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Dreaming New Meanings Into Borderline Personality Disorder

Original illustrations by CB Lavery

Borderline makes one flinch, cringe, avoid. Still, I love this word, this patchwork quilt of pain and care. I want to hold it, listen to it, and keep it safe.

Although tempted to begin by qualifying myself as a borderline — telling the story of how I was diagnosed; listing the diagnostic criteria; describing how and when I started cutting myself, how and when I started drinking, how and when I became crazy, how many times I’ve tried to kill myself, how many times I’ve been hospitalized — I’m instead going to begin from a place of reclaiming. I’m writing for the borderlines who are sick of clichés, who are looking for new ways to describe ourselves, to dream ourselves. I’m writing for borderlines who wish to recreate our own meanings.

Rather than beginning with an origin story, I’ll begin with a suggestion, a dare: Let’s imagine the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder as poems that were written about us, but not for us. Let’s imagine we were used as muses for the professionals who wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Let’s imagine they’ve been at their easels and keyboards and sketchbooks and guitars for too long; now they’ve set down their artistic instruments and are in the next room taking a break. Here’s our chance to escape.

Let’s resituate ourselves. Let’s become the artists. Let’s escape their studio, rewrite their poems, and live our own meanings.

This essay is an invocation, one more piece in the unsolvable puzzle of reclaiming borderline. It is a contribution to what I’ve named borderline-thought, borderline-imagination.

The term borderline has always felt comfortable to me. It’s felt malleable, adaptable, unfixed. And I like words that are difficult to define. I’ve wrapped myself up in my cozy little diagnosis; it’s become a security blanket, tear-soaked and blood-stained, warm and soft and familiar. The diagnostic criteria has offered a problematic but still useful coherence to my psyche. Borderline is paradox and contradiction, noun and verb, forever changeable and in flux. Just like our moods, just like our co-existing selves.

Many folks with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) attempt to distance themselves from this term. Some feel confused, conflicted, or even repulsed by it. What’s soft and comfortable to me is sharp and itchy to others; what’s visionary to me seems dangerous to them. For as long as the diagnosis has existed, there have been attempts to rename it, reframe it. I won’t bore you with another list of every alternative name and definition that’s been proposed, but I will say I worry that they oversimplify the complex experience of borderline. I worry that renaming the so-called disorder is an expression of internalized ableism being externalized on those of us who still feel borderline, who still wish to claim and criticize and cultivate borderline. I worry that renaming the diagnosis without more critical thought is a sanitization and sane-itization of the madness of BPD.

For some, borderline makes one flinch, cringe, avoid. For some, borderline feels restrictive, obstructive, rigid. The diagnosis also has a long history of misogyny and saneism, the knowledge and experience of which I carry with me as I nonetheless reclaim it. Still, I love this word, this patchwork quilt of pain and care. I want to hold it, listen to it, and keep it safe.

Even the act of reclaiming borderline risks being viewed as pathological. Merely to have BPD and write about it garners accusations of narcissism and attention-seeking. To discuss pain, to describe not wanting to live, leads to accusations of manipulation.

Sometimes we’re described as lacking empathy, other times as overly empathic. We’ve been described as both over-sensitive and empty shells. We’ve been described as both highly imaginative and creative, both parasitic and self-absorbed.

I want to shift borderline from constricting to liberating, from given to taken, from victimhood to survival, from destructive to creative. I want to acknowledge the spaces between and around each of these words, and resist black-and-white thinking in my reclamations. I want to resist categorization and classification. I want my identities, my feelings, and my dreams to be a constellation or whole cosmology, necessarily contradictory.

I’m reclaiming borderline. This word belongs to me — it could belong to you, too. Let’s dream new meanings into it. I’m using the word borderline with affection, care, and reverence. I want this word, borderline, when I speak it, to conjure emotional sensitivity that sometimes looks like self-destruction, yes, but is also used to create criticism and compassion. I want it to conjure art, care, friendship, and resistance.

What do you want the word borderline to conjure? What do art, care, friendship, and resistance look and feel like to you?

Establishment 2

People with BPD often distance themselves from words like manipulative or narcissistic, sometimes going so far as to use them as insults. But I’m fascinated by these particular words, fascinated by what are or are not socially acceptable ways of seeking attention or asking for support; I choose to embrace these words and explore them in my own odd ways.

I don’t wish to distance myself from the so-called negative traits of BPD, but to be honest about my experience with them. In embracing borderline, I acknowledge the unpleasant truths and realities as well. The suffering is real. And these particular words are contentious, I know. So this is not just a reclaiming, but potentially a provocation as well. Because I know those diagnosed with BPD and those not diagnosed might squirm as they read this piece. I’m okay with you squirming, as long as you listen.

Reclaiming borderline isn’t about being likeable. I like unlikeable characters. And I know that I’m not exempt from having caused harm. I’m living a messy, imperfect, mad life. Reclaiming borderline is about inhabiting opposites and multitudes. It’s about resisting the sane gaze. It’s a form of resuscitation and regeneration: anointing words like borderline, and recovery, and [fill in the blank with your own imagination] with new political significance — the way we have with mad, queer, crazy, crip/cripple; the way we’re doing with witch. It’s about locating the spaces between and around hope and futility, and reorienting ourselves.

Having been in and out of mental health treatment since childhood, and in and out of inpatient psych wards about a dozen times over the last decade, and then being diagnosed with BPD more than five years ago, my manifold and overlapping perspectives of how and why I was/am “crazy” are constantly shifting. Today, they continue to multiply. While BPD is often, and rightly, criticized as a form of pathologizing moods and behaviors that patriarchal institutions and those employed by them deem “too feminine” (for example: intense mood swings, a preoccupation with oneself, seemingly irrational behaviors and fears, irresponsibility, over-sensitivity, disturbing and uncomfortable feelings and ideas, rage or jealousy or paranoia that seems disproportionate to the situation, etc.), these are only a small portion of my borderline experience, and it’s also, to me, both a real illness and a valid way of being in the world.

I’ve experienced enough invalidation, either directly while attempting to access care, or through microaggressions and lack of understanding or compassion, both inside and outside of institutions, to know that borderline is a term I must reclaim, rather than abandon. (But as I said, I am not here to tell “the borderline story,” but rather to reimagine what that story could look like.)

I dream of borderlines — those I’ll know and those I’ll never know, those I’ve known and not known simultaneously — living their lives; I think of borderlines with and without access to diagnoses, with and without access to meaningful and competent care. I dream of borderlines who feel unsure of the word borderline, borderlines abandoned again and again. I dream of queer, disabled, lonely borderlines; crip, chronically ill borderlines; femme, feminist, trans, and non-binary borderlines.

I dream of borderlines who’ve died and who will die, who make a tough and conscious effort to stay alive each day; suicidal borderlines, artists, witches, weirdos, writers; borderlines who are out and borderlines who are not, alcoholic and sober borderlines, sensitive, crazy, hysterical borderlines; self-destructive and self-creative borderlines, shy borderlines, healing borderlines, borderlines who work and borderlines who can’t and borderlines who don’t want to. I dream of borderlines on social assistance, medicated and unmedicated borderlines, neurotic and psychotic borderlines, uncool and unpopular borderlines, survivor borderlines . . . and all us whose identities are overlapping, locating ourselves in the opposites and intersections.

What does it mean to identify with a diagnosis when the “goal” of “recovery” is to no longer qualify for diagnosis? What does it mean to be diagnosed with a condition that, for decades, if literature was available at all, was often — and sometimes continues to be — about how to eliminate us from your life, how to divorce us, how to recover from us, how to treat us, and how to no longer be us?

What would it mean to make borderline a desirable place to be? Is it resistance to pathologization and medicalization that compels one to resist the current borderline label, or is it internalized ableism and sexism?

What does it mean that so many of us are living in circumstances that feel unbearable? What does it mean to recover with borderline rather than from borderline? What does it mean to recognize there’s nothing inherently wrong with borderlines, but everything wrong with the cultures and systems we’re expected to endure? What would it look like to be able to talk about suicidal ideation without being called manipulative? What does it look like to resist the sanitization and sane-itization of mainstream narratives of BPD? What does it mean to not want to be post-borderline or ex-borderline? Can we reclaim borderline while resisting pathologization, ableism, classism, misogyny, transmisogyny, transphobia, and queerphobia? What would it mean to imagine, and to become, borderline elders with mad histories and lineages?

I want not only to provide hope, but to reimagine, reinterpret, and redefine recovery, healing, coping, creating; to renegotiate diagnostic language, and the inherent -isms and stigma contained within medical and diagnostic terms; to resist narratives of battling and overcoming and transcending and triumphing. I want to share my process and continue moving beyond stereotypes of BPD while acknowledging the times when I’ve knowingly or unknowingly conformed to particular stereotypes.

I want to claim borderline again and again, to move through my own preconceptions regarding what it means to be a borderline, what I might be capable of. And I wish to capture some of my visions in words, and encourage other borderlines to dream with me.