Editor’s note: We recently came across the following intriguing question on Quora: “What is it like to be a psychopath?”
An anonymous user responded with a first-person account of having Antisocial Personality Disorder, the official name for a mental illness most people know as sociopathy. The disorder, which is notoriously difficult to treat, is characterised by a lack of empathy and inability to form close relationships. We have printed the entire response below.
I’d like to answer this anonymously, so bear with me.
First of all, although it is a common misconception, having an antisocial personality disorder is different from the term “psychopath.” A sociopath can have a wide range of symptoms, meaning that not every sociopath is like Dexter, or feels the need to kill and destroy in an attempt to feel emotions or cope. Sociopaths or psychopaths can be anywhere on a large spectrum ranging from the type of behaviour seen by remorseless serial killers, or the behaviour seen as a general disorder in emotional capabilities or accuracy.
In my case, although as of yet there is no sure-fire method of diagnosing ASPD, I was given the label because I exhibited many of the symptoms associated with the disorder. As a child I was stubborn and had trouble maintaining friendships. I didn’t have any trouble making friends, but social norms were foreign to me and I usually lost interest in friendship. My parents described my behaviour as cold and distant. I had absolutely no sense of loyalty and would use people to get what I wanted.
I can’t say that there is NO effective treatment for the problem, but in my case, I was institutionalized for many months and I was essentially re-trained how to survive in a society that I can’t understand. Since many of the problems I had evolved throughout my childhood and early teens, my parents decided to face the problem in a very extreme way, hence the institutionalization.
Today, most people wouldn’t know that I have issues. I moved to a new area to ease the transition.
Not all people who show symptoms of ASPD will involve themselves in criminal activity. Although I’ve had a few minor brushes with the law, I am not a criminal and I have no desire to break laws. Also, contrary to popular belief, I DO experience emotions. I experience emotions which are much less intense, I imagine, than others, but they are emotions nevertheless. Most of the time I have difficulty identifying what I am feeling, and my emotions are often inappropriate in context with the situation.
I have almost no ability to empathise with others, and even at the death of those close to me, I did not feel sorrow. Instead, I knew that I should be feeling sorrow, and so I exhibited the emotions that I knew I should be feeling. This was the training and treatment that I received. I was taught about my disorder, I was told that I was different from most of the world, but I was also taught that I should attempt to integrate.
One of the biggest problems with ASPD is the sense of alienation. This alienation is often the only thing which someone with ASPD can truly understand. The alienation is clear and it is not confusing. However, if i allow the alienation to define me, I become less willing to fight antisocial urges. These antisocial actions are what cause many people with ASPD to break the law or hurt others.
Although I cannot compare the treatment I received with other methods, I would say that the training I was given helped me to blend into my society and become a part of it. Pretending to feel things which I do not feel makes me appear normal, and appearing normal makes the alienation less intense, which in turn helps the ASPD. There is no firmly recognised method to treat people who have ASPD or who can be classified as psychopaths.
One of the main problems is that, compared to other mental illnesses, there is a very small knowledge base on the subject. Few functioning people with an antisocial personality disorder seek out therapy. Most of the people that society recognises as sociopaths or psychopaths are in prison or deeply disturbed. There is a huge social stigma in relation to people who can be classified as sociopaths or psychopaths (not unfounded, I’ll admit, there is good cause). But this general mistrust makes it difficult to get a job, make friends, or date people (yes I do date) should the fact that I have a diagnosis of ASPD come to light.
Once, a well meaning, but poorly-informed neighbour put my name and address on a map online, marking me as a dangerous member of society. I had been attending therapy nearby, and I naively thought that he wouldn’t judge since his young son has schizophrenia. I was forced to quit my job and move away after the whole situation started interfering with my work and general desire to be left alone.
Despite my ASPD, I am a functioning member of society.
With continuing therapy, and the understanding that it is ok for me to be different, I have the freedom to live where I want, have friendships, work, and go to school.
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