Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
I know the meaning of emptiness.
I know what it means to feel empty.
I am recovering from borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Though I was not formally diagnosed until age 20, the signs of emotional instability began to unveil themselves in my early childhood, planted like small seeds of dissonance in the form of volatile temper tantrums and the presumably infantile inability to regulate and modify my unusually strong emotions.
I recall unbearable, intolerable sentiments of tension and aggression building under my skin, feeling as though the temperature of my emotions and their magnitude was all but incapable of being understood. Though I was raised by a loving family, I felt extremely different from others early on — alienated, deviant as if I was filled with a tangible void, a concrete chasm where all of those fiery, vitriolic feelings slumbered.
Emptiness is the sinking pit in one’s stomach; that vague, indescribable pull towards impulsivity and recklessness in order to escape its cavernous massiveness, its restless boredom and vacillation between stages of identities. I have always experienced the borderline emptiness as a variation of a sixth sense: a vestigial organ so invisible yet so apparent. It speaks its own languishing language of urges and behaviors, goading those who live with it to act upon self-destructive desires in order to establish a semblance of an identity when all things else are hollow and chronically unfulfilling.
I remedied my lack of a sense of self by immersing myself in musical and creative pursuits, channeling my chaos into cleverly avoidant outlets which allowed me to cope with this fundamental feeling of vacuousness, chasing the elusive teenage dream of acceptance and social integration. In my adolescent mind, my personality would develop later on and all of those imperceptible traces of unrest would vanish along with my childhood insecurities. I decided on a career in music, resulting in my acceptance into a prestigious conservatory for opera, a choice which mollified any feelings of doubt and temporarily bandaged the empty sinkhole deepening within my chest. I would later learn that, in order to heal, a borderline must first sit with the pervasive discomfort and salient suffering of acknowledging this unsettling space within himself.
I wish I had been informed of that in my fledgling years — before I fully came undone.
A highly traumatic incident forced me to drop out of college in my freshman year, thus triggering an almost apocalyptic chain reaction within my borderline self.
Not only was I struggling with the after-effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but my purpose, direction, and aspirations in existence were stolen from me. I retreated home, all but abandoning every hope for a decently sustainable future, resorting to excessive sleep and unstable relationships to mend the pain of trauma and the blossoming head of my BPD emerging. Self-injury became a dangerous, malicious addiction into whose comforts I sought shelter and refuge, deciding to build a life on the foundation of easily accessible self-destruction and turmoil over the elusive successes I forfeited. The emptiness intensified.
At age 20, I sought out the aid of a therapist, realizing my behavior to be maladaptive and ultimately counterproductive to my quality of life. My self-harm worsened alongside the depression. The aloneness ate away at me, the apathy eroded me and I began attaching myself to therapists and treatment professionals, seeing them as messiahs and longing for them to see me as troubled, in hopes to invoke their love and affection. In my head, I did not exist unless I existed in the minds of others.
I viewed myself only through the lenses of their eyes, completely neglecting or unable to acknowledge any self-awareness I might have possessed.
I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation and self-injurious behavior at age 20, where I received my diagnosis. This pattern of behaviorally acting out in hopes of securing an identity and attention persisted, resulting in numerous psychiatric inpatient stays and suicide attempts. Visits to the emergency room for medical treatment due to self-injury. Pink slips and hospital admittances. Temper tantrums and slammed doors. I lost teams of professionals due to my own reprehensible actions, scaring them with my defiant behavior, which only served to reinforce this belief I was unlovable and unworthy of care. I idealized treaters, turning them into demi-gods only to persecute them moments later when they erred — when they fell out of my good graces oh-so-easily.
This pattern of behavior has consumed most of my 20s, left scars on my body and psyche and cost me opportunities and relationships due to my inability to regulate my emotions. BPD is a tiresome disorder, one which is so entirely taxing that the prospect of recovery can seem all but impossible at times. I have often asked myself if I will ever be a person, if I will ever learn to stop idealizing pain and glamorizing sickness because I believe being a patient is the only identity I will ever be capable of achieving. It is sleepless nights and interpersonal conflict; stormy arguments and hairpin triggers. It is leaving before being left. Anything to escape the poisonous expanse of nothingness and decay inside of oneself. To be full of so much, and yet nothing at all.
But now, I know there is a way. There is hope.
It was not until this past year, in which my behavior led me to eating disorder treatment, that I realized there is so much more to life than pain than self-imposed suffering, no matter how much of the void it seemingly fills. Maladaptive behaviors, while gratifying in the moment, lead a person down a repetitively comfortable yet ultimately damning path to an unfulfilling and even more cavernously sparse existence. Hospitals are safe havens but they are not living. You do not need to attempt to die by suicide in order to have a name and a voice in this world. Other people do not define you. Your worth is not defined by the number of scars on your body or the times in which your body has lain in hospital rooms, listening to the voices of nurses as you drift into medicated comas.
The first step to tolerating emptiness is to acknowledge it — to sit with it — to white-knuckle that black supernova spiraling out of control. It will hurt, and you should expect it to, but it will not hurt more than the late in life realization you spent more time chasing dragons of drugs and destruction than you spent living.
You must sit with the absence of behaviors, even when the urge to attempt suicide is screaming louder than the wisdom of your inner reason, even when the desire to self-harm shrieks through the fog of delirious dissonance of struggling and sickness. Sit with it. You must sit with it.
Realize you have more to offer than the hunting of a transient, fleeting identity which will no longer suit you tomorrow. We are all endowed with unique gifts and blessings, and you are no exception. Building structure and pursuing external interests can greatly contribute to feelings of self-worth and esteem. Find what you possess within yourself, and with time, the urge to destroy will be replaced by the urge to create. The hands which have crumbled structures can learn to rebuild piece by piece.
I am recovering from borderline personality disorder, and you can too.
I know the meaning of emptiness.
I know what it means to be empty.
And I am learning what it means to be filled.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure