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On Micah’s Quiet BPD

TW: Discussion of self-harm, suicidal ideation, substance use/abuse, trauma and abuse

I came to the realization yesterday that I coded Micah particularly in The Heartwood Trilogy with features of Quiet borderline personality disorder, also known as BPD and not to be confused with bipolar disorder. BPD has some unofficial subtypes that include quiet/discouraged, petulant, impulsive, and self-destructive. The subtypes are useful to an extent but it’s important to note that the overall experience of an individual with BPD might move between any and all of its symptom set and not just a particular subtype. Subtypes are also not a feature in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (5th Edition, Revised). What that indicates to us is that while there is a common belief that BPD can present several different ways, we don’t want to use subtypes if it muddies the water or invalidates someone’s experience with this issue.

Micah’s BPD traits felt like a huge shock to me as I was putting together a graphic featuring mental health representation in the trilogy for Mental Health Awareness Month. I was listing Andrew’s issues and it was easy and straightforward and then came back to Micah a few times looking at his behaviors and issues and wondering why I couldn’t quite fit them into like, depression, anxiety, trauma. Well, I mean, turns out I can.

Some Background on Borderline

Borderline personality disorder is a fascinating diagnosis that I’ve seen a lot of in my time. I’ve been drawn to unstable, volatile and passionate personalities since I was in middle school partly because it interests me and captivates my attention, partly because of my own hyper-stable home environment that allows me to launch out into the world with a sense of self and confidence, and partly because I’m extremely empathetic. I am something of a foil to borderline traits.

When I got into working in the psych hospital in 2017, I started coming across coworkers and psychiatrists discussing “borderline traits” or “she’s so BPD” and thus began building my firsthand knowledge of the tendency for folks with BPD to end up self-harming or suicidal, which was true for what I knew about BPD from my adolescence. When I moved on to working at a residential in 2021, we had to avoid using BPD as a diagnostic label when we knew someone was going to get that diagnosis because as a personality disorder we don’t allow for use of them until a person is 18 and over. Not that that makes a fucking lick of difference, but I digress.

Folks who end up with a diagnosis of borderline tend to have the common experience of an unstable childhood. Whether that be parental conflict, parental violence, emotional abuse, sexual abuse from parents, siblings, relatives, or babysitters, or a parent with BPD, these all lend toward developing an unclear worldview and quite a few behavioral survival tactics.

A lot of those survival strategies include manipulation, emotional lability, fawning behaviors that go along with having a “favorite person” who the person with BPD designates as a safe person and can create something of an intense obsession with them, a fear of abandonment from their experience with unstable relationships in childhood, and a tendency to punish oneself or seek attention through self-harm or other self-destructive or risky behaviors. I want to really stress that attention-seeking is another survival strategy developed often from cold, distant, or distracted parenting that makes a child feel like they have to act out to get their needs met.

In order to avoid abandonment, folks with BPD can end up appearing codependent or clingy toward a partner because there’s this constant underlying belief that you don’t have worth of your own unless you’re in relation with others.

Because of my personality, my training in DBT which was designed by Marsha Linehan for use with folks with borderline personality disorder, and my personal interest in working with folks with trauma and personality disorders, I have a lot of folks with BPD on my caseload, and probably always will.

I always admire the ability to intensely feel, to identify how wildly emotional you are, and I feel a deep sense of empathy for when someone feels overwhelmed by their emotions, frustrated that their emotions are getting in their way, and frustrated that others don’t consider their emotions a valid lived experience. I had the privilege of being deeply validated by my parents throughout my life whether it was an ADHD quirk, social anxiety, or performance anxiety, so I consider it a responsibility of mine to validate others and to always challenge myself to understand myriad of perspectives and experiences even if they differ wildly from my own.

How About Micah?

Micah Stillwater is a half-Fae 40-year-old whose mother is a wicked faerie Queen ruling over a redwood forest tucked into the Hoh rainforest in Washington. Micah spent 20 years of his life living in faerieland among cruel, treacherous, dangerous Folk who treated him as less than, calling him halfling, manipulating him to get closer to the Queen, and stomping out his magic.

Micah’s mother weaponized his human father’s safety to force Micah to be compliant and docile. The more he smiled, the more he did as he was told, the safer Julian would be. When Micah acted out, when he expressed himself, when he went against the Queen, it was Julian who paid for it.

So, what we see throughout the trilogy is Micah in a safe environment trying to navigate his emotions and his relationships with this insanely unsafe foundation under him leading him to be fearful of hurting others, of causing others displeasure, of his emotions bringing about harm to his father or himself. Micah cries a lot, he gets attached quickly, he tends toward fawning behaviors, and tends to attach to a favorite person — Julian, then Chamomile, then Andrew. Micah has a history of self-harm and tends to do it in order to ground himself or dispel the fog of his feelings, and also to punish himself for whatever it is he feels he’s fucked up – letting his dad get kidnapped, Andrew leaving, etc. Both of these reasons are common for folks who get stuck in secretive self-harming behaviors and is sort of the other end of the spectrum from folks who self-harm to make a statement to people around them.

Micah’s relationship with Ingrid is a perfect example of BPD traits in action. Micah came to Minnesota with her as she was one of his few safe people, but 15 years into his time in Minnesota, he decided he needed to cut tie with his Fae side altogether as Ingrid’s ambivalence about humans abusing Fae-spelled foods grew. He split on her, got into an argument, and stopped talking to her for five years except in very controlled circumstances such as when he saw her at Amore. Despite her begging and reasoning and his obvious affection for her, for some time it felt safer for him not to have a relationship with her at all. It’s likely what happened during their argument is that Ingrid’s ambivalence felt very invalidating for Micah as a half-human with a father who was forcibly addicted to Fae-spelled foods. He saw no other choice but to cut her off since she staunchly refused to take his position into account and make systemic changes around Lilydale, like he ends up doing.

During Rend Me, Julian calls Micah codependent and says that Micah tends to try to rescue others. This sort of emotional caretaking is common with BPD folks who might have had younger siblings or people affected more notably by abuse than they perceive themselves to be. There’s also an underlying belief that you aren’t worthy on your own except in what you do for others which once again is common when you’re devalued by your primary caregivers unless you’re essentially fulfilling a role whether it’s good grades, behaving yourself, staying calm, doing chores, etc.

We also see in Rend Me why Micah doesn’t drink, as he struggles to be able to do so in a leisurely way and it causes him to lash out more, increases suicidal thoughts, and makes him more emotional and depressed. All his hard work controlling all his emotions at all times and maintaining tenuously good relationships goes out the window when he drinks. The Redwoods would have treated intoxication very differently than human society as well, and it’s harder to get a faerie drunk, but Micah being half-Fae means that he’s more sensitive to intoxication and this was used against him when he was growing up, creating an even more complex relationship with alcohol in particular for him. When he came to Minnesota, he got a community college degree before getting an MBA, where he was expected to drink and party. Thus, as he got older and pulled back from that culture, he essentially stopped drinking altogether as he wanted to be sober to manage his dad’s mental health.

What differentiates quiet BPD from more self-destructive, conflictual types of BPD is the tendency to internalize feelings, internalize emotional meltdowns by dissociating or downplaying yourself, engage in fawning/caretaking/codependent relationships more than frequently splitting or being in conflictual, on-and-off relationships, and shut down when you receive criticism rather than becoming defensive or combative, which are all things Micah does until he begins to really confront his own patterns of behavior and comes into his sense of power.

Andrew is actually a perfect person to help Micah navigate his BPD symptoms because Andrew is very emotionally level-headed, he’s introspective, he is a good communicator, and he’s not afraid to set boundaries with a sense of kindness and compassion which helps Micah not feel like the boundary is a rejection. These are all things we can do to help people in our lives who might be insecure about losing the approval of others.

When Andrew found out about Micah self-harming, he responded with compassion and empathy. This was such a complete surprise to Micah because of his experience with judgment, criticism and rejection, and is a positive step toward undoing shame responses which tend to provoke secrecy and do not often decrease harmful behaviors.

As a leader, Micah might always be prone toward compassion, nonconfrontation, feeling guilty for having to issue directives to his people, and struggling to be assertive. Micah might in times of stress become more volatile and lash out. But as he tunes into these issues with himself he’s able to name them, confront them in the moment, and develop more effective ways of communicating. You can see that happening in Promise Me as Micah figures out how to ask Andrew for what he needs as he’s sorting through the threats against Lilydale.

In Conclusion

Quiet BPD might seem more “palatable” to the general public than more externalizing forms of the disorder, because you seem likeable and kind and empathetic rather than argumentative or reckless. It’s important to note that these features are both true for a person and a result of learned behaviors from being mistreated as a child. All BPD is is an attempt to protect yourself and that’s literally what organisms have to do to stay alive. It’s an essential truth and not a single living soul is above needing to take measures to survive.

The goal for discussions around BPD should not be to “eliminate” the disorder as childhood trauma can’t be undone no matter how much more competent a person feels dealing with it. The goal of any mental health struggle is to arm people with tools to cope with their “vulnerabilities” as I like to call them, meaning areas that tend to trip us up, cause incongruencies with what we want to be like versus what we are like, and harmful behaviors that have a particularly strong draw to us compared to others.

As I write this, it becomes fairly transparent to me that Micah is BPD-coded. It’s part of what makes him so raw and believable throughout the story, at least to me. It’s a reminder that personality disorders are rooted in trauma and when we throw around terms like “antisocial” or “moody” colloquially it can really damage our ability to see people as complex humans interacting with their histories and environments. It definitely illuminates a lot of my complex feelings about Micah in The Heartwood Trilogy for sure, and I hope it does for you too.

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