I will never again read a book about mental illness by someone who doesn’t suffer from it. Yesterday morning, I found my mother’s copy of a book on borderline personality disorder that I’ve long resisted reading because of its name: I Hate You — Don’t Leave Me. I decided to peruse a few chapters, hoping they might shed some light on the increased rage I’ve been experiencing. This was a mistake.
A few paragraphs in, the shame was dripping like sweat down my body. The borderline’s outbursts of rage are as unpredictable as they are frightening… Most therapists will, whenever possible, try to limit the number of borderline patients they treat.
If we want to understand borderline personality disorder, we should be learning from the people who live with it. It feels pretty awful to read about yourself as a statistic, as the product of a pathology, or as someone undeserving of qualifiers beyond their diagnosis. I am not Leif, The Borderline. I am Leif, a complex individual who happened to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in February 2014. I am a girl who writes, plays guitar, adores her friends, and deals with intense, sometimes unpredictable emotions.
I’m sure Jerold J. Kreisman knows what he’s talking about. His work is probably pretty solid. But I cannot bear to sit through 239 pages that address “people like me” as laboratory specimens. Reading books like Kreisman’s feels like listening to people talk shit about you as though you aren’t in the room.
Motherfucker, we feel crazy enough as it is.
If you follow my social media presence, you know that a few marbles fell out of my sanity bag this past week. I once again succumbed to “bottle up and explode syndrome,” suppressing the stress and hurt until my body couldn’t contain it and it burst out of me like Mentos from a Diet Coke two liter.
So let’s talk insanity.
Last week, my friend Gabby wrote a lovely piece for her blog called “What Trauma Really Feels Like” that gives specific examples of how trauma manifests in her own life. A week before that, I wrote an essay called “Borderland” that attempted to make sense of my mental illness, especially in relation to chaos creation. Here, I’ll combine both formats to illuminate the experience of borderline personality disorder (which I personally believe to be complex post-traumatic stress disorder in a stigmatized disguise — refer to Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman for more on that), specifically within the context of relationships.
An excerpt from my in-progress essay:
My emotions have always been too big, never successfully contained within my body. They build and then collide and then emerge as a formless blob seeping from my ears and nose and eyes and mouth. Especially my mouth. My emotions break me into little bits, earning me labels like bipolar, borderline, that catch all-concept ‘crazy.’ My opinions are called invalid, I’m deemed untrustworthy, my loved ones tell me I’m too much, too intense, too unpredictable.
They don’t know how it feels to be imprisoned by your insides – to be a stranger to yourself.
Another night after another petty fight, I told Jefferson through text that I wasn’t the person I acted like around him.
“I’m a self trapped inside a body that tries to end its own life,” I said. “My brain turns against me, my moods dictate my reality, and all the time, there’s a voice within me that says, ‘I don’t want to act like this. This isn’t who I am.’ And yet, I don’t know how to stop being this.”
The internal chaos is reflected in my external reality – it’s in the fights I pick with Jefferson, it’s in the drama I create with my friends, it’s in the ultimatums and the tantrums and the threats.
For years, I believed I was being followed by a raincloud. Trouble just “found me.” I was a victim, a martyr, an innocent bystander caught again and again in the crossfire. But no one is that unlucky.
There’s one common factor in all of my problems: me.
It’s painful to admit that you are the cause of your own strife. It’s much easier to cast the blame elsewhere: It’s Jefferson’s fault that I pushed him away, it’s my friend’s fault that I ended our relationship over a misinterpreted comment, it’s my mom’s fault that I threw a fit.
I know I have a role in all of this. For fuck’s sake, I’m the lead actress.
Living within myself is a constant struggle. My moods change as rapidly as Gordon’s laps around the racetrack. Lap one: Mania. Lap two: Rage. Lap three: Crippling sadness. Lap four: Ladies and gentleman, it looks like Leif is now hiding in a closet!
Being who I am is exhausting. It’s humiliating. It’s a reality I’ve spent the past 13 years trying to change.
Another excerpt from “Borderland”:
When I was 12, I lived part-time in the nurse’s office. Every day, the same complaints: headache, stomachache, can’t concentrate. And every day, she gave me the same response: “You can stay through lunch, but you don’t have a fever, so I need you to go back to class.”
My symptoms were real in the sense that I made them real. I believed them to be real because I had no other way to articulate my pain. My emotions were too big for words, so my sadness became stomachaches and my rage became migraines and abuse became a wound scratched in the center of my forehead. My act was so real that my mom let me stay home from school and then stayed so real that she took me to the doctor and the doctor thought the symptoms were so real that he ran some tests and even the tests were convinced of their realness. I tested positive for mononucleosis, a psychosomatically sick girl’s dream. Mono meant a month off from school, at least.
I’d never felt such joy.
Four weeks into my bedridden lifestyle, the doctor called my mother while she was out running errands and soon after, my mother called me.
“Emily, your test was a false positive,” she said. “You’re not sick.”
“No, mommy, that’s not right. I am sick, mommy, I swear.”
“We’ll talk about it when I get home,” she said.
She presented me with two options: I could go back to school or I could go to the mental health hospital. With these words, my symptoms multiplied and I threw my biggest fit yet. I was sick. I would prove it. I threw myself on the hallway floor and thrashed, my arms and legs pounding the floorboards.
“My appendix is exploding,” I screamed. “It hurts, mommy, I’m dying!”
My dad took my arms and my mom took my legs and they carried me down the stairs and into the car and then drove me to the emergency room. The doctor took my vitals and whispered to my parents and then gave me his prognosis: there was nothing wrong with me.
(Everything was wrong with me.)
I was going to the mental hospital.
I’ve done a pretty decent job over the years of masking my despair with eating disorders, alcoholism, and mania. Lately, it’s just been mania. I’m loud, crass, and enthusiastic to the extent that I lose my ability to control it. I’m entertaining to watch for some, overwhelming and obnoxious to others. I haven’t touched booze in almost a year, but people often think I’m wasted. What they’re seeing is a crashed system resulting from emotional override and then overload.
(Though I use the word “mania,” the more accurate term would be “hyper-arousal,” one of the foremost symptoms of PTSD. It’s essentially extreme anxiety. When I write about trauma and BPD, I experience hyper-arousal’s opposite, hypo-arousal, which is dissociative rather than active. Overwhelmed by discomfort, my system shuts down.)
My Mental Illness . . .
My mental illness sometimes looks like demonic possession, or what society might call multiple personality disorder, though the term is outdated. There’s always a voice of truth trying to break through my demon lips, like when Linda Blair finds in her real voice in The Exorcist.
My mental illness sometimes feels like total collapse. I have days when I feel like I’ve ruined everything, like no one loves me, like I’m a public enemy. I have weeks when I’m convinced that the world is ending.
My mental illness tells me I’m a piece of shit, a sociopath, a she-demon, a narcissist.
My mental illness says life would be easier for everyone if I were dead.
My mental illness then chastises me for being so selfish.
My mental illness feels like Marsha Linehan’s description of borderline personality disorder:“People with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.
My mental illness is a series of unpredictable events. It’s why I sometimes go from your best friend to a total stranger in a matter of minutes. It’s why, last week, someone said, “___ and I were talking the whole time about how it didn’t seem like normal you.”
My mental illness doesn’t know who the “normal me” is. My mental illness only knows the intolerability of the moment and shapes my identity around that.
My mental illness is a parasite sucking me dry.
My mental illness comes out when I’m having sex. It’s the part of me that screams, “I’m a fat bitch! I’m a cow, a whore, a fucking slut!” while Jefferson tries to soothe me. It’s the part of me that looks at him with wide, empty eyes and then rolls on its side in silence.
My mental illness once told me to cover my body and red and black face paint after Jeter called me out for making fun of him. My mental illness can’t take the slightest fucking criticism. Jeter found me dead-eyed in the bathroom and put me in the shower, fully clothed.
My mental illness despises complexity, subjecting me to interpersonal amnesia.
My mental illness feels like duct tape over my lips. It’s fully-formed sentences without a language to speak them in. It’s a slew of sad attempts at non-verbal cues.
My mental illness looks like milky eyes, cuts on my hips, and a shaved head. It’s a child hiding in a closet.
My mental illness is distrusting. It wants me to stay sick and stuck and isolated. My mental illness wants to take over as I write this. It says, “Shh, no your rage and chronic distrust and impulsivity are justified. Keep acting out. Keep pushing people away. The world is teeming with potential enemies.”
The fighter in me says, “shut the fuck up.”
Last night, Jefferson and I went out to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory (don’t judge). I spent the ride home looking up calorie counts, complaining about how full I felt, and separating from my body. When we got home, we tried to have sex. I begged Jefferson to let me film a few minutes of it it and send it to a friend in an extreme act of distancing. Bringing a third person into the sexual act would decrease intimacy and, by extension, vulnerability. I am still so afraid to be loved. I am still so afraid to be seen.
Jefferson was understandably upset with my request, especially when I wouldn’t drop it. We stopped having sex and went downstairs to watch TV. Jefferson held me. I played with his hair. He hates when I play with his hair. I touched the top of his head. He hates that even more. He left the couch, grabbed a cigarette, and went outside.
He came back in.
“Are you mad at me?,” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
Ten minutes later, I asked the same question again. He gave the same answer. No, he wasn’t mad.
“I feel like you’re lying. You look like you’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you, Leif.”
He started falling asleep. I told him we should go upstairs to my bed. He started to pass out immediately, but I wasn’t tired yet. I messed around on Reddit and then turned on the light to read.
“I’m grumpy,” I told him.
He got out of bed. He put his clothes on. He said, “I’m clearly not going to sleep.”
And then the storm began. I was the ocean. He was the ship.
“So you’re just gonna fucking leave me like this?”
“What am I supposed to do, Leif?”
“I don’t know, Jefferson. I was just trying to read a fucking book. Why are you escalating this situation?”
“You’ve been asking me what’s wrong all night. Nothing was wrong. Now I’m pissed. Why do you have to turn everything into a problem?”
“We’ve only been together for a month and a half and we’re already fighting like this,” I spat. “Why are we even together? What good is coming from it?”
“That’s where you and I differ,” he said. “I don’t see things like that. When we fight, I’m still thinking about the good parts of our relationship. You’re only thinking of the bad.”
It’s been a long time since a truth penetrated that deep into my system. But I still had my pride. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of calm conversation or, god forbid, resolution. Instead, I dissociated on my side. He curled up next to me, said he was sorry, fell asleep.
Why should he be sorry? I was the instigator. I pried, meddled, and disrespected his boundaries. I can be a wretched person to fight with.
The beautiful thing is that some people stick around, even with the waves up to their neck. Maybe Jefferson is a masochist. Or maybe he sees something in me that I can’t.
I feel like an imposter on the Internet. I’m flattered that people read my blog and relate to my writing, but I am so incredibly far from sanity and I rarely listen to my own advice. I’m in a constant state of fear, I’m prone to pushing my friends away, and I willingly involve myself in drama. I get that I’m too much for people. I’m too much for myself. Does that make it any easier when people finally walk away from me? No. Do I blame them? *Sigh* not really.
I don’t want to be crazy. I don’t want to be afraid or push people away or involve myself in drama. I don’t want the chaos or the burned bridges or the loneliness. I’m sorry I’m like this. I’m sorry it’s still hard for me to change. I’m sorry I haven’t figured it all out yet. It hurts to be stuck in this body with this mind. I can’t fucking stand it. Every day, I wish I could be different.
But then there would be no reason to write this. And if I didn’t write this, I might be robbing someone of a shred of solace. Sometimes a shred of solace is all we need to push forward. Not always, but sometimes.
Yes, my system craves chaos, but my heart detests it. The split parts crave it. The chaos keeps my split parts separate and breathing, allowing them the ability to dominate me. The real part of me, the trapped part that only comes out on the page, that part suffocates under the weight of the bullshit I drag on top of it – the weight of hurting friends, distant sexual traumas, unrelated drama. The weight of problems I’m expected to fix but have nothing to do with. I’ve put myself in this position. I leave my emotional doors unlocked, sometimes wide-open, inviting any and all strangers in.
I can’t breathe. The split parts don’t want the true threads of me to breathe. They want the true parts to stay small and hurt and stuck. My darkness wants to consume me.
And it has,
but not entirely.