The shape of a woman's face
The one in which I attempt to understand mental illness and how it has affected me.
And up will come to the cancer
Up will come volcanic ash
Up come sheets of red hot hail
The streets and the blood of my past
Up come the angels of mercy
Up come the children of peace
From all the cities I've swallowed
I shall be released
DISCLAIMER: By ‘fucked up’ I am alluding to mental illness. This means I’m perpetuating the damaging public and self-stigma surrounding mental illness, a thing I will freely admit because the resulting stereotypes and discrimination are a social knowledge structure I am just now beginning to excavate and plan to examine at length in many other posts.
For most of my adult life, I have harbored the secret fear that I am more fucked up than I realize. I’ve managed to mostly keep this writhing dread a secret, even from myself. It’s something I’ve only somewhat metabolized with the recent Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis (BPD) and the incredibly astute hindsight that middle-age offers, if you’re paying attention.
Many people I have loved as well as a fair number of people I have never met have hit me with spiky assessments of the level of my fucked-upness. Some have raged it at me mid-fight as their spit sprinkler-ed my face, they’ve hotly dispatched it to me within the confines of email and text. Some have shared their judgments behind my back or offered explanations about me in messages to others I never should have read. Armchair analysis has been offered in comments on my blog, social media pages and various online forums. The method varies but one constant remains: I always believe them, even while rabidly defending myself to them… And to myself. I swallow their diagnosis like bad medicine and try to forget. But it becomes a part of me, each toxic dose adding to my private narrative: I am fucked up.
Item: I perceived ‘fucked up’ to be a terrible accusation I must defend myself against at all costs, a bad thing I must hide from everyone, including myself, which made me all the more defensive.
More than many times I’ve wondered: How would you know if you’re fucked up? If your brain is the mechanism you utilize to comprehend whether you’re fucked up while simultaneously being the thing that might be fucked up, where does that leave you?
I hail from a long line of Mormons super-skilled at normalizing extremely harmful dogma in their obsessive quest for the best, most perfect life/afterlife. Baskin Robbins has nothin’ on the variety of bizarre flavors manifesting within the lives and families of my pioneer people. I reckon the average Mormon traffics in shame, guilt, secrets and fucked-uppery as good as or better than the most devout Catholic you know. Catholic guilt? Phffft. Acquaint thyself with Mormon shame.
In all likelihood, fucked up is my norm. My brain is always on high alert. Things feel more scary and stressful to someone with BPD than they do to other people. Our fight-or-flight switch is easily tripped, and once it’s on, it hijacks our rational brain, triggering primitive survival instincts that aren’t always appropriate to the situation at hand.
Normalizing dysfunction is a tough thing for me to admit. My self-concept is that of a scrappy underdog, a hustler who has triumphed in the face of adversity. A feral child running loose amid the scary landscape of a turbulent, neglected childhood who sucked up functional human behavior in consequence of a ferocious reading habit and perfected it via regular imitation of those I admired. A fierce autodidact. The girl who thought her way out of Mormonism despite a lifetime of brainwashing then lied her way into her first gig at a local news station and worked her way to the top. If I’m a little fucked up, well, that’s just collateral brain damage, baby.
Item: I could never allow ‘fucked up’ to be conflated with the notion of mentally ill in my mind. ‘Fucked up,’ while not ideal, was a gray, dangerously cool, somewhat acceptable concept. Mentally ill was black and white. Horrifyingly institutional, necessitating heavy meds. Unacceptable!
The funny part is, it’s not just actually being fucked up that freaked me out, it’s the notion of not knowing I’m fucked up in the face of people who do. Essentially, I desperately need you to know that I know I’m fucked up before we can continue here. The idea that you might suspect I’m mentally ill while I have no idea is as difficult to accept as actually being diagnosed with a mental illness.
Item: Because my childhood was lacking, my concept of who I am, whether or not I’m a good person, is formed by other people’s opinions of me. Which is to say, I am desperate for your validation and live in abject fear of your rejection or abandonment. Disapproval, even that of strangers, maybe even especially that of strangers, sends me spiraling.
“People with BPD often talk about feeling empty, as if there’s a hole or a void inside them. At the extreme, you may feel as if you’re ‘nothing’ or ‘nobody.’ This feeling is uncomfortable, so you may try to fill the void with things like drugs, food, or sex. But nothing feels truly satisfying.”
I have long suspected and sometimes articulated to those closest to me that without consistent adult guidance in my childhood, my personality feels as if it was formed inside a vacuum. There is no me here. Just a collection of traits gleaned from studying human behavior. Cyborgian, artificial intelligence imitating people in an endless quest for human validation. (If you’re familiar with the concept of nonduality in Buddhism you’ll understand why the notion that there is no me here, also known as nonduality or no-self, has been a huge comfort and liberation to me over the past few years. Much more on that later.)
Item: If you can only perceive life through your brain and most people don’t go around yammering about their fucked-upness, preferring to keep it hidden in journals and behind the walls of therapists’ offices, how do you know where you fall on the psychiatric bell curve?
My therapist saw me coming a mile away, I wager. I am obsessed with him grading me on some kind of imagined psychiatric bell curve, constantly asking him to rate specifically where my thoughts and behaviors fall on his scale of normal to super fucked up. He seems annoyingly well-adjusted, has a fancy diploma on his wall along with access to a variety of people seeking therapy for one thing or another, so I figure if anyone knows, it’s him. He says I’m high-functioning. Then again, it’s his job to remain impassive in the face of high-level fuckery so it’s hard to take any of his cool cucumber reactions to my queries and dark admissions to the bank.
I secretly harbor the hope that I am far more well-adjusted than I think I am, that all my obsessing about mental wellness is a sign of very functional behavior. After all, Cory tells me I’m “the most together person” he knows and Cory is also annoyingly well-adjusted so it seems he would know. Alas, he relies on me for sex so his opinion is a wash and not to be trusted.
Item: I delight in revelations of fucked-upness in others who appear compos mentis. These unfortunate episodes of Schadenfreude put me at ease about my mental speculations. A nicer way of looking at it would be that I find comfort in togetherness, in confirmation that we’re all dealing with the same trials and tribulations.
As if to comfort me directly, the exceptional writer, Rebecca Woolf, whose radically honest, painfully beautiful memoir, All of This, is out in August, recently wrote, “There is nothing in our stories to be ashamed of. That some of us are willing to share vulnerability about our interior lives not because we believe we are special but because we KNOW that our stories are not unique. I know that my experiences are unoriginal which is why it feels so pressing to share them.”
Still. Publicly revealing a mental illness diagnosis feels like handing everyone I know, past friends and lovers as well as internet strangers a grenade. Here ya go! I cordially invite you to pull the pin and toss it at me whenever you’re so inclined. You can officially write me off as a ‘psycho bitch.’ I am lobbing you softballs right over the plate. Hell, I am placing the ball on a tee and offering you a swing. Run, Forrest, ruuun around those bases! This is some easy homerun in a fight with me shit.
The phrase is bursting with misogyny. A veritable global phenomenon. In my twenties, nearly every man I met carried a well-rehearsed “psycho bitch ex-girlfriend” story in his back pocket. The dating after divorce world is also teeming with tales of psycho bitch ex-wives. Woe is me stories involving the undeniable cuntiness of exes abound. These stories seldom hold up to close inspection. If like me, you’ve spent most of your life swaddled in insecurity, you revel in these narratives. She’s crazy, but not me.
We insecure women rarely question the man’s role in the scenario because we don’t want to. We need to be special, the different one who changed everything for him. Psssst. You’re not different. More importantly, neither is he.
TRANSLATION: A ‘psycho bitch’ in his past is a red flag about him as much as and perhaps even more than it is for her.
Item: Never trust a man who speaks badly about the mother of his children.
Yet, we women gaslight ourselves, write think pieces on how not to become his “crazy, bitch ex-girlfriend” which amount to begging men not to be assholes when they break up with us. When men behave badly during a break-up and women respond with reasonable anger, men often retreat which involves ignoring the woman who understandingly becomes confused, sad, angry. Pro-tip: If he’s ignoring you, move on immediately. Seeking closure is a lie.
Item: The concept and societal obsession with closure at the end of a romantic relationship is a tricky business at best. It’s a feel-good construct that keeps people from moving forward once they realize a relationship has run its course. You don’t need ‘closure.’ No pseudo-kumbaya moment after a break-up lasts. Human emotions are labyrinthian and often unsolvable. Break-ups don’t feel good. They’re messy as hell. They suck. Sometimes you’ll feel okay and other times you’ll feel like shit. It doesn’t mean you need to reach out for clarity via one. More. Conversation. Put the pedal to the metal and some miles in the rearview mirror, my sister.
Psycho bitch from hell stories almost always originate during a rough breakup and typically absolve any role men play in the demise of a relationship while simultaneously transforming their ex’s pain and confusion into inflated tales of psycho bitchery that lack compassion for the very real women involved. Try for closure if you must, but risk becoming the psycho bitch, an entertaining always exaggerated story meant to titillate friends, new girlfriends, and wives at the expense of your humanity.
Receiving and revealing a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder feels like unintentionally notarizing all psycho bitch ex stories about me even as I question whether I was a psycho bitch or a victim of that particular brand of gaslighting in which unenlightened dudes specialize. A feminist paradox if there ever was one.
Post-diagnosis, I’m desperate for the truth of my life but unless each man is willing to engage in an honest open, unbiased dialogue about our time together, which isn’t a likely scenario but has happened (Hi, Chris!), I suspect any overarching reality is lost to each person’s perspective which can be especially confusing at a time when my reality feels like sand constantly shifting beneath my unsteady feet. Hey, BPD, heeeey!
My therapist would tell me to stop thinking in black and white, as is my BPD wont, and just be comfortable living in the gray. This means the men were probably assholes a lot of the time and I was
probably an overly emotional, defensive woman prone to confusing bursts of anger a lot of the time. I can accept this analysis. A lot of the time.
The diagnosis was devastation and then it was a revelation.
For all of my life, I thought I could think my way out of my perceived brokenness. Intellectualizing the bad things that happened to me or that I caused to happen was a way to make sense of my world. But as much as thinking has been a tool on the path to my liberation, it has also been a weapon of my destruction. You can get caught up in false narratives about yourself or others, negative bias patterns and other unproductive thought loops that keep you wandering in a lonely wilderness for years. Remember: all tools can be weapons, all weapons can be tools. It’s up to you to use them wisely.
Item: I thought trauma was a specific horrific event that happened to someone. A singular incident that caused ripples of devastation throughout one’s life e.g. a soldier experiences war and has flashbacks for the rest of his or her life. It can be that, yes. But what I have also learned is that a generally chaotic childhood - that doesn’t necessarily involve one specific, all-consuming trauma - can cause complex trauma that reshapes the core way you perceive and respond to life experiences. This can cause you to distort your sense of self, make it difficult to control your emotions, and cause relationship challenges. Where one person experiences a situation as no big whoop, someone with BPD may react in ways that do not seem commensurate with the scenario and not even understand why they are overreacting or even that they are overreacting.
Being “fucked up” as a result of a turbulent childhood is a familiar concept to most. Sure, we all have our shit. And that’s generally how I viewed it: Things That Happened a Long Time Ago. I’m an adult now who is smart enough to move on, right?
For all my intellectualizing, it never occurred to me that my experiences as a child permanently altered the way I perceive life. That the very brain I am using to interpret existence is an issue. The fundamental way I view and perceive relationships is not healthy.
Until recently, my impulsive, angry, defensive behavior felt unrelated to the inner workings of my mind. Monica The Intellectual Thinker felt like she had a solid grasp on the whats and the whys of it all it’s just that sometimes Monica The Emotional Human got just a little out of hand, okay?
The diagnosis has given me an instruction manual for me. A kind of workaround for the maladaptive social functioning of my brain. I can refer to the symptoms as a kind of experience filter to recognize, understand and even mitigate emotional overreaction.
Item: I am not fucked up. I have a mental illness, is all!
In much the same way someone on the autism spectrum is forced to recognize blind spots in day-to-day cognition and interpretation of social interactions, I must vigilantly investigate my knee-jerk emotional reactions and evaluate their validity and value. A tricky business when you know your perceiver has been on the fritz since, oh, say, 1983, around the time your parents divorced, your dad upped sticks and settled in a different state, your single mom signed up for food stamps then largely disappeared from your childhood and you began home-brewing a potent batch of Borderline Personality Disorder to cope.
Aw, sweet 1980s, Monica. C’mere to me. Climb up on my lap. Let me hold you tight, softly stroke your hair while rocking you until you feel safe enough to fall asleep. I am here for you and waiting here for you to catch up.
I disappeared from the internet a few years ago. It was necessary. I had it all wrong. I don’t know what right looks like, but what I was doing wasn’t it. Writing about myself on the internet is unmooring, scary. It feels unsafe to me now. Like floating on a raft adrift at sea, exposed to the elements and there are sure to be sharks! But there is always the wide-open sky of possibility.
After going without it for several years, I realized writing - if authentic and non-performative - is sanity to me. If not sanity, a way to understand, organize and accept my insanity. Dipping a toe back into the internet ocean is daunting. I feel all loosey-goosey and free-floating.
“And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.” – Audre Lorde
Falling in love with the most liberated and liberating woman I have ever met - including being mesmerized by her life, thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and even the way she processes her experiences, especially those that others would label negative - prompted the realization that after decades of pretzeling myself into shapes pleasing to men, the component constantly missing from my life is women. Not necessarily on a romantic scale but in everyday life. Sharing experiences, ideas, fears, heartbreaks, and decisions with women on an everyday basis is so crucial yet so many of us don’t have it, have never had it, and may not ever even know we need it. We have been conditioned to compete not coven.
It took me four decades and one Rebecca Woolf to realize that the flesh, blood, hearts, and minds of women are the fertile soil in which vulnerability, empathy, compassion, and unconditional acceptance of each other and ourselves can flourish.
Here I am. Recently diagnosed mental illness and all the rest of it, humbly seeking your validation and acceptance while offering you mine. Trust-falling backward into your outstretched arms. Will you catch me?
“It is in our art, our paintings, poems, essays, and books that we begin to reach out to each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in Of Women Born. “What any writer hopes – and knows – is that others like her, with different training, background, and tools, are putting together other parts of this immense half-buried mosaic in the shape of a women’s face.”
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