The Arizona Shooting and the Emotionally Unstable

January 11, 2011

Of course you can’t talk about the Arizona shooting, without talking about mental illness. It’s unfortunate that society doesn’t take mental illness seriously until someone commits a heinous act. But even then, it seems like we talk about it only for a moment and then put the topic back in the closet until the next tragedy happens.

When budgets are slashed, the first thing to go is mental health care for the people who need it most. Look out onto our streets. They are filled with homeless people with serious mental disorders. People who are just left to roam the streets. But of course, these are the ones who are easy to pick out. So many more are not so easy to identify.

When I think about my ex and her borderline personality, it reminds me that many more emotionally unstable people live amongst us. And because some of them are so good a putting up false fronts, most people don’t even realize how troubled they are. Sometimes they, themselves, don’t know how troubled they are. These are what experts call high-functioning disordered people. I can never imagine my ex doing what Jared Lee Loughner did, but then again she did a lot of things I could not imagine her doing. When you are dealing with someone with a serious mental disorder, you never know what to expect.

When I first met her, she seemed normal enough. She was a little stand-offish, but nothing warranting concern. She was working on a masters in journalism and she was a hip hop dancer on the side. She seemed to have it all: beauty, brains and talent. As she warmed up to me, she showed me a loving and caring side that was even more endearing. When I spoke, she showed great interest in what I had to say and valued my opinions. She was good at flattering my ego. But this is how she drew me in. This is what is known as the idealization stage of a BPD relationship. It creates a high for both partners that makes it hard to see fault in the other.

However, as time went on little things began popping up that alarmed me. It triggered my own defenses and made me constantly wonder if I should get more involved with this person. As I said, we had great conversations, intellectual conversations. She was smart and well-educated, but sometimes her logic was a little flawed. I began noticing that a lot of her opinions were tainted by traumatic personal experiences. It was clear she had come from a troubled background.

Every now and then, we would have a heated conversation. There’s nothing I love more than a good debate. But there were a few instances, where the debate turned into personal attacks. Attacks that seemed to come out of nowhere. Attacks so vicious it shocked me into silence. And that is no easy task.

I was silent because I was alarmed by what seemed like a psychotic episode. It made me wonder where all this rage was coming from. One of the attacks was so offensive, I felt compelled to leave. I thought, “I can’t have a relationship with this person”. But she pulled me back, held my arm, and her eyes were filled with tears. She appealed to my sense of compassion. I felt sorry for her. This was a trick she would use over and over again. I later learned that she was a survivor of rape. Though it is not clear whether or not this was just another one of her stories. But whether or not it was true, being a survivor became the excuse she used for all her abusive behavior.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. As I got to know her more, I realized she had a dark side. She use to have a blog that displayed some of her poetry. I can only remember a lot of anger and violence with graphic descriptions of blood. As an angst-ridden teen she went through a Goth phase and an angry activist stage, complete with wrist-cutting and eating disorder. Clearly, she was messed up. But because the person in front of me was so put-together, I somehow believed that she had a handle on her issues. I was led to believe she had put most of it in the past. The truth was that as she got older, she got better at hiding her disorder, hiding her dark side.

She has since deleted the blog with the violent poetry, and replaced it with a sassy fashion blog. She has transformed herself into a bubbly blogger who talks about thrifting and her new life in sunny LA. This instant transformation is not a result of years of therapy. It is a result of a woman who has learned the art of illusion and self-delusion. Just as Norma Jean created Marilyn Monroe, my ex has created her own alter ego. A persona that is much more palatable to the general public, but belies her true nature.

It is only in hindsight that I realize I missed some very obvious red flags. It’s funny, because I consider myself a very perceptive person. But I was blinded by love. Or what I thought was love. More likely I was blinded by the high that comes with an idealized borderline relationship. As humans, we pride ourselves on being an intelligent species. In truth, we are slaves to our emotions. But unlike other animals, we have the unique ability to rationalize our bad decisions.

To the outside world, my borderline ex is bright and bubbly. When she was teaching her kids dance, she was one of them. Laughing and jumping like she was five. It was really charming. This was the side of her I chose to see. But it wasn’t until much later that I would realize this child-like nature had a downside, a side that was the result of arrested development. Like a child, her fun-loving side could instantly give way to a side that was temperamental and prone to lashing out.

The signs of mental illness are not as difficult to identify as most people think. But it requires people to educate themselves. It requires friends and family to be honest about their troubled loved one. Many of these misguided friends and family members think they are doing their loved one a favor by covering up signs of mental instability. But in fact, they are enabling that person to continue engaging in destructive acts. It doesn’t have to be violent to be alarming. Lives and reputations are being destroyed while these friends and family look the other way. You can’t force a person to seek help. But not doing anything is unconscionable. Because you are essentially allowing the suffering to continue.

It should be said that the vast majority of people with mental illness, will not end up committing an act of violence. But that should not diminish the importance of treating someone who has obvious signs of mental illness. While I can’t imagine my ex committing an act of violence against someone else, she has already committed acts of violence against herself. And she has shown that she is quiet capable of psychologically harming others, leaving wounds that last far longer and go far deeper than any physical wound.  But because we can’t see the wounds, people fail to see it as abuse or violence. But lashing out at a loved one is violent. Infidelity is cruel. Pulling someone into your madness only to cut them out of your life is abusive. And until we recognize these more subtle forms of abuse, their damaging effects will continue.

Abuse begets more abuse. Survivors go on to abuse others. With each cycle of abuse, the damaging effects increase exponentially. I guarantee you that Jared Lee was a survivor of some sort of abuse. Maybe it was bullying at school. Maybe it was emotional abuse at home. I’m sure he didn’t wake up one day and decide to be violent. Violence has a history. I would not be surprised if his parents smacked him around. Sadly, there are still a lot of parents who think hitting a child is an acceptable form of discipline.

When we, as a society, ignore the patterns of abuse, we ignore the process by which the Jared Lees of the world are created. That sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a pattern that repeats itself over and over again. It happened in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, and now Arizona. So when are we going to pull our collective heads out of the sand?

When the next tragedy happens?

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