Sitting Down With A Killer: Impressions On Interviewing A Psychopath

Today I sat face to with a man who had killed three people and tried to have a fourth person killed, a real psychopath. This wasn’t some disturbed person who lost his mind and killed three people in one violent, rage filled act. This was a man who killed his friends’ girlfriend, then still remained friends with the guy while he grieved over his dead girlfriend. Fast forward three years later, while still friends with the guy, he decides to not only kill him, but also to kill his new girlfriend.

Finally arrested for the murders, from behind bars he tries to elicit the help of another inmate to kill a key witness to the last two murders. This man has no remorse. No real feelings. He’s currently facing two life sentences with yet more charges coming. He is barely 30 and will spend the rest of his life in prison.

psychopathySitting across from me in a big empty room, un-handcuffed, unshackled and unguarded (the nearest officer is two flights of stairs below), this man who is covered in multiple tattoos, some gang related, one reading, American Nightmare, has a very cold disposition. It’s in his frozen eyes and the way he talks as if he couldn’t care less about anything or anyone in the world that reminds me that I am in the room with a man who pretty much has nothing to lose.

I can’t explain the feeling. It’s not fear I feel when he tells me I am asking too many dumb questions, or when he leans in with an attitude of authority as if he were the one in charge of this interview. It’s not even nervousness that I feel, but an awareness that I am in the room with a three time killer, who wouldn’t hesitate to make it four, or five. It’s like being in a room where a poisonous snake is being kept. You’re not necessarily always checking to make sure it’s still there, but you’re always aware of it and its potential to get loose. As he stated, “My life is over, although I am still alive. I’ve had many family and friends die in prison. There is nothing you can say to me.”

And he was right. There wasn’t anything I could say to him to make him “feel better”.  Often times I get called to speak to inmates who get sentenced to long sentences including life. Most of them are already mentally prepared for it, or at least think they are. Very few show any real emotions. Even fewer show any real remorse. A handful become suicidal. A very few even attempt suicide.

This guy’s advice to me when talking to inmates facing lengthy sentences was pretty spot on; “Don’t talk too much, just listen. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t ask, ‘is there anything I can do for you?’”

In the real world, only 1% of the population meets criteria to qualify as true psychopaths, but in jails and prisons, that number jumps to 15%. I’ve talked to multiple killers before, some who have killed on accident, who killed on purpose, who killed out of anger, who killed out of greed, who killed out of jealous, who killed out of impulse and some who killed for apparently no reason at all, but none were as electrifying or showed such lack of empathy as this guy.

Here was a guy who killed his friend’s girlfriend, then stayed friends with the guy only to kill him and his new girlfriend three years later. The lack of empathy, manipulation and callousness it took to look his friend in the face day in and day out, knowing that he was the one that killed his last girlfriend is frightening.

During the hour I spent talking with this guy today I learned more about dealing with psychopaths than I could have by reading a 300 page book or taking a 9 week college course . It’s terribly fascinating.

Mental Health Awareness Week: Borderline Personality Disorder

istock_000008463493xsmall-243x300Perhaps out of all of the different types of personality disorders, borderline personality disorder is the most studied and most known as it seems like more and more people today are being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and it was definitely one of the most common personality disorders I run into when working with teenage girls.

People with borderline personality disorder are said to stand on the threshold between neurosis and psychosis. They are characterized by their incredibly unstable affect, behavior, mood, self-image and object relations (how they relate to others).

Borderline personality disorder is thought to represent about 1 to 2 percent of the population and is twice as common in women compared to men.

People who have borderline personality disorder seem to be in a constant state of crisis. They experience almost every emotion to the extreme and typically have mood swings. They can go from being very angry and confrontational one moment, to crying the next moment to feeling nothing at all the very next. They may even have very brief periods of psychosis known as micropsychotic episodes that are generally not as bizarre as those who have full-blown psychotic breaks and may even go largely unnoticed or written off as “strange”.

The behavior of people with BPD is highly unpredictable and they generally do not achieve everything they can to their full potential. Their lives are usually marred by repetitive, self-destructive actions.

These individuals are very often associated with cutting and other self-injurious behaviors as they may harm themselves as a way of crying out for help, to express anger or to feel pain or numb themselves from intense and overwhelming emotions and affect. As a matter of fact, most of the young women I ended up counseling who had BPD were referred to me for their self-injurious behaviors and/or their intense mood swings.

They may feel both dependent and hostile which creates an environment for stormy interpersonal relationships. They can be dependent on the people they are closest to, yet lash out with intense anger at the smallest perceived slight or frustration. They basically pull and push people away all the time, yet they can not tolerate being alone and will prefer chasing and trying to have relationships with people who are not good for them, even if they themselves are not satisfied in the relationship. They tend to prefer that roller coaster over their own company.

They will complain about being treated like crap in their relationships, discuss leaving their partner, yet if their partner doesn’t respond to their text or phone call they will panic and do whatever it takes to track them down.

When they are forced to be alone, even briefly, they will take a stranger as a friend or become promiscuous to fill the loneliness they feel. They are often trying to fill the void of chronic feelings of emptiness, boredom and lack of a sense of identity. They may even complain about how depressed they feel despite all the other emotions that they usually display.

People with borderline personality disorder tend to distort their relationships by characterizing people to be all good or all bad. They will see people as either nurturing or as evil, hateful figures that threaten their security needs and are always threatening to abandon them whenever they feel dependent. The good person, even if they really are not a good person, then gets idealized while the bad person, even if they really are good, gets devalued. More often than not, the same person can be seen as good one moment and bad the next, meaning that a woman can see her husband as perfect and caring today and tomorrow he is the most evil man in the world and she hates his guts, even if nothing really changed between them over the last twenty-four hours.

This aspect of BPD I found extremely frustrating at times because one moment a client would see me as the only person in the world who could understand and help her and the next session she would treat me like she hated me and like I hadn’t ever helped her. One client in particular for instance was chatting with me like I was her best friend one week, the next week when I was redirecting a negative statement she made about herself she said “F*ck you” out of the blue and walked out of the room, only to come back the next week and apologize, but this cycle repeated itself over and  over again. It wasn’t uncommon for her to tell me in one session that she “couldn’t stand me” and the next session tell me that I was the only one who understood her.

Another reason people with BPD are trying even for therapists is that they are very good at subconsciously projecting a role unto someone and getting that person to unconsciously play that role. It can be very draining and even scary trying to deal with someone who has BPD as their impulsiveness and instability as well as their dependency needs can make them overwhelming for many people.

For the most part, this particular client and all other clients I’ve dealt with who had BPD were overall pleasant people with great personalities whenever they were in a good mood and I generally enjoyed our sessions, but there were times when they made therapy so difficult that although I enjoyed working with them, I was relieved when I was able to discharge them, not that I was happy to get rid of them so to say, but it was draining and by then I felt like I had given them everything they could have learned from me and now needed to practice the skills they built up with others.

 DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic Criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is what we use in the mental health field to diagnose mental disorders and personality disorders and it list the criteria for BPD as:

A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, and marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1)   Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

Note:  Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.

2)   A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between  extremes of idealization and devaluation.

3)  Identity disturbance:  markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

4)   Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).

Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.

5)   Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.

6)   Affective [mood] instability.

7)   Chronic feelings of emptiness.

8)   Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).

9)   Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

 Treatment

Psychotherapy has had the best results for treating individuals with borderline personality disorder, especially when combined with pharmacotherapy. Reality-oriented and social skills training are ideal in order to help people with BPD see how their actions affect others. Intense psychotherapy on an individual and group level is often recommended to help clients work on their interpersonal skills and to deal with their self-destructive and self-injurious behaviors.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a specific type of psychotherapy that works great with people who have borderline personality disorder, especially those who do self-harm behaviors like cutting. It has perhaps gotten the best recognition for being high effective with people who have BPD.

I mostly used psychotherapy in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, but later started utilizing much of DBT and it proved to work faster if not better than traditional cognitive behavioral therapy.

More Information

There are some great books on borderline personality disorder, but I recommend the classic, I Hate You- Don’t Leave Me: Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder by Kreisman MD, Jerold J. and Hal Straus as a great place to start.

www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com  is another great resource and they even have a list of movies with characters who have BPD and they include:

Fatal Attraction (1987)

In “Fatal Attraction,” the infamous femme fatale character played by Glenn Close displays the emotional instability and fear of abandonment that are symptomatic of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. Her character also exhibits the BPD symptoms of self-harm, intense anger, and manipulation as she stalks her former lover and his family.

Single White Female (1992)

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in “Single White Female” exhibits the Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms of fear of abandonment, impulsivity, and mirroring as she attempts to take over the persona and life of her roommate (Bridget Fonda).

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

“Girl, Interrupted” is based on the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, who struggled with mental illness and Borderline Personality Disorder as a teenager and young adult. The film, which stars Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, centers around Kaysen’s 18-month stay at a mental hospital.

Hours (2002)

The three main characters in “The Hours,” which include author Virginia Woolf, all struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder, depression, and suicide. The movie, which links women from different generations to Woolf’s book “Mrs. Dalloway,” stars Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore.

Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron transformed into the role of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” Wuornos was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which may have contributed to the unstable and angry behaviors that led to her killing at least six men.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

One of the few comedy movies that features a character with Borderline Personality Disorder is “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” In this movie, Uma Thurman portrays a woman with superpowers and a secret identity who also displays the BPD symptoms of impulsivity, unstable interpersonal relationships, and poor self-image.

Lance Armstrong May Be A Narcissist, But We Made Him A Hero

Lance-Armstrong-denies-pic-jpgLike a lot of people, I brought into the Lance Armstrong hype way before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency implemented him. To me, even back then, wearing the Livestrong bracelets was not so much about supporting Lance Armstrong, but for fighting cancer and challenges everywhere.

A lot of people I talk to who supported Armstrong and believed him when he said he was being singled-out, are angry and many are destroying their Livestrong bracelets.

If you look at those bracelets as supporting Lance Armstrong, then I understand that, but everything is about perception and I think those bracelets and the good his foundation has done can’t be torn apart by his wrong doings.

What does bother me is that he apparently lied so many times, adamantly about his use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). I read in some reports that he threatened to ruin peoples lives, including his masseuse if she didn’t help keep his secrets.

When I watch the many video tapes of Armstrong vehemently denying his use of PEDs, even as the evidence against him mounted up, I started seeing a different side of him.

He no longer was the pristine character I and many others had mad him out to be, but that is our fault. We made him out to be better than he really was.

Once I really started to see Lance Armstrong and not his accomplishments and charisma, I started to see a very egotistical person with clear signs of a narcissistic personality.

I saw a man who was drunk with power. Here was a man who had done more for cancer research and awareness than anyone I can think of and yet cheated in the Tour de France and continued to lie about it for years despite the evidence.

He used his charisma to raise millions of dollars for cancer research, while at the same time cheating and dominating at the sport that made him famous.

Many people in history with narcissistic personalities were charismatic and often started off as good before turning bad, such as Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro and Jim Jones. There are many present day examples as well, just look around and you’ll start to notice them.

People with narcissistic personalities have big egos that create a need for importance and are often driven to success.

That doesn’t make them all bad people. All of us can be a bit narcissistic at times, but people with narcissistic personalities tend to take it to  the point where they can’t recognize when they are wrong or need help because they think they have no flaws and they don’t take personal responsibility.

Lance’s narcissistic personality made it hard for him to take responsibility for his actions and also made him think that he was smarter than everyone else. Even in the face of undeniable evidence, he still tried to hold on to his heroic facade.

The problem is, as people we usually like to characterize people as all  “good” or all  “bad”, but humans are complex beings with the ability to be both good and bad. When we put someone on a pedestal, only admiring their good side, we are quickly disappointed and hurt when they show us their not so good side, which all of us have to some extent.

A couple of years ago, a pastor here in Orlando who had a past history of drug abuse and sexual defiance, became very charismatic, successful and popular in the community, growing his congregation into tens of thousands, at multiple services at multiple churches and nationally televised.

He was outspoken and passionate about uplifting communities, staying away from drugs and challenging men to be men. People flocked to him and his church and clung to him as if he were the perfect example of a good man and a Christian.

Imagine everyone’s shock when he was found dead in a New York city hotel of “natural causes” with a white powdery substance in his position.

Many people believe the pastor died of a drug over dose, but his congregation and family refused to believe it and til this day his family is fighting to keep  his official cause of death sealed. They had made this man out to be a hero, to be perfect, just as many had did with Lance Armstrong, and they didn’t want to tarnish his reputation.

As humans we like to root for people, to champion people and  make heroes out of athletes, celebrities, and sometimes people in our communities like religious leaders, and it’s easy to get disillusioned and forget that they are all just people just like us.

I’m not angry with Lance, after all, he is just human, just a man who made some bad decisions along with some great ones including helping raise awareness and research for cancer. I just hope that he will come completely clean and allow us to get to know all of him without the hero facade.

This will require him taking personal responsibility for his past mistakes however, something that is difficult for people with a narcissistic personality to do. The world and I will be watching.

**edit: I wrote this post before I saw his interview with Oprah and walked away from that interview more convinced that Lance Armstrong is a narcissist. In the interview he often spoke in the third person, as if it wasn’t really him being interviewed. He often seemed rather cold, detached and guarded despite this being a “tell all” interview. He touched his face a lot, which is a form of body language known as “The Mouth Guard” which is a sign that someone is unsure if what they are saying is really the truth, or consciously or unconsciously they know that what they are saying is a lie. Maybe Lance wasn’t totally lying, but he was not being completely, totally honest. Still, I think the good his Livestrong foundation has done is much bigger than one person.

Inside The Mind Of A Potential Psychopath

As promised, here is a letter from someone I believe could be a potential budding psychopath.

A brief background:

This is a 16 year old male that came to see me for feelings of hatred and anger towards “everyone” as well as potential auditory hallucinations and symptoms of depersonalization.

He is currently in danger of failing school and follows none of the rules set for him at home and receives little to no consequences for that. I asked him to start keeping a record of his thoughts so I could help him analyze them.

This is a sample of his thought journal:

I feel irritated. I swear people are trying to make me gun them down. I’m trying very hard to keep my cool, but it’s thinning really fast. Everyone here disgusts me. The teacher is getting on my fucking nerves. I just want to pop a bottle in her face.

She makes me sick. Her voice is getting on my nerves. If I had telekinesis  I would use it to spin everyones heads. I hate you all. It’s hard for me to focus on my work. I’m just not capble of doing it. I wanna go home. I am trying to do my work but I can’t focus.

I am not in the mood to do anything. God I hate everything. The guy [teacher] is asking for binders. I want to take the binder and smack him with it. If I had the power to burn things it wouldn’t be good for anybody because if I burned somebody I don’t think I would feel sorry.

I am writing this while I shoud be doing my work, but I don’t think I give a shit. Fuck the life. This is fucking stupid. I hate the people, the class, the school. I don’t dislike, I hate everything and I don’t know why. If these people were to die tomorrow I wouldn’t give a damn.

Class is almost done and this bitch is wasting my time. Fuck her. In class people talking and i just wanna slash their throats. They including the teacher are all useless to me. They’re all disgusting. Why am I in a classroom filled with imbeciles, morons, idiots, everyone I hate.

I was sad because my friend wasn’t here today. I usually see him in second period, but he’s absent. I was sad because out of everyone I talk to, he’s the one I’m most comfortable with. He’s kinda like the twin I wish I had.

Ever since the 7th grade, way before that, I had been having daydreams of a different life, one I had control over. In those daydreams I have a brother named ______. He’s my heart, the one I feel connected to and when I’m not having those daydreams I feel depressed and want to cause people harm and sometimes for no reason.

Sometimes I imagine myself being God and other times I start to believe it. If I were God I would cause a great flood and take out the people I hate in the world and replace them with people I don’t. I don’t see why people are laughing. If I were to slit their throats I bet they wouldn’t any more. I’m tired of these stupid people.

I want to make them know that I am better than them. I’m sitting in tech class and I want to take the keyboard and slap the two students in front of me in the head until I get tired. These people underestimate my powers because if they knew what I could do they would be afraid.

These people are nothing to me, but ants. I could just stomp them with my foot and they would be dead, but I’m too nice and theres no point to go to jail for these dirty people. They are not worth my time. I fucking hate people. Their shit is so stupid.

Why is everything this way. I’m talking and thinking, but it’s disorganized. I can’t remember much of most things that I am thinking. I just want to go somewhere that I can just do whatever I want with no consequence because if I were to kill someone I wouldn’t want to get in trouble for it.

I’m not ready to clearly say that this guy is a psychopath as his symptoms are also typical of a couple of other personality disorders.

However, it’s obvious from his writing that he hates people, finds it almost unbearable to be around most people and feels as if he is better than everyone. He talks about hurting and killing people and saying he would probably feel nothing.

He also talks about people as if they were just insignificant insects. As if other peoples existence alone irritates him.

He has daydreams where he imagines himself as God and even starts to feel like God in real life with thoughts of destroying everyone.

Sure, he says he would never do these things, not because they are wrong or he would feel bad, but because he doesn’t want to suffer the consequences. Probably much like many of the mass murderers who committed suicide after their crimes felt.

I’m not going to say that this guy will hurt, none the less murder anyone, but I am saying that he is showing clear signs of psychopathic traits that need to be dealt with before he ever gets to that point.

I’ve been working with him on this for the past few weeks, helping him analyze his feelings and thoughts and challenging them,  but I am getting his family involved because I think he may need more intensive treatment than I can provide in the current setting I am working with him in.

He really is a good kid with lots of potential, but if he falls through the cracks he can easily end up spending the rest of his life incarcerated and/or ruin other peoples lives. I’m determined to do my best to not allow that to happen.