February: On BPD.

So, February is “Get Everyone Excited About My Book Month,” which means that I’ve been spending a lot of time doing guest blog posts, interviews, etc.  And of course, due to the nature of my book, what people are most often interested in hearing about is Borderline Personality Disorder.

It’s no huge secret that I share a diagnosis with my protagonist (though honestly we don’t share much else, personality-wise).  I’m not sure, though, when if ever I’ll feel comfortable publicly wearing the label.  There are (I suppose I should say were) advantages to staying quiet about it.  In possibly the bitterest dose of irony ever, I’ve gotten so good at managing the symptoms of the disorder that several people — not realizing I had it — have told me that people with BPD were basically garbage.  “Best to let them sink,” an acquaintance recently said to me on Twitter when I brought up the disorder.  “I’ve known too many, and they’re radioactive.”

With PR like that, is it any wonder I’ve been standing half in the closet about my diagnosis all this time?

It took well-earned, possibly better-than-neurotypical self-control not to respond with, “Well congrats, now you know one less,” and block/unfollow.  That’s what a stereotypical Borderline would have done.  She would have switched this man from the “good” folder to the “bad” folder in her mind and torched that bridge from orbit.  But I have received treatment for my BPD, and part of that treatment involved learning a skill that even some neurotypical people haven’t mastered: the ability to comfortably hold conflicting truths in the mind simultaneously.

I can now say, “This person holds hurtful beliefs and spoke in a callous way that wounded me, but he is also an intelligent and interesting person.  Despite the fact that we disagree vehemently on this issue, there is a lot I can learn and enjoy from continued interaction with him.”  This fellow wouldn’t have spoken that way if he’d realized I had BPD, which doesn’t excuse what he said about the many human beings he considered expendable, but it means at least that he was not trying to hurt me personally.  The very fact that I can recognize all of this is proof that BPD is not a life sentence of misery: that people with the disorder can change, grow, and improve just as anyone else can.

BPD’s terrible PR, though, is simultaneously daunting and the exact reason I do need to be more open about my diagnosis.  As a source of prejudice, BPD has an advantage that race and sexuality as well as other mental illnesses do not have: there are still a great many people who have never even heard of the disorder.  What if the very first Borderline they met was someone functional, possibly even kind, polite, warm, and giving (if a bit intense and eccentric)?  What if that person was me?  Would the person who met me and found me likable go on to be slightly more forgiving of the next Borderline they met, even if it was someone who didn’t have the (considerable!) resources to undergo dialectical behavior therapy?  Even if that less-fortunate Borderline didn’t have everything quite under control?

I love this idea, but it also puts a great deal of pressure on me to be the Good Borderline.  When I have bad days, I question everything I post on social media, terrified that everyone will see and judge and I’ll lose whatever ground I’ve gained in proving that Borderlines deserve empathy and love, that a diagnosis does not tell you who a person is.  On bad days the voice I’ve wryly nicknamed “Harold” whispers to me that it’s all a show, and soon everyone will see you for what you really are and abandon you.  We all have thoughts like that, but for a Borderline, it’s actually a realistic scenario.  Borderlines are radioactive, right?  Don’t touch.  Just let them sink.

Let them sink.  Am I overreacting when I translate this as let them die?  Approximately ten per cent of Borderlines do exactly that, by their own hand, and it’s not hard to see why when otherwise rational people are capable of sincerely suggesting that maybe, yes, they just should.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never considered it.  But I have two children, which to me represents a keen, ever-present responsibility not to become one of that ten per cent.  I cannot teach my children how to thrive in the face of hardship by demonstrably failing to endure mine.  And so for the last decade or so, I’ve protected myself from despair in part by letting myself pretend that I didn’t have BPD, by staying mostly quiet about it, or at least not associating myself with it in an obvious way.  Now those days are over.  I’m the author of a book called Borderline, for Pete’s sake.  I can’t pretend not to have first-hand experience.  For better or worse, it’s part of my brand now.

So consider this post a gentle warning.  Now that I’ve officially stopped pretending, it’s possible that I may backslide a little.  Added stress causes flareups of dysphoria (the intense feelings of anger, panic, despair, self-loathing, etc. that intermittently plague those with BPD).  I may seem a little more “crazy” for a while.  I may slip; I may tweet some things that sound too “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” for your taste.  If so, I’m sorry.  Just brush it aside and forgive and know what I know – that it’s a disease like any other, and that I can eventually get its symptoms back under control once I adjust to the changes in my life.

Be patient.  I’m still here.  I am not my diagnosis.  I am still the same duck you thought I was; there’s just a little more paddling going on underneath the surface of the water than you thought.  You do not have to be afraid.

And neither — I hope — do I.


January: On Reviews.

I’ve resolved to post on my blog once a month this year, despite the recklessly optimistic number of commitments I’ve made (see Events for a small sampling).  This month’s post is inspired by an IM my husband sent me just a few moments ago quoting a nice review of Borderline.  He’d forgotten, apparently, that I prefer not to read my reviews.  So I’m going to make my policy a matter of public record to avoid further confusion.

Good reviews go to my head, and bad reviews go to my heart.  Neither helps me become a better writer.  So I will be doing my best to avoid reading ANY of my reviews.

This also frees reviewers to say whatever they might think without fear of the Wrath of the Author descending (as so often seems to happen these days).  I don’t want to give even the fleeting impression that I think others’ opinions of my work belong to me.  My job is to write the best story I can, to the best of my current ability.  My promise to you: I will never rest on my laurels; I will always relentlessly pick my own work apart and try to find ways to make it better.  Each novel will only ever be one captured point on my learning curve.

Phantom Pains will be a better book than Borderline, when it’s all said and done.  But I won’t be completely satisfied with it, either; I’ll wish I’d done this differently, and that better.  I’ll write another book, and I’ll try again, hoping that this time I’ll nail it.  There’s nothing anyone else could say about my work that would (or should?) change the course of my slow, dogged self-education.  I’m capable of looking at the works of truly great authors and comparing them to mine and noticing the differences.  I’m capable of listening to my agent and editor.  I’m capable of making course-corrections myself, and will do so constantly.  But because of my own psychological peculiarities, I’m going to need to make these course-corrections without immersing myself in the sea of audience opinion.

That said:

I do care about you, the reader, as a person.  If there is something you want to say to me, if my work has personally hurt you, or inspired you, or changed the way you think about something, and it means enough to you that you feel a burning need to share it with me, then there is a way you can do that.

Put pen to paper, write down your thoughts, and send them to me at Mishell Baker, PO Box 78760, Los Angeles, CA 90016.  Not only will I read those thoughts, but I will respond to them.  (Eventually.)  Even if what you have to say is, “Your book made me want to kill myself,” I will hand-write you a personal apology.  I want to make it clear that my review-avoidance isn’t about apathy, or a lack of appreciation for the potential connection between author and reader.  It’s about giving reviews their own space that doesn’t involve me.  A personal response to something I’ve said or done isn’t a review, in my mind, and I do care about my impact.

If your opinion isn’t something that you’re willing to put a stamp on and address personally to me, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s not really any of my business.  Share it with your friends, your followers, whomever, 100% free of authorial oversight.

Hope that clears things up a little.

100 Books Club.

I started this back in May, and here’s how it works.

Every month (though sometimes I skip a month or two if life gets weird), I read a new book from the Easton Press 100 Greatest Books collection.  Anyone who likes the idea is welcome to join in the discussion: for a month, for the duration, or something in between.

The discussions take place in two locations: via Twitter group-DM and on my brand new forums.  Either format has advantages and disadvantages; you’re welcome to use either or both.  If you make regular use of Twitter and want a quick back-and-forth, DM will be best.  If you want to write 4-paragraph essays, forums will definitely be better.  I’ll probably do some cross-linking between the two formats.

These discussions are open-ended, meaning that in October you are still welcome to chime in and talk about what we read in May or June.  When discussing a “current” book, we try to avoid discussing parts of the book that are ahead of schedule, in case there’s anyone left in the universe who’s unspoiled about the ending of Jekyll & Hyde or what have you.

Both academic commentary and gut reactions (“Wow, that character is a jerk”) are equally welcome – you don’t need any sort of background analyzing/discussing literature in order to join us.  I am not a college graduate, myself, so my own input tends to be more of the gut-reaction variety, though I do cheat by looking at Spark Notes and Wikipedia for stuff like symbolism and historical context.

I try to arrange the books into meaningful groups so that I can intelligently compare/contrast, but sometimes I’ll throw something random in there just for fun.  For example, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was necessary as a breather in the middle of our 19th century Russian novel phase, since there were five Russian classics in the set, most quite long.

This is a zero-pressure group.  I have set “deadlines” for myself just to motivate me, but you’re welcome to straggle in two months late and say, “Oh yeah, I liked that bit too.”  The more the merrier!