BPD and the Pace of Friendship.

Since I’ve had a half dozen different people, maybe more, run into this same problem with me in recent history, I think it might be time for me to clarify something about BPD and what it does to perceptions of friendship.  I posted a while back about what I call the “Jar Jar Effect,” a mental trap that does its best to prevent people with BPD from experiencing requited love.

But suppose you, sufferer of BPD, somehow evade the Jar Jar Effect and manage to find a person you want to be friends with.  A person who also seems to like you.  Miraculously, you manage to mentally reconcile this seemingly impossible occurrence, and now a new problem kicks in: pacing.

For someone with BPD, friendship is a short story, not a novel.

If you struggle with BPD, this is how your experience of friendship works.  You meet someone, feel an affinity while it’s shiny and new, and it feels great.  Like a new car.  Then, it slowly wears down.  More and more of your flaws slip through.  Your “weird” statements and actions make little nicks and dents in the relationship, one at a time.  With the perfect veneer of the paint gone, oxygen can get in, leading to the cancer of rust.  Eventually either the person quietly trades you in for a new model or the car just falls apart spectacularly while you’re both still in it.

One of the clearest ways to spot someone with BPD is the lack of long-term relationships (and jobs, but that’s another post).  The cycle feeds on itself because the more people drift away because of your “weird” emotions and behavior, the “weirder” your emotions and behavior become in the presence of people you like and are afraid to lose.  By the time someone with BPD reaches adulthood, the pattern is pretty well set.  Can you imagine living a life where you knew all of your friendships had maybe a year, at best, to live?  This is one reason why people with BPD also have a high likelihood of being charismatic, funny, charming.  It’s a social adaptation that allows you to replace friendships as smoothly and regularly as you do your technology, so you don’t end up completely alone.

People with this particular BPD-related problem front-load every relationship.  You say everything, hold back nothing, just as you would if you knew your friend had a terminal disease.  You love with your whole heart in that first shining moment when everything is working, because you know that’s the only chance you’re going to get.

Meanwhile, your friend without BPD says, “What the hell?”  Your friend thought they were picking up a novel, and suddenly there’s this insane dramatic climax on page four.  “This is a very badly paced novel,” your friend says, not realizing you’re writing a short story.  It might be enough to put them off, to cause them to put the book down entirely.  Thus fulfilling your prediction and affirming the cycle yet again.  Next time you vow to do even more in even less time!  Gather ye rosebuds while ye may!

Consider the corollary to this.  When you, the person with BPD, hear, “We don’t know each other that well,” or “I don’t think I’m ready to share that with you,” or, “Is there someone closer to you that you could talk to about this?” it translates to you as, “I don’t care about you and never will.”  Why?  Because that’s how it works.  Life has proven to you that the best anyone is ever going to feel about you is before they know you well.  If someone tells you that knowing you better is a prerequisite to certain social privileges, she is telling you that you are not allowed those privileges, ever.  No one has ever wanted to be friends with you after knowing you better.  I mean, come on.

All too often, people with BPD see relationships as depreciating assets.  Imagine if your car or computer told you, “Well… I can’t seem to fulfill that function, why don’t you try again in a few years?”  That would sound like insanity, coming from your shiny new unblemished marvel of machinery.  If it doesn’t work now, it’s never gonna.

So now that you (hopefully) understand better what’s going on, what do you do about it?

If you’re the one with BPD… get back to me after another year of therapy?  I’m still figuring that one out.  The closest thing I’ve found to a functional strategy when dealing with neurotypical people is to hide my sense of urgency.  “Just be yourself” is not always great advice for a person with a personality disorder.  The word “disorder” means that your instincts are not always fabulous.  Accept that, don’t self-flagellate about it, and just move on.  Act as if ye had patience, and patience will (eventually) be given unto you.

With some extremely intelligent people, you may be able to open up about your sense of urgency and where it comes from, but err on the side of caution, if it’s someone you truly want in your life.  The vast majority of truly decent people simply do not want to deal with your baggage.  That doesn’t mean they’re awful people, it just means that they have enough baggage of their own to carry, and they look for friendship as something to help ease life’s load, not add to it.  This is 100% reasonable and you need to respect this.  You need to understand that even if you do end up alone, loneliness in and of itself will not kill you.  You can choose not to harm yourself.  You can sit in that feeling and think you’re going to die, but if you do not actually take arms against yourself, surprise, the sun will still rise the next day and cool things might still happen despite how sure you were that life was over.

If you’re the one with the strangely clingy and forward friend, it’s actually a bit easier to handle.  If these words are true, you should say them: “I think you and I could be really great friends one day.  I like you more and more, the more I know you, the more I see how well you’re handling the things you struggle with.  I like your [actual quality] and your [actual quality].  I look forward to getting to know each other more.  But understand that it takes me a little while to open up.  It will happen; it just happens at a different pace for me.  I hope you think it’s worth waiting for, because I’d hate to lose you.”

If these words are not true, do not reassure the person.  If you are not drawn enough to this person that you’re willing to navigate an occasionally-bumpy road with him, let him down right away.  Don’t argue back at him with all the objective evidence that your way of doing things is normal and he’s the one being weird.  Just have the courage to say, up front, “I don’t know that we really ‘click;” I think our personalities and wavelengths are too different.  I respect you [if true] and care about you [if true], and I think there’s a lot to admire about you [say this even if you don’t feel it, because it is true, of everyone], but I don’t feel a personal motivation to deepen this relationship; I’m sorry.”  Or something to that effect, in your own words.

The main idea in this latter scenario: do not feign love, affinity, and personal concern for someone who has challenges in perceiving reality and desperately needs to know the truth in order to ground herself, make decisions, and function.  Even if it hurts more in the short term, brutal honesty is best for those with BPD.  Diplomacy can backfire, because diplomacy is ambiguity, and ambiguity is a breeding ground for some of the absolute worst of BPD’s symptoms.

If you have any questions about this, feel free to hit up my comments section or send me a Tweet.  For at least the next week or so I have some time on my hands before I start my next project, so I’m happy to use that to educate/reassure/support those whose lives have been affected by this frustrating and difficult disorder.

Thanks for being willing to learn more, and feel free to share this if you know anyone it might help.

Being the Crazy Friend, 101

Content warning: blunt descriptions of negative emotions and disturbed thoughts.

So you have a severe mental health condition.  You’re aware that it causes stress to people around you, and you’d like to minimize that, not only because you care about people, but because you realize that having zero friends will probably not help your mental health condition.  Here’s some wisdom I’ve collected over many years as the Crazy Friend.

Just follow these simple steps, and I can guarantee… absolutely nothing.  Right?  I mean, life doesn’t work that way.  But I’m pretty sure that at least some of this stuff will be helpful if you can get past the fact that some of it’s hard to hear.

Buckle up; here we go.

  1. Rotate.  Don’t go to the same person all the time when you’re Having a Moment.  I know that there’s that one person who always makes you feel so much better, but that’s all the more reason you shouldn’t drive that person to the point where she has an anxiety attack every time she sees your name pop up on her phone.  Give some other people a chance.  It’s okay to share your burdens, but spread them around as much as you can.  Don’t have more than one person you can share this stuff with?  That is probably a result of bad choices in your past that you needn’t dwell on, but should not repeat.  Get through this bad spell as best you can, and then once you’re in a place where you can do so, devote a ton of your energy to making more friends.  Please trust me on this one.
  2. Update.  If you have at any point told someone that you are feeling miserable, please remember to check back in when you are feeling good (or better) and let her know.  You don’t have to directly say “I’m doing so much better now!” especially if it you’re still wobbly, but make sure you don’t end on “I wish I’d never been born” and then that’s the last he hears from you for a week.  Find some time in a day or two to send him a stupid meme or a picture of the flowers in your yard.  Consider each Heavy Conversation to be a piece of your friend’s heart dangling over a cliff.  Don’t just leave it there.  Don’t wait until you’re 100% cured to relieve your friend of that suspense.  Give him some sort of hope, remind him that you are a person with layers and not just the Event Horizon of Despair.
  3. Try Other Stuff First.  Especially if you’re an extrovert, reaching out to a friend is often your first instinct.  But first try distracting yourself with a video game, running around the block, taking a hot shower, or doing something else to change your mood that is completely under your control and does not require others’ input.  First, because if you succeed, that means you’ll keep your friends a bit fresher and more ready for you when you really need them.  Second, because it will make you feel empowered.  Wow, I feel better, and I did that all on my own.  I’ve got this.
  4. Respect Individuality.  If you want cool, logical advice, don’t call Mr. Feels.  If you need warmth and affection, don’t call Ms. Pedantic.  Even if it’s Ms. Pedantic’s affection you crave, or Mr. Feels’ advice on what to actually do with your life, your desires are not going to magically change another person’s psychological makeup.  People respond how they respond.  Learn their needs and quirks, and love them for who they are.  Call up Mr. Tough Love when you need a brisk verbal smack in the face.  Don’t expect Ms. Squishy to do much but cry with you.  People are not a series of uniform receptacles for your feelings; they will react to your emotional chemistry in unique ways.  Make this one of the factors you consider when staring at your contact list.  What is it that will actually help you, and who is equipped to deliver it?
  5. Gratitude, Not Apology.  If someone sits patiently through a torrent of your misery, your first instinct is going to be to feel shame, to apologize.  I mean, good God, it’s been an hour, and they probably missed that movie they wanted to watch.  But your apology will not give them their hour back, and also, having a mental illness is not a crime.  You didn’t wake up today and decide to be miserable beyond coping.   So the proper thing to say, instead, is thank you.  “You were amazing.”  “Thanks so much for your patience.”  “Your insight is so helpful.”  Whatever is appropriate.  Be as specific as you can.  If the person didn’t help at all, or even unintentionally made you feel a little worse, consider at least that you just spent that time talking to someone rather than drinking yourself into a stupor and driving your car into a tree, and realize, that’s not nothing.  Thank them for their time, at least.  “I really appreciate you spending this time with me.  You’re a good friend.”
  6. When In Doubt, Don’t.  Friends forgive neglect much more easily than they forgive bad behavior.  If you’re worried that you’re so far gone that you can’t treat a friend the way they deserve to be treated, you may need to step away for a little while.  People are not painkillers, and until you realize this, they cannot actually help you anyway.  Maybe there is another way to get through this.  Unless you are making concrete plans to commit suicide or otherwise harm yourself, chances are you can actually get through whatever it is you’re feeling right now and out the other side of it with zero intervention.  It might feel urgently horrible.  You might cry yourself sick and fall asleep on your couch face down in Cheeto crumbs.  But then you’ll wake up and you’ll feel a little… different, at least, if not better.  Just wash your face, because Cheetos.
  7. And Remember This.  If you have friends, if there is one person who has ever given you his phone number, there’s a reason for that.  There’s something in you, somewhere, that someone wanted in his life.  We’re all pains in the ass sometimes.  I’d go so far as to say that each of us can, at times, be unbearable.  But remember, we are not defined by our worst days.  If you do your best not to implode your friendships when you’re at your worst, that means they’ll still be there when you’re ready to make people laugh, make them think, whatever it is you do that got you all these names on your contact list in the first place.  You may not even remember, now.  But they remember.  And they’ll wait for you longer than you think.

An update.

Hello my friends!  If you’re here it’s because you care, personally or professionally, and I deeply appreciate both.  I am also grateful for the buzz surrounding the World Fantasy Award nomination.  While I’m not on social media to see it directly, my husband has told me that there have been many supportive comments, and that means a lot to me.

Item # 2 on the agenda: if you have interacted with me at all in the last month, I’d like to apologize if you left feeling drained, confused, or vaguely unsettled.  My mental health is as bad as it’s ever been.  If you’ve interacted with me recently, you’ve been talking to a person who is in the process of drowning and trying to subtly use you as a flotation device without your maybe noticing.  That’s not really a thing.  I realize that now.  I’m sorry.

I’m redoubling my efforts to tackle this on my own, because my relationships are extraordinarily precious to me and the thought of damaging them makes me feel even worse.  By “on my own” I mean, not leaning on people who are not professionals.  I have spent a few weeks in vain trying to contact my last therapist; she seems to have left the last place she was working, and her voicemail box is full and not accepting new messages.  (My demons say, “she quit her job and withdrew from society after working with you.”  Very funny, demons.)  This means I have to start from scratch, but I’ve made appointments with four different therapists over the next few weeks to try to find another good match.

Some good professional news: I did manage to put the finishing touches on Impostor Syndrome in time for it to come out on schedule next spring, and I’ve already got another book in the pipeline to get back to work on once I’ve got my energy and focus a bit more under control.

On the physical health side, there’s more good news.  We have finally, finally isolated the cause of my headaches.  It is the cataracts, but it isn’t so much light-related as it is related to the compensatory thing my brain is doing.  Imagine looking through your windshield and having a smudge right in front of your face.  Assuming the wipers didn’t take care of it, you’d keep craning your neck this way and that trying to peer around it, right?  Well, imagine the smudge was a tiny dot on the very center of the actual lens of both eyes.  There’s nowhere to “lean” to get away from that, and yet your brain keeps trying.

Amazingly, mine mostly succeeds.  If I am looking at something stationary (say, a computer screen) my brain actually does pretty well at compensating.  But something like driving, which causes me to constantly shift my focus, means my brain is having to readjust its magical compensation-trick over and over and over again.  Eventually it just burns out and I’m left lying in a dark room wishing for an anvil to drop from the sky and end my misery.

The fix: cataract surgery.  The doctors are finally starting to agree on that.  I have one more appointment in October, and then they will probably be willing to commit to a surgery date.

So, solutions, both mental and physical, are in the pipeline.  It’s just a terribly long wait, and in the meantime I am miserable!  Huzzah!

But everything is temporary.  Everything.  Kind of a poignant thought in times of happiness, but a lifesaver in times like these.  What I’m feeling now will, eventually, be one of those memories I can look back on and say, “Thank God I’m not there anymore.”  Sometimes I think that’s what times like these are for.  So that we can remember, in good times, not to take them for granted.

I love you all and look forward to the day when we can have fun together, when I can be a shoulder for you, or just be a general presence in your lives.  No ETA yet, but we’ll get there.