Overwhelming emotion has been a story of much of my life. From a bad temper as a child to the likelihood of anxiety and traumatic memories suddenly paralyzing me or causing dramatic behavior today, it is a thing I deal with most days. I can be calm one moment and in a minute I can be full of flurries of fear, hurt, and am shaking so much that it’s hard to type. This, in fact, happened to me while I was composing the draft of this blog post, because I received news that triggered fear, anxiety, and anger in me. I had to walk away from the post for several hours before continuing, knowing that had I continued as was, the post would have been full of anger. Parts may still contain a bit of that.
The neuroscience of BPD says that borderlines tend to have smaller amygdalas, and when a stressful stimuli occurs what happens in the parts of the brain responsible for emotional managements (amygdala included) is that it acts sort of like a small engine which revs up really fast, putting the person in a situation where they pass the appropriate level of emotion for that situation and often towards emergency levels of emotion. This, combined with the decreased activity in the pre-frontal cortex, where executive decision making, complex problem solving, and the ability to cognitively distinguish between nuanced ideas happens, causes a potentially explosive situation.
It’s like having the fight/flight reflex happen merely at hearing bad news. Wait, no, it’s not merely like that; that actually happens to me sometimes..
This state of affairs leads to a mood where impulses become much more problematic. For me, these impulses feel like swimming within an ocean of a new mood which I am drowning in. It’s like I was suddenly inundated with the waters of fear, anxiety, etc and the sudden desire to say something, do something, or hide in a corner alone is like being near something which is floating. To have the wherewithal to recognize that I’m not actually drowning and the floating thing is actually a hungry bear is a difficult challenge.
These sudden changes in the emotional environment within me may persist over an extended period of time, which for me is usually hours rather than days or longer (as with, for example, bipolarity, where the mood may last for weeks or longer.). Often, the mood will pass within minutes, depending on the severity and the cause. Adjusting to the emotion, allowing it to calm over time and through positive stimuli (affection usually helps), and preventing it from perpetuating via re-engaging the triggers all help avoid giving into the impulses.
Essentially, radical mood swings can sometimes mean going from calm to crazy in a few seconds. And because the parts of the brain responsible for emotional control and rational thinking are suddenly compromised, suddenly and often without much warning, one doesn’t always have time to prevent the emotion from taking over. The real strategy is to avoid triggering stimuli where you can, which can hard when sometimes that stimuli is a memory or a person (who might show up at any time at a social event, for example).
While there are medications which might help with this, for many borderlines the medication sometimes has little to no effect or the side effects may be worse. I am currently on no medication, and given my progress I am not convinced that I will need to start taking them. I will continue to monitor how mood shifts continue in the future, and re-evaluate whether I might want to consider medication in the future as that monitoring continues.
Stress, Anxiety, and Trauma
Being me, some days, is like walking around with a box full of fireworks in a warehouse partially on fire. If I pay enough attention, am diligent and careful, and if the fires around me are not too close, I will be fine. Triggers can range from specific people, being treated a certain way, having plans I was looking forward to cancelled, etc. One minute I’m fine, but hear some news, see a person, or am reminded of something painful. The next thing I know I’m (at worst) crying, alone, fighting of really strong impulses which will probably not end well, even if they are sometimes meant with the best intentions.
I don’t always succeed in resisting such impulses. Sometimes the radical mood shifts lead to dramatic behaviors. Sometimes it just leads to periods of depression punctuated by moments of intense hurt, unloving behavior towards people I genuinely care about, and further distance from everyone.
We all have things which cause anxiety, stress, and many of us have traumatic memories. I have lots of all of these. One specific traumatic event which happened shortly after college and involved a woman who I was engaged to, a daughter we had and gave up for adoption, and my finding out that my fiance had taken me for every cent I was worth and put me in massive debt was probably the major event that pushed me over the line of being diagnoseable (although it was years before I was diagnosed).
And as more traumatic life circumstances perpetuated, the amount of raw emotion present in my day-to-day life increased. Over the last few years of my life, I have dealt with being abandoned in a city where I knew almost nobody by someone I decided to trust. There was one bad living situation where Ginny and I were treating like servants, living in a basement and permitted to come upstairs only at allotted times. And while the events of a few years back still sting, they don’t have the potential, most of the time, to hijack my mood completely. More recent events of another unhealthy living situation are still quite fresh and have caused me a lot of trauma which have caused a variety of radical mood shifts over the last few months.
Those experiences existed alongside the many other complications of coming to grips with a diagnosis which excavates many deeply buried feelings, triggers, and memories. Much of the last few years have been a mine-field of sadness, trauma, and anger for me, especially very recently.
What I need from people close to me is some level of genuine consideration, and ideally care and love. (It’s fair to point out that this is also what I need to be giving, rather than allow the effects of these mood shifts to cause bad behavior on my part). And I get these things from many people, and my appreciation for that is immense.
But I cannot receive this from every direction, nor would it be rational to expect or hope that it would. We need to pay attention to where the love comes from, where the abuse comes from, and also that just because love or abuse came from somewhere it does not mean it will always come from there. People change, especially after formative events, and we should allow for the possibility that people will grow or that we had them wrong all along.
This is something I am constantly trying to remind myself of; the people that hurt me are not all evil nor will they necessarily always hurt me. I cannot lock in my view of a person for all time based purely on previous behavior and treatment, even if this is a significant or primary factor. I must also consider factors such as their willingness to change, their continued behavior to other people, and what they also did that was good towards me. Loss of trust, in other words, can be compared to how we think about prison; we can think of it as a pace to keep dangerous people away, or a place to give people a chance to be rehabilitated.
Because I recognize that I am a person who is capable of very good things but have also done terrible things, I have to accept the possibility that people who have hurt me might be equally capable of good, even towards me. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic right now (where earlier I was much more cynical), but most of the time I want to give people an opportunity to surprise me and to prove my estimation of them wrong.
Of course, there is always a line beyond which forgiveness and opportunities is too far removed. I would not advocate for this mentality to be applied to all situations, and am not precisely sure where the line is. I do, however, believe that when trust is attached to pain, it rarely will grow back. When trust is attached to our ability to grow, it slowly heals pain.
Causes and Types of Mood Swings
On Monday (Memorial Day), Ginny and I were driving back from Delaware where we had been visiting my mom for the weekend. We had been doing holiday weekend beach-bumming and drinking happy hour drinks, and on that ride back we were listening to one of my favorite albums (Collective Soul’s Dosage, if you’re curious). This is relevant for two reasons.
One, this album always makes me feel good (just like Counting Crows’ August and Everything After and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, among a few others) so it is a good example of a trigger than can effect my mood. But in this case, it’s relevant because despite the previous reason, I was suddenly, while driving and listening, struck with some recent and painful memories which started to suck me into a hole of hurt, anger, and depression. I had to fight them off by singing along, which got easier as I forced myself to ignore those memories. I was in a tug of war with the sadness, hurt, and overwhelming sense of existential loneliness inside me as well as the music which I love surrounding me and with my lovely and amazing wife next to me.
Such juxtapositions are very common for me, and they can be confusing for people close to me. There may seem to be a contradiction about being surrounded by people who love you and feeling crappy anyway, but it happens. Close temporal proximity of moods with conflicting natures is just part and parcel of my borderline existence.
Music can be a trigger for emotions, sure, but what about other things?
Clutter, disorder, and mistakes (especially if I make them) are a big source of mood shift for me. Staying too long in a messy place has a visceral and powerful effect on my mood. I may appear calm and normal, but if the space I’m in is especially dirty or disorganized (and not in a minor way; it has to be pretty significant to bother me) then I will be fighting back feelings of discomfort and the constant struggle against such feelings will make me more susceptible to other kinds of triggers, since I’m already taxing my mind by managing strong feelings.
If I make a mistake, I often punish myself internally. I have been known to get really angry if I miss an exit on a highway, especially if it’s because I got distracted. Not rational or proportional, I know. Remember the emotional management part of the brain going from calm to crazy? Yeah, it’s that. What should be a minor annoyance at most turns into heightened anger at myself or others for minor issues.
Dismissal or inconsiderate behavior is another. The closer someone is to me, the more powerful any level of rejection will feel. If a girlfriend were to dismiss a a struggle of mine, a desire of mine, etc it would really hurt. Luckily for me, all of my partners are very unlikely to do such a thing, so this is not a major concern for me. If a close acquaintance perpetually ignores me or scoffs at me, this is also painful and can trigger all sorts of mood shifts, but usually hurt and anger. This also does not usually happen (anymore), so it is not an every day concern.
A person who is coldly indifferent to the needs, preferences, or desires of others is also a major trigger from me. It’s one of the reasons one of my values is attention and empathy.
What about every day things? Well, as Ginny can attest, any annoying problem with (for example) one of my computers, especially if it was just working, makes me hella cranky. If I’m writing, being interrupted also makes me cranky and I will more likely ignore or be rude to someone who does so. Also, if I’m thinking really hard about a problem I have not yet solved, being asked about it makes me (you guessed it) cranky.
Why? Well, in these cases it is because I have managed to avoid radical mood shifting events for a while, and have settled into a place of some peace, order, and productivity where I am capable of moving forward and creating something worthwhile. But one idiosyncratic aspect of my mind is that (for many complicated reasons) I can lose a whole idea very very easily. Ideas form in my head like holograms, the whole is in a part, and the parts contain the whole. If I lose a train of thought and lose an idea, I might not get it back. Losing that train is one of the most powerful triggers, day-to-day, which can cause me to feel a lack of control and brings forth feelings of incompetence and frustration.
So, given this, one would think that the best thing to do, if I look like I’m concentrating and alone, would be to leave me alone. But then theirs the other side of this.
If I’m feeling crappy, I’ll sometimes lose myself in a game (although not always a game) as a sort of escape from the pain for what’s getting to me. If I stay there too long then I don’t want to leave, due to the numbing effect of the escape. The problem is that from the outside, telling the difference between the two can be hard, and even Ginny does not often know the difference all the time. If depression and deep contemplation look the same, what is a partner to do?
Well, as I have told Ginny, if a person comes over to me and touches me affectionately in order to get my attention and I don’t respond in any way or I pull away, then something is wrong. If I respond, but make it calmly , lovingly, verbally clear I’m working on something, then I’m fine. When I’m not fine, however, I sometimes need a tug away from the funk I’m in. And here is where these mood shifts have always become a problem for relationships, especially if we’re cohabiting.
One of the easiest ways that I can reel towards unhealthy and abusive behavior is when I continue to not be fine for extended periods of time, and then when I finally pull myself up a little bit the mood has not lifted and I am, you guessed it, exceedingly cranky. Then any communication becomes hard, and my deep feelings surface in the form of lashing out. If I’m in the funk, my behavior becomes erratic, hurtful, and sometimes mean. And I hate that part of me. I need to stop hating that part of me because hating it only makes it worse.
I have so many horrible memories of being in deep funks of depression and having a loved one try and reach out to me for attention, affection, and time together only to have me push them away. This, over time, turns into a cycle of emotionally abusive treatment which I desperately want to avoid. The problem is one of lack of communication about how I’m hurting, and it is unacceptable and needs to stop. I may occasionally need a loved one to pull me out of a funk. but it’s my responsibility to communicate about feeling shitty before I get sucked into that funk in the first place.
Which means that I need to exist, most of the time, in an environment conducive to emotional openness and vulnerability. I need not to be scared, feel bullied, or out-right abused myself. And if I’m not feeling scared, bullied, and abused then I am much better at communicating and not treating partners badly due to a mood swing sinking me into a depressive funk. Depression will still happen, but so long as I can communicate on the way down and keep my loved ones close, walking out of it in a few hours will be easy and the ensuing communication will lead to more intimacy and closeness rather than distance, hurt, and damage to trust.
The Solution (a work continually in progress)
So, how can this mess be fixed? How can I, as a person who struggles with symptoms of a disorder which fills me with fear of abandonment, feelings of emptiness, has the potential to make relationships difficult, makes me impulsive, and which subjects me to radical mood shifts succeed in the environment of polyamory? How can I navigate these harsh seas without sinking the ship?
In many ways, it’s akin to writing a symphony. Or, since I’m not a composer, it’s akin to appreciating the complexities, inter-weavings, and beauty of a symphony. If you have an idea of a theme for a piece of music, you can both anticipate and be moved by it. It may not do exactly as you’d expect or like, and there may be moments when you yearn for a note or a phrasing which will either be left silent or returned to later in beautiful and often emotionally powerful ways.
Over here, we have a deep, trembling, emotional tone (perhaps of a cello) which demands patience but is also capable of providing a sense of grounding and power to the music. Over there is the dancing quickness of the violin (for example), capable of soaring to emotional heights of joy and depths of sadness, but it’s part is different from the low tones and can often grab a hold of your attention in order to drags you along with it. The people in our lives play different parts, in different ways. And sometimes, according to what piece of music you want to play, the bassoon, piano, or timpanis may not work where in another they would be an appropriate addition.
But more important is the fact that we are not any one piece of music. Perhaps today I’m a playful divertimento, but tomorrow I’ll be a morose requiem (I’m been listening to Mozart today). With each mood, comes a different kind of music, and different people can play different roles in these moments. The people who keep coming back to play parts in our lives are the people we will develop close ties with. They fit us in different ways, at different times, and they help fill out the whole of our lives. Each mood, even the unpleasant ones, have people who can play parts within them.
We are complicated beings. We are not one thing, and we cannot (and should not) be defined by a single ideal or goal. We have to learn to move freely between our selves, including our moods, because they will happen whether we like it or not. We will change as people, both in the short term ups and downs of mood as well as the slow progression of intellectual, emotional, and social growth over years. We will learn new things about ourselves frequently, and we have to become comfortable with the fact that we are not people defined by either our past (our mistakes or successes), our present (how we are currently feeling), or our future (our ideals or goals). We are in flux, a Heraclitean river unto ourselves.
I am not a borderline. My disorder, as it exists right now, does not define me in any ultimate or unchangeable way. My past mistakes do not define me. The mood I’m in now will not determine who I am, because I know that it will change and I will float through sadness, happiness, and all the spaces around from day to day. My future is not limited to neither the ideals I might hold nor the symptoms which seek to imprison me. Ideals and anxieties of the future are not reality, and they don’t have to become real.
As a person who does not believe in free will as a possible state of affairs, I must recognize that the deterministic processes around me are the ultimate choosers. At the same time, I cannot see all of what those factors are. My will is as much a part of that process as it is a result of it. I cannot know the future, so there is no difference, from my limited scope, from being free and being constrained by the laws and forces of a deterministic nature..
My disorder is not an excuse, it is not a definition, and it is no more permanent, in the larger frame of time of my life, than my mood is right now to the frame of time of this week. I have hurt people, I will likely hurt people in the future, and I have many regrets in my life. My goal is not to never hurt anyone again because that would be futile and the prophesy it’s own failure. My goal is to continue to be aware of the geography of my mental landscape and to find the people who will contribute to the many symphonies which I am capable of playing.
And when hard moments, days, weeks, and months come (and they will), I will hope to allow them to pain my heart the way that Beethoven does in his 7th symphony, second movement; it will ache, it will make me want throw myself to the fire, but when that next piece of music come son I’ll be ready to dance. Those moments of paralyzed distance, where I need to be pulled out by loved ones, need to be moments of perspective and opportunities for intimacy, not potential for lashing out. Where I’m hurting, I need to recognize that there are people close by who wish to see me dance as well.
What the world has to offer, whether self-centered jerks, beautiful creative people, or all the NPCs of our lives, will give us all sorts of boons and banes. But the jerks can’t always hurt us nor can the beautiful people always raise us up. And remember; sometimes the jerks and the beautiful people are interchangeable from year to year, month to month, and maybe day to day. We are, all of us, legion. They, like you and I, are not defined by their past, present, or future. There may be many parts of them unseen by us. Remember to allow people to surprise you and I will try the same..
In the end I will continue to be optimistic about the people who have hurt me, knowing very well that this consideration may never be returned to me. I will not resign to classify others any more then I will allow them to classify me. Caution, not borders, is what is needed. I’ll try to remain cautiously optimistic, and not allow any person to define me any more than my moods.
And hopefully, soon, I will be on the borderline of not being constantly afraid, hurt, and angry.
I look forward to that day and I hope there will be many others with me along the road. The road to recovery is difficult but manageable with appropriate levels of compassion, empathy, and willingness not to define each other merely by the hurt we cause.