Further Notes on Reclaiming Borderline and Resisting the Sane Gaze

content notes: very brief mentions of overdose, suicidality, unintentional weight loss

I recently published an essay on The Establishment blog, Reclaiming Borderline: Dreaming New Meanings into Borderline Personality Disorder. As noted in the essay, among my intentions were to write “for the borderlines who are sick of clichés, who are looking for new ways to describe ourselves, to dream ourselves. I’m writing for borderlines who wish to recreate our own meanings.”

A few months earlier, I also wrote How Magic Helps Me Live with Pain and Trauma.

This Summer, I also printed the 40th (!) issue of my perzine, Telegram. I began writing Telegram when I was seventeen, and I’m still writing it as I approach thirty-one. I was diagnosed with BPD in 2011, when I was twenty-five. In October 2012 (on Halloween, two weeks after my 27th birthday), I published an anthology of the first almost-decade of my zines, Telegram: A Collection of 27 Issues. Making this book was how I survived joining The 27 Club. I still hold my own copy in my hands sometimes to prove that it is real.

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[image description: Maranda Elizabeth’s hand holding onto their zine, Telegram #40. The cover is a black & white photocopied collage made with an image of pill bottles found on a paperbag of prescriptions from the pharmacy, a butterfly wallpaper pattern torn out from inside a handmade dollhouse found on the sidewalk, and a strange, curved surgical implement from the Victorian era. The background of the photo is lavender.]

Telegram #40 is about reclaiming borderline (the ways mad, queer, crip, etc. have been reclaimed; the ways I’m reclaiming crazy and hysteria/hysterical), dreaming of the possibility of borderline lineages & elders, borderline-thought & borderline-imagination, changeability, access to vocabulary and information and dreams, fears and possibilities, books, re-imagining, stories told & untold & re-told, re-examining fear of abandonment, claiming crip & navigating crip-time, madphobia & saneism & resisting the sane gaze, asking, & staying alive. It’s also about the necessity of zines.

When I talk about dreaming new meanings into borderline, I feel like I’m speaking from the future. I also feel like it’s both a culmination of much of my writing over the last few years, as well as a necessary shift, an entry point to somewhere else. One word I wish to emphasize from my essay is: provocation. To me, writing as a form of provocation means: asking unanswerable questions; assigning new meanings to old words; making readers necessarily uncomfortable; writing something that might actually be considered radical; attempting to say something that has not yet been said; making up words; and daring readers to dream.

Although I did not respond to this tweet, when somebody (a stranger, someone I’d never spoken to) told me they would need concrete examples of ableism and invalidation in order for dreaming new meanings to make sense, what I wanted to say was: Please read the last fifteen years of my work. Please read the last thirty-five years of BPD literature. Please click the fucking BPD hashtag. Please re-read the first paragraph of my essay. I cannot squish all my feelings on borderline personality disorder into a single essay, a blog entry, a zine, nor a book – I will die leaving things unsaid. If you want me to give you ‘concrete examples’ of pain, ableism, and madphobia I’ve experienced, give me your money.

When I say provocation, I don’t mean antagonism, but sometimes that is how I feel.

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[image description: A close-up of an orange pill bottle held in Maranda Elizabeth’s hand, with a copy of The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Loneliness by Olivia Laing in the background.]

Before I wrote this essay, I wrote about the impossibility of dreaming. I wrote about overdosing (again!) in November 2015 because I felt like I could not financially afford to stay alive, especially as I was losing my ability to walk, and losing weight from not being able to consistently access food. I asked the question: What does it mean to feel suicidal for decades? I didn’t share these pieces because they were too painful. They still are. In not having consistent access to food, I have trained my body to need less, and I drink a glass of cold water to quiet my rumbling stomach. Sometimes I even like the feeling of hunger because I feel like I’m saving a few pennies from my disability cheque by not being able to carry food home. And this reminds me of my nana and poppa, who write down literally every single penny they save from coupons & sales, and tally it up at the end of the year. They also fill their closets with packages of toilet paper and maple crème cookies when they come on sale. We adapt to our circumstances in strange and creative ways; these are some of ours.

A pal asked me about the “sane gaze” – not as a definition, but what it means to me. They also asked me if I had info &/or resources on the sane gaze and saneism, and while I don’t doubt that they are out there, and have maybe been out there for decades without my knowledge, there was nothing that came to mind immediately, except for an academic anthology I had recently read: Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies (although, as I recall, borderline personality disorder is not mentioned once in this book, it is very much worth reading if you can access it). Y’all know I dropped out when I was 14, and it took me until age 30 to read a whole entire academic book and ‘get’ it. This is one of them. I felt particularly drawn to it as there are many stories of mad history and activism in my city and in my neighbourhood. I borrowed my copy from the library. The book costs $60 and I was miffed when somebody asked me if I wanted to buy it at the Mad Pride Mad Market when it was released in 2014. Yes, I want my own copy, no, I can’t pay that much for a book.

I told my pal: At the moment, when I think of the sane gaze, I ask myself: Who am I writing for? Who do I become when I let go of the need to convince others that I am real? Why do I reclaim language, and how do I reclaim language? I told them that reclaiming borderline and resisting the sane gaze are part of my “life’s work” as well as a form of service. I told them I want my words and feelings to have multiple definitions and interpretations, so they become unstable, just like our moods. And, of course, I told them that my questions are meant to be unanswerable (or poly-answerable, actually!) and to provoke more questions, thoughts, and dreams. I also talked to them about why I made up the word madphobia, which was to differentiate it from other forms of ableism, and because I did not know the words saneism or mentalism at the time (despite the fact that I was, essentially, writing about them!).

To me, writing about “stigma” is privileging the sane gaze. It is why I have always tried to avoid using that word. Trying to make my thoughts, feelings, and experiences understandable or comprehensible to sane people has largely been both a waste of my time, as well as crazy-making in itself. Sometimes I read and re-read my own writing in a tone of hysterical-shrieking, which is understandable and comprehensible to me, but does not generally elicit sympathy or empathy from sane people – it merely sounds crazy (I am even reading this very blog entry as hysterical-shrieking). It might get a re-tweet, which might give me about two-seconds of feeling listened to, but it will not get more than the temporary relief of cathartic screaming, nor will it result in ongoing, longer-term change. Writing for the sane gaze is like shouting for help as you’re drowning, while photographers keep their distance and take pictures of the way your skirt shimmers against the tidal waves that are filling your lungs.

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[image description: Maranda Elizabeth’s tattooed left hand reaching toward a very, very large rock of amethyst.]

I’ve said this many times before, but: Try replacing the word “stigma” with ableism and oppression, and see what happens. I really, really dare you.

When I think about the word stigma, I think about awareness campaigns, which have always made me feel uncomfortable. For examples of awareness campaigns, which I believe give the illusion of “community” but are in fact created for a sane gaze, see projects like To Write Love On Her Arms, BPD Awareness Month (any “Awareness Month,” for that matter), Bell Let’s Talk, Mental Illness Awareness Week, all those days when you’re encouraged to wear a particular colour of t-shirt signifying awareness of some sort, etc etc etc (and yes, many mental health awareness campaigns have very, um, dubious, records on where the money they raise ends up, on who actually benefits from donations, hashtags, branding, etc – when I tried to write about my own personal discomfort at a TWLOHA event nearly five years ago, as well as their history of funding notoriously anti-gay foundations – which they claim to no longer do, but the past evidence is there – I was harassed to a degree that I first had to review comments before they were posted on my blog, then dismantle the comments, and then delete the blog entry altogether because I could not handle the inundation of harassment I was receiving, even years later; and the never-ending problematics and hypocrisies of Bell Let’s Talk have also been well-documented since its inception). The moment somebody invokes – or outright states – the idea “I’m just like you except ______” (I have a mental illness, I feel depressed, I cut myself, I’m disabled, fill-in-the-blank…) it seems to me to be written for what I’m calling the sane gaze. The “you” in this sentence is a sane person, a non-disabled person, a person who doesn’t cut, a person who hasn’t considered suicide, a person who hasn’t been hospitalized, blah blah blah. The message seems so gentle and kind. It’s not for me.

When acknowledging the history of trauma most borderlines carry, what if we re-cast “stigma” as a form of victim-blaming?

For an excellent breakdown on the limits of awareness, I highly recommend reading The Limits of Destigmatisation: Against Awareness by Rose Lyddon, who makes crucial points about who does or does not benefit from awareness campaigns, who is harmed by them, etc., as well as what happens when we try to diagnose politicians, fascists, and murderers with mental illnesses, and traces these ideas all the way back to Ancient Greece.

I also strongly recommend reading The Unthinkable Thought of Borderline Pride, something I wish I had known about at the time it was first published in 2012.

When I talk about access to languages, vocabularies, histories, criticisms, and dreams, I think about this quote from Merri Lisa Johnson (who authored the blog entry above), which I copied into my diary as I read her memoir, Girl in Need of a Tourniquet: Memoir of a Borderline Personality, last Fall:

“Maybe I would not have gone crazy for the next fifteen years if ideas produced in ivory towers found their way more steadily and with less anti-intellectual distortion into the mainstream.”

Each time I re-read this single sentence, I feel such immense grief and rage. You know me, all pain eventually becomes material, but this particular grief and rage is so all-consuming that I will not try to elaborate upon it here, I will just let you sit with this quote and see how it applies to your own life and psyche.

marandaelizabethconcretemagic
[image description: Maranda Elizabeth’s left hand holding onto a large chunk of concrete they found on the ground and brought home. In the background is their purple writing desk, with many scattered pills and prescription bottles on top, as well as a chunk of amethyst, and three pocket-sized Tarot cards: Strength, The High Priestess, and Seven of Swords. A salt lamp glows in the background.]

This is something I’ve been writing for many years, but the trouble with writing about crazy for years & years & years is the fact that not enough change occurs in this time (there are internal shifts, of course, and revelations & insights, as well as self-awareness, coping skills, a critique of isms and institutions, and the creation of a large body of work, yes, and that’s not small, but it is also not enough), and many of us continue to suffer, continue to be isolated, continue to attempt to render ourselves comprehensible even as we’re experiencing the impossibility of doing so.

When I talk about mad lineages and borderline elders, I am speaking of moving beyond 101 (“this is what bpd is / this is how I was diagnosed / this is how my family and friends feel about it / this is the treatment I have access to…”) and understanding the contexts in which mental illnesses happen (in my view, a complex concoction involving but not limited to: ableism, madphobia, early childhood & ongoing & current & intergenerational & cumulative trauma, racism, poverty, capitalism, chemical imbalances, invalidating environments, sexism, transphobia, transmisogyny, cissexism, gentrification and displacement, white supremacy, & on & on & on… Some of which, like ableism and poverty, harm me, others of which, like racism and white supremacy, I benefit from; all of which I name without citing specific examples BECAUSE I AM DARING MYSELF TO TRUST YOU TO BELIEVE ME), as well as asking questions about who gets diagnosed and how, who gets access to the adequate and competent care they wish to receive, and what possibilities exist (or what possibilities we can create) after diagnosis.

I am also talking about the very, very impossible dream of “borderline” being a desirable place to be, a desirable person to be. I have sometimes asked myself if I would have developed BPD had I grown up in a culture where poverty no longer happened, where single mothers were supported financially and emotionally without judgement or shame, if addictions & lower-incomes & chronic illnesses didn’t run in the family, if we grew up in a culture with healthier communication skills, and other more personal questions I don’t wish to write about here today. These are impossible questions, and I am hoping for them to provoke within me (and you, maybe!) impossible dreams, instead of hopeless futility.

Now I am thinking of a quote from Cindy Crabb’s The Encyclopedia of Doris, the second anthology of her long-running zine. I believe this is from a page where she’s writing about becoming an anarcha-feminist.

“I had to ask new questions like – why did I write. And then hold myself accountable to my own reasons and standards.”

When I discuss lineages and elders, I do so to draw attention to the ways in which mad histories do not get passed down, so when one has a breakdown or receives a new diagnosis, navigating these new realms of madness, as well as contextualizing them and making art about them and connecting through them is like starting from scratch – it’s why we write for the sane gaze again and again, instead of for each other. It’s why you may not be able to tell me the names of the people who sparked mad pride movements, who fought against institutionalization and forced treatments, and continue to fight for affordable housing and liveable incomes and physical / financial / emotional accessibility, and and and… I feel disconnected from these histories, too, and that is why I’m naming them.

marandaelizabethfliers2016
[image description: a pair of fuchsia scissors lying on a blanket by a stack of papers of cut & paste fliers Maranda is making for their zines. There are pictures of flowers and pills on the fliers, and text describing their zines and providing contact information. Everything is black & white or various shades of purple.]

To put the words “borderline” and “elder” together – to dream of meeting or becoming a borderline elder – sounds fucking crazy! It’s supposed to!

I didn’t address specific incidents of ableism and madphobia in my essay, either personally or indirectly, because I want you to believe me without my explicit examples, and because if I even began, there would be no room left for dreaming, either within the essay itself or here, within me – it would also negate the aforementioned desire to skip the origin story and resist the sane gaze. It is generally not borderlines who want me to send them a list of everything that’s hurt me. They already know. If they don’t, they are learning.

My first blog entry was published on January 1st, 2011, a few months before I was diagnosed with BPD, and eight years after I began write Telegram zine. I named it The Most Popular Adjective in the World, and I wrote about the word CRAZY. I briefly discussed ableist language, and offered multiple lists of words to use instead. When I talk about how mad history and activism often does not get passed on between generations, this is an example of what I mean: in 2010 and 2011, the idea of replacing the word crazy with non-ableist terms seemed brand new and radical to me, even though it had likely already been written about in the early 2000’s, in the 90’s, in the 80’s, in the 70’s, and other colloquial terms for ‘mad’ and ‘crazy’ had already been reclaimed (and re-reclaimed, etc) by activists and writers and artists… And now, in 2016, it is still a brand new and radical idea to many people. This is what happens to all kinds of activism and writing and art, because we continue to grow up in oppressive, ableist, colonialist, madphobic, capitalist societies and to be educated (or not) by their institutions. We find ourselves harmed by problematic and destructive and unimaginative ideologies, &/or becoming complacent or complicit in the oppression of others, and we fucking suffer and make others suffer.

It’s why I still love and need zines and why I prioritize self-publishing, smaller presses, DIY cultures, and even obscurity. While mainstream narratives are still meaningful to me, they are simply not enough. And while I talk about resisting the mainstream, I am also painfully and conflictingly aware that much of what this blog entry is about is how we suffer when we cannot find ourselves in the mainstream. This issue will remain unreconciled within me, for now. Unfortunately, in resisting mainstream narratives of madness as well as refusing to attempt to participate in or be accepted by mainstream media, we also risk many of our words and art-work being lost. It is tragic and frustrating, but it is where I feel a greater sense of belonging, and where I don’t need to ask for permission to create, to share, to exist.

Since writing my piece about ‘crazy’ five and a half years ago, many of my thoughts have changed, but what I especially want to note is shifting from person-first language to identity-based language. For me, this shift happened during my process of embracing borderline, as well as becoming physically disabled with fibromyalgia. In my zine, I write much more about some of these terms, but what I’ve noticed since acquiring a cane two and a half years ago is that people who don’t use mobility aids often refer to me as a ‘person with a disability’ while folks who do use mobility aids will refer to me as disabled. I prefer disabled. It is with those feelings and experiences that I am beginning to prefer borderline.

marandaelizabethcrippletarot
[image description: four Tarot cards held in Maranda’s left hand. They are the Three of Swords and Five of Pentacles as imagined by the Radiant Pixie Deck and Dame Darcy’s Mermaid Tarot. Among other things, Maranda likes to interpret the Three of Swords as crying in public as resistance, and the Five of Pentacles as crip-love and disabled folks supporting one another.]

(For more of my weirdo feelings on Tarot, please consider beginning with this piece: Exploring Trauma, Madness, Chronic Illness, and Disability with Tarot: Part One, as well as Friendship, Jealousy, and Fear of Being Forgotten.)

I imagine finding lineages and elders, as well as creating and becoming them. I use the word ‘elder’ very intentionally because it is discordant with many BPD narratives: we either recover and no longer qualify for diagnosis, or we kill ourselves; in between those spaces, we often keep it a secret. I want to create more options. Words like elder, lineage, and history interrupt these narratives and create other stories. The photographers abandon their shoot – some of them even fall into the water with us; others call for help, throw in a life preserver, swim us to shore, and teach us how to swim. Still, some will drown.

I have always written with a sense of urgency. I am beginning to wonder if the dearth of quality, complex, nuanced writing about BPD (by borderlines!) might be because we’re struggling, suffering, and unable to work on sustaining long-term anything, let alone fighting our way past gatekeepers of various sorts and, of course, our difficulty with maintaining friends, connections, and networks. I have experienced burn out and exhaustion and quitting again and again, as well as feeling like I will never have the time or the emotional or vocabulary capacity to say everything I need to say. I’ve written 4,000 words this afternoon, and it feels incomplete. It will always be incomplete. It’s easier to write a few sarcastic tweets about BPD than it is to attempt to write an essay saying something that has not yet been said, and it is especially difficult to write an entire book, or work on other forms of art that take considerable time, skill, and patience. I am not interested in normalizing borderline personality disorder. My work is about (re-)developing imagination after it has been injured by trauma.

We have heard the statistic that 10% of borderlines die by suicide. Once I realized that I’d been reading that same statistic for a very long time, and that it originally appeared at least twenty years ago, I looked it up to see if it remained the same. For my own sake, and for the sake of other borderlines, I wanted to find the statistic in single digits. There was another part of me who wanted it to remain the same, just so I could point at it and say, See, it’s real. But like drawing the right Tarot card at just the right moment, the statistic, in fact, has recently changed. Now 3-9% of borderlines will die by suicide. That is still a sizeable number, but it also shows that we are living, that changes are happening.

I hope my work, and my dreams, will contribute to this change.

Borderliningly Yours,
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P.S.: If you’ve benefited from my writing in any way – if my words have inspired you, helped you feel less alone, or sparked some weird feeling within you; if you’ve felt encouraged, or curious, or comforted – please consider compensating me by offering a donation of any amount. Whether you’ve been reading my writing for years, or just stumbled into me this afternoon, I invite you to help me sustain the process!

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