Psychology Today

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

A few years ago my sister, who is a few years younger than I, took a greater interest in psychology. She’d always been an adventuress, a mountain girl and a road warrior, but had reached a point in her life where she wanted to meet a nice man who was considerate and with whom she could fall in love. She couldn’t understand why, from the wide selection of skaters, snowboarders, surfers, hitchhikers, card sharps, crab fishermen, jugglers, smoke jumpers, pickpockets, pearl divers, flat-track racers and trance DJs she called friends, there weren’t any dependable, trustworthy guys who were capable of love.

She actually knew a few guys who were dependable and capable of love, too, but she rejected them for not being able to skate. Naturally she concluded that the problem was that SHE had a fear of intimacy and wasn’t ATTRACTING the right guys due to UNCONSCIOUS signals she was sending, so she commenced reading multiple thick volumes of relationship-focused psychology manuals with names like “Men are Despicable Bastard Sons of Orion but We Selflessly Love Them and Here’s Why”. The insights contained in these volumes were, naturally, the kind you want to share with those closest to you, so my sister and I had many conversations that went like this:

Sister: Did it ever occur to you that your many failed “relationships” are just outward manifestations of your Narcissistic Personality Disorder?”

Me: (Intentionally not looking up from a thick book on the Reformation) Hmmmm?

Sister: This book I’m reading describes you perfectly.

Me: (Still reading) Mmmm, yes. That is absolutely not fascinating.

Sister: Go ahead and laugh, but you are pushing people away because of a fear of intimacy.

Me: No, I am pushing people away because they won’t stop psychoanalyzing me with Oprah vocabulary. Also, girls can’t handle my animal reflexes.

Sister: That is exactly what a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder would say. Face your problems or be doomed to loneliness.

Me: I don’t have a personality disorder, I have a personality. Why can’t the world see?

Sister: Well, don’t blame me when your kids call you Mr. Roderick and cower in fear.

Me: I HOPE my kids call me Mr. Roderick! They’d better!

And so on. My sister had my best interests at heart but she was barking up the wrong tree. When it comes to relationship mumbo-jumbo, I prefer to be the psychoanalizer rather than the psychoanalizee. If there aren’t going to be any right answers anyway, I’d much rather be the one who puts his hands into a little steeple and purses his lips, saying “Why do you think you’re reacting this way?” rather than the one screaming “Stop patronizing me!” After all, I spent my teenage years slumped sulkily in a chair while school guidance counselors and psychologists ham-fistedly probed the inner workings of my mind with their laser-like powers of inanity, trying to find a corrective solution to the sardonic attitude that went on to make me rich and famous. All their hard work did nothing to correct my sardonic attitude, but it did teach me ten-thousand strategies for infuriating people with pop-psychology buzz words.

Which isn’t to say that I disbelieve in psychology entirely. When my friends report that they’ve been diagnosed with OCD or ADD or ADHDTV I always nod respectfully. I hope the drugs work. But in light of the fact that mental health professionals can’t seem to confine actual, bona fide, homicidal maniacs from wandering Capitol Hill looking for people to kill, it seems strange that they all seem to agree that “restless-leg syndrome” is an epidemic in desperate need of pharmaceutical intervention. In a culture where everyone seems thrilled to discover new mental disabilities in themselves that can explain their Ben & Jerry’s addiction or their sexual attraction to Naugahyde, I want to exclaim: “I’m a healthy person, and I take responsibility for the things I do!”

So imagine my surprise when, over a cup of herbal tea, a close friend confronted me and accused me of being an introvert. This was a new wrinkle that I had never considered. Didn’t introverts put tinfoil over their windows and talk to canned peas? Isn’t “I think you’re an introvert” a polite way of saying “you may have Asberger’s Syndrome”? There are plenty of reasons I could think of that would exempt me from being an introvert: I have friends, I like to get hugs, and I haven’t memorized any bus schedules. The many hours I spend organizing different sizes of rusty nails into peanutbutter jars is just innocent fun, surely not a symptom of introversion. What could this mean? It seemed that someone had found my Achilles’ heel.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I don’t like parties, or talking on the phone, or being around people for long, uninterrupted stretches, but I always took those as proof that I was sane and reasonable. I spend my free time silently asking and answering trivia questions about great moments in history, but again, that’s a perfectly benign amusement. I often catch my cat staring at me in a way that I find emotionally intrusive, but he’s a very nosy cat. I heard myself defensively rationalizing these activities. Perhaps they were expressions of an introverted personality.

As I came around to the idea that there was, perhaps, a descriptive term for my “type” of person that differentiated me from “most people”, I was almost immediately seized by a mania to describe my enlightenment to other people. I had gone from long-time skeptic to breathless enthusiast in twenty minutes. “Hey,” I said to my friends, “the reason I never return your phone calls, invite you to my house, or accept your invitations to spend a weekend at a banjo festival in Sequim is not because I’m rude, inconsiderate or disinterested. It turns out I’m an introvert!” Almost every troublesome interaction with other people fell under this rubric. Even better, I felt qualified to diagnose introversion in other people, first in the people I knew well, and soon thereafter in almost anyone. I was analyzing the mental processes of complete strangers right to their faces, engaging waitresses in long, personal conversations they were trying politely to escape, composing and revising the speech I intended to inflict on my next girlfriend the first time she asked me what I was thinking, and beginning to describe myself as a member of a persecuted minority. In short, I quickly became a proselytizing fanatic, a Dr. Phil-humping super-bore who had found a simple acorn of an idea and grown it into an all-encompassing worldview.

I persisted in this state for a few weeks, until one day I chanced upon a March 2005 issue of Psychology Today that had an article on personality disorders. Psychology Today is a total middlebrow, bubblegum, feel-good, pop crapfest that uses pictures of models and movie stars to illustrate brainless articles for bored, college-educated housewives, and it’s proof of how far I’d fallen under the spell of “Psychology” that I even deigned to open a copy. But I’d become addicted to the idea that I was explainable, definable and quantifiable, and now I wanted more! To my surprise, according to the table of traits in Psychology Today, I was quite within the range of a Schizotypal Personality with an Anhedonic Temperment and elements of Narcissistic Paranoia. (SPWATENaP)

With that, the scales fell from my eyes. Of course I was all those things, and a thousand other things besides. I’m also a seventh-level magic user and a dreamer of dreams. My brief moment of feeling like the world was a knowable system with a hidden key had passed, alas. Back to the old grind where I have to make choices and live with the consequences, secure only in the knowledge that I try to do my best. But even as I rejoin the world and leave the glamor of my exotic disorders behind, I’m preserving a little ember of the experience. I’m an introvert. I’m part of a persecuted minority. That’s why I don’t answer the phone.