Many years ago, when I was still in contact with my abusive family and seeking help from several mental health professionals, one psychologist in particular lit up with recognition when I described the situation. A family member had been previously diagnosed by another psychologist with “delusions of grandeur,” and even though the other family member knew this, whenever she was around him, she would believe and repeat his delusions as if they were absolute truth. While the delusions themselves were disturbing (many revolved around the idea that my family member was a prophet who was to usher in the End Times), much of my own anguish revolved around the family member who repeated the delusions. How on earth could an otherwise “sane” person be susceptible to these completely irrational ideas? My psychologist not only had an explanation, she happened to specialize in it. And thus began my own education in understanding Shared Psychotic Disorder.
Shared psychotic disorder, also known as Folie à deux, which translates to “madness of two,” is described on the NCBI site as this:
Shared psychotic disorder (Folie a deux) is an unusual mental disorder characterized by sharing a delusion among two or more people who are in a close relationship. The (inducer, primary) who has a psychotic disorder with delusions influences another individual or more (induced, secondary) with a specific belief. It commonly presents among two individuals, but in rare cases can include larger groups, i.e., family and called folie a famille.
Famous cases of Shared psychotic disorder include the Jonestown massacre, where the popular reference, “Don’t drink the Kool-aid” comes from. As this article from Psychology Today points out, “Most of us don’t think of ourselves as the kind of person who could ever possibly become embroiled in a cult like the Peoples Temple. We are not at all correct in that assumption. Given an unfortunate turn of fate that leads to a moment of weakness, or a momentary lapse in judgment that expands into a shift in our perception, nearly any of us could find ourselves taking the cyanide in Jonestown—if not passing out the poison to other people.”
Fast forward to today. Conspiracy theories, distrust and fear of “the other,” and misinformation designed to discredit experts and lift up the unqualified seem to surround me. Trying to make sense of it all feels alarmingly familiar to the times I (unsuccessfully) tried to reason with my clinically delusional family. Once again, I find myself upset with the ones whom I think should know better.
When looking at shared delusions on a mass scale such as Jonestown or Nazi Germany, it’s impossible to say whether everyone involved has a full-blown disorder, but there are consistent trends to look out for. The ability to think and advocate for oneself lowers in times of stress or distress. Socio-economic factors, lack of education, and social isolation can contribute to inadequate critical thinking skills. In a time of crisis, it’s easy to hand over control to someone who projects authority and confidence, even if what they are saying and doing lacks honesty and integrity. However, when someone with psychopathic tendencies exploits others for their own gain, following them quickly unravels into chaos. An abusive person will not only spread delusional beliefs designed to hurt others, they will also gaslight people into thinking that anyone who tries to correct them is the one doing the gaslighting. Psychologically abusive people will often blame the victim or accuse others of they very things they themselves are guilty of doing. When this happens on a large scale in a situation where shared psychosis is at play, otherwise good, decent, and innocent people can be caught up in a whirlpool of lies, deception, and abuse. In short, it’s hell.
So how do we avoid it? To quote my psychologist, “Get out. Leave. Move. Leave no forwarding address.” If someone is saying and doing delusional things, the first and most important step is to physically distance yourself from them. In cases of shared psychotic disorder, the primary person with the delusions will probably continue to be delusional, but the secondary person who believed in the delusions has a good chance of recovery, if they are physically separated from the primary person. Most people at one time or another have experienced the group think of a cult, club, or any social group that requires its members to agree on the same doctrine, whether that’s “On Wednesdays, we wear pink,” or “We are the chosen ones.” When immersed in a group like this, it can feel empowering in the moment, but it’s not until you’re out and away from its influence that the flaws become evident. Getting away from charismatic leaders is often the first step before realizing you’re being controlled by one. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
If you think you might be in a situation where someone is controlling you or the narrative around you in a psychologically harmful way, do everything you can to remove yourself from the situation. This might mean having to cut ties with people you love, and physically moving away. I understand first hand the heartbreak and bravery a decision like this requires, and I promise there are a lot of us on the other side who are much better off because we can finally heal. Oftentimes, there are other loved ones who get caught in between. If someone you love believes in the delusions of another in spite the truth, there is little you can do to help them. Save yourself, and hold them in your heart. You may need to go no contact with them, too.
Healing after psychological abuse is possible, but it requires time and distance from anyone who reveals themselves to be toxic. While the emotional scars remain, distancing myself from toxic people was a life-saving decision.