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.