The Invisible Personality Disorder

by Mike Bendzela: Given that it affects about 2.4% of the population, most of you probably know someone with this disorder. Some of you may even have it yourselves. Continually absenting yourself from others’ company out of chronic fear should come with the preamble, “It’s not you, it’s me,” which in this case is not just a line of bullshit. But you never get around to saying such a thing because it is tacit, as tacit as water is to a fish.

Revealing a personality disorder is like coming out of the closet a second time, but worse. For all its woes, coming out as gay initiates a new way of fitting in, a more honest way of relating to the world and others. Then you settle in and everyone forgets about it. This revelation, though, feels more like a post hoc explanation for the impaired way you relate to the world and others. That the awareness of it comes so late does not really matter, as there is nothing you could have done to make things turn out differently. It is something that has shaped every day of your life, even though you never knew there was a name for it until recently. Using the analogy of sexual orientation again: Imagine it were possible to grow up being attracted to others of your own sex, to form a long-term relationship, and then only later in mid-life to read about a condition called “homosexuality.”

Oh, so that’s a thing, then, you would think. You find that you have already adapted to it. Your life is the hand in the glove of your psychological predisposition. The variability that inheres in a world presided over by evolution by natural selection means we are all cast as certain types in the drama of life. This makes the term “disorder” in “avoidant personality disorder” seem a misnomer, even offensive, but there you have it. You did not write the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Personality disorders come in different keys or modes called “Clusters”: Cluster A (odd, eccentric), Cluster B (dramatic, erratic), and Cluster C (fearful, anxious). Some of these might be thought of as charismatic: They are the stuff of crime novels, family tragedies, office gossip, political campaigns. The Cluster B folks are particularly notorious. Perhaps you know someone who had to step away from a volatile relationship with someone with borderline personality disorder. There is that transgressive friend from high school, the one who was in and out

out of jail all the time, who turns out to have antisocial personality disorder. The dazzling life of the party, the flamboyant artiste seemingly everyone has slept with, is an example of someone with histrionic personality disorder. And none of us can get away from the narcissistic personality these days — he sucks up attention like a tornado — and in fact we are sick of hearing about him.

Tucked out of the way amongst the misfortunate, fear-ridden Cluster C types is the friend who is easily forgotten about. And he prefers it that way. The attentions of others might be of a censorious nature, which would alarm him to no end, the same way a hairy spider crawling up your arm alarms you.

But, really, how does one know one is thus “disordered”? Is it as easy as diagnosing one’s own sexual orientation? The DSM lists seven telling traits (“signs and symptoms”), and if you have at least four of them, it means you probably have the disorder. Read the whole entry »