“I am my own problem and
I am my own solution”
On this blog I try to share the insights I acquire in life, through Buddhism, through experience, and through those of others. On the outside, I may seem to be happy and I may seem to have my life pretty organised. I have a lot of great people, animals and things around me that make me grateful. But I also suffer from a mental illness. It started with light signs of post traumatic stress (a light Post Traumatic Stress Disorder kind of thing) for which I underwent psychotherapy. Later on it all intensified into a more unstable mental state. I had to wait for almost a year after my intake before I finally went through a long series of research and tests to determine which illness I suffered from. I was thoroughly tested on autism, but the results were negative. Autism is a form of innate behaviour, you are born with it. With that possibility ruled out, it was clear that I suffered from behaviour acquired during my life, a personality disorder. It was not ADHD, nor ADD or PTSD, but it turned out to be a ‘obsessive-compulsive Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with signs of post traumatic stress and agoraphobia.’ Most readers will probably already be aware of what this means, but I will explain how it expresses itself in my case and how it affects me, this time without trying to relate too much to Buddhism (just a little bit 😉 ). Just a description of the things that happen in my mind.
I’ll first examine the typical symptoms of BPD as recorded in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the matter in which they apply to me:
- Fear of separation The fear of losing loved ones, animals or things. Very typically the clinging to a relationship, even if it is unhealthy. I tended to do things like these in the past, I even dated other people with BPD which was a total recipe for disaster. These unhealthy relationships partially made me realise that I was unhappy and discontent with life and the Dharma, the full teachings of the Buddha, eventually gave me insight into my self-grasping idea of attachment. When one of my relationships broke in 2014, I totally broke down into depression and I had suicidal tendencies. Not much later I was diagnosed with BPD. I have also been very afraid to lose my parents when they were simultaneously severely ill. In my current partner I have found love and happiness and she is the first one I don’t cling to in unhealthy attachment.
- Intense and illogical anger, often followed by feelings of shame and guilt
Whenever I feel overmanned by feelings of powerlessness and the inability to change injustice or when I am confronted with violence and aggression I burst into an uncontrollable rage. The latter is called re-directed aggression (just a quick note: I graduated from University as a conflict scientist). These anger-attacks are my main problem, especially because they are extremely violent and I can totally lose control, literally blacking out. I can observe myself destroying almost every object that gets into my path, but I cannot gain control of myself, no matter how hard I scream at myself to stop. Psychotherapy has helped me to dramatically reduce the frequency of these attacks and there is now a delay in the build-up towards an explosion of anger.
Whenever I feel an attack coming up, I have to leave the situation I am in immediately and go back to my breathing, trying with all my mental strength to restrain myself. Sometimes this works, often it doesn’t. I have a lot more control over my anger since I started psychotherapy in early 2015, but there is still quite some room for improvement. Luckily my anger seldom turns against people (only when they threaten me inside my personal space).
A big problem here is that I trained in several martial arts, which at helped me to channel my anger into something useful and gain some self-confidence. Because it really brought me joy, a better physical and mental health I eventually became pretty skilled in reality based self defence up to a point where I can fend off multiple attackers at once, even if they are armed. You can imagine that this becomes some sort of a liability when an anger attack kicks in. I have bad experiences with fighting off people who were actually trying to help me. I am currently trying new martial arts in order to find one that truly teaches me to further harness my anger.
After an anger-attack I always feel extremely guilty, as if I have let myself down, as if I have failed to control myself. I can really feel like a monster when I see that I have destroyed my furniture (or that of my parents) or when I have smashed my television or phone into pieces against the wall for example. These feelings of guilt lead to a negative spiral, which makes me descend into depression, the next point on the list:
- Severe depressive mood swings and irritability I can get depressed pretty easily and when I am not feeling depressed I am very often irritated by the ignorance of people around me. I know that acceptance is the key here, but my subconscious is often too strong and I cannot fight the depression. When I am depressed I have to be careful not to keep looking for solutions. I have to accept the fact that I cannot solve anything when I am angry or depressed. If I get stuck in my ‘depressive mode’ I usually start staring out of the window and my thoughts are locked in a seemingly rational, but actually irrational and inescapable vicious circle which eventually leads to one conclusion: Life is not worth living anymore.
- Suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviour
I’ve struggled with suicide multiple times. I hung from a high bridge multiple times, I stabbed myself in the arm with a steak knife aiming for the main artery, I ate too many anti-depressants, I tried to drive my car into a tree (at the last moment I hesitated), I tried to cut my throat but it hurt too much and I tried to hang myself, but the cord snapped. Yes, I admit to myself and to you that I have done these things. I gave up on life. I know that suicide is no solution at all, but in those extremely depressed moods I ended up trying to extinguish my own life which is so precious to me. In the end, I always end up accepting life even more. Suicidal ideas have been there sometimes, but I have now abstained from actually undertaking suicidal action, that’s one of the great accomplishments I gained so far.
Self-harming behaviour is always connected to attacks of anger out of extreme despair, like stabbing myself with a knife or squeezing a glass in my hand until it breaks (and then I even keep squeezing). I have been to the first aid station and the ER for more than a couple of times the past seven years. Unlike many other Borderliners, I do not cut myself, but then again I do have tendencies to hit myself or bang my head into walls whenever I lose control in anger and despair.
- Chronic emotional emptiness Depression, despair, powerlessness, they all lead to one emotion: anger. In the past year, I have rediscovered my emotions again. For seven years I haven’t truly cried whenever I wanted to feel sad or sorrowful. I could only feel anger. The only thing that could really touch my soul and bring tears to my eyes was music, especially Christmas music. Last Monday I cried again for the first time in seven and a half years and it felt good. In those years I have never really experienced true joy, I haven’t taken maximum pleasure from the things I like to do. I only felt alive in a fight or in a dangerous situation or when doing something relatively extraordinary (like walking 80 kilometres in a day or climbing a 2900m high mountain on my own).
- Dangerous impulsive behaviour In my attacks of anger and despair I would often seek limits. The anger attacks themselves can be regarded as dangerous impulsive behaviour on their own. I would also have the tendency to step into my car and drive around recklessly or I would go looking for a fight. Even with police officers. Luckily I was often able to restrain myself before things got out of hand too much, but sometimes things ended quite differently than I would have wanted. Spending too much money was also part of my reckless behaviour. I would buy stuff I really liked, like a new music instrument or a hat, just because it would give me some sense of temporary happiness.
- Distorted and unstable self-image
All the previously mentioned points have lead me to create a distorted image of myself. I am extremely vulnerable to failure and even the slightest set-back may spark a feeling of misery and powerlessness, possibly leading to anger. In other words, I have developed a failure complex in which things either do go wrong, or I tend to act upon them so they will go wrong, even if I don’t want them to do so.
I have developed a saviour complex. I want to help living beings, rescue them. I always wanted to be a soldier or a fireman (but was turned down because of a damaged eye). But there are many cases in which I cannot help. Sometimes people don’t even want to be helped. Luckily I now work at the animal ambulance where I can still save living beings. I also tended to seek out damaged women in past relationships, so I could help them and make their lives better. That became a mission on its own and of course that doesn’t work.
I often also don’t know exactly what or who I am. I make myself big toward others. I am a fighter and a saviour. But when facing official instances like the social welfare agency, I tend to make myself small and play the role of the ideal customer or client. I am an academic, but I cannot get a job in my own field and I have only done poorly paid work in the past. Failure. I have trained myself for years to become a good soldier and I get turned down in the end over a bad eye. Failure. I am a Buddhist striving for peace and I suffer from anger-induced Borderline. Failure?
In periods of stress I start dissociating, I start feeling disconnected from the world and from my emotions. Just like when I get depressed, I go into a thousand-mile stare and I lose track of my senses, thoughts and emotions. I get lost in a tangle of extremes, thinking in black and white and binary oppositions. I drift away from the world around me and the longer I am gone, the harder it is to wake up. I often compare it to dreaming in a deep sleep while actually being awake. When I get back to my senses I am often extremely irritated with society and the world around me, becoming misanthropic: I start to hate the human race and mankind.
My BPD is characterised by its obsessive and compulsive nature. I tend to have obsessive ideas which force themselves into my mind, even when I try to ignore them or delete them from my mind. They keep springing up from my subconscious. Meditation often works to temporarily expel them from my mind, but they often get back. I also have a preference for order. I tend to organise things and make lists of everything and when something has to be done I want to do it right away. When I place coffee cups into a cupboard for example, expect them to be neatly line up with the ears facing in the same general direction. If I walk past an unorganised bunch of coffee cups, I simply have to rearrange them immediately. Isn’t that tiring? Yes it is.
That’s a lot of bad stuff isn’t it? But wait, we are not there yet. There is the post-traumatic stress part as well! I don’t suffer from ‘full’ PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but there are some symptoms that partially overlap with the symptoms of BPD. I experience post traumatic stress as follows:
When I get startled, even by something trivial, or when run into a situation of panic or stress, body and mind go into alert-mode. I prepare myself to defend myself and the adrenalin rushes in. I’m ready for anything. My conscious mind will then detect that there’s no reason for panic and will settle down again. But my sub-consciousness and my body will stay in alert mode, creating a conflict in my head. My consciousness want to reassure my sub consciousness that everything is all right. But this also works the other way around and my conscious mind eventually wants to go back into alert mode. That conflict literally tears me apart from the inside. Let’s look into the symptoms of post traumatic stress in my behaviour as well:
- Exposure to a stressful event
…which is likely to cause pervasive distress in almost anyone. For me is the combination of was being attacked and kicked from my bike when I was bullied in high school, without being able to defend myself. Once again there is a large degree of powerlessness involved. I have also experienced simultaneous serious illness to my parents (cancer and a sever bipolar disorder) combined with physical attacks aimed against me inside my personal space by mother when she was psychotic and by police officers when they tried to stop one of my attacks of rage. A car crash and other smaller traumatic events have occurred in my life as well.
- Persistent remembering or “reliving” the stressor
…by vivid memories, recurring dreams, or by experiencing distress when exposed to circumstances resembling or associated with the stressor. I relive a lot of traumatic experiences in my life and I am constantly reminded of them by sounds, smells, large crowds, aggressive behaviour for example. When my mother was suffering from psychosis and het bipolar disorder, she would attempt to flee the house at night. She would leave doors open, causing the heat of the gas-heater in the living room to change the temperature in my bedroom. That subtle change in temperature had me jump from my bed, dress quickly and run for my car in order to go and find my mother. My dog is very clever and knows how to open the doors at night, creating the same change in temperature, leading me to jump from my bed and be ready to go.
Whenever the doorbell or a phone rings at an unusual time or when I hear a ringtone resembling the old phone of my mother (which I used to call when she ran away, only to hear it ringing inside the house, indicating that my other had left her phone behind in order to not be found), I go into alert-mode. I have recurring nightmares about traumatic events from my past from which I sometimes cannot seem to wake up.
I was also present at the Dam in Amsterdam to attend the national Commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Second World War. An incident occurred in which the so called ‘Damschreeuwer’ or ‘Dam Screamer’ created commotion by screaming during the customary two minutes of silence. Panic erupted in the crowd in which I was standing and I felt totally powerless, since I had no ability to escape or even move, I was dragged along by a panicking mass of people. From that day onward I am afraid of large masses of people in which I cannot keep a clear oversight of the situation. Every time I feel a shred of panic erupting from a mass of people I stand my ground and the adrenaline starts pumping.
- Actual or preferred avoidance of circumstances … resembling or associated with the stressor (not present before exposure to the stressor).I avoid crowds, I don’t like to go out on old year’s day when people can throw fireworks at me, I avoid places with loud music and places where I cannot keep a clear overview from what is happening. In short, I avoid places and people with possible stressing connotations.
- Difficulty in falling or staying asleep I have suffered from insomnia and I woke up often in the past, but for the last couple of years this problem had been solved by therapy and medication. I can now sleep without medication, especially when I share the room with people I trust or the bed with the one I love. I now feel safe inside of my house and my personal space.
- Difficulty in concentrating I’ve had problems concentrating for a long time. I always had to struggle not to let my mind wander off when doing something and I often forgot what I was actually doing. You know the feeling when you walk into a room and you can’t remember what you came to do there? I had that feeling all the time. I could not watch films, I had trouble reading books (I always had to read back or re-read a page). The only things I could focus on were my studies and martial arts. I had to drop a lot of hobbies and I had to learn to say ‘no’ and turn people down so I could get some peace of mind and re-gain my concentration. Only when I stopped working and retired from the labour market that I slowly learned to concentrate again.
This is a nasty one, but I have grown to accept it and use it as something positive. I am hyper alert. I am constantly aware of my surroundings and the people in it. Whenever I enter an area I first look for escape routes, I scan for possible threats and run a few disaster scenarios through my head before I settle down. I follow the movements and suspicious actions for people around me and I can listen to many conversations at the same time. I read the actions of my surroundings and look for divergent body language and signs of danger or abnormalities.
I never sit with my back turned toward a door and I always want to keep an overview of the area. A heightened sense of situational awareness was fostered and even encouraged during my martial arts training, especially in Krav Maga. Eventually I learned to live with it and how to apply it in daily life. In the past year I often found it a bit easier to settle down, but I remain hyper alert and vigilant.
- Exaggerated startle response When you startle me or try to scare me a few things can happen. My body freezes and goes into its alert-state. If you’re lucky, I will see that there’s no threat and I will calm down again, but I will remain agitated and jumpy for a while. I can also respond instinctively or violently. I usually apply what I learned in Krav Maga, as I feel threatened and will thus defend myself, trying to force a possible attacker into submission. It’s an instinctive trigger that is pulled, so you’d better not startle me. Afterward I remain hyper alert and vigilant.
Writing this has been quite confronting for me. Other than trying to give advice, I am now acknowledging the mentioned symptoms and I am honestly and openly presenting them to whoever finds interest in them. For me, writing this is quite a relief and a way of structuring the mental constructs in my mind. It feels good to be able to share my worries and my problems here, as well as help and inspire others who are struggling with similar problems.
As you may have noticed, all these symptoms are all very a-buddhist. Buddhism teaches me to handle things differently and to gradually change my way of thinking so I can cope with my problems more easily. Together with psycho-therapy they help me to understand what is going on in my head, why I do things and think things the way I do and provide me with solutions and insights that make life more bearable. The Noble Eightfold Path and the Dharma show me the things that may seem obvious to others. For me, Buddhism is my way out of the swamps of suffering. Thank you, dear reader, for your interest.