By N.S. Palmer
I’ve spent a fair portion of my life dealing with crazy people.
I’m not talking about people who are just odd or excessively emotional. I’m talking about people who are clinically crazy, or who are, to use the technical term, “barking loonies.”
First up was my mother, God bless her. She was one of the most brilliant and talented people I’ve ever known. And completely nuts. Graduated near the top of her medical school class. Played the cello. Wrote astonishing poetry. Knew Ayn Rand. Dated Cary Grant. Also had a lot of anger toward men, enough to make Lorena Bobbitt seem like Natalie Wood. (I suspected that she never forgave her father for “deserting her” by dying when she was a little girl.) She thought that the Mafia was trying to kill her. And the CIA. And Nixon. I told her, “Mom, if the Mafia, the CIA, and Nixon were all trying to kill you, then you’d be dead.” But logic doesn’t work with crazy people.
Then there was my mother’s boyfriend after my original family broke up. He really was in the Mafia: I don’t know how high up. He was too polished and rich to be a street enforcer. Interesting fellow, but a sociopath. One moment, he would treat you like his best friend. Then the next moment, without missing a beat, he’d shoot you dead if you got in his way. He once got me out of some minor trouble in high school by scaring the bejezus out of the school officials. And though I wouldn’t have wanted to be him, he once gave me some reasonable advice, kind of Machiavelli by way of Al Capone: “Always be nice,” he said, “until it’s time not to be nice.”
Then there was one of my friends in college, also a sociopath. A sociopath, by the way, is a person without conscience and empathy. That’s not the same thing as being actively evil. Typically, sociopaths aren’t motivated by the desire to harm others: they just want what they want. And because they have no internal moral sense — like being “color blind” to right and wrong — they’ll do whatever it takes to get what they want. They won’t necessarily seek to harm you, but if you get in their way, they’ll harm you without giving it a second thought.
But back to my college friend the sociopath. As sociopaths often are, he was delightful company, and for a socially inept nerd like me, he was a marvel to watch. His obsession was to bed as many women as possible. His voice, mannerisms, and personality all changed as he sized up his prospective conquests. We were “friends,” but I was careful never to leave my wallet on the table when we were in a restaurant. His only questions in any situation were: “Do I want it?” and “How can I get it?” It wouldn’t have occurred to him that stealing money from a friend was wrong.
He was arrested three times during the years I knew him, and each time, he walked away scot free. On the last occasion — by the way, this was in the newspaper, it’s not just something he told me — the police arrested him for a jewelry store burglary. They caught him with $100,000 of stolen jewels in the trunk of his car. He was released the next day. When I asked about it, he looked me straight in the eye and said that he’d found out who burglarized the store, persuaded the thief to return the jewels, and when the police apprehended him, he’d been taking the jewels back to their rightful owner. Just from the way he said it, you would have thought it was true. He probably believed it was true, because it was in his interest.
Those are some of my most memorable crazy people. There were lots of others. And I learned a few things from them.
Crazy comes in various flavors
People can be crazy in different ways. They can be neurotic, psychotic, or incomplete.
There’s a joke about the difference between neurotics and psychotics. If you ask psychologically healthy people “What’s two plus two,” they answer “four.” If you ask psychotics, they answer “twenty-five” or “Saturday” or something equally nonsensical. If you ask neurotics, they answer “four. But I just can’t stand it!”
Neurotic people repeatedly have inappropriate and unhelpful emotional reactions. Neurotic people are in touch with reality, but their emotions don’t always match the realities they’re in. People who are always angry are neurotic, as are people who always need to please or control others. Control freaks, in particular, seem motivated by overwhelming feelings of insecurity.
Psychotic people aren’t in touch with reality. They might believe that they’re Napoleon, that they’re being controlled by radio waves from the planet Mars, or that they’re secretly married to Britney Spears.
Finally, some people are missing a piece. For sociopaths, it’s conscience and empathy. For nerds, it’s social intelligence. That’s not the same kind of crazy as neurosis or psychosis, but it can be a dangerous or crippling psychological problem.
Crazy has certain advantages
Being crazy has its plus side. Neuroses and psychoses usually satisfy some need. Psychotics, in particular, usually choose a fantasy that helps them feel more important or more in control of their lives. They often create elaborate explanations of why their fantasies, in spite of contrary evidence, are really true.
A divorced, lonely, unemployed man who believes that he’s secretly Napoleon undoubtedly feels happier because of it. The question to ask about a psychotic fantasy is: Does it work for the person? If believing that he’s Napoleon gives a man courage to deal with his troubles, and doesn’t lead him to destructive actions such as invading Russia or taking French lessons, then it’s a helpful psychosis. I wouldn’t take it away from him unless I had something better to replace it.
Likewise, sociopaths can do anything that serves their interests, and they can do it without feeling guilt or remorse. That enables them to lie, steal, kill, and manipulate other people to their hearts’ content. As a result, they have an advantage over people who are disinclined by conscience to do those things. Many politicians are sociopaths, as are many successful businesspeople.
Crazy is a matter of degree
Crazy people aren’t totally different from the rest of us. Neurotics often have appropriate emotional reactions. Psychotics have lucid moments. Even most sociopaths have occasional moments of conscience.
The rest of us all have moments when we react inappropriately to people and situations, such as when we snarl at a sales clerk simply because we’re feeling grumpy. And we often have minor, innocuous neuroses such as being obsessed with our appearance. As long as they don’t cause major problems in our lives, they’re okay.
Like psychotics, we all have fantasies that we create to feel better about ourselves and our lives. Each of us is the “star” of his or her own little drama, with our families and friends as supporting characters. Each of us thinks that he or she is “special:” sometimes it’s true, but just as often, it isn’t. Those fantasies help us get through life and face each day with a modicum of serenity. As long as they don’t lead us to act destructively, they’re a good thing.
Crazy is not open to logical argument
Because crazy reactions and beliefs satisfy people’s innermost needs, we can’t address those reactions and beliefs simply by applying logic. If you have trouble with a control freak at work, it won’t do any good to point out that his or her behavior is both needless and counter-productive. Those aren’t relevant to the control freak’s motivation.
A hundred years ago, the American writer Sinclair Lewis observed that “it’s hard to get a man to know something when his paycheck depends on his not knowing it.” The same applies to beliefs that people adopt to preserve their self-esteem, or to protect their jobs at political think tanks or oil companies. To challenge those beliefs directly is to run straight into a wall of denial and hostility.
However, understanding those facts can help us in two ways.
First, it makes us aware that direct attacks on cherished beliefs won’t work. They’ll only make matters worse.
Second, being aware of our own craziness helps us be more patient and forgiving with the craziness of others. And there’s always plenty of it to forgive.
Copyright 2012 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.