Those who know me well know not to call me or talk to me from 7-7.15pm (whatever the GMT equivalent is, because – thanks to the internet, it’s possible to listen almost anywhere in the world), because it’s Archers time. An everyday story of country folk, as it used to be called: but now more of a soap opera based around a village called Ambridge in a fictional county in the heart of rural England. Sorry, but there we are: my name is Jāna, and I am an Archers addict. I even belong to a Facebook group called Ambridge Addicts – not so much therapy as feeding the addiction, sadly.
So far, so not very interesting and slightly humiliating. But the point of this blog is that over recent months the plot line in The Archers has included a developing drama around a clearly sociopathic/psychopathic/disordered personality character. Rob Titchener charmed a lonely, vulnerable single mother into marrying him, but at the same time he is extraordinarily manipulative, a chronic liar, occasionally verbally and physically violent and entirely unscrupulous in his dealings with others. And this has caused an explosion of reactions among listeners, and Facebook commenters.
Many of those reacting are simply bored by this long story line; but others have been distressed, and have suffered from a kind of post-traumatic stress reaction, because they – well, we ourselves have suffered at the hands of our own sociopaths, and the trauma this leaves behind is often lifelong and extraordinarily damaging. I also find myself listening from behind a metaphorical sofa, as the all too recognisable phrases trip off Rob’s tongue. Whoever is in the writing team for this line has certainly researched personality disorders very thoroughly.
But it probably is valuable, if it helps even a handful of people to realise that they too may be being abused by a sociopath (I’m not proposing to explain the differences, such as they are, between psychopaths, sociopaths and those with personality disorders: one version can be found here) . As there may be as many as 10% of the population who are affected in this way, there are a large number out there, and all of us will come across someone like that sooner or later. Here are a few pointers which may tell you that you are in the presence of someone with a personality disorder.
- One day they are charming and attentive to you, making you feel that you really matter to them; and the next time you meet they ignore you completely.
- They tell you lies all the time – sometimes to save their own face, but sometimes senselessly
- Nothing is ever their fault. Someone else is to blame for all that goes wrong.
- You have a minor disagreement, and it blows out of all proportion. None of your usual strategies for resolving conflicts work.
- They ‘gaslight’ you:
Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. (from Wikipedia)
- Often they will pursue you for vengeance, especially if you manage to overcome them in a conflict. In some cases, this will stretch to stalking, cyberharrasment, domestic abuse, physical or psychological violence.
- And crucially, and this is what Ambridge Addicts are doing at the moment – the sociopath occupies your headspace, often to the exclusion of all else. You find yourself worrying what they are doing, what they might do, trying desperately to understand why things don’t work between you; even when all falls silent, you worry about what is being planned next.
As a minister of religion it seems very distressing that the church is particularly vulnerable to the depredations of sociopaths, both in congregations and among ordained ministers. In churches and other faith institutions, we have a presumption that people are going to be well-intentioned, truthful and will want to do their best for others. It can take a very long time for ministers with personality disorders to be uncovered, and meantime they leave a trail of havoc behind them (watch out for the pastor who hops from church to church, from denomination to denomination). Who actually wants to challenge the bishop who tells lies, or the vicar who preaches such wonderful sermons, but you have a horrible feeling they might be dipping their hand into the collection basket? It is difficult to do in the faith context.
When the sociopath harassing me was at their worst, I asked a wise old pastor for advice and help. Partly this was simply because I didn’t know what to do, but partly also because I was wrestling with a theological question. Sociopaths can’t, in a sense, be blamed for their conduct, as they often have almost no insight into their true nature. Most are never diagnosed by a psychologist, as they wouldn’t dream of going near one. There is no treatment as such, as this is not an illness; the exception is for the small number of people with personality disorders who have some awareness of their problem, and are willing to work hard with a psychologist to at least modify their behaviour, if they are aware of how damaging they are, and if they care.
So, for a Christian, the question is – where does salvation lie for the sociopath? If someone is quite unable to see their wrong behaviour, their sins, for what they are, they are also unable to confess them honestly, and be forgiven. They also cannot repair their relationships with other people, for the same reason. At the same time, the self-obsession of most people with personality disorders makes ‘repentance’ – metanoia – a change of focus towards God impossible.
The wise old pastor said something along the lines of ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19.26) He told me to keep praying for the sociopath, and to pray for myself to be able to forgive them, and to leave the rest to God’s grace.
And all that stems from a soap opera story line.