The “P” Word

There is no better word to get me worked up as this one. For years it could stop a session cold in its tracks. Usually ending in a pissed off defensive silence.

Provocative: serving or tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate
— provocative noun
— pro·voc·a·tive·ly adverb
— pro·voc·a·tive·ness noun

I was rather surprised with myself today. Instead of shutting down and withdrawing into silence I met it head on. It is an interesting shift. It gave Beatrice an opportunity to see where I was coming from. So innocent a word. Relatively benign, though of course, overused. Unless you stray into the land of Psychiatry/ psychology and social work. I had never thought much about it. It was like any other word in the English language that was until I hit 20. Once I had a label slapped on me. I quickly came to understand that in that context there was nothing good about provocative. It became synonymous with pathological. That is very much where it remains today nearly 20 years later. Where did this incredible power come from? When did such an innocent word become so mind bendingly haunting? I guess I’d have to go back to where this story starts and look there. I don’t like to revisit, and surely do not want to now, but I saw today the raw-ness of a wound inflicted so long ago. It truly was a wounding. I was just a naive kid. I knew nothing of this world I was about to descend into. Yes, it really was a descent down a rabbit hole of sorts. Prior to that I had no idea what went on behind high brick walls that stood on that hill. I was your average 20-year-old college student. I liked to party. I liked to live impulsively, just as so many around me did. I drove too fast, smoked too many cigarettes and did too many drugs. I had sex. Rough sex. Sure, I liked kink. That was me at 20. What set me apart from my fellow wild ones was the dark sadness that visited far too often. My highs were not long-lived. I chased them when the darkness descended. I was hot-tempered and angry much of the time. I was in so far over my head and didn’t see a way out of that. It didn’t take long for me to end up in a hospital. Universities like Cornell don’t like it when students jump to their deaths- they intervene fast and hard. There are no buts, no ifs and no waits. So there I found myself staring at an unfamiliar scary place. What was so difficult to take was the locked door. That alone surpasses so much of my early experiences. I can still tell you exactly what it sounded like, just as to this day I can tell you what every lock in every hospital sounded like. They are etched there in my head to replay over and over like an old phonograph. Initially I hid and kept to myself. I wanted nothing more than to flee. I didn’t trust anyone around me unless they wore scrubs or a white coat. How little I knew back then. I told myself they would protect me and that they would fix everything. I would be back at school in no time. But days wore on, I broke down and started getting to know those around me. I learned you couldn’t trust the staff. I was caught in this strange place not knowing who to believe and who to trust. Was I crazy like all these people I found myself locked in with? Was it all a mistake? In short order they started with the meds. I knew little. I numbly took them all the while wondering if it was the right choice. To take the meds was just accepting the truth about who I had become and how far I had fallen. To me it was just another failure on my part. Me not pulling my weight and getting shit done. I was falling apart. The longer I wandered those bland beige halls accompanied by the background noise of shrieking and crying the more I became convinced that this was my fate. I told myself I belonged there. But I was conflicted and angry. Rageful. The worse the side effects the more angry I became. I was trapped and sick without anyone listening. I was just another number, just another patient. Shifts changed and staff came and went. Nobody explaining what was happening to me. The fear was immense. I could not get away. The anger and fear joined into this mass that was unbearable to me. I did what I had always done when I didn’t get my way. I became impulsive and stupid. I acted without any benefit of reason. I chose death over life in that place flanked by miserable sick souls and the faceless uncaring individuals that “cared” for us. It was as if someone had unleashed an inner demon. As I have written before the following week was hellish. There is no good reason why I am still here. In the final day I listened as the doctor stood in the hall speaking with my family. I was being written off as hopeless, not treatable. I was given the choice of a state hospital or the facility my family had begged to get me a bed at. Somehow in that thick skull of mine I made a rational decision. But it was a decision that would set the path I am still on today and left the scars that still sting 20 years later.
Despite my experience upstate there was nothing that could have prepared me for the next 6 months. In terms of scale alone it was staggering in its scope. From a tiny county hospital unit I arrived at a massive campus of brick buildings. If I wasn’t so angry and sick I might have considered it beautiful much like a university, well except for all heavy mesh screens on the windows and locks on the doors. The intake was exhaustive and tough. I answered question after question. Most of the time repeating what I had told the previous person. I didn’t trust anyone though a part of me still wanted someone to just snap their fingers and return me to my cozy little room back at Cornell. I was so tired and scared. I still clearly remember the long walk to the unit. Looking up at the towering ceilings and the old furniture. It was as if I had stepped back into the Victorian Era. It did nothing but unsettle me further. Yet another locked door. Yet another sound etched there in my head. It was bright in that hallway. I remember that well. Maybe white? or pale colored walls. Tall windows. A lot of people. Too many. Far too frightening. I kept myself close to the wall as we walked. I wanted nothing more than to disappear completely. My skin crawled as so many eyes picked me out and sized me up. I sat on my little bed and tried to wrap my head around the week that led up to my finding myself in this foreign land. I tried not to meet eyes with the person sitting watch at the end of my room. I went nowhere without my shadow. All the sedatives I had been living on had been discontinued and it didn’t take long before I got sick. It is bad enough coming off those drugs, but with someone watching it is without description. I have written a bit about my experience on that unit and my late night encounter with Stewart. I was farther adrift and terrified by the time the rapid change of units was made. This new unit was different. for all the noise and disorder of the acute unit this one was quiet and almost homey. In a strange way. Instead of 20+ mixed individuals this was just a group of youngish women. They all seemed pretty normal at first glance. I thought to myself this might be safe, least safer than the last mess I had found myself in. It didn’t take long to get to know my roomies. I knew not to stare, but found myself unable to look away from the many visible scars. I couldn’t figure out why they seemed okay, but their bodies told a very different tale. I didn’t yet know what I was. Didn’t know till I was told via a small black and white printed pamphlet boldly printed with the heading BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER. I had taken psych classes and this wasn’t ringing any bells. I was trying to make sense of what I was reading. Was that me? Were all the bulleted lists of characteristics me? Impulsive? Yep. Spends Money? Yep. I stopped reading and sat looking around me. I’m crazy. All these things I do when I’m upset they are on this list. I’m one of them. and so began my life with a group of women that touched my heart in so many ways. They became my family. No matter what happened we stuck together. I heard the most devastating recollections of abuse. Abuse so brutal it could turn your stomach and scramble your brain all at the same time. It defied logic that these women were still alive. But was this alive? Was brutalizing one’s own body in an attempt to feel beyond the hollow confines of your bones living? Was creating psychological mayhem all around in an attempt to gain control living? It may well have looked homey at first glance but what went on on that unit was anything but home. Within hours I was to become acquainted with the rules and the bible by which with place ran. There were no ifs, ands or buts. This was it. Not that anyone seemed to like it. Yet that was how it was. Some doctor out in Seattle had figured out a way to treat Borderline Personality Disorder and the unit I found myself on operated under the guidelines of this manual. And yes, there was a manual. We lived and breathed it 24/7. Well, unless we were outside chain-smoking and bitching about the manual. It was rigid and seemingly inflexible, least that is how I experienced it. If X than Y. There was a lot of that. X behavior was to be met with Y response from staff. Though it probably wasn’t meant to be it came off as punitive and harsh to us. Nothing we did or said seemed to be the right thing. I was somewhat lost and confused. This was how I had lived for 20 years. This was how I survived all the crap I had endured thus far. Suddenly it was wrong. It was in the book. The behaviors were pathological. I needed to be fixed! What? Fixed? I didn’t know I was broken. I had survived till then hadn’t I? It didn’t matter what it was. I felt like I was screwed up beyond repair like all those around me. I know that sounds harsh and very judgemental but there were women there that I know are not still with us today. There was no help for them, not even the miracle cure of Linehan’s. Nobody endures torture like that and lives. Those that were in double digits for suicide attempts, or those that had run out of flesh on their bodies to burn or cut. that isn’t cured. sorry, but it isn’t. I sat amongst them learning and absorbing what it was to be a borderline. In those months I honed my skills of manipulation and splitting. I gained a new skill set. I learned my version of impulsive didn’t hold a candle to the zero to sixty these ladies could perform. I didn’t get better in that hospital. I got better at being sick. It made me what I would become. It was the very worst thing that could have happened to me. there was no returning to Cornell. It wasn’t even discussed. No, it was all about residential living/ halfway houses since I was too sick to return to any normal life. It was in those months that I learned my label, but worse yet I bought it. At each cross roads I found myself more angry and frustrated. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had no skills to cope so I mirrored the mayhem I saw around me. I became what they told me I was. I became sick and personality disordered. I became that Borderline. I was like all the rest. My behaviors were impulsive and sometimes quite extreme. I was locked in this battle of us against them. The more power they imposed the more angry and frustrated we became. The unit was unsettled. It was no longer homey. The population had changed a bit and it had become more charged and felt strained at best. I wanted nothing but to be free of the locks and the rules. The endless behavioral analysis reports we wrote for any and all behaviors the staff felt were pathological. They sat behind glass and watched us watching them. It bordered on the absurd. In my dreams I saw us hurling feces at our zoo keepers. I didn’t seem to matter what I did. If I drew a horse skeleton, which was all I ever drew, it was provocative. Let’s say Provocative with a capital P. My life was under the microscope. As was all of ours. I was not alone in my experience. I started to question everything about myself. who I was, what I did, who I loved. Didn’t matter what it was. I started to wonder. In time wonder became conviction. I looked at myself and saw nothing but a seriously ill, incurable failure. I was sick and I would make everyone around me miserable enough that they would leave me. Borderlines couldn’t have normal loving relationships. They drove everyone nuts until they finally gave up and left. It was hopeless. I didn’t see the women around me getting better. I saw then forcing round pegs into square holes all the while we were powerless to change it. Any complaint or resistance was met with yet another round of “you’re not seeing clearly, you need to accept what we are telling you. Write another behavioral analysis so we can show you how off you are and how right we are”. Day after day, week after week, month after month. Linehan’s system works because it breaks you down. It convinces you you’ll die if you don’t submit to the information and learn the skills. We were all fed that. One after the next we fell in line. the spark left, all that set us apart from one another faded to the background. We ingested the koolaid and fell in line. Sick or well, there was no difference. We were all the same. All those square pegs were round when they finished with us. I hesitated and wondered silently before doing anything if it was the “right” way, or of it was another “sick” behavior or mine. As time passed I grew angry and resentful of what I was seeing and experiencing. I hated it. I hated everything about what was happening. Some part of me knew it wasn’t right. I wasn’t a round peg. I wasn’t going to ever fit in that hole I was being forced into. I became more angry. It was met with more of the same. I was resisting because of how sick I was. I wasn’t going to get any better if I didn’t try harder and work harder at getting better. But I’m not sick! some small part of me would think to myself. I would get even more frustrated. This is how it went. Over time that piece of me that held out faith in my sanity became smaller and fainter till one day it wasn’t there anymore. Sure I was rageful and frustrated as ever but I had completely internalized the label. I AM SICK. I HAVE NO OPTIONS BUT THOSE SET FORTH BY THE PEOPLE AROUND ME. MY ANGER IS JUST A SIGN OF HOW SICK I AM. I AM CRAZY LIKE ALL THOSE AROUND ME. MY ONLY HOPE AT A NORMAL LIFE IS IN THIS MANUAL. I AM A ROUND PEG JUST LIKE ALL THE OTHERS. It took a while but I ended up there. To this day I live with that label. It sits with me all the time, in the best of times and the worst of times. When I think about what I can be it is always hedged in parenthesis followed by the–> there is no way you can do it, you’re crazy, remember? It is ever-present. They visit me in my dreams you know. All those square pegs that ended up worn down like me. I dream of them fiery and impulsive, so full of life. So full of sickness. You see in the healing it all got thrown out, the baby and the bath water. Nobody seemed to care since they were so busy following their bible. We were people, individuals, souls. We were not our diagnoses. We, so full of life and love, stood before you, but you didn’t see us. You saw only what we had to be when you finished with us. There was no bend, no accounting for us as individuals. There was no room for anything but the outcome you seeked. We were to be the proof that this manual worked, no care for how it was attained. Within the confines of those hallways and rooms both staff and patients suffered beneath this burden. To be sure, it shaped what was to become our experience. I cannot tell you how many times I have wished I never set foot on that unit, though I often catch myself remembering someone, or an exchange amongst patients that brings a smile to my face. I learned so much about resilience and how much suffering a person can endure. I saw what true survival was. I saw what survival skills were, and no they were not in the book. In the darkest of lives these individuals still shined. Struggling mightily they walked on. They defied odds, and defied logic, yet there they were. But it wasn’t enough. They weren’t done being manipulated and harmed. In the name of healing we all submitted and each of us bore one more scar in the end.

I know many might disagree with me, and that what I have written above is just a product of my illness at the time. That may well be true, but a scar is a scar whether you get it while sick or healthy. I don’t know if I can ever be free from this one. I’m not sure I can be. I know I feel so deeply about this label that it is tattooed on the back of my neck. I had it put there, where it will go with me into the hereafter. That is how firmly intrenched it is in my soul. If that isn’t harm I don’t really know what is. At the end of this long post I find myself wondering if this is ungrateful, do these words cast judgment on a book that may well have helped me. I don’t know. I just know the guilt I feel as I finish this. It is amazing. I cannot even recount my experience without doubt creeping in about what is right or wrong. I can only shake my head and wonder where it all went so sideways.

2 thoughts on “The “P” Word

  1. Read your post.  There is a difference between a scar and a wound.  This is still a wound that needs to heal.  Let’s do the work to facilitate the healing.  Deal?   G

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