Essays

My Body, The Stranger

When you have borderline personality disorder, recovery can often be like learning to love a voodoo doll.

I was born an eight-pound, 15-ounce idea. Once the umbilical cord was cut, a nurse placed me under a warmer so a team could figure out how to fix me. There had been no precedent for this before: a baby born without a body.

My first hours of life passed there, in the warm glow of science. When the doctors approached my parents with a solution, they blinked slowly. Touched their arms. Looked at each other as if to ask whether this was an acid dream. The doctors repeated their proposal: they would sew me to the back of a voodoo doll.

“She’ll adapt,” they assured my weary parents. “In time, she’ll connect with it.”

But I never did.

Still Life, From The Back Of A Voodoo Doll

In reality, my birth was nothing mythical. I was born with a broken collarbone in the maternity ward of St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The delivery went as expected, and my body is a very real thing, as hard of a time as I may have connecting with it.

Back in the summer of 2017, I learned the reason for this. I was diagnosed with quiet borderline personality disorder, which means that, unlike outward-acting borderline personality disorder, I lash inward. This diagnosis explains my propensity for self-harm (including my anorexia, and my cutting)  my erratic pattern of relationships, my inability to regulate emotion, my fear of abandonment, my black-and-white thinking, my lack of identity, and the pain I’ve caused to the people around me, including my husband.

It also explains my lifelong pattern of dissociation. My borderline personality disorder is the reason it feels like I spend my days in a clouded cell, hanging between dreams and reality. It is the reason my body is a stranger to me; this heavy, cumbersome thing to which my consciousness has been sewn. It’s the reason we are two people, in a way.

It just doesn’t feel like my body is my own. I don’t understand it.

For me, this persistent disconnection with my body has made it difficult for me to understand myself as a whole. Sometimes, this means I don’t entirely recognize myself in the mirror. I can objectively see what everyone else sees (at least, I think), but I can’t truly internalize the fact that my reflection is my own. That makes doing even little things other people take for granted, like creating a Bitmoji, are basically impossible: I simply can’t objectively tell you what I look like.

It just doesn’t feel like my body is my own. I don’t understand it.  It’s like living with an acquaintance whose sole purpose is to grudgingly perform actions I dictate. This works only part of the time. I pull a string, the left arm raises. I push a lever, the mouth opens. I ask it to be beautiful, it remains the same.

When I say I was sewn to a voodoo doll, what I mean is that there is deadweight, and an emptiness in relation to my own sense of bodily identity that wears me down. I strive to inhabit this bodily other, and I cannot. So I destroy the body I feel so alienated from, little by little, in an effort to stay grounded.

The Woman In The Mirror

Today, when I look at myself in a mirror, it doesn’t matter what other people tell me I look like. Even when my husband tells me–truthfully, I think–that I look athletic, strong, healthier, I see fat. I see failure. I see a body that is not, and never could be, mine.

Even when my husband tells me–truthfully, I think–that I look athletic, strong, healthier, I see fat. I see failure. I see a body that is not, and never could be, mine.

Multiple times a day, I ask my husband if he thinks I am beautiful. If he thinks I am thin. If he thinks I am a good partner; the woman he thought he was marrying. He tells me yes, like he always does. I feel defeated anyway. I cry. I am 30 years old, I think, and I have not met myself.

But I want to. For his sake, and for mine.

My psychiatrist has prescribed Lamictal. The goal is to soothe my interactions with this strange body to which I am eternally married. It will help decrease my urges to self-harm. Combined with the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy I am undergoing, I should learn to manage the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which could, in turn, help me recover from anorexia.

The road is long, and I am not always so hopeful.  But I am dreaming of the family my husband and I wish to build. I feel somehow certain we’ll have daughters. I hope to hand down my husband’s eyes, a blue the shade of the Mediterranean. I hope to hand down my curly hair, the product of my Lebanese grandmother. But I will not hand down my disorders–at least not by example.

There is nothing mythical about recovery. It is fraught with ugliness, difficulty, and failure.

So I follow the road. And I try to remind myself that, just like there was nothing mythical about my birth, there is nothing mythical about recovery. It is fraught with ugliness, difficulty, and failure. But if I am ever going to get better–to do right to my husband, my future children, and myself–it’s important to remember I am dealing with illness, and not intangibility.

It might feel sometimes like I was born bodiless, and sewn by mad scientists to a voodoo doll. But at the end of the day, recovery can only come through the acknowledgment that I am flesh and blood like everyone else… and that what I am going through isn’t magical realism, but something distinctly human.

Creative Commons image by Timothy Tolle