Borderline … by Shaun McGonical
Today we have an article from Shaun McGonical. For more about the role of skepticism in his life as an outspoken atheist in an actively polyamorous lifestyle, see his blog at The Atheist, Polyamorous, Skeptic.
Emotions are not experiences of some soul or spirit; they are ways our body has of experiencing itself. Emotions give us insight into our background mood which will influence behavior, have unconscious affects on us including largely unintentional body language, and have direct and indirect effects on cognition, intelligence, and perception. In other words, they are a very important aspect of each one of us and should be taken seriously.
We should all allow ourselves to feel our emotions. We should not shove them down below and become externally robotic in an attempt to be super-rational, neutral, calm rational entities (see Julia Galef’s speech from Skepticon last year for more about this). It is better to feel the joy, the sadness, the occasional ecstatic joy and the raging heart of fire of righteous or guilty ire. Our emotions are part of us. Indeed they are in many ways the foundations of our conscious experience, creating a bedrock for thoughts both profane and profound. Being a rational person includes maintaining healthy emotional awareness and expression.
So if this is the case, then why am I so often afraid to allow myself this simple and essential thing? Why do I feel it necessary to govern myself so tightly? What type of thing would cause such a thing?
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is basically the long term condition of experiencing patterns of unstable or turbulent emotions. It means, for me, that the normal ebb and flow of moods and feelings are potentially dangerous, as they are very capable of flying off the normal radar into incomprehensible and disproportional levels of response to slightly abnormal life. Not being a trained psychologist, I cannot say more about the technical aspects of the disorder (and my particular disorder is mild in comparison to some), but I can say a lot about what it has been like to be a Borderline.
A little background
Growing up I was a pretty shy child who spent a lot of time playing alone. I was more intelligent than average, but I didn’t know this fact, nor would it have been obvious to most people around me. I was insecure, afraid, and often excessively reticent and reclusive. Yes, I was social on occasion, but my default setting seemed to be anti-social.
I was also relatively subdued, calm, and even composed. I could spend many hours in relative quiet while playing, and required little supervision. But occasionally, when certain circumstances arose, I could quite easily explode into a rage of anger seemingly without cause. I could also be enraptured by annoyance or frustration which could boil over into a rage of destruction around me, and then I would feel better, calm, content even.
But then I would look at the trail of destruction behind me (both metaphorically and often literally), and I would understand what I had done, and the guilt would set in. I had hurt people I loved, sometimes even myself, and things that I could not replace were often left shattered and gone forever. It was not that I didn’t remember what I had done, but that what I had done seemed like the memory of another person. Something would click in my head and some monster would take control, leaving me aware but mostly unable to mitigate or prevent the destruction that was happening by me.
And these memories stick. I am occasionally haunted by an image of a teddy bear, sitting on the floor of my bedroom and damaged beyond repair. It was a toy I had had since earliest memory possibly since I was an infant, and in the horrific reverie it lays there filled with holes, stuffing exploding from it, and limbs hanging off. But this type of terrifying memory was but a mere foreshadowing of what was to come; images of people I love looking at me with distrust and fear, running from me, and the love and trust they once had dissolved from them before this monster.
I remember one awful time when a cheerful hug offered to a girlfriend, weeks after a rage inspired me to an explosion of screaming and thrown and subsequently broken objects, was not received with joy but was instead with her flinching away, as I had moved to quickly or too suddenly. I knew at that moment that the relationship was damaged beyond repair.
Luckily for me there are not very many instances of such losses of control in my adult life. Luckily none of the people I loved were ever seriously hurt. But what has occurred has been enough for me to become afraid of myself. And being afraid of oneself is not healthy. It took a long time to trust and like myself again in a way that allowed me to have healthy relationships.
Facing my fears
Fear of what? (you may ask). Fear of failure, rejection, and abandonment, indeed, but also fear of success, acceptance, and being loved. The latter part of that may not seem sensible, but put it in this context; When you know you are capable of destroying that which matters to you, is it not better to keep those things at a distance so that you cannot destroy them? Is it not better to not have people close to you? You see, it is a fear of oneself. A fear for what you want because you will break it when you get it. It is a vicious cycle that has to be broken somehow.
When you are afraid of what you could do in a time of stress, lack of sleep, or frustration you find yourself living under terror of your own making. And even if it has been months since I last lost my temper, lapsed into intense moments of depression, or found myself feeling impulsive in a potentially destructive way, I often feel the pressure to keep being diligent in watching myself for signs of potential loss of control. The scrutiny necessary for such levels of self-governance is often tiring and incomprehensible to many other people. And while it is no longer necessary to be constantly vigilant, I do find myself checking in with myself throughout the day to see how I am feeling, anticipate if some circumstances may be a trigger, and to make sure that I’m not holding on too tightly—after all I have to allow myself to feel the normal levels of emotion in order to be a healthy partner, co-worker, and member of society.
The results of such efforts has not been all bad. It has made me largely self-aware, put me in better touch with my emotions, and gives me insight into human behavior which often evades people who need not pay attention to such things. And while these skills are useful and good for many reasons, the fact that I had to do them for the safety of those I love and not merely for the sake of self-improvement is not a comfortable fact for me.
And at bottom I must realize that the basic fear which lays at the foundation of this condition is not something that can merely be shrugged off, argued away rationally, or ignored. Instead, it is something I have had to embrace as part of who I am. Where I once would have claimed to not be afraid, I admit openly that I have fears and that they are an important part of who I am. And the more I embraced them, the less effect they had on my daily life. It became a fact to be dealt with, rather than a point of shame to hide from. Facing that fact has made tremendous difference in my life.
A large part of what has made this effort stick was being open about it. Years ago, after realizing the nature of what I was dealing with (but before I had a name for it), I was honest with myself about it, but hid it from almost everyone else. This led to a game of hiding certain aspects of myself which kept me from being truly close to anyone. It made relationships hard, and created more frustration and fear, leading to a cycle of failed relationships.
Later, after a particularly bad set of events which led to the end of a long-term relationship, I decided to essentially come out of the closet. And while I still had no name for my disorder, I was open about what I had done, that I was essentially afraid of many things, and that I was working on it and wanted people close to me to be aware and to help if they had the ability and the will to do so. And since then, with but one minor hiccup at the end of a relationship that ended for other reasons, I have had more than two years of a gradual transition from a person interwoven with fear and stress about that fear to a person who has found the capability to love more openly, feel emotions more freely and normally, and to speak out without fear of judgment or social stigma.
Besides, the social stigma that comes with being openly atheist and polyamorous has taught me to not worry about those things, so I applied those lessons to my fears about my disorder. Anyone who knows me knows that I am outspoken, frank, and often willing to enter controversy and scrape its sides of its container for more when it is emptied. And while this part of me was borne in part as a reaction to fear (that is, wanting to appear fearless), it became a part of my growing and changing as a person towards where I am still headed. That is, there is still much work to be done, but I at least know what direction to move towards.
Where I am now
Of course, all of the ebb and flow of emotion is not yet placid within me. There is still the choppy waters of anger under the surface from time to time and there is also the intensity of desire which compels a rocket-like trajectory into creativity, expression, and ecstasy of enjoyment. The latter I govern less, as it is more often constructive than destructive. Some symptoms of BPD are not completely unlike bi-polarity, in many respects, and sometimes when I’m feeling more creative and joyful I allow myself to experience it while keeping in mind that the intensity of the feeling is distorted, magnified, and temporary. But for me the fundamental issue is the unpredictable and intense thrust of the feeling underneath it all, and for me that thrust is fueled by the perpetual set of fears, insecurities, and other irrational aspects of my deep psyche.
What is different now? Now I look down into that fear, and I see it for what it is. I share that fear with those close to me. Others around me, perhaps, can see it too. And as I watch it try and pull back that smile, interfere with that sense of joy, or push me towards unspeakable rages of violence, I have to move closer to it, make it part of me, and accept it as a reality.
What I took as weakness before I see as strength now. Weakness is not excess of emotion, passion, and vulnerability. Weakness is not admitting the truth of what we do feel, facing those feelings, and dealing with them as part of reality. The truth of ourselves becomes paramount to the ideals of what we might want to portray. Much like the ideal of skepticism in a world of half-truths, facades, and credulity, the truth of ourselves trumps inauthenticity.
Fear is not something for me to be ashamed of, because it is part of what I am. And as a result I am working towards ridding my life of non-pursued desires. Yes, there will still be the unrequited ones, but the non-pursued ones wane towards oblivion. Hidden under even the worst of our attributes is the possibility of growth. Do not hide from what you fear in yourself, but face it and use its powers to reform yourself as best you can. Hiding from your fears only makes you more afraid of them, and lends them power.