First USA Thanksgiving in 9 Years: My Brother Is Really Depressed but Hanging In

I usually always post to this blog on Monday nights, but I was in transit at the time and didn’t have access to a computer. I’m probably one of the last people on Earth without a laptop. 🙂

Thanksgiving 2012 was my first in the USA in 9 years. The family tradition – established well over 30 years ago – has us head up to my Aunt and Uncle’s house for dinner. When we were little, my cousins and I used to play games outside or run around the house like animals. Now that we’re older, we prefer to sit on the couch, munch on snacks, and have a couple beers while the football game is on. One of my cousins has children of her own and it was great to see them. They are the beginnings of our family’s next generation.

My 5 days back home were uneventful and enjoyable. The only cloud hanging over the festivities was my younger brother’s difficult personal situation with his nearly ex-wife. Early August he announced they were separating and he would be returning home to live with my parents. Apparently his wife cheated on him a couple times, but I don’t know that for certain. She also had a child from a previous marriage that my brother deeply loved and treated as his own.

The impression I get from afar is that she was the one who decided to part ways, or at least was the aggravating factor in the breakup.

Ever since their separation, my family has noticed that my brother still maintains contact with her. He’s going to therapy for support and is under the impression they will eventually reconcile and get back together. The tough part is that he’s now living with my parents, who can be hard to tolerate during emotionally distressing times. My father usually advocates for concrete actions and “moving on”, ie. get a lawyer and settle up on paper, close out joint bank accounts, payoff debts, etc. My Mother approaches things from a “protective mother” point of view even though my brother is now 30+. She was mad when she saw him mailing out a birthday gift to his former wife. This incident was further complicated by the fact that she[my brother’s wife] and he both share the same birthday – this year just 2 days after Thanksgiving. As a result, he wasn’t in good spirits for much of the week.

My brother and I currently aren’t at the point in our adult lives where we can talk about intimate problems heart to heart. I wasn’t the best older brother and at times was cruel to him during our teenage years. Although that was 10+ years ago and we now function more like typical siblings in adulthood, I don’t blame him for not feeling comfortable talking to me about his personal problems, even though we both suffer from bouts of depression and have been in and out of therapy for years. My own problems with BPD only complicated matters and further removed me from the inner-workings of my family. I’m just beginning to get back into the loop – so to speak – now that I’ve returned to the USA and can visit more often.

At this point, I think the only thing my family can do is be supportive of whatever decision(s) he makes, even if we personally believe a reconciliation or “do-over” is a bad idea. My brother is horribly depressed and has resorted to self injury on some occasions. He has a close friend who lives nearby for non-family support. His friend regularly attends AA for alcohol addiction, but also for the fraternal and supportive nature of 12 step groups. My brother often joins him at these meetings for third party support and different points of view from anonymous community members. AA might not be the perfect fit, but it’s definitely better than nothing. Many alcoholics go through similar struggles with spouses and they might have some sage advice.

While I was flying back to Florida last night, I was trying to think of ways I could offer to help him without pushing thinly established boundaries between us. His friend is definitely his best form of peer support at the moment, and our family is thankful he is around to hangout with my brother. For me, it’s difficult to know what role I should play, if any, without appearing superficial or uncomfortably emotional about his personal life. I thought about offering to help him payoff medical bills for therapy, but I think he would refuse and would not feel good about owing someone money, even if I gave it as a gift. I thought about setting up a weekly phone call to chat, but he’s just started a new job and his tendency is to work relentlessly to make ends meet and focus on those immediately around him. The fact that I’m several states away wouldn’t make sense given our good, but “hands-off” disposition about personal matters.

If some sort of emergency situation develops, I think everyone in my family would need to come together and support him unconditionally as much as possible. For the time being, however, he’s going through his own grieving process and does have outlets for support other than my immediate family. He’s also staying away from alcohol and substances to avoid making matters worse.

As he became an adult and had various relationships along the way prior to his first marriage, he was always very private about his personal issues. Friendly – but prying – questions from relatives usually received a “…I usually don’t like to talk about it…” response. That’s fine by me, I totally respect his position. I don’t make a habit of talking openly to relatives about my struggles either, in part because my Mom feels embarrassed that her children have struggles to begin with. In her eyes, we had a wonderful, pain-free childhood and we don’t talk about emotional scars and other touchy baggage.

Between now and Christmas, I’m going to email him a couple times to test the waters and encourage him at his new job. Then, when I return home for the Christmas holiday, I’ll reevaluate the situation and see if he’s better, worse, or the same. If he makes an offhanded comment to me about something that is upsetting him, I’ll use that as my in to be more supportive. Otherwise, I stand at the ready to help out in any way, if and when he decides to ask his siblings for assistance.

When someone is private about their life, the last thing they need is someone poking into their business. As painful as it is to watch from the outside, I need to respect his space and let him call the shots, even if I think some sort of intervention would move his emotional recovery along faster. For now, he has a good friend and therapist to speak with in confidence, and that is probably all that is needed unless things take a turn for the worse.

If You Have Borderline Personality Disorder, Do Not Work In Customer Service

Here’s the thing about us folks with BPD: we’ll be having a good day, positive thoughts, and feel happy. Then, someone upsets us and all that positive energy goes out the window. Further, there’s a good chance we’ll explode on the other party, raging in anger over their perceived transgression. Sometimes we’re the people originally at fault, but our emotional response makes a mountain out of a molehill. Other times, you’re dealing with a complete jerk and you might feel justified screaming at them and making threats. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t understand our thought processes.

If you have BPD, do NOT work in customer service jobs if at all possible

Why? Because that one bad apple in the bunch will throw you so far out of whack that your emotional retaliation will likely get you fired and/or brought up on criminal charges.

Shortly after I finished college, I worked in a bar. When a couple dozen people are clamoring to the bar and the waiters are impatient about getting their customers’ drinks poured, it creates a stressful atmosphere. For the most part, I just sucked it up and cranked through the rush, trying to get the job done quickly and professionally. It wasn’t the type of restaurant where you could sling a beer down the bar to a thirsty customer. First you had to take their order, put it in the computer, place a napkin at their spot, and pour a beer with just a little head on it – not too much to make the customer feel like they got less than what they paid for. If you mixed drinks, you had to pour generously and were expected to know the tastes and demands of the regulars.

One night a married man and woman walked in. I had seen them before. They were friendly with the lounge waiter and sometimes sat at the bar for a drink and a meal. This particular night, the man seemed ornery and difficult, but nothing that was intolerable.

The lounge waiter spoke with the couple when he had free moments. The waiter didn’t like me at all and started to stoke the negative mood of the man at the bar. At one point I thought I heard him say, “Is this bitch serving you on time?”. I ignored it and chalked it up to one of those things you have to tolerate at work.

About an hour later, the man was definitely drunk. He became loud and disruptive at times. Then, he requested his check. It was for just over $20 dollars, and he handed me a ten and twenty dollar bill. I dutifully went to the register and cashed him out. The restaurant manager had a strict policy of not making customers wait for their checks. I gave the man his change and went on to the next task.

A few minutes later, he started to yell at me, accusing him of cheating him on his change. He sounded like a drunk walrus, bellowing at the top of his lunges that I “[he]…stole from him…”. I assured him twice that everything was in order and hoped he’d shut up and leave, but he persisted.

After being verbally accused of stealing in public and absorbing other insults, my BPD kicked to gear and I exploded. I started to yell just as loud back to him: “I didn’t steal from you, you got your change. Leave.” The man’s wife started to intervene and passively asked him to settle down. Immediately, I got the impression in the back of my mind that this guy probably pushed his wife around. Her calming words were meaningless to him.

Then things escalated when he lunged at me across the bar. By now, everyone in the lower part of the restaurant was aware of what was happening, but my BPD anger went off like a nuclear bomb: unstoppable, out of control, and immensely destructive.

Feeling threatened, I lunged back at him, and he started to rear up as if to start a fight. The other bartender restrained me and said “STOP – He’s drunk, enough!”. I broke away from his grasp and continued hurling insults at the irate man. I backed out of the bar like a cornered animal, while he left his stool and circled around the front of the bar trying to intercept me for a fight. He was bigger but older, and I was high on BPD anger and adrenaline and quite confident that I could lay the guy out if it came to blows. We lunged at each other a few more times before a couple members of the now silent lounge band broke it up. I stormed off and the man left the building.

Of course, after a few minutes alone outside, my better judgement caught up with me and I realized I had just created a huge mess, bad memories for the other patrons, and royally embarrassed myself. In any other setting, my anger would be understandable, but in a restaurant you have to tolerate ALL customers, even if they are being abusive, rude, or potentially threatening.

The restaurant manager found me and I thought I was going to be fired on the spot. He seemed somewhat angry but in control. I broke into tears and apologized, but angrily explained that this customer accused me of stealing and then threatened me. I also told him the lounge waiter was causing trouble and acting like a prick. The manager understood my position, but he gave me this simple, powerful advice:

When a customer is behaving badly, leave the scene and ask someone else to help out. Just leave. It will calm things down and allow a third party to settle the matter without letting emotions run too high.

When I finally returned to work, the man’s wife was still at the bar, and half-apologized for her husband’s behavior. I wasn’t in the mood for a half-apology, so I uttered some strong words in return and hoped they’d never come back while I was working again.

A few days later, I found a new job and left the restaurant. It was for the best. I wrote a written apology to the managers and told them I was truly sorry for erupting like a long-dormant volcano. A couple months later, long after I had left the restaurant, the manager sent a reply thanking me for my apology. He also reminded me that I had behaved poorly, and wished me the best of luck in my future endeavors. I felt his reply was genuine and gracious. To this day I have no ill-will towards my co-workers (except for the lounge waiter that called me a bitch and egged the angry man on) and fully respect the manager and his thoughts. He was absolutely right.

Lesson learned: people with BPD have short fuses and a low threshold for tolerating stressful environments. In the heat of the moment, we think we are preserving ourselves when we finally fight back and let the anger out. In reality, it’s not a response most people will understand or condone, except for a mental health worker who is familiar with the BPD diagnosis.

The bar incident was 10 years ago. I’ve had a few explosions since, but nothing that was as embarrassing and troubling as what happened in the restaurant. Avoiding customer service work might be hard because much of business involves working with people, whether we like them or not.

My advice: If you work in a customer service job and feel like you’re about to pop, leave the scene; put the phone down; or take 10 minutes off. Yes, it might annoy your boss that you’ve left the room, but that’s much better than an emotional rampage. Once you’ve regained your composure, return to work and soldier on. If it happens a couple times, sit down with your boss and explain your situation only if he or she is an understanding person. Otherwise, report to therapy and work out your anger.

No one except another person with BPD will ever understand our feelings, motivations, and need to violently defend ourselves if provoked. Others will never walk in our shoes. That said, we must still conform – as much as possible – to social norms and standards of appropriate behavior, or else we risk permanent expulsion from a mostly “normal” existence in society.

Borderline Personality Disorder during The Holidays

This post is geared mostly towards those in the United States (or from the United States) who celebrate the Thanksgiving Holiday followed by the usual Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa Holidays at the end of December.

I think the holiday season can be a bit daunting for those with BPD, especially if emotions are running high with friends and family prior to various celebration events. If you explode on your spouse three days prior to Thanksgiving, you’re going to have to put on a smile and hold the anger for at least a week until things get back to normal. Skipping these events in spite of your family members is usually grounds for being labeled a “Black Sheep” or other derisive designations.

My least favorite holiday question: “How are you?”. Why? Because I almost always lie in response, but so do most people. Everyone is cheery and excited to be together, so the natural response is “I’m fine, thanks”, or “Things are good!”. I can count the number of times I actually replied “I’m fine” and REALLY felt that way on less than one hand. It’s one of those grin-and-bear-it moments. Norman Rockwell did the American psyche a bit of a disservice with his ultra-happy, family oriented paintings that seemed full of everything EXCEPT anger, sadness, and depression. Thanksgiving dinner might be different if people disclosed their true disposition. In order to avoid muddying the water, it’s standard protocol to be as happy or more happy than the people around you.

The holidays can also be painful reminders of the past, which is something people with BPD carry with them forever. The memory of a traumatic Christmas event, ie. Dad got drunk and punched me, looms large in the minds of people with BPD even if it was twenty years ago. People in my family tend to excuse past transgressions based on how many years have elapsed since. My Mother might even say, “I don’t remember that” after five years, which is lying in a state of denial. People with BPD have extremely sensitive emotions and a tendency to carry around every negative event in their mind on a daily basis, even if it was from their childhood. Years later your parents or siblings may have indeed “forgotten” and moved on, but the pain of having hurt feelings dredged up again is visceral and searing.

Is the holiday season actually a bad thing? On balance, no. It is an excuse for people to come together, give gifts, eat big meals, and socialize for just a little while before they return to the daily grind. For non-BPD people, the holidays lift spirits, put a Bandaid on “normal” family dysfunction, and allow people to reconnect in a peaceful setting. Some families plan big trips and make lifelong GOOD memories and stories to enjoy for years to come. Traditions are renewed and people feel full, if only for a few days. It’s sort of an emotional vacation that comes with a lot of food prep, gift buying, house cleaning, and some minor stress.

For people with BPD, however, the holidays do little to fill the empty void inside them. Sure, throw a nice gift, a couple beers, a good joke, or Uncle Joe’s antics in there, and you feel good for a few minutes, but your feelings and disconnect follow you around like a bad shadow. Having the post New Year blues is sometimes enough to throw me into a depression. Things seemed to be going OK for a while and there was some superficial good feelings. All this changes when you report to work January 3rd and 4th and are confronted with reality once again.

Here are a few brief thoughts for those with BPD who have a tough time during the holiday season:

  1. If you’re pissed with your family, do something nice for a neighbor or someone less fortunate. The joy you give them might tide you over until you can bury the hatchet (for another time) with those who have upset you.
  2. Be as honest about yourself as possible without being a downer. If times are tough financially, say you’ve been under stress to pay the bills and are looking for a new job. Maybe a relative can help out. Others might get the impression your BPD is dissipating because you’re being genuine and forthright. Perception is everything.
  3. Avoid touchy subjects like the plague UNLESS everyone around you has decided to dedicate the holidays to a family intervention or healing time. You’ll have to go with the flow for a few weeks.
  4. Avoid Substance Abuse. Resorting to the bottle, taking an extra med, or getting high to bury painful emotions is NOT a practical solution. In fact, many alcoholics fall of the wagon at the end of the year because booze is plentiful and everyone is enjoying themselves. Remember that on January 2nd, you have to get on with your life. Stoking addiction or losing your sobriety will only complicate matters.
  5. Make private, realistic New Year’s resolutions. The classic resolution is “I’m going to lose 50 pounds and get into a bikini or swimsuit in July”. The gym seems great for a couple weeks, then sh*t happens and you hang up the workout clothes. If you have BPD, resolve to “be more patient with my spouse”, or “leave my crappy marriage”, or “give myself an hour a week to spend on ME”. In other words, things or thoughts that will be positive for your emotional well being. That’s more important than those stupid TV ads for $1/month gym memberships or “get rich quick” schemes.

I’ll reflect on the holidays when I return to my apartment in Florida and live my mostly solitary lifestyle. For now, I’m going to try as much as possible to flesh out some positive feelings, tolerate my family, and set realistic goals.

There is no rest from BPD, or “Holiday Bliss” that makes you suddenly feel great. Treat the holidays like any other day, except for a personal resolve to build some positive feelings inside you for December 25th, March 25th, July 25th, AND October 25th. Those other “off season” days are when you’ll thank yourself.