Tag Archives: Barnum Effect

My Mother’s Disorder

I turned 26 in November. Most people don’t relate anything meaningful to this age but being able to rent a car without having a negligent teenager fee imposed, but as any psychology major will tell you, this age marks one of the most significant factors in life: The age where people who later grow to have recurring psychological problems tend to have their first psychotic break. Twenty-six, as Norah Vincent says in her book Voluntary Madness, is “that age when all well-loved children of the upper middle class begin to discover that the world is not made for them, that all meaningful questions are rhetorical, and that the term ‘soul mate’ is, at best, a figure of speech.” I wouldn’t lump myself in that group like most of my peers, and learned this all at a much younger age, but for a while now I’ve been waiting in suspense just the same for my world to come crashing down because of factors beyond my control.

It won’t though, and I’m over bracing myself for this. I don’t know if I have depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADD, or if I’ve ever had a psychotic break, but I have confidently self-diagnosed myself with Medical Student Syndrome (and a touch of The Barnum Effect). Medical Student Syndrome is a sort of hypochondriac state that medical students experience where they “perceive themselves or others to be experiencing the symptoms of the disease(s) they are studying,” because they are afraid of contracting the disease in question. In the field of psychology, where the criteria for mental illness are so loosely defined, this affliction is rampant, as we were all warned in Intro to Psychopathology. To top it all off, most people who choose psychology as a field of study do so for a reason, as either they or close relatives have some psychological affliction. This makes us especially susceptible to The Barnum Effect, which, named after P.T. Barnum encapsulates the tendency of people to over-fit tailored but general descriptions to themselves. When it comes to mental illness “we’ve got something for everybody!” At least everybody who is willing to pay to fix it.

For me, my fascination with psychology began from growing up with a single mother who went completely insane after menopause and has always refused any kind of treatment. I went to an author panel last Valentine’s Day where David Dobbs discussed his short story, My Mother’s Lover, which is his account of uncovering his mother’s lifelong affair post-mortem. Afterward I asked him if he would have written that story if his mother was still alive, and he said no — you need to wait until your parents are dead to write anything potentially unflattering about them. I took that advice to heart, but in the past year I realized that I don’t need to wait to write about her because, to me, and to most of the people she has known, she is already dead. Every attempt to reach her is as futile as shaking a corpse, and probably a little more disturbing. Reading this as someone who comes from a loving family, you will likely not be able to empathize, but do try to sympathize rather than judging me. I’ve done all I can to help her, but unfortunately, nobody can.

This isn’t a sob story though. This is the story about how I finally learn to help myself after living in the shadow of a Class A narcissist with severe sociopathic tendencies, who continues to spiral into a state of schizophrenic dementia. When I was in high school, the first boy I fell in love with gaslighted me by telling me that “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” He is now a line-cook at a chain restaurant in Gainesville, Florida, and I am here in New York, doing what I do. And I know for a fact that it did — it fell incredibly far away, and it is still rolling.

To be continued…