My Friend the Psychopath

Recently I saw an interview with a psychologist. I wish I could remember her name so I could give her due credit, but after hearing what she had to say it was like someone had poured a bucket of ice water over me, so I hope I can be forgiven if her name escapes me.

She was discussing psychopathy. When most people imagine a psychopath, “serial killer” is what springs to mind. That’s not necessarily incorrect. The vast majority of serial killers are indeed psychopaths. But the concept that this psychologist put forth, the one that hit me like a very large brick, is that you can be a psychopath without being a killer. You don’t even have to be violent. She stated that 1 percent of the general population is psychopathic, and many of them are quite functional within society. In fact, in some ways having this disorder can set you up for a certain level of success. When a psychopath says “It’s not personal, it’s business,” he’s not kidding. Not even a little bit.

Please realize that I’m not a mental health professional, but from what I’m reading, psychopathy consists of several traits. The main indicators of this disorder are antisocial behavior, a lack of remorse, and poor self-control. If you want more details, I suggest you take the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.

Psychopaths can be very charming, cunning and manipulative, and are often pathological liars. They demonstrate a shortage of empathy and fail to accept responsibility for their own actions. They are easily bored and often impulsive. They also have a hard time maintaining relationships, and can be sexually promiscuous. There’s a good chance you know a psychopath. I actually think I may know a couple of them.

That’s what gave me the chills. When this mental health professional was discussing the various traits of a psychopath, I immediately thought of someone whom I had considered to be my best friend for over 20 years. I still have fond memories of her, frankly, but there were always these strange little red flags that I ignored for as long as I could, until one day I was overwhelmed by the enormity of, well, her brand of reality, I suppose. None of these things, individually, scream certifiable nutcase, mind you, but when you add them all up, the picture painted is not a pretty one.

  • One time we were talking on the phone and I hit my head on something and began bleeding profusely. I mentioned that fact and she didn’t even pause in her conversation. She didn’t ask if I was all right. It was as if it hadn’t happened. I even remember asking if she cared, and she laughed it off.
  • As long as I knew her, she never had pets, and absolutely hated mine.
  • She would do impulsive things like buy plane tickets on a day’s notice even though she couldn’t afford them.
  • None of her relationships ever lasted, and THEY were always the crazy ones, according to her. It sort of became a running joke between us. I used to tell her she needed to figure out why she was attracted to lunatics.
  • Long after she broke up with people she would insert herself into their lives again, often creating a great deal of havoc and confusion. It kind of reminded me of a cat batting a mouse around until it finally died.
  • She treated waitresses and shop clerks like they were garbage.
  • She used to see a therapist, but she delighted in lying to her. That seemed counterproductive to me at the time, but now it makes sense.
  • At one point she worked in Washington DC, and said she liked it there because all people cared about was the pursuit of power.
  • When we were in college together there was one class that I was struggling with. She had taken the class already, so she helped me study for the mid term. Thanks to her help, I got an A on it. She promised me she’d help me study for the final, and I was counting on it. We discussed it often. At the last minute she said she didn’t feel like coming over. I did so poorly on the final that I got a C for the semester. I had a 4.0 grade point average up until that point. What struck me about that situation was that she didn’t even feel the need to make up an excuse. She didn’t feel like it, and that was that. And she felt no remorse about it, even when I told her how much it hurt me.
  • She once told me about a time when she and one of her boyfriends played Russian roulette. They took turns holding the gun to each other’s head and pulling the trigger, because, she said, they “wanted to see what it would feel like.” Seriously, who does that?
  • One time she came to visit me and we had a full day planned. About half way through I told her I wasn’t feeling well. (It turned out to be heat exhaustion.) But she insisted that we keep going, and I did until I turned purple and started vomiting. Again, she acted as if nothing at all had happened. In fact, she took a picture of me all bloated and in tears. It was weird.
  • Toward the end of our friendship, she admitted to me that when she was younger she used to beat her little sister with a metal hanger. Just because she could. That horrified me.
  • She would sometimes get “interested” in things to an extreme degree. Like religion. But it always seemed forced, like she was trying on various masks to see which one would make her more acceptable to society.

The final straw, though, was when I was planning a trip to her side of the country, and told her I’d like to stay with her for a day or two while I was there. I thought she’d be as excited as I always was when she came to visit me. But she said I couldn’t stay with her because she wouldn’t trust me in her house. After 23 years. Suddenly I had a rare moment of clarity. When we would see each other, it was always her coming to me. I thought it was simply because she always earned much more money than I did. But all along it was a trust issue and I had never realized it. That, combined with all of the above, was the death knell of our friendship. I was done.

It took me a long time to get over the fact that I had been an utter fool for so many years. Why was I ever friends with her in the first place? Good question. I must say there were just as many good times as there were bad. She has that psychopathic charm, for sure. And when you couple that with my amazing ability to overlook things that I would rather not see, and my intense desire to think the best of people whether they deserve it or not, you get rather a toxic cocktail.

I had finally gotten past the point where I was licking my wounds on a daily basis when suddenly one day I received a letter from her. In it was a ticket to hear her be the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony at our alma mater. I was, frankly, stunned. But then I realized that that was her pattern: she was attempting to insert herself back into my life after causing me so much pain. But this was one mouse that that cat was not going to play with anymore. I didn’t go, and I sent her an e-mail after the fact explaining exactly why not, and telling her that if she had even the slightest regard for me she would never make contact again.

It’s been 5 years and so far she has respected my wishes. But every once in a while I think about her out there, uncaring, unfeeling, and completely devoid of compassion and the hair on the back of my neck stands straight up.

And what’s even scarier is that I can think of a few other people in my life who show symptoms of this disorder, albeit to a lesser degree. I have a relative who delights in discovering a person’s weakness, saving that information until such time as that person is in a moment of conflict with her, and then when you least expect it, she uses that weakness to eviscerate you verbally. Many’s the time when I’ve looked down to see my emotional entrails scattered about her feet, and looked back up to see a look of triumph in her eyes.

And then there’s the coworker who just walked in the door as I was typing this who…oh lord, I can’t think about it. My goose bumps might arouse his killer instinct.

Once you start looking at people through the lens of potential psychopathy, you begin to feel as if you sometimes have to whistle your way past a junkyard dog.

psycho

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