June 13, 2007

Lesson The First: You are an Object

Posted in abuse, borderline personality disorder, mental health, recovery at 6:36 pm by nevavegan

I’ve been working on this forever, and I still don’t feel completely comfortable posting it. What I’m doing here is delving into a huge topic, which is so big and requires so much background that it’s almost not appropriate for blogging. However it’s extremely important to me, so I’m going to give it a try.

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles lately about sexism and violence against women. There are a lot of theories floating around out there about violence and general and violence against women in particular. I’m really not qualified to comment on many of these theories. I keep adding titles onto my reading list and I hope that shortly I’ll be able to say more in a much more authoritative manner.

What I do feel qualified to say is that the topic of mental health should be central to this discussion. There is an epidemic in our culture of untreated and often ignored mental illness, and one side effect of pretending this problem doesn’t exist is rampant violence and abuse. This includes abuse of all types, verbal abuse, physical abuse, stalking, and so on.

In animal work, as in feminism, as in the fight against violence, or to improve situations for poor and displaced all over the world, we often find ourselves using the word “objectify.” We use this to explain how someone is able to make a living from hurting animals, or how someone is able to do unspeakable things to another human being. We talk about the ways in which the media or certain philosophies objectify women, minorities, or animals.

But for me, the word objectify has another meaning and it really shakes me to my core. Because there are people out there who carelessly objectify others and can be woken up to the harm they’re causing when they hear the stories of the exploited. But there are also people who by reason of mental defect cannot do anything but objectify others. These are people who are completely cut off from empathy.

When I’ve tried to explain this to some people the first thing they think of is a serial killer, a sociopath, and that is one example. However, most people affected by this are not serial killers, but they are still dangerous to us in various ways. I feel like when that guy tried to grab me and force me into his car while I was out walking, that I was probably dealing with a sociopath at that moment. What I didn’t know was that people who are much less obvious might also view me (or you, or your sister, or your son, or their cousin) as only an object to be used and then discarded. These people might be able to put on a great show of empathy, but they usually do not feel it.

I will never forget that afternoon in the therapist’s office when I described a particularly abusive episode from my past and she brought up a topic that would change the way I thought about everything: Borderline Personality Disorder. I left her office and got several books, hit the internet hard, talked to friends, talked to strangers in support forums, and started wrapping my head around this topic.

My first reaction however was to run back to the therapist and hold up a book. Pointing to a paragraph I read to her “victims of abuse often develop Borderline Personality Disorder as unresolved trauma accumulates.” What does this mean, I wanted to know, does this mean that I might have Borderline Personality Disorder?

The therapist patiently explained that while many people with BPD do have histories of abuse, the diagnosis of the disorder is based more on their distorted thinking and erratic behavior. There are certain criteria they must fit to fall under this disorder. There is also an entire continuum of disorders, such as other personality disorders like narcissistic and histrionic, and then other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. A person can have bipolar disorder with one or two traits of BPD, or they can have BPD but exhibit traits also of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Very few people are a perfect textbook case of any one mental illness, there are degrees of severity and a whole host of symptoms from the common to the rare.

The therapist reassured me that I didn’t show symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, which was exactly what I needed to hear. We all need to keep an eye on our behavior and getting the green flag that I’m not mentally ill doesn’t mean I can do and say whatever I like all the time. However, it does feel good to know that I haven’t inherited a serious mental illness.

The trickiest thing about personality disorders is that people with personality disorders often don’t fit out stereotypes of how “crazy” people look and act. People with personality disorders, again on that continuum of severity, can hold down demanding jobs, don’t mutter to themselves or forget to bathe, don’t wear tin-foil helmets. They can be charming and nice; they can seem perfectly normal much of the time.

The main thing that will distinguish the personality disordered from the “mentally healthy” are the things going on inside their heads that the rest of us can’t see, like disordered thinking and unusual reactions or distorted emotions. Most important though is the complete inability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. The thing that you or I would notice would instances of unusual behavior that are hard to classify.

The reaction of a “normal” person (I put normal in quotes as there is a wide range of thinking styles and personalities that differ greatly but are considered ok, ie not mentally ill) to being around the personality disordered is often to start to wonder if they themselves are the crazy ones. Those of us who have been through this often use the phrase “welcome to Oz” to describe the experience, because suddenly you find that all the things you believed about human behavior and how the world works simply don’t apply.

As I said earlier there are varying severities of personality disorders, and it’s very hard to generalize about all people affected by them. Some people with milder cases do feel empathy sometimes, but find it hard to connect to that feeling during the worst times when their disorder really acts up. However, if we are discussing the just the most serious cases, and just those that fall under the definition of Cluster B personality disorders, we are talking about people that are very mentally ill. Even if they don’t necessarily act like they’re mentally ill, there are some extreme problems going on.

Because I grew up with a parent that falls under this definition, or to be more exact a low-functioning, out-acting Borderline Personality Disordered individual, I more or less grew up in Oz. Everything is backwards and upside down and nothing makes any sense. A further consequence of growing up in this environment was that later, as a teenager and then an adult I didn’t always pick up on the fact that some people around me weren’t behaving in normative ways or were engaging in damaging behaviors. Those things were actually very familiar to me. In other words I’d built up a tolerance to crazy in the same way other people have a tolerance for heat or cold. I didn’t really notice it any more.

The downside of not picking up on the fact that others had personality disorders was that people with personality disorders certainly picked up on my tolerance. To some of the most ill, my tolerance, my patience, and my vulnerability were like a drug, and so I attracted some pretty damaging people into my life. The therapist says that people who have been abused have a lower pain threshold sometimes. We might put up with more abuse than others would, but we are also totally crushed by it. Because we are already hurting, insults and harsh words are like rubbing salt in an open wound. A person who hasn’t learned some degree of helplessness by being stuck in a home with an abusive parent will likely stand up and defend themselves. For those of us who have learned, time and time again that there is no escape and that to defend ourselves makes things worse, we tend to ball up and wait for the attack to be over.

For years and years I asked myself “What did I do wrong? Why do people I love hurt me?” But the question was the wrong question. The fact was there was nothing I could change to alter those situations. The people who hurt me hurt me for disordered reasons that make no sense to normal people. Those reasons varied from enjoying the feeling of power they got from reducing me to tears to lashing out against imagined hurts. For someone in the grips of paranoia, simply being myself or smiling or insisting on being treated with respect could be the trigger for an all out attack, in some cases verbal, in some cases slander, in some cases physical. But the real issue is that the reasons never mattered, and staying in a damaging situation wondering why the same bad things kept happening was simply a waste of time.

Since this realization I’ve witnessed friends go through the same thing, wondering why a relationship simply won’t work no matter how hard they try, wondering why someone in their lives keeps hurting them over and over. Why doesn’t matter. When you realize someone in your life tries to crush you when you’re happy and uses moments when you’re down as an excuse to kick you, that’s all you need to realize. Just get out, get away. Move, don’t leave a forwarding address, change your phone number. Whatever it takes, just get out.

Some will argue that it’s not the fault of people with personality disorders that they have this mental illness and it’s unfairly punitive to them to cut off contact. I agree it isn’t their fault. Many have been victims of abuse themselves, though abuse doesn’t cause personality disorders and most people who are abused will not develop personality disorders. In fact, recent studies utilizing brain scans on people with Cluster B personality disorders show that their brain activity is altered as compared to someone without a personality disorder. Whatever the cause: genetic, organic, psychological, we can all agree that nobody ever asks to suffer from a serious mental illness. And certainly in cases where someone in our lives wants to get better, does not have such a severe case, and is not continually harmful to us, there are good reasons to support them during treatment. But that’s not what I’m talking about; I’m talking about the cases where people are severely affected, harmful to others, and very resistant to treatment.

The reason that this is so bad is that to people severely affected by cluster B personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder, I am an object. I am something to use for their amusement, or for their personal gain. But they don’t feel empathy toward me and they never will. They don’t worry about how I feel. They might enjoy my pain or they might be indifferent to it, or so lost in their own confusing world they’re unaware of anyone else’s pain, but the point is that I don’t matter.

With that as a starting point, there is no fixing it. Anyway I’ve rambled on in this impossibly long entry, because this is the building block to things I want to post about in the future. I want to talk about how ignoring mental health is harmful to our society. I want to talk about abused animals I’ve rescued personally and wondered how a person could break a rabbit’s bones for example. I want to talk about why bystanders are afraid to confront abusers. I want to talk about how concepts of objectification and ownership affect all of us. But this is the first step, to talk about the worst of it and where it comes from, and then later I can talk about how these things go from a place of mental illness and confusion to taking up residence in the minds of the otherwise healthy people.