Photo by David Simmonds. (Flickr/cc)
By Liam Scott
Teary eyed after reading The Link Between Artistry and Mental Illness in the January issue of Dime, I can’t help but think about the crazy nature of my Borderline Personality Disorder (pun intended). Everyone would agree that life can be a struggle, but it’s immeasurably more difficult to navigate for someone suffering from BPD. Psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan, renowned for her work with borderline patients, provides the following characterization: “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.” But that paints the entire disorder in a negative light and doesn’t, in my opinion, tell the full story.
It means I feel – it means I feel everything so much. The part of the brain that controls emotional response doesn’t function properly in the borderline patient. Happy, sad, upset – these are emotional responses with which I am not familiar. I know ecstatic. I know deep melancholy. I know anger glowing a bright, passionate and all-consuming red.
Living with BPD means I cry or tear up more times a day than I can count. Regardless of what emotion I am experiencing, it tends to be overwhelming. However, one of the benefits of this emotionality is an incredible capacity for empathy. I feel other people’s emotions almost as strongly as I feel mine. The sad, the mad, the hurt, the pain, the happy, the joy, the fear – all of it. I find myself relating to people quite easily because of this.
After the 2016 election, I cried reading about a centenarian woman – born 6 years before women’s suffrage – voting for the first woman presidential candidate. A video of a woman joyfully crying after casting her ballot for Hillary brought me to tears as well. I’ve cried while reading a listicle of things to say to anxious children, so moved that some child might hear the words of comfort s/he needs and deserves. I barely contained tears recently while a friend recounted his experience coming out to his grandmother. I have tears in my eyes now because the thought of these things still overwhelms me. My emotional experience is beautiful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It also means I’m constantly and acutely terrified of being abandoned by those I care about. I am hyper-aware of any indication that their behavior towards me or opinion of me has changed. Because of my emotionality, if I do perceive any threats of abandonment I can be thrown into a pit of darkness or alternatively be driven to lash out with a vengeance. I can end up pushing away the very people I want nothing more than to hold near and dear.
Additionally, it means I am rarely capable thinking in shades of grey. There’s black and there’s white and there’s no in-between. You are either all good or all bad in my eyes, and when presented with contradictory evidence, it may be rather destabilizing for me. It may not seem huge but imagine loving someone, idealizing them 100%, and then when something contradicts that, they’re suddenly devalued completely. They’ve gone from all good to all bad in the blink of an eye.
Because of the emotionality, the fear of abandonment, and the black and white thinking, my relationships are intense and passionate, but typically highly unstable and have tended to be abusive. My attachment issues mean I couldn’t pry myself out of those relationships, regardless of not being able see the light of day for all the red flags. Though still intense and passionate, these days I’m immensely thankful to be in a healthy, loving relationship with an amazing man, but I frequently worry – even as I picture him scowling at the thought – that one day I might run him off.
I also have no clear sense of self. Who I am, how I act, what I want out of life – it changes with the wind. I make code switching look like amateur hour. Given a short adjustment period to get comfortable, I can almost seamlessly assimilate into any group. I can easily reflect my social environment back upon my surroundings. This allows me to effortlessly navigate get-togethers, social anxiety be damned. So what’s not to like? Me, the real me, as he rarely makes an appearance.
Another way impulsivity manifested for me was promiscuity. I craved sex constantly and the riskier the better. How I’m not riddled with STDs I honestly don’t know, but I’ve been lucky in those regards. Nothing a Z-pack taken in one sitting couldn’t fix (and just that once).
Having BPD means I sometimes very desperately want my life to end. I hesitate to mention suicidality as that insinuates an actual attempt on my own life which, even though this ideation began all the way back in fourth grade, I’ve never taken. In the past I’ve wished my life to be over so intensely that I’ve abused my prescription sleep meds to avoid how unbearable it was, sleeping almost whole days at a time. Or, as The 1975 say in their song She’s American, “[He’s] inducing sleep to avoid pain.”
Everyone has their lot in life, and this is mine. Radical acceptance, a psychotherapeutic intervention developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, is modeled on Buddhist philosophy. This intervention was developed (along with a whole host of others in what is known as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) specifically for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. Radically accepting my mental illness has been vital to my recovery.
I would add that the road to recovery is one I will be travelling down for the rest of my life. And I’m okay with that.