It’s never a good sign when one’s own mother describes you as having, “the personality of a rattlesnake.” Because of descriptions like this one, I thought I was simply a garden variety asshole who couldn’t keep my mouth shut when I needed to for the my first thirty years; this opinion was enthusiastically shared by a majority of people who had regular contact with me. My moodiness, volatility, impetuousness, and, most of all, absolute refusal to censor my opinions of anything for anyone — consequences be damned – cost me two jobs, a slew of acquaintances, dozens of chances at promotions and honors, and very nearly my marriage.
So, at the age of 30, in an effort to keep my wife of – then – five years, I visited my family doctor and submitted to taking medication designed to help my mood stabilize, prevent the crushing bouts of depression that would incapacitate me for days, and theoretically allow me to play well with others. The meds worked after a fashion so long as I was prepared for ever increasing dosages. Still, life rocked on at a tolerable level for another few years. Then, when I was 35, my maternal grandfather died and I, for lack of a better way to put it, came completely unglued. It was a dark time in much the same way a hurrican is a gusty wind, but I’ll speak more to that later on.
For now, suffice it to say I ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a three day stay behind locked doors. This experience at once terrified me beyond all rationality and helped me more than any other experience to that date. During my hospitalization, my wife and my mother attended a family support session where they received some materials about mental health. At almost the same time, I was meeting with a hospital psychiatrist in an attempt to get out of this lock up before claustrophobia killed me. Instead, he handed me some materials about what he saw my condition to be.
Later that day during visitation time, Mama, Budge, and I compared the materials we’d been given separately. They turned out to be the exact same packet. As Budge read out the list of signs and symptoms as well as the typical behaviors of this particular condition, she teared up because staring up at us from the papers was the name for the demon I had been fighting for most of my life. The bipolaresque mood swings, anxiety, paranoia — pretty much every thing else I was afflicted with mentally were only symptoms and not my root problem. I found out that day that my personal demon’s name was Borderline Personality Disorder. I call him BPD for short.
Think Before You Talk
Anyone planning to reveal any mental illness to the world or even to a small group of friends needs to be prepared for a certain measure of derision and disbelief, at least at the beginning. No mental illness has a nice set of numbers to monitor or test results to report to prove the reality of the condition. A diabetic has the magical A1C number. If your A1C is above X you are a diabetic. If it is below X you are not. Anyone remotely familiar with diabetes or Wilford Brimley can read the results of an A1C panel and agree that, “why yes, this person has diabetes.” Broken bones show up on x-rays. Just about any internal malady shows up on MRI. Cancer, heart disease, kidney problems, all have a test or well defined physical symptoms that immediately establish the presence of a serious health threat.
Mental illness doesn’t work that way. No qualitative test can confirm chronic depression. A person with an anxiety disorder doesn’t have a purple cast he can point to for verification that something is rotten with the mental state of Denmark. I have Borderline Personality Disorder, but I don’t use a walker or crutches so how can anyone tell?
With just a few exceptions, mental illnesses simply don’t have the hard numbers people look for to tell them if someone is really sick and there’s the rub. Most conditions are visible and quantifiable only by the manifestation of their symptoms and even those symptoms are subject to a spectrum of interpretation. It’s difficult enough for trained medical professionals to recognize the presence of a mental problem. For an average layperson, it’s next to impossible.
For example, one person can look at a man laying in bed in a darkened room on a beautiful sunshine filled fall day and see a person in the depths of a terrible depressive episode and ask him if he’s taken his daily medication. Another observer could look at the same man in the same bed on the same gorgeous day and see a lazy, shiftless individual who just needs a good strong kick in the pants to motivate him and get him going.
I used a man in this example for a specifically pointed reason. Men are not allowed by our society to suffer from depression or personality disorders. A man can be completely schizophrenic or manifest some other dangerous psychosis, but that same man is branded as a layabout if he suffers from a manic episode. Good or bad, a woman who acts “sad” or “blue” is much more likely to be accepted as “depressed” than a man who shows similar or even identical symptoms. The reasons are pathetically simple. Despite our supposed enlightenment and cultural evolution, men are still expected to stand strong and bear up well against stress, pressure, grief, and sadness. So, to be a man claiming to be chronically depressed or even to be officially diagnosed and labeled by a professional as having a personality disorder is going to have a row of obstacles ahead of him – and that’s for well-known syndromes like depression and anxiety disorder. Throw in my diagnosis of BPD, which most laypeople have never heard of, and I may as well have some type of exotic and physical symptomless jungle fever.
I don’t though. I’ve got some faulty wiring and I tried my best to do what a good Southern boy is expected to do and bear up under the weight of the war in my head from my childhood all the way through my college years and into my marriage. I agreed with people, even in my own family, who assessed me as lazy, unmotivated, or lacking good character.
The effort to pass as completely fine and normal damn near killed me.