Summer’s over, school’s about to begin again, and I see from Instagram everyone I know is in Maine for a last hurrah. My feed is a symphony of shiplap and lobster, fog and boulders, L.L.Bean and familial smiles. The posts flutter past my eyes like Tibetan prayer flags, small squares of happiness, hashtagged. I’d love to escape to Maine as well, with my wife and two young sons. But, for a variety of reasons, we can’t. So, in Brooklyn we remain, where our air conditioners hang from the windows like skin tags and the dregs of summer drip onto the street below.
It’s enough to drive a man like me — super-competitive, insecure about his place in the financial firmament, loves long walks on rocky beaches — crazy. Except, of course, I already am, and that right there is both the virus and the vaccine. Maine offers no escape from my mind. There is no Vacationland from crazy, no exit off I-95 N or anywhere else, though Lord knows I’ve tried to find one.
About the crazy part. A year ago, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder by a nice lady named Julia. Julia is my therapist. The reason I found myself spilling my heart out like an old purse in Midtown in the first place is that, a few months before, I had hurricaned my personal life through a series of crummy decisions. Let the details remain hazy, because I’m still trying to piece the wreckage back together. To borrow a bit of diplomatic jargon, it’s a very fluid situation.
The trigger of the diagnosis, however, wasn’t that I had destroyed my life but that I had tried to take it. A few weeks before, I had tried to off myself by looping one end of a leather belt around my neck and the other around the rod in my bedroom closet. Thankfully, having never been a handyman — Ikea Billy shelves being about extent of my construction prowess — I had a hard time fashioning the belt into a noose that would hold. My wife took the opportunity to recruit my son to talk with me through the locked bedroom door. I couldn’t figure out how best to answer my seven-year-old when he asked, ‘Daddy, what are you doing in there?” “Escape” seemed too abstract; “Die” was a little harsh. Instead, I answered, “Nothing,” emerged, and lived.
Writing about one’s own mental illness is like looking for street parking on a city block. You end up just going around and around and never quite finding a spot you can fit in. The best way I can describe what it feels like is sitting inside a doorless glass cube with filthy windows looking out into the world. In my case, life inside this cube is like a nightmare snow globe. It has its own tempestuous weather system — flames of anger, hale of sadness, swells of hatred — which fog up the glass like a greenhouse. Even that description, though evocative, isn’t quite right. How to account for the feeling that every incoming object feels like an arrow, or that the world sometimes feels like an X-Pro II Instagram filter, all highs and lows and no middle tones. That’s still the finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. No Standing zone. Fire hydrant. Driveway too small. Around the block again.
I got my diagnosis five minutes before Julia ended our session with her traditional coquettish, “Well, you have a lot to think about this week.” But that’s okay. The right diagnosis is a recognition, not a revelation. The listed symptoms seemed burgled from my own back pages. “People with borderline personality disorder may experience mood swings and display uncertainty about how they see themselves and their role in the world… people with borderline personality disorder also tend to view things in extremes, such as all good or all bad… An individual who is seen as a friend one day may be considered an enemy or traitor the next. These shifting feelings can lead to intense and unstable relationships.” Then there were a bunch of bullet-pointed symptoms that hit me like a firing squad: “efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment; a pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation); distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self; recurring thoughts of suicidal behaviors or threats; chronic feelings of emptiness.” Bull’s-eye. Kill shot. Whatever. That’s me.
On the one hand, I dug that I am not the only one bent in this particular fashion. The disorder was the victim, and I was the perp, and the sketch fit. My suffering wasn’t personal. On the other hand, it was disconcerting that all I thought was unique about myself could be given an insurance code and reimbursed for. Or, in my case, not reimbursed, but anyway, the code is F60.3.
The first thing the diagnosis offered was a retrospective frame for my own actions. For the past 15 years, I constructed my professional life as a sort of multivariate analysis. I tried to isolate the cause of my own misery by changing everything around me. I rubbed elbows and snorted blow with slender men and rich doyennes at galas and balls and nightclubs. I circled the globe, slathering my skin in gallons of toiletries and sipping countless cucumber-scented welcome waters in the lobbies of five-star hotels. I girded my thighs in selvedge denim and ate like a king at restaurants of great repute. I turned the outside world up to 11 to drown out my interior score, a fugue on repeat. All the variables that could vary, I varied. But such is the nature of not knowing where I was and who I was; instead of escaping, I had just turned my little cube into a mobile home. I was the only constant.
The diagnosis of BPD offered not just a treatment modality — now I spend my Tuesday evenings with fellow borderliners (bordersline?) in a sleek psych ward on the east side — but also an irrefutable delineation of the schmutz on my window. It kind of infuriates me to have to reference David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water address here — it’s about as cliché an indicator of soft-touch hepness as an Outdoor Voices tote bag or an interest in succulents — but the guy really did nail mindfulness with that parable about the fish who, when asked, “How’s the water?” replies, “What the hell is water?”
When your water is detailed in the DSM-V, there’s no denying you’re wet. But what’s next isn’t a given. One option is to drown, the way Wile E. Coyote plummets after realizing he’s in midair. It’s a terrifying reaction but one that sometimes feels inexorable, especially when you’re prone to seeing the world in black-and-white. The realization of water, Foster Wallace said, “is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” He was four years shy of 50 when he hanged himself; I almost didn’t make it past 36. I figured if I couldn’t stop the suffering, I could at least annihilate the sufferer. This is a function of hopelessness, the unintended side effect of awareness. It’s the despair you have if you stop reading at the first noble truth—the truth of suffering—before you hit the third: the possibility of liberation.
The flip side to the realization that you can suffer anywhere is that you can also be free anywhere. I’m getting there, but obviously not quite. Many days, I still see the world through a glass darkly, ingest every comment as a criticism, clench up and clam up and lash out and shut down. I still feel shipwrecked and adrift, dreaming of ropes and belts. I avoid shaving with straight razors, and I keep photos of my kids readily available at all times. But understanding that I’m surrounded by walls has brought another realization — that walls can come down. And beyond them is wide-open space, no matter where I am. And sometimes, in late summer, even as Ryan and his kids are at the Gorham House of Pizza, Piera and Philippe are at their house in Durham, and Andrew is at his parents’ house in Belfast, and I am stuck in Brooklyn at the Windsor Terrace Library, I realize there is no escape and none needed.