Was Chris Burns a Sociopath? A Look Inside an Abusive Marriage

Chris was diagnosed with severe ADD and an anxiety disorder in August 2018. All of the boys got their brains scanned at the Amen clinic in Atlanta, and I followed their lead a month later. We needed to figure out how our brains were taking in information and what our actions were putting out. 

The first day, we each did an individual intake interview.

“Why do you think you’re here today? What do you want to work on?” “Tell me about your history. What was your childhood like?” asked the counselor. “I am going to give you three words in order. Later in this conversation, I am going to ask you again what those three words are, and I want you to tell them to me in order.”

After close to an hour of regurgitating my psychological history, I couldn’t remember the three words. I was so confident that I would remember “plane, animal, and laundry,” but when I was requested to repeat them back, I got lucky recalling one out of three of those words. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant about my mental abilities.

The questions included any information about childhood trauma, sexual trauma, struggles in day-to-day life–it was a three hour conversational journey into our soul based on the experiences we had lived. Based on this intense coffee talk, a report was written for each of us and sent to the psychiatrist as a part of our overall diagnostic packet.

The next day, we had a series of digital testing. Black lines on a screen where we were supposed to remember shapes in a certain order, and letters flashed in front of us to disect how fast we could respond to the image. I’m sure it was testing analytical aspects of our brains, but I couldn’t figure out how anyone would gain actual information about how we lived from these lab tests.

The grand finale was being injected with a colored dye and scanning our brains on two different days. One would show our brain activity while at rest, the other would show what our brain was up to when stimulated. 

After days of testing, we eventually all sat in a room together and listened to the results. Both boys had some degree of ADD. Chris received his diagnosis, and I was initially asked one question that still haunts me. Had I been exposed to toxins recently? I had a spot on my brain related to exposure to heavy toxins–did I ever experience weakness in my hands or legs, fatigue, or loss of memory? The answer was “yes, daily,” but I had nothing in my medical history to produce that answer. At the time, I was a bit dismissive of this, but sometimes I wonder now why I was so sick for so many years. And why I have been the healthiest I’ve ever been since Chris left.

Being sick so consistently left me highly dependent for most of the basic needs in my life, and left me wondering if I would ever have the energy to go after that pent-up desire inside me wanting to explode into meaning and living and confidence.

The doctor took out a model of a brain, and showed me the amygdala and explained its function, the prefrontal cortex and its role in our decision-making, and what a brain would be like for someone who had Complex PTSD (CPTSD). He slid the picture of my brain scan onto the coffee table in his office, and then he laid a picture of a CPTSD brain scan next to it. They were identical. The image in both photos showed a brain with bright spots lit up in the limbic, basal ganglia, and anterior cingulate gyrus areas of my brain in a diamond-like pattern.

In all honesty, I didn’t really know what the diagnosis meant, and actually exhaled extreme relief that it wasn’t bi-polar disorder…or Borderline Personality Disorder as Chris and some family members had suggested years before and throughout our marriage.

While PTSD usually occurs after a single traumatic event, CPTSD is associated with repeated trauma, repeated trauma that lasts over months or years (A beginning point for me in understanding a CPTSD diagnosis was this Healthline article). As the psychiatrist began discussing my brain health, his voice became background noise as my mind wandered to a dark question I wasn’t ready to explore an answer for. “Was my marriage causing the CPTSD?” The idea flashed across my visual field in a millisecond, while at the same time I experienced my brain probe the depths of this “what if” in pulsating slow-motion. But I dismissed it in a nanosecond–I don’t know why I let it off the hook so quickly in that moment, never returning to consider it as an option during the next two years of counseling sessions. I had been struggling with our daily life for years, feeling like it was always a whirlwind, always off-balance–I just couldn’t quite give voice to what felt so off.

When I search deep down now, I know my heart couldn’t handle the truth and needed denial to survive.

We had been attempting to rebuild our marriage for a year–this kind of information would destabilize the delicate ground I was already treading on. If I spoke it, it would certainly be taken as an accusation. And I held tightly to the fear that any perceived threats would tip the scales too far, and Chris would move out again leaving the kids living under a fog of confusion and insecurity. It would be my fault, and I couldn’t own that at the time.

Two sentences describing the origins of CPTSD stand out to me from the article now “Any type of long-term trauma, over several months or years, can lead to CPTSD. However, it seems to appear frequently in people who’ve been abused by someone who was supposed to be their caregiver or protector.” Today, it confirms my intuition that day in the doctor’s office. I had looked to Chris as a caregiver and protector since I was nineteen years old.

When we got the scans, I only had a small sliver of hope that I did not have Borderline Personality Disorder. By that point in time, for the last twelve years, that term had been thrown at me sideways and through a magnifying glass so many times. Sometimes, it was even relayed to me that another family member expressed to Chris, that they perceived this as my diagnosis. So, beyond just Chris, there were other voices in the mix, even if I never heard it directly from them. I desperately wanted to know myself enough to be humble, and give space and validity to the feedback he was giving me. After all, he was the closest person in my life, and he was saying that this was how he experienced me. Once I got my diagnosis, relief flooded my autonomic nervous system–I could get help, and there were solid treatments for CPTSD.

In early 2020, after I separated the second time, I was cleaning out Chris’ car because he was going to drive Philip to his trauma program. I started near the driver’s seat collecting used fast food wrappers and empty black containers of  5-hour energy shots, in the backseat I removed boxes of Goodwill items that I had requested to be dropped off weeks earlier, and collected custom-made clothing balled up from wardrobe changes for media interviews and 5-star dinners.

My last stop was the trunk, and the only object centered in the space was a book called “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”

I had been in Chris’ trunk multiple times before and had only ever seen it full of paperwork and forgotten purchases; this colorful book was the sole object installed in the black interior. I stared at the title, and stood motionless for a solid sixty seconds. In that one minute, my mind was a ping pong machine–throwing a rolling reality sharply back and forth, side-to-side, darting fast at a downward angle towards a black hole.

My mind started with one justification and moved on to the next before finishing the first one–asking myself if my counseling had been working at all, or if I was blinded to my own reality, stretching my thoughts to the far extremes between the idea of rebuilding a marriage or bracing for a surprise divorce. I had intentionally placed all of my faith in reconciling our relationship through counseling over the next few years. 

What had I missed? Did I forget something someone said to me? Did I just hear what I wanted to hear from the psychiatrist and not the real diagnosis? Had I made any progress doing EMDR and trauma counseling over the last year? I was suddenly an alien in my own mind–the world as I had perceived it might not be real: I might not be connected to reality–at least the reality of my true nature.

I reached toward the book and picked it up like I would a blue crab snapping at my fingertips. This thing had the power to snap its claws around my most tender parts and create unrelenting pain and confusion. My hand shook as I held the book and walked inside the house; my eyes read the title over and over again desperately searching for a word, or a meaning, or a phrase that didn’t scare me.

I was too afraid to bring it up to Chris right then. I held it in my heart for days, sometimes pushing it down into a dark corner and other times letting it have full reign inside my soul. Those days were like walking through the woods constantly searching for the trail because every time I looked down, I was off the path wondering how to find the path again and stick to it. When I seemed to be walking in circles, I looked up to the sky begging for answers–the towering trees and blue sky never providing an easy answer, only brief moments of sanity in my chaotic mind. By the end of a week of this internal torment, I worked up the courage to bring up the book to Chris.

“Hey, when I was cleaning out your car, I found this book. I was just wondering why you have it?”

“Oh, that’s from when we were separated, my counselor had suggested I read it,” he said nonchalantly.

“I guess I’m confused as to why you still had it…but also, why were you reading a book about someone with borderline personality disorder or narcissism?” I said.

“You know me–with my ADD I just forgot that it was back there. I’d forgotten I even still had it,” he said.

I was a terrible person, but I couldn’t help but feel like he knew I would find it when I cleaned out his car. I hated to consider that it was intentional, but a nagging feeling made me question every odd experience by this point.

“Well, why would our psychiatrist suggest a book on Borderline Personality Disorder–he told me I have CPTSD,” I said.

“I know he told you that, but that’s because he didn’t want to freak you out. You know, he doesn’t really believe in all those labels, but he’s told me you are more along the lines of Borderline Personality Disorder than CPTSD–he just thought you might lose it if he gave you that diagnosis.” 

He said this sitting relaxed on the bed, never looking away from his television show.

“I don’t understand that. I feel like I have always been open to getting help and needing help. Why would he hide that from me? He doesn’t seem like someone who would do that?” I said.

“Well, your counselor says it too. When we went in, she mentioned it to me, but you’re making so much progress, I don’t think it really matters anyway. I mean, if you had known, you might have gotten really upset about it,” he said.

I began to feel my mouth fill with the saliva that comes before bending over a toilet and heaving your insides into a porcelain bowl. How long have both my psychiatrist and counselor been keeping this from me? Why would they do that? How can I trust them now? Why would they tell Chris and not me? I guess because I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Maybe I would have lost it. Maybe they all had their reasons to, maybe not so much lie, just not tell the whole truth. But, who is telling the truth? What do I believe about myself, my brain, my ability to engage my fears, my ability to engage my emotions.

I cried on and off for three days. Some moments he would put his arm around me and tell me it wasn’t a big deal. Other times, he walked past me up the stairs to his office while my eyes quietly released salt water by themselves. I sat out in the sunshine on the swing next to the water, just staring at the sparkle of the sunlight whenever the water moved. I was in sort of a living paralysis–coming to terms with the fact that I had a severe mental diagnosis I was unaware of for the past two years. With the sun streaming on my face, I asked myself if I was strong enough to accept how broken my brain was–and to keep fighting to heal it. Had it been my overachieving ego which wouldn’t let me handle the depth of my brokenness? 

The sense of betrayal kept me from asking my psychiatrist and counselor directly. I retreated into myself, and went through the motions of living for the next few months. I knew I was trying to come to terms with an explosive revelation about myself, but I felt ashamed because I couldn’t fully accept it.

My mind was pulling back and forth, trying to reel the line in to help me catch on to what everyone else seemed to know, but my heart was on the hook and swimming hard away from the feeling of entrapment. I couldn’t make it add up in my mind.

A month after Chris went on the run, I did a call with my psychiatrist to check on medications for the boys because we were all struggling with anxiety and depression and grief. Towards the end of the conversation, I somehow pulled the nerve from the deepest part of my soul and lungs and barely breathed out a question I didn’t want the answer to.

“Dr. Newsar, can you tell me my real diagnosis? Chris told me that you said I actually have Borderline Personality Disorder. He said you told him to buy a book called “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder?” I said.

“Meredith, I have never heard of that book or that author. And I can tell you, you don’t have Borderline Personality Disorder–you have been in severe trauma for years. Looking back, hindsight always being twenty-twenty, I finally understand why I could never get Chris to go to individual counseling over the last two years. You know, in our sessions, he always seemed to blame you for what he was experiencing–and he was so convincing. I would never hide anything from a patient; I would tell you if you had Borderline Personality Disorder. And honestly, I think some of my diagnosis for you came from what Chris was saying. As I look at it now, I think he was a master manipulator. I’m a really good doctor–and he had me completely fooled. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you sooner–that I didn’t see it sooner.”

All this confusion and heaviness inside my chest, all the racing thoughts falling asleep at night, the explosion of anxiety from the moment I woke up every morning, the eggshells I created for myself to walk on, the isolation from friends, the dissociation I had created from my own identity…all of it had been a phantom reality. 

“Dr. Newsar, I keep reading these books trying to figure out what happened with Chris, was it the ADD, was it an addiction? Is he a narcissist?” I ask.

“Meredith, I wish I had seen through it all, but he was just that good. He fooled the best counselors and psychiatrists in Atlanta. It’s on the spectrum from Narcissistic Personality Disorder to psychopathy. I would place Chris in line with sociopathy.” He said the words so gently, but they broke me. I had read, I knew the DSM’s definition. I knew that everything I had loved and placed my life energy into was a shadow life. 

I have no answers on how to hear those words and swallow them whole all at once and expect your entire body to digest the truth. I don’t know if I will ever be able to fully digest the truth. And maybe part of that is because truth and reality still seem unstable in my mind, from my experience. How many years was the truth manipulated to rearrange my reality? 

If I could snap my fingers and make it not what it is, I would beg God for none of this to be true. But I hold this dichotomy–between wishing it away and living in reality–inside my one vessel. The polar opposites live inside my being like magnetic repulsion almost exploding my heart with their opposing presure. I would give anything for the truth to be false, but I will also spend the rest of my life thanking God for showing me the truth, bringing me into the truth, not letting me whither away wandering in circles trying to find the path of reality.

10 thoughts on “Was Chris Burns a Sociopath? A Look Inside an Abusive Marriage”

    1. Thank you Christine! I will say, you are also one of the bravest people I know. I think we all decide who we are when life gets really hard. Being brave is just trying to make it through, and take what we have, be honest with ourselves, and try to bring life to events that could deaden us. I have to tell you, I have met SO many women in this past year who are beyond brave. The way they choose to live and love through deep grief and pain is such a testament to keep trying to grow, learn, and change from whatever life brings your way.

  1. Oh Meredith, my precious niece. I feel so bad that I didn’t know but I understand. You’re writing is so expressive. I can see the many aspects of your life and your family, specifically that jerk chris. I love you so much. If you need anything at all please know you can call me for anything.

    1. Well, if I didn’t really know, no one really knew. That is what is hard to hold emotionally and mentally–to not feel shame or guilt. I felt very embarrassed and naive at first–so much shame that I didn’t put the pieces together. But, I tell myself the truth when my thinking goes there–we weren’t made to put pieces together. We were made to trust, to love, to forgive, to be loyal, and to believe in honest intentions for those who profess to love us. Thank you for your support and love 🙂

  2. Wow! You must write a book – please !!!! Would buy it and get everyone I know to as well:). Can’t wait to hear the rest of the story . You are so strong to have made it through this – your littles are truly blessed .

    1. Thank you Vanessa! I am actually fulfilling a dream since college and getting my MFA. I was a little nervous about doing it (taking it loans and taking the time), but it has been very healing for me to do one of my dreams, on my own terms. I’ll let you know when the book is done! I fight for it everyday–because when my world fell apart, I couldn’t find many resources to help me understand that I wasn’t alone, that these were patterns of behavior many people had experienced from a loved one, and that there was a lot of growth and healing that could come from being removed from this environment. My goal is something many people are beginning to talk about CPTSD Growth! They are starting to research studies on the ability to find deep, meaningful emotional growth when people go through extreme trauma….I pray that over me and my kids!

  3. The writing told the story but I know it would be impossible to put existence in those cirumstances into words. For every word you said there are 1,000 more things to say. Every minute of every day you had gnawing and nagging lies inside your head. And the body did keep score, yes?
    I understand a little about narcissitic manipulation. Sometimes the N word is used casually but the reality is that it is the most insidious thing and so inescapable [even as the narcissist has nothing to escape, because they are perfect]. You cannot challenge, deny, reason with, be honest with or even breathe at the wrong moment with a narcissist.

    Meredith, I am heartbroken for what you and your kids have experienced. I will pray for whatever it is that helps the four of you heal. To be able to write and share… You have that strength. God is even greater strength. I love you <3.

    1. Yes–the Body definitely kept the score. All of this has been a download of information over the past year. My head keeps spinning as I try to parse out what to believe inside my own head. Luckily, I do have a great counselor, and luckily, I think more people are telling their stories. Even if it’s not under a “label,” this type of double lifestyle is being exposed more and more…and hopefully that will continue to help our culture see through it faster/easier. But, the really good ones, they know how to look really wonderful.

  4. My heart breaks for you as I read this. The daily agony, the mental and emotional pain, then of course the physical pain that accompanies it. Thank you again for sharing. Your words are beauty….they have been there all along. I’m glad you’re finding freedom and healing.

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