Is she New Age or psychotic?

My stepmom thinks she can control the dog with telepathy

Published June 21, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My stepmom is in many ways a wonderful woman -- creative, thoughtful and fun. The problem is that during the past few years, she has turned into a full-fledged believer in almost everything New Age.

To tell the truth, I couldn't even begin to describe her beliefs, since it's almost impossible to keep up with her. Every time I see her or talk to her, she has some new "life-changing insights" she wants to share. Sometimes her ideas are harmless -- like when she obsesses about new ways of making green smoothies. Sometimes, she does things that I would label crazy, like when she claimed a certain stone was giving her special powers. Her ideas can even be outright dangerous -- like when she proposed to keep her dog, that had a biting problem, away from my newborn daughter by telepathy. "I'm making a line right here in the living room that he's not allowed to cross. He'll listen to me, you'll see."

She is well aware that my sister and I have a very different worldview. We have tried reasoning with her. We have tried changing the subject, again and again. Nothing works. It's as if she's incapable of realizing that some of the things she believes in come off as incredible or offensive to others. She only trusts her own heart and her own instincts and has little respect for science or reason.

And yet, she seems to believe that she is some kind of guru, that her advice is always welcome. She keeps sending links to articles about the dangers of just about everything in the modern world -- modern medicine, cellphones, Wi-Fi, microwave ovens, water that hasn't been blessed in the proper way by the proper deities. Every phone call starts with 10 minutes of complaints about how we should stop using cellphones. She keeps telling us that our lives are too stressful, yet she's the one that hardly ever has the time to visit us -- her courses and retreats take up too much time.

For the past few months, I've avoided talking to her. But what I'm really looking for is some kind of strategy to be able to enjoy her good sides, without letting her strange ideas and complaints get to me. Can you give me some advice?

Feet on the Ground

Dear Feet on the Ground,

If she has hallucinations, or hears voices directing her behavior, or believes she has magical powers, she may be psychotic.

That's an amateur opinion, of course, but whenever I tell psychiatrists I hear voices they always want to find out if I'm psychotic. I'm not psychotic. I just hear voices. So maybe she's not psychotic either. But it's worth knowing.

Because she does not respond to social cues, it will be hard to direct her choice of topics and therefore hard to enjoy her good sides and not let her strange ideas and complaints get to you.

She's a package deal, I figure. What you see is what you get.

Have her talk to someone. A psychiatrist with some sympathy for the New Age movement would be a good choice -- someone with chimes and colorful weaves. Just to talk. "Indeed," writes Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D., in a post on the Psychology Today site, "there are certain transpersonally oriented psychotherapists who insist that many examples of what would traditionally be diagnosed as psychosis are, in fact, not psychosis, but episodes of so-called 'spiritual emergence.'"

Maybe she's having a spiritual emergence. The whole idea of psychosis versus enlightenment is kind of interesting. Who am I to judge? I just don't want that dog to bite your baby.

If it's not practical to have her talk with a sympathetic psychiatrist, then you yourself should talk with a psychiatrist or social worker to find out what your options are should she slip into something more than harmless eccentricity. You might want to know if there are warning signs for a person who seems out of touch with reality.

She may feel very alone with her beliefs and her inability to see things as others see them; her involvement in so many New Age groups may be a way of finding acceptance. She may distrust science not because she has thought hard about it but because it challenges her beliefs and she cannot afford to have her beliefs challenged; her beliefs may be more in the realm of voices and hallucinations, things over which she has no control, so it may be scary to know that science will say they don't exist.

Of course we have sympathy for her. But your baby is weak and powerless and must be protected.

If telepathy doesn't work, get a leash.

Leashes are great. We don't have to agree about whether they exist or not.

By Cary Tennis

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