Walking down the driveway something caught my eye. Glancing at the ground I saw a bug dragging itself along with only its front legs because it was missing the back half of its body. I was horrified. The sight of a living thing forging ahead with only half of itself was deeply wrong. I jerked away and headed for the house, trying to block the sight from my mind but the image was already burned into my eyeballs.
Over the years the image of that bug dragging itself forward, a mere fraction of what it was supposed to be, would occasionally drop in. I realized a good hunk of my horror had to do with humiliation — the humiliating exposure of its wrongness for the world to see. A half a thing shouldn’t even be here, and yet there it was dragging itself along, its adaptation to its hideous reduction as unacceptable as its incompleteness.
Whenever the bug came to mind, a story my sister told me a long time ago also did. She’d heard about a person with bone cancer that had spread to his pelvic bones. His only chance for survival was an experimental surgery in which the surgeons would remove his legs and his pelvis, then rig the intestinal evacuation mechanics such that life could potentially go on. The man went for it, opting in for two reasons: he preferred this sort of life over no life at all and he also wanted to help determine whether this was a viable surgery others might benefit from.
As it turned out, he didn’t survive very long afterward but his story did, the horror of it taking hold of my imagination. I couldn’t wrap my mind around a person agreeing to live in half a body, yet I also couldn’t stop myself from wondering how far you could be whittled down and still exist. If you had your arms amputated as well, you would be nothing but a head, a rib cage, and a pouch of innards. Was that as little as we could be?
At the time I came across that bug in my driveway I was in my later 30s. By that point, I was well aware of the highly elastic range of emotion I had been given, and very familiar with the firm management this extra big serving of feeling required. It was a lot to chase after and bring back. And while there was great benefit from getting to really feel the good stuff, even the good part came with a certain amount of chagrin for being so excessive in my expression. So un-contained.
As I got older I began to unconsciously identify with the bug as my life started to go in a few surprising and destabilizing directions — most notably the end of a long 19-year marriage; followed two years later by a brief 1-year marriage, which also happened to come with 3 temporary step-children to add to the 2 of my own; this marriage then followed 2 years after that by a workplace trauma resulting in a nervous breakdown. While the bug was half of what it should be, and I was way too much of what I should be, there was a wrongness to both of us.
This reckoning period of my general wrongness included a growing awareness of an underlying sense of shame. It would surface at random times, like those in-between-gaps of life when driving or walking across the parking lot or standing in line at the grocery store, gaps I generally used to review the doings and interactions of the day and my general behavior. A recurring theme was just being too much. Too excessive. Too excited. Too jazzed up. Too transparent in how I felt. Too weak. Too unstable. Why did I have to be that way?
While I’d always put on an act of confidence and strength which I mostly believed, at this point my view of myself was starting to seriously crack. First, why was it I’d stayed in a nearly 20-year marriage when for years it had been clear we were not suited for each other, nor able to give each other what we individually most needed and valued? That had long befuddled me. Despite this supposed confidence, I’d been unable to make a move. In the end, I was not the one who called it.
Second, there was the unquestionably suspicious second marriage to a man who made no sense for me on the level of marriage, but a man I had nonetheless manipulated into marrying me. The sane part of me stood back and watched this all play out in utter mystification and helplessness. I did not recognize who this person was.
And third, while it’s certainly understandable to crumble under the extraordinary stress of being bullied and toyed with by a boss who understood exactly where my vulnerabilities as a single mother were, by then my long-standing history of dysregulated emotion and anxiety, along with my recent highly insecure and unstable behavior, resulted in the most humiliating diagnosis I’d had to date: borderline personality disorder.* I had never been so insulted. Nor have I ever felt so wrong in who I was. If you are borderline, what else can you be but just plain wrong?
It was becoming harder and harder to understand my value amidst the extreme evidence to the contrary. No doubt about it, Shame had a full-fledged role in my play.**
Bug fit the part perfectly.
This story is the 4th (preceded by Setting the Stage 1; Setting the Stage 2; Scene 1 – Sissy) in a progression of “scenes” in which I lay out a theoretical framework for self-leadership using the metaphor of the theatre as the visual platform for doing so. We’ll get to the actual process for “directing our personal play” after the cast members are introduced and the qualities of the stage are established.
Up next: Stage 3 — Owl
Illustration credit: Gary Robinson
I feel so protective of you, whoever you are out there reading this, hoping you are not sinking into depression as you read about what may seem like a bottomless well of my hopelessly dismal inner qualities, now topped off with poor self-esteem. I can almost hear you out there: Good lord, how pitiful can she get? We’ve only met two of her cast members! We’ve got 3 more to get through!
But I just want to reassure you again that it will all balance out. While my cast most definitely has their trouble on the one side, it’s just the shadow side and is in direct proportion to my light. It gets good and I’m really happy with how it all works out. Our shadows are just part of being human. As I’ve learned and come to believe in all the reading and research I’ve done, we all have our shadows and have to be in relationship with them if we are to be happy and the whole of who we are. Sign me up.
*On borderline personality disorder
Earning a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder requires the presence of two factors: a heightened emotional sensitivity in general, in combination with a history of some sort of invalidation — whether that invalidation was a one-time episode of some significance or an ongoing, invalidating situation or relationship. This is the set-up.
For me, the expression of the behaviors typical of borderline began emerging when my longterm marriage ended. This destabilized me in a way I wasn’t even aware of. I had no idea I was so scared, but an animal part of me most definitely was, the part that went to work finding a husband to re-establish stability.
I knew my behavior was suspect. And I know you have to call a cluster of characteristic behaviors/symptoms something if you want to be organized and scientific about it in order for something useful to be done, but being labeled is dangerous business — especially when the label appears to point at who you are as a person. And what could be more personal than personality?
The pity for me was that the label of borderline personality was so offensive it took me a while to realize that borderline personality disorder is not a constant, fixed state of being — and therefore not who I am. It was not part of my original package. It was the expression of a collection of behaviors as the result of certain conditions. I don’t have borderline personality disorder now anymore than I have all the many strep throats I had in my earlier life because I’m no longer exhibiting those symptoms, symptoms which just happen to be behaviors as opposed to a high fever and sore throat or some other physical expression of a condition.
That diagnosis was over a decade ago but it’s not to say, of course, that if the conditions are right I couldn’t begin exhibiting signs again considering I have the magical set-up of emotional sensitivity and a history of invalidation. For that reason I can’t ever claim to be invulnerable. Who knows exactly how I might express borderline in the future should a circumstance come up sufficient to really throw me over the edge. Maybe it would look like extreme insecurity coming out in the form of manipulation as it did in part before. That being said and interesting as it all is (for me) to speculate upon, it’s pretty hard to imagine, however, that borderline would get too far down the tracks without me recognizing it considering how much time I spend in self-examination.
But the universally interesting thing is who knows what might come out of anyone if they are pushed far enough. Who knows who the heroes are going to be who run into the burning building or jump into the rushing river to save people. Who knows who will lie, cheat and steal if they lose their jobs and have nothing to eat. Who knows who will take their challenge or their adversity and make something good out of it? I would imagine that we all have within us unknown ways we rise up and unknown ways we fall down. We just don’t know until we get a big enough push. But life is here to show us who we are and what we’ve got to draw on. And our light is back there in our depths somewhere for us to find and use.
I can’t talk about shame without talking about Dr. Brene Brown’s research and her laser-like observation that shame cannot exist when exposed to light, an observation that changes everything:
“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
Just getting something out in the light of day does a lot. There is relief in truth, in not hiding, in not having to hold up an act. In fact, out of all of the truths I have told in this blog, the one I didn’t know if I would ever tell in these online excerpts from my memoir is having that label of borderline personality laid on me. That was so profoundly and morally wounding. So invalidating. So damaging. And such a ridiculously ironic label to lay on a sector of the population whose hallmarks are incredible sensitivity and invalidation. There was so much shame associated with that label precisely because it seemed to go right to the heart of who I fundamentally was. A different sort of diagnostic label could have made it clear that this particular collection of behavioral symptoms was just that — behaviors expressed under certain conditions, not permanent nor your personhood.
Still, despite being fully aware of the research on the pain of protecting our shame, guarding the shameful diagnosis of borderline was still pretty much the plan so far as putting it on the table for the online community to see. However, I never know exactly where a story is going to take me, but the instantaneous way borderline sprang out of my fingers and onto the page at the very end made it absolutely clear it belonged here. It had to be here. Bug includes borderline.
The funny thing was, staring at the page looking at those words after writing them, wondering if I actually could do it even as I already knew it had to be done, something discharged. Just as Brene Brown said. Putting that piece of shame on the table took away its power over me. It’s kind of shocking how easy this feels now. What a relief.
So here I am. This is me.
Every time I read your blog I love you more. You may think you are too much of some things, but you are just the right amount of Elizabeth. You are an exquisitely fine-tuned human being with a drive to understand. You’re doing a really good job. ❤
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Oh, Jill. You have such an enormous heart. I have marveled over and admired that about you so many times over the years. I can’t even begin to tell you what reading your words did to my heart! Just big love and thanks to you and such gratitude that I got to have you in my life! What an “exquisitely fine-tuned and loving human being you are.” To quote someone really, really cool.