First of all, let me forewarn you: THIS GUEST POST WILL CONTAIN ADULT CONTENT.
When I was asked to write a post for Mental Health Awareness, my first thought was: “What on earth qualifies me to even do such a thing?” I mean, sure, I’m on medication for depression and anxiety, I was intimately involved with someone with bipolar disorder, and I’ve been called crazy plenty of times, but that hardly makes me some kind of expert. So allow me to preface this post by saying I am not a mental health professional and am in no way qualified to be writing this post, so feel free to take what I have to say with a whole shaker of salt.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let me explain what I might be able to contribute to the mental health topic and why I think your host asked me to be a part of the conversation. For the past several years, I’ve been developing a character for a series of novels named Aleksandr Zorin. Aleksey is not a nice guy. In fact, he’s a psychopath and a sadist and a serial killer. As much fun as it can be to create such a character, I’m one of those anal retentive types that finds it necessary (nay, imperative) to be as accurate as I possibly can about his motivations and behaviors, and therefore—by extension—his mental condition. And since I don’t have an anti-social personality disorder like sociopathy or psychopathy (as least insofar as anyone knows)—that requires lots and lots of research.
What I have found is that it’s rarely like what you see on TV. If programs like Hannibal and Criminal Minds and Profiler are to be believed, there is a virtually endless onslaught of sadistic psychopathic killers out there, and they will (almost without fail) be brought to justice in approximately 42 minutes. In reality (and though I personally question the accuracy of this statement), the FBI estimates that there are only thirty-five to fifty serial murderers active at any given time in the United States. With the abundance of crime dramas currently on TV, it would only take a few short weeks to declare society completely safe from a horrible demise at the hands of a violent psychopath. So let’s take a bit to separate fact from fiction.
Sociopath or Psychopath? There is much debate on what (if any) difference there is between sociopathy and psychopathy, even among mental health professionals. Both are classified as Anti-Social Personality Disorders. Both are primarily characterized by a profound lack of emotion, empathy, and fear. Some state that the classifications are two names for the same disorder and can be used interchangeably. Others believe that psychopaths are born with the deficiency, and sociopaths are more a product of their environment during early development. Some say psychopaths are charming, cunning and organized; some say those are actually the hallmarks of the sociopath. The Sociopath Next Door suggests that 4% of the population is sociopathic, yet Robert Hare—the foremost authority on psychopathy—estimates that 1% of the population are psychopaths. Considering that is a difference of roughly 9 million people, there must be a distinction between them, but no one really seems to know or define what that is. So, for the sake of this post, we’ll just have to say that between 3 million and 12 million people can be classified as psycho/sociopaths.
Those are astonishing numbers, though, wouldn’t you say? Think of that—at least three million people are psychopaths. They can do virtually anything with little or no fear of consequence, and have no internal moral compass to guide their actions. They frequently view the rest of us as either inferior prey or insignificant pieces to be manipulated in some grand game of their own design—a game we don’t even realize we’re playing.
Contrary to what many believe (and quite fortunately for the rest of us), only a very small percentage of those psychopaths will ever become violent. Many will instead find ways to harness their uncommon skillset by entering law enforcement or enlisting in the military, becoming politicians, surgeons, or successful CEO’s. One might, as you read this, be playing the stock market fast and loose with your money. Any role where a proclivity for risk-taking, fearlessness and emotional detachment are considered advantageous, the psychopath would most likely excel at it. Odds are, you’ve even known a few without recognizing them for what they were. In reality, psychopaths are rarely “monsters” and are much more likely to be the successful leaders that we look up to and even admire.
On the flip side of that coin, however, is something that can be truly terrible to behold. Some psychopaths will become violent rapists and murderers. But contrary to what popular media frequently depicts, they don’t look like creepy fuckers/scoundrels, nor are they all brilliant cannibals like Hannibal Lecter. They may be the quiet bloke that lives next door or your asshole/hardnosed/tyrant boss or the cute ripped guy at the gym. Like any other slice of the population, they are quite diverse. They can be any race or gender (but are predominantly male), come from any background, and will have varying degrees of intellect. What most of them do have in common is a frightening ability to blend in. They are the chameleons of our society. They learn to mimic behaviors that they don’t understand in order to fit in; they are often charming and disarming. They are the ones whose chain-smoking, muumuu-wearing neighbors wind up on the news exclaiming: “I just can’t believe it! He was such a nice, normal guy.” Well, no. He really wasn’t. He was actually a vicious predator that wore a very convincing mask.
The most asked and obvious question is “why?” What is it that causes one human being to revel in the agony of another? Psychopaths themselves can’t usually provide a clear, objective answer for that. They tend to place the blame squarely on their victims, or their upbringing. But there is some new research that seems to shed some light on the subject. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (or fMRI) of the brains of known psychopaths has shown significant deficiencies in the areas that process emotion and fear. They also do not experience the same brain activity that “normal” people do when shown images or words with violent connotations. In short, the words table and rape elicit precisely the same emotional response in the psychopath—none. For them, hacking off someone’s limbs is no more or less remarkable than chopping wood.
Perhaps Aleksandr Zorin can provide us with another part of the answer: “Imagine an existence without any feeling at all. A vast desert of nothing as far as the eye can see in every direction. It is an endless ocean of sand. Empty. Barren. Then one day you do something and find it to be… exhilarating. Suddenly within this existence of dust, there is a small oasis—a place that quenches the endless thirst of nothing. Not an emotion, per se, but a feeling. Something you've never experienced. Adrenalin flows. Your stomach knots. Your cock gets hard. Your heart races. Your senses become heightened. It may never be happiness or love but it is something where there once was naught. It is new. It is a stirring. It is enjoyable. It is purpose. It is life.”
If Zorin is right, sociopaths and psychopaths eventually discover just a tiny spark of what the rest of us experience every minute of every day. It is a glowing ember in the void of their existence. And they like it. They are compelled to ignite it again and again—to feel again and again. Unfortunately, it is sometimes the suffering of others that provides the kindling for those feelings in the psychopath.
Are these broken individuals that need to be “fixed”, or are they a natural variant in the evolutionary process? Violent psychopaths are in direct opposition to the laws of civilized society, so they are hunted by law enforcement. They are often referred to as “evil” and punished to the fullest measure—by life in prison, and sometimes death. Still, they fascinate many of us, who perhaps see in them the boogeymen of our nightmares, or the monsters under our beds. But they are far scarier than any of our mythological constructs. They are human beings devoid of humanity, barely (and not always) held in check by our nebulous concepts of compassion and justice.
So how might this post relate to mental health awareness? First, understand that the portrayals of psychopaths and serial killers in the media are rarely accurate. Remember that one of every hundred people you meet is completely indifferent to your feelings, and they have a tendency to wreak hell and havoc on the lives of those around them. If someone you know is charming yet constantly takes advantage of those around them and then ultimately destroys those relationships, you may be dealing with a functional psychopath. Urge those that you care about to steer clear—there is zero hope of “fixing” them, or getting them to change. Transformation is impossible for the psychopath. And if the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and you get a shiver when someone approaches, listen to your instincts—you are programmed to sense danger from predators and psychopaths are the equivalent of modern sabre-tooth tigers.
While I doubt many with Anti-Social Personality Disorder have read this post, and though I suspect you wouldn’t listen even if you had, I encourage you to seek help from therapists. There are cognitive therapies available that will help you channel your unique assets and minimize destructive behaviors. It is possible for you to lead extremely productive and successful lives, despite (or perhaps even because of) your lack of compassion for others.
Whether we view them as a different species entirely, or those saddled with an unmanageable mental “illness”, the three million psychopaths among us already own a link in the evolutionary chain. We must learn to adapt to—and accept—the reality that there are ruthless predators in our midst. We are sometimes hunted. We are sometimes stalked.
We are sometimes prey.