Courtney Cook is a a writer and illustrator from Winnetka, Illinois. Her first book, The Way She Feels, is a smart, funny graphic memoir about living with BPD. In it, Courtney details not just the treatments and hospitalisations, but the moments in which she finds joy and comfort – from corn dogs to cereal and being held by someone you love. We had a quick chat with Courtney about how the book came about and what it means to be vulnerable about BPD.
What made you decide to write a memoir about your life with BPD?
I don’t think that writing The Way She Feels was something I consciously set out to do. For years I’d written essays that explored the impacts of mental illness, specifically borderline personality disorder, on my life. It was only when I took a step back during the first year of my MFA program that I realized those essays were in conversation with one another and that they would come together nicely as a collection.
Once I began thinking of them as a collection, I was able to identify topics I wanted to address more directly, or experiences I felt were integral to understanding what living with BPD is like for me, and from there the memoir started to take shape. It’s my hope that in sharing my personal experiences with BPD I am able to humanize my disorder, and counteract some of the stigma and demonization of BPD and those that live with it face.
Do you think writing about BPD lends itself well to a graphic style, as opposed to just text?
I’ve identified as an artist longer than I’ve identified as a writer, though I have claimed both of those identities since early childhood, so it felt natural for me to integrate illustrations into my essays. Admittedly, I was a bit hesitant to do so in the early stages of TWSF, because my illustration style is so playful and colorful, and I worried that would somehow detract from the seriousness of what I was writing about. Reading graphic novels that grapple with heavy topics, such as Ellen Forney’s “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me”, and workshopping with the uber-talented writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke at Tin House Writers Workshop in 2019, helped these fears fall away. I believe I could’ve written TWSF and not included illustrations without it leaving the book incomplete, but it would be a drastically different book and the reading experience would be entirely altered. I definitely feel it was the right decision to include them!
How was the experience for you in trying to get a diagnosis that ‘fit’ you, and why do you think it took so long?
I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder when I was thirteen, I believe during my first psychiatric hospitalization. My doctors told my parents they believed I might have BPD at that time, but that it was too early to confirm, as receiving a BPD diagnosis under the age of eighteen is super rare—many teens grow out of their BPD behaviors. That wasn’t the case for me. I always felt different than the friends I had who shared my depression and anxiety diagnoses, and was confused why I was feeling a way that was so far from their experiences if we had the same disorders.
It wasn’t until I was twenty-two and a friend mentioned that what I was feeling reminded her a lot of a friend of hers that has BPD that I began to do research and remembered that doctors had suggested I might have BPD all those years before. Once I began researching BPD, it was like something clicked inside me. It was an ‘aha’ moment. I felt understood and seen in a way I never had before. It was like someone had observed my patterns, behaviors, and feelings, and written them down—it literally felt like I was reading something written about me personally.
I hadn’t pursued any sort of psychiatric testing since I was thirteen, so I scheduled appointments with a psychiatrist and therapist to discuss BPD and be assessed by them. They both confirmed my suspicion that I had it, and from there I was able to begin receiving treatment. It felt like up until that point I was treating symptoms that stemmed from my BPD, but not the problem/BPD itself.
I sometimes wish I had been diagnosed sooner so that I could have had access to these treatments, but I do understand that BPD is a big label to put on someone when they’re young and have a chance at growing out of the behaviors that just so happened to stick around for me. I know many people find diagnosis problematic or limiting, but for me, it opened the door to receiving the help I need, and I have found it extremely freeing. After all, how can you change something if you’re not even aware of its existence?
How does it feel to be putting yourself out there, showing so much vulnerability?
I’m a very anxious person by nature, so the fact that the most intimate details of myself and life will soon be available to the public is somewhat nauseating to me. One of the essays, “Oops, I’m Bleeding Again”, even explores a topic/behavior that I had only shared with one other person prior to writing about it, and now it’s about to be out in the world for anyone to read if they decide to do so. That’s understandably terrifying. Even so, these feelings of anxiety, nausea, and terror don’t necessarily keep me from wanting to share my work or stop me from being vulnerable.
When I was diagnosed with BPD, I discovered there was a huge gap in literature written from someone with BPD’s perspective, and I found that so frustrating. I wanted to write into that gap and create the book I wish I could’ve read when I was diagnosed. That keeps me going in moments where I am afraid or want to pull back. If I can help even one person feel understood, I think risking my own comfort is worth it.
What are some of the myths or dangerous stereotypes about BPD you’d like to clear up?
Like anything else, if you have a negative experience with someone who has BPD, that does not mean all people with BPD are awful or that you should write us off entirely as a result of that experience. It is really discouraging when people make sweeping judgments and assume we all experience this disorder in the same way, or act a certain way as a result of it. Yes, we may share commonalities in our feelings, thought processes, or actions, but like all other people, there are kind and mean and good and bad and so-so and funny and serious and adventurous and timid and introverted and extroverted people with BPD. It does not make up the entirety of who we are. If you had a negative experience with someone with brown hair, you wouldn’t assume every person with brown hair would treat you in that same way or act as they did—so why make that assumption towards us?
Is there anything positive about living with BPD you’d like to highlight?
Sometimes people have the misconception that having BPD means someone is devoid of empathy. For many of us, that is not the case. I cannot speak for every person with BPD, but I personally am overly empathetic to the point where it can be hard for me to function. I feel everything very deeply and though that can be overwhelming, I am proud of that aspect of myself and believe it stems directly from my BPD. My mom has always called me a “turtle without a shell” because I don’t have much protection from the world and all its feelings, and I’ve chosen to believe that is a strength rather than a weakness.
Why should potential readers buy your book?
In the United States, an estimated 1.6% of the population lives with BPD—that’s an astounding number of people, and more than three million new diagnoses are made each year. Even if you don’t personally live with BPD or even know someone who does, I believe it’s important to try to understand what so many individuals are experiencing, if not only to better understand them, but perhaps yourself. Just because you don’t have BPD doesn’t mean you haven’t felt many of the things I or others with BPD do, even if the severity, intensity, or frequency may differ. Though TWSF explicitly deals with BPD, I believe it will be impactful for those who live with other psychiatric disorders as well, or even just people who sometimes believe they feel “too much.” It’s also pretty funny on top of dealing with serious subjects, if I do say so myself!
The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces comes out on Jun 29th from Tin House