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What Reading Means to Me as Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I found out by happy accident that I read 118 books last year. Apparently the Kindle app tracks your reading history. I couldn’t tell you what all of the books were about; my memory isn’t fantastic. A lot of times I’ll get a few pages in, then suddenly remember every detail about the book. Sometimes it’s disappointing because I spend a lot of my time researching what I’m going to read next. Then I have to put the book down and hunt for something new. Other times I will simply re-read the book in light of having something to do.

It took me a number of years to realize that I wasn’t just reading to read. It took me a few more to realize that I wasn’t reading to enjoy, or to cope, either. I was trying to teach myself emotion and being selective about participating in real life. Getting lost in books can take away your real life, if all you do is read.

I had just ordered a book about the Holocaust I had been looking for on and off for years. A Holocaust book I had read at age 12, which pretty accurately depicted the horror of those times. A book that made me cry. A lot. I do that with “good” books. Re-read them, re-live them. A lot like how a toddler likes to watch the same show over and over again. I looked through my wish list on Amazon, and the books listed all made me feel vividly one emotion or another. Not all of them negative, most were fantasy. Those are the books I treasure, the good books that make me feel.

I thought back to reading when I was barely 13. At that time I chose fantasy and mystery at an even mix, like Mary Higgins Clark and Terry Brooks. I remember the more I read, the more I emulated the characters, and even the stories in my everyday life. Finding anything similar in my life I could link to the stories. Like seeing a note passed in school as a catalyst to a big mystery, or a ring-pop being the hidden treasure of a witch. Mimicking the characters so well that somewhere along the way, I forgot who I was if I was ever anyone at all. One time I even faked a note to myself in my locker, and got the school staff involved in a mystery that didn’t exist. I’m not proud of the moment when my father had to come in and explain I was troubled to the school’s principal.

Then I found a book that spoke to me more than any other. It was called,
“I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” by Joanne Greenberg. Anyone who is triggered by descriptions of psychosis should not read this. That being said, it was a delving dive into the deep psyche of a schizophrenic teen. I put my father through a lot that year. I read and re-read that book, enjoying the sad, angry emotions it invoked. Including a suicide attempt and a few in-patient facilities thereafter. I never could tell them why I tried to die so young, because at the time I didn’t know myself. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered my crisis of identity and could really examine my actions.

To say there weren’t environmental or psychological factors leading up to the suicide attempt would be far-fetched. There is plenty I could say about genetics, family history, bad situations and so on that would explain it easily. Even so, they weren’t the real reason I tried to die at 12. Somewhere along the way, my small mind realized that I wasn’t the same as others. I didn’t feel emotions correctly. The only emotions I could really feel were the negative ones. My moral compass and logic were skewed.

This wasn’t anyone’s fault, I had been this way as long as I can remember. Around age 5, I was watching 911 on the TV in my bedroom, and I fervently wished I was one of the people dying in that ambulance. I wished it over and over, trying to make it true. On the outside, nothing significant had happened to prompt that fantasy. I was in a good home with a fantastic family. I wasn’t depressed, unhappy or sad. On the inside, I wanted to die as surely as most children want to watch a cartoon. It wasn’t an urge or an impulse to act on at that point. It was just a simple fact in my mind. That was probably the first sign of my personality disorder.

After reading that book, I found other authors like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickenson to learn from. I liked how strong despair felt, and enjoyed the release of crying. I started reading about mental disorders, identifying with many. So when the first of many doctors tried to diagnose me, they had some trouble. They gave me the vague diagnosis of major depression. Almost like a hard guess. A few years later I was bipolar. Some years after that I was labeled delusional. By the time I was 25 years old, I had been tried on nearly every medication in the psychiatric community to no avail. All because I couldn’t identify truth from fantasy and I spent most of my reality in books.

By the time I hit 32, I had three serious relationships implode (all of my doing), had panic attacks and night-terrors due to the PTSD left over from one of those relationships, and had tried to kill myself twice more, the latest time with my current ex-fiancé/roommate (relationship #4). After the coma and nerve damage of the latest attempt, something in me for the first time in my life wanted to change. I can’t tell you how foreign it felt to actually want life. It’s like being told that the orange you’ve been eating every morning was actually a plum. I didn’t know how to move forward with that knowledge. It was strange wanting to live, but compelling enough to help me move forward for the first time in my life. Even so, the darker part of me rebelled against it and I ended up in a psychiatric ward at least twice a year, trying to stop myself from being stupid. I went to the hospitals enough that the doctors and staff now know me by face alone.

It was after one of the hospital trips that I reached out to a psychiatrist who had worked with me years before. She was willing to take me on again. After a few months, a lot therapy and a few hospitals later, she told me I had borderline personality disorder along with complex PTSD. I was basically an emotional time-bomb that liked to disregard my conscience and would implode from time to time. I preferred mimicking personalities instead of having one of my own, and spent a lot of my time too scared to leave my home, go to social functions or commit to anything, even with my friends and family. Even though I had no good reason to be scared at all. I started physically fighting memories in my sleep. I’d like to say that with medication and therapy that this got better. In a lot of ways, it did.

My doctor finally found medications that helped. I wasn’t cured, it was more like putting a stopper on the bottle of rage inside me. Pure rage. I finally had a definition. We’re still working on why, and may never have a real answer, but it’s been there my whole life, egging me on like a demon whispering in your ear. I’ve named the demon Frank. When “Frank” suggests, implies, whispers or yells, I practice telling “Frank” to shut the hell up. Key word, practice. I’m not always successful, and my latest rage episode ended with me nearly breaking my foot. I’m proud of nearly breaking my foot. I’d gone almost three years without an episode and wasn’t dead. It’s progress.

Therapy helped, too. It gave me an outlet other than seclusion, and taught me the value and structure of routine. Your therapist matters. I have been through a few, and being uncomfortable due to a lack of connection or communication can ruin the experience. My friends and family helped more. More than most would have, considering the stress, anger and fear my episodes provoke. Though they can’t understand me completely, they try, they love, they listen, they show up or take my call. Not everyone is that lucky.

With current events, I have had “Frank” around a lot more lately. I’ve gotten better at redirecting him, and not acting on bad impulses. It’s not easy. If I’m not in a good place mentally, I do not participate in anything that might trigger “Frank.” It sounds like a lot, nearly impossible, but I’m getting better at checking in with myself frequently. I adjust my plans, even at the last minute will cancel them if I need to. I am no longer embarrassed about it. I just make a new plan and try again. And try again, however long it takes.

If I’m not sure I’m thinking reasonably, I reach out and ask my family and friends. If I need help, I get help. That is probably the hardest step, asking for help. For me, it was like trying to cut down a tree with a butter knife. Two years of practice later, I’m closer to having an axe. I still have night-terrors and struggle with panic attacks. Christmas is the hardest time of year even though it’s my favorite. I panic about going to family functions, even though I’m excited about the gifts I bring. The gifts I plan months in advance and sometimes change at the last second. I truly love to see my family open their gifts and have their face light up in laughter or compassion. Even though I have nothing real to fear, the panic happens every year. I have learned to accept the panic, let it run its course, and do anyway.

If I could give any advice to those struggling to find their definition, it would be this: just try. I didn’t have to spend years struggling if I had just tried sooner. My story has become my own book, and I get to choose what happens next. You do, too.

Getty image by Bablab

Originally published: February 11, 2021
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