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.

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“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.

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