Recovery Part 6: I want to get out of my head! How BPD affects me and my art
Hey Friends. In a previous post, I shared a bit of a BPD 101, so here I'll talk a little bit about how it affects me specifically.
What is BPD like for me?
This blog image was one I drew in my sketchbook almost 18 months ago after my mother had set off some emotional wounds.
Indeed, a common description of what it feels like to live with BPD is having third degree burns on 90% of your body - essentially without a protection emotional skin. I can completely relate to that, though I wouldn't say I consciously feel like that all the time.
The two polarities
I am extremely sensitive, but also extremely numb.
Any time we have an emotion, it can lead to literally hundreds...thousands of thoughts, which fire off neurons. These neurons form relationships with other neurons so they end up firing off together and becoming even stronger, resulting in the body being flooded with chemicals when faced with a given stimulus.
Upsetting sights and events that perhaps someone might get over with in a matter of minutes could have me internally obsessing over the sheer horror of it all for hours. It can feel very masochistic at times.
A typical example is seeing an animal having been hit by a car.
My mind is suddenly transported into the mind of the animal in the immediate moment it happened, and this can get replayed over and over. It doesn't always happen - it might perhaps depend on what else has happened that day and where my mood is along the spectrum.
If I'm able to catch myself, and if I have someone there to help, I can occasionally distract myself for long enough to stop the emotions escalating. Though to be honest, my copying mechanisms are pretty much non-existent. That's where I've turned to other unhealthy activities as a way of numbing what is happening, especially if alone.
I remember attending a tribal ceremony in North Sumatra in Indonesia back in 2013 with one of my best friends.
We'd checked in advance to make sure we would miss the animal sacrifice, but then towards the end of the ceremony, suddenly and without notice, a pig was butchered in front of me with a macheté.
I'm sure this would be shocking and upsetting for a lot of us, unless you've been raised on a farm. But it set me off into a major panic where my friend had to immediately escort me away and into the safety of a car. Naturally, the locals look bemused at my reaction and I felt ashamed and weak.
I became a vegetarian for the rest of the trip.
Another time in Laos, I saw caged animals and I felt such intense murderous rage at a local woman who had been batting some poor creature on the head with a large pole as it tried to escape.
Never have I felt my blood boil so much in all my life.
At the time, I was stuck in the back of a packed minibus with more locals looking out of the window. I started having what I can only remember was some form of hysteria. My then partner was obviously distraught - not only at seeing what was going on, being an animal-lover himself - but at me verbally lashing out as if there was some way he could stop it.
Being a lover of animals and nature, what is happening to our planet can cause me a great deal of pain. That's not to say that human suffering doesn't - it just doesn't seem to produce feelings that are quite as acute and uncontrollable.
Perhaps it I witnessed human cruelty happening before my eyes, things would be different. I've always hated injustice and for many years growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer.
Backpacking around Asia was amazing and one of the best things I've ever done, but seeing the people affected by Polio and Leprosy in India was incredibly upsetting.
I remember making a macramé bracelet for one man with no legs who had been begging and was being ignored. Of course, this can be a daily sight in India and if you stopped for everyone in need, you'd never make it very far.
I'll never forget the genuine warmth in his eyes as I approached him, said nothing and tied the bracelet around his wrist. It was only a small gesture, but I wanted to show that I had seen him and acknowledged his situation.
And my fear or abandonment is of course another huge emotional trigger which I've talked about in the context of my previous relationship.
But there are of course good things that come from having a strong sensitivity!
In the same trip, we befriended a homeless family in Calcutta and often bought them food and sat with them on the pavement to eat. We also rescued a several kittens in Indonesia, Malaysia and Bulgaria, and a puppy who had been very severely harmed in some sort of dreadful accident in Darjeeling. And of course, there's my cat, Mouse, who we found in Bosnia.
At times like these, however, I can need the strength of a companion to help me face pain so I can do the right thing.
An empty vessel
And as for the other end of the spectrum, I feel absolutely nothing and disassociate.
I can be listening to someone speak and suddenly I no longer seem to hear, only seeing their mouth move and some sort of noise emerging when, in truth, I have no idea what they just said.
When I am more focused, someone can be telling me something either really harrowing or amusing, and they might as well be discussing the weather.
A blank expression would come off as me being cold and unfeeling...
The "cure"? I fake what I imagine is the appropriate social reaction.
This now-automatic habit and coping mechanism over the years has led me to question many times whether I was ultimately just a really horrible person, sociopathic even, masquerading as an empath.
Thoughts like these do absolutely nothing for one's self esteem and just perpetuate the cycle of feeling shame. More shame = more false layers until you've completely lost sight of your real self and regularly doubt if there's even one there.
I've had friends say that this is a good thing to not speak my mind since I'm not hurting other people, but I disagree - I'm hurting myself! I can also end up agreeing to things that I don't want to do and then feeling resentful at them, and angry at myself.
In social situations I'm unfamiliar with, I can end up being the ultimate "chameleon" and unconsciously adapting myself to whoever I'm speaking with. Sometimes people don't believe me if I tell them I'm shy as I can often give the appearance of being more extroverted, especially if speaking one-on-one. This happened just recently at a party I was at. I suppose I'm just so used to wearing masks and mirroring...or at least that's how it always feels.
In groups where there are too many social dynamics at play for me to understand, and how I fit into the mix, I can sometimes turn inward, feeling frustrated, self-censoring and ashamed, and giving the outward appearance of being unfriendly.
This leads to feeling different, detached and misunderstood, which in turn affects your self-image and the whole thing starts over. In fact, I often feel like my throat chakra is being squeezed tight - perhaps energy blockages from where I'm censoring myself.
The swinging pendulum
The periods of numbness that follow the hypersensitivity are a coping mechanism to avoid feeling "too alive" almost - filters in place to prevent an overload of emotional stimulation.
I wonder if autistic people experience something similar.
And having been born and raised in the UK, we're not exactly what I'd call a passionate culture where expression of emotions is actively encouraged!
"Stiff upper lip" and all that.
The numbness can feel a bit like a bottomless chasm, an aching emptiness - wanting to feel something but not to extreme levels. This need to fill a "hole" with something...anything...just to get it to stop.
So in frantic efforts to regulate these two polarities and escape - to numb when you're hypersensitive and feel when you're numb - BPD individuals can resort to all manner of behaviours.
As for me, I've tended to use drugs, but some shop compulsively, some are extra promiscuous, some comfort-eat, and others self-harm. More recently (and far more healthily!), I've thrown myself into art.
Does it work?
Yes, but only to a point. It hasn't been working with my recent loss but I think a change of environment might be just the trick.
Another thing that borderlines often do is what is known as splitting. Splitting is a way of thinking where everything is divided into black or white...you're with me or against me; I love you...no wait, I hate you. This in part gave rise to the famous borderline book "I Hate You, Don't Leave Me". Fortunately, I've got this aspect more under control than some of the other symptoms, and it usually only really manifests in romantic relationship conflicts.
With that said, I am very much an all or nothing kinda gal.
How BPD affects my art-making
Aside from changes in mood being absolutely exhausting, even the psychological process of creating can be very difficult indeed.
All art-making invites a kind of vulnerability, a mirror into yourself, and resistance is almost always felt by all artists at some level at some point.
Most borderlines lack a stable core and instead there's an identity that’s a mushy, wobbly, changeable mess, rather than anything that feels tangible and like the “real you”.
Even if you don't have BPD, you might be able to relate to some of these feelings.
For example, it's very common for people to wear masks of some sort - you often act the same at work as you do at home, or with your friends.The difference is that there is normally a much stronger consistency and feeling of stability. Essentially it doesn't mess with your head (or I would hope not!) and you have a pretty good idea of who you are. They're just little social structures we create and vary both in time and space, and we understand where the boundaries lie.
The best way I can describe the feeling of having no core, is just that – a feeling of chronic emptiness and a permanent hole. For me, it’s probably the worst thing about the disorder.
I’m easy confused about what I’m creating, where I’m going and what I want to do. What feels like the best idea or plan ever one day can feel a complete waste of time the next.
Imagine drawing something while you were asleep and unconscious and then looking at it on waking. It’s still you…but kind of not you either as you’re detached from it. My art can feel a little like that.
It’s almost as if it’s been created by an alter ego rather than my authentic self which is too buried under layers of rock. Many times, I’ve wished I could capture the BPD feeling somehow visually, but when you’re staring into a gaping chasm, nothing comes.
This is a trick of the subconscious to protect the real self from efforts to go poking around in there. It's probably why it can feel safer for me to draw things from life, rather than from my imagination, though I wish I could do only that.
Not feeling like I’m creating from this core can be upsetting and stressful. Sometimes I have to remind myself of things I know I definitely like just to try and keep a sense of grounding.
But still, I’m hoping that with sustained practice and self-discovery through personal development work, layers can start being peeled off bit by bit and my art can evolve as I become braver. A few layers have already been shed over the years so there’s no reason why I can’t keep going.
BPD involves rapid mood-cycling so high and low points can last for hours or go on for months – it is of course extremely exhausting. If I’m faced with unavoidable changes in my environment it can trigger an episode.
Over time, I’ve learned to identify my triggers, but avoiding them during Lockdown has been impossible so it’s been a real rollercoaster, along with all the usual feelings of self-doubt when you start selling art.
Making art means failing time and time again and having the ability to pick yourself up and keep going, while running a business of any kind involves a lot of determination, self-belief and consistently applying effort.
When an episode occurs, I almost recoil in horror as I watch my saboteur attempt to undo everything I’ve been working for. It’s also at this time that I’m most vulnerable to self-neglect.
When I add in the fact that I’m an introvert, conversing during these low points – whether it’s Social Media or blog writing – can feel utterly overwhelming and my natural tendency is to hide until it’s all blown over. Part of that is a learned coping response, rather than looking externally for help.
If you don’t see me posting on Social Media for weeks, or my newsletters are really late, chances are, I’m in a valley.
But wait! There's positives
The flipside? Yes, there is one.
When the depression passes, I’m firing on all cylinders, buzzing over with ideas, enthusiasm, optimism and a desire for adventure! I work long hours, make plans and get shit done.
I was seen as a "gifted" child and I'm a very fast learner, often up for doing something a bit wild, able to "rough it" quite easily, and have a good level of emotional intelligence when it comes to others.
If it wasn’t for my BPD traits, I doubt I would have decided to move into a van, randomly decided to live in Bulgaria for 6 months on a whim, taken certain risks, and tried so many different things in my life. I have of course done a lot of foolish things but I’m now pleased to report that these are now kept to a minimum..perhaps in part because I no longer have the energy!
So there are things I’m thankful for. In many ways, I'm grateful for my heightened sensitivity and self-awareness, even though it can cause me extreme pain.
Since the breakup, it's also been helpful to remind myself that I'm not "all bad" and have many traits that people have praised me for - my willingness to throw myself in at the deep-end, to live outside of the "conventional" societal patterns, and for being a good listener.
I just need to get a handle on the more serious aspects so I can hopefully go from high-risk, high-reward to low-risk, high-reward! The work is really only just beginning...
Thank you for reading,
P.S. Coming up, I'll share my next plan to "throw myself in at the deep end" with a little getaway...my posts should start leaning towards brighter times :)