Finding the ‘Antidote’ to My Unstable Sense of Self As a Gay, Christian ‘Borderline’
Recently a dear friend and current student of psychiatry asked me to explain how an unstable sense of self, or identity disturbance, works in borderline personality disorder (BPD). I wrote:
“It is waking up in the morning not sure of who or why you are here. And staring at the mirror reflection, not at all recognizing the face in front of you because it doesn’t go with how you feel you are. It is a hollow emptiness and confusion where your identity should be. It is punitive. Who do you think you are thinking you could be a writer, someone’s partner or a healthy adult? It is also that universal feeling; Who is this person alive here in 2020? Where did he come from and why does he exist so fleetingly?”
I have tried to write this article before, but this identity disturbance revisits and overwhelms each time. As I confront this instability, my identity is suddenly exposed as floating, not sure of where to dock. Like the life-sucking wraiths from “The Lord of the Rings,” or the slowly approaching stalking figures of death from the 2014 horror movie “It Follows,” my identity can feel like it is being sucked out of me.
Therefore, as an antidote to this experience, I propose to capture as simply as I can my three most powerful identities that have defined me, but have also frequently waged war against each other and attempted to cancel the others out. Namely, Christian, borderline and gay. I write a personal account with the hope that opening up my identity war can shed some light beyond my own experience so others can find a way to happily integrate your different identities so they can coexist rather than leaving us with an empty identity core.
I will detail them in the order that I assumed them rather than a chronological account. These identities were basically there from the beginning, but some like gay and borderline have only been identified or accepted in very recent years. It is very difficult to separate them because they seep and often bleed into each other, but I’ll try to write from the perspective of each identity though with some cross over.
I always believed in God and was open to him even though my family were not regular churchgoers or ones to really discuss religion in the house — really a typical modern Australian family. But somehow, I had a belief beyond what I could see and when I was in trouble or urgently wanted something, I plea-prayed to God.
When I was sent away to boarding school aged 13 and immediately bullied on suspicion of being gay, I needed something greater than just my own strength and flesh to survive. One of my first friends from the day students was a strong Christian whose family loved me and introduced me to a personal relationship with God and more devout, lively churches than I’d experienced before. Soon, I had a life-changing conversion with an eternal perspective on the cruel taunts I was still receiving, but also on my burgeoning sexuality which was clearly aligning with the names the boys were calling me to my horror. The night I was converted, the speaker preached from Romans 1:18- 32 with its clear condemnation of God’s wrath against people who follow their unnatural, sinful desires and have sex with their own gender. I accepted this teaching uncritically and tried my very hardest to reorient myself through diligent prayer and scriptural study, and later through attempts at gay reparative therapy.
It would be a mistake to see my Christian identity only pejoratively. The truth is the emphasis on love and forgiveness and other-person servanthood shaped my character both then and now. My favorite scripture, which still defines who I am and how I want to live, has always been Jesus with the Samaritan woman, a social and moral outcast who speaks to him so plainly, so directly without any attempt to raise her status or hide her sin. Jesus returns her directness with no concern about the triple taboo that she is an oft-married Samaritan woman, and offers her water from which she would never thirst again. She immediately sees he is more than just a teacher and asks him if he is the Messiah. It is Jesus’ reply that captures my heart: “I who speak to you am he,” (John 4:26 ESV) as it reaches deep inside of who I long to follow.
Through my two breakdowns, I would question whether I was still a follower of this messiah who spoke to the Samaritan woman. At times, I felt abandoned by this God. And when I did finally come to assume my gay identity, as I will describe, I for the first time essentially considered a deconversion. It seemed the only way to enable myself to recognize that I was gay. But I never could let go entirely, as my therapist reminded me when I told him I no longer thought I was Christian: “Andrew, everything you do is clearly motivated by being a Christian.”
He was emphatically right and there was no running from it. If I hadn’t put humble love and forgiveness at the centre of who I am, then my devaluations in relationships would have been so much worse and my experience of my illness much more lethal. I am proud to say that even at my most wounded I only fell out with a very small number of people and many of them I later reconciled. Maintaining the support of these friends and family was crucial to my recovery.
I also had to acknowledge that I am a Christian in recovery, as my therapist put it. I took a step away from the evangelical Anglican churches I grew up in and sought out affirming gay churches with their more accepting theology while keeping ties with my closest Christian friends.
The origins of my BPD, of course, began in my childhood. Born the sensitive, unusual, “girly” son of a hard-working cattle breeder on a small “ranch” in the country in Australia, I must have seemed instantly out of place to my parents. I could identify more easily with my mother with her big emotions, strong opinions and naughty humor. While I loved my primary school, I was not always happy. For the entire year of Grade Five, I felt anxious and depressed, gripped by an ever-present dread about not being able to sleep. My parents put it down to an adverse reaction to apple juice but more likely it was both a reaction to invalidations and the genesis of my mental illness that would later come to dominate long periods of my life.
I have already detailed how nasty labels from my fellow boarders derided my still-developing sexuality and indelibly created an unstable sense of self around my sexuality. Furthermore, the version of Christianity I embraced, with its scriptural interpretations, left me stuck in a further identity bind. There is no doubt these identity condemnations and resulting confusion also planted the seeds for both my major depression and borderline personality disorder to later grow. These seeds were feelings of being cut loose unprotected in a big city far away from my family and home, and overwhelming anger, sadness and shame which I repressed because I was no physical fighter and did not want to give my attackers any more victories.
Crucially, I had to repress who I was because who I was had been so roundly condemned. It is really no surprise that these repressed emotions accompanied by self-loathing, pervasive bleakness, self-harm, suicidal ideation, among others, would come back for vengeance in my 20s and 30s. Who I was had been so severely punished that eventually, that punishment would turn inwards. Those stalking creatures of the horror movie eventually found me.
The trigger was a tragically unrequited love of a sensitive young Christian guy. Here, all the gay feelings I had been repressing all my life, all the abandonment I was frantically avoiding, could no longer be held back.
It would take two more years, two hospital stays and three treating psychiatrists before I finally found the therapist who understood me, thereby successfully diagnosing me with BPD. I believe I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 37 because I didn’t fit the profile. I was male, polite and nice. (Too Christian?) Not the stigmatized stereotype of the hysterical, manipulative borderline.
When I was finally diagnosed, it was like my Christian conversion experience. My therapist introduced the idea very delicately, pointing to my recent out-of-body experiences as examples of dissociation, a diagnostic criterion for BPD. After the session, I went home and read as much as I could. When I saw the DSM-5 criteria, suddenly everything — especially the extremities of my suffering — made sense, and I could no longer blame myself. I was like many people in the world. Finally, it had a name; I was “borderline.”
The last identity I accepted probably had the most obvious external signs from when I was a small boy. I won’t descend into stereotype here, but acknowledge that many knew from a very young age. It is also the most painful because it is still hard to accept that it took me so long to claim it. Most new people I meet now are aghast that I was in my late 30s when I finally stated the obvious.
Again, right from my childhood, I was taught to hate being gay through derogatory labels leading me to reject it. The brand of Christianity I chose sadly exacerbated this self-hatred of who I was. This is difficult to accept now, that I swallowed this religious homophobia.
Thankfully, my favorite skill of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is radical acceptance, which requires you to completely accept the pain of the past with a willingness to come into the reality of the present. Without radical acceptance, perhaps I would have never fully accepted I was gay and that it isn’t inherently bad, sinful or unnatural. Of course, it’s easier in theory when being a Bible-based Christian was my primary identity most of my life.
It was very difficult to deal with the pesky issue of my sexuality because even though I was a very dedicated and celibate Christian with many friends both in and outside the church, it just wouldn’t go away. People would speak behind my back, ask me directly or proposition me, which became very difficult to maintain my “I struggle with my sexuality” response. I was even in the gay-populated industries of film and theatre in my early 20s, where I was quite the curiosity. When it came too much I ran away, even running away for a year to Uganda.
In the end, I couldn’t run from being gay forever since I have, for most of my life, been an honest person but with one piece of the honesty jigsaw missing. A series of devastating griefs and the perceived abandonment of an unrequited love reminded me that I love who I love and profoundly it isn’t a choice. I think without my mental illness, perhaps I would be still running from being gay because when the acceptance came, it was soon after my BPD diagnosis.
This first acceptance came at the premiere of my friend’s 2015 film, “Holding the Man,” a great and enduring Australian gay love story. This friend had long tried to encourage my own coming out and probably had begun to despair. This night, watching this beautiful and haunting love story, I felt a powerful mirror up to my repressed sexuality and I at longest last said to myself, through sobs: “No more euphemisms. Call yourself what you are, you are gay.” The day that I would not allow myself to ever experience had finally come.
It would take a year or two to be able to comfortably describe myself as gay to others, but by the time I started DBT at the end of 2016, I was telling my group members that being gay was an important part of who I am.
I am my identities, but how do I allow them to coexist happily?
Today, I am proudly a borderline gay Christian and it doesn’t matter which order they are listed in. I cannot have a favorite child. The main problem between my gay and Christian identities was believing they were an all-or-nothing, black and white mutual exclusivity; either 100% Christian and 0% gay or 0% Christian and 100% gay.
For many years, I believed the scriptural condemnations of homosexuality ended the discussion or possibility of having a gay, Christian identity, but I no longer accept this. Though I still have much internalized, scriptural homophobia to be worked through, I am a gay man who God loves.
Ironically, I feel it is my borderline identity that comes in asks my gay and Christian ones to be friends. Otherwise, he will turn into a monster again and wreak more havoc around the core of who I am.
There’s real hope; all three of my precious identities are getting along much better. The formerly fierce and acrimonious conflict has been replaced with some radical acceptance, forgiveness and flamboyance. I have a clearer sense of who I am and this time, this article wasn’t destabilizing to write.
Images via contributor