On Turning 25 with BPD

[content warning: general mentions of abuse, self harm, and suicidality]

The Realization

I was fresh out of an abusive relationship when I realized I probably had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I was 21, and I’d moved out of the house where I’d been living with my girlfriend, back across the Puget Sound, back into the house where I’d lived with my family since I was 12.

I found myself standing in my old room, in a state I’d now recognize as a dissociation, feeling more connected to my room as a physical space — the recessed window that looks out under the deck, the strangely textured walls, the mirror angled uselessly up at the ceiling because the bolts would never quite tighten enough — than to the person I’d lived there before.

In terms of characteristically Borderline moments, it was pretty gentle and subdued, but that was when it became clear to me. I’d been following some people on Tumblr who frequently posted about BPD in their own lives, and suddenly I realized that my experience aligned with theirs.

In the DSM-IV, my distance from my past selves would fall under the BPD diagnostic criterion of “Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.” (Unstable self-image remains one of the defining characteristics of BPD in the DSM-5, but the DSM-IV wording resounded more with me.) I think everyone feels disconnected from their past selves at times, occasionally feels like an entirely changed person, but for people with BPD, these divisions are often more extreme. I can easily cut the timeline of my life into smaller segments that feel almost entirely separate from each other, and it’s been long, hard work trying to reintegrate these selves into a single narrative, a single stream of memory that I can freely access.

That moment of disconnect from my past selves and connection with the personal BPD narratives I’d read spurred me to look further into BPD as an explanation for my own patterns of behavior and thought. The diagnostic criteria explained so much of my life, tied it together more effectively than my previous explanations of “I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder” or “I’m just really excitable.” BPD explained my constant fear of abandonment, my trail of burnt bridges, my sudden diametric mood swings, my frequent feelings of emptiness — everything I hadn’t quite been able to put words to.

The Exploration

This isn’t an article about diagnosis and ableism within the medical system, so I’ll just briefly say that the medical professionals I’ve tried to discuss BPD with have written me off as too morally good, too self-aware for it. They see that I’m managing, that I’m somewhat stable, and they ignore how much painstaking work it’s taken to get to this point. I’ve been working from self-diagnosis, based on the diagnostic criteria and the personal accounts of other people with BPD, because that’s what’s been accessible to me and it improves my quality of life.

Once I realized how well BPD fit me, I started more actively seeking out Borderline community on Tumblr, which had become my main social outlet in the upheaval of my recent breakup and move. I started reading through what was posted in BPD-related tags to continue learning and connecting with other people, and I frequently posted to the BPD tags myself as I processed my feelings, identities, and experiences with going back to school. In the depths of my isolation, Borderline blogging made me feel witnessed and connected. I met one of my best friends — at the time, my only friend — at the intersection of Borderline and Jewish Tumblr. I learned more BPD-related words, like “mirroring” and “imprint,” that further helped me make sense of my world.

The Affront

As I was rejoicing in my new community and understanding of myself, some anon came along to tell me that I couldn’t really have BPD, because they don’t diagnose it in anyone younger than 25. That isn’t true. It isn’t true now, and it wasn’t true when I was 21. I knew it wasn’t, and a few other people online jumped in to say so too, but here I am still thinking about it 4 years later anyway.

The Reluctance

Clinicians do consider age and development in deciding whether to make a diagnosis, but 25 isn’t a magical or policy-dictated number. The idea behind waiting to diagnose BPD is that all adolescents have unstable relationships, emotions, and senses of self, and so on — in short, that all teenagers are a little bit crazy, and no one can tell which ones are really crazy until they all mature a little more. And sure, adolescents probably have more mood swings and general turmoil than somewhat older adults. But it’s wrong to flatten together the BPD experience and the teenage experience. Having BPD as an adult doesn’t make me a perpetual teen, and I’m sure that my trauma and BPD-like symptoms would have been distinguishable even when I was a teenager, had anyone taken a close, compassionate look.

The other major reason that clinicians worry about making a hasty BPD diagnosis is the stigma (read: ableism) that comes with the label. Our culture reviles traits associated with BPD (e.g., attention-seeking, neediness, fear of abandonment) as annoying, and when those traits are clustered together under a diagnosis, ableism heaps on the fear that, additionally, we are dangerous. In ableist fiction and psychological writing about people with BPD, we’re the abusive mother, stalker, murderer — you name it.

(For more on BPD in the media, I recommend Katie Meadows’ “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die: Borderline Personality Disorder and Representation in Film”)

No one wants to see that in themself. It’s a risky thing to introduce to someone’s self-image, especially if that person’s perception of themself is already volatile and that person is prone to self-harm, as many people with BPD are. A stigmatized diagnosis can spur fresh anxieties (“Am I destined to be an abuser? Am I already an abuser? Have I been abusing everybody without trying or knowing? Am I like my abuser? Is anything I think I know about myself real?”) that could easily outweigh potential benefits, especially if the diagnosis is given without proper consideration and explanation.

A BPD diagnosis also comes with risk from the outside world: risk that, on the basis of that diagnosis alone, some therapists will refuse to work with a patient; risk that doctors of all sorts will see that label in a file and conclude that a patient is making everything — mental health-related or not — up.

Clearly, diagnosis is fraught. I don’t believe in telling young people they can’t possibly understand their own minds until they’re 25, but I don’t believe that the best thing for them is to make more and earlier BPD diagnoses, either.

The Better World that Isn’t Yet

I dream of a future without ableism. I dream of a future with more flexible understandings of health, wellness, and happiness. I dream of a future without abuse culture, which would mean a future with less abuse, which would mean a future with less trauma, which would mean a future with fewer people with BPD. I do not dream of a future with fewer people with BPD for its own sake. I dream of a world with a vastly different medical and psychiatric system, in which diagnosis likely works quite differently from its current state and in which the available labels are different, if we have them at all. But I cannot live full-time in this imaginary future.

Until that future, as we work toward it, I believe we can remake what it means to have a BPD diagnosis, to have a Borderline identity. We can erode ableism. We can create and promote Borderline culture. We can make a BPD diagnosis less like a sentencing and more like an invitation to community.

The Work

Here’s the truth about turning 25 with BPD: I have stabilized over the last four years, and sometimes I do wonder if BPD is even mine to claim anymore. Sometimes I wonder if I am Borderline, if I was Borderline, if it’s time I made some big announcement about a shift in myself. Can I be happy and secure in myself and my relationships and still be Borderline?

Then I remember how much work it’s taken to get here, how much work it takes to stay here — the hours of therapy, the years of writing, the constant filing and interpretation of evidence. I have stable, healthy relationships, AND those relationships are built on catalogues of evidence — sometimes actually written down — that the other person likes me, doesn’t think I’m boring, is getting something out of our relationship, and so on. On top of that, I’ve developed strategies for assessing the reliability of my evidence and of my analysis themselves.

I write not just because I enjoy it, or for the benefit of an audience, but because I need to write to keep track of my life. It’s the best way I know to understand my loved ones and myself, to reintegrate the pieces of my past, and to maintain a sense of continuity through the shifts in my life.

I’ve been shouldering the weight of BPD for so long that it feels like a part of me. It is a part of me. I’ve gotten used to lifting its heft; I can maneuver nimbly with it. Sometimes I forget it’s there. Often I forget that not everyone has to do this much work to have fulfilling relationships and a sense of self. Being Borderline, to me, means doing this work.

The Way Through

And here’s the crux: I wouldn’t know what load I was carrying, wouldn’t what work to do, if I hadn’t realized I was Borderline. Without this diagnosis, this identity, this community, this culture, I would likely have remained confused, isolated, desperate, lost.

For most of my life, my survival has felt precarious. If I hadn’t figured out, when I was 21, that I was Borderline, I’m not sure I would have made it to 25. But thanks to the people I’ve been able to connect with through disabled/crazy community and art, I’m not only alive but thriving. My survival feels as wondrous as ever, but after several years of secure relationships and building an integrated identity that feels true, survival is also starting to feel natural, dependable, expected.

I’m 25. I’m still crazy. And I love my life and I look forward to my future.

 


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Mishell Baker’s ‘Borderline’ Enchants with Urban Fantasy and Borderline Bi Crip Representation

I may be the worst possible person to review Mishell Baker’s Borderline. Any hope of objectivity vanished the instant I heard there was a novel whose protagonist, like me, is a bi crip with Borderline Personality Disorder. I’ve dedicated myself to carving out a space for myself and others like me in my writing, but I never would’ve dreamt that this particular representation already existed, published by Simon & Schuster and recommended by NPR. I might also be one of the best possible people to review Borderline, because I understand what’s at stake in this representation.

As the possible fulfillment of my undreamt literary dreams, Borderline also tripped my “too good to be true” alarm. Sure, it was about someone with BPD, but so are the self-help books that represent Borderline people as time bombs of abuse. Maybe this was nothing, just our turn to be the gritty element to make the fairy book more tragically appealing to a neurotypical reader.

But when I did my research, it continued to check out. Not only is Mishell Baker Borderline herself, but she also wrote a guest post for Uncanny Magazine about how BPD could be useful to a fantasy protagonist and even in real life. So Borderline passed my background check. Now I knew I really had to read it.

Millie Roper, the protagonist and narrator, immediately drew me in. Borderline opens on the end of her stay at an inpatient psychiatric facility where she’s been living since the suicide attempt that led to her double leg amputation. Her therapist is uneasy when, after six months of refusing medication and avoiding major topics in therapy, Millie decides to leave to join the mysterious Arcadia Project.

The Arcadia Project turns out to be an organization of mentally ill people tasked with managing immigration between the fairy world and ours. Due to the timing of her arrival and her clever, impulsive rule-breaking, Millie quickly discovers the disappearance of a fey noble — a mystery that’s way above her clearance as a newbie, not that that stops her.

Millie’s physical disability also turns out to be an asset in her work. Reconstructive surgery filled her body with iron, which happens to disrupt spellwork, giving Millie distinctive powers and limitations in working with the fey. In addition to its arcane applications, Millie’s physical disability is present as part of her everyday life. Her prosthetic legs, cane, crutches, and wheelchair are aspects of how she navigates the world, and they’re fittingly integrated into the narrative.

Millie is neither a Good Borderline nor a Good Bisexual, which allows her to be a great character. She hits my sweet spot of feeling like an authentic representation while also slapping respectability politics in the face. She’s messy. Her emotions and sometimes her behavior are out of control, she uses sexuality as a coping mechanism, and sometimes she’s solidly in the wrong. She’s a sympathetic character not because she reflects the perfection that straight neurotypicals want to see from us, but because she’s complex and responds to past trauma and current circumstances in believable ways.

Millie’s limitations also come through in her narrative voice. She makes frequent, usually generalized, statements about Borderlines to the reader. While her descriptions are often relatable and the Borderline ways of thinking she describes are common, readers (especially non-Borderline ones) would do well to remember that Millie is not an all-knowing authority, but instead a single Borderline person speaking from her own experience and prone to black-and-white thinking.

While Millie is my favorite part of Borderline, its main limitations are a result of her narrow perspective. Borderline has a large cast, many of whom are live-in employees of the Arcadia Project, and first-person narration by a character who knows very little about her coworkers makes some of them feel one-dimensional. I struggled slightly to keep them straight on my first read through.

Borderline‘s plot kept me reading, and its fairy lore is interesting, but most of all, Millie is so compelling a character that I’d gladly read about her adventures in any plot and setting.

Borderline lived up to my wildly high hopes, and I’m grateful its world continues in its sequel, Phantom Pains, and in the final installment in the Arcadia Project trilogy, Imposter Syndrome, in which I’m currently delighting. Millie may disrupt fey magic, but she’s got me enchanted.



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Reflections on a Year in Therapy

I started seeing a therapist early last December, which means I’ve been in therapy for about a year now, and I want to take some time to reflect on my progress with my therapist.

The therapist I’m seeing now is the only one I’ve ever had. Before I started therapy, I had lots of conversations with people who knew me well in which they assumed I’d been to therapy and then were surprised when I told them I hadn’t. For as long as I can remember, my life has depended on being my own therapist, on cobbling together techniques from CBT and DBT, relaxation gifs, ASMR videos, harm reduction, and strategies from friends and strangers on the internet to make myself a path to survival. I don’t know what assuming I’d had professional support says about those people or about me, but I’m proud of myself for managing as well as I did for as long as I did without therapy.

I had a really difficult childhood, and I’ve wanted therapy since I was a kid. I remember my mom threatening me with it as punishment once. Inside I was begging for it, but she never followed through. I asked her directly for therapy a few times when I was a teenager. She always found some way to brush me off or drop the subject, usually saying something about money or insurance. She obfuscates our family’s finances, but we’re pretty well-off and I suspect it was always a lie.

During my first attempt at college and the time I spent as a dropout, I grew into some complexities that made it harder to trust any hypothetical therapist. I was bi, agender, chronically ill, a survivor of parental abuse and child-on-child sexual abuse. My problems included getting into internet fights with mansplainers in the bi activist community and other niche conflicts of politics and identity. It was a lot to explain to anyone, let alone a stranger, a medical professional whose background I barely knew at all.

When I finally did start therapy, it was because I’d hit a wall in trying to get by on community-based support alone. The people I consider my friends and community are mostly trans, disabled, and otherwise marginalized. The struggles we go through with oppression and sometimes our own bodies mean we’re often stretched thin trying to care for ourselves and each other. Thankfully one of my friends was able to recommend a therapist, with more nuance than a basic “gay-friendly.” I started seeing that therapist, and I’ve been happy enough (and in the beginning, search-averse enough) to stick with her.

I liked her intake paperwork, which asked about identities, including gender and pronouns, in open-ended ways, but the first couple of months of therapy were rough. My therapist kept forgetting things I’d told her about myself and my life, and forgetting she’d already told me her story about a Buddhist with progressing Alzheimer’s. I shrunk, as I usually do with even friendly and respectful authority figures, and went through those conversations again and again without saying anything.

My therapist’s attitudes about diagnosis often frustrated me as well. She was pleasantly indifferent to diagnostic labels at first, saying they were often arbitrary and just a box to fill in on the insurance paperwork, but other times she’d use diagnostic labels to pathologize people. We wouldn’t dream of being Facebook friends with each other, but I happened to see her comment on a mutual friend’s post, giving Trump the usual armchair diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I didn’t identify as having Borderline Personality Disorder in my intake paperwork because I know how medical and psychiatric ableism goes. My therapist never seems to have thought about BPD as a diagnosis for me, maybe because she sees me as too well-adjusted or morally good for it, but she asked me if I thought my abusive mother was Borderline. In reality, I think it’s possible but mostly an ableist, anti-Borderline moot point. To my therapist, I responded with less politically charged apathy.

While my therapist understands that I’m agender and identify as trans, she’s also made a lot of common cis slips. She fumbles with other trans people’s pronouns sometimes, and I’m sure she does with mine if she ever talks about me. She sometimes refers to me as female, a woman, my mother’s daughter, and so forth, then struggles to frame more accurate and sensitive statements in terms of socialization or how other people see me. Early on, she asked me what I think therapists should know about serving trans people. I was frustrated that she was asking to be educated while she was supposed to be helping me, but I didn’t want to say so. Instead I stared out the window for a long time before answering, which was an admittedly unclear communication strategy. I eventually said that dysphoria and other trans-related problems won’t always be what we’re in therapy for, which her other interactions with me showed she already understood anyway.

I’ve been open with her about being a writer, but not about my pen name or all the specifics of what I write about. She expressed interest in seeing some of my writing early on, and my deep-seated fears about snooping clashed with my hesitation to deny any request. If I showed her any of my writing, she’d be able to google and find more of it, so I’d have to just trust her not to. Rationally, I did trust her, but my trauma-brain was just not having it.

I spent those first couple of months comparing therapy to the therapeutic value of other things in my life, and therapy usually lost. I wished insurance and/or my mom would pay for other kinds of professional support, like artistic mentorship, or compensate my friends for all they ways they’ve helped me.

I’m not sure when my opinion shifted and I started to look forward to therapy more, so I guess it must have been gradual. I still have to repeat myself to my therapist sometimes, and she still unknowingly repeats herself to me sometimes, but it’s gotten less frequent. In a recent session, she got out a clipboard and prepared to take notes as I told her about my family’s intergenerational trauma. It made me feel like she was really listening and engaged.

I’ve been more assertive with her recently, if only in small ways. One time, on the way into her office, she asked me how I was, and I said, “I’ve been better.” She said, “That’s good,” misunderstanding how I meant it. I was using it in the negative way, like “I’ve been better at other times in my life than I am now,” but she took it as “I’ve been better recently.” I hate correcting people, so my impulse was to just go along with it, but instead I clarified.

I’m still not confident enough to tell her directly when something she’s doing isn’t helping me much, but I’ve learned to recognize and communicate when something is working especially well. I come out of therapy feeling best when we address old, deep pain or a current acute crisis. Even if I’m seriously chronically frustrated about something (like housing, employment, or my career as an artist), spinning those wheels doesn’t make me feel better. I’m learning that on days when I come into the office feeling pretty good, the best thing for me is to pick a situation that hurt me long ago and discuss it with my therapist. Even when I can self-validate, it’s still healing to have someone else acknowledge violations that everyone in my life wanted to ignore when they occured.

I’ve come to trust my therapist more to respect my privacy with regard to my art life. Some of my trust developed through familiarity, and some developed because I didn’t want to bother to obscure identifying details about things like my performances and employment. My therapist has enough information about me to easily find my pen name and everything that’s associated with it, but I trust her to respect my boundaries. I still haven’t shown her any of my writing, though, because I don’t think she needs to read it to understand me.

As for the things she gets wrong about transness or disability, I’ve decided to only correct and educate her if she needs to understand better in order to support me. As important as it is to educate people about social justice, she’s paid to help me, not the other way around. If I can brush off her mistakes and still get the support I need, that’s what I do.

As much as I’ve struggled with some aspects of navigating therapy, I like my therapist and look forward to our sessions. Therapy fulfills my lifelong fantasy of having an older adult who cares what happens to me and is a reliable presence in my life. I know she’s paid for that, but that doesn’t negate it, and she also shows me that she cares through specific compliments and, once, coming into the office on a day she usually takes off because that was all my schedule would allow for. She also offers me a hug at the end of each session, which I appreciate as a reliable and predictable way of receiving touch. Knowing that whatever happens to me, there will be someone waiting to hear about it and give me a hug helps me get through tough times.

While I still value and need support from my friends and communities, I feel better about not needing to ask quite as much of them since I started therapy. I think therapy has also helped to ease my overall desperation, which is a relief.

It’s work and a process of growth to get what I want out of therapy, but I’m gradually working towards knowing what I want and asking for it. As I come to understand and assert myself, my therapist is becoming the supportive presence that I’ve longed for all my life.

 

(I’m still struggling to integrate class dynamics and privilege smoothly in my writing. I’m happy and privileged that my mom and her insurance are able to pay for me to see the therapist I want to see, even though my mom’s financial and other abuse kept me from accessing therapy for most of my life. I suspect she finally became willing to pay for therapy because I’m too old for the government to take me away from her and because she knows it would be financially difficult for me to cut ties with her.)


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Idealization/Imprinting

The following is a selection from my most recent zine, Blush, Blossom, Bloom: BPD, Imprinting, and Mad Queer Love — a duo of essays on the same topic, written before and after I learned a word that truly encompasses what I feel.

Idealization (July 2015)

Lots of people would say my love for people I idealize is unhealthy, but that’s not true. However strong my feelings, they’re not excessive. This love is healthy; this love is healing. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. It’s love, but more intense. The new-love thrill never fades a bit, even as the relationship gets more established and starts feeling more secure. As long as things are going well between us, I feel a surge of joy that such a wonderful person could exist and be in my life. I think of them often, and it always feels like this.

I don’t choose who I idealize, but it’s not arbitrary either. I seem to find people who are right for me, even on very little information. It took 17 days this time. It was fast, but now 10 months resoundingly prove I was right to love her.

My idealization isn’t like what the psychiatric materials about bpd describe. “Idealize” doesn’t even feel like quite the right word. It suggests foolishness, wrongness, or at least being underinformed. But I’m not oblivious to a person’s faults or ways they disappoint me, and I can adjust to new and unpleasant knowledge about them. (Swift reactions being another skill we borderlines are known/demonized for, actually.)

I’m sure some people would question whether what I experience is idealization at all. Sometimes I question myself too. But it’s such a powerful feeling, outside neurotypical experience, and I want a name to put to it. I relate to other borderline folx about the feeling, so “idealization” will do until something better comes along.

I don’t think idealization is “supposed” to be stable. If there’s one thing that characterizes bpd, it’s instability. Reading what psych people write, it sounds like I’m supposed to idealize and “devalue” everyone in my life, cycling at the drop of a hat. Mostly I don’t. Mostly I get this overwhelming love for a particular person and it lasts indefinitely until they stop being in my life. If they did or said something really terrible or were chronically kind of shitty, that’d end it too, but I haven’t had that experience so far.

I’m afraid that describing my idealization, or even just naming it, will scare people off. I’m afraid the word, more than my personalized descriptions, will stick with people and convince them my idealization is incompatible with relationships as equals. I’m afraid of being rejected as obsessive, too intense, irrational, and all-around too much.

I’ll own being obsessive, intense, and often irrational. I hope you’ll decide I’m not too much.

 

Imprinting (10/25/15)

The word “imprint,” in the borderline sense, is the granting of a wish I had thought was hopeless: to have a name for a kind of relationship that is profound to me, but which is totally beyond the neurotypical experience and lexicon. It has the soul and elegance that was missing from “person I stably ‘idealize.’”

It was amazing just to learn that other borderline people have this as a concept. I’d spent almost a year rationalizing to myself that I could have really strong, consistently positive feelings about someone and it could still be a borderline thing — not realizing other borderline people were talking about it and naming it.

I learned “imprint” from tumblr, but “favorite person” seems to be in broader use for the concept there, and it’s what I heard first. “Favorite person” is conceptually close enough that I could understand what people were talking about and know I wasn’t alone, but I’m not wild about it for myself.

It sounds hierarchical, and that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to rank the people who are important to me. I don’t like the thought of implying to everyone else in my life that they’re not my favorite, and I wouldn’t like to be positioned as someone’s not-favorite myself.

I like “imprint” over “favorite person” because it’s succinct. It’s unmediated. Imprinting is a relationship of its own, not something that can be expressed through any recombination or qualification of other relationship elements. I like having a word for it that’s so self-contained.

I like “imprint” because it’s familial. Familial in a way that’s beyond the narratives of family that have always been forced on me, that have betrayed me. Familial in a way that can still be pure, that’s intimate and undemanding.

I like “imprint” because it makes me feel like a duckling, not a burden or a monster.

I like “imprint” because it’s gentle, soft, inexorable, natural, like imprinting.


If you enjoyed this post and you want to read more about imprinting, check out Blush, Blossom, Bloom: A Zine About BPD, Imprinting, and Mad Queer Love. It’s got resources for Borderline and non-Borderline folx, the super-sweet story of telling my imprint she’s my imprint, and a love poem bursting with anti-ableist rage, along with quotes from my journal-blog to more vividly demonstrate the feelings I’ve written about.