Friday, March 19, 2010

The Question of Mental Illness

In a comment in response to "The Question of Forgiveness," Jeff raised a fascinating question...."Is the n-individual (for we are talking about an individual and not simply a category) , if they are 'mentally ill', mentally well enough to recognise how ill they are? Is their responsibility 'diminished' in the way that some defendants claim in legal cases?"

It really got me thinking. Do I think of my father as mentally ill? He was diagnosed in later life with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. While he was able to hold a job, marry, save money and, in some ways, rise above a terrible childhood, he was a loner all his life and was incapable of forming lasting, reciprocal relationships. He could also be mean, demanding, needy and jealous.

I've always thought of my father as mentally...deficient. I used to wonder if he had a very low IQ. Before his diagnosis, I used to wonder what the heck was wrong with him because he certainly wasn't normal...he didn't act like other fathers. Mostly, I felt embarrassed.

I think Jeff managed to articulate ideas and concepts that would occasionally pop into my mind...fleeting and half-formed...and then poof!....would disappear.

Do YOU think of your narcissistic parent as mentally ill? Slightly disordered?

Here's what Jeff wrote (brilliantly I might add):
The trouble I find is this: one moment I'll make statements about my parents based on how medical categories shed light on their behaviour, then the next, having suggested they were in some way ill, I'll make other statements that suggest they had the same mental faculties as anyone else, as though they were no different and therefore not ill according to medical categories. This doublethink leaves me alternating on their level of responsibility, whether they had the capacity to do any differently than they did, and therefore whether they can be forgiven. To categorise them while assuming they were as responsible as the next person doesn't feel right somehow, as though I'm trying to have it both ways.
The difficulty with forgiveness may be this entrapment between the intellectualisation in understanding their behaviour in medical terms and the inevitable emotional turmoil in having had parents that denied parental love with impunity. The intellectual side relies on models whose helpful explanations explain away the parent's awareness. The emotional side then craves justice from a defendant whose capacity has just been called into question.


Dee said...

Here is a quote from Anna Valerious' blog titled "Narcissist or Psychopath"
"How do we know the narcissist still has an operational conscience? Let's ask the question another way. How do we know the narcissist is aware of the difference between right and wrong? Because of the multiplied and extensive efforts they make to hide their bad acts. The truly insane person is defined as an individual who is unable to distinguish right from wrong and will therefore commit their crimes regardless of who is looking on. Their lack of any attempt to hide their crimes is how we determine they are insane, i.e. they lack rational ability and conscience. (By this definition, psychopaths are not insane. Rarely will our justice system allow a psychopath to claim insanity when the evidence shows the psychopath's many efforts to hide his crimes.) We don't see true insanity in the narcissist. We see them presenting an image of perfection to outsiders then going home to beat the wife and sexually abuse the kid. Then they will pull your face close to theirs and through snarling lips and gritted teeth tell you that if you try to expose their bad deed they will destroy you. This person knows what they are doing is wrong. They are careful as to when and where they commit their base acts. Only the helpless and the vulnerable get to see the fully unmasked narcissist. This is all the proof we need that they do indeed possess a conscience. Albeit, a perverted, abused and malfunctioning one."
She says it much better than I could.

Billie said...

Hmmmm...I know there's something wrong with Nfather, but I'm unwilling let him off the hook by calling him ill. He is disordered, and he can make the people around him ill, but I can't believe that he doesn't have the power to quit being an asshole.

Nina said...


Thanks for the quote...I'd somehow managed to miss that one.

I especially liked the observation that a narcissist is very careful to hide his behavior. My father went through great lengths to position himself as a the point of lying to make me look bad. My mother would always act one way in public...the role of the overprotective, doting home she'd subject me to the cold silent treatment and pretend I didn't exist.

On some level, they must have know their actions were wrong.

BILLIE, Isn't THAT true...that the narcissist has the power to make the people around them sick. I always really liked the title of the book, Toxic Parents, for that reason.

Mulderfan said...

When I was growing up my parents spent a lot of time telling me I was mentally ill. Once, without intending any malice, my younger brother told them I was in therapy. From that day forward they used that as proof that I was truly nuts! They actually had me so convinced they were right that I asked my psychiatrist if it was true and he said no, I was simply stressed out by the nuts that surrounded me!

Let me ask the question, if my father is ill and unable to control his behavior, why was he so highly regarded by the outside world? His retirement party was practically a love-in with employees constantly telling me how lucky I was to have such a great dad. My late husband was treated like royalty until he officially joined the family and the put downs and verbal abuse began. This old bugger obviously knows right from wrong, although now that he's older the mask often slips.
Here in Canada if they know right from wrong the courts don't consider them insane and neither do I!

Susie said...

I think that ACONs tend to have a severe disconnect between the intellectual, thinking mind and the emotional mind. I spent most of my time feeling numb and zombified. I learned to literally detach my emotional/feeling self from the thinking and perceptive parts of my consciousness. Being around my parents causes me to make an automatic switch into zombie mode; it is completely involuntary.

In the early days of therapy, I could talk on end about the physical, emotional and sexual abuse I endured without really feeling anything. It wasn't until that I had a real separation from my N-parents and found an emotionally healthy and supportive partner that I began to feel things again. It became easier to unite the reality of what happened to me with my emotional response. At first, it came as anger and realized it was venting out in ways I did not intend. It was a result of years and years of sublimating and denying feelings.
When I read Jeff's comment, it reminded me of my struggle to unite the reality of events with my emotional reactions to the abuse. I too have drifted in and out of both of these explainations, trying to weight their merits. Sometimes I would agree that the medical/intellectual understanding was more valid or more explicative and sometimes I could not deny the emotional outrage and desire for my abusers to take responsibility for their behavior.

Then my therapist made a wonderful suggestion. That both of these things were valid and seeking "the truth" (whatever it was) has little to do with what I was trying to achieve in therapy. It didn't matter if my abuser meant it or not or was aware of what they were doing; the effect was still the same. Regardless, I was still an emotional mess, I had problems trusting people, my abusers made me feel worthless etc. The most difficult part of this process was to allow my brain to accept that those two realities (the emotional response and the intellectual explanations of the abuse) to exist symbiotically.

Anonymous said...

They know right from wrong but don't really feel it in the sense we do. They don't believe that the regular rules of right and wrong apply to them, because they believe they are special. Things seem to be very compartmentalized with them. There is the person who goes to church and appears devout, and there is the person who at home is abusive. They choose heroes who are admired and imagine that they are like them, but often they only try to act like them when in public. I believe they are sometimes aware of the disconnect between their perception of themselves and their actual behavior, but I don't know whether they can actually change. This seems to be an identity disorder, as they have no true sense of identity of their own, which would explain why they can never quite be authentic or true to the fantasy identity they've chosen for themselves.

Dee said...

Anonymous wrote, "This seems to be an identity disorder, as they have no true sense of identity of their own, which would explain why they can never quite be authentic or true to the fantasy identity they've chosen for themselves."
Wow!!!! I love what you wrote because I think it really addresses so many issues in very simple terms. Brilliantly stated!!
I also wanted to say that my point of posting Anna's quote was because I wholeheartily agree that the narcissist is fully aware of the concept of right or wrong, they just choose to do whatever benefits them first. Therefore, they can help it if they were so inclined, but lacking empathy, there is never that motivation or inclination to choose right for the sake of choosing to do right.

Nina said...


While my parents never called me mentally ill, it was definitely implied.

My mother used to say "there's something radically wrong with you"...all the time.

It's an awful message to send a kid...of any age.

Even if we there WAS something wrong with us growing up...the fact that a parent would use it AGAINST the child - as a weapon - and not seek some sort of help and, well, act like a parent who wants the best for the child.

The fact that seeking psych services of any type is stigmatized by older generations is not an excuse.

Nina said...


I LOVED the observation made by your therapist...thank you for sharing it.

While I seem to go through periods of questioning the concept of forgiving parents...whether my father was mentally ill...I also occasionally wonder if I'm just wasting more time...throwing more of my energy after bad. That ALL of my energy should go into repairing myself.

Nina said...

March 19 Anonymous,

Very true what you said about n's ability to compartmentalize. That really rings true for my father. He was always talking about how his father neglected him...and would give examples...but seemed totally unaware that he neglected me in exactly those same ways.

Like Susie, when I was young, I was so numb and zombified that I couldn't even register the irony.

Nina said...


I love Anna Valerious' feel free to quote at will...other blogs, too, of course!

Jeff said...

It has been interesting to see how quickly NPD relatives go from mental capacity (my original point) to questions of morality. Nina: I can't help but wonder if you've previously, whether directly or indirectly, touched on the importance to children of NPDs of morally judging their parents?

Nina said...


I think I understand what you mean...but can you please expand a bit on your question?

Jeff said...

Hmm - it's rather an open question, so it's hard to expand on without starting to frame it and unduly prejudice the answer/s!
I suppose what I notice is how statements are directed towards character judgements, so for e.g., in this thread:

'perverted, abused and malfunctioning'
'being an asshole'
'nuts that surrounded me' (interestingly also described as 'obviously knows right from wrong' - which follows on from my comment about having an alternating view on capacity)

Perhaps one way to narrow the question without leading it too much is to ask if you or your readers have ever discussed in any way a) the act of judging Ns, and/or b) what it does or hopes to do for relatives?

I notice also in the comments on your current post this from Billie:'I struggle with horror at feeling sure I'm being judged no matter what I'm doing or not doing.' Perhaps this phenomenon is related?

I suppose I'm curious about the judgement thing because I'm reading key texts on narcissism and mental health and society in general, which confronts me with what I seek to judge and why, so perhaps it's something I'm attuned to.

Susie said...

OMG, Nina and Mulderfan--

I have heard the "you're mentally ill" bit over and over from my N-parents and survivor siblings alike. My other two siblings have not taken steps to process and deal with the abuse that they endured. They often do much of the same things that our N-parents do.

I remember being in a particularly nasty fight with my sister when we were younger. I can't remember what exactly was going on or why we were fighting. My mother piled us into the car and drove us to a nearby park to "talk it out". So, they're sitting in the front seat and I'm alone in the back. The both of them take turns criticizing me and I remember feeling that I couldn't hold in how I felt any longer. All of these emotions were welling up inside of me and the feeling to surface first was of anger and outrage. I felt so angry that I had to be the "little kid" who had to be lectured at and didn't get a say in, with my arms crossed, like a typical angry teenager, I leaned forward and kicked the back of the seat and yelled, "That's not true!". My sister lept out of the car, exclaiming that I had pulled on her seat belt from the back seat and tried to strangle her during my "fit of rage". She then screamed, "You're F*ed up! You're mentally ill! You're F*ing crazy!"

Every day, I was told that what I think and feel was crazy or "made up". How I felt and thought was always a figment of my imagination. Even my sister, who experienced the same abusive behavior from our N-parents, thinks that my memories aren't real or that I made up the physical or sexual abuse (even though it happened to her too!!).

Alexis said...

My N-C of a mother is not mentally ill. She is a person who was injured in the same way she injures me. The difference is I don't use children to fill my emptiness or demand that they worship at the alter of my low self-image. I don't suck the life out of them so I can live. If my N-C was abused, her abuse was no worse than mine.
I hold her fully responsible for her actions. I know she knew what she was doing and saying. I saw the gleeful joy on her face when she'd tell me I was too fat to look at, to go to my room she can't stand to look at how fat I was. She knew exactly what she was doing coming out of her room after studying all day and yelling at me to get off the couch and sit on the floor if I wanted to watch tv cus she had to stretch out after her hard day -- of me making dinner and doing the laundry. Or when she'd kick me in the back of the head telling me to get up and change the channel on the tv, I might loose half an oz. Or one of the very few times I had someone over how she'd hang in my doorway yelling at me about how messy my room is.
No one will ever convince me she is mentally ill and not responsible for what she did to me. I know for a fact she did those things cus she enjoyed it. And cus she loved the results she'd get from doing them.

BPLadybug said...

An Axis 2 Personality Disorder such as Antisocial or NPD is just that - a disorder. And because of lack of motivation on the part of the PD it is almost impossible to treat.

This is not the same thing as an Axis 1 such as manic depression, schizophrenia, or OCD. Those are true mental illness which do respond to medication and therapy. And usually the sufferer wants, eventually, some relief from their symptoms. Not so the NPD - they are quite satisfied with their manipulative, controlling behavior, their lack of empathy and conscience.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad I found this blog. Though I wouldn't wish an NPD parent on my worst enemy, it's affirming to read others' expression of so many of the things I'e suffered with/from all my life.

I've always thought my NPD father was ill. I realize now that he wanted me to think this, in spite of his grandiosity. This was one very smart NPD strategy: "Feel sorry for me. I'm ill. I can't help my behavior."

Whether is not the NPD person is ill is something of a moot point in regards to how one deals with him/her. No matter what one does, it will never be right. If I act out of empathy or love, I will be abused as surely as if I act out of malice. It's a lose-lose situation, and it will always be so.

The only good I can find in understanding my NPD father as a mentally ill individual to help extricate myself from the belief that there was anything personal about his assessment of me. I've heard 54 years of what a complete waste of a human being I am. Children of NPDs are told they are ill themselves so that they stay hooked in.

Bottom line (imho): with verbal abuse, we make excuses. If someone was mentally ill and threatening to kill you with a weapon, you'd not even blink an eye about extricating yourself, would you? No. We've been taught all too well that we can or must accept emotional abuse, and then we berate ourselves for not taking more of it when we think of the "illness" of the NPD parent.

Forget the motives, forget how they feel (or not feel). Our work is to eliminate how they live on in our heads. It is hard work.

mfp said...

I am new to this blog and have both a n-dad and n-mil, but they have not been officially diagnosed. They basically meet every single trait on the list of NPD. So, I'm wondering, if your n parent has been officially diagnosed, how did it happen? As in, how did you convince them to go to a doctor and admit that there is something wrong, and how did you get them to participate in the assessment? Does having a diagnosis really help? Are they open to treatment or therapy? Or is it more of a way to validate that everything you have been through is real and not made up (since ppl who are n can often appear to be very pleasant to other ppl)? My n-dad and n-mil will never admit that they are the ones at fault for anything and whenever anyone poses the possibility that either is mentally unstable, they become enraged and throw it back at the person who brought it up to begin with, as that person being the one who has mental issues.

I identify so much with the posts here, esp the ones about he n accusing the victim of being the one who is mentally ill. I agree, that it's not entirely a mental illness, since they CAN control their rage/hate when they want to, by dishing it behind closed doors and hiding it perfectly out in public. My dad accuses everyone else as being mentally ill, esp my mother and I (typical woman hating n male), who are his scapegoats. As I stated in another post, he also referred to me as, "the fat one," so much that even my mom and my brothers would call me, "fatso," and I ended up being everyone's scapegoat, not just my dad's, since he convinced everyone else that it was ok to treat me like this. I think that now, my brothers realize that they were manipulated by my dad, since they were not immune to his mean nature either (although, they will all admit that I got it the worst, solely due to my status as the only girl and also oldest child, my father hates women so much, I don't get where the hate gets from, he adores his mother, but has complete disdain for women in general). They (brothers) even admitted later on that they were shocked that I did not develop a serious eating disorder after the way my parents treated me, constantly referring to me as, "fatso," even when I was not fat, they also had me take diet pills while I was in high school. I was 5'4" and 115 lbs, and they considered me as fat. Although, now that I am a little bit overweight, I can't help but feel that the constant criticism about my weight since I was a child, probably has something to do with my wt issues now.

Kane said...

Hmmm my mother was very unwell and I suffered a lot of abuse from her. She is really trying and is a lot better now. I mean she tries so much I think to make up for the past. By me gifts and always worrying about me. I feel bad because everytime I hang out with she is till not all there. Hard to explain she is fine for a while and then acts weird again. Like we go to buy organge juice and instead of just asking for organge juice. She will go into control mode and ask to have the juice from a particular bottle. Really hard to explain please understand she has a bit of OCD. I get so frustrated and a lot of anger. Then I feel bad for getting angry with her. I don't want to remove her out of my life that is just mean. But how can I get past the anger and frustration? She wants to meet up for christmas all day. Please help, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I have been dealing with the sickest Narcissistic son n law, he has been abusing 2 of my grandsons, the 2 he's not related to, and he has bullied, beaten them, made up lies about them to get them in trouble, kept them from seeing their real father since they were 1 and 2 years old and they are 15 and 16 now and he's still abusing them so horrible. He threatens them, lies to them, has laughed after abusing them thinking it's funny, he has no remorse for what he's done to them and blames it on everybody else. He has no manners, a know it all, violent outburst to keep you from contradicting him even though he knows he's lying, he has Malignant Narcissism, the most severe case ever, tortured their pets and them since they were very young, but pet his own son and now he has joined in on the abuse, it's so sick I want to puke, he refuses to do what he's told, and thinks he's above the law.