I’ve just finished a new memoir, Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl, by Stacy Pershall, who’s been diagnosed with both bipolar and borderline personality disorders. It’s a harrowing account of self harm and suicide attempts, miserable depressions, bullying, anorexia and bulimia, drinking, and drug use. At the same time, Pershall has an ironic sense of humor and some wise insights into her gnarled psyche. Her book puts you inside the disorder.
I was struck by her acute description of one of BPD’s hallmark symptoms. She’s comparing herself to her boyfriend’s old girlfriend, who’s demonstrably heavier than Pershall. But BPD, along with her anorexia, won’t allow her to acknowledge that she herself is the slimmer one. She says:
“Later I would find out that this sort of dissociation is common to borderlines, and that in fact there is a name for it: ‘splitting.’ For some reason, we have a uniquely difficult time seeing the world as anything other than black or white, ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’ Incorporating both positive and negative beliefs about a person, including oneself, is largely impossible. We see ourselves and others in an all-or-nothing way: I was not just fat, but the fattest. Nobody else on the planet could possibly be fatter, and if units of measure said otherwise, the units of measure were wrong. Of all the things that go on in my head, this has always been the hardest to explain to so-called normal people, and by far the most painful aspect of the illness.”
I was impressed with Pershall’s astute insight and clear-headed description of the symptom. Later, though, I ran across an example of splitting that I’m not sure she was aware of herself. At this point in the book, her boyfriend Reese is breaking up with her. She writes:
“I remember he said, ‘I’m sorry,’ which of course the person dumping you never really is, or at least not enough that they’re willing to stay with you.”
This sort of remark makes me want to scream. Of course, someone can want to dump you and feel sorry about it at the same time! Most people probably do have these mixed feelings. For the person with BPD, though, it’s all one or the other. She is unable to tolerate ambiguity.
The struggle for us on the outside, as I keep saying, is to realize that the person with BPD can’t control their dichotomous thinking. It’s up to us resist the urge to scream, listen, and try to understand. Pershall’s vivid, honest book makes this easier to do.