Podcast: Courtney Cook Is Living Her Life With BPD
Jenn talks to Courtney Cook about her illustrated memoir, “The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces.” Courtney shares highs and lows of navigating her BPD diagnosis, talks about how to embrace the ups and downs of the condition, and explains how writing has been an outlet for her to express what others may not necessarily understand about the condition and her experiences.
Courtney Cook, MFA, is author and illustrator of the Kirkus starred graphic memoir “The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces,” which debuted as an Amazon #1 New. She received her BA from the University of Michigan and MFA from the University of California, Riverside. Her writing has been published by outlets such as TIME, The Guardian, The Rumpus, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, and Split Lip Magazine.
Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.
The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.
Hi folks, good morning, good afternoon or good evening to you wherever you’re joining us from, whatever time it is there, whatever you’re doing, whatever the weather looks like. Thank you so much for tuning in for our chat about living with borderline personality disorder.
I’m Jenn Kearney, I’m joined today by Courtney Cook. And before we dive into the conversation about Courtney and her experiences with BPD, and almost as importantly, her book, I do want to address that every mental health condition has a spectrum, whether or not you or someone you know, can relate to Courtney’s experiences or can’t relate whatsoever that doesn’t change the validity of your own health, your thoughts and your feelings.
So if you or someone you know has BPD, or some of our conversation might actually bring up some difficult memories or moments for you, but please know that our chat is intended to de-stigmatize a largely misunderstood mental health condition first and foremost.
So that being said, I shared with Courtney a couple of days ago that I thought I’d be able to read her book in chunks, and I honestly sat down and I just spent several hours, one fell swoop, like read the whole thing. It was that gripping.
So her illustrated memoir, which I’ve got right here, “The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces,” Courtney shares highs, lows, triumphs, and challenges of navigating BPD, as well as how to speak candidly about the condition with those around her.
So I’m really excited to be able to introduce you to her and get this show on the road. If you are unfamiliar with Courtney, you are in for a huge treat. She is a writer and illustrator who having very recently, like earlier this afternoon, celebrated “The Way She Feels” as being picked for Book Riot’s Best of 2021 List.
She has her MFA from University of California, Riverside and her writing has been published by outlets like Time, The Guardian, The Rumpus and Split Lip Magazine, just to name a few. So Courtney, hi, I’m super excited. Every time I talk to an author, I get these big grins on my face because I just, I love sharing what people are passionate about. So I’m so excited you’re with me. Thank you so much for joining.
Can you just start by telling us a little bit about yourself, as well as your journey of getting diagnosed with BPD? I know since I’ve read the book, your essays explain that, your thoughts, your feelings, your actions that were aligned with BPD were really present in your teen years, but it took you some time to actually get a diagnosis, right?
Courtney: Yeah, so I currently am 26 and live in Chicago with my cat. As you know, I work as a writer and an illustrator and just kind of make my way, but I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.
Even though I had kind of an idyllic life or family situation, like, you know, the golden retriever, everything, it was all like good theoretically, I still felt this kind of pervasive emptiness and unhappiness, anxiety that was just this dark cloud that loomed very consistently throughout my life.
It really came to a head when I was in middle school, particularly my seventh grade year, I just was not having a good time, really struggling with everything. And at that point I entered a psychiatric hospital for the first time and they speculated that I might have borderline when I was discussing how I felt with them.
But they told me that they didn’t typically diagnose BPD until you were at least 18, because the theory is that some people grow out of those behaviors and that there might be overlap with what is typical of being a teenager in that your friend groups shift a lot, or you don’t really quite get who you are yet, or things like that, maybe you’re having some mood swings.
You know, these are things that people do experience as they’re going through puberty as they’re growing up, finding themselves. And so they were hesitant to give any sort of formal diagnosis. There was only speculation. And I sort of forgot about that speculated idea until I had continued through residential treatment.
My eighth grade year, I spent 10 months in Utah at a residential treatment center and then I was hospitalized a few more times. And even though I was doing all the right things, it just like right things as in coping, like using my coping skills and taking medication and whatever it was, going to therapy, I just felt relief here and there, but I couldn’t quite tackle what was going on and that like root problem.
It wasn’t until I was 23 that I was formally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. And that was so illuminating, and then I was, oh, wait, they thought I might have that at 13, and that kind of brought back the memory, but that really like opened up a door for me to receiving treatment.
I always kind of say that prior to that, I was treated for all these peripheral symptoms of borderline, but I wasn’t aware of the root problem. And so it’s like this whack-a-mole game where like something would pop up and I’d fix that or try and get a handle on that.
Then I’d be like, okay, well we’ve got it now. And then something else would pop up. And so allowing, I guess, getting the diagnosis allowed me to be like, okay, now I can tackle this actual thing and not the peripheral symptoms of it, and that was a really life-changing event for me.
Jenn: I mean, it also lent itself to writing a full book about your experience.
Courtney: Well, interestingly enough, I didn’t necessarily think of my book as a book at first, I’ve been writing many of these essays prior to my diagnosis. I just didn’t use the language of borderline personality disorder. I was describing my feelings that were aligned with that, but I didn’t have that word or this diagnosis yet.
Then once I was diagnosed, I was like, wait a second, I’ve been writing about this for years, I just didn’t have like the word for it yet. And so then I was starting to see everything kind of come together, and then that was really exciting, but I was like, well, I was doing this all along.
Jenn: So basically in the back of your mind, you’re crafting this book without even totally realizing it. But I mean, with that being said, who’s the target audience for this book?
And like, what can we expect to learn if somebody was to go onto Amazon or is it Tin House Publishing? Is that your company? If they were to go on the Tin House site, what can they expect to learn from the book?
Courtney: Well, I think it’s really important to emphasize that even though it is a book about borderline personality disorder, it’s a book about my experience with borderline and I cannot speak for anyone’s experience except my own.
I know that the way I feel, and my book is called “The Way She Feels,” so it’s kind of funny, but the way that I’ve experienced BPD and my access to treatment and the different treatment methods, I’ve chosen to like partake in and whatnot, it cannot reflect everyone’s experience.
So it is a memoir and it’s very much just like a journey through my life. And at times there’s a large focus or like a more zoomed in situation of looking at how borderline affects me personally, but a lot of times, it’s also just about things I’ve experienced in knowing that I have BPD.
It kind of like sets the groundwork and that obviously influences the way that I have like encountered or like registered those situations in my brain and felt them emotionally and whatever else.
But it’s really just a look into my life as someone who’s struggled with their mental health since the womb, probably, I wasn’t really in there or I don’t remember, but I do know that every memory I’ve ever had, it’s like even going back to like three years old.
My family always jokes about like the things I was anxious about when I was young. Like it’s just always been something I’ve dealt with. So it’s just a kind of experimental at times, look into my experience through a mix of comics/graphic narratives, depending on what you want to call them, illustrated essays, lists, and yeah, just illustrations.
So it’s just kind of this exploration, but ultimately I don’t want the audience or I didn’t intend for the audience of my book to only be individuals who have BPD. Although I think it would be really amazing and has been really amazing to hear from individuals with BPD who feel like seen or heard, or like understood in some way by my book and that it resonated with them, getting those messages is incredible.
For me, it’s more a book about just like finding yourself and figuring out who you are and finding ways to cope with the world when it feels like too much or big or scary. And I think that those are things that anyone can resonate with regardless of whether they have borderline, another mental illness or just like are human.
‘Cause I think ultimately what I struggle with might be at like a louder level or of perhaps some people don’t struggle with it at all, but a lot of things are things that aren’t just unique to people with BPD. They’re like things that everyone deals with on some level.
Jenn: Yes, and I know I had shared with you separately that I have generalized anxiety and a lot of the anxieties that you wrote about growing up and feeling that lack of inclusivity within your friend groups, I could feel those same anxieties.
As somebody who doesn’t have a diagnosis of BPD, I could almost, the way that you wrote about it, I could almost feel what you were going through because at one point I had been there myself and that’s hugely impactful for having de-stigmatizing conversations because it allows people to get kind of a look behind the curtain into what is actually going on within your psyche.
Courtney: Yeah, that was definitely a big intention of mine to just provide some insight into my mind in hoping that perhaps someone else could see like glimmers of themselves within it, but even if they didn’t, hopefully it would be illuminating in some way or at least, you know, impactful or funny, or, you know, depending on the essay or what I’m talking about.
Jenn: I know you and I had chatted previously about some of the material that exists about BPD already and it’s informative, but sometimes based on the language that is used to, like I’ve alluded to it as almost demonizing some folks with BPD because it comes off as scary.
It comes off as somebody with that diagnosis, just wreaks havoc on the lives of people around them with no regard or remorse. And that’s not the case whatsoever.
So how does your story serve as a contrast to some of the existing material that unintentionally or otherwise lends itself to like demonizing members of the borderline community?
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, I think I was really intentional about wanting to include not only the moments of deep struggles that I’ve encountered, but also moments of joy and happiness and elation and love and whatever else, because it’s really upsetting to read texts or see media in general, that portray BPD as this entirely awful thing.
Of course, while it has caused a lot of strife in my life and it is something that I continuously have to conquer, I guess, or make peace with or figure out, I think to characterize my entire experience as a human, as entirely awful or painful would be untrue.
There’s certainly been moments that have felt that way, but if I look at my life overall, that would paint just like a not accurate picture of my existence. And so I wanted to create a book that showed not only these struggling like aspects of BPD, but also just like the joy that I felt as a human.
I think to really just like lean into this idea that just because I have borderline doesn’t mean I’m not a human in the way that we all are, like I have likes and dislikes and I have like favorite things and I’m not, I don’t, I hate when things are, I’m reduced to just that label.
Obviously BPD makes up a large part of my experience or has made up a large part of my experience at different levels at times in my life, but I’m not only BPD, like you can’t read the DSM and find who I am in there. You can find things I deal with or like ways that I have encountered situations or reacted to them or felt. But I just like, I don’t like that flattening of experience.
I really wanted to like push back against that demonization and provide a look into like just being a human with this thing, because I think a lot of that demonization comes or like the fear that people have surrounding BPD comes from this like unknown aspect of it.
I think we fear what we’re unclear about, what we don’t have, like concrete understanding of, or any like lived examples or encounters with. And so when I saw so many of the books, like when I was diagnosed with BPD, I was like, okay, well, I’m a writer, I’m in grad school. I’m like getting my MFA in creative writing. I want to read books about this.
And when I went on Google, other than there are very few like first person memoirs or accounts of living with BPD, there are many books for people who have loved ones with BPD of varying levels of demonization or not. And it’s been, I just felt like there was this lack in the representation of like, this is one person’s lived experience.
I’m hoping that if I am able to share my experience, maybe someone else will one day share their experience. And then eventually there will be books written by people with BPD about their experiences with BPD, about their experiences with everything else, you know, like I don’t think it has to be just BPD. And then people will, I think, shift into that mindset.
Like, yeah, you have BPD, and you’re also a person who likes this and that. And you’re not just this experience or this isn’t the only aspect of your life. Even though there have been times where it was like really taking up, like almost all the space in my life.
Jenn: So one of the things I wanted to talk about is in your stories that you write, a lot of them have, they’re very separate experiences, but a lot of them have really similar trajectories where you ramp up this feeling of this palpable anxiety like I mentioned before, trying to disclose it to friends or romantic partners where you’re admitting that you’re like, I’ve never shared this with anyone before.
I don’t know how to navigate this, but at the same time you actually say in the book, in order to be an advocate, I have to be vulnerable. Can you talk a little bit about those parallels that you’ve experienced between disclosure and discomfort and how it’s helped shape you and what you want to work toward in your future?
Courtney: Yeah, I think that I’ve had to navigate and kind of negotiate throughout the process of writing my book and then deciding, you know, what I submitted to my publisher initially, isn’t what is published now, there was a lot of edits and you know, removing an essay, putting in a new one, just like reconfiguring.
I had to kind of make this, like, I don’t know, I had to figure out for myself what would feel comfortable in the way that would feel good, but not necessarily just like I had to get out of my comfort zone a bit where I really was like, okay, well obviously there’s a lot that I’m sharing in this book that’s very personal.
I know like memoirs in general are, you know, based on personal experience, but wow, like I really am sharing a lot here about like the things that I find or have found embarrassing or shameful or humiliating or like painful and you know, all the million things.
So it was like, do I want to put this out into the world knowing that people will take away whatever they’ll take away from it. They can see me how I see myself through the text, but they could also read this and see me in an entirely different way.
And like, am I comfortable existing in people’s minds in this way that I don’t see myself as, and as someone who struggles with like understanding their identity, that was like really funky to figure out. But I felt like for me, it was important to push myself out of that.
Like, I don’t want to share this ‘cause I’m embarrassed or scared or whatever it is, because I think the reason why I feel embarrassed about it it’s ‘cause I’ve never heard someone talk about it before, or I’ve never heard someone open up and say, “Yeah, I do that too.”
So having that, I guess, like allowing myself to feel uncomfortable in hopes that it might help someone else, one alleviated some of that discomfort, and two, it made it feel like it wasn’t just discomfort to be, you know, like for the like willy-nilly or whatever it was really to, it was for a purpose.
So since my book has come out, even though there are things that I’m still like deeply uncomfortable talking about in person, not in the way that I won’t discuss them, just that it’s like, it’s a difficult thing for me.
I’ve gotten so many messages on Instagram or Twitter or in my email about people are like, I have never heard someone say what you’ve said before, and I am crying ‘cause I’ve never felt so like seen or like I thought I was the only one, it was devastating to know that I lived in this isolated world of this behavior, this feeling, whatever it is.
And like, you made me realize that it’s not just me. And I was like, well, that was, you know, like every time I get a message like that, even if I’d just gotten one that would have been well worth it to me, but having gotten many more than one now, it’s just like incredible.
But yeah, I had to navigate, I guess, making compromises with discomfort and vulnerability in hopes that it would pay off. And I’m really glad that it has, but I do think that like, it’s still scary for me knowing that my book is in the world and that if you Google me, if I’m applying to a job and that’s what you’re going to find out about me, you know, it’s not something that is necessarily still seen in the best light.
It’s kind of something where I knew that in order to help contribute to the de-stigmatization of BPD, I had to be vulnerable and, you know, share my story. Or I guess I’ve had to, is the wrong phrase.
No one was like making me, but like that’s what I chose to do in hopes that it will contribute to the de-stigmatization, but that’s not to say my book came out and like, everyone’s like, BPD is like, what you feel it is, and like, it isn’t this scary thing.
Even if it can be scary at times, it doesn’t have to be, we can access resources, we have the ability to change. There’s hope, like we can find ways to live in the world that isn’t horrific all the time, you know?
So it’s one of those things where it’s like, okay, I think I’ve contributed a little bit, I’ve made a dent and I am still facing stigma.
And it’s something that I still deal with, and like, I intentionally leave it off my resume because I cannot get an interview if my book is mentioned on it and that’s discouraging, but at the same time, I just feel like I have to meet the world where it is and I can continue shouting my message and saying like, hey, this is so important.
We have to talk about these things. We have to, you know, fear breeds inside or in like the shadows and like in silence. And I think it’s so important to talk, but it’s not to say everything has been magically cured.
Jenn: No, exactly. I think it’s important to remember that, you know, it’s one book and you might feel like you’re shouting into the void, but even if you’re throwing a really small pebble into a pond, it makes a lot of ripples. So there’s a lot of impact when you look at the bigger picture, there’s a lot more impact than you may actually realize.
Courtney: Yeah, it’s been really wonderful. Like I know everyone or every author is like, don’t read your Goodreads reviews. Like it’s going to be painful and one day, there’s going to be one that’s really hurtful.
There has, I know it, like, I think about it in my head, but at the same time, there have been people like someone wrote a few days ago, “Like this book is a part of me now, thank you Courtney.”
And like, that was a very short review, but like, wow, how, like meaningful that was to me was like way more than a few words, you know, in weight. And so I’m very grateful that my experience has helped or made someone feel even slightly better, like that means an incredible amount to me.
Jenn: And you actually teed me up really nicely for one of the audience questions. Someone said as a writer with BPD, I find my inner critic and emotional dysregulation gets in the way of my writing. Have you dealt with this? And if so, do you have any suggestions?
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, I definitely have fallen into the classic trap of black and white thinking quite consistently throughout my life, particularly in my art making practice. As I’m writing a lot of times, I’m either like, this is the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s like genuinely a masterpiece or like no one has ever written something as terrible as what I have right now.
It’s tough for me to see the gray or the middle or find like, it can just be a draft and like, it doesn’t have to be this like miraculous, amazing thing. And it also doesn’t have to be like trash. It can be somewhere in the middle. And I guess like using my wise mind, as we say in therapy or, you know, in DBT and trying to remind myself that even if it is the worst thing in the world, what would that mean? And does that mean that you can’t write it?
I try to separate myself or like my feelings about my own work and pretend that I’m like saying them to someone else. And if I wouldn’t do that, then I try to remind myself that even if I feel the way I do about my work, it’s not a helpful or productive feeling, and I can like acknowledge that feeling, but then I can kind of set it aside and like separate myself from it.
So, if I’m saying that this is the worst thing ever, and I can’t continue to create it because it’s so bad, then I wonder to myself, well, do I believe in general that you have to be good at something to participate in something?
And then I’m like, no, ‘cause I love singing in the shower, and I know that it’s not like going well for anyone listening, but I’m having a great time. And like I live alone, so it’s only my cat that has to deal with it. And maybe like someone through the vents.
So, sorry, like I would never tell a friend to stop writing because they weren’t, you know, the best writer ever or if you gave up playing guitar when you started, because you could barely like, you know, like you can’t, I don’t know, I can’t play guitar, so I literally don’t have an example here, but you know what I mean?
So I guess trying to separate what I tell myself and like, pretend it would be towards someone else. And if I would say, oh, that makes me really uncomfortable, I’d never say that, that’s so mean. Then I can be like, okay, well maybe I should allow myself some grace, but in general, I would just encourage you to say, okay, I feel this way and I’m allowed to feel that way, and I can also keep writing and come back to it later.
A lot of times if you set something aside that like urgency of that feeling or the weight of it has dissipated, so even if you’re not totally satisfied with the work or even like, happy about it at all, you don’t have that like overbearing voice that keeps you from creating and then you can like try to move forward, but it’s definitely tough.
So you’re not alone in that like feeling of like, oh, I don’t my inner critic. Oh yeah, and I also think like everyone, every artist has some level of that and it’s something that I think we all have to work through and just cheer each other up.
Jenn: Exactly, can I ask you a few questions about some of your experiences that you talk about in the book?
Jenn: Amazing, so I know you mentioned, you said the word earlier yourself, idyllic. You talk about how you grew up in Winnetka, Illinois. If you are familiar with American pop culture, “Home Alone,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” they were filmed there.
I think you can actually get the “Home Alone” house on Airbnb now, but that’s a story for a different time. But I mean, I’m paraphrasing when I say this from the book, you talk about how the fast food joint with the golden arches, doesn’t get to put up the golden arches in Winnetka. All the grass is green, everything’s landscaped immaculately.
Do you believe that there may be any relationship between your difficulty expressing your feelings of emptiness when you were younger and just generally feeling different and growing up in a place that has really like a perfectly groomed exterior?
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, I think it was tough for me. One to feel comfortable articulating those feelings, but mainly to accept that I had them in general because it’s tough not to compare your experience to others who are less fortunate and aren’t awarded the same privileges you’ve been awarded and feel like, well, why do I have any right to be unhappy when I theoretically have everything I need to be happy?
You know, my family has we’re tight, you know, like I live in like a house that is comfortable and warm and I have food on the table and I have more than that than I need. And I theoretically like, yeah, I have friends, but what does it say when you don’t feel like, you know, when you’re in a room and you still feel alone, even though there are people surrounding like you or anything like that?
I felt really like I was being ungrateful or just, I dunno, just like, I couldn’t accept that I felt that way because I felt like I didn’t have a right to, and that wasn’t a helpful feeling because feeling like you shouldn’t feel something doesn’t mean you don’t feel it.
It just means you feel worse on top of the thing you feel bad about because then you’re shaming yourself for it.
I guess, like, I think what I have now tried to like reframe that thought of or thought as in terms of like, oh, well you had everything or you have everything and you still feel this emptiness or this sadness or this isolation and whatnot, it’s this, I try to take away from it that mental health can affect anyone regardless of circumstance.
It really isn’t something that you can cure just with like a physical item or something. It is something that you need to work on from the inside out, and obviously I want everyone to have the resources that I had and the access to treatment and just like the comforts of living a life in that way, but that isn’t enough to cure mental illness or to help in that.
You know, I have to take medication every day and that’s something for me that has been instrumental to like my recovery and I have to go to therapy and, you know, like check in with myself and use my coping skills, and sometimes that’s not enough. And then I have to say, I need more help right now.
It can be really frustrating to be like, I’ve had endless amounts of therapy and spent months getting therapy all day, every day. And yet I still like shouldn’t I have all the tools, shouldn’t I feel better? And I think there’s no shoulds or like you get to this point and you learned it all, and you’re good now, it’s something that you continuously work on.
I just try to reframe that thought of like, you know, it could be really frustrating to think, oh, I have to keep doing this. Like, why can’t I just take a pill and be better? Or like, why can’t I go to therapy and I work through this thing, so it never impacts me again? And like, wouldn’t that be cool?
But that’s just like not where I’m at or I feel like maybe probably anyone’s at. And so I try to reframe that thought as like, I feel really privileged to be able to feel bad in those moments or to feel frustrated because it means I’m alive.
There was a long time where I didn’t think I would be not just like, I’m 26 now, that is wild, like at 13, I didn’t think I’d be 14, and that’s so cool. So even though it’s not, it can’t all be positive. And sometimes things are just allowed to feel bad, but in my better moments, if I am frustrated, I’m like, but isn’t it kind of cool to like be here, to feel this way? I don’t know, yeah.
Jenn: I mean, it blows my mind that you’re only 26 because you have lived so much life in such a short amount of time and you present yourself with eloquence and wisdom.
Courtney: Thank you.
Jenn: And like, I mean, I’m sure that you would disagree, but like, you know what you’re doing and I know that I’m sure that you’ve got, I’m sure you’ve got a voice in your head, that’s just like, nope, I’m going through the motions ‘cause I do it all the time.
But like, I’m just so impressed by you, and you’ve done such a great job navigating this diagnosis, even when people I’m sure have brushed you off as being crazy or hopeless.
Courtney: Yeah, and hopeless, it has come up in my life.
Jenn: And you have daily challenges, but in all your work and the way that you talk about your experiences, there’s this underbelly of you where you are learning to embrace and accept a lot of parts of yourself that you weren’t comfortable with prior and you acknowledge that so openly.
What advice do you have for people who are having a hard time doing that embracing of their own diagnoses and those difficulties that go along with them?
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, I think for me, I’ve had kind of a different relationship with my diagnosis as time has gone on.
I think when I was first diagnosed because I lived for 10 years feeling so confused, why people with the same diagnosis as me that I was close with and I was in treatment with and whatever, when they were experiencing relief, I was so jealous and confused because we were getting the same help and theoretically doing the same things, and I was doing the right things, whatever that means.
I couldn’t figure out why they were feeling better and I wasn’t, and I was like, what am I doing wrong? Like there has to be something. And obviously the same treatment method won’t work for everyone, and that there were differences in the way that people respond to treatments and whatnot. But I just was like, why not me, like, what’s going wrong?
So when I was diagnosed and I realized, oh, okay, well, it was probably because I was treating a thing that it wasn’t actually the problem. Like it was a symptom of the problem. You know, if I address my depression, I can get help with that, but it’s not going to cure these other things or help mitigate these other symptoms of BPD that don’t overlap with depression.
So I was like, ah, finally, and it was like turning on a light for me. And so during that time, I felt like claiming and embracing my identity as someone with BPD was a huge, huge thing in my life. I felt like for a while, maybe I did that thing that I had a tendency to do that I think a lot of people with BPD have a tendency to do where you become like really, really, really obsessed with something and make it your whole being.
Because if you’re not quite sure who you are, you kind of figure it out through trying things on. I have an essay in my book called like trying myself on and I was just like feeling it out, and I was like, okay. I feel like, you know, I took bits and pieces from that where I was like, okay, that felt good, but this didn’t, like that felt authentic, but this felt weird, and it was just this kind of like shifting.
But for a while, having BPD became probably the loudest aspect of my personality and my dad would always be like, you know, like you’re so much more than that. And at the time I found that really offensive because I was like, this is me. And I finally know who I am and like, I get it.
Now I see what he was saying, and it wasn’t that, that isn’t an important aspect of myself, but to reduce myself or flatten myself to only my diagnosis, as I was saying earlier, sometimes I see in media is I think doing myself a disservice because I am so many things just as we all are.
As I said, you can’t look in the DSM and find like the definition of my personality. And so I feel like now I think that having BPD is something that is important in my life. And it has obviously influenced so many of my experiences and the opportunities I’ve been awarded. Like, it’s like, you know, if I didn’t have BPD, I wouldn’t have this book, so that’s like kind of cool, right?
Like, you know, I got something out of the deal, but I also don’t feel like it’s something that I want to say, oh, well, I’m done with that because I know that people have different opinions on how they feel recovery can go for them and whether what they consider recovered or healed or whatever it is.
But for me, I find comfort in knowing that I will likely based on my history, have a about of depression again, and I will have another panic attack and I will feel lonely even when I have people supporting me.
And these are things that I’ve encountered many times before, and I think it would be not that wise to pretend like they’ll never happen again, ‘cause then I wouldn’t be prepared when they do, but I can take comfort in knowing that every single time, those terrible times have happened, I have found a way through them, even if it felt like I wouldn’t at the time.
So even if I can’t see that way through myself, I know that I can ask for help and I’m so lucky to have people in my life who can remind me over and over as many times as I need that, like, we’ll figure it out. Even if it’s literally like my mom’s sleeping in my bed, ‘cause I can’t do anything else.
Like just like having someone beside you or like my cat will come like lick my arm, like that’s so nice, you know, like things will happen and they’ll feel okay again. And so I guess, I don’t know.
I just, I feel like right now I don’t want to like brush off my diagnosis and say it’s done with, because it’s not and I don’t think it ever will be fully, I’m at this point where I can recognize when I’m having a thought that’s filtered through like a BPD lens.
I can’t not feel that thing or stop that thought from coming, but I have the power to recognize, like it might not, you’re not being abandoned, they might just be napping. And I’m like, oh, I still feel really bad, but I can see that.
And I at least have that like ability to recognize these feelings, and so it’s like, it’s not as loud anymore, but it’s important. And I think I feel very comfortable in like that kind of, I guess that’s kind of the middle ground, I guess I’m finding it, the gray, the gray in life. I’m getting there.
Jenn: As you say in the book, you’ve achieved some level of boring and as much as you hate the boring, you’re like, I actually want to exist in boring. Boring is where I want to be.
Courtney: Yeah, it was really tough to get there, because for so long, I felt like if things weren’t, if I wasn’t feeling something like so much I could burst, it meant it wasn’t real or wasn’t enough or wasn’t happening, if I wasn’t so into someone, I was like in love with them and obsessed with them.
You know, I met them once and I told everyone they were my future partner. Like we were going to get married and they were like, what’s their last name? And I was like, this is amazing, you ask that.
Like, I felt like if it wasn’t that level of excitement and enthusiasm and like all-encompassing thoughts all the time about that thing or person or whatever it was that it meant it didn’t count or and I just have realized that it’s actually really lovely to find comfort in being like, if someone doesn’t text me back for a few hours, it’s not that they hate me, they can be at the post office.
And like, they really like frustrated with a form they’re filling out or like they’re running errands or they’re in class or they’re at work or a million other things, and knowing that, having these kinds of like lulls in communication or in like these like explosive feelings actually just means that things are fine and fine is pretty good.
I’d take fine over like feeling like everything is awful and the world hates me. And like literally everything is no good and will never be good again, that’s really the worst.
Jenn: So how have you coped with the constant thought if you had it, that your emotions aren’t valid. Do you have advice for anybody tuning in that’s dealing with self-doubt and difficulty with emotional validation?
Courtney: Yeah, I think I’ve definitely dealt with that. Particularly sometimes I make this joke that I am like a charcuterie board of mental illness, but I do have OCD as well. And my OCD has manifested in this belief that I have somehow deluded everyone in my life into thinking I’m a good person or that like, I, things are going well and they’re not, and that I’ve even done it to myself.
Like I’ve never taken an acting class, but I’m such a good actress that I’ve somehow also convinced myself. So I’ll like, you know, comb for proof of like the evidence that my feelings don’t count or that I’m bad or that my feelings are bad or whatever it is.
Then when I can’t find it, I’m like, I must have fooled myself again. Like it just really doesn’t add up and I know it, but I still feel it, and that’s a very frustrating sometimes to be like, I know this is irrational, like this makes no sense and yet I feel it very strongly.
But I guess like kind of utilizing the method I mentioned before of stepping outside myself and trying to find like proof that goes against that belief of even if I’m not aware that I’m like, if I can’t feel that I’m good or an okay person.
And, like, I don’t even know what that really means, like I think I’m kind and like funny and whatever else, but like if I think I’m bad, like asking friends to remind me, even though I want to have that come from myself, if I’m unable to provide it, like, I think sometimes external validation gets a bad rap and like, yeah, sure, we shouldn’t depend on it for everything, but like, it’s really great to hear that you’re doing well or that you’re loved or that you’re funny or whatever it is.
And, you know, getting those reminders, reminding myself that even if things are going like marvelously in every bit of your life, you’re still allowed to have bad days or bad weeks or moments, and even if someone looked at your life on paper and felt like everything should be good, that doesn’t mean that it feels good, and once again, like allowing yourself to know that that’s, you know, if things could be solved by providing these external sources, like then we would hopefully just be able to provide them.
And then people would be like, this is great now. And I guess just like trying to offer myself some semblance of forgiveness when I do feel really bad or like guilt myself into feeling awful about something or like this, having this immense amount of shame about feeling bad because that just like grows on the other bad feeling, and then that bad feeling gets worse and it becomes harder to find my way out of that or use that like external.
Like, okay, I can recognize that this is like feeling really bad right now, and I’m allowed to, sometimes I use the method of like, I guess like compartmentalizing, where if I’m feeling really awful about something particular, or just in general, I’ll give myself like, okay, today you’re allowed like half an hour and you can like wallow, like so much, like you just like got to embrace that, but then we have to keep moving.
And you’re still allowed to feel it, but it can’t be the only thing that’s going on. You know, you still have to do X, Y, and Z. And a lot of times once I start doing X, Y, and Z, the thing gets less loud, doesn’t mean it gets better or totally leaves, but it like will stop being like the prominent thing.
Then, you know, once you have half an hour every day for a week, maybe you can reduce it, maybe it’s 25 minutes and then go down until some day you don’t even think. You don’t even wake up and say, oh, I’m going to have my five minutes right now to feel awful. You just like, don’t need it anymore.
So I guess just like allowing myself grace and allowing myself to embrace that bad feeling, even when I think I shouldn’t, and I guess interrogating, where does that shouldn’t come from? And like, who determined that?
A lot of times it’s like some weird idea that I got on like, I don’t know, like Instagram, like some like weird thing that I like picked up somewhere that no one ever said, I just like decided for myself that felt right. And then I’m like, hmm, weird, I don’t know where to pick that up. I guess I can like be rid of that.
Jenn: One of the things that I love about your book is, I mean, I even read the thank you at the end that your like your dedication, it was like front to back cover. One of the things that I love the most is how open you are about your family involvement in the book.
And I know some folks are tuning in who are parents of young people with BPD. And one of the questions that was asked was, do you have examples of things that your family has done to support you that have been impactful and helpful in your journey?
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, I think they’ve done so many things, but I’m trying to think of like concrete examples that would be perhaps like something that someone else could utilize.
I feel like just continuously showing up and having this, just like, just reiterating all the time that even when I felt like I was unlovable or awful, or like things would never get better, it can be really annoying to have someone say like, no, it does get better, you’re like, please. Like it does not, and they’re like, it does, you’re like, you don’t get it, you know?
That can be really frustrating. And I wouldn’t recommend going around with like, no, the bright side, because it doesn’t focus on solutions, I think, and like actionable steps and to say like, everything just will one day be better, it feels so like, intangible that it’s not helpful.
But offering, like, when I was really sad, like a year and a half ago now I had just like a horrible, horrible time. I think 2020 was bad for a lot of people, but like, man, was it bad? And my mom would like force me to go on walks with our family dog.
Even though I would go in my pajamas and like, haven’t washed, like brushed my hair or like taken a shower in days. And like, I looked as bad as I felt probably, just like getting outside, like I wouldn’t have done that alone and having her, and it wasn’t like, you need to get out of bed, you need to do this, it was like, hey, I want your company.
So even though she was doing it to get me outside and obviously she also wanted my company, you know, but like, it was for a purpose. It didn’t feel like she was doing it or treating me like, I was this like fragile being, she had to be like so careful around or needed to like step on eggshells around and like, didn’t know what to say, she didn’t want to upset me more.
Just showing up and being that presence and be like, hey, do you want to watch Jeopardy? Or like, do you want to walk the dog, want to do this? Or like, my dad texts me like random things. Like he, I got him a key chain when I was like five, when we, well, he bought it, but I got it for him, you know?
He would like send me photos of it and he’s kept it on like every dashboard of the cars he’s ever had. So he text me and be like, I still have it, you know? Or like, how are you doing bear bear? Like, you’re my superstar.
Just like these little notes that they were in his character. And like, he still does them now that I’m happy and like had done them before, but feeling like I was being treated like me, even if I was sad and that they were here to support who I was.
No matter if it was like in my worst moment or in my best moment, because they knew that they knew what the good moments were or they had hope that I could get back there or, you know, we’d see those days if we hadn’t seen them in a really long time and that I was enough, even in those like really painful times and I didn’t need to act happy to be someone they wanted to be around or I didn’t have to like put on a facade.
They were like, it’s okay that you feel this way. Let’s take steps to feel better. Not only by walking the dog, but like how’s your medication, have you made an appointment with your psychiatrist? Can I help you make that appointment? Can I help you go on like Psychology Today and like find a therapist? Like I can, like you take this like pages one to two or three, I’ll take three to five, you know, just taking some of the weight off of those things.
‘Cause sometimes knowing like, yeah, even if I know I should contact my therapist or contact my psychiatrist or see if I can get into a day program or whatever it is, picking up the phone can be really tough.
So having someone like, hey, I can get the number and I can like dial it and I can sit beside you while you’re on the call, and I’ll leave if you want to say something you don’t want me to hear, but just like trying to it’s like, if someone gets sick, you’re like, can I make you dinner? Can I like take your kids away for a second so you can take a nap?
Like just like treating that mental health thing as if it was something that you’re like, how can I just like make your day a little easier? And those things like really add up, even if they’re small.
Jenn: So do you have any advice for parents of young people with BPD who might be having a hard time getting their kid to enroll and asking for their help? Like how can parents break through that? And if you don’t know the answer, don’t sweat it. It’s a tough question, and you’re 26, but you’ve gone through this.
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s not like a one size fits all obviously for anything and particularly in this instance, because what might’ve made me feel comfortable and supported might make someone else feel unsupported and frustrated.
But I think that just showing up and like having your presence around and framing, I guess your pursuit in them, like wanting to open up to you, it’s not just saying, you know, it’s not enough to say like I’m here, it’s checking in and kind of making that effort.
I think you have to be willing to kind of be shut down a lot. But having, even in the back of my mind, even when the last person I ever would want to talk to, it was like one of my parents, I still knowing that they were available meant a lot to me, even if I was like, oh, I hate them when I was like, you know, going through that thing that people go through sometimes, knowing that they were like, okay, you can hate me, do you want to talk though?
Like just having that ability to be just like continuously showing up and making themselves available was really important to me.
And I think also emphasizing this, like, you don’t have to be anything other than what you are and it’s okay if you feel broken or like it’ll never get better or sad or awful, or like you’re a terrible person or like you’re me and you have this OCD that you’re literally like the horrible like, like, you know, like you can feel that way.
And I’ll tell you that from my perspective, like you’re wonderful and I love every ounce of you. And I even love the parts you hate because they’re part of you, and I only want them to go away, ‘cause I want you to feel better. Like, it’s not that I want you to change who you are or any aspect of yourself, I just want you to feel good, whatever that looks like for you.
I think particularly when it comes to like harmful coping mechanisms, something that was tough for me is when like, I felt like people would say they wanted me to stop a behavior because it was bad.
And even if it was like, theoretically not good for me or like, you know, physically or whatever it was, I was like, yeah, but it’s clearly giving me something ‘cause I’m engaging in it and knowing that they didn’t want me to stop just because they didn’t want me to hurt, it was like, ‘cause I want you genuinely to feel better that you don’t have to do this anymore.
I don’t want you to just not to do it. It’s like getting to that root problem again and figuring out how can we feel better, so this isn’t the thing we rely on to feel better. Not just like, don’t do that ‘cause it’s bad. You know, kind of that like shift.
Jenn: You have been dealing with symptoms of BPD for at least half of your life at this point. Have you found that your symptoms have improved as you’ve gotten older?
Courtney: Yes, but I think it’s really, really hard to parse whether that would have happened just through aging or if it’s because I’ve had just like a tremendous, tremendous amount of help.
I think that perhaps I would have found my footing and figured out how to make things okay-ish on my own maybe, maybe, but I also think that I don’t think I could have done it alone in a way that it was good or comfortable or actually not just like putting a Band-Aid on something and like hoping that, you know, I’ll just like duct taping something and being like, I’ll fix it later.
Like I was definitely just, I would have been duct taping everything until the whole house fell apart, the house being everything in my life and myself.
So I do think that like, things have gotten easier as I’ve grown older with more experience, things feel less extreme where it’s like, you know, in fifth grade, if something happened with a friendship that had never happened before, like I got my first like big fight with a group of friends or like I got burned by someone for the first time, and like hadn’t experienced that, ‘cause at least when I was young, I feel like friendships were simpler because I feel like it was just like, hey, you like the sandbox? Me too, you know.
Jenn: And there wasn’t social media.
Courtney: Yeah, and so I think like having the ability to like have gained more experience then I can juxtapose like this current situation against those and be like, yeah, it’s hurt before, it’s been worse or like, this is the worst.
But like I know that like I’ve come back from similar-ish things, so like I can figure it out. But yeah, I think gaining more experience has allowed me to like look at things with a little more perspective, but I would attribute most of my healing to all the resources I had the ability to access and I’m very grateful for that.
Jenn: I know we only have time for a couple more questions. So I want to talk a little bit more about your writing because this is our author series. So I want to talk about Courtney, the author.
One of the things that I noticed in your book is that it almost feels like a lot of the writing is written just as much for the person reading it as it is for you. It’s like, it almost feels like it’s a salve for what you’ve been going through. Can you speak to the value of writing as an outlet to gain a deeper level of your own personal insights?
Courtney: Yeah, so I went to high school for creative writing at the Chicago Academy for the Arts and I majored in creative writing and literature in undergrad and, you know, got my MFA.
So writing has been a huge part of my life and because my mom is an author and has published many books herself, I think I kind of, I always loved writing and I think it’s partially because she introduced me to it and we are twins in every way, but also just because it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just something I love.
So it’s kind of like been something that I always did when I wanted to figure something out, whether it was writing in a diary when I was young or like writing an essay as they exist in my book.
So I think I’ve kind of trained my brain to like process through that method in a same way that like, when I don’t feel like I can process things that well, if it’s not on the page or in therapy and I think it’s ‘cause I’ve gone to therapy for so many years, I’ve like learned to talk my way into an understanding.
So even if I’m out with a therapist like, even if I just chat on the phone with someone, like, I know that I can talk my way into greater understanding there, but something I learned in undergrad about writing personal essays is that personal essays don’t start with the conclusion, you’re writing toward a conclusion.
And that conclusion doesn’t have to be like neat and perfect, it can be just like a smidgen more understanding of something than you started with, and that personal essays are born from driving questions.
It’s something you’re interrogating through your writing. Like, how did this experience impact me or how did I become changed by this experience? And so if I’m writing with the intent of just further understanding, even if it’s not any bit like, and that’s that, and that’s all it was and like we’re done, knowing that I’m gaining some semblance of clarity and that I don’t have to arrive at a conclusion is helpful.
So as I’m writing, I’m just like, I don’t know, I’m just like feeling through the thing. And yeah, I guess like that kind of is similar to how I feel about therapy. You know, I’m just talking it out until I figure out something a little bit more than I did earlier.
Jenn: I mean, based on this book, you’ve figured out a lot of things in a short amount of time.
Jenn: One of the things that I love the most about this book is that it’s some of it is illustrative essays. And if you are actually watching the recap, I am showing one of my favorites. It talks about how little information there is online about folks with BPD diagnoses, who ultimately end up with bright futures.
It’s so disheartening to know that there are so many search results on Google, and yet there’s so little things about a promising and bright BPD future.
So I know some of the people that you talk about are Amy Winehouse, Jeffrey Dahmer, Kurt Cobain that either had suspected diagnoses or were diagnosed and none of those folks had a good outcome, may they all rest in peace, but none of them had none of-
Courtney: Jeffrey, he doesn’t need to rest in peace he can like have a bad time.
Jenn: Very good point, I was more in the Amy Winehouse group for that, may she rest in peace.
Courtney: Yeah, please, I hope she’s having a great time wherever that is, or just like a chill time, but you know, Jeffrey.
Jenn: Nope, I was going more of the tragic artist route, not Jeffrey Dahmer, but thank you so much. Thank you so much for that clarification. But one of the things that I appreciate so much about really the entire book and your writing that I’ve read, I’ve searched for your writing online and I’ve loved all of it.
You introduced this arc where you go from seemingly being unfixable, in your book, you say that you were recognized as that teen, that other parents in your group considered to be the one beyond hope. So your parents weren’t invited to the intervention conversation.
And I mean, clearly you’re somebody now who to so many people, if you’re tuning in or just reading the book, you seem almost unstoppable, now that you know so many ways to manage the intricacies of what’s going on with your mind, your body, your collective self.
So I want to end this conversation sadly, by asking, do you have advice for anybody tuning in about how they can discover their own degree of feeling unstoppable?
Courtney: Yeah, that’s such a good question. I feel like doing the things that make you feel like you and embracing that, whatever it looks like, I feel like we all have this tendency, especially in the age of social media, when we’re getting all this external input of like what other people are doing or what we should be doing, once again, I like to kind of interrogate, where did I come up with this should?
Or like, why do I feel that things should happen by this time or this age or whatever it is? And realizing that I would rather have something happen at a later date and have it be the right fit or the right or it feel better than like settling for something else at this time, you know?
And having the ability to turn things away if they aren’t that like, they aren’t feeling good because we have that like scarcity mindset of like, well, it won’t happen again. Or like, this is my only opportunity, but having, I don’t know, just like giving yourself time to explore things, even if you think, and that’s probably not my thing being like, sure, I’ll try it.
Like I will go camping, even though I feel like I hate bugs in the dirt and like being hot in a tent, but like I could really like it and maybe you will, and maybe you’ll also find out I do hate bugs and tents and whatever.
Then I think like knowing what you don’t like is equally as good as knowing as what or like helpful in figuring out who you are as like knowing what you do like, and so kind of just like saying yes to things, giving yourself grace to say, even though I feel like maybe I’d like that, I don’t feel comfortable doing it at this time or like, even though everyone else says, this is the good thing to do, or like, I feel like I should do this, like I don’t actually want to, when I like, think about it and that’s cool too.
And trying to allow yourself the grace to know that even though there are people such as myself or others where you might glance at social media or hear my story here, whatever it is. And you’re like, oh, they have it all figured out.
As we’d like to say or you said earlier, I don’t, like a lot, most of the time, I’d say, like I have certain things, but you know, there are a lot that I have no clue, like at all, like ever. And I think most people feel that way is what I’ve learned as I’ve grown up.
Like, I always felt like adults had this it altogether thing, and then I realized that everyone’s just winging it most of the time, and you’re just gaining experience and asking for help when you need to.
So continue asking for help and knowing that everything, you know, you can never know what’s going on behind the scenes, but you’re likely doing like a lot better than you think. And even if you’re not, that’s cool, ‘cause you’ll figure it out and I believe in you.
Jenn: I think that is the perfect way to end it. And if only we could all be so winging it and come up with a really great book. So folks, I’m really sad to say that this actually concludes our conversation with Courtney. If you have not picked up “The Way She Feels,” I strongly recommend it.
I also strongly recommend taking like a full Saturday because even though it’s short essays, you’re really not going to want to put it down. I know I didn’t, so I’m glad I took a full day to read it. Thank you to everybody for tuning in and Courtney, thank you so much for being so candid and so lovely and transparent.
As they say in one of my favorite movies Best in Show we could talk or not talk for hours, so thank you. Thank you for joining me for an hour and until next time to anybody tuning in, be nice to one another, but most importantly, be nice to yourself. That’s what’s going to make all the difference.
So thank you again for joining, and Courtney, thank you so much. Have a great day, everyone.
Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.
- - -
The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
© 2022 McLean Hospital. All Rights Reserved.