Mental illness sucks. It really, really sucks.
My borderline personality disorder (BPD) drags me through hell every day, from binges to insomnia. It pulled me from my childhood dreams of a fairy tale endings complete with puppies and princes, and shoved me into the arms of the wicked witch. But separate from the symptoms of my mental illness, lies yet another gray cloud.
For anyone who has ever struggled with mental illness, describing how you feel is often a daunting task.
Despite this, we are constantly asked how we feel and what could be causing us to feel that way. We are bombarded with painted smiles and complex questions within the first session of therapy (questions we rarely have definitive answers to) and are attacked with quizzes that ask the same things in 10 different ways.
Often, it takes a long time for a mental health patient to really feel that they are understood by their therapist and, personally, I have never felt understood by anyone. This is not for lack of trying of course — I have been lucky enough to have at least one set of ears listening to my story through the last seven years, but even with the other person having the best intentions, I never felt anyone really understood. I could spend years trying to explain how confused and disorientated BPD makes me, but no one would ever be able to understand how it feels because there are no words that exist to describe it.
I started to think about this when I saw it mentioned in TV show recently (I can’t remember which one so please comment if you know!). The character argued that this world has an infinite number of things that exist, from emotions to dust molecules, and the number of words in existence cannot even begin to compare. Instead, we classify all dust molecules as “dust.” This allows for us to skip unnecessary detail and produce a language that can be remembered by a human brain — but it can also cause problems, especially in mental health.
If my therapist asks me how I feel, often the answer is filled with jumbled sentences including the words “tired,” “frustrated,” “sad” and “confused.” It is always clear by the end of my answer that I have no idea what I am saying, talking in circles around the point I wish to describe but unable to find words that reach the point itself.
At this point, the smile I plastered onto my face pre-session has disappeared and has been replaced with a blank expression that feels all too familiar. I rack my brains in search of a word that can help, but I find nothing. “Sad” doesn’t
convey the intensity. “Intense sadness” doesn’t convey the numbness. “Numbness and intense sadness” creates a statement that contradicts itself.
“Angry” doesn’t convey the insecurity. “Insecurely angry” doesn’t convey the constant thoughts of self-hatred.
I can never find words or phrases that fit. Words can never explain just how powerful the emotions are while also explaining how numbing and comforting they are. This language limitation then leaves me feeling unable to correctly express myself. I can’t make sure someone understands because I cannot use words to clarify it — I can see if their darts have landed on the board, but can’t recognize if they have hit the bullseye.
This in itself is frustrating because it leaves you feeling unheard, but it also creates a painful isolation. It makes you feel that no one in the world has really seen your pain, seen the exact degree of sadness and anger and fear. You can’t tell them — you can try, but you know deep down that none of your words really feel… right.
I have spent my entire life feeling alone — which is one of my greatest fears as a person with BPD. Feeling misunderstood, like a fraud, I lived through 15 years as the perfect little girl. No matter how many times I tried to warn people about my “bad” side, they couldn’t understand. I wasn’t a “bad” girl, they said while looking at my grades and exam results. Just being modest.
Then within the last two years, I just combusted; throwing my life into the gutter and curling up in my bed. I was getting worse and my desperate need to be understood was increasing. I thought if I couldn’t tell them how I felt inside, then maybe I could show them. Show them how my thoughts made me treat myself. Show them how the emotions chained me in place, leaving me unable to neither fight nor run.
It didn’t work.
But I did realize something while thinking about the limitation of words…
It goes both ways.
Just as I cannot explain how I feel accurately, a person that truly does understand cannot prove to me that they know what I am trying to say. They cannot try to convey to me how I feel because the words don’t exist — they are just as stuck as I am. They may have experienced the position in the past but know there is no way for them to prove it with the few words available to them.
While this helps me on a superficial level, it is yet to sink into the deep wounds I hold. Instead, I have to remind myself of it every time I feel misunderstood. I have to remind myself I’m not as alone as I feel.
I also have to remind myself, that even if I truly am alone in my feelings, I am not alone in being alone.
There are others, just like me, going through experiences both horrific and beautiful while being alone. They too are unable to find the right words. Our experiences are difference, but we are together in being alone.
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Getty Images photo via Grandfailure