In the olden days before the Internet, people were advised not to read medical encyclopedias because they would psychosomatically develop the illnesses described in them. Dry mouth? Check. Muscle pain? Check. Headache? Yes. Oh my God, it’s Lupus. In our current age A.I. (After Internet), most of us know better than to try to diagnose ourselves online. And yet, after 20 years of therapy and five years of sobriety, this is how I figured out I have Borderline Personality Disorder. It was not good news in the traditional sense, except that now at least my crazy had a name.
Long before I started using alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, people told me I was crazy. Sometime after I stopped being mercilessly teased in elementary school for being Russian, over-sensitive and hyper-intelligent and developed my invulnerable-class-clown persona, classmates started calling me “crazy.”
“You’re crazy,” they would say fondly as I performed yet another antic designed to garner laughs, or at least attention, and I would try not to see it as an insult. Once I sprained my wrist after mock fainting for laughs when a teacher announced there would be a test the following week. It was a small price to pay for such a successful pratfall, even as kids who assumed I was faking it continued to laugh as I cried in real pain.
The truth was that I knew there was something very wrong with me and I was hoping to God that they wouldn’t find out. The label “crazy” could be seen as “whacky” and “zany” and “fun,” belying what was going on underneath. Inside I was that other kind of crazy, the kind that made me lean my head on my little plastic desk in second grade and consciously think, “I wish I could die right now” and return to that thought thousands of times well into my late teens.
It wasn’t long before I earned that other fun label: “dramatic.” I was also an actress so that one didn’t bother me so much either—wasn’t I supposed to be a Drama Queen? It bothered me when my too strong emotions were simply dismissed at home as just me being dramatic and this may have caused some kind of split that led to the self-harm I resorted to later. I could not allow myself to have a feeling without hating myself for it but at least I was entertaining at parties. And this was even before the alcohol took away that one iota of an inhibition I had left.
Twenty years of therapy, medication and a New Age remedy for every letter of the alphabet later and it seemed that everyone was stumped. Despite the fact that I was sober and in recovery, I would only respond to mental illness treatment for a while and then lapse into a depression so dark and deep that my husband at the time often left the house not knowing whether I would be alive when he got back. He was the first person that understood that I was not just “being dramatic,” that the blackness that randomly took over my soul was something I was too ashamed of to be creating for effect. He also recognized that he couldn’t save me from it, something which likely contributed to the end of our marriage.
By the time I developed one of my favorite hobbies—reading about mental illness online—everything I came across about a person with Borderline Personality Disorder came from the point of view of someone who had the misfortune of being involved with one. There are hundreds of websites warning people not to date a Borderline, how to deal with having one as a parent and how to extricate oneself from a relationship with one. They describe the manipulation, the stalking and the rage and none of it fit—until I found an article about how it felt to have Borderline Personality and it was one of those mythical moments of clarity that you might see in a Hollywood movie when our plucky heroine (played by Sandra Bullock) looks into the mid-distance and realizes that all the clues have been pointing to the solution the audience figured out 15 minutes ago.
Terror of real or perceived abandonment? Check. Severe mood swings? Check. Tendency towards self-harm? Check. Well, at least I didn’t have Lupus.
Supposedly, those who meet the criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder are therapists’ least favorite patients. By the way, that’s the verbiage you’re supposed to use. It’s politically incorrect to call us “Borderlines” but I do it anyway. I can’t imagine saying or writing “those who meet the criteria for blah blah blah” that many times. What was so confusing was that I didn’t seem to meet the criteria at all—my therapists always loved me and said they would miss me when I inevitably moved on (even on the couch I was liable to put a lampshade on my head for their entertainment).
I was the world’s worst manipulator, never able to anticipate how I could get anyone to do anything covertly as I was mostly in survival mode trying to get through the day. I even suck at chess because I’m incapable of thinking more than one move ahead. Also I had been in a stable relationship for 14 years, which didn’t fit the “pattern of unstable interpersonal relationships.” I had decades long friendships, didn’t drink or take drugs and self-harmed infrequently. Years of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy meant that I didn’t act out with substances or rage or sex but the feelings inside remained the same. I used to joke that I felt abandoned when my husband left the room. Except that it was true and it hurt like hell.
Loneliness can be clinical, I came to find out, when I applied for an 18-month program with one individual and one group therapy a week for people with BPD. That was when I was finally diagnosed and my first group session showed me that while we were all different (some introverts, some extroverts, some sicker than others), these were my people. Great. Never was the Groucho Marx quote about “not wanting to be in a club that would have me as a member” more apt.
With a few months left of that program, I can’t say that I am more emotionally stable than when I went in, which is disappointing. What I now have is a great deal of clarity about what’s happening to me while it’s happening, as opposed to disappearing down the spiral of my emotions, convinced that I will never return. I am not bipolar so somewhere in my sane mind, I now know that the dark period will end relatively quickly. I have a little more empathy for others and myself and am definitely a much better parent.
It’s surely worth mentioning that in the last year-and-a-half, my marriage ended, an intense love affair flared for a year and then burned out and two of my oldest, closest friends of over a decade decided they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. This would probably be hard to deal with for a “regular” person but for me it has confirmed every abandonment fear I ever had. There are many days that I’m sure will never end as the scab has come off that old wound I now know to label as “insecure attachment with one or both caregivers.” The experience of abandonment was pre-verbal and so the pain I feel is primal and difficult to reason with. And yet I try daily, for the sake of my children and because I now have a shred of compassion for my own suffering. I rely on my close friends and on a program and therapy and medication and meditation and when the darkness descends, I write morbid poetry and try to believe that it will pass.
Acquaintances who have no idea that I’m legitimately mentally ill will still say “You’re crazy” when I make a particularly blunt remark watching my kids’ Little League games or admit to how much I hate parenting or openly talk about who I want to have sex with next. In my view, these are actually the empowering parts of my personality (not the disordered ones) and yet these are the kinds of character traits that others perceive as outside the norm. But now when someone tells me I’m crazy, I just smile knowingly at the demons inside and think, “You have no idea.”
Sponsored DISCLAIMER: This is a paid advertisement for California Behavioral Health, LLC, a CA licensed substance abuse treatment provider and not a service provided by The Fix. Calls to this number are answered by CBH, free and without obligation to the consumer. No one who answers the call receives a fee based upon the consumer’s choice to enter treatment. For additional info on other treatment providers and options visit www.samhsa.gov.