Navigating Grad School with BPD – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, about your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, MAKEUP and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by a writer who wishes to remain anonymous for now. She is a doctoral student in a Ph.D. program in the Southwest.

Being a PhD student is difficult for everyone: the long hours of coursework/research, the chronic worry about money, the isolation, constant rejection,  high debt load and the horrible academic job market. Being a woman and queer afro-latinx PhD student in a predominately white institution adds another layer of difficulty: dealing with microagressions or outright racist language, having one’s qualifications constantly questioned (the implication being I am only in a PhD program because the program needed some non-white faces), and having to navigate the tension between advocating for a just and more equaitable institution and being accused of “incivility” and making white students/professors/peers uncomfortable. Having a severe and persistent mental health issue makes graduate school feel impossible.  

While many colleges are at least starting to have serious discussions regarding suicide and mental health many of the conversations center around depression and anxiety. Which makes sense, depression and anxiety are common issues impacting college and graduate students. However, there are other serious mental health challenges that can make graduate school even tougher than it already is, and the silence reinforces a sense of isolation. As a result, I have decided to speak out about my own struggles, albeit in a limited and anonymous way: I have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

What is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

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Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/329325791473159467/

The National Institute of Mental Health describes BPD as, “a mental illness marked by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, and behavior.” Some of the symptoms that I struggle with are

  • An intense fear of abandonment (though in my case, this is actually one of the least severe symptoms although for many others it is one of the most pronounced).
  • Chronic suicidal thoughts (though this has been improving)
  • Pattern of intense and unstable relationships
  • Intense anger
  • Intense, rapid mood swings with episodes lasting a few hours to a few day

Obviously, like any mental illness the severity exists on a spectrum. On one end, there are those who are constantly in and out of hospitals, who are unable to hold down a job, and have few if no stable friendships or relationships. On the other end you have those who, because of treatment, rarely have a significant episode and are able to hold down a job and have friends. While I’m towards the higher functioning end of the spectrum, having BPD still poses significant challenges.

Isolation

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Image from: https://makeameme.org/meme/im-so-lonely-kxq4uf

PhD programs tend be isolating.  At least, mine is. My peers in general are kind and supportive and I am still in the course work stage, so I do get to interact with others on a regular basis throughout the week. But hanging out outside of classes is extremely difficult. Most students have families of their own to take care of, others live quite a bit of distance from the university, so they arrive for classes and to TA and leave, and for others its simply just too logistically challenging to find a schedule that works for multiple people. Especially in April, which is hell month: classes are still going on, but major projects are rapidly becoming due.

BPD adds an extra layer of complication: intense emotions and behavior. I’ve spent years working on managing my emotions. Unless I tell you I have it or we are close friends, it is not always obvious I struggle with BPD. I pride myself on that since managing my behavior is must, not just in academia but in any potential career. It doesn’t matter if you have a mental illness or not, you are expected to control how you act.

But while I have, for the most part, successfully managed to eliminate the more negative and extreme behaviors that result from my difficulties in regulating my intense emotions, this has come at a cost. I get so fearful that I will lose control emotionally, that I go the opposite direction and try to hide any display of emotion. As a result, I don’t let others know when I am lonely, when I am depressed, when I am overcome with anxiety about my future. The closest I get to talking about my difficulties is when I commiserate with other students about how stressed we are. But even if I were to be honest about my struggles with my closest peers, then what? Just reading about the possible symptoms is enough to freak anyone out and a quick google search often brings up forum after forum where suffers of BPD are portrayed as abusive and manipulative. Which, no doubt some are. But the google results rarely demonstrate the range of experiences and severity of BPD.

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Yes, I have suicidal thoughts, no I won’t act on them.

Image from: https://me.me/i/do-you-still-have-suicidal-thoughts-anxiety-depression-memes-and-i-e3fb23ad756f440caaf85cf41c0b0fa7

One of the more frightening symptoms of BPD is the chronic suicidal thoughts and behavior but again these exist on a spectrum. For some this means constant suicide attempts, for others, like me, I struggle with constant suicidal thoughts, but I do not act on them. Instead I suffer in silence. In silence because when I have mentioned my struggles in the past people understandably tend to over-react. Should they call the cops? (Please, NO. Not unless I am a direct threat to others. As a black woman calling the cops can be dangerous). Do I need to be hospitalized? (No, and unless I am directly harming myself, I will most likely not be admitted). Plus, those with BPD have been accused of using suicide as a method of manipulation. As a result, it is better I keep my thoughts and struggles to myself unless I am a danger. In most cases, I’m not. I’m just miserable. But who can I talk to without being a burden? Therapists, of course. But therapists are not friends.

Angry Black Woman

Intense, incontrollable anger is another symptom. Sometimes it is pretty clear when my anger is a result of my BPD. Getting angry because someone looked at me “wrong” or getting angry at something small and stupid, is a clear sign that I am overreacting and I am stressed and I need a time out. But as a black woman, I am constantly angry at the injustice I see all around me. What else am I supposed to feel when society makes it clear that the lives of black and brown people are worth very little?  When cops can shoot at us dozen of times and get away with murder because they “feared for their lives” simply by being in our presence? When I am surrounded by conversations on “civility” which ignore the fact that black and brown people have in fact been acting “civil” for centuries as if our lives depend on it, because it does.

Yet when we push back and demand that institutions take seriously their role in perpetrating racism and when we demand that we be treated as humans of equal worth, we are labeled as “uncivil.” Yet, BPD makes me ask: am I overreacting? Is that person really being racist towards me or am I just trying to paint myself as a victim? Moreover, am I simply just reinforcing the angry black woman stereotype? Am I making things worse?

Colleges and Universities have started to recognize that mental health cannot be neglected. More and more of their students are starting their studies already struggling with severe issues or they develop severe issues. Depression and anxiety need to be talked about. So do the myriad other illness that impact students. For me, I suffer from BPD. I am not some crazy, manipulative monster but someone trying her best everyday to finish my program and to make a positive difference.

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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