Last week at work, I was sitting in my office attempting to be productive when I heard the teacher from across the hall enter my colleagues side of the room. She came over to talk about one of our third grade students, who has been having a hard time behaviorally as of late and the teacher is concerned. Or rather, she’s frustrated.
I mean she’s in our behavior disability room, so one would think this ebb and flow in behavior would be expected, but whatever.
Our office is separated by a foldable wall, so unless I fire up my noise machine I can pretty much hear everything that’s being said. Which, on that morning, was a real shame for me, considering they were talking about borderline personality disorder.
My colleague made mention that this third grade student has borderline traits. She talked a little bit about what that meant, using lovely words like “manipulative”, and painting a grim picture of the student’s future. Her tone wasn’t malicious. She was just stating her beliefs based on experience of working with borderline parents in the past.
If they were even diagnosed. Maybe she just assumed they were borderline, since we were also happy to casually lob a very significant term that carries ample stigma in the direction of a 9 year old who can’t even be diagnosed with the disorder because she is in fact only 9.
I’m sure she didn’t intend her information to come across as stigmatizing as it did. I’m sure no one else even realized how stigmatizing what she said was. You know, since the disorder is just a term for them, and not a reality.
When I heard this, all I could think of was this teacher going home and looking up BPD. She’d read the diagnostic criteria maybe, but likely what she’d end up seeing would be the media-targeted misrepresentation and gruesome statistics associated with my disordered world.
Which of course wouldn’t help her perception of that third grade girl.
Before I could think better of it, I jumped to my feet and walked over to insert myself into the conversation. I explained what BPD can feel like using less pejorative language, talking about the emotions and the experience of the person.
I don’t know why I even bothered, honestly. But I was frustrated. My colleague was making it seem like this was a purely genetic disorder that would swallow our student whole and I wanted the teacher to understand 1. The lens our student is probably seeing these situations through and 2. BPD is also incredibly environmental and not necessarily prescriptive of a terrible future.
Again, if the student even has that. She is 9, after all. Have I mentioned that?
“It all sounds very selfish,” the teacher said and I could have facepalmed right then and there. (When I told this to L, she scoffed. “Yes, it’s very selfish to be living in angst all the time as you try not to upset other people.” Thank you, L.)
I also happen to think it’s selfish to frame your student as a manipulative and devious young girl as a way to fit the narrative you’re already telling yourself instead of actually trying to see her as a sweet and clever kid who is separate from her ineffective behaviors that are rooted pretty logically in a difficult upbringing, but whatever.
I could go on, but I think you see the point.
I ended up going back to my side of the office in defeat. For a little while, I sat there listening to the conversation go on, paralyzed from doing anything else. Knowing what they were saying, as painful as it was, was better than not knowing. Or at least this is what I told myself.
What would they think if they knew I had BPD too? Would they be surprised? Would they think differently of me? Would it shut their mouths about this girl?
Of course, I did not and would never share my diagnosis with them. That’s a recipe for disaster. The point is, the ignorance of people, especially those in the mental health field, astounds me. You may remember I had a similar experience like this last year. I thought I’d escaped from that in this district, but here we are.
It’s always from people that I feel like should know better. People, like my colleague, who are smart and caring and empathetic. This woman knows so much about how to help people, and she’s so good with the damn kids. Still, she’s got misperceptions of what it means to exist in my world. Her skewed belief and very stereotypic description of BPD reminds me why so many of us keep quiet. This is what they think of us.
I just don’t know how it was helpful to use the term at all. I really don’t. It saddens me. We are a school, we are not a mental health facility. Talk about the behaviors. Talk about her symptoms. Treat her by addressing those things. Don’t assign her a label of a disorder that fits her more like an oversized mitten than a glove, obscuring her unique strengths and situation.
They went on for awhile longer, while I stewed on the other side of the room, about ready to jump out of my own skin. In a frenzy, I texted J and asked for advice. I was desperate and alone in my pain, I just needed an ally in the battle.
She texted back awhile later. “That’s so hard. Though hearing those terms are hurtful, it may be helpful to remind yourself, first, that they are not talking about you, and second, that you have been growing your awareness of your own feelings, thoughts, and actions for a long time now. This wouldn’t bother you at all if you didn’t have the awareness you do! Advocate for your students and just take of yourself. Take plenty of breaks today.”
It was a completely well thought out response that made me feel heard, accepted, and cared for. For all my doubts about J, she can really come through when I need her.
I returned to that text repeatedly throughout the day and have discussed it with her since. Because as painful as that experience was in isolation, it also drove home another series of doubts I’ve been dealing with.
I work with kids that have various needs. I am not a trained counselor, but I have ended up in a role that involves service delivery through lunch groups and individual counseling sessions. It’s a role I take very seriously, as I try to build me repertoire of interventions so that I can be effective in helping them.
The issue I keep coming back to is that I see a lot of myself in my students. I have a young boy who struggles so deeply with high emotionality that impacts his ability to make friends. There’s a young girl with similar issues, who can leave a situation so confused as to how it went wrong. I have another student who has a harsh internal narrative that ranks up with mine in terms of cruelty. His work refusal and difficulty socially is rooted in a belief he has that he is not good enough.
These kids come to me unable to identify their emotions, unable to select tools to regulate to a calm emotional state. They struggle to see other people’s perspectives. They struggle to resolve conflicts with friends. Some of them struggle even to build those friendships.
When I see them, I remember the sensitive kid I was and the sullen teenager I became, and it’s a future I don’t wish for any of them. I want so badly to make the difference for them that an adult in school could have made for me if given the opportunity. I feel the pressure of being good enough for them.
Then I question, how can I help these kids if I can’t even help myself? Worse, I wonder if my continued struggles despite years of hard work with an actual trained professional signify that the situation is in fact hopeless for them, since I haven’t grown either. These are the thoughts that send me into a tailspin of defeatedness and darkness.
J and I delved into this during my last session. She reminded me that me helping them and me helping me are separated by an important thing: objectivity. The lens through which we view own situations is muddied by our personal biases, whereas with my students I can see their problems from a clearer viewpoint.
Plus, I have an advantage of time. Kids at their age view most things in a concrete, egocentric sense; it’s hard for them to pick apart their struggle with a friend and see the underlying intentions of a peer or how their environment intercedes. I am older, and I see the abstract pieces the way they might not be able to without a little support.
This whole time, I’ve assumed my diagnoses were working against my ability to help these kids. And in some ways, it is. The anxiety that makes me freeze up in the moment, forgetting where I should go next in the conversation. The self-doubt that makes me question whether my response to their problem is the right one. The trouble with boundary-setting, which can impact my group management. The shame that tells me bad counselor, you need to step from them and instead you are a failure.
Yes, there’s another side to it too, and it’s coming into view.
My diagnoses make me empathetic. Whereas I’ve noticed others are so quick to dismiss another student’s problems, to call them manipulative or dramatic or stubborn, I have an easier time reading their pain. I see the anxiety, inability to communicate, the sadness, the frustration, that’s fueling their challenging behavior. I see it clearly, even if I don’t know what to do with it in the moment.
For that reason, I always validate their experience. I think that’s so important as someone who often felt my feelings were dismissed because they didn’t fit how they should be in the situation. I will always say something to the tune of I know that’s frustrating. I understand you don’t want to do this. I see why you’d like it to be another way.
We may then have to talk about the fact that things won’t be the way they want, that they may still be hard, but I always try to give them a moment to know that I’ve truly seen their perspective. Empathy. It’s helpful not to feel alone. I am their ally.
I also want to believe while I do see some of myself in the struggles of these kids, I also also see myself in their persistence and their silliness. It helps give me hope for how they can grow.
And while obviously the interventions that I’m learning as an adult won’t mirror what I teach them, and our situations are identical, perhaps there’s value in examining some of my own experiences as I try to relate to them in a way that’s meaningful.
For example, for my young boy with the friendship troubles, I can consider what I might have found it most helpful to hear as I’ve strived to build my own relationships. What skills have I needed to learn? Perhaps I can begin there.
Or for that third grade girl. What does she need most? She needs to see that others withstand her storm. She needs to learn how to cultivate her own healthy sense of connection with others while also enhancing her ability to be there for herself. She needs a new way to categorize her experiences in the world beyond just black or white.
For me, this has meant learning to tolerate the things I don’t like. It’s about identifying my emotion emotions. It has included systematically deconstructing my negative beliefs and trying to replace it with an accumulation of positive thoughts and supportive measures. This has meant learning how to look at things from a bigger picture, to play the role of detective finding evidence to refute my beliefs that a situation was all good or all bad.
Maybe these are things that could help our girl? This could be the time to advocate. Despite my bias, my view my have it’s own type of clarity here.
If I am going to chide this teacher and my colleague for talking about my student in a way that just disadvantages her by focusing too much on the same, perhaps I should also chide me for doing the same with myself because of my own diagnosis.
BPD in the work world. It’s a challenge, every damn day, but maybe it instills me with a type of empathy and ability to connect that could end up being the foundation of a good counselor with some time and patience.