Hesitation

He who hesitates is lost, or so the aphorism goes. However, in the face of an overwhelming emotion or a frightening, threatening event, I’ve found that a slight hesitation can make the critical difference between doing something I regret and doing something skillful.

For the last four years, I have been studying a martial art called Aikido. It is unusual among fighting arts in that its creator intended it to stop or defuse an attack without injuring the attacker. One of the rules that my teacher frequently raises in class is get off the line. The idea is that if a destructive force is headed your way, it’s a good idea to not be there when it arrives. Usually, when we’re training, we’re practicing particular techniques, so it is easy to start rushing things; I frequently get off the line and then go directly to the technique we’re studying. Our teacher is trying to get us to stop that rush forward. He explains that once you’re off the line, you can take time to evaluate the situation. Is the attacker moving forward? Backward? Down? Has he changed the attack? If you don’t pause, you will likely miss all of this important information.

Emotionally, I think that it may be possible to do something similar. When I’m experiencing the first rush of anger, it’s very satisfying to lash out. But afterward, I often am ashamed and embarrassed at my loss of control, and I may have hurt someone emotionally (thankfully, I don’t hurt people physically), and very likely I’ve frightened whomever I’ve blown up at. It’s likely that I’ve damaged a relationship by acting out.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that expressing rage rarely does anything good for me. What if I could — mentally — step aside slightly and get a moment of perspective when that flood of anger starts rising? Could I avoid acting on the emotion? I think I can, at least a lot of the time.

In Aikido, there are many levels of practice. The physical techniques can be very interesting to learn, but as you get more familiar with the concepts, it starts to occur to you that there may be no reason to wait until you’re in a fight to use those concepts. Imagine how different your evening would be if you became suspicious that trouble might be about to start, and you left the room. Now there’s no possibility of a fight. You might say that you got off the line early!

If I extend the metaphor to how I deal with my anger, how could that look? If I think about the times I’ve lost my temper, can I spot some precursor events or conditions that seem to lead to bad outcomes? If so, and if I cultivate better skills around self-awareness, I might be able to spot those conditions and defuse or avoid them. No precursor; no outburst. It’s just a hypothesis, but one I plan to think about a lot.

I have no idea if other bad times are susceptible to similar short-circuiting, but how interesting it would be if they are. Perhaps I could shorten or avoid the times of intense melancholy or feelings of emptiness if they are rooted in environmental conditions that I can learn to identify.

When I first started thinking about not trusting my thoughts and emotions, I wasn’t happy at all. It felt as if I was, in some way, telling myself, or admitting to myself, that my thoughts and emotions are not valid. I feel as if I’ve gotten enough of that sort of invalidation from other people over the years; I don’t want to do it to myself.

After a while though, I started thinking about it in terms of skill building. If you are trying to build a doghouse, or knit a hat, and you’ve never done any carpentry or knitting, it’s unlikely that you’re going to do a great job the first time. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means that you’re not yet skilled in these crafts. Your skill with a hammer or a pair of knitting needles isn’t you; you’re learning. Similarly, my outbursts of anger don’t have to imply that I’m a bad person. Perhaps I just haven’t learned the skill of managing my emotional environment!

I was thinking today about the criteria for a BPD diagnosis. The symptoms include insecurity, emotional instability, feelings of worthlessness, and disturbed relationships; fear of abandonment, impulsive behavior, intense anger, etc. etc. and it struck me how human all of those things are. People who are suffering from symptoms of this disorder aren’t weird or alien… we’re just having a bit more of those things than most people do, and certainly more than is comfortable.

This feels like an important thing for me to contemplate. If BPD symptoms are based in who-knows-what… perhaps trauma, perhaps genetics… but are not wildly strange, and may be manageable if I build my skills and awareness, then it means that I can get better results if I study and practice certain skills, and learn awareness. I’m good at learning. I want to get better. I feel as if this is a hopeful and realistic concept.

Dreams of Transformation

I have no idea why the idea of transformation keeps occurring to me. I’ve been thinking about it for at least a month.

I’m very wary of such ideas.

I saw an article today which jokingly referred to DBT as “Don’t Believe your Thoughts,” and the idea of transformation is one I am particularly skeptical about, because it’s so seductive for me.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been tempted to make radical changes to my life. This time I think the roots of the idea are deep in last summer’s difficult time, when I thought my wife was dying, combined with the real promise of change implied in my work in therapy, and fertilized with my recent reading in secular Buddhist ideas.

I have noticed that making big, dramatic decisions can be a way for me to avoid dealing with something that’s right in front of me. Those dramatic decisions often just turn out to be a hollow exercise in appearance, like the time that I cleared out nearly everything I owned and bought a bunch of poetry books, determined to start writing poetry (admittedly, I was 21 or 22, so pretty typical of that age, but it’s the best example I have of what I’m trying to describe here).

I’ve got a few things in front of me that my mind might be trying to shy away from. I’m so far in debt, it’s hard to even imagine getting out of it before I die. My wife nearly died a few months ago, and still has a long road to full recovery. I’m fighting a pretty bad case of hoarding. I’m trying to figure out how to give my life some meaning.

So… it’s entirely possible that my mind is, once again, showing me a shiny object and telling me this is the way to solve all of my problems.

But this idea that I’m on the cusp of some sort of internal change won’t go away. I’ve decided to just keep paying attention to the thought, trying not to judge it or deny it, while also not taking any extreme action on it.

Instead, I’ll try to figure out what I imagine such a transformation might entail.

Whatever happens, I know that I need to keep my commitments. I need to support my family, and I need to pay my bills.

But with those commitments as a foundation, what else is up for change? Assuming I move forward. Assuming I have a choice.

After all, transformation isn’t always something you get to choose to do. If this time it’s real… if this time, it’s not posturing or a distraction, what could it look like?

I stopped drinking last July… can I change my relationship with food the way I did with alcohol? Obviously, I can’t stop eating, but stopping the habitual, mindless overeating and indulgence would be a step to improving my life.

Can I start meditating every day? I sense that it would make a real difference in my life. Meditation has become the real ‘stuck point’ for me this winter. I started out strong in November, still have every intention of building a daily practice, but most days I wake up and realize that I got through the whole previous day without even thinking about it.

Can I get fit again? I would love to break through my sense of discouragement and limitation and start working out again.

The fantasy I keep having, though, has something to do with shedding stuff. No more social media. No more movies, no TV series on Netflix, and most of my belongings gone. All the newly free time focused on meditation, helping people, some sort of activism. So… more than just getting into shape. An entire refocusing of my life outside of work… and perhaps even a new type of work, something that I can look back on later and know I didn’t just earn a living.

Somewhat absurdly, my emotional reaction to these ideas (when I’m not wrapped up in the fantasy) is that I don’t want to become another boring fanatic.




PS: While I was trying to figure out what this post was going to be about, I picked up my book on DBT and started reading again. I found a section on becoming aware of black and white thinking, and it occurred to me that this whole fascination with transformation, aside from just being another distraction, might be an expression of my illness, captured in the wild, so to speak. More food for thought.

A naked tree in winter, seen against a cloudless blue sky.

DX – Old and New

When telling a story, it’s always good to start at the beginning, right? But figuring out where the beginning is… is not always so easy.

My BPD journey presumably began in my teens, but my school and home life in my teens was so disrupted that it’s basically impossible to tease out what was caused by external issues and what was going on inside me. I was bullied for most of my time in school, right through high school. My parents’ marriage was falling apart, my academic performance was the bane of my school counselors, etc. etc. Certainly, there was no one paying enough attention to me to get a diagnosis then, even if there had been any money for therapy. But remember, back in the 1970s, therapy was often considered to be something only rich neurotics got. Kids in working class families only encountered psychologists or psychiatrists if they really, really went off the rails.

I imagine a handful of readers reacting with a bit of shock or disbelief at the last part of the previous sentence; “what? you were a kid in the 70s???” Yup. I’m an older guy. I think that a lot of people associate BPD with teens or 20-somethings, but it doesn’t just disappear when you hit your 30th or 40th birthday. It also isn’t a ‘new’ disorder, although it may seem like something that didn’t exist earlier, because it’s a relatively new diagnosis in the literature, from what I’ve gathered in my reading. Apparently, the term ‘borderline’ goes back to the 30s or 40s, but the description wasn’t firmed up until the early 80s (leave me a comment if I’ve gotten this wrong; I’ll fix it if you can show me an authoritative source).

I’ll get back to telling my story, though. In the late ’70s I flunked out of high school and decided to go into the Navy, as my dad had. I pictured myself traveling the world, having adventures. I certainly didn’t expect to end up stationed 80 miles from home, with no chance of travel.

Then the nightmares started.

A year after I arrived on my ship, I was under evaluation by the base psychiatrist, and after running me through an extensive battery of tests and several hours of in-person analysis, he diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder.

This was many years before the internet was a thing (at least for anyone outside of a few universities), so I couldn’t do much research on it. I seem to remember him giving me a sort of summary of the condition, and it was pretty scary. He recommended that I be discharged from the Navy, though, which sounded really good to me by then, so I didn’t ask many questions. By the early spring of the following year, I was out on my own, scrabbling for a living, dead broke and with no education and no real job skills.

With all of my attention on surviving, I basically forgot about the Navy psych’s diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean that BPD wasn’t part of my life. The next three decades consisted of my crashing in and out of friendships and leaving broken relationships and failed jobs and hurt feelings and dark days (and dark weeks and months) in my wake. I finally started to get myself under control somewhere in my late 40s.

I won’t go into the details now, ’cause they don’t really matter for the point of this post, but looking back at my life through the lens of a BPD diagnosis really brings into focus the problems I experienced. If you read this short article about ‘quiet’ BPD, you’ll have some idea of what I was dealing with.

So now we fast-forward from the last year of the 1970s (when I was in the tender care of the Navy psychiatrist) to the summer of 2018, with my wife in the hospital and my stress level somewhere in the low stratosphere. My wife and I are really fortunate to have good medical coverage these days, and one of the benefits was that she was assigned a ‘care coordinator,’ someone who helped me track down physical therapists and home aides and other care that my wife needed. One day, she said to me “So, how are you doing? Being the primary caregiver for an ill person can be really stressful. Do you need any support?” I tried to brush it off. My focus for months had been on my wife’s care, and I hadn’t really paid any attention to my internal state. She suggested that it might be a good idea to talk to someone. I let her send me a list of therapists in my area, but I never looked at the list once it arrived in my mailbox. If you, dear imaginary reader, have any mental health issues as well, you’re likely saying ‘ah, that sounds like denial.’ I’m not going to argue with you. It was.

Another month went by, and I was talking with the coordinator again, and she asked me if I’d looked at the list of therapists. When she asked me again, it kind of dawned on me that I really was very stressed and experiencing a lot of anxiety, so I asked her to send me the list again.

This time, when the list of nearby therapists arrived, I took a look at it, and after another few days of waffling, I decided to make the call. I chose the nearest person and phoned her up. She (I’ll call her ‘Cyrene’) told me that she was willing to take on new patients, and we set a start date in mid September. I was very lucky; Cyrene and I hit it off right away, and I quickly realized that I really, really needed to talk to someone. Talking to her also felt a lot safer than blurting out stuff to random friends.

I threw myself into my therapy, basically holding nothing back. In an early session, Cyrene asked me if I’d ever been in therapy previously, and I mentioned the interaction with the Navy doctor that ended with my early release from military service. “BPD?” she mused. “You certainly don’t present that way!” and I agreed. We shrugged off the earlier diagnosis as a blip and kept talking. And talking. And talking. I’m pretty sure I’ve never talked that much to anyone in that short a period in my life.

Weekly, for four months, I talked my head off. I even got concerned (more on this theme later) that I was just indulging myself by paying someone to listen to me blab about myself. For someone with (possibly) a touch of narcissism, what an indulgence that is! When I asked Cyrene about that, she replied “well, do you feel better?” Me: “yes.” Cyrene: “then let’s keep going and see where we end up*.”

In mid December, we realized that we each had a number of holiday events coming up which would disrupt our therapy schedule around the end of the year, so this would be our last session until the new year. As our hour wound down, Cyrene asked me if it would be okay if she read something to me. I agreed, and she went and got a book, opened it to a bookmarked section, and started reading a list of symptoms. After a few items, she paused and said “according to the DSM-5, if you match five of these nine symptoms, you can be diagnosed as having the condition.” As I remember it, up to that point she still hadn’t mentioned what the condition was. As she read the list, I started checking off each one on my fingers. When she finished, I’d checked eight of the nine symptoms. That’s when she said it… “Borderline Personality Disorder.” Yep, it was the same diagnosis that the psychiatrist in the Navy had made. Cyrene said something like “you are doing really well for someone with this diagnosis. I have to assume that you’ve come up with some really good pragmatic coping skills.”

After I caught my breath (I was really excited at having a name to put on everything that had been causing me trouble my entire life), I said “So, this is really interesting, but I know that people are not their labels. If this is just a label, it’s not very valuable; does this give us any tools we can use to move forward?” Cyrene said yes, that it very likely would give us tools to use. And then the hour was done, and I was driving home with my head swirling with ideas, shock, excitement, and confusion. In the last three weeks I’ve done a ton of reading, spent time on Reddit BPD subs, started a Twitter account, and started this blog. My sessions with Cyrene start again later this week, and I’m looking forward to seeing where all this takes me.

I have a feeling you’ll be seeing more posts from me, as I work through all of this new information and these new perspectives on my past and my future.

*I’m not great at remembering conversations, and I’m not claiming every conversation I transcribe here has anything more than a passing friendship with what was actually said, but I believe the gist of each paraphrased conversation is essentially correct. In any case, my intent is never to deceive my reader, nor myself.

Just another blog about BPD

Q: Why on earth would you talk about your BPD diagnosis? Aren’t you ashamed of it?

A: To start with, no, I’m not ashamed of it. I see my diagnosis the way I see the fact that I’m tall, or the fact that I’m gradually losing my hearing and my hair. These are just descriptions of me, or of qualities that I currently have. ‘Balding’ isn’t me, it’s just something that I’m experiencing right now. I’ve decided to write about my life with BPD because I have long used writing as a way to work out what I think about life, and BPD is part of my life that I’m trying to figure out.

Q: Okay, but if you’re not ashamed of it, then why is this blog anonymous? Keeping your identity secret sure makes it look like you’re ashamed.

A: It’s something to do with the difference between secrecy and privacy. My identity would be pretty easy to figure out, if someone really wanted to, so I don’t think it’s really a secret. However, there is a fair amount of alarmist information and misinformation out there about Borderline (and other personality disorders), so I don’t really want (for instance) people I work with to know that I’m dealing with this issue. I also think that I’ll be able to write in a less self-conscious way if I’m anonymous. Someday I might move these posts to my main blog and ‘out’ myself as someone with BPD. I haven’t decided yet. This is all pretty new to me.

Q: Why write in public at all? There are professionals writing about BPD, and you admit that you don’t really know anything about the condition; how can you add anything to it? 

A: Descriptions of BPD tend to focus on people suffering with the most extreme forms of the disorder. There’s a wide range of symptoms, and I’m probably on the quieter/milder end of that range. I think that my musings might come in useful for others trying to figure out where they fit in the ‘BPD spectrum’. However… if no one else ever reads these posts, I’m fine with that, too. Honestly, I’m writing mainly as a way to organize my own thoughts.

Oh, one postscript: I’ve seen several times in descriptions of BPD that it tends to be less prevalent in older folks. I’m guessing that I’ve learned some practical ways of dealing with this disorder, and I may be a better example of someone in recovery from BPD than someone in the throes of it. That may be useful to others, though; it might be really handy for someone to think; what would it be like to be well, or at least getting better?