The Voices In My Head Keep Me Sane

Note: I do not condone listening to advice from the voices in your head. I do not condone creating fictional relationships. I do not condone any of the choices I’ve made that are described in this essay. I simply wish to reflect on my decisions as a unique individual with borderline personality disorder. This is not an advice column, it is a case study.

I’ve grown rather accustomed to the voices in my head.

For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had special relationships with fictional characters. Most kids have imaginary friends, but my personal connection to television and video games has always been stronger than normal.

When I was little, no one thought my attachments to imaginary characters were strange enough to warrant an intervention. At the age of 21, however, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, or BPD, which explained a lot about my strange beliefs. In this context, the term “borderline” refers to the difficult-to-define boundary between emotional disorders and psychotic disorders. In other words, someone with BPD may be delusional, but not to the point of warranting a diagnosis like schizophrenia.

In the early days before my diagnosis, my friends in elementary school played along with my fantasies, but no one knew the extent of them. Everyone at that age liked to play with imaginary friends, but they outgrew the fantasies. I didn’t. Mine lasted years, never wavering. If anything, they got stronger. I began to give up time I could have spent with actual friends in favor of arranging my collection of toys that pertained to the characters I cherished. Those collections soon grew to include things I’d made myself, like artwork. Shrines accumulated in my bedroom, tucked away where they could be secret, special, and hidden from other people’s concern.

Here’s a fun game: try to guess what’s happening in this drawing I did seven years ago.

I quietly talked to the fictional characters, too. Though they never spoke back in the schizophrenic sense – their voices were always just in my mind, I couldn’t literally hear them – we still communicated often. Sometimes I believed we spoke telepathically, but in lonely moments, I frequently whispered to them out loud. Every night for an alarming number of years, after the lights went out, I dialed a fake phone number in my imagination, waited for it to ring three times, then greeted the voices on the other end with enthusiasm, inviting them into my bedroom to keep me company through the night. Whole fake relationships developed this way.

Over the years, I’ve come to accept that my tendency to speak with imaginary characters is more than a habit; it’s part of who I am. More than likely, it’s rooted in my borderline personality disorder: I can’t seem to shake the obsessions that rage on in my head any more than I could shake my illness. Though the specific characters that dominate my attention change every few years or so, they have always been there in some capacity, keeping me company.

I feel far from qualified to explain why I bond so closely with television fantasies. After years of searching for the explanation for this weird psychological phenomenon, my best guess involves my twin fears of abandonment and loneliness.

As someone who suffers from BPD, being alone for even ten minutes can be as terrifying as falling off a cliff. A severe phobia of being alone is a symptom common to many, many people who have my condition. It tends to make us feel overwhelmingly insecure, as if no one is ever going to save us from ourselves. I’ve been known to panic a little when dates get up to use the bathroom, or when my friends tell me they’ll be five minutes late meeting me for coffee. Any time I spend alone is incredibly anxiety-provoking, and I can feel the seconds ticking by, one by one, like each of them is sandpaper scraping against my bare skin.

This feeling continues until someone rescues me with their company. At that point, I can only hope their presence is enough of a distraction from my unstable personality that I don’t drown in insecurity.

But I can’t be around people all the time, so I make up relationships to keep me company when I’m alone. The characters that draw my attention have grown more sophisticated over the years, too; I was in high school when I started bonding with human characters instead of cartoons. That was a major accomplishment for me. Feeling affection for a person instead of computer-generated flashing colors represented a major step toward accepting reality.

This is still my favorite thing I’ve ever drawn.

When I made that crucial transition to admiring humans, I realized that I had a fundamental choice to make: I could feel suffocatingly alone every day, or I could engage with my imaginary friends.

The urge to choose the latter option was overwhelming and constant. Though a one-way relationship with a person I’d never met is far from healthy, it seemed like a step up from drowning in a feeling of abandonment all the time. Engaging in the fantasy was a survival technique and a coping mechanism.

Having made the choice to let my imaginary world play out mentally, I took careful steps to prevent myself from falling into it completely, losing touch with reality, or letting it become unhealthy in any other capacity. I set some ground rules: I would not disrespect the actors who played the characters I was obsessed with; I would not let my real friendships fall apart in favor of building my fantasy; I would not let my grades drop; I would maintain a strict understanding of the boundary between the characters and their actors; and if any part of the fantasy began to cause pain or negative consequences, I would immediately make adjustments to it.

Admittedly, I’ve accidentally crossed some of those boundaries over the years, but never maliciously, and always with the intent to do right by myself and everyone who built my fictional universe. For the most part, though, my imaginary experiences have been beneficial. I’ve done some of my best artwork, music, and writing in the name of my obsessions. I’ve traveled across the country, found work, and made real friends – and most importantly, I’ve never felt lonely doing it, because those characters have always been around.

When I speak to the characters, I know they can’t reply, although my BPD imbues them with a sort of spiritual presence that I can’t easily explain. It’s like my emotional half believes they’re able to hear me, while my rational half knows they can’t. That’s how I keep the fantasy in check: I allow the two halves of me to exist simultaneously. It’s a strange balance. Logic doesn’t keep the characters from feeling real, and emotion doesn’t overpower logic and force me into a state of true psychosis.  

It’s taken me many years to make that balance work. I believe that being borderline puts me in a unique position to do so. If my condition were any more psychotic, my semi-delusions would put me at risk for falling into the black hole of not being able to distinguish reality from fantasy. Any less borderline, and I wouldn’t truly believe in the characters that occupy my mind, which would make my relationships with them feel hollow and unsatisfying. My illness places me on the fulcrum between “too sick to cope” and “not sick enough to have to cope”.

Short of treating my condition with medication and therapy, there isn’t much I can do to manage it. Sometimes finding the best way to stay alive is hard because although the answers exist somewhere in my mind, they’re so buried that I can’t access them without help. That’s when I look to my characters, and they remind me in their own voices that I already know what to do.

3 thoughts on “The Voices In My Head Keep Me Sane

  1. Zoe I found this to be very informative. I was unaware of BPD, I guess I just made the assumption that adults didn’t experience this and if they did it was because they’re schizophrenic. How do adults take this once you tell them? Has it been difficult to maintain relationships? Overall it was a great read and can’t wait to see what else you write. By the way the drawing of Joel from MST3K is amazing!


  2. Wow, this sounds so much like my own story of my childhood. I created these world’s I would escape to in order to cope with abuse and neglect. I started to develop relationships with cartoon characters when I was 4 years old, and they became my friends. I was bullied at school and at home, so when I felt unsafe, I went to my secret world with my friends. They would help me beat up villains and bad guys and show up in my house and take me away from the bad people in my life to our special, secret world. The older I got, the more elaborate the fantasies. From cartoons to comic book characters, from comic book characters to real people. And the lines between reality and my secret world were so blurred I started to believe that these characters were really out there, trying to communicate with me. These relationships began interfering with my real life. Once I became an adult, it was a very real struggle to let go of those worlds and those relationships. It was like a very real break-up, a very real death in the family. I still go back to those worlds sometimes, when those painful memories of childhood still haunt me. Regardless of what was real or imaginary, these characters helped me cope with trauma, and I’m grateful for that. Thank you so much for sharing your story.


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