A Chance to Undo the Damage

“She told me that Henry showed signs of narcissistic personality disorder. For Cathy she suggested a possible diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.  Women with borderline personality disorder are emotionally unstable and intensely needy, and often resort to dramatic gestures to win love and attention.

My mouth hung open…..

Leslie explained that both diagnoses refer to the behavior of people with low self-esteem, usually the result of particular childhood emotional traumas.

“Henry often spoke about his difficult relationship with his mother,” Leslie said. “She idolized him and expected him to take on a lot of the responsibility for the happiness of the family.  That’s a classic situation.”

Leslie described how, as adults, people with NPD are charismatic extroverts, but inside, in private moments, they are aware of the false social persona.  In contrast to the confident personalities they project, they are filled with self-loathing.  People like this can’t tolerate solitude because it forces them to see the true self, hidden beneath the surface.  The false persona might, however, win them many friends, sexual partners, and career success.

“And, sadly, our culture often rewards such behavior,” Leslie said, sighing.  “Deceptive behavior is very common,” she continued.  “I have another patient in this situation.  Patients like this have affairs as a way of testing the people they really love, almost to prove they are unworthy of love.”

I remembered how charming Henry had been when we met, how polite.  I had been suspicious of it at first, but he had won me over.  This same strategy had obviously worked with Cathy and other women.

Henry’s childhood experiences do not justify him being an amoral asshole as an adult.  How much compassion am I supposed to have for him?  I had an unhappy adolescence but that doesn’t give me license to lie, cheat and steal.

Leslie continued.  ” Borderline or NPD adults are both very needy, given to extreme emotional fluctuations and distortions of reality.”

“You don’t pay enough attention to me.” Henry’s frequent complaint.  “You should spend more time paying time to me and less time worrying about Liza.”

Two really messed-up people had found each other, fed off each other. In Cathy, Henry had found a ready worshiper, and in him she had found a love object with an endless need for attention.

Leslie leaned towards me. “Julie, do you mind if I ask you—what would you have done if Henry had told you about Cathy?”

“I would have divorced him so fast his head would’ve been spinning,” I snapped back.  But those were just words. Really, I didn’t know what I would have done.

“I am sorry to hear that,” Leslie said.  She lowered her gaze for a moment.  I saw that she really was sorry.  She had been rooting for him, hoping that he could repair his life.

I wondered if his death had been not a random medical event but rather the direct consequences of his choices.  I left the office with a new feeling about Henry and Cathy.  I was not ready to forgive them—my rage was not burned out yet.  But to my surprise I felt sorrow for Henry.  He had died before he had a chance to undo the damage.”

–Julie Metz, Perfection

When I first read this passage a couple of years ago,  a bell went off in my head. Of course! Of course! There are things we read that help us make sense of things. Reading it again tonight I was struck anew. When you are around people with these disorders, you get sucked into their distorted view of the world. It helps to take a step back and see things how they truly are.


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