The 2014 NAMI National Convention was an amazing, surreal experience. For four days, people from all over the country came together to educate and learn about mental illness. The entire conference was a smorgasbord of options, from panels on the latest updates in schizophrenia research to exhibits with titles like “Bipolar Girl Rules the World!” Yet, as fascinating as many of the lectures were, the thing that really intrigued me was the conversations people were having with each other. Ordinary people were coming together to communicate for many reasons: education, concern and curiosity.
One of the most profound experiences I had was completely unexpected. I was looking at a booth on borderline personality disorder, when a man came up to me and started talking. He was there because his daughter has borderline and he wanted more information. I told him I had borderline and I’d be happy to answer any questions I could. He had one:
“I don’t meant to be rude, but why do y’all have tattoos? I’m what you might call “old-school,” and I don’t really get them. My daughter has a bunch of them all over her. Is it a Borderline thing?”
Very few things faze me, especially in regards to people asking questions about myself. They’ve run the gamut from polite to slightly tactless to downright insulting, and I’ve fielded them all as best I can. I should also mention that I have six tattoos, some of which are very visible when I wear a short-sleeved shirt. I listen to Goth and heavy metal music, and I wear a lot of black. I’m noticeably “different,” and I accept that people are going to have questions. But I never had anyone ask me if tattoos were “a borderline thing.” This was new, and somewhat refreshing. I liked this guy.
He must have realized how awkward his phrasing was, because he started backpedaling. I just smiled and told him that people with tattoos get them for different, often personal reasons, and that the same applied to people with borderline who have tattoos. I told him a little bit about why I had them: that, for a long time, I lived in a body that gave me a great deal of suffering. This was my way of taking back control. Each tattoo symbolized a time and place in my life. I also explained that many people who have borderline self-harm, and that I saw this as a positive alternative. Perhaps his daughter did too.
He smiled. “Yeah, you might be right. And considering what else she’s dealt with, tattoos aren’t so bad. It could be worse.”
Our conversation switched to several other topics surrounding this notoriously maligned illness, but the initial question remained with me long after the conference was over.
I shared with him how I had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder 12 years ago and was told I would never get better. How I was informed that there was no cure, and that I shouldn’t ask too many questions about my diagnosis, because then I would become “fixated.”
Meeting other people with borderline wasn’t much better. I don’t know if it’s me, or the fact that this illness tends to emotionally cripple us to the point where we simply cannot interact with others because of the amount of psychic pain we’re in.
But here was a guy who was not a doctor, not a therapist, not a person who had dated someone with borderline and written us off as “psychopaths,” but a father concerned for his daughter. A father who lived through the chaos that ruled over his child’s life, who couldn’t totally understand why she was the way she was, but who nevertheless knew it was an illness, not a character flaw. And who loved her anyway.
When he looked at me, it was clear he didn’t see a lab specimen or an emotional leper, but a person who just so happened to have the same illness as his kid. The fact that she has tattoos or wore Edgar Allen Poe earrings? Feh. It could be worse.
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