BY ADELE MCKIERNAN
Well before I knew them as the guiding principles of Loretto Volunteers, I found simple living, social justice, intentional community, and spirituality compelling. They each held large parts of my attention but I found them difficult to tend to when I was in distress or crisis. It’s a cruel fact of life that what we most need is often most difficult to access for the very reasons we long for it.
Shortly before moving to Tobin House to start my Loretto service year, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) following the most extended and severe period of psychological pain I have ever witnessed in myself. Clinically speaking, BPD is a mental illness marked by instability that tends to appear in in four major areas: cognition, impulse control, interpersonal relationships, and affect. It’s a condition as all-encompassing as it sounds, the implications of which have affected my life in profound ways. Though BPD has long been one of the most stigmatized and misunderstood mental illnesses, after years of mis-diagnoses, an exasperating trial and error of medications, and a handful of hospitalizations, being able to reframe these experiences in terms of an accurate diagnosis has brought me great peace of mind. This helped me identify with what I was newly able to see as treatable symptoms not permanent personal flaws, in a way that helped me work through and begin to move past them. Properly defining something can make us less at the whim of matters previously gone unknown or misunderstood.
But when it came time to leave for opening retreat, I was in the midst of working through these realizations and uncertain that I would be able to maintain my health while taking on the responsibilities a Loretto Volunteer must carry. In March, I’d had to leave UW-Madison in the middle of my last semester of college and move home to my parents’ house where I could access more comprehensive treatment in the Boston area. It was the second time this had happened, and I was terrified to see a repeat of it. But I submitted the last assignment of my undergraduate career on August 8 and got on a plane the next day.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say this and I’m as scared as I am proud to: I have been doing very well. My mental health has improved significantly in the short time I have been a Loretto, a shift I attribute largely to the ways in which this program asks that I tend to the very areas that have posed the most trouble for me in the past. It has occurred to me that each of the four crucial areas of struggle for a person with BPD, as I have experienced them, correspond with the ways in which I interpret the four Loretto values. My challenges and our values have come together in therapeutic harmony in a way that has transformed the way I relate to my self and my health.
Social Justice & Cognition
Concentration, memory, and problem-solving abilities fall under the umbrella of cognition—or thought, and the disruption of any of these can make it difficult to form what is known as a self-concept. A self-concept is a collection of beliefs about oneself. A sound state of mind and the ease of thought that accompanies it are essential for living comfortably in one’s skin and forming accurate frameworks for self-awareness and self-respect. One way of thinking of it is: cognition is about knowing; for people with BPD, cognition is about knowing—or not knowing—who we are. While everyone encounters existential dilemmas, not everyone experiences them with the frequency or intensity with which someone with BPD does.
In June, I had just finished a residential Dialectical Behavioral Therapy program at McLean Hospital. One afternoon, I expressed to my Dad my fears about leaving that program, which was essentially constant self-work. I had finally begun to feel comfortable being inside my mind and didn’t want to leave. He told me something I will never forget: When you look into the night sky, he said, and you focus really hard on one star, it is difficult to see it. It isn’t until you look around that one star at the other fainter stars, that it’s able to come into focus. If you are going to do this service year, you will have to look outside yourself... Maybe doing so will even help shed light back onto you. I’m realizing now one application of this advice: if social justice deals with the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privilege in society, it makes sense that shifting my own distribution of attention from only healing myself to also attending to others would be essential in doing this work. It is impossible to do social justice without a solid conception of ourselves that is centered in relation.
Once I began my work with Missouri Health Care for All, I realized that a large part of community organizing philosophy, as I’ve been introduced to it, revolves around what is known as self-interest. The Midwest Academy Manual for Activists says that “an underlying assumption behind direct action organizing is that you, the organizer, are working with people who are primarily motivated by self-interest…the word interest comes from the Latin inter esse, which means to be among. So, self-interest is self among others”, or, as my Dad could have put it, self among the stars. Studying to be a good organizer and remembering to keep my own reflections on self-interest in context has brought me to a deeper understanding of and curiosity about who I am, how to incorporate my self-interest into a dynamic yet sturdy self-concept, and how to mobilize this reflection for constructive action outside myself.
Simple Living & Impulse Control
Difficulty with impulse control is one of the hallmark symptoms of BPD. While it is related to cognition, it is often pronounced enough to be worthy of examination in itself. Unmediated, impulses can be both under and over controlled in anyone. Impulsivity—characterized by under-controlled impulses—is easy to imagine or relate to; one thinks of compulsive shopping, internet addiction, or substance abuse. But over-controlled impulses do not come to mind as easily or seem as inherently problematic. These can look like perfectionism, restricted eating habits, or intensity about self-care and are equally detrimental to well-being. Though one is socially sanctioned as “bad”, while the other can be mis-identified as a reflection of self-control or good morals, both can appear in people with BPD and present significant barriers to functioning and well-being.
According to my definition of simple living, it is incompatible with behaviors on either end of the impulse control spectrum, making it an effective remedy for both. The central tenant of my personal view of simple living is not that it is just based in asceticism or that it must be materially minimalistic, but that it is voluntary. To me, simple living is about agency and choice. It is about moderation and mindfulness—not emulating scarcity or restricting our experience of fullness and pleasure. Exercising agency over my consumption—by buying from local businesses in St. Louis rather than large multinational corporations like Amazon, for example, is an act of radical and equitable simple living in the climate in which we live. Right now, I am creating a working personal “consumption code of conduct” so that even when I am consuming, I am doing so mindfully by acknowledging and reallocating my resources and being intentional and selective about how I expend my energy. I have found codes of conduct to be helpful value-based touchstones in a society that can pull us in so many directions.
Another crucial realization I have had around agency as it relates to simple living, is that a practice must apply in the abstract; to more than just how much I spend on a latte. For example, I also try to moderate how much media I consume: how much time I spend on social media, on taking in news, or on my phone in general. The enemies of agency are anxiety and mindlessness, both of which social media in particular can encourage in me. I also try to exercise agency over the time and attention I pay to toxic or draining people in my life, an action that falls under the umbrella of simple living, because doing so is a conservation of personal energy and a radical act of self-love and preservation. Any time I am methodical and intentional about how I live and move through the world rather than allowing myself to be driven by impulses to consume or act from a place of anxiety or insecurity, I am simply living.
Intentional Community & Interpersonal Relationships
For better or for worse, interpersonal relationships dramatically shape our relationship with ourselves. Some of the central issues people with BPD face, myself included, revolve around building and maintaining interpersonal boundaries. Empathy plus BPD characteristics can make the “border lines” between myself and others can get tangled in a way that can leave me struggling to differentiate between what another person thinks and feels, and what I think and feel. But boundaries are absolutely essential for both healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy intentional community.
Something I heard at the co-op where I lived in Madison, WI was that intentional communities teach you the “limits of love”. At first, this puzzled me. I had always thought of unconditional kindness and radical openness as being essential to love; of love as limitless. I, like many other people socialized as women, and many other people with BPD, find themselves caring too much. As my time at Tobin House has gone on, I have realized that learning the limits of love is essential for intentional community to be successful. I’ve seen that boundaries are about respect for myself as much as they are about respect for others.
As I have acclimated to living in a new city with new people, it has been essential for me to know when to reach out and when to reach in; when to trust that I know an answer in myself and when to recognize when I want others to help me find it. As my border lines have strengthened, I have gotten better at letting others in gracefully rather than hastily or anxiously. Sometimes people with BPD are called “thin-skinned” because they are affected very easily by their environment. I realized now that my impulse to only love came in part from fear of rejection and criticism. I thought that if I just loved everyone I wouldn’t have to focus on loving myself and no one would dislike me. I had this totally backwards.
Now that I am cultivating a practice of self-love—now that my skin is a little thicker—I am better able to discern what relationships truly mean to me and to navigate the challenges of community life, than when I was in my former co-op. Striving to love others unconditionally does not allow for appropriate reactions to their behavior, it does not allow for recognizing nuance in situations, and it does not respect the integrity of the people involved. I now strive to draw my own border lines and respect the limits of love, as I form my practice of relating to myself and others.
Spirituality & Affect
For me, affect instability means that my mood can shift dramatically in a single day based on factors that might go undetected by others such as slight changes in sleep, weather, or routine. Though I have gotten skilled at managing emotional lability, I am still prone to exaggerated emotion and can sometimes feel beside myself. Medication can be helpful for curbing mood swings, but I have found developing a spiritual practice that is in line with the type of therapy I already do is a deeper form of centering.
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a collection of therapeutic techniques especially effective for improving the quality of life for people with BPD, the foundational tenet lies in the balance of seemingly contradictory forces such as acceptance and change. Through learning about how my illness can challenge my ability to find inner peace by and practicing DBT, I have learned to cultivate what is known as “wise mind”. Someone who is practicing “wise mind” is at the intersection of their “emotional mind” and their “reasonable mind”. They are integrating seemingly opposing tensions in a way that brings about mindfulness and decreases painful emotional states that can come from fighting cognitive dissonance.
This, and many other aspects of DBT are deeply spiritual, incorporating elements of both western psychology and eastern philosophy, namely Zen Buddhism. In the Noble Eightfold Path, the early teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha outlines the “middle way”. Broadly, the middle way is an approach to life that transcends the duality that characterizes common thought by rejecting extremes and embracing paradox and contradiction. There is a DBT skill called “walking the middle path”, which is a way of finding the synthesis between opposites. I have found that many spiritual dilemmas are in the form of paradoxes such as St. Francis’ “It is in giving that we receive…and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life”.
The same DBT skills that help me navigate paradoxes of affect such as emotion regulation vs. emotional tolerance help me navigate these kinds of spiritual tensions. Faith in my ability to reconcile uncomfortable emotional states has strengthened my faith in my spirit, and knowing that my experiences, as extreme as some of them have been, exist on the continuum of spiritual life. The famed psychiatrist Carl Jung told us, “the paradox is one of our most valued spiritual possessions”. Grappling with an illness that contains so much tension has made me a spiritual person.
A significant component of my emotional life is connected to my gender identity. After having done all of this internal work and having come to see a connection between the paradoxes and the binaries that exist in our culture, I felt comfortable coming out as gender non-binary or gender queer. I recognize now that there was an emotional toll that came from existing on one side of the gender binary. Moving away from one pole, to the heart of gender that lies within me as neither exclusively masculine or feminine has contributed to a great lessening of internal conflict. I have even begun to form a relationship with God that is as fluid as my gender. This spiritual entity I sometimes call God helps me navigate the world with softness and with strength.
I have been reading Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. I started this summer and have been slowly and methodically reading it since. When I first opened it, it felt too grandiose and overwhelming to be applicable to my life. I had never reveled in myself like that and I didn’t think I wanted to. It felt self-indulgent and—more significantly—unattainable. I still saw myself through only diagnostic criteria, and Whitman’s divinely floral free verse couldn’t penetrate that kind of rigidity. Today, I got to the thirtieth stanza, where he writes, “a minute and a drop of me settle my brain”. When I read that, I wept. I realized that I have gotten to a place where I am able to pause for a minute. I am willing to look at myself distilled in a glistening drop of courage and kindness. It is a possibility for me to see outside my diagnosis, even if I am still relating to it. By learning about myself through the lens of BPD, and then relating to myself through the Loretto values has allowed me to celebrate myself…I loaf and invite my soul.
Adele McKiernan is a recent graduate of The University of Wisconsin-Madison where they studied History and Integrated Liberal Studies. Before heading to college, they grew up in the Boston area, but feel at home in the Midwest. They are serving at Missouri Healthcare for All as Grassroots Organizing Fellow. In their free time, Adele likes to draw and collage, write short stories, and run short distances.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.