Unfinished business

There’s a great deal of emotion that goes into my every day work. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s not a little too much. A great deal of me, with all my warts and lesions, my rogue chin hairs, my broken nails and bruises. I’ve never been the kind of person who can simply go to work, punch in, make small talk around the coffee pot. Somehow, I’ve always made it a habit to allow myself to be defined by my job. Which is never merely a job—but a (ooh, ahh) career.

I remember early on in a previous career as a bookseller, I overheard colleagues talking about a particularly amusing mistake. Someone had erroneously shelved a book on Sir Richard Burton among the Hollywood biographies. The smart kids all stood around and snickered about the complete idiot who’d make such a mistake. Realizing that of course it was me who’d done it, I stood there wishing I could disappear into the carpeting like a bad smell.

When you consider that I was raised in a house in which there was no room for errors, it makes sense that I’d be intolerant of my own mistakes. Poor judgement was called out not just loudly, but with vicious, withering criticism. Over the course of some thirty odd years I accumulated a vast collection of assorted gaffes, filed carefully away with their correlating shame. There was the time I attended a volunteer training, and said something really stupid. Or the incident where I arrived at a chic salon for a waxing appointment and promptly walked into a glass window like a disoriented sparrow. Or even worse, the winter day in the seventh grade when I sweated through my uniform blouse and vest and the entire class made fun of me.  I can recall these embarrassments with lightening speed and accuracy, like a savant performing algorithms. They are a trail of tears—historical evidence of my dysfunction and defective nature.

“Apparent competence” is a key characteristic of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This is the subtle outward appearance of a high level of function, executive capacity, a wealth of talents, and coping abilities. To others, those with apparent competence seem to be in control of their behavior and environment, make good decisions, and move through the world with relative ease and comfort. What lies beneath the surface is quite different however. When there’s no room in your family for the outsider, no tolerance for anything less than perfection, and distain for strong emotions of any kind, one becomes quite skilled at appearing competent. Nothing to see here, move along folks.

Meanwhile, deep in your guts you’re nursing a belly wound that will eventually try to kill you, one way or another. That’s self-loathing. The feeling that you are so inherently wrong, broken, or crazy that no one will ever understand or accept you, let alone love you. It’s you finding yourself saying aloud “I don’t have anything to offer the world” or “why should I bother?”

My friend used to work in a downtown high rise office building, the most well known address in the city. She worked for a caterer and used to deliver food to executives and board meetings throughout the building, and knew many of them by name. She said that late one Friday afternoon, after the parking lot had closed for the weekend and everyone had gone home, a business executive had taken his own life. He shot himself in the head, sitting in his Honda Accord. I think of that story when contemplating apparent competence; here’s a man who was able to plan and carry out his own death in a relatively public way. Did he give anyone any clues as to his plans? Did anyone miss his coming home that night? Was he too functioning in a way outwardly that concealed his inner suffering?

For five months, I arrived for work at roughly the same time, performed the same tasks, met with the same clients. Sat through meetings and wrote reports, carefully submitting items according to technical specifications and on time. No one at work knew I was unraveling, that I’d begun a slow dance of un-becoming behind the closed office door. When the day arrived that I had decided to check myself into the hospital, my boss seemed genuinely surprised. I thought where the hell have you been for the past few months? How could you not have known? I hung up the phone, promising to keep in touch, and cried bitterly. I was deeply ashamed that I had “failed” at recovery. I’d done quite well for eight years, and it felt like everything I had built in that time was falling apart.

I began to make mistakes. Forget appointments, double book myself, get paperwork in just in the nick of time. I found it increasingly difficult to interact with others. Talking with clients or colleagues became more and more stressful, as I struggled to appear interested, to find the right words in my foggy brain. Tracking how I spent my hours at work seemed impossible. Under the weight of my paralyzing depression, I simply began to lose chunks of time like an alien abductee. The more time I lost, the more mistakes I made, the worse I felt about myself, and the more depressed I became. Clearly, I didn’t deserve the job and what’s more, it was quickly becoming apparent that I couldn’t do it. How was I supposed to help others prepare for and secure meaningful work when I was barely able to dress myself each morning?

When I began to have visions of turning my car off a bridge, I decided it was time to check myself in to the psych ward. I am absolutely terrified of heights, and since I drove that bridge on a daily basis, I was scaring the shit out of myself. I recall that the day I checked in, I cried no less than six times. I couldn’t tell you why. The tears would just start flowing and I would start gasping for air in deep hiccuping sobs. Inconsolable. And to add insult to injury, I felt deeply ashamed for my sadness. In theory, I had every reason to live—a wonderful partner with whom I’d spent more than 20 years, a decent job, a home and car, food in the fridge and health insurance.

I was supposed to be happy and instead found myself wracked with guilt and shame for being depressed.


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