Marking the Borderline

There are two people inside my head.

Not usually, mind you. Not most days.

In the last 18 months since I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder — and somehow managed to incarcerate its bigger henchmen for the years of torture they inflicted — life has seen a new, conscious infancy. A childlike wonder and appreciation for seeing everything again for the first time.

Unfortunately, that means having to reacquaint emotions with life’s darker shades too. And it will come as a surprise to no one, least of all me, that BPD never fully leaves you.

The crude Google-friendly definition of the condition sees it described as “having third degree burns on your emotional skin”. That doesn’t quite feel true, a summary too base to rely on, too distant to relate to.

The truth is, BPD is your skin. It scurries between the hairs on your arm, it draws the curtain over your eyes every time you blink, it’s exposed to the elements every time you walk out of the door. Physically you don an armour of clothing while psychologically doing the same.

As humans, we live through our emotional responses. I’ve been incredibly lucky when it comes to managing this disorder – hell, I’ll consider myself lucky for every day I’m allowed to be here – but ironing out its minutiae is tricky business. I find it easier to default to joy these days because of that sense of fortune, but it’s foolish to think a life can be lived without things still going wrong occasionally.

This is where those two people inside my head come in. This is where BPD becomes utterly terrifying.

Having experienced the dark depths of both behavioural and emotional extremes, it’s hard not to question everything as a result. When bad things happen, you wonder whether your emotional response is proportional or appropriate, or whether your mind is playing tricks. You wilt, you try to remain objective, you begin to ration your emotions for fear of irrevocably tipping the scales again.

One person in my head feels the emotion. The other one immediately interrogates it. Living with BPD is having to rebel against what feels like every natural fibre of your being every single day.

I take a somewhat silly comfort in metaphor, but it helps me understand things. During therapy I likened the feeling to a train and its tracks: when BPD gives a thought more powerful steam than seems neurotypical, it often feels like a race to lay down tracks to a more rational end before it careens full-speed around an endless loop. Because if the latter happens, there’s the temptation to bring a self-destructive end to the journey altogether.

But as I say, I’ve been lucky. I’m lucky enough to live the life that I do, and lucky enough to be able to count on one hand the number of times in the last 18 months that negative emotions have lasted longer than a few hours.

However, if a BPD sufferer isn’t careful around their triggers, it only takes one of those moments to destroy the world around you. Where medication or therapy aren’t involved, you have to become your own watchman. You have to capture a thought before it threatens to run too far. You can’t balance a negative thought with a happier memory because it overrides everything else.

You can have the world at your feet – much like sufferers such as Amy Winehouse or Kurt Cobain did – and it only takes one knock to raze your life to the ground. Or erase it completely. Being keenly empathetic to how they may have felt in their final days, knowing that it could be a flick away, is not something one adjusts to easily.

On other occasions, the concept and assessment of time can be important. It’s easy for me to look back and talk about experiences like they were happening to a different person. In a way, they did. I certainly don’t recognise the man I was in my 20s or the decisions he made, so anathema do they seem to where I am today.

The painful truth is that it was me. I was, and remain, capable of these things. That knowledge is not pleasant at all, but essential in the fight against falling into those patterns again.

The future, miraculously, isn’t a concern any more. I could never have imagined life taking me where it has done (despite a relentless micromanagement of it) so there’s a certain freedom in knowing that nothing I do will stop it from taking its course.

Which makes the present an absolute joy. Despite the negative experiences, there’s a lot of strength to be found even in the fact that I’m conscious enough to write these words. Being so open isn’t embarrassing when you realise that this life isn’t about us, and more about what we might leave behind at the table for the earth’s next lot. That is certainly what galvanises me when it comes to political activism, but there’s also the optimism of helping others on an emotional level. The idea that perhaps I can leave a more detailed map of what BPD is like, and more importantly a bright portrait of what life can be like on the other side. Because there really is an other side.

There are costs, of course – it takes longer to let people in, to let one’s guard down, and often being too black-and-white about walking away from certain situations for fear of relapsing. Romantic relationships are either an abstract concept or an alarm bell to bolt away from. It’s safer to stay emotionally isolated than to risk losing a painstaking harmony.

In the time that’s left, though, it’s just about working out who you are outwith all that. Navigating the vagaries of life and all its colourful characters. Finding your place in the world and trying to sidestep the infinite but (increasingly more manageable) hurdles along the way.

In that respect, I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that perhaps BPD sufferers aren’t so different to the rest of the world after all.