Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sick Enough

Reposted in newly edited and hypertexted form from my Facebook note (original date: Jan. 21, 2010)

The recent NYTimes article by Abby Ellin on women with eating disorders "not otherwise specified" interests me in particular because of the theme of not thinking they are "sick enough" to get help.

That theme has come up for me in several areas of life: am I depressed enough for anti-depressants? am I food-depriving enough to be anorexic? am I dependent enough on alcohol or substances to enter AA or NA and claim the ominous titles of alcoholic or addict. am I self-injurious enough to be considered a cutter? am I psychotic enough to need hospitalization?

Am I crazy enough? Am I lesbian enough?

The labels work as obstacles. The barrier for me of pursuing therapeutic support for my chaotic romantic relationships, and my painful or confusing family relationships, and my neurotic or conflict-riddled work relationships was precisely this question of labels, categories, or what constitutes “enough pain,” “enough dysfunction,” “enough self-defeating behaviors” to need therapy, or to see myself as in any way mentally ill. Am I sick enough to be borderline? Am I borderline enough to write a memoir about it?

Clarity comes and goes, but it seems to boil down to two things: the degree to which the pattern affects your everyday life, and the degree to which professional support or support groups or medication or whatever would lead to positive improvements in basic feelings of security, self-love, and comfortable being-in-the-world.

Ultimately the decision is a matter of assessing the benefits and disadvantages of claiming the label, the diagnosis, or the medical intervention.

What felt like a question of entitlement (not wanting to wrongly assume a painful identity that belongs more rightfully to others who suffer more than me) has fallen away and in its place I grapple instead with questions of use-value, borrowing an idea of “strategic essentialism” from the academic fields of feminist postcolonial studies and critical autobiography studies of life-writing by women with disabilities as postcolonial texts about medically colonized bodies.

I title one of my memoir chapters “Becoming Borderline” as a reference to the idea of "borderline" as a complex identity that simultaneously provides ground on which to stand (there is something liberating about finally understanding oneself in terms of a given narrative or category or diagnosis) and at the same time colonizes the body standing on that ground (in adopting the label I become subject to the stigma, media misrepresentations, psychiatric counter-transference, and catastrophizing attitudes among the general population about what a borderline is - my story gets overwritten, in a sense, by the pre-existing story of borderline-ness.

So, as I inhabit this amorphous terrain of identity, subjectivity, imperialist medical and patriarchal narratives, and psycho-social geography, I begin to see that there is no definite answer to the question am I borderline enough to be entitled to the word, label, diagnosis, treatment, or memoir. I would not want to consider myself at the mercy of the label so that my every thought, word, action, or feeling are necessarily determined by my essential borderline-ness.

However, I claim the term to the degree that “becoming borderline” enables me to reflect on, get perspective on, undergo treatment for, talk about, and redirect my psycho-socio-neuro-physiological patterns of reaction and the attachment style (disorder, malfunction) that result from these reactions.  In this way, I am writing borderline in an autotheoretical tone in order to consider the intersecting line within the self between the personal and cultural texts of this diagnosis.

At this point, I advocate moving away from the question of entitlement – of being sick enough – and thinking instead about the gains or losses involved in claiming any particular identity.  I am crafting a concept that borrows “strategic essentialism” from debates about identity politics and applies it to borderline personality to adopt “strategic borderline-ness” as a way of moving through or around the problem of being borderline and refocusing on borderline personality as a cognitive and affective structure, a spectrum of behaviors and cognitive patterns that deplete me and drain my capacity for joy or intimacy.

Maybe the intervention I want to make in the "sick enough" or "not sick enough" structure of thought could be seen as a parallel to bell hooks' intervention in debates over the label of "feminist."  So many scholars and students get hung up in the back and forth questions of what constitutes a feminist. Can I be a feminist and have a boyfriend? Can I be a feminist and wear lipstick? Can I be a feminist and shop at Abercrombie and Fitch? The Feminist Majority Foundation has a t-shirt campaign that says "This is what a feminist looks like," a smart effort to make the wide range of kinds of people who claim the identity of "feminist" visible to the world.

I can imagine wearing a "This is what a Borderline Personality looks like" t-shirt for the same reason.

Or, more simply, "This IS crazy."

But ultimately I prefer to follow bell hooks in refraining from thoughts about what a feminist is or who is entitled to the label to the more pressing and thrilling concern with advocating feminist movement. I do not want to be borderline at this point so much as I want to understand borderline as something I do (and something I can stop doing), not a predetermined essential innate quality but a learned set of behaviors, a psychological predisposition, a cognitive and affective structure available for deliberate redesign in my personal life, and, ideally, a platform for borderline advocacy.

Bluebird Theory: Borderlines and the Quest for Happiness

I want to return to the idea of borderline personality in the key of blue from a different angle that still has to do with moods but also has to do with the cultural politics and diagnostic pathologization of emotions.

I am a diehard Six Feet Under fan.

The cold blue tones of its opening sequence and the music with its weird minor chords and music like bottles clinking together hypnotized me.  Even its Christmas episodes were ironic and angry and rude.  Think Billy, post-mental-hospital-inpatient-stay on "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (2002): "Happy's a concept I try not to buy into.  It gets me into trouble."  Billy's bipolar expeditions took place years before my diagnosis as borderline, but the pain he felt and the anti-social behaviors felt and sounded familiar.  If I were Claire, I would have dated him too.  Several years later, with my diagnosis and three therapists behind me, I would know better and walk away from Billy.  He is the siren song of the abyss.  Plus, I'm gay.

Anyhoo, his words about not chasing happiness still strike me as right on.  Pursuing happiness has translated in my life into a series of addictions of the opiate and amphetamine variety, as well as the headlong dive into various illicit affairs, a structure of desire I think of as the crack cocaine of romance.  That's not happiness's fault, but it was borderline personality hedonism which I mistook for happiness for a long time, even though it hurt and made me miserable and sick.

Fact: My grandma gave me a glass bluebird when I was a teenager to remind me to look for happiness.

Fact: When I moved away to graduate school, after an early marriage, divorce, and major episode of depression, I put the glass bluebird in a drawer as a gesture of protest.  There is no bluebird, I wanted to say.  There is no happiness.

Fact: After I ended an affair with a woman who dated me for about 18 months while choosing not to leave her long-term partner, I got a big fat bluebird inked into my shoulder and told people it was the bluebird of happiness which eludes me.

Now we have entered a moment of bluebird of happiness critique both in the mainstream publishing industry and in the world of academic theory.  Ariel Gore's book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, has garnered many positive reviews for "filleting the bluebird" (pardon the gruesome meat-eater imagery):
  • “Everybody, it seems, wants to know why women aren’t happy. But Bluebird suggests that maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. In reframing the age-old, exasperated query of what women really want—from themselves, their partners, their jobs, and their families—Gore’s exploration of happiness offers a probing, inspiring, and deeply humane alternative to the powerful positive-thinking industry. Bluebird is radical in the truest sense—and as a recovering pessimist, I'll be keeping it handy.”   —Andi Zeisler, cofounder and editorial director, Bitch magazine
  • “Ariel Gore expertly fillets the plastic bluebird of happiness to reveal its faintly beating heart. Eloquent and sensitive, Gore is one of the best feminist writers of our times.” —Susie Bright
In an interview on Feminist Review, Gore responds to a question about whether smart and happy can go together in women's lives:
  • In American culture there has been a massive campaign to sell us all on cheerfulness. It has been an important part of capitalism and has been part of the oppression of women. Women have been endlessly told by others what we need in order to be happy. Maybe they say we need a husband or children or a fantastic career or a spotless kitchen or multiple orgasms. In any case, we are being told what is good for us. Of course we rebel against false cheerfulness and being told what to do when it's wrapped in the nonsense of it being “for our own good.”
I picked up my campus mail yesterday and to my delight, my copy of Sara Ahmed's new book, The Promise of Happiness (2010), had arrived.  I am cuckoo for cultural theory, so this is the bluebird critique I am frothing to read.  She completely thrilled me with her last book, Queer Phenomenology, so I am already on Team Sara Ahmed before cracking this new book.  Feminist theorist Rita Felski sings its praises in an endorsement of Ahmed's "bold critique of the consensus that happiness is an unconditional good" and celebrates the intervention not only into "happiness studies" but also into the wrongheaded assumption that feminism "destroy[s] women's happiness."  So, yay.  These are great lines of inquiry and I can't wait to read more.


Billy Chenowith lingers.

And this is not really a book review.

The queer, feminist, and queer feminist critiques of happiness overlap with borderline personality concerns, but they are not exactly the same, so I am moving towards something like a queer feminist cripistemology of borderline personality and the bluebird of happiness phenomenon.  (Note to self: finish reading Robert McRuer's Crip Theory.)

I don't want to suggest that I am anti-happiness, or that my next book will be the borderline personality version of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, or that I will write a memoir that reads like the long groan of the toothache, to borrow an image from the Underground Man himself.  Yet the story of borderline personality is, for me, very much the story of pursuing the bluebird of happiness and then shouting angrily when it flies away instead of sitting companionably in one's lap like my true spirit animal and dog of my heart, the shih tzu.

When I got the bluebird tattoo, I meant for the ink to function as a sort of totem, a commitment to searching out happiness and refusing the lures and pleasures of despair.  I went out to a bar (no place for bluebirds or recently broken up borderlines) and kissed a strange girl who did not celebrate my bluebird tattoo but offered me this rejoinder: "But you must also wrestle with the raven."  Of course I immediately thought I loved her, or could love her, and I longed for a more thorough conversation about bluebirds and ravens and the meaning of life, punctuated by more kissing.  Alas, she was straight and did not take my calls, so I had to figure out the answers for myself.  Four years later I still don't really know what she meant, but I think it had to do with balance, and maybe with the dangers of fearing the loss of happiness. 

Here is my contribution to the field of Bluebird Theory.

For the borderline personality, the problem is not happiness or sorrow (or dating married lesbians or kissing straight girls, although neither of these activities helps).  The problem has to do with peripheral or secondary emotions.

Fear of happiness, fear of sorrow, fear of heartbreak, fear of loss.

Borderlines are emotion-phobic.

Scared of feeling something good and then losing that feeling.  Scared of expecting a particular feeling and ending up with another.  Scared bad feelings will never end.  The glass bluebird and the one inked into my shoulder are not celebrations of happiness for me, they are totems against ever feeling bad, and that's crazy.  Or, in more professional terms, that's schizotypal, avoidant, and emotionally self-injurious.

Picture me scuttling away from the light like a spider, scuttling away from the human hand like a hermit crab, or walking sideways towards my attachment figure with the odd gait of a woman with disorganized attachment disorder.  I don't want to wrestle with the raven anymore than I want to worship the bluebird, actually, but I don't want to fear the flight of dark and light in and out of my life anymore.  Maybe my first stop on the summer pleasure reading train should be Miriam Greenspan's Healing through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair.  Not exactly a beach-lite title, but if it lightens the load of emotion phobia I carry inside my hermit crab shell, I will gladly make room for it in my straw tote underneath a brightly striped towel and take my mood/identity/attachment disorder on a mental vacation.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Precocious Succubi: The Psycho Ex-Wife Problem

I will be developing my thoughts at more length soon on the subject of gender bias and borderline personality disorder for a guest post on Randi Kreger's Stop Walking on Eggshells blog on Psychology Today Online, so let me just note for the moment that the blog I discovered this afternoon on a (maybe) borderline ex-wife is sort of sickening.  As the daughter of divorce (three marriages for both my parents), I know ex-wives can seem, be, act, and/or go crazy.  However, the vitriol being directed at this person or the population she supposedly represents makes me somewhere between uneasy and queasy.  There is something truly crude about comments like the following:

"All Psycho Ex-Wives Are Precocious Succubi Sent From The Depths Of Hell To Gnaw On The Souls Of Men!"

Or this:

"My godson just divorced the 'tart without a heart' last week."

Tart? Succubus? Grr.  Frustration makes sense.  Packaging it in age-old anti-female chestnuts, well, that could surely be avoided.  People can be scary and invasive when they are losing a relationship or attachment figure.  I get that.  I just don't think being mean (or perpetuating stigma/stereotype/misogyny) is the best response to the problem.

There are 173 responses to the post on the main page of The Psycho Ex-Wife Blog.

So much ranting.  So little insight.

If you are curious for more details, or are just generally drawn to blogospheric trainwrecks, click on the title of this post to be redirected to the artless undignified spectacular display of sexist psychobabble passing for a blog.

Or you could just go watch Fatal Attraction again, followed by its lesser known predecessor, Play Misty for Me.

Splatter flicks with a vengeance against my so-called personality disorder.

And yes, ranting is contagious :-)

And no, I don't always sound this psycho ;-)

Grief Impacted; or, Borderline in the Key of Blue

"Unacknowledged grief will keep you stuck in the active throes of Borderline Personality Disorder." -A.J. Mahari

I started a new thread on the discussion board of my Facebook fan page for my new book, Girl in Need of a Tourniquet: Memoir of a Borderline Personality, to share thoughts on impacted grief as a root cause and persistent symptom of borderline personality disorder.  In hoping to hear thoughts from lots of people, I decided to revisit my initial efforts in January towards blogging on the lived experience and diagnostic politics of borderline personality. 

Here, reposted, is my discussion prompt (apologies for profspeak):

What I figured out for myself during the long process of writing the book was that my series of borderline personality symptoms (affairs, substance abuse, chronic depression and feelings of emptiness, a general nonbelongingness, deep-rooted bad-person feelings) come from what I've learned to call "impacted grief," long ungrieved losses from childhood. Even though I knew writing the book would help me grieve but would not represent The End of Grieving for me, I'm still disappointed to be sitting under such a heavy load of grief this week over how things unfolded in my family of origin. 

I saw a book once called Bereft by a woman who lost a sister to a violent death, and I never read it, but it has been in my head for days now. The word captures my sister-grief feelings so well, and sometimes I wonder if I will ever stop feeling these sister-grief feelings. 

When on earth does grieving end? 

The loss cannot be recuperated, events of history cannot be reversed, and I want to be over it, but my sister-grief feelings persist like lost limb trauma. The neural pathways keep snapping inside me and I feel like I forgot something or missed a step or overlooked a clue or left someone behind or arrived as the bus was pulling out of the station. 

My sisters are alive.  I know them. 

But I am haunted by memories of them as little girls and can't stop working at the unsolvable puzzle of what might have been, how things might have gone differently, what would have happened if we had grown up together instead of apart. 

The neurotic loop is exhausting. 

I wonder if anyone has stories of grief, grieving, moving past grief, or if it is more about living with grief without being capsized by it. 

Fill me in . . .

Oh, and because I am a compulsive researcher, here's a smidge more from the secondary resources:

"In his classic article, Engel (1961) posed the question, 'Is grief a disease?' Grief is not generally considered a disorder but rather is viewed as an adaptation to a loss. In this respect, the process of grieving is similar to the process of healing. It involves working through the stages of grief. The tasks of grieving include experiencing the pain of grief, accepting the reality of the loss, adjusting to an environment in which the loved one is missing, and withdrawing one’s emotional energy and reinvesting it in another relationship. Failure to complete these tasks can result in impacted grief, which is a prolonged type of grief associated with depression. Impacted grief can block further growth and development." -William F. Doverspike, "Grief: The Journey From Suffering to Resilience"