The other day, I read all 300 pages of Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M. E. Thomas in one sitting. The Amazon summary explains the book as one that “takes readers on a journey into the mind of a sociopath, revealing what makes them tick and what that means for the rest of humanity.” (Tell me that’s not melodramatic.) I’ve only ever read one other non-poetry book in a single sitting—Lan Samantha Chang’s All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, for the record—so that tells you how tethered I was to this book.
Thomas (rumored to be law professor Jamie Lund) writes in fairly dull, bland prose, so stylistically, there’s nothing magical here. It’s really the narrative—a fragmented memoir delivered by an incredibly narcissistic & blunt speaker—a voice to which I can relate, obviously. But that’s not all I can relate to about Thomas’ story.
When I got to this passage, which appears fairly early in the book, I gasped aloud & took a photo of the page so I could remember it verbatim:
“[My mother] fed us and clothed us, as did my father. She put her hand on our foreheads with looks of concern that made wrinkles in her own forehead. She kissed us at bedtime; he did too. And even though I did not, my mother would cry when my father beat me with his belt, for what I can’t remember. And when I graduated from law school, my father genuinely rejoiced—never had I seen him so happy as that day. I never doubted their love for me, but their love was inconstant. It was sometimes very ugly. It didn’t prevent me from harm; rather, it often caused me harm. The more they felt secure in their love for me, the less they seemed prompted actually to look after my well-being. I learned a lot from my parents. I learned to limit the emotional effect that other people could have on me. I learned to be self-sufficient. They taught me that love is exceedingly unreliable, and so I have never relied on it.”
Thomas writes of how she always feels precariously balanced between the “right” and “wrong” sides of life—she could easily shoot to success or fall to pieces at any given moment. She writes of being reckless, charismatic, impulsive, sexual, perceptive, manipulative, perfectionistic. What seems to be at the center of everything for her—no surprise—is power, but it’s rooted in a very particular place for her, as she writes that “Everything I learned about power—how great it feels to have it and how terrible it feels to be without it—I learned from my dad.” Talking about him beating her, she says: “If someone who loves you is hitting you that hard, you have more power than she does. You’ve provoked a reaction in him that he cannot control.”
This is rather similar to the way I’ve come to see a lot of things about my life. That sense of power is so strong, so satisfying, that I fight for it in order to supplement the gaps left by other things I’m missing. I’ve always been perceptive & observant. Because I have borderline personality disorder, reading people comes incredibly easy to me. This doesn’t mean I like people—I don’t. But I catch on to people’s tells very easily (this is also why I’m a great poker player) & I notice their tiny facial expressions. I can read voices & body language; I can tell when people are nervous. This makes me a good advice-giver, but it also makes me manipulative. I know I’m manipulative & I’ve never been anything but forthcoming about that fact. Thomas writes that, as a child, “While others were learning to play kickball, I learned to play people. I was not subtle.” For me, manipulation feels like a necessity for survival. I have a rather bleak outlook on humanity, always expecting every person I meet to screw me over in one way or another. In this way, manipulation has become something of a defense mechanism for me.
But I think when people hear “manipulative,” they think of people like Bernie Madoff or Charles Manson. If you say “manipulative woman,” they think of people like Jodi Arias. The armchair diagnosis of Arias as having borderline has been driving me absolutely batty lately. People like Stacy Kaiser are tossing the label on her like wild, claiming both that she has borderline & is a sociopath. It’s hard enough to talk about having borderline without the label being thrown around haphazardly. You say you have it & suddenly, you’re a crazed murderer or something. People become afraid—or worse, they become mean.
A particularly vile group of internet bullies recently chose to use the fact that I have borderline as an attack point, saying that the diagnosis “explains a lot” about my personality, & then spending an almost comical amount of time slandering that personality—all of this connected to the borderline label. I think it’s easy to make assumptions about people based upon an incredibly misunderstood disorder. As Thomas writes:
“I experienced periods in which I was avoided or even ostracized by everyone. I could overwhelm people, put them off. I was too aggressive for them. […] Sometimes my considerable charisma could outweigh the off-putting aspects of my personality, but sometimes it went the other way. My ability to understand my occasional status as a social pariah was spotty.”
That last sentence is where I almost always land. Every once in awhile, I realize that I’m actively murdering my social capital in exchange for a fleeting moment of fulfillment. But about 90% of the time, I am truly completely oblivious to why people hate me so much. Maybe that sounds ridiculous to say after my point about being pretty manipulative—maybe people are just trying to protect themselves from what they assume about me, I don’t know.
Part of the problem is that people—as a species—like to think they know everything. If there’s some kind of label affixed to you—especially a psychological one—they think they know your personality, your motives, your desires, your intent. Oh, you’ve seen Girl Interrupted?! Then you must know exactly what it’s like to have borderline!! It’s like I become some cog in a big homogenous personality disorder machine, & then it’s not necessary to treat me like a human being.
Can I help my brain chemistry? Can I help the childhood I had that contributes to my psychological makeup? Can any of us? It’s like people think I choose to have borderline. When my psyche is marked by impulsivity, marked by over-emotionality, marked by obsessive tendencies, marked by intense abandonment fears, of course I will react to things in ways that deviate from the “norm.” Does that make me an inherently bad person?
Maybe more importantly, what does it even mean to “be” a person? Another characteristic of borderline is that you feel like you don’t have a “self.” Thomas writes that she realized, somewhere along the way, that she “didn’t really have a self at all,” that she was “like an Etch A Sketch, constantly shaking myself up and starting over.” The one thing that remained constant for her, though, was her love of seduction—& “not just sexually,” she is careful to point out. I like this. Inappropriate displays of sexuality are another hallmark of BPD, so pair that with my need for power & you get… me.
In terms of both of these things, I have what someone famously termed my “Scorpio eyes.” It made me laugh to read about how Thomas has the same—I don’t know if she’s a Scorpio or not, but she discusses how she has penetrative, intense eyes & the ability to sustain eye contact for incredible periods of time without getting uncomfortable—something that makes people think she always wants to either fuck them or fight them. Lots of people over the years have commented on my eyes—they’ve been called both “slut eyes” & “serial killer eyes.” Both are probably right in the long run.
But because of my lack of a sense of self (I never feel like I am a person—there is no central “me-ness”), I learn a lot about myself via others’ reactions to me. I’m not sure how to change the things about myself to which people seem to react so negatively because I’m not sure if those things are in my control or not. Is it the manifestation of my borderline that people hate? I guess that for me, since I don’t feel like I have an ultimate “self,” it’s hard to reconcile people disliking something about me that’s not just the borderline. I know this sounds narcissistic, but I don’t mean it to. I also know that it isn’t necessarily logical thinking, but that’s the way it is in my head anyway. Welcome to the party.
Thomas’ voice comes across throughout the book as though she’s more-or-less bragging about the things she gets away with as a sociopath. I relate to a frightening amount of the book, & sometimes I do feel proud because my personality traits push me toward success. I genuinely don’t mean this to sound like I think I’m inherently better then everyone (which is a claim I’ve heard made about me more than once or twice)—I mean it to say that having borderline makes me driven to succeed. It makes me ambitious & competitive & perfectionistic & intense. I’m always in competition with myself—I want to prove to myself that I can do something, that by doing something, I become someone. I become “the one who…” because at least that’s an identity.
Like Thomas says, it’s hard for me to rely on others’ love or support or affection because for various reasons, I’ve never found these things to be consistent. I struggle to rely on others, but I also struggle to rely on myself since I don’t feel like a “myself.” That desire for attention (which comes along with borderline) isn’t about being the center of attention. It’s about validation—& not even of my intelligence or success or desirability or whatever—just the simple validation of my existence. People with borderline are prone to existence-validating actions—often manifesting in self-mutilating behavior. This is not a “cry for attention” or any of those other commonly-held assumptions. This is a need to feel something in order to know you’re indeed a human being. When you can’t rely on your internal sense of existence, you need an external one. Experiencing things gives you this validation.
Maybe these things aren’t always “good” experiences or experiences that others consider logical or moral or anything like that. But it’s hard to apply typical rules of logic or morality when you’re not concerned with being “popular,” but are instead concerned with just knowing you are a human being who exists enough to provoke a validating reaction in other people.
For me, a lot of the interactions I’ve had with people (especially over the past two years) have been the exact opposite of validating. As this website explains:
“Invalidation is to reject, ignore, mock, tease, judge, or diminish someone’s feelings [but it] goes beyond mere rejection by implying not only that our feelings are disapproved of, but that we are fundamentally abnormal. This implies that there is something wrong with us because we aren’t like everyone else.”
I want to be quick to point out, though, that validation isn’t a synonym for praise. It doesn’t mean I want everyone to constantly tell me how great I am. Rather, validation is simply acknowledgment—acknowledgment of one’s existence, of the presence of one’s opinions & feelings. Maybe simply talking about it here is my way of attempting to validate it myself.
I think that’s what I appreciated so much about Thomas’ book—she wrote it as a confession. She wanted to say, “Yes, I am a sociopath & yes, I exist & yes, I have legitimate thoughts & feelings & desires.” It’s hard for me to be completely open about the fact that I have borderline because it seems it gets thrown back in my face as some kind of an insult every time. (See the instance with the harassment & bullying I mentioned earlier.) It just has such a stigma, & that stigma only serves to further harm people with borderline. So maybe this long rambling thing is my way of publicly coming out of the borderline closet, so to speak. Use it against me if you want, but I can’t & won’t treat myself like I’m somehow inherently shameful anymore. ❤