October 29th, 2015

_The Buddha and the Borderline_, Kiera van Gelder

Subtitled: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder through Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Buddhism, and Online Dating
Published by New Harbinger Publications

New Harbinger used to be part of PGW, but is not any more; as near as I can tell, they've always been independent.

The first rule about borderline is, don't talk about borderline. Which is, of course, very sad, because closeted stuff doesn't get better it just festers and everyone becomes self-destructive and unhappy and it doesn't have to be that way. You would think we would know that by now, but apparently it is a lesson that must be relearned, over and over and over again.

Van Gelder's book functions really well as an entertaining memoir. It has deeply harrowing and saddening passages, but an infectiously pleasant narrator with more get-up-and-try-again than any dozen other people you are likely to know. She develops insight into herself over the course of the book -- this isn't one of those books where at the end, you scratch your head and wonder if the author _really_ hasn't figured out [some basic thing] yet or if they are leaving that bit out for reasons that seemed clear to them and the editor/publisher at the time. She does a fantastic job of breaking down the inner life of someone diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (herself) and clearly communicating it so that it feels real -- even if the reader has absolutely nothing in common with borderline. While doing so, she walks an incredibly fine line between conveying the self-hatred/hatred of everyone else so characteristic of the disorder and showing the compassion that she has worked so hard to attain over the years.

For someone like me, who has such a strong sense of how everything is constantly changing over time (while always looking suspiciously like something from the distant past or promised in the future), and whose love of routines ensures a shocking sameness from day to day and week to week (and even decade to decade) (not to mention the 30 year planning horizon), Van Gelder's cognitive unwillingness to accept transience -WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY BEING COMPLETELY CHAOTIC- is like some sort of weird, perfectly inverted and backwards nature. Maybe someday, Science will tell us precisely where things went one way for people like me, and the exact opposite direction for people like her. In the meantime, I don't envy her her internal state.

I don't know if you can really call this a spoiler, given that it is (a) true and (b) she's been telling these stories in an advocacy context for a while now. But, you know, if you think of memoirs as a kind of suspenseful narrative SPOILERS RUN RUN RUN AVOID ANY POSSIBILITY OF SELF-INSIGHT. We good? Okay. Easily the most heartbreaking aspect of the story/the life described is that she got a borderline dx at age 14 during her first hospitalization, but because her mother relentlessly denied and lied about her dx, she then spent another 15 years chasing her tail trying treatments for depression, bipolar, anxiety, etc., before getting another borderline dx and then trying to access effective treatment for it. She figured this out when she accessed her earlier medical records. The author is _so_ amazing, she did eventually get mum into therapy with her (mostly by using her mum's therapist!), to try to break through the rampant denial. The description of the strategy used by the therapist is kind of amazing and wonderful and worth reading and rereading. She found a way to validate multiple coping strategies without in any way justifying the negative effects those strategies had on other people -- and as a result, both mother and daughter were able to relate better to each other and to slowly access alternate methods of dealing with painful negative emotions and dysregulation.

There are people in my past who had a really unstable sense of self (firmly in the past -- no contact in decades). But even having been around these people for extended periods of time, until I read this book, I don't think I really _got_ what it means to have an unstable sense of self. Good Grief! I really would not wish that on anyone. As annoying and aggravating and infuriating (and potentially dangerous, especially when you are a child) people with borderline dx can be, it is clear to me now that they are already being punished more than enough. These are people who desperately need to be understood. Partly because we all do, and partly because validation is about the only thing that enables them to function at all.

This is not a great book if you are looking for concrete ways to help someone who has related problems. It is clear that Kiera Van Gelder benefited by having people in her life who encouraged her to access mental health resources, and over time, she was able to network her way to better forms of help. She also benefited because of kin network who were able to help her solve basic life problems like a job she wouldn't get fired from and a safe living place she wouldn't be evicted from. But while she describes parts of how that happened, it is not clear that even she understands how those people figured out what might help her, never mind precisely how they coaxed her into accepting the assistance.

But it is a remarkable from-the-inside description of the disorder.

ETA: Also, very, very funny online dating stories. Her description of her own obsessive behavior while setting up profiles and then watching for responses is distressingly believable in large and small.