Half of the inmates in Canadian prisons experienced abuse (physical, sexual, emotional and neglect) during childhood.
These are the findings from a recently published article in the American Journal of Public Health.
This makes sense to me.
I had an emotionally neglected childhood due to the societal and familial ignorance regarding my learning disability (ADHD), anxiety, depression and my resulting BPD.
There were countless occasions in my life where I was so angry, so vindictive, so hurt, so betrayed, that extremely violent thoughts rapidly ran through my mind. I was in so much pain that I felt the urge to get even just some of it out and put it onto other people who had hurt me – make them bear the excessive, heavy load that I was carrying; release the pressure, however necessary. I couldn’t handle my self-hatred anymore and I had to take it to the limit, where I could legitimately hate myself by doing something that everyone expected from me; something bad.
“…and sometimes people are just bad.”
I recently had a Twitter interaction with a Crime and Court Reporter from a local newspaper, fraught with stigma-supporting commentary that she freely posted. As I backed up the findings of the previously-mentioned research paper – that there are correlations between childhood abuse, psychological disorders and criminal activity – she responded with: “…and sometimes people are just bad.”
This struck a chord with me, as I recalled my childhood and being told that I was bad. But I wasn’t bad; I was disabled. I didn’t have the ability to be “normal” so I was unfairly judged as “bad”.
But even if I wanted to be “good” I didn’t know how. I was trying my best, but it never seemed to work. I’d get frustrated because, even though I’d try, I would fail and be chastised by my parents, teachers, friends and, always, most strongly, myself.
Is the child born with mobility-affecting cerebral palsy “lazy” because they aren’t even trying to walk like everyone else?
It is this judgmental and inaccurate labeling of “bad” that is extremely problematic in our society today.
As we try to understand the reasons behind mental illness, psychological disorders and behaviours that cause detriment to our society, toxic labels like “bad”, especially when iterated by a member of the media, with access to thousands of impressionable eyes that (often) view our current media outlets as disseminators of truth, is completely unhelpful.
Milk goes bad; a person doesn’t.
A person can always work toward positive change. A person can always seek help and, if willing and able, address the underlying issues in their lives, whether physical or emotional, it can be done, but some may need extra support, which is where compassion comes in.
Misunderstanding has driven society forward; it has created changes in how people perceive things by offering up a different viewpoint, and those who refuse to see both sides, preferring to stick to their own way of thinking, without opening their minds to the possibility of something else, get left behind and remain ignorant.
It wasn’t too long ago that gay men were seen as “bad”. They were locked up, some in prisons, some in institutions, because it was perceived by the majority of heteronormative society that they could change and become “good” [straight], healthy men. Conversion therapy still exists today, and stories of it are met with gaping mouths and “OMG, that’s horrible!” commentary.
My cousin was gay (he died from AIDS in the early ‘90’s), and was kicked out of his house and alienated from the family. He told my mother something to the effect of “Why would I want to be like this? Why would I want to be hated and shamed? If I could be different, I would be, but I can’t.”
It’s not a choice. It’s a way of life dictated by our unique physiological attributes and how they’ve been nurtured throughout our lives.
So I’ll apply the same logic to psychological disorders – which homosexuality was considered until 1982 in Canada – and to mental illness:
I have ADHD. My parents didn’t understand that at the time (I wasn’t diagnosed until I was well into adulthood). My parents didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit still; why I didn’t apply myself to schoolwork that I found boring; why I would make friends and lose them after a few months; why I would chase my brother around the house with a hockey stick because he’d make fun of me; why I seemed to have everything that I wanted, but I was unhappy and angry all the time.
Due to my hyperactive brain, impulsivity and my emotional dysregulation, I wasn’t able to sit still because I would think and think and think about all of the other things that I could be doing that were better than sitting still. I didn’t want to waste my time on schoolwork that was boring because, even at 12 years old, I knew that I would never pursue a career in mathematics and I could be doing something more fun, like reading or writing. I would make friends and then, when I allowed the real me and my real (dysregulated) emotions to come out, they would get annoyed and I was no longer in their circle. My brother was being a jerk – teasing me just to get a reaction, and it hurt me that all he wanted was to see was a show, without any regard for my difficulties and emotions – he betrayed the dynamic of a family – so he needed to feel that pain, and what better than a hockey stick to inflict it? I had all of the “things” that I wanted, except for the understanding. No matter how much I had, I was still always seeking that validation of being “good enough” from my parents that, as I grew into my late teens, evolved into needing any type of validation from friends, employers, partners, strangers and, ultimately, myself.
From my family, there was no compassion, just an effort to suppress my behaviour, by whatever means necessary – physical violence, deprivation, personal insults and criticisms, or telling me that they loved me because, as their daughter, they had to, but they really didn’t like me, not like they liked my brother.
This eventually caused a rift between the person that I was born as, and the person that they wanted me to be. The rift is a space – like an air pocket – with the bottom layer being the physical “me” and the top layer being the psychological projection of what I was expected by everyone, including myself, to be.
Welcome to BPD – Borderline Personality Disorder.
According to the Mayo Clinic, although the origin of BPD is unknown, there are many theories surrounding how it begins, including a dysfunctional family environment. Children who grow up in families where they feel emotionally neglected or abandoned are more likely to develop BPD as adults. Experienced trauma from physical or sexual abuse may also contribute. In addition, genetics (heredity), and physical brain abnormalities are also believed to cause BPD.
Controlling BPD is like controlling allergies. It’s not a choice, it is a physiological condition that causes us difficulty, but with BPD, there’s no over-the-counter, fast-acting, long-lasting antihistamine that will stop the effects.
It is BPD that makes many people be seen as “bad” for doing bad things, but the messed up part about it was that it was people telling me that I was bad that made me play to their perceptions. The sick, cyclical nature of the illness is that we are trying so hard to please everyone so that we gain acceptance, yet all that it offers us is continued rejection, so we become what they expect from us in order to gain any type of validation possible.
For me, it was about hurting people before they could hurt me.
I gave everyone a chance. More than one chance, even making myself into an emotional doormat more often than not; dealing with abusive treatment, cheating partners and lying friends, but when my sense of rejection and betrayal was triggered, that’s when the “bad” came out, and the conversion was instantaneous.
The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde always comes to mind when I think of BPD. It’s a switch so quick and drastic that it’s terrifying, not only to those witnessing it, but to our own selves, as well and, unfortunately, when it takes over, it’s almost always uncontrollable.
That loss of control affects the ways in which we think and feel about ourselves, resulting in frustration and anger at not being able to express it like everyone else can, but mostly in fear; fear of doing something that, as experienced through our entire lives, we will be rejected and admonished for doing, despite it being mostly out of our control. Imagine the impact that has on our perception of self and on our ability to engage with society!
Common thoughts that constantly run through our minds include:
> If others really get to know me, they will find me rejectable and will not be able to love me; and they will leave me;
> I need to have complete control of my feelings otherwise things go completely wrong;
> I have to adapt my needs to other people’s wishes, otherwise they will leave me or attack me;
> I am an evil person and I need to be punished for it;
> Other people are evil and abuse you;
> If someone fails to keep a promise, that person can no longer be trusted;
> If I trust someone, I run a great risk of getting hurt or disappointed;
> If you comply with someone’s request, you run the risk of losing yourself;
> If you refuse someone’s request, you run the risk of losing that person;
> I will always be alone;
> I can’t manage by myself, I need someone I can fall back on;
> There is no one who really cares about me, who will be available to help me, and whom I can fall back on;
> I don’t really know what I want;
> I will never get what I want;
> I’m powerless and vulnerable and I can’t protect myself;
> I have no control of myself;
> I can’t discipline myself;
> My feelings and opinions are unfounded;
> Other people are not willing or helpful.
So, with all of that hopelessness playing on repeat inside of our heads, what is there to logically stop us from saying “fuck it all” and becoming reclusive, acting out badly to just end it all?
I recently read an article in The Mighty about how the Disney character, Elsa from Frozen, is a fine example of BPD – how she was made to “conceal don’t feel, don’t let it show…” her dangerous “powers” that manifest when she’s angry. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth it for the analysis, but if you already have, or want the summarized version as it relates to BPD, this short YouTube video provides a good perspective.
Of course, at the end of the movie, everyone is happy and reunited, but that’s not how real life works for most BPD’ers. Most often, it ends in rejection, isolation and sadness. That, in turn, ignites anger and impulsive reactions, like violence or aggression towards other and toward ourselves (suicide, self-harm, addiction).
But there is the hope for a positive ending.
Like in the movie, it often takes an intense and emotionally cataclysmic event to trigger it, followed by a third party’s display of sacrifice (believing in the BPD’er, despite the rejection of the majority), understanding and/or acceptance (by a loved one, a therapist, a teacher, a boss or an institution, like a court), that will give the BPD’er enough confidence to look at themselves and realize what is going on – that, maybe, it could be them and not everyone else, and to seek help.
This is a very, very difficult first step as the BPD’er is now acknowledging that there is, in fact, something “wrong” with them, something that they have been fighting to reject their entire lives, and that realization should be applauded and supported as positively as possible in order to facilitate future progress.
This is where our society, including our schools, media, criminal justice system and healthcare authorities are screwing up.
Due to a lack of patience and understanding, labeling people who exhibit a pattern of behaviour that’s “abnormal” are put away and labelled as “bad” and/or unable to be helped.
That’s not fair.
Abhorrent as their behavior might be, doesn’t everyone deserve a legitimate chance to improve?
Organizations that have helped people, like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), are a testament to how people that have lost cognitive control and the capacity to make the choice to stop drinking, are, with hard work, able to get sober and reintegrate into society, accepted by their friends and family who, before, had [ignorantly] rejected their addiction-fueled behavior.
It is not a matter of will, but a lack of cognitive control – why would anyone want to have BPD? It’s a part of our brain that has developed differently and outside of our control.
The only proven effective treatment for BPD is DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy). This is a type of therapy, also known as talk therapy, that teaches us how to socially interact in a positive way. The core component of this therapy (in my experiential opinion), is that it’s support-oriented: It helps a person identify their strengths and builds on them so that the person can feel better about him/herself and their life. It’s also cognitive-based and collaborative, essential elements for confidence-building and positive integration with neurotypical society.
I did DBT. I focused on it. I was extremely diligent with my therapist visits. I did my homework. I committed. I had support from family, who, once they understood my illness, did a complete turnaround and became the supportive family that I had always wished for, and it all drove me confidently forward in my quest for health.
I am so different now, much more confident, much more accepting of myself and, therefore, much happier, which positively affects those around me. It’s amazing.
Unfortunately, not everyone will have the same opportunity that I had, and this is where I go back to my original point, which is that 50% of inmates in Canadian prisons have experienced abuse in childhood.
Deemed as “bad”, without the chance at effective treatment, they will continue to see themselves as “bad”, do “bad” things and, unfortunately, never be able to shake the label, despite their other talents and intellectual aptitude, they will always be negatively categorized.
I have met people with great minds, who are serving time in prison. They will never get a chance to use their skills (from within the walls or outside), to contribute to the betterment of society because, instead of being seen as someone who’s done a bad thing, they’re seen as a bad person, and are not provided with effective rehabilitative therapy or tools to nurture their confidence and help others, even while they’re incarcerated. Whether on the inside or when released, they are forced to repeat the pattern because they don’t have the ability that comes from effective therapy, to see beyond what they’ve been labelled.
The time has come for understanding. The time has come for awareness. The time has come to encourage empathy and a commitment toward healing, not concealing.
The final stage of my lengthy DBT is this website (LadyAngrr.com) and its content, where I’m defining goals (advocating for mental health awareness), building self-respect (having the confidence to write about my experience), finding peace and happiness (receiving positive acknowledgement for my effort), and finding a deeper meaning to my existence (helping people to deal with their circumstances in life by offering non-judgmental understanding and support).
So thank you, Dear Reader, for clicking on this story and helping me in my healing – you have made a difference.
For further information about DBT, check out these helpful resources:
ACT on Life Not On Anger, by Georg H. Eifert, Matthew McKay and John P. Forsyth
Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, CAMH
Logosynthesis – How saying a simple sentence can pull fear, anger and shame out of your system.