On The Borderline

By Will Thames

Photo by Sub/Urban Photography

Photo by Sub/Urban Photography

My therapist shoots me a knowing glance.

“Okay Will,” he says. “I don’t normally do this...“

Shit, I think. I’ve officially crossed into ‘I-don’t-normally-do-this’ territory.

My therapist pulls an ancient-looking volume from his bookshelf. The kind of book that looks like it’s only opened under dire or ceremonial circumstances. Like a bible or the yellow pages. As my therapist thumbs through the book, I see dense blocks of text interspersed with the occasional upside down cross-section of a human brain. This is not a book I want to find myself in.

“Are you familiar with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?” my therapist asks.

“Sure,” I say. My mouth is too dry and my palms are too sweaty. “I think it came up in high school Psych.”

My therapist nods and opens the book, leafing through until he comes to an entry towards the back. I try to crane my neck to read the bold upside-down print. What I don’t mention about my limited exposure to the Manual of Mental Disorders is the litany of serial killer mugshots that came with the version we examined in high school.

He’s about to tell me I’m a Charles Manson. Or a Ted Bundy. Wait- which one ate people? Is that the one I have? Can you catch cannibalism?

My therapist clears his throat. “I’m gonna read you a list of characteristics...“

“You mean symptoms?”

“I mean characteristics,” he said. His voice was measured, but kind.

In the next twenty minutes, my therapist takes me on a grand tour of what he suspects I have. The catalog of neurosis and irrational behaviors fills his office:

“Unstable moods… cycles of self-hatred… paranoia… fear of isolation… self harming… feelings of emptiness…”

Each characteristic silently registers in my head. Yup, that’s me.

Long after my therapist finishes reading from the list, these words still spin through my mind, cold and clinical.

“Self-hatred… paranoia… emptiness… isolation…”  

These words scroll through my mind like a chronic newsfeed emblazoned in harsh neon light. But, under all that fear, something new. A rare glittering clarity.

Those feelings have always been there, even if I couldn’t name them or look them up in an incredibly intimating medical index. In a moment, sitting in my therapist’s dimly lit basement office, I feel a deep power in knowing. Knowing that there is a reason I wake up some days feeling like I’m living underwater and other days feeling as though my veins are coursing with electricity. Oscillating between the two extremes all the while. The miracle is this: that all of these feelings have a name.

“Borderline Personality Disorder,” says my therapist. “Everything I’ve just read is an indicator of Borderline Personality Disorder."

I open my mouth to speak, and nod instead.

“Did… did any of the indicators… speak to you?”

Every single one, I think. Another nod.

“It’s similar to Bipolar-II in that its defining feature is severe fluctuations in mood. But where people afflicted with Bipolar will experience episodes of depression or mania for days or even weeks at a time, those with Borderline fluctuate between the two much faster. Often, multiple shifts in a single day.”

Constantly oscillating, I think. Another nod.

“It’s a difficult disorder to treat,” he says “-but not impossible.”

His voice sounds far away now. As though he’s speaking through screen.

“This is the part where you tell me how you feel.”

I look up. My neck feels heavy.

“I-I’m not… sure,” I murmur. My voice sounds like it’s coming from miles away. “But I think… I think it makes sense.” My voice comes clearer now. “All of- of that,” I wave a hand over the Manual. “It sure sounds like me. I have a shitty memory associated with almost every single one. It- it’s me,” I don’t realize I’m crying until I feel the tears start slipping from my chin.

“A part of you,” says my therapist. “Only a part of you, that’s incredibly important for you to understand right now. These thoughts you’re having- this darkness. It isn’t you.”

In ten minutes our session ends and I’m out the door. It’s a warm, early-spring afternoon; and I’m taking the deepest breath I’ve taken in years. A fictional wizard with a long silver beard and half-moon glasses once said “fear in a name increases fear in the thing itself.” One year after receiving and confirming my diagnosis, I’m here to agree wholeheartedly. Calling my disorder by its name freed me from a fear far stronger than any medication.

Before the word “Borderline” entered my awareness, I could only assume the worst of my darker, pettier, more jealous self. The part of me that lingers in mirrors long after I’ve passed by. The part of me that leers from behind tree-lines across barren winter fields. This unknowable, inscrutable self will never leave me. But it’s a little more afraid to come near me these days.

Approaching the one year anniversary of my diagnosis, I feel oddly celebratory. Not blowing-confetti-out-of-my-nose celebratory. More like my interior feels defined. Neater and cleaner than before. The paradox isn’t lost on me. Waving the banner of my diagnosis is simultaneously limiting and freeing. I can never be sure what people will think of first when they see me; the Borderline, or the young man who has it. But this much I know; if my disorder should rear its ugly head again, I have the necessary tools to and practices not to beat it back- but rather, to invite it in, serve it a warm meal, listen to its needs, and then politely show it the door.