This post was originally published on July 22, 2014.
There’s a personal essay over at the Rumpus about addiction, mental illness and shame that’s really got me thinking. It’s written by a guy named Rob Roberge who, in addition to being an addict and alcoholic in recovery, also suffers from bipolar disorder with ultradian cycling (aka “rapid-rapid” cycling) and occasional psychotic episodes. He writes about how he doesn’t have a problem admitting to people that he’s an addict; to the contrary, Roberge says that being an addict is, in certain ways, a reluctant source of “childish” pride. Yet when it comes to his mental illness, he feels none of that and instead just a lot of shame.
The Weight of Labels
While addicts can announce they’re in recovery, tell stories of their past and benefit from the redemption that goes with that, Roberge’s main concern is that people with mental disorders can claim no such redemption. As he writes, “When you have a mental illness that will, if anything, get worse, people don’t really want to hear about that.” Having bipolar disorder makes Roberge feel, as he writes, “rotten to the core.”
Like Roberge, I have no problem identifying as an alcoholic. Seven years ago, my life was unmanageable, I was drinking all the time and I was powerless over what happened after I took that first drink. My moods—as much if not more than my behavior—were completely out of control. At the darkest periods of my drinking, I felt empty inside, my life felt purposeless and I wanted to die.
Differentiating Addiction and Diagnosed Mental Illness
I’d say that a combination of treatments—including 12 step, which teaches a whole slew of coping strategies—really worked. Seven years into recovery, I feel better. And yet I wouldn’t say that I’m cured. Just last week, I felt crazy as shit. For me, “crazy as shit” means severe anxiety, obsessive speculation, negative thinking. My greatest struggle remains forming and maintaining relationships, especially romantic ones. A new romantic relationship meant that last week, there were times I really couldn’t turn off my thoughts. Obsessive negative thinking remains a huge issue for me. Even when I know it’s not helping the problem—even when there’s no problem at all, other than the one I’m creating—I just can’t stop the thinking. “Unstable and intense” is definitely how I would describe it. And yeah, sure, at times I feel “split”: At times I’m the type of person who wants a committed, stable, loving relationship and then, at other times, I’m the type of person that just wants to push everyone away.
Apparently these feelings and fears—and, more specifically the feeling of “splitting” as it relates to ideas about ones self and one’s identity (as well as black and white thinking about everyone else)—are all characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I learned this last week, when a student of mine turned in a memoir about her own experiences with BPD. The student described the illness’s symptoms—basically, a fear of abandonment and an unstable sense of self that leads to risky behaviors including substance abuse and compulsive sex. She also explained many of its treatments, including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which, from my student’s description, sounded remarkably similar to the kind of tools prescribed in AA. When I asked my therapist if I might qualify for the personality disorder, the closest I could get to an answer was, “You used to be.” She listed some of my old habits that are consistent with the clinical symptoms of Borderline—para-suicidal stranger sex, for example—and said, “You don’t do any of that anymore.”
“What do you mean, ‘I used to be?” I pressed. “Is it even possible to recover from Borderline?” Apparently, it is. Still, it did not feel good to hear.
The Cool Factor
Roberge makes a good point about the perceptions of people suffering from mental illness being different than the perceptions we have of addicts and alcoholics, arguing that the latter is considered “sexy” in our culture, whereas the former…not so much. I definitely agree that addiction is glamorized in a way that mental illness is not. Borderline is a particularly unattractive diagnosis. I’ve written ad nauseam about fearing my own urges, feelings, impulses and desires, as well as the fear I feel of a wider loss of control as a result. And yet, for the reasons Roberge makes clear, labeling all that as “Borderline” feels a lot different than keeping it vague or even calling myself an alcoholic. To be honest, it’s scary. And yet, I’m writing about it now because I trust there’s a benefit to telling our stories.
Possibly Learning How to Live with It
While I don’t know a lot about Roberge’s particular diagnosis, I question the legitimacy of his claim that it’ll only get worse and that his symptoms are completely out of his control. Surely when he stopped drinking and began treatment, the symptoms became more manageable. And talking about his diagnosis seems a necessary step. I think of Eleanor Londgen, who advocates for those with schizophrenia by recounting the journey of how she came to listen to and live with the voices in her head. Rather than trying to rid herself of the symptoms of her schizophrenia, Londgen began considering her auditory hallucinations to be sources of insights into solvable emotional problems. She related them back to childhood traumas, and did the work to process and free herself from negative emotions. When we consider the idea that some mental disorders are not as much genetic as they are the result of trauma, Londgen says that the question can shift from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What’s happened to you?” In other words, whatever the cause, telling our stories frees us from the stigma imposed upon us by resulting in happier outcomes even though there may not be a “cure.”
I know that I’ll be in “recovery” of some sort—from whatever this is—for the rest of my life. It sounds like this is true for Roberge as well. In my mind, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.