been divorced multiple times, and spent tens of thousands on therapists, I know that change can happen.

When I was in the grips of my narcissism, I thought I was the exception to all the rules.  Today, I know that I am just another man with just another story.  I may still be a wee bit more neurotic than the average bear, but I’m not the volatile self-mutilating sociopath of my youth, either! I may never fully understand all the details of my earlier condition or of my conversion experience.  But I know that if change could happen in my life, well, it can happen for others.