The Bipolar Coaster

Adventures in a Manic World

Anyone Can Go Psycho

Not just the mentally ill can have a psychotic break, even normal people can

I believe that anyone, given particular circumstances, could “go psycho.” Not everyone agrees with my assertion. My psychiatrist thinks I am wrong, but did not elucidate why. Thus I still think it’s true that anyone can “go psycho.” By this I mean anyone can have a psychotic break no matter if they are already suffering from a mental illness or not. While those with mental issues are perhaps more likely to go “psycho,” any normal person could have a psychotic break given compelling circumstances. In war some soldiers go bonkers. There are those workers whom we referred to as “Going Postal.” There are those women and children who have finally had enough abuse from churlish husbands who hack the old man to death. There are those young men for who stress and mental illness pushes them over the line and they go out and kill their lovers, their families, and untold number of innocents. Was not the Newtown gunman one of these, who went so far over the edge that he could in cold blood massacre school children?

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I once had my hands around my ex-wife’s neck in a fit of rage and would have strangled her had I not heard her desperate call for me to stop. I was a millisecond from going over the edge. I pulled back and released my grip. but what if she had done something else, mocked me or perhaps attacked me I could have lost it and done her in? I was astounded and ashamed of my behavior. This was the only time in my life I came that close to a violent act. My wife, unable to deal with my rage, divorced me. I understood her feelings. I do not fear that I will “go psycho” anymore -- counseling and treatment have blunted that fearful edge, but I know in my heart that I am capable of “going psycho.”

 

I believe each of us has another side. Like coins we have two sides. There is heads, my good side, my rational side; and there is tails my evil side, my unreasonable side. I work hard to avoid coming up tails. Occasionally I have fits of temper when I know I have flipped. It is then that I must apply all that I know and believe in to overcome this negative irrational side. Yet it lurks unseen, but not unrecognized as part of my nature. A capacity for violence lies in the core of this negative nature. Does our society not condone and even admire violence? Americans watch violent movies and play violent games. The question is how far can one go with violence, before it trips into mayhem. The answer is that mayhem lies just beyond rim of violence, and too often people fall over that edge. It is an illness of our society, which all the hand wringing and shouts to control weapons will not mend.

 

This was the situation with a friend of mine. He and his wife were in a bitter contest over the custody of their children. After his refusal to accept her bargain on joint custody, she attacked him with a knife so he relates, cutting him on his arm. The newspaper didn’t report this. They portrayed him as an abusive husband. In a fury, in a disassociated state he judges, he responded, and stabbed the woman 29 times. Today he resides in the dungeon, as he calls it, serving 16 years to life. He did not fight the judgment, he says, out of remorse for his act, and his desire not to sully the reputation of his wife

 

My friend, whom I have known since 1968 when he, a student at Oxford, and I, a student at the University of London, met each other on an overnight ship from Athens to Crete. There was one deck chair left to sleep in and he and I found it simultaneously. We had a spirited argument on who got to the chair first. Neither of us would relinquish our claim. He being a law student thought he could outtalk me, but I, stubborn to the maximum, did not give in. We spent the night talking on either side of the disputed deck chair. We talked philosophy – he was a fervent reader of Ludwig Wittgenstein; I was a pragmatist who liked Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the University of London. We talked politics, (the generals propped up by the American military were in charge in Greece), the Vietnam War (both of us were very strongly opposed), art, music, and architecture (he liked Gropius and the Bauhaus; I liked Robert Venturi and the anti-international style). This night sealed our friendship.

 

I saw my friend often over the ensuing years. He was a person who worked for his beliefs helping the disadvantaged and suing the corporate bosses, who manipulated rates and laws for their favor. He was and still is a bombastic person full of opinion and often seized with outbursts of outsized laughter. Is he mentally ill? I never saw him that way. He had I thought a larger than life personality. I attended his wedding, and watched, as he became a doting father. Then somehow it all came unglued. The family moved to a new city where the wife got a university position, and my friend went with her. The wife lost her job, and the marriage deteriorated. Until that fateful evening when my friend “went psycho.” How could anyone stab another person 29 times? He stated to me that his “losing it” came about from his wife’s attack on him, but newspaper reports stated he attacked her in bed. No matter the circumstances my friend went “psycho.” I have visited him once in prison and I could not conclude he is mentally ill. He is, as I have always known him to be, a funny, intelligent, rational, and generally caring person. How could he have crossed civilized boundaries and become a killer?

 

My friend related to me a conversation he overheard while in the jail before his trial, when two inmates wishing to taunt him had this brief conversation.

 

“Hey! Hitchcock’s Psycho is on TV tonight.”

 

“Yeah. But we have our own psycho right here. He stabbed her more times than Norman Bates stabbed the woman in the movie.”

 

What went on in his mind that he could do this act? My friend and his wife were educated and articulate people. Yet tragedy struck. The judge in sentencing my friend to a life term stated, “this horrible event could happen to anybody.” I believe him.

 

Today my friend sends me letters. We don’t talk on the telephone. The prison system of telephone access is unfathomable to me, and I won’t do it. We must be the last people who still send letters. In the age of email no one does this anymore, but for someone in prison without a computer, letters, and the telephone are the only ways to communicate. He sends me many letters. I asked him if he really were full of remorse for the murder of his wife. He has convinced me that he is. I have asked him what happened on that fateful night. What was the experience of “going psycho?” He has yet to answer this fundamental question. Perhaps he can’t remember. Does some wicked force take over our minds obliterating all other consciousness? Does this wicked force then allows our savage animal instinct to attack furiously? Do we kill without regard for the consequences? Do we lose hold so completely to our good side that it no longer exists for a period of time? These are the questions I would like my friend to answer.

 

If he can dredge up this moment of time, it would be of great value to our understanding of what happens to humans who “go psycho” My friend said for long time he has no memory of what happened. I told him he has had a long time to think about this event, and perhaps now he can articulate the “killing, as he refers to the murder. I have encouraged him to do this, and we have contemplated writing a book about this mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

Carlton Davis is an architect, artist, writer, and public speaker about mental illness.

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