The RiotFest.org editorial staff remind you to hit play on the above (or below) playlist, to use as a soundtrack to this deeply personal essay by one of our contributing editors. Thanks in advance.
My mom recalls me frantically running around the house at eight years old, telling her I was trying to run away from myself. I remember feeling embarrassed and vulnerable–of what, I can’t remember, but it was pain I couldn’t tolerate. My skin was on fire. I was angry and sad, and it felt like I was in a haunted house with no exit.
That’s the first year I went to therapy. It helped to have someone to talk to about how I felt “wrong.” I went on and off for years, only starting to go regularly in my twenties.
That sensation of burning—originally just skin deep—moved deeper into my muscles, and then throughout my bones as I got older and my life challenges got more complex. Change was always difficult for me, but as I entered my twenties, it seemed much more rapid and intense.
I moved to New York City in 2010, thrusting myself into an environment that has the distinction of being one of the most isolating places on the planet. New York living was like trying to ride a bike after the chain falls off. You might be able to keep your balance and drift a little; but before long, you’ll inevitably crash.
My crash occurred in the fall of 2011. By that point, I returned to Chicago, where a doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. For the next five years, that was the prism through which I viewed the world. The cloudiness I’d been feeling became a justification for my behaviors and the answers to all the problems I had (both real and perceived) that I tried to quell with therapy and medication.
Music has always been important to me. I always have an album or playlist recommendation at the ready, and enjoy the challenge of tailor-making one on the fly. Recently, I’ve been turning to Jamie xx’s album In Colour when feeling low—it bursts with sounds that soften the intense moments, and its cooling synths and samples take root in my brain with a soft touch. Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like a Levee contains a pastoral elegance that feels deeply personal and wraps me up like a blanket during a particularly intense episode. I can also bank on Wil Wagner’s lyrics on the last few Smith Street Band albums to really hit home.
All of the music, medication and therapy was helping, but I still didn’t feel exactly right. While in search of a second opinion, I found a doctor who reclassified me as having borderline personality disorder. I had no idea what it was at the time, but soon learned that the symptoms can seem close to bipolar disorder. But I’d never had a manic episode, which is a hallmark of bipolar disorder. Instead, my emotion shifts were shorter-lived and more reactive to stressors, instead of cycling on their own.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, borderline personality disorder is a mental illness marked by “an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, and behavior. These symptoms often result in impulsive actions and problems in relationships. People with borderline personality disorder may experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that can last from a few hours to days.”
Some of these indicators are unfortunately true. The journey to my borderline personality disorder diagnosis wasn’t easy–I’d tried 14 different medications to combat my mental illness since 2011. In some cases, they’re almost as bad as the disorder. I’ve lost several weeks in bed, crying unstoppably, experienced extreme weight gain (60 pounds in one year, during some of the worst bouts depression of my life).
Some of these medications have required regular blood tests to make sure they aren’t damaging my liver, which is a shitty price to pay for something that’s supposed to make me better. Luckily, I’m on a low-intensity medication these days that seems to do the trick, but being vigilant about my health is something I can never take a break from.
In addition, I regularly attend talk therapy with a focus on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which helps me handle my intense emotions through a specific set of skills. Some of these include acceptance skills like mindfulness and meditation, as well as learning how to tolerate distress by dealing with it instead of ignoring it.
It’s really difficult to explain what it feels like when I’m experiencing some of the worse symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Intense mood shifts, irrational fears of people’s intentions, and the dissociative episodes of feeling like I’m outside of my body are a few.
Naturally, I made a playlist that details how this all feels to me through sound—from the adrenaline flushes to the lightning bolt thinking; throughout the comedown, the shame, and then, finally, the renewal of the willingness to face it head-on for another day.
Since this diagnosis, I’ve felt a sense of balance and clarity I’ve never had before. It can be hard work, but the rewards are worth it. I’m lucky to have supportive friends and family members who know that my worst moments are not indicative of who I am at heart. Despite my difficulty in maintaining close relationships, I’m lucky to still have some of the friends that I had as far back as elementary school.
I’d often privately worried if I’d ever be able to maintain a romantic relationship, but then I met Ali, and we’re engaged to be married next year. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and I draw strength from her support during the hardest of times, and I try to model her perseverance in even the most difficult of situations.
There’s a song at the end of this playlist that’s very dear to my heart. “Relatively Easy” by Jason Isbell is the last song on an album about perseverance and overcoming obstacles, called Southeastern. In the summer of 2015, while dealing with some of the worst depression (and ensuing side effects) I’d ever experienced, I’d find myself crying every half hour for three days. It was exhausting. I’d play “Relatively Easy” over and over in my earbuds, attempting to calm myself. If I could make it through a particular verse, I knew I’d be okay for the next few minutes.
You should know,
Compared to people on a global scale
Our kind has had it relatively easy
And here with you,
There’s always something to look forward to
Our angry heart beats relatively easy
I’ve always liked that reminder—sure, what you’re dealing with sucks, but you’re not alone. Then there’s that prescient little bit in there —being with someone and having something to look forward to. I’m lucky to know that kind of companionship in my life. What it tells me is, that despite these obstacles, my best days are still ahead of me. Accepting that leaves me nothing to run from anymore.