A few weeks ago I read that the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had diagnosed its main character with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). “Oh Jesus,” I thought, “please don’t let them fuck it up too badly.”
At the time I had not seen the show. Glee jumped the shark with the whole musical comedy thing after awhile, and the only musicals I’ve ever really loved are Hamilton and Wicked (I KNOW).
But I’ve never seen a show that characterizes my disorder. The only time I see it in pop culture, it’s as a casual aside, as a synonym for sociopath or slut or horrible toxic burden who cannot be trusted to be a decent human being. The only time I hear it in real life, outside of therapeutic settings, is in casual asides: “oh, she’s a borderline,” someone will say, offhandedly, writing off another human being. “I mean, I’m depressed, but at least I’m not a borderline,” they’ll say. And I’ll nod and smile.
So you can see why I had to watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom’s project about a young woman who moves from her fancy law firm job to West Covina, CA, to follow the boy she’s long considered the love of her life. Also, there is singing. And dancing. Well-choreographed musical numbers. It’s all very fancy.
When I started watching the show, it was like waiting for a bomb to go off. I watched Rebecca’s behavior carefully, looking for signs. The first time she turned, exhausted, to a friend and said she knows she’s work and she doesn’t understand why anyone bothers to try, I gasped aloud. How many times have I thought or said that? This goddamn week? I feel that way about most of my relationships much of the time. I’ve never seen someone on television say it.
Then she explained that she never got the validation she needed as a child and now seeks it from other people, and Josh Chan (who, frankly, is kind of a dud) is the person she’s decided needs to give her that validation. I ran through the list of people I’ve asked to give me the validation that I should have gotten as a child. An invalidating environment, after all, is one of the main causes of BPD.
Because I knew that Rebecca’s diagnosis was coming, I never could watch the show as just a show: instead, I watched hoping like hell Rebecca wouldn’t be too unlikable. Okay, I thought when she made bad decision after bad decision. Okay, but we can still root for her, right? She’s not irredeemable?
The first time I was diagnosed, I was so furious and hurt that I refused to speak to my therapist except in biting asides for the rest of our session and then left her several angry messages that afternoon. “You are telling me that my personality is disordered!” I told her sharply. “That’s not what it means,” she would respond, patiently. “It means you have a longstanding, fairly intractable pattern of behavior. That’s all.”
But it’s not all. Depression, anxiety, I’m happy to cop to those. I can talk about my anxiety or my depression all day. But to say that I have a personality disorder? Well, as Rebecca put it, “that’s not something I have. It’s something I am.”
BPD is so incredibly stigmatized that it’s entirely possible that publishing this will lead to some kind of consequence for me. I fear my employers will worry, that my friends will decide I’m too much trouble to bother with. BPD is stigmatized not only in the public eye but among clinicians as well: because we are often seen only in crisis, many clinicians develop a view of us as attention seeking, incurable, frequent flyer patients who they shouldn’t bother with. Lots of therapists and psychiatrists aren’t even willing to work with BPD patients. Finding help is hard, and sometimes even when you do find help you end up with people who are looking at BPD patients as a monolith, unwilling to consider flexibility as part of treatment. (Take, for example, the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy clinic at McLean Hospital, which involuntarily hospitalized me when it was unnecessary so they wouldn’t have to do the work of transferring me to new care; I had to go from 24/7 access to a therapist and psychiatrist to having not one mental health professional in my life. Not that I’m still bitter (I’m still bitter).
But BPD is actually quite treatable; the prognosis is reasonably good for us. Our symptoms tend to start to abate as we get older, and intensive therapy can lead to partial or full remission. The overall trajectory of the disorder is complex but ultimately hopeful. No one knows this, though. BPD is often (and wrongly) assumed to be almost impossible to treat, partially because it is so hard for us to get treatment.
I watched Rebecca’s sing “A Diagnosis” with a heavy heart, knowing she was about to get news that would hit her in the chest with a sledgehammer. I watched as she googled, learning about how high our suicide rate is (1 in 10 completed suicides; 7 in 10 have attempted—I’ve never been one of them and I don’t think I ever will be as long as I have care—but if I lost my healthcare, I am quite certain that would be the outcome) and how stigmatized we are. I watched her panic as she rushed to another therapist’s office, begging for a different diagnosis. Something, anything, other than the truth that would sit heavy in her chest, the awareness that this disorder will be part of her forever, that the ways in which she exists in the world are maladaptive. She will have to learn. It’s so, so exhausting to have to learn all the things you should have already known.
Pre-diagnosis Rebecca sings a song called “You Stupid Bitch,” which includes lines like “you’re just a lying little bitch who ruins things and wants the world to burn, bitch, you’re a stupid bitch, and lose some weight.” This self-loathing is not unique to BPD, of course—I suspect most women have sung this to themselves at one point or another—but the feelings of emptiness and instability of sense of self are bang-on for us.
“Are you okay?” a flight attendant asks Rebecca shortly before she starts taking sleeping pills. “I don’t know,” she says. I thought of one of my favorite pieces of writing, Mallory Ortberg’s re-writing of Curious George. It includes a line I think of all the time: “Are you an emergency? Who can you tell about it?”
After taking sleeping pills to try and end her life, Rebecca hands her empty bottle of pills to the flight attendant. “I need help,” she says, her eyes rolling into her head, her face pale. She is so, so tired.
For me, living with BPD is like living as an open wound. There’s lots of things you can do to staunch the bleeding. Coping skills, antidepressants, benzos, mood stabilizers, distress tolerance, distraction, role play, DBT, CBT, MBT, group therapy, psychodynamic analysis, journaling, collaging, exercise, treating comorbid disorders (because you’ll have some)—it goes on and on. And it works! You can slow it to a trickle, you can even build a scab that will offer you some protection. But that wound is primal and it is never, ever going to close.
The doctor tells Rebecca this almost exactly: “You lack the protective skin that allows you to feel comfortable in the world.” This is the best way to understand BPD. We are just more raw than you are.
Rebecca makes a lot of really, really bad decisions, and in one scene she is horribly cruel to the people she loves most. I don’t think I’ve ever been cruel in that way, I’m not paranoid, I don’t make the same mistakes Rebecca does, and I definitely don’t have that much sex with that many hot guys. There were many, many times in the show when I thought what I assume most people were thinking, that Rebecca’s behavior was disgraceful. I understood it, though. I understood the feeling in her belly, somewhere deeper than she could find words for, the clawing desperation to fill that emptiness inside her. I understood the way that desperation could grab ahold of her and make her forget everything she knew about being a healthy person, the way if your leg is broken or your house on fire you don’t think about the nuance in relationships: you just desperately, desperately want to splint the bone or put out the flames.
“It’s like I was out of stories to tell myself that things would be okay,” Rebecca explains after her suicide attempt. And oh my god, sometimes I do, too. Representation matters. Stories matter. It’s hard to even put into words how much it matters to me to see this on television. Here’s a person on a major network show who is crazy, yeah. But she’s also wonderful and funny, kind, smart, caring and loyal. I’ve never seen myself so clearly in a character on television before. It’s odd, since my life has certainly never featured beautifully choreographed song-and-dance numbers that express my inner feelings. But if they did, a lot of those songs would sound a lot like Rebecca’s tunes. Hilariously funny, biting songs that expose the tenderest, rawest parts of me, the parts that society would prefer to demonize.
Maybe Rebecca Bunch will help stop that demonization. I know no one is watching this show, in comparison to other shows on television right now? But if you are one of those watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I hope you’ll remember that Rebecca is a sparkly, fucked up example of a person with a disorder that I bet you always thought was reserved for the worst of us.
It’s not. Thanks for showing us that, Rachel Bloom. Thanks for giving me a mirror, especially one that sings.
This story was originally published on Medium.