Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Paging Dr. Phil

In the wake of astronaut Lisa Nowak's bizzare meltdown on Monday, various psychoanalysts (professional and amateur) are trying to make sense of it all, offering their own explanations as to what went wrong.

We should point out that no psychological condition has been officially ascribed to Captain Nowak. She has been released on bail from a Florida jail, and returned to Houston, where she will (presumably) receive help with the issues that prompted her to drive 900 miles to Orlando, confront an apparent romantic rival, and allegedly spray that woman with pepper spray.

At least one comment on this blog suggested that Captain Nowak's behavior may have been triggered by a bi-polar disorder. I've known a few individuals who suffer from that condition, and they are capable of outlandish--even destructive--actions if they haven't been diagnosed, or don't take prescribed medication.

Among the mental health professionals, one Maryland psychiatrist, Dr. Jack Vaeth, is suggesting that Nowak's outburst may be the result of another condition, narcissistic personality disorder, typically found among exceptionally high achievers.

Thwarted in their ambitions or conquests, people accustomed to success, adulation and entitlement can slide into a rage or a disastrous series of decisions that can bring down their careers. His favorite example? Bill Clinton.

Vaeth teaches and practices at the Sheppard Pratt Health System hospital in Towson. He also has a private practice in Annapolis. He has no special knowledge of Nowak's case but plenty of experience with self-centered achievers.

"Certain professions are made up of narcissistic personalities, although maybe not disordered ones," Vaeth said. They include doctors, lawyers and CEOs, "high achievers who ... feel 'I have an edge on the world, and society rewards me for it.'

"They were always the teacher's pet, their parents' favorite child," he said, "so of course they're going to want to continue that. ... Everything they undertake, they're winners. And even when they lose, they learn to win better next time."

In time, they come to believe that they're entitled, invincible, "able to exploit others without being called to the mat for it."

When he lectures about the syndrome, he points to the former president.

"The whole time in the Oval Office with Monica [Lewinsky], you and I would be scared to death [of getting caught]," Vaeth said. "He's thinking, 'They'll never believe I did it.'"

When a narcissist's achievement or conquest is thwarted, he or she can fall into a rage, Vaeth said. "When the right buttons are pushed, they explode."

So far, everyone's favorite TV shrink, Dr. Phil, hasn't weighed in Captain Nowak's predicament, but you've got to believe that he's got an episode in the works. As for me, I'm waiting for Shrinkwrapped's take on the whole thing.


As for how this scenario plays out, I spoke with some friends who work as criminal defense lawyers and public relations experts. The lawyers expect some sort of deal to be worked out, with Nowak entering a guilty plea to lesser charges; they think the attempted murder charge is a stretch, and quite frankly, I agree. Given her record of achievement and complete lack of past criminal behavior, they expect Mowak might be sentenced to house arrest, followed by a long period of supervised probation.

On the PR end, the spin doctors project that Nowak will quietly announce her "resignation" from the astronaut corps 3-4 months down the road, after undergoing treatment for her problems. At the same time, Captain Nowak will also request retirement from the Navy; she already has 26 years of service, including her time at the Naval Academy, more than enough for retirement.

But that creates something of a quandry for the Navy. Currently, the service is letting the civilian justice system take its course. The Navy still has the option of filing additional charges against Nowak under the UCMJ, but it's unclear when--or if--that might happen. When Captain Nowak leaves NASA, she will again become the "property" of the USN, and there will be pressure to punish her for breaches of military conduct and discipline.

However, I don't think the Navy wants to prolong the embarassment over the Nowak incident, and would prefer to let the matter die as quickly as possible. Toward that end, I can see the service offering Nowak non-judical punishment (probably an Article 15) for her deeds, and retirement as a Commander (O-5), one grade below her present rank. On the other hand, Nowak might be allowed to leave the service at her present grade (Captain)--and without punishment--if her behavior can be attributed to a mental health disorder that went undiagnosed and untreated.


Mike H. said...

I concur. The bi-polar question was one possibility, I have another nephew with schizophrenia which could be another possibility. By looking at her Bio picture and her booking picture, we may not know what is wrong, but we know that something is wrong.

Nancy Reyes said...

When I heard it, especially about the diaper, I immediately thought she was in the manic phase and was bipolar.
You see, if it was a personality disorder or she was narcissitic she would have gone to the bathroom. (i.e. her social judgement would have remained) and if she was merely paranoid, she would have taken a better gun.
Without a close history, you can overlook bipolar on a psyc evaluation, and perhaps her earlier mood swings were not bad enough to be recognized as mental illness. (like all mental illnesses, mild forms are found widespread in normal people...)

Mike H. said...

A statement is here.

Andrewdb said...

I am puzzled - I would have thought you would have thought (boy is that bad sentence structure) that the USN would throw the book at her for the apparent adultery here (assuming some facts that may not be in evidence).

Bay Views said...

This is so sad, and out of character for a person of this stature, and especially after undergoing the screening that these very special people undergo.

I feel that something is wrong because of the total departure from prior behavior, and sincerely hope that NASA and the Navy, gently lay this to rest.

She has paid her debt, if there ever was one, to the Navy and to NASA. Let her retire and go home peacefully, and in her current grade.

jbrookins said...

Oh how I want to leave a smart remark here. But I will hold myself in check.

Rob said...

The diaper is the one authentic factor here. Fighter pilots are used to oddball "relief" arrangements. In the old days, men used a "texas catheter" on long missions (which couldn't have been comfortable), but that option doesn't work for women. I imagine that they now use the much more comfortable adult diaper.

In other words, this wouldn't have been the first time she ever wore a diaper, she probably had long experience with it.

She flew a mission last July and my unprofessional, armchair opinion is that something happened to her either on or as a result of that mission that sent ripples throughout her life. Notice, too, that she recently divorced.

Astronauts are under immense pressure to be absolutely perfect in their professional life. The smallest screwup can affect your flight status or mission assignment. I'm surprised that more of them don't flip out.

David M said...

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freelance radical said...

Dr.Phil will immediately transmute this violent, aggressive, diapered woman into the tearsoaked victim of that male astronaut she's so madly "in love" with!

Anonymous said...

I hate to be an anorak (not really), but her last name is Nowak, not Mowak.

DWPittelli said...

It may be hard to prove attempted murder or kidnapping beyond a reasonable doubt. But it's also pretty obvious that she intended one or the other. Even a crazy person doesn't drive 900 miles to merely spray someone with Mace and then run away.

It's also unlikely that she was criminally insane, which requires one to be so out of touch with reality as to not know that society thinks the behavior to be criminal. Her ditching the weapons (and the presence of latex gloves) indicates her knowledge that she'd been doing wrong.

This wasn't an argument that escalated, this was a one-sided assault and battery, and for the pepper-spray attack alone, it would be appalling if she did not serve felony time.