From “Just Like a Timepiece,” Beyond Borderline: True Stories of Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder, Available Now
To the right of me sat Natalie Portman. To the left of me sat the Crown Prince of Dubai. In front of me stood our Nobel laureate professor. And between them, I sat, holding within me the most infamous personality of all, my borderline personality disorder.
I was Mexican- American and a student at Harvard University, the oldest and most prestigious academic institution in the country, established in 1636. Only a small percentage of applicants are admitted, and a fraction of those are Hispanic like me. It is an environment that will test every fiber of your being and push you beyond the logical limits of a mind you once believed you possessed. It is not for the faint of heart.
My arrival to Harvard and Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2000 was not unlike the experience of others. First came the initial shock of being assigned twenty- five books to read per class by the end of the semester. Second came the sudden realization that there was no one, nowhere, who would provide guidance on these subjects. Whereas once we each competed in our high schools to be valedictorians, and just about every Harvard student graduated a valedictorian of their respective high school, we realized we were now to compete not with each other but with ourselves.
And so began the fight within me.
The symptoms of my borderline personality disorder had surfaced at a far earlier age. I was fourteen and young and isolated. I sat alone in the middle school cafeteria every day, feeling intensely ashamed of how unlikeable I must appear to others. Each day, as we filed into the cafeteria, I would feel a brief spark of hope that someone would ask me to sit at their table.
At night, I would run my hand across the pale smoothness of my underarm and trace the faint blue veins. I would hold a tiny metal cog with biting edges from a clock I had disassembled out of curiosity against my skin. Then I would pull it against my skin over and over in neat parallel lines. I had an affinity for neatness and aesthetics. I was an artist and a scientist. And in this case, I was making art of my skin, and unrelenting, brutal pain was my medium. I felt a calmness I would learn to seek over and over and in more forms than this one. The cutting continued. It became more extravagant while I made certain it remained hidden from anyone. It was the only friend I had.
But I was a straight- A student with awards in every academic subject and an all- star athlete. There was nothing wrong with me. How could there be? I was just being silly.
A year later, I became suicidal. I yearned for an escape. At night, during sweaty nightmares, I would restlessly push the covers off me and imagine the rest that would come from finally killing myself. The do- it, don’t- do- it theme became my desktop wallpaper, again, for years and years to come.
In spectacular fashion, I pulled off graduating as our high school valedictorian with admittance to Harvard. Underneath, however, in the bottomless trough that no one bothered to notice because everyone was looking up in awe, ran the crisis of myself. I was suicidal, I was cutting several times a day, and I had begun alternating between extreme anorexia and bulimia. I was invisible to the world, it appeared. I was a commodity valued for my mind.
I drank night after night at Harvard without stopping. And each night I blacked out. This was not the usual college partying. It often ended in the emergency room with my blood alcohol content at its near limits. What I sought on those nights was a complete dissociation from my experience. I wanted to run farther from myself than I had run before.
And like every high achiever, I was going to do it, and do it better than anyone had ever done it before.
That was to include shoplifting.
In total, among books, malls, and stores, I was arrested four times, with four felony counts of theft. The short nights and hours I spent in jail waiting to be released on bail were sickening. The fluorescent lights swirled in my eyes, and I sat as far from the military wool blankets as I could. I hate wool. I find it intolerable as a material. After the fourth arrest, the judge reviewed my background and considered my case. In exchange for leniency, the judge requested that I be placed in full- time therapy. It was clear that I was unfit to return to Harvard. My parents were beyond appalled. Their little girl had entirely evaporated.
I initiated a formal leave of absence and, after evaluation by the university’s health services, was recommended to visit a dialectical behavior therapy treatment center in the city.
I read the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in the DSM- IV. I bit my lip. There I was. In black and white and Times New Roman.