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October 16, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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I Hate Myself and I Want to Die: Borderline Personality Disorder & Misrepresentation in Film

CW: Self-harm, suicide, abuse

 

 

Susanna: I didn’t try to kill myself.

Dr Potts: What were you trying to do?

Susanna: I was trying to make the shit stop.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

 

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is an illness marked by extreme emotional irregularity, impulsivity, an unstable sense of identity, self-harm, a pattern of volatile interpersonal relationships, intense fear of abandonment, and chronic emptiness. The lack of emotional stability and the intensity of emotions felt can lead to black and white thinking called “splitting”, with rapid idealisation and devaluation of the people around you. There is no mental object permanence applied to relationships, resulting in a need for frequent reassurance and validation, which can come across as unnecessary or emotionally demanding. People with BPD also experience high levels of empathy and are fiercely loyal and devoted to loved ones, despite being unable to apply this kindness and understanding to themselves. It is most common in women, with high levels of comorbidity with eating disorders, addiction issues, anxiety, and bipolar. The disorder is frequently genetic, but its development is exacerbated by complex and pervasive trauma and emotional abuse during childhood and adolescence, and often results in the stunting of the development of parts of the brain that process stress response, like the amygdala and hippocampus.

I was first diagnosed with BPD five years ago, after I was found sitting on the edge of a bridge in Kingsland, Auckland. After calling a crisis hotline and finding the operator despondent and patronising I hung up the call, but not before they traced my location and I was found and arrested by police several minutes later. I was held in the central city police cells for seven hours, during which I missed both doses of my medications, until I was released into psychiatric services at 5.00am under the condition I enter myself into their care for a minimum of 72 hours. This was not my first brush with suicidal ideation, attempted suicide, or hospitalisation; since childhood I have fixated on my impending death, the failure and disappointment I elicit from family and friends, and how everyone I love will leave me. At four I justified having a soft toy on my person at all times so I wouldn’t die alone. At eleven I would run into the suburban streets at night and lie in the middle of the road waiting for cars to come. After my mother found me catatonic on the window sill of my bedroom at age 16, I was made an inpatient in the youth psychiatric facility at Princess Margaret Hospital in Christchurch. Over the next four years I would make multiple attempts on my life, waking up in different hospitals to different sets of sad eyes staring at me. Professionals explained to my parents that I didn’t actually have any intention of killing myself and that these were cries for help; no one seemed to understand that I truly wanted to die, or that I felt things so much that it was like acid burning me from the inside. When I got my diagnosis it was as though I finally had all of the answers I had been looking for in life, but also like I had received a formal and inevitable death sentence. Reading that my life would be a series of inescapable self-destructive patterns would’ve made me want to sink through the floor into Hell if I didn’t feel like I was already there.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve narrowed down the two easiest ways to explain BPD to the people in my life:

 

1. There is no inbetween.

When a neurotypical person (someone without mental illness) experiences an emotion, i.e. happiness, sadness, anger, they experience it on a spectrum. For example: getting an average grade back on an exam could create a feeling of disappointment that for a “normal” person can be rated on a scale of 1 to 10, maybe falling at a 4. In subjects with BPD, there is no spectrum of emotion; everything is felt at its most intense level. Having to cancel dinner with a friend, and the break up of a long-term relationship, both register at a 10, if not an 11. In the words of the rapper Drake, “I go zero to a hundred real quick, real fucking quick.” This is applicable for any emotional reaction, usually negative, and is often to the point of mental and physical distress. This is why borderlines are prone to self-destructive and impulsive behavior, including physical self-harm, in desperate attempts to relieve their agony. It is also why they are met with accusations of manipulative behavior from those unable to understand what they see as an extreme and melodramatic response to often minor incidents.

 

2. I am a logical person trapped in an illogical brain.

Because it is a personality disorder, BPD’s influence on your life becomes an intrinsic part of your development, behaviour, and thought processes through adolescence into adulthood. Partly due to the anticipation of incoming and frequently erratic emotions, and also the effect this has on my relationships and day-to-day functioning, I find myself overly aware of my actions and their potential consequences — I often fear that my behaviour will be perceived as manipulative due to the severity of my emotional response and my need to address or validate any and all of my anxieties. When I obsess over my perceived failures or stress over future events, I go over every possible reason for the situation and every possible outcome for the way in which I can choose to address it, but ultimately I am often so overwhelmed that I am unable to negotiate which is the reality, and act out emotionally rather than logically to relieve or validate the way I am feeling. The way I tend to express myself in a crisis is like a backwards Ockham’s Razor mixed with a bunch of shit that explodes.

***

Beyond the BPD Wikipedia page, I didn’t have anything or anyone to relate to about my diagnosis. I didn’t know anyone else with BPD, and this in turn made me feel more isolated and misunderstood, making me lash out and enact the self-fulfilling prophecy of being abandoned for being too difficult. I had always had a love of film, and when I temporarily dropped out of high school due to my worsening mental health, the only break from the onset of agoraphobia I had developed was the 40-minute return trip to the local video store; delegating characters on a screen as my new friends. Representation is important — from strong confident women for young girls, to developed leading characters for people of colour, to sensitive portrayals of life with an illness — but it is particularly important for someone who suffers from an inability to accurately perceive themselves. As I sought out films that supposedly depicted BPD post-diagnosis, all it did was convince me I was a Bad Person™, and the feelings of hopelessness spread to the last parts of my brain they had yet to infect. Movies mattered to me, and here I was, the villain of the piece. Based on my real life experiences I had no reason to doubt that this was my fate, because it was all I had to go by.

Until recently, Wikipedia listed around 80 films on its “Mental disorders in film” page as featuring characters with BPD. Of the entire list, only three films explicitly mention it: the adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s autobiographical novel Girl, Interrupted (1999), French-Canadian erotic drama Borderline (2008), and the offbeat Kristen Wiig indie comedy Welcome to Me (2014).

Out of those films that do not directly mention the disorder in dialogue, but are based on real-life subjects with BPD, only one of them is not about a serial killer: the 2001 adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 memoir Prozac Nation, about her adolescent struggle with BPD and bipolar (Wurtzel had wanted the original title to be I Hate Myself and I Want to Die but her editor convinced her to change it). Aileen Wuornos, who murdered seven men and was executed by the state in 2002, was officially diagnosed with BPD triggered by a lifetime of physical abuse and sexual trauma, and is portrayed by Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Three films currently exist about serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who was diagnosed with BPD. The most recent of which, My Friend Dahmer (2017), focuses on Dahmer’s traumatic home life and gradual detachment from society — it is worth noting BPD was not Dahmer’s primary diagnosis, nor is it a focal point of any of the films about his life. Between Wuornos and Dahmer, it is difficult to expect anyone to develop empathy for characters who are, for all intents and purposes, psychopaths.

The majority of the Wikipedia list consists of psychological thrillers and horror films featuring women who are obsessive and manipulative, driven to the point of violence and sociopathic cruelty after rejection, including: Fatal Attraction (1987), where Glenn Close’s character infamously boils a rabbit alive to get revenge on an ex; Misery (1999), where a deranged Kathy Bates kidnaps and brutally disables an author who kills off her favourite fictional character; and Single White Female (1992), where a woman’s obsession with her new flatmate leads her to assume her identity, sexually assault her flatmate’s partner while wearing her clothes, and attempt to murder the object of her fixation and “become her.” Upon watching David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), my enjoyment of the film was instantly tainted when I went online to find dozens of blogs and tweets referring to Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne as a “classic borderline,” apparently evidenced by her thorough and premeditated attempts to frame her husband for abuse, even going so far as to schedule her own suicide so he is arrested for murder. The notion that Those with BPD self-harm or attempt suicide because of anything other than a hatred of themselves borders on morbidly entertaining to me when I think back to my own experiences, and my pure misguided desire to rid the world of myself to better others. The psychological thrillers with male characters, suspected of having BPD, all place even more emphasis on obsession and abuse, including Fear (1996), The Cable Guy (1996), One Hour Photo (2002), and, most frustratingly, American Psycho (2000) — the conflation of BPD with sociopathy being a common theme in film characterisations.

Making up the last numbers on the list is a handful of romantic dramas and comedies, including My Super-Ex Girlfriend (2006), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and, rather bizarrely, the Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman casual sex themed comedy No Strings Attached (2011). One of the most frustrating representations I’ve seen is Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which pains me to discuss beyond calling it Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Film Snobs — a trope in itself that could be traced back to perceptions of women with BPD. Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany is flighty, impulsive, and emotionally manipulative; all she needs is the right person to “fix her.”

Interestingly, at the time of writing this article, the entire BPD subsection on the Wikipedia page has been deleted, bar a note on Tiffany’s hypersexuality as “a symptom of Borderline personality disorder.” However, the majority of the films I have listed can be found as supposed representations of BPD in multiple thinkpieces, texts, and resources, some even approved of by so-called “medical professionals.”

There are a plethora of articles about Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars allegedly fitting all criteria for a diagnosis of BPD — yes, the supervillain known as Darth Vader who commits large scale acts of genocide and seeks intergalactic domination — to the point where he is used as a textbook example in psychology classes. I would literally rather die than cause harm to someone else, and anytime I have it has been from a knee-jerk subconscious reaction of self-defense after being triggered into memories of past trauma. Because validation is so important to those with BPD, when I only see myself represented on screen as a literal murderer I want to shut myself off from the world for fear of hurting those I love more than I feel I already have by just existing. Imagine being gaslit by a fucking Hollywood movie. All of these movies that supposedly feature fair representations of BPD and individuals with it revolve around assumptions by viewers that are themselves based on assumptions of the disorder, causing this misinformation to continuously be recycled and repeated.

***

As far as accurate representation goes, I did enjoy Welcome to Me. The film stars Kristen Wiig as a woman with BPD who wins the lottery, goes off her meds, and spends her money creating a talk show about herself because she is obsessed with Oprah. Welcome to Me depicts the woman as more than just an emotional hurricane, but rather someone desperately trying to shelter from that hurricane and protect themselves and those around them. At times I found myself loathing Wiig’s Alice, but on further reflection this was because of self-loathing towards my own behaviour. There could be arguments for the characters of Clementine and Mavis from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Young Adult respectively, both having problems with emotional expression and regularity, identity, and relationships, but I’m hesitant to project upon characters that are not explicitly referenced as borderline lest I become another Wikipedia list. I have a lot of mixed feelings on the film adaptation of Girl, Interrupted; because it’s based on source material by an actual Borderline it is more realistic than other films, but the presence of Hollywood and the need to dramatise leads to missteps and misrepresentation, including the concept that BPD is largely recoverable as opposed to something the sufferer must manage and adjust to. Much like Welcome to Me, Winona Ryder’s Susanna inspires a certain amount of resentment in me, though I do not think it is as compassionate a portrayal as the former. I do enjoy a scene where Susanna is reading about her diagnosis from a book to fellow patient Lisa, a sociopath, which touches on the “laugh to keep from crying” attitude I often apply to my disorder:

 

Susanna: “Borderline Personality Disorder. An instability of self-image, relationships, and mood… uncertain about goals, impulsive in activities that are self-damaging, such as casual sex.”

Lisa: I like that.

Susanna: “Social contrariness and a generally pessimistic attitude are often observed.” Well, that’s me.

Lisa: That’s everybody.

Susanna: I mean, what kind of sex isn’t casual?

 

Film remains one of the most accessible ways to convey ideas and information to broad audiences, and even the most seemingly banal content can leave an impression on the viewer that sticks and shapes their ideals. When media consistently depicts these mentally vulnerable characters as evil, and communicates the notion that BPD is synonymous with violence, revenge, and a total lack of empathy, it breeds an environment for prejudice against sufferers. This stigma leads to the invalidation of their very real feelings, in turn feeding the cycle of self-destruction and self-loathing in the sufferer. And when the misrepresentation of BPD isn’t just limited to film and television, but extends to medical professionals, there is little hope for a change in public perception; patients with BPD often find it hard to find therapists and psychologists who will take them on, as borderlines are perceived in some medical circles as “lost causes” who will only disagree with or sabotage their treatment plans with dangerous behaviours. I’ve had GPs tiredly ask me why I can’t just try distract myself instead of self-harming, and I’ve given up on searching for BPD resources when so many of them call me toxic, or brand me as someone to avoid at all costs, when all I want to know is how to keep myself safe and express my love for the people in my life without overwhelming them.

Since my initial diagnosis, I have been lucky to meet several people who have trusted me with their BPD diagnosis — something many are hesitant to do because of the inherent stigma. The first time I met another borderline I think we talked for five hours straight, and the validation of my feelings and emotional processes and knowing I was finally not alone was almost euphoric. I am someone with a lot of love in my heart, especially for the people that take time to care for me and understand my disorder, but for my fellow borderlines I would take a bullet to keep them safe. We are precious, kind, loyal, empathetic human beings with an unlimited amount of compassion to provide those who take the time to know us, despite what they read online or see in a fucking Jennifer Lawrence movie. While a lot of people claim to have sympathy for those with mental illness, this seems to disappear when they cannot and will not educate themselves beyond a basic understanding of anxiety and depression. It’s easy to go through life being told how to think and what to do, but please take the time to get to know and understand those who don’t find things that simple, the people who go to war everyday with an overwhelming negative perception of who they are from both the public and themselves.

 

Special thanks to my mom and her unconditional support, and all my amazing friends who listen to me, love me, and make me cups of tea.

 

*

If you need support:

Mauri Ora: VUW Health and Counselling — Kelburn 04 463 5308, Pipitea 04 463 7474, or email student-health@vuw.ac.nz.

Youthline — 0800 376 633, free text 234, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

Capital and Coast DHB: Te Haika / Mental Health Crisis Team — 04 494 9169 or 0800 745 477 (24 hours).

Suicide Crisis Helpline (for those in distress, or know someone who is) — 0508 828 865.

VUWSA advocacy service — Erica Schouten, 04 463 6984, or email advocate@vuwsa.org.nz.

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