Sunday, 10 February 2013

A spotter's guide to the psychopath - 10.02.2013

In 2006 I fell in love with a psychopath.  I didn’t know it at the time, obviously, but that is what I did.  This man crashed into my life all of a sudden, out of nowhere.  He completely changed my outlook.  He re-energised and focused me at a time when I was hurt and floundering.  And just as quickly, he disappeared again, purely due to his work circumstances.  It was rather like having a comet passing too close – the shock, the sudden light, the blazing trail left behind, the feeling of surprise and loss and of my orbit having been realigned.

He left my life, seemingly forever, but what he told me, what he taught me, remained firmly planted in my mind.  That it is important to follow your heart and not compromise, because you have to be true to yourself.  That “You have to make yourself happy.  If you are miserable, you’re hardly going to be a little ray of sunshine for anybody else.”  Yes, these are the sort of illuminating thoughts you might find in a fortune cookie, but when they are said with conviction by a person who seems to practice what he preaches they have a different sort of impact.

It helped that I fancied him rotten.  This wasn’t so much because of how he looked - he was nothing special.  The thing I liked, though, was that he seemed perfectly comfortable in his clothes, in his skin and in his life.  He owned the space around him.  Everything around him became a backdrop to him.  His energy sparkled out of him.

Of course I fell in love with him.  How could I not?  He was everything that I admired and I failed to be.  He was self-confident, courageous, determined.  He followed his heart and disregarded society’s expectations and canons.  He was true to himself first and foremost.  He was truly a free man.  He was the most alive person I’ve ever met.

He was also incredibly charming.  Half the stuff he told me could have been construed as flirting, if not sexual harassment.  The thing was, it seemed to come to him as natural as breathing.  I could not make out what he meant by it.  I did not know if it was about me, or just how he did things.  I could not quite figure him out; I was getting a good insight on what he was like, but not on what he meant to do with or about me.  A week later, he left, because of work.  I felt like a lighthouse must feel, left behind tied to a rock while ships below sail away.  Life resumed its normal course, externally, but inside something was brewing.  This was not the life that I was supposed to live, and I wanted out.

Three years later, by the vagaries of the internet, we got back in touch.  Three months later I had put my notice in and was on my way to join him.  I have never regretted that decision, regardless of how things turned out.  He was the catalyst I needed to pull myself out of the quagmire of a life I hated, but was too comfortable to give up thoughtlessly.  I do not think I would have had the courage otherwise, even though it was the wrong life for me.  I would have joined the flock of people who get to middle age and realise that they haven’t lived at all, because they lived a life that, whilst perfectly good, was not the right one for them.

So, running off with him was precisely the right thing for me to do, and it would all have been splendid had it not been for a slight detail.  The guy was a psychopath.  I do not mean by this that he went around murdering and maiming, as people often imagine psychopaths must do.  What I meant is that he fits perfectly the psychological profile of the psychopath as it is currently accepted by psychologists.  It took me a long while to realise this.  In fact, I did not realise it at all.  I was told by a friend, and that was months after we had split up.  All I knew at the time, when I was still involved in the relationship, was that my partner’s behaviour had changed progressively to the point where I was eventually forced to leave for my own safety.

The changes crept up on me little by little.  I did not notice what was happening to our relationship and my life until neither of them resembled in any way, shape or form what I had signed up to.  Things went wrong on a number of fronts.  To cut a long story short, he hit the bottle really hard; chased skirts; kept getting into fights, both verbal and physical; wanted to completely control my life but at the same time to have nothing to do with me; became openly disgusted with me and often verbally abusive; indulged in impulsive behaviours, particularly with regards to how he handled money and took care of himself, which made “normal” life an impossibility; and he lied all the time, about anything and everything, even when the evidence was so obvious that there was no way he could get away with it.  The list could go on.  The bottom line is that I left home to be with a charming, attentive, romantic, capable man who could not get enough of me, and had to flee the house of a pathologically lying, drunken, womanising, out-of-control physical wreck who was a danger to himself and others, me in particular.

When I look at how things started and how they ended, it is hard to believe that he was the same person.  When I am emotionally involved in a situation I guess I become wilfully blind.  I tell myself the right story, which is not necessarily the truth.  Little changes crept up and I allowed them to slide, because all relationships evolve, after all.  The honeymoon never lasts.  Then bigger changes took place, changes I was not happy to put up with, but I let them slide and ascribed them to the circumstances of our life.  It was never his fault – it was because of his work, his upbringing, anything else, really.  At the end, I found myself having to accept a situation that was plainly unacceptable, because I was stuck.  I was in an all-or-nothing situation, because my life was too tightly wound around his.  From a purely practical point of view, he was my lynchpin.  He was not willing to change – “I am what I am and I do what I do” was one of his mottoes – and I could not demand any changes on his part.  I had to take it all or leave it all.  Of course, I should have known that this would be the case from the word go, as I had given up my life to join his.  What I had not known, at the time, is that that situation didn’t arise out of coincidence.  That was what he wanted, because he was a psychopath.

For the longest time, I did not see it.  I tortured myself with my failings.  If only I had been stronger and put my foot down earlier, he might have controlled his behaviour more and we might have never got to that stage.  By letting little things slide I had allowed the big things to happen too.  Many of the things he accused me of – of being too reliant on other people (“pathetic”), of not always been able to work things out of my own (“obtuse”), of crumbling too easily in the face of difficulties (“negative”), were true.  Had I been too weak?  Had I let us both down?  What had I done wrong to change this Prince Charming of a man into The Incredible Hulk?  I really struggled to give up firstly on the dream of us, and then on the dream of him.  I would not wake up and smell the coffee, because reality hurt.

After I left my ex, friends started to offer their pearls of wisdom.  The man was an alcoholic.  He was manic-depressive, hence the random behaviour.  He had low self-esteem, which is why he acted so arrogantly yet took no care of himself.  He loved himself too much, he hated himself, he hated the world, he hated me.  Nothing quite made sense.  Ultimately, if someone has a serious psychological condition or an addiction, I can’t see how they would be able to turn it on and off on demand.  My ex’s behaviours were not outside of his control.  He could decide whether he wanted to be out of control at any given moment.  He could pick the face he was going to wear that day.

Months after things were over, I was discussing with a new friend what had gone wrong.  When I listed the behaviours my ex engaged in, my friend’s answer was simple.  Things were pretty clear-cut in his eyes.  I needed to check out the Psychopath Test.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy for others.  Most psychopaths do not walk around brandishing chainsaws and leaving a trail of madness and mayhem behind them.  In fact, in some fields a degree of psychopathy is desired, if not essential.  Captains of industry would not make it very far without putting profits ahead of people, for instance.

Psychopathy can be “diagnosed” via the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, a test developed in 1995[1].  The test and its implications were popularised in “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson, the author of “The men who stare at goats”[2].  There are twenty basic characteristics of the psychopath, as follows[3]:
  1. “Glib and Superficial Charm.  The tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example. 
  2. Grandiose Self-Worth.  A grossly inflated view of one's abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings. 
  3. Need for Stimulation or Proneness to Boredom.  An excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have a low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine. 
  4. Pathological Lying.  Can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest. 
  5. Conning and Manipulativeness.  The use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one's victims. 
  6. Lack of Remorse or Guilt.  A lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, coldhearted, and unempathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one's victims. 
  7. Shallow Affect.  Emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness. 
  8. Callousness and Lack of Empathy.  A lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless. 
  9. Parasitic Lifestyle.  An intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities. 
  10. Poor Behavioral Controls.  Expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily. 
  11. Promiscuous Sexual Behavior.  A variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests. 
  12. Early Behavior Problems.  A variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home. 
  13. Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals.  An inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life.
  14. Impulsivity.  The occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless. 
  15. Irresponsibility.  Repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements. 
  16. Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions.  A failure to accept responsibility for one's actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial. 
  17. Many Short-Term Marital Relationships.  A lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital. 
  18. Juvenile Delinquency.  Behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness. 
  19. Revocation of Condition Release.  A revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear. 
  20. Criminal Versatility.  A diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.”

My ex ticked all the boxes, with a few exceptions.  I cannot give you an answer on points 12, 18, 19 and 20, because of the significance of points 4 and 5.  You could not believe anything he said about his past life, because he would tell you whatever suited his needs at that precise moment.  You could never believe anything he said, at all, ever.

Quite simply, I was taken in.  A psychopath groomed me because he wanted me in his life, to suit his needs.  He sensed my vulnerability or decided that I was what he wanted at that point.  He got me in a position where he could call all the shots because of how my life was structured.  Unfortunately for him he pushed things too far, with the wrong person, and I bailed out.  We had misjudged each other, I guess.  If he thought he could break me, he was very wrong.

Although I got myself out of it safe and sound, and in fact much better for having gone through the experience, I still kick myself about it.  I should have seen it – why didn’t I see it?  I should have been able to identify him for what he was.  I should have followed my instincts.  Right at the start, before we, or rather I, became emotionally involved, I had the feeling that I was putting my head in a tightening noose.  I was a fool.  I elected to engage in a construct so deeply that I found myself having to swallow a lot of shit and call it chocolate frosting, because admitting to what was happening would have meant to break my whole life apart.

Of course, I am kicking myself about kicking myself.  There is a very good reason why I did not recognise my ex for what he was.  I did not even hear about The Psychopath Test until last year, six years after I met him.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but to tell myself off for not using diagnostic tools I just did not have is rather daft.

It is rather peculiar, if you think about it, what we choose to teach our children.  As a child I read about science and literature and art and religion.  I was given free access to the combined knowledge of the ages, but had been taught virtually nothing about people and what makes them tick.  I’d been taught about “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, written in the 18th century BC, but I’d never been taught how to recognise people who may hurt me.  Yes, of course I could not have been taught in the 80s something that was developed in the 90s, but I’m willing to bet the farm that children are not taught it now.

Of course, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Diagnosing personality disorders is best done by professionals.  Unfortunately, people are not routinely screened until the point when they do something wrong.  Psychopaths walk amongst us unchecked and unidentified.  Whether you let them in your life or not is your call.

Since the penny dropped for me, I have turned into a bit of a psychopath spotter.  I found myself looking back through my life and found another psycho in my past.  This is someone I had met in school.  I had a huge crush on him, although we did not get past exchanging backrubs.  For reasons unexplained he went through a phase when he enjoyed demonstrating how he could dislocate my shoulders or snap my neck if he wanted to.  He never caused me any damage, but he was causing me increasing pain until one day I had enough.  I seriously thought he was going to pop my shoulder and I do not do scared as well as I do angry, so I threw a cup of coffee at him.  Unsurprisingly that did not go down well.  He pretty much cut all contact with me there and then.  I regretted it hugely at the time, although I did not feel at all guilty.  A dislocated shoulder is not my idea of fun.  I have not thought about him for at least fifteen years and it took me a few days to remember his name, but he was definitely the first psycho to engage my affections.

That fact worries me.  Is there something wrong with me, that I am attracted to the wrong sort?  Then again, maybe this is a lesson I now have learnt.  There are two people vaguely involved in my work life who I know, for a fact, to feel the same level of emotional involvement and responsibility towards a person holding a tool that they feel towards the tool itself.  The reason their involvement in my life is only vague is precisely the fact that I recognised that trait in them and refused to get drawn in too far.  I did not want them to have too much control over my life, as I knew that they felt no empathy towards me.  Friends of mine have not been as cautious, despite my panicky warnings.  The charms of the psychopaths in question won over my arguments – but of course, being charming is what psychopaths are best at.

There is, of course, the danger that I might be seeing patterns that are not really there.  Confirmation bias may be blinding me, in the same way that ignorance and emotional involvement were blinding me before.  Do you know what, though?  I don’t really care.  Firstly, if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, chances are it is a duck.  I might be wrong.  It may be a beautiful swan who has a sore throat today.  It may be a golden eagle whose parents did not support him so could not fulfil his potential, and may yet change with my support.  Tough shit.  Today it is acting duck-like, so it may as well be a duck for all intents and purposes.  Ultimately, it if ACTS like a duck it is better for me to treat it as such.  If someone shows no empathy, it does not matter a fig from a practical point of view whether it is a lifestyle choice, a personality disorder, a curable failing or just the result of a bad day.  It is going to affect me just the same, isn’t it?  People may yet surprise me and prove to me to be better than I think they are.  For a change, though, for today, I elect to be safe rather than sorry.

[1] Levenson, M.; Kiehl, K.; Fitzpatrick, C. (1995). "Assessing psychopathic attributes in a noninstitutionalized population". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 151-158.  Warning - I have not read the original article, because I am lazy.

[3]  Yes, this is a conspiracy theory website; sorry about that.

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