Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pretty Little Defense Machine

One question that comes up repeatedly at public readings from Girl in Need of a Tourniquet goes something along the lines of 'how did you gain perspective on your own symptoms?'  They want to know how I am able to see through the haze of borderline cognition to see and accept my own complicity in the painful experiences I describe.  Most of the time the question makes me feel special, like I am a borderline savant who is gifted with insight into her own flawed perceptions, but the truth is that the insight comes from other people.  I see the emotions I'm experiencing as authentic reflected in their faces as false and strategic.  It has often been the case that I ran the other way when I saw this distorted reflection because I believed the person was seeing me the wrong way, and I wanted to hide to protect myself from the unfair picture.  

Occasionally I can admit that what they are seeing is accurate.  

Sadistic verbal attacks?  Yes, I've made a number of them.  

Wild swings from idealization to devaluation?  Definitely, over and over again. 

Paranoid misinterpretations of other people as hostile and out to get me?  Again, yes. 

Sudden frightening bursts of anger?  In the words of Natalie Portman, 'Don't test me when I'm crazy.'

The one saving grace in this awful picture is that once I see the behavior for what it is, I am generally able to change it.  I am holding on to this glimmer of hope today because I just saw a whole new set of personality disorder symptoms in myself, and they are not attractive and, more importantly, not functional.  Sometimes I wonder if maybe I made this whole  being borderline thing up.  Like maybe there's nothing wrong and I just went all Lauren Slater metaphorical on borderline personality disorder and used it as a narrative device to capture the feeling of being in extreme emotional pain, or worse, maybe I made it up as an excuse for bad behavior like one of my Feminist Disability Studies students said on Thursday about how people abuse diagnoses by using them to get away with things.  I said her comment was ableist.  I said those defenses are symptoms, too.  She looked frustrated.  I think maybe she wished I would hear what she was saying about the importance of accountability despite the diagnosis.

Just as I begin to wonder about whether my diagnosis is real (and just as I block a student from addressing crip accountability), the psychoanalytic karma fairy drops  a whole new load of 'behaviors' in front of me, and I realize something. You can call it being borderline or having a personality disorder or just being a bad person - who cares what anyone calls it, who cares where the line being normal bad person and abnormal bad person is when you hurt someone you love and then watch yourself like a character in a bad movie trying to get off scot-free instead of sticking around to deal with the pain and anger directed legitimately at you (at me) - it is not okay to hide out inside a false reality where you are  always seen as right and good, or, at worst, wrong but impaired.  

So anyway, long story short, I'm a defense machine, and I am pretty grossed out by my defenses right now, so in the interest of seeing them for what they are, and towards the end goal of us PWBs (people with borderline personalities) and people in general, really, being honest and accountable for our hurtful behaviors, here is the list I made today of my tactics for avoiding responsibility when I do something wrong:

  • crying when someone is mad at me so that they switch from anger to compassion
  • positioning myself as a martyr, encouraging them to take their best shot, like I am jesus savior good when I am really judas traitor bad, like I am somehow generously giving something up by facing my responsibility for their pain
  • describing myself as all bad (see above) so that others will rush in to say I'm not all bad
  • depriving myself of basic self-care (the long goodbye of the hunger strike, in Aimee Mann's words) as a kind of emotional threat so that my partner becomes afraid for my well-being and doesn't feel free to express anger
  • making it all about me, apologizing so that I can be forgiven, offering to do whatever they say so that I will be seen as compliant easy docile when I am really stubborn difficult recalcitrant, treating guilt like a hot potato I don't want to hold
  • lying (I won't pretty this one up with imagery)
  • writing a book or a blog post because I don't know how to be sorry in person
  • referencing a cool band or song in the title to cover up my emotional deficits with a veneer of hipness 

I kept my one-year-old niece last weekend, and I noticed she cried really intensely every time I told her no (like, no don't pull that drawer out, or no don't grab the dog's tail), and I sort of identified with her, thinking hey I don't like to be criticized either.  Crying is not simply the expression of pain and sadness.  Crying is a defense.  The thing is, she's one and I'm thirty-eight and acting like a baby.  Self-pity does not wear well at this age.  I'm still groping around for a model of what mature regret looks like, though.  

I'm hoping the people who follow this blog will explain it to me like I'm five.  

Draw me a picture.  I want to do better.      


  1. It's amazingly intuitive that you were able to tap into yourself and take an inventory. I'd probably be too emotionally distraught. Nicely done!

  2. Thanks. I'm just really sick of my usual patterns.

    Today I saw a 'teaching' from the Buddhist perspective that reinforced my commitment to this sort of honesty.

    Here is a tiny caption from it: "intimacy with ourselves eventually brings the ability to engage in life without manipulating, glad-handing, or squirming. Free of deception, we can move forward on every level—with vision manifesting as bravery."

    That's what I'm going for. Life without manipulating, glad-handing, or squirming.

    Here's a link to the whole teaching:

  3. You are have incredible insight and that is more than half the battle. The more aware of your defenses you are the more you will peel back the layers of them and continue to open and find new ways to make different choices learning as you go. Love the way you write. By the way you are living your way to the answers to the questions that you pose. Those answers really do reside within. Making a best friend of your inner child is an amazing crossroads of recovery.

  4. Thanks A.J.! That is a very affirming response. I realize now that I have historically had a 'splitting' reaction to my inner child - at times, berating her cruelly for being terrible and embarrassing, and at other times letting her get away with murder - and this past weekend I saw for the first time what is meant by the idea of reparenting oneself, holding my inner child to a higher standard but not tearing myself apart over her (my) shortcomings. It was interesting. Much less scary. Like someone with a level head was at the wheel.

  5. You are an inspiration. I attended one of your talks in January ("Borderline Is/ Borderline Aint) and was impressed by your insight. I've thought about this several times over the past several weeks after I was diagnosed with borderline PD and bipolar disorder. Thank you for being an inspiration.

  6. Hi Mindful Life,

    Thanks for writing. I'm glad to know my January talk resonated with you. I felt a bit out of my element, to be honest, so it is especially nice to hear positive feedback on that particular presentation.

    Were you diagnosed recently, like, since January? Hope you are paying special attention to treating yourself kindly as you move through the process of 'becoming borderline' (in the sense of being diagnosed).

    All good things-

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