I’m Borderline, Not Broken

In 2019, I wrote about living with Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. It’s 2020 and I still deal with them every day. Obviously. No lobotomy here. And I still don’t feel included in the conversation about self-care and mental health, which sucks, especially now. In case you haven’t been online lately, not only is the Internet full of pandemic self-care tips, but it’s also Mental Health Awareness Month, which is icing on the cake when you have BPD. You have the people with depression who post about all the water bottles they’re too depressed to throw away, and the people with anxiety who can’t ask for a side of ranch with their fries. But you don’t hear from the people who sold textbooks for cash in high school so they could buy someone a vocal selections book and receive even an ounce of affection. The people who then cried themselves to sleep every night because that person hadn’t texted them in months and they felt so unlovable that the world had to be ending?

Is this not a universal experience? Or do we just not talk about these experiences in the same way?

Frankly, I don’t have much to ask of people. I don’t think anyone knows what to do right now; I can’t really expect anything from anyone. It’d be cool if someone in the Instagram #selfcare tag could tell me how to manage my personality disorder with a bath bomb, and I do wish Marsha Linehan had a chapter on dealing with BPD during a pandemic that requires months of social isolation. She does say that you can figure out how to solve a problem, change how you feel about the problem, tolerate and accept the problem, or stay miserable and possibly make the problem worse.

But in this case, the problem is COVID-19.

I can’t solve COVID-19, and I don’t think I can change how I feel about it. I know I don’t feel like staying miserable and making the problem worse, so tolerance is my weapon of choice.

Like many of my friends, to get myself through the pandemic, I’ve found refuge in media that offers an escape. I’ve rewatched the Pitch Perfect movies and relearned the choreography; I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the new Animal Crossing game, which I waited seven years for. But the thing that’s brought me the most comfort is still pretty new to me. Only me, really: the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (If it’s new to you and you care about spoilers, skip this article! Go read what I wrote about BPD last year.)

I’m usually late to the party. Never real parties. I have anxiety about stuff like that. I’m in the parking lot fifteen minutes early, waiting for it to not be early anymore and hoping that no one notices how early I am. But when it comes to TV and movies, I promise I haven’t seen whatever you’re talking about, and I don’t know that episode of How I Met Your Mother. For years, my friends told me to watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. A musical show with a strong female lead? And a strong female lead with BPD? Sure, I’ll watch it. Eventually.

I didn’t start watching until eight months after the finale, but it came at the perfect time, and I’m eternally grateful I didn’t watch it sooner. When I started, I was in a horrible place mentally. In all honesty, I don’t remember what a good place feels like, but this was bad — and not the regular bad, where I can whip out a coping mechanism or a workbook and make it through the day, minute by minute. I was feeling helpless and worthless and everything else people say when they write about having a hard time and want to avoid the words “suicidal ideation.”

At the time, I was getting rude messages about a Taylor Swift tattoo placed over old scars. I know it seems small, and I wish I could’ve kept it from destroying my self-image. I mean, Jameela Jamil is called a fat bimbo every three seconds on Twitter, and look at her! She laughs in her critics’ faces. But these small remarks from small people took a huge toll on how I felt about myself and the way I looked — this was an outside source telling me I was horrible, echoing everything I already told myself. For me, it was a loud confirmation of my worst fears. And this, combined with all that’s chemical and genetic, ingrained and trained, made it very difficult to see that other people loved me. My naturally bleary vision was fogged by a horrible few.

But I was also discovering Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and falling in love with its main character, Rebecca Bunch. I’m still pretty obsessed with her, partly because of my obsessive personality (thanks, BPD). But I think it’s mostly the relief I’ve felt seeing myself in a character who seems real: watching someone who thinks and acts like me, who shares my diagnosis and reminds me that it is valid. It’s not just me, and I’m not making it up.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight parts of the show that made me feel especially seen and therefore soothed. I hate the thought of talking about a predisposition to sadness when the world is in this state, but I would be remiss not to talk about a disorder that isn’t talked about nearly enough.

Before I narrow it down to five stand-out scenes, here’s the show’s premise, for those of you who are even later than me: Rebecca Bunch stops taking her poorly prescribed medication and runs into summer camp ex Josh Chan. She takes this as a sign that they are meant to be together and moves from NYC to Josh’s hometown of West Covina, CA. Over the course of four seasons, Rebecca finds a strong group of female friends (Paula, Valencia, and Heather) and three love interests: Josh, Greg Serrano, and Nathaniel Plimpton.

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5) Season 3, Episode 4

Rebecca lashes out at her friends after they find sensitive information related to her mental health and gather in her home for a failed intervention. This ends in Rebecca tearing each friend apart: she insults them all, throwing their insecurities in their faces and pulling unnecessarily mean things from the depths of her pockets. Things she would never say if she were in the right frame of mind. They echo in her head as she Googles the “least painful ways to kill yourself.”

Anger, along with lashing out and switching, are the symptoms of BPD that give those of us with it a bad rap. It’s actually kind of hard for me to rewatch this scene, because I see so much of myself in Rebecca’s palpable, brain-squeezing, blood-red anger. It borders on embarrassing for me, but it means so much that I have representation so accurate that I almost can’t bear to watch it. Her insults and accusations, her stuttering because she can’t find the right cutting words, her calling her friends histrionic (when she’s the one who’d appear histrionic to the naked eye): I’m in all of it. I see myself; I see other people’s impatience and frustration. I see every family fight I’ve ever caused and every friendship I’ve ruined beyond repair. And even if it’s hard, I appreciate that.

Rebecca’s friends still love her, and everything they feel comes from compassion. It warms my heart to see that her friends still love her, even when she’s hurt them and pushed them to their wits’ end. They show that they can be hurt while recognizing her struggle. BPD should never be weaponized as an excuse to hurt people, but if someone with Borderline lashes out while trapped in their mental cage, they deserve to be seen for more than their behavior.

4) Season 3, Episode 13

Bear with me here. I promise it’s worth it.

Rebecca’s on trial for attempted murder. It sounds bad, I know, but she was protecting her love interest Nathaniel from her stalker Trent, who planned to kill him. She’s told to plead insanity, and after singing a song with Nathaniel about how their negative traits are caused by trauma and therefore aren’t controllable or true faults, Rebecca considers taking the plea. It’s the easy way out.

But in the pit of her stomach, she knows it’s wrong. She’s not insane, and she was fully aware of her actions; the “easy way out” was manipulating the system. Of course she considered it: why wouldn’t you take an easy out? And if someone you love is telling you to do something that would make your life easier, wouldn’t you be stupid not to?

But on the stand, Rebecca says that despite her illness, she is responsible for her own actions and makes her own choices. Even if she meant no harm, she still caused harm.

I have an immense problem with guilt. I don’t know how to carry it around without letting it ruin everything. And that is a horrible trait to have when you have near-constant mood swings that can leave people wondering what they did wrong. I have also acted out in manipulative ways, and I have also hurt people. And even if that behavior can be attributed to my illness and trauma, there’s a certain responsibility that I have to take. I can be gentle with myself and still know that something I did, even inadvertently, is hurtful.

Note: I can be gentle with myself. That doesn’t mean I am.

As someone with BPD, I often find that people without it preach that we deserve consequences for our actions. The tone usually either belittles us or tells us that because we sometimes do toxic things, we are inherently toxic. It’s very isolating that in a world of self-care and empathy, people with BPD are an exception. I’ve seen countless Twitter threads that say if your friend acts like this, they’re toxic, and you need to cut them off. In many of those threads, I tick off every box: like being self-centered, threatening to hurt myself, inconsistent and unpredictable mood patterns, playing the victim to get sympathy.

It’s empowering to hear someone, even a fictional character, say that she has the willpower to make her own choices beyond her mental illness and trauma. I don’t feel misunderstood, belittled, or toxic. I feel seen. I feel like I am more than those toxic traits. I am bigger than them.

3) Season 3, Episode 11

Rebecca’s fresh out of the hospital and still very cautious, but she’s begun to work on herself. She shows more vulnerability with her therapist, Dr. Akopian, and they have a conversation about whether or not Rebecca’s prepared to enter another relationship. Dr. Akopian tells Rebecca that she needs and deserves love, which Rebecca instantly denies. She immediately associates love with the thing that almost killed her: obsession. She’s terrified of being alone, even if she knows that the loneliness she feels is objectively in her head: “He’ll go out to dinner with a friend and he won’t answer one of my texts, or he’ll go on a trip and he won’t call me enough, and I know what I’m capable of when I feel abandoned. I can go to a really dark place, and it’s a place where I can hurt myself.”

In my experience with BPD, I can be fully aware of something but feel the complete opposite and be unable to calm myself down. It is the most frustrating thing — not just for me, but for others. If I feel like someone secretly doesn’t like me, I can lash out at them or threaten to hurt myself. If they don’t leave, it’s proof that they like me, despite my actions. It’s not a choice; it’s a survival mechanism. And though it comes in bursts, it never truly leaves, because I am left with the guilt when everything is over. I have been trained to think that I am dangerous and manipulative, and being unable to stop that textbook maladaptive behavior puts a weight on my shoulders that no one should have to carry.

Rebecca confronts this dark place head-on, and for once, I didn’t feel ashamed that I’ve gone there when someone didn’t text me back. It took some of the weight off. I can hold myself accountable while being gentle with myself. This is a behavior that I developed due to mental illness and trauma — striving for perfection sets me up for failure and will only cause me to spiral.

2) Season Three, Episode Six

I could probably write an entire dissertation on the song “A Diagnosis.” When I first got my diagnosis, I kind of expected it, so my response was more or less “yes, I agree.” It didn’t take as long for me to process as it did for Rebecca, but it was so validating to finally have something I could name, that came from a doctor. It felt concrete. But some people aren’t as lucky as I am. For some, it can take years of mistreatment and misdiagnosis. Maybe that has to do with the patient’s level of honesty, the quality of the doctor, or the doctor’s willingness to even acknowledge BPD.

That Rebecca, in classic borderline fashion, latches onto her diagnosis and thinks it’ll be an “easy fix” felt so personal. I thought my diagnosis would be an easy fix, too. And in some ways, it was liberating for both of us. Rebecca sings, “Perfect they’re not, but at least they know who they are,” and this lyric is so layered. On the one hand, “At least they know who they are” is true. Your diagnosis opens doors for you. It helps you understand your behavior and thought processes, and it can even lead you to a community of like-minded people.

But what’s genius about the work of writers Rachel Bloom and the late Adam Schlesinger is that this line is both legitimate and naive. It’s really fucking hard to know who you are when you have a personality disorder. Who are you behind your obsessions? Who am I behind my obsession with theatre, Taylor Swift, and this show? If one day I don’t like those things, what will replace them and who will I be then? I don’t have a secure sense of self, and I feel like I am only the things I like or the media I consume, much like Rebecca doesn’t know who she is beyond her relationships.

The fact that Rebecca doesn’t discover who she is until she finds her true love in season four bears testament to how hard the journey to self-discovery actually is. And that’s a comfort to me because the journey is not laid out in the DSM-5.

1) Season Three, Episode Six

After “A Diagnosis,” the show takes a turn. It’s my favorite part of the entire series: Rebecca meets with the therapist she was assigned after her suicide attempt. He tells her that she has Borderline Personality Disorder and should not look it up online. Rebecca leaves, goes to the bathroom, and immediately looks it up. She doesn’t find what she wants to see. Every search result is about BPD suicide rates, how difficult BPD is to treat, or how people with BPD are terrible. I’m often in the same place, so this scene hit me hard. Rebecca goes home, despondent, and tells her roommates about BPD and how upset she is about the diagnosis: “It’s not something I have. It’s something I am.”

The mere shift in mood — when seven minutes prior, Rebecca was creating a musical theatre number in her head about how her life was about to get so much better — is metaphorical in itself. BPD is defined by blacks and whites and highs and lows. It’s enough to give you whiplash, and I’m not sure if you can recognize how significant that contrast is unless you are familiar with it. It represented much more than just a new scene in a new environment.

Recently, I found a subreddit that I absolutely refuse to name because I wouldn’t want anyone who’s vulnerable to deliberately harm themselves in the way I have. In summation, it’s full of people saying the most horrible things about people with BPD. The rules of the subreddit are that you can’t ever have been diagnosed with BPD, and you can’t defend someone with it. You will be banned. The entire subreddit is meant for “victims” of those with the disorder. It’s a terrible place, and I find myself there at 4am way too often.

But seeing the stigma called out on screen told me I’m not just sensitive. One of the things I don’t think I’ll ever stop struggling with is the doubt that what I feel is really there. If I ever figure out how to reassure myself that I haven’t invented or exaggerated my trauma, I’ll make sure I write a step-by-step guide. But until I get there, I’ll refer to Rebecca Bunch for my own peace of mind.

I may not have a #SelfCareForBPD hashtag, but I’ll always have Rebecca Bunch to turn to when I need a reminder that I can be okay. Rachel Bloom apologized to Rebecca on Twitter for what they put her through, but for all she went through, I’m grateful. Her messy, painful, even embarrassing journey fills me with pride. And it reminds me that the road to my best life with BPD will never be linear.

I am deserving of love, care, forgiveness and healing. Rebecca’s friends never stopped loving her, and I deserve that. The creative team put their all into giving her a realistic but fulfilling life, into showing people like me that a fulfilling life is possible and people unlike me that I am not a hazard. They humanized someone with a highly stigmatized illness and reclaimed the word “crazy” for her. They loved her and wanted everyone else to love her, no “despite of her illness” in sight.

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