“This is the story,” Stacy Pershall begins, “of how a strange girl from Prairie Grove discovered she had a multitude of disorders and how she survived.” In this deeply honest and sometimes shocking memoir, LOUD IN THE HOUSE OF MYSELF: Memoir of a Strange Girl, Pershall chronicles her lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Pershall grew up in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, a town so small that the neighbors might as well have resided in her living room (population: 1,000) and where the prevailing wisdom was that Jesus healed all.
Deeply sensitive and intelligent, Pershall felt a constant and profound sense of displacement. From starving herself for days to forcing herself to sleep in her closet because she wasn’t “worthy” of the comfort of a bed, Pershall chronicles with heart-wrenching accuracy the self-loathing of a young woman struggling with anorexia and bulimia.
Alternately diagnosed with bulimia, major depression, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and borderline personality disorder, Pershall was prescribed a total of twenty-four different drugs by a parade of doctors over the course of fifteen years. She went to college, lived abroad, studied theater, fell in love, got married, moved to new cities—but she could never escape herself or the mental illness that followed her wherever she went or whatever she achieved.
At the age of 34 she began to get her life together with medication, tattooing and DBT. Today, Stacy Pershall is a belly dancer and artist living in New York City. She is also a graduate of a three-day-a-week Dialectical Behavior Therapy program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Stacy some questions about her experiences with mental illness and DBT. I’m happy to share part I of her two part interview with you, today.
Christy: How do you think growing up a “strange girl” in small town, as opposed to a city, impacted the emergence and severity of your disorders?
Stacy: I grew up in the quintessential “invalidating environment,” one of the factors said to exacerbate the development of BPD. In my small Southern town of 1000 people, blind faith in religion was seen as preferable to education, and opportunities for intellectual exploration were slim to none.
As a child, I was often called a snob for expressing a desire to go to another school where I could take honors classes and art classes. I loved to read and write more than anything, and by the time I was in high school I realized I didn’t buy into the Southern Baptist thing. But I had no examples of anyone who had ever left my town and moved away, and certainly not to study art or literature. I was constantly made to feel “other” because I was smart, and I was bullied all the way through school, where my class consisted of the same 75 kids from kindergarten through senior year. I developed an eating disorder as a way of coping until I could get out.
Another factor in my developing borderline traits was the suppression of emotional expression in my family. When I threatened to hurt or kill myself, I was dismissed as dramatic, and was frequently spanked. I don’t blame my parents for this now; they were young, they were products of their culture, and my father suffers from a mental illness, for which he is now receiving treatment. He has apologized to me many times in my adult life for his rage outbursts.
Although I certainly forgive him and feel compassion for him, I still carry the scars of that early invalidation, and I still sometimes feel sad for that little girl who just wanted to be taken seriously and given the opportunity to learn and create.
Christy: At times you compare yourself to a physically disabled girl in your town and seem to wish that you too had physical disabilities. Why would physical disabilities have been preferable to mental disabilities?
Stacy: There was a local girl -- I call her Susannah in my book -- who had a disease called Apert Syndrome, which causes severe craniofacial abnormalities and fusing of the fingers and toes. She was a March of Dimes poster child, so there were always pictures of her in the window of the grocery store and canisters at the checkout lanes collecting donations for her treatment. Because I had already started thinking about suicide in elementary school, I had a suspicion that I, too, had a disease, an invisible sickness inside my head. I was envious of the protection Susannah had from bullying because her disease could be seen; all our parents told us not to make fun of her.
I became obsessed with disease-of-the-week movies, which were plentiful then, and spent hours lying on my dad’s workbench in the garage and pretending it was my hospital bed. I pretended I had cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, whatever malady I had most recently learned about on TV. I fantasized about having doctors to take care of me and not having to go to school. As morbid as this sounds, it was the only kind of peace I could imagine other than death. I think it’s important for adults to remember that even children can feel that level of desperation.
Christy: You seem ambivalent about the label “borderline.” Sometimes you embrace it as an outline of your life and at others you say it makes you feel like you’re buying into psychobabble. What does “borderline” mean to you?
Stacy: When I first heard of BPD, it was in a magazine article given to me by a college roommate. That was back in the early '90s, and the article said BPD couldn’t be cured, so I either had to resign myself to being crazy forever or dismiss the diagnosis as a way of marginalizing women who refused to be meek and subservient.
My initial reservations about the diagnosis, with which I continued to struggle until I found DBT and, therefore, hope, centered around the question of whether you could diagnose any strange, artistic, outspoken girl with the disorder. I had a lot of legitimate anger over growing up marginalized, and I had a hard time separating that anger from the maladaptive rages that derailed my life for so many years.
Meeting my DBT therapist and reading Marsha Linehan’s work helped me make peace with the diagnosis and to see it as valid. When I read the DSM criteria and realized I was nine for nine, I had to admit there was some truth there. It really was like seeing an outline of my life. By that point, I wanted so desperately to get better, to build a life not punctuated by constant bingeing and purging and starving and suicide attempts, that I was willing to call my illness whatever I had to call it to get treatment.
As for what borderline means to me today, it is an accurate description of a disorder from which I feel mostly recovered. I encourage anyone who feels the diagnostic criteria ring true to pursue an official diagnosis and seek out the treatment for which they qualify.
Look for part II of my interview with Stacy on Wednesday, April 20.
Photo by dreamglowpumpkincat210, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.