Graphic/Illustrated · Nonfiction

The Way She Feels

Well, this is a prime example of the “the cover got me.” It was on the new nonfiction display at the library and the colors and cereal bowl situation all conspired to make me pick it up and flip through it. Seeing the colorful illustrations throughout, and the topic (I am not sure I’ve read anything by, or even about, someone diagnosed with borderline personality disorder), I impulse checked it out. 

The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces by Courtney Cook

“People often say ‘You’re not your illness’ or ‘Your illness doesn’t define you’ when speaking about mental afflictions, but to say that I’m not borderline as much as I am Courtney is to misspeak. Borderline is a personality disorder that shapes my personality. All my actions and thoughts and emotions are filtered through my borderline brain. Even if I don’t tell anyone about my diagnosis, by simply existing I am outing myself as someone with borderline personality disorder. It’s more than a haunting – it’s a full-on possession.”

The author, Courtney Cook, has dealt with various mental health diagnoses for the majority of her life and, at age 23, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. In this graphic-ish memoir, Cook describes the way the symptoms of BPD have affected her throughout her life, even though the official diagnosis came later. From falling in love fast and hard and then driving people away out of fear that they’ll leave her, hating and loving herself in equal measure, the hospitalizations and medications and therapy that she’s been through, and the moments of comfort in everyday items and food and the sometimes peace in other’s arms, Cook covers quite a few of the contradictions and challenges and realities of living with BPD.

Let me start with a very clear and strong content warning for the majority of the topics in this memoir, including but not limited to: parental chronic illness, suicidal ideation/attempts, self-harm, hospitalization and residential treatment (including mentions of of the mental illnesses/assault/sexual abuse from other residents), animal death and drug use. I am sure I’m missing something, because Cook held nothing back and used no euphemisms, but I think the point is made and I did my best to list the ones mentioned the most often or with the most detail. So, before picking up this book, please be aware – I do not necessarily have any trigger points connected to these topics and I still moved through reading this slowly, with lots of breaks and reading other books interspersed, because the content was so intense.

To give a bit of my personal reaction to this memoir, as one does in a review, I want to start with the things that I really liked. First, the artwork. The cover was a great indication of what to expect, as far as color and form, and I was thoroughly into it. It is not necessarily a preferred style for me in general, I wouldn’t say, but the overall art/writing delivery style created a vibe that felt right, as far as the whole picture of herself Cook was attempting to portray. In other words, the visuals and format matched the content super well. As far as the content itself, I have to say that I deeply respect and admire Cook for how open she was about her experiences with BPD. As she mentions, this is a mental illness that has long been vilified in the media, especially for women,  and I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to share such intimate and personal stories/details on such a public scale, about something so widely misunderstood. She does not shy away from ugly truths, in general about BPD and about herself, and there is so much bravery in that.

I was very interested in reading more about BPD, the background info she gives about it factually and specific to her own experiences (as far as medication and therapy and the way it manifests for her and changes/affects her relationships), the public assumptions made about it and people who have it (the differences between men and women, in that regard), and more. It was particularly informative to read about the way she experienced myriad BPD symptoms while growing up, and again how they manifested, but couldn’t be diagnosed until so much later because it was seen as a phase/something she’d grow out of, and the diagnosis cannot technically be made under a certain age anyways. 

All that being said, there was something about this memoir that didn’t feel quite right. I have postponed writing this review for over a week, in the hopes that whatever it is would come to me. But…it hasn’t. Which makes me think that it’s at least in part due to me, personally, as a reader, and nothing to do with the memoir itself. But I want to tell you a couple things that I considered, or that seemed a little cringey to me. Overall, I felt like the memoir lacked some perspective. And there is every chance that it’s down to the way BPD works that it came across that way. (And also, I totally get that this is a personal memoir, telling a singular and very individual POV, so there’s that too.) Cook does a thorough and objective job recognizing her objective privilege, and doing her level best to explain that while she “knows” there’s nothing in her life that should “make her” feel the way she does, she can’t fight the brain chemistry that’s causing it. That is an important and understandable point, and its inclusion is necessary. But it also felt like, at times, Cook over-dropped privilege bombs (international trips and private schooling and others) in such quick passing that they felt more for shock value than to add anything to the narrative of her illness or greater life experience. Also, she mentions differences in BPD perception for women versus men, but nothing in regards to racial or socioeconomic status, so that felt incomplete. All that being said, I also feel a bit wrong criticizing in this way because, as I said, this is a personal and honest mental health portrayal (something that sorely needs larger, legitimate media representation), and at no point does she profess to speak for anyone other than herself. So, again, maybe I’m the problem. But, I want to be transparent about my reactions.

Overall, this was a new and eye-opening perspective for me to read. And coming pretty close on the heels of having read The Collected Schizophrenias and Haben, I am noticing the strong call to name things what they are, because euphemisms only benefit ableism and, really, how does one separate themselves from something that is such an inextricable part of their lives (the “you are not your illness perspective”)? The message is clear across mental illness and physical disability and has been deeply noted. But back to this book in particular, I am glad I picked it up. As I said, I did learn from it and really enjoyed the artistic aspects. Though I had my personal vibe issues that I’m continuing to work through, if this sounds like something you’d want to read, I encourage you to do so and see what you think for yourself.

There were a couple passages I earmarked while reading. Here they are (plus the pull quote above, of course):

“What do you do when you’re given everything and still feel empty?”

“It seems that the root of my obsession is the idea that if I did, or had, or became, this one thing or person, I would feel content, satisfied, whole. The problem with this line of thinking is that no matter what I acquire, I’m still the one who acquired it. No matter whom I emulate, I am still, ultimately, me.”

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