When I feel stressed out, I tend to make things worse for myself.
Getting used to being stable is weird and sometimes even uncomfortable after having been in nearly constant chaos since my early adolescence.
It used to feel like if I could just “figure out what’s wrong with me,” then I could find the right combination of psychiatric meds, sit back, and let them cure me. Surprise, surprise! Mental health does not work that way!
In January of this year, my mom and I flew across the country so I could be evaluated at the Mayo Clinic. Last month, I was seen at Mayo again, this time the one in Jacksonville. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
BPD is characterized by a pattern of extreme instability in relationships, a profound fear of abandonment, poorly controlled anger, and “chronic feelings of emptiness.” When it was suggested to me that this might be the root of my troubles by Lisa, the therapist at my last treatment center, I denied having any of these traits. I took it to mean I’d been diagnosed with the “I’m a bad person,” condition. Lisa read the BDP criterion to me straight out of the DSM, and I denied each and every one. I didn’t take her seriously because it seemed like at this particular treatment center, the BPD diagnosis was being handed out like candy, and I figured it was just the in-vogue condition at the time.
Although I don’t necessarily fit the mold for each and every aspect of BPD, I am slowly accepting this new diagnosis. I do relate to a nearly constant feeling of emptiness, always searching for the quick fix to fill the void. “I don’t know what I’m feeling or what I need,” I wailed to my mom in her kitchen the other night. I felt like a little kid having a tantrum for no reason other than the fact that I could. At night, I go especially bonkers, yearning for something vague, anything that would excite me. “I want pizzazz! I want thrills!” I frequently tell Chance, who then reminds me, “It’s the middle of the night and you have work tomorrow.”
As the saying goes, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” It’s taken me most of my life to learn this, but just because I might be feeling bad, doesn’t mean I have to turn to unhealthy coping practices. Last night, I was downstairs attempting to work on some writing, while completely freaking out over all the things on my to-do list. The nagging thought of self-harm came into my mind, as it always does when I am overwhelmed. “It’ll be fine. You’ll feel better. You can hide it from Chance. You know you’re going to end up doing it anyway,” I thought to myself.
In the past, I wouldn’t have even questioned the impulse. I would have just added to the many, many scars criss-crossing my legs and other parts of my body. But there is a tiny, faint, and growing part of me that is able to step in and say, “Maybe you could try using a coping skill.” It’s usually more like, “Ugh, okay! I’ll try one of these stupid fucking things that totally is NOT going to work, and then I’ll self-destruct.”
I used to firmly believe that there was not a single healthy coping skill that would work for me. I had a very small mental toolbox: it was pretty much writing in my journal and swinging on the swing set at my parents’ house. Eventually, though, I had to add other things. Still somewhat attached to the “tortured artist,” identity, I allowed myself to make collages and take photos that depicted my mental state.
Last night, I did not have the energy or desire to stage a photo shoot, but I was too wound up to go to bed. So I did a quick, simple exercise in my journal. I wrote down a bulleted list of everything tangible that’s stressing me out. Then, I went over each one and wrote down what aspects of it I could control, where I was at fault, and where the situations were out of my hands.
For example, my cat had to go to the vet today because he has fleas. I kept worrying, thinking, “What if it’s something else? What if my cat dies? What if he’s been suffering and has no way of telling me this because he is a cat, and therefore cannot speak English?” I worried and stressed so much about the vet visit that when it was time to take him, I’d gone over every possible scenario, none of which were nearly as disastrous as the actual visit. But I was able to go to bed that night knowing that it was not my fault that the cat is flea-ridden, nor can I control if fleas enter my home outside of normal precautions. The cat isn’t suffering because I’m a bad person. The cat is itchy because sometimes these things happen.
Writing used to be easy. I used to write entire short stories in one sitting. Now it takes me weeks to even begin the first paragraph. I’ve been reading fiction and poetry by Jenny Zhang. Her writing is spare and gutting, and has me thinking in different rhythms. She focuses a lot on the relationships between mothers and daughters, some aspects of which might sound a bit odd, like consenting to be born. When I finished the first story in her book Sour Heart, I was sobbing. Told from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl whose parents came to America from China to seek better opportunities for themselves as well as the narrator, it is a bleak depiction of things not being as they seem. I want to write like Jenny. I want to evoke emotion in my readers, I want them to feel what I feel despite having not lived it.
The pregnant pause
during which the cosmos aligned
to make me
The body performs miracles
unassisted, untrained, and
if I could,
back to the safety of
your womb and be
your baby forever.
Still the original art
of creation, yet
I never asked
to be conceived or born.
They had to gut you,
like a fish or poultry,
reach inside and
pull the bag of guts out.
Violence is also creation, and
I am celebrated every year
for the most violent
act of beginning, and
if I could un-consent,
This is a poem I wrote in response to Jenny’s newest volume of poetry, My Baby First Birthday. A friend and I were talking about writing today, and she asked me where I got my inspiration. She said she misses writing and that she worries too much about what people will think of what she creates. She was basically asking me what’s the secret to being a writer. It’s a question I hear a lot, either directed at me or just thrown out there in general, as if there’s a standard prescription for being a writer.
I told her that I get inspiration from everything. Once, I took a taxi with my family through a part of New York I’d never seen, even on TV. Although I didn’t even get out of the cab, I wrote a fiction piece about three friends living in the apartments I saw in that part of the city. A few weeks ago, Chance had to help me fix a problem with our vacuum. I wrote two poems and half a short story about that. Three of my most recent writing endeavors took place in a supermarket because I spend a lot of time in those places. I’ve written personal essays about all kinds of things, Star Trek conventions, failed relationships, the horrors of being in high school, and going to a gay bar for the first time. I told my friend, “I just kind of see a little bit of magic in everything.” I didn’t know how else to explain it. I can be a writer, even if I don’t live a jet-setting, thrill-a-minute life.
Lately, I have been thinking about my mom’s upbringing and her relationship with her own mother (my grandmother). My mom has always worn many hats when it comes to my mental health and me. She’s played dietitian, medicine dispenser, psychiatric appointment notetaker, backup therapist in between actual therapy sessions, and many more. As a teenager, I viewed my mom as my number one enemy. It was she who stood in the way of my self-destructive behaviors. I was angry that I wasn’t being allowed to do whatever I wanted, which at that time was cut myself and not eat.
I think part of growing up is realizing that one’s parents are just regular people, albeit regular people who probably love their kids a whole lot and would do anything for them. (At least, that’s the experience I had. I do realize there are subpar parents out there.) I like to go visit my mom in the mornings before I go to work. It helps me get my head on straight and keep it that way for the day. The weird thing is: there is more to talk about now that my mental health is not the center of every conversation. I’m seeing my mom in a new light, as a person with her own ambitions, desires, and dreams, not someone whose sole purpose is keeping me alive.
My mom and her mother had a less than harmonious relationship, and I am lucky to say that I have a great relationship with my mom. Perhaps I am inspired by Jenny Zhang’s work, or maybe I’ve just run out of things in my own little world to write about, but I want to tell an extremely embellished story of my mom’s upbringing. Something along the lines of how strong women are made.
I don’t know why, “Do I want to feel better?” is such a hard question. When I feel down, I think of the friends I could reach out to, and then decide, “They probably don’t want to hear from me.” The options that don’t align with my values are on the surface of my consciousness, and I jump from one idea to another, trying to decide on the “best” way to undo all of my progress and turn my life upside down.
I hate being wrong. I flat-out told my psychiatrist, “I don’t have BPD!” at my last appointment with him, to which he responded, “Hmph,” and continued with his sentence. I keep starting journal entries with, “I’m not saying I have BPD, but if I did, it would make sense that…” These entries became, “Okay, so maybe I have one or two BPD traits such as…”
The truth is, the BPD diagnosis makes a lot of sense. Even as a teenager and young(er) adult, I alienated some of my closest friends because I was always going through a crisis. One was my best friend from summer camp who lived in another state, so our conversations mostly took place via phone calls or texts. What really cinched the demise of our friendship was that I sent him a very long, self-centered email from a treatment center demanding his attention, basically saying, “You should feel sorry for me and prioritize me because I’m in treatment.” He was honest and told me that he was a busy high school senior, applying to colleges, preparing for finals, and working his first job. I was hurt and unable to see his side of the story. Our conversations dwindled from there and then a few years went by without contact at all. Earlier this year, it finally dawned on me that I had been in the wrong, and I sent him an email apologizing for how I’d acted and asking if we could restart our friendship as two adults. I did not expect to hear back from him, but we are mending the friendship.
I’ve also been known to dive headfirst into romantic relationships because the thrill of someone being interested in me was so intoxicating. Although I always verbally express my desire to “take it slow,” I have no idea how to actually do that.
Throw in a long history of self-harming behavior and other reckless activities, and I think we’ve got all the main ingredients of BPD.
So then, the question becomes, “How do I fill the void?” Right now, I am trying to find the magic in the mundane moments, as I advised my writer friend to do. When I’m getting ready for work and feeding the cat and taking my morning meds, I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin because everything is so boring. But when I’m crying to my mom three times a week because I’ve gone and ruined a relationship or I’ve done something that makes me feel like I’m a bad person, I’d give anything for those still moments of calm when everything is just a little bit bland. I am trying to handle everything with care, myself included.