I’ve heard many different arguments about when and how people with borderline personality disorder initially develop symptoms. Is the illness so thoroughly genetic that indicators of it can be observed from birth? Or do those diseased genes have to be triggered by an event or series of events that occurs when the child is a little older? Are multiple scenarios possible, and the initial cause of symptoms varies from case to case?
Though I have BPD, I’m nowhere near qualified to answer those questions. It would likely take a researcher or psychiatric practitioner to know for sure, and I’m a writer, not a doctor. However, I do have an entire BPD-tinged childhood upon which to look back. Because of that, I feel confident hazarding guesses about the nature of my own psychiatric experiences – and I’m all but sure that mental illness has been present and active in my life at least as far back as I can remember.
For weeks every year when I was growing up, Pacific rains fell around the trailers I called my elementary school classrooms. At recess, my classmates and I invariably found the playground blacktop littered with earthworms that were barely alive. On those days, I spent my full hour of break carefully stepping around their little brown bodies, scooping them up gingerly with my bare hands, and carrying them back to the gardens that lined the playground.
Across the yard, however, the nasty kids’ group was recruiting members. Their goal was to inflict as much harm as possible to every worm wriggling in the breaking sunlight.
As the fearless leader of the pro-earthworm faction – or so I saw it – my self-appointed task was to bring about the end of the bully faction while my subordinates moved worms to the soil. I did not take the responsibility lightly. In fact, I pursued it with a fury. I threw tantrums at the bullies. I told every adult in sight about the murders they were committing. I issued threats and tried to mangle their psyches with deep-reaching insults about their respective characters. I targeted them individually and with a twisted malice.
Inevitably, the game wore thin for the worms’ killers and guardian angels alike. After a few minutes playing earthworm wars (though it was no game to me), both factions always gave up the fight. Maybe the monkey bars were too appealing, but regardless of what drew them away, my peers likely came to realize that playing any game at all was better than playing a fun game with me. I was just too into it, and I was starting to scare everyone.
Meanwhile, long after the child-factions disbanded, I still rounded up earthworms with a maternal intensity, whispering reassurances to them the whole time.
My convictions extended beyond the realm of the normal, even back then. Adults called it my natural competitive inclination, but no one recognized it for what it really was: a dawning pathology.
Many of the motivations behind my behaviors on the playground were early warning signs of what would become serious mental symptoms. In later years, for example, my slightly psychotic habit of anthropomorphizing insentient animals and inanimate objects became more of a problem. In addition to the quiet conversations I had with earthworms, I began believing in animated characters – or, more accurately, I never stopped believing in them, even when I was way too old to be “making friends” with cartoons.
In addition, my habit of thinking in black-and-white, which is explicitly classified as a borderline symptom by psychiatric professionals, also grew into an issue. As a small child, I interpreted my classmates’ intentions as being either “holy” for saving earthworms or “depraved” for stepping on them, which was an obvious oversimplification and exaggeration. Years after graduating elementary school, I still viewed the world through an all-or-nothing filter, except that as a teenager, I was able to do more damage to the world and to myself. When I loved something, I loved it desperately, and was willing to die for it. If I didn’t love something, I hated it just as desperately. There was no in-between in my mind.
Though my subtle childhood symptoms of borderline personality disorder did eventually manifest as a full-blown disease, I acknowledge that they can only be recognized for what they really were in hindsight. At the time, all of the indicators that I was sick could just as easily have been – and quite often were – interpreted as harmless, normal idiosyncrasies. That’s part of what makes BPD a personality disorder: its pathological effects can blend in with the afflicted person’s natural character tragically well. In other words, BPD’s symptoms tend to disguise themselves as part of who I am rather than as part of a disease, and they’re very good at it. Largely for that reason, no one could have known that I was disordered when I was a small child, but in hindsight my symptoms are devastatingly obvious.