I don’t like it when people try to get me to have what they call “perspective,” but I am a firm believer in context. I’m not interested in being beaten about the head with stories that are supposed to remind me that there are people so much worse off than I am. I know about the Holocaust, and all the other mass-killings that society doesn’t deem worthy of capital-letter infamy. I know about serial killers, abused children, the poor. I know, I know, I know.
But context is a different thing. As my friend J says, your own worst day is your worst day, period. And he’s a one-armed, eye-patched survivor or a horrific car accident, so I think his words have some worth. Nando Parrado, survivor of the Andes Flight Disaster says that everyone has their own Andes. It’s all about the context of your life and how much you can bear. We learn that we can survive horrible things because we survive horrible things. But some people die from horrible things, and some people simply never get better.
So comparing my worst day to your worst day doesn’t really amount to much. And frankly, it’s bullshit to try to put someone else’s pain on some arbitrary scale and say, all right, you get to suffer this much and you get to grieve this much and then you’d better get over yourself and move on because, frankly, we’re tired of all this boo-hooing and don’t you know that so many people have it so much worse?
In September, I spent five days in a mental health center because I was having suicidal thoughts. While I was there, I was diagnosed with something called Borderline Personality Disorder. I didn’t find out about the diagnosis for over a month and a half because no one mentioned it, and some people thought I already knew. I was shocked when I was told that I’d graduated to the ranks of the truly mentally ill (depression is so common as to be passe, after all,) and especially because everything I knew about BPD was gleaned from an outdated book on mental illnesses that I read in my high school library back in 1995. Apparently, in the 18 years since I first heard about this disorder, the prognosis has become much less bleak. But all I knew when I got my diagnosis was that people with this condition were considered untreatable. It felt like a life sentence– I will never be sane, I will never feel whole, I will never be loved or be able to love anyone else in a healthy way.
So as soon as I got home, I did some research to try to figure out how I was going to navigate my life with this terrible illness, and that’s when I learned that psychiatry has taken a few leaps since 1980, when this disorder was first brought into the public eye, and even since the 1990s when BPD really was kind of a horrible thing to be labeled with. There’s treatment, now, and people do improve. There’s a lot of work to be done, but there are many reasons to believe that I’ll feel better soon.
And GEE WHIZ, does this diagnosis fit. According to the internetz, these are the nine hallmarks of this disorder, and if you’ve got five or more, chances are good that you’ve got BPD*.
[*Of course, it’s possible to have one or several (or all) of these symptoms and not have Borderline Personality Disorder. Everyone can identify with some features of mental illness, to some degree, some of the time. These are human issues, and most are common enough. It’s when these symptoms disrupt your attempts to live a healthy, successful life that they’re considered pathological.]
- Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
- A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation
- Identity disturbance, such as a significant and persistent unstable self-image or sense of self
- Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
- Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior
- Emotional instability due to significant reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)
- Chronic feelings of emptiness
- Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)
- Transient, stress-related paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms
All my impulsive decisions, my wanderlust, my inability to let anyone get too close while paradoxically craving acceptance and unconditional love, my intense emotions that no one understands because everyone else is cold and unfeeling and detached — all of that suddenly makes sense. I’m not shiny and special, I’m mentally ill!
Well, my shrink says it’s possible to be both. That my intensity is both a gift and a curse, and that my job now is to figure out how to still be emotional and vibrant and intense, but not get torn to shreds by my own transient emotions.
Being crazy is hard work, ya’ll.
The past year has been excruciating. In fact, the past three and a half years have been such a mish-mash of BEST EVER (!!!) and HOLY FUCK PLEASE STOP that it’s hard to know what to expect. I keep losing important people, not to death or distance, but because we’ve failed to meet each other’s expectations. That’s the most diplomatic way I can put it. It keeps happening. To quote noted existential poet Jewel:
Guess I’ve mistaken you for somebody else
Somebody who gave a damn, somebody more like myself
I have to move again around the end of the year because of one of those dissolving friendships. Just as I had to move in May because of a dissolving friendship. And while my friendships dissolve, so do I. I don’t understand why people keep leaving me. And it’s not all in my head, but maybe I have been unconsciously choosing the very sort of people who can’t give me what I want or need. Maybe the detachment I admire in them actually indicates a basic incompatibility in the way we relate to others. I don’t know.
But I’m proud of myself for having done so much of the work already. Even before I knew I had BPD, I’ve been a counselor to myself as part of my quest to not be a miserably destructive human being. And so I’ve been asking myself for a long time if I’m the one who’s the asshole. I’ve been good at not emailing people after midnight because usually those emails are insane. I try not to blame people, or think in black-and-white terms, and I try to forgive when I can. I certainly haven’t figured everything out, and I am far from perfect, and I still have a long way to go, but I started the work a long time ago even before I learned what I was working on.
And as much as I can, I’m trying to take these incremental steps to improve my life. I’m seeking stable housing, supportive systems, ways to lead a successful and healthy life. It’s difficult, and I’m exhausted, but I’m getting things done. I have hope. I can hold my head high as I walk away from (metaphorically) yet another burning building that I once called home.
The Aliens, by Charles Bukowski
you may not believe it
but there are people
who go through life with
they dress well, eat
well, sleep well.
they are contented with
they have moments of
but all in all
they are undisturbed
and often feel
and when they die
it is an easy
death, usually in their
you may not believe
but such people do
but I am not one of
oh no, I am not one
I am not even near
but they are
and I am