The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus | Part 6: The Beginnings of a Bourdieusian Analysis of Mental Illness (BPD)?

In the last article in this series, I concluded by comparing symptoms of borderline personality disorder, or “emotionally unstable personality disorder” (hereafter BPD), with terms we would usually find in Bourdieusian social theories. In this article I would like to continue this line of thought and develop the ideas expressed in that conclusion, connecting the Bourdieusian concept of “cleft habitus” and BPD.

For this article, I will be referring to the description of BPD given on the patient.info article written for professionals that my own GP referred to when initially diagnosing me. Partly due to my being able to manage my symptoms quite well and probably a lack of funding for mental health in the NHS, I have yet to see an actual psychiatrist or pscyhologist since I was diagnosed.

Also worth noting is how all sorts of people diagnosed with BPD may experience it differently. Some things I might talk about may lead to thoughts about alternative diagnoses but the point of this article is not to think about my diagnosis, but look at the parallels we can draw between it and a Bourdieusian analysis we have been conducting in this series.

Since experiences of BPD can vary and we have already started analysing myself with the Bourdieusian concepts in this series, it makes sense to focus on my own experiences again rather than trying to make a general Bourdieusian analysis of BPD. Again, since I have not seen a psychologist or psychiatrist, I am relying partly on my own research skills as a graduate in social sciences when looking at the diagnosis and deciding which descriptions most fit my own experiences.

Firstly, the patient.info article gives a general description of BPD as follows:

Emotionally unstable personality disorder is characterised by pervasive instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and mood and impulsive behaviour. […]

The cause is unknown but research suggests there is an interaction between adverse life events and genetic factors. Neurobiological research suggests that abnormalities in the frontolimbic networks are associated with many of the symptoms.

There is a pattern of sometimes rapid fluctuation from periods of confidence to despair, with fear of abandonment and rejection. There is a particularly strong tendency towards suicidal thinking and self-harm.

Transient psychotic symptoms, including brief delusions and hallucinations, may also be present. It is also associated with substantial impairment of social, psychological and occupational functioning and quality of life.

People with emotionally unstable personality disorder are particularly at risk of suicide.

Its course is variable and, although many people recover over time, some people may continue to experience social and interpersonal difficulties.

Already we can draw parallels between our concept of cleft habitus, especially when we think about pervasive instability of self-image. Risking reducing parts of Bourdieu’s socioanalysis from a philosophical enquiry into the essence of his own being through examining his becoming, and certainly hoping not to appear to pathologise his reflexivity, there is a kind of constant flux of self-image as it is constantly re-examined. The difference between Bourdieu and one who suffers with BPD perhaps is, as many psychologists would agree (at least in my experience with fellow students many of which are now practising psychologists in some form) is that his reflexive actions did not cause him social problems and/or psychic distress enough to be considered pathological.

Contrasting Bourdieu’s self reflections with the internal struggle of one who suffers with BPD risks downplaying the suffering of the latter, or exaggerating the former, whom we can only truly guess about the extent of their suffering. However, there are numerous times in his works, or if we refer back to my own experiences, that self-reflection can lead to a doubt about identities and allegiances. Bourdieu struggled with his primary habitus of a working-class boy from a peasant family becoming the later habitus of a kind of, what he called, homo academicus, a successful social climber into the halls of academic achievement.

My own experiences, as described in this series, from a working-class background to a more middle-class milieu, have similarities to Bourdieu’s story that are only in early stages. I think even the fact that I make such a bold comparison of myself to such an intellectual figurehead contrasts with my moments of utter despair about my current personal situation with its struggles, is evidence of “a pattern of sometimes rapid fluctiation from periods of confidence to despair”.

Further, as discussed in the previous article, I think my moving around so much while growing up has partly influenced my “pervasive instability of interpersonal relationships” and a testament to how sometimes “psychic responses are individualised, pushed out of the wider social picture”. Especially when we see that the patient.info article’s short theorising about the cause of BPD here is limited to suggesting “adverse life events and genetic factors”. Of course the writers, or even research referred to here, cannot be blamed for going further in their analysis at this point, but some adverse life events, may arise due to social conditions. For example, moving around as a child was often the result of my father’s employment situation.

Continuing looking at the patient.info article, my own fear of abandonment and rejection has manifested in pushing people away. Due to my moving around so much, I have a decent ability to make friends fast and no shyness or fear about starting relationships but an odd maladaptive coping mechanism I have developed, due to my fear of abandonment, I believe is because of my moving around and losing friendships that I have, for lack of a better word, invested in.

Even in my own most successful personal relationship, at times of high stress or even crisis, I will try to push away my now fiancée. This is also because during such times, I experience, as the article says “transient psychotic symptoms, including brief delusions and hallucinations”. I largely try to avoid writing about my partner however so will leave that point as it is.

Another example which, admittedly without the assistance of a professional analyst, I think might be considered the result of delusion leading to impairment of occupational functioning (the fact that impairment of occupational functioning is included as disorder criteria is way beyond the scope of this article, but for anyone who sees the critical theory influence in my work- I did notice!) was when I was around 19 years old.

Shortly after having to withdraw from university due to financial issues partly due to my ignorance, mostly due to my mother lying to myself and the government, I ended up working for a large supermarket chain. I was fortunate to work with some of the best colleagues I’ve had even to this day. This helped with my depression which had peaked shortly after I found out I would have to withdraw from university study and attempted suicide but it wasn’t enough to quash my intellectual urges, the part of my habitus which was a disposition towards academic pursuits.

It was around this time I began to read about politics, philosophy, economics, history- anything I thought might help me understand the lie I felt I had been raised on. I got good grades, was well behaved, worked part-time at college (16-18 in UK)- I felt I’d done everything right, so why did I, in my mind, get blocked from going to university? Eventually I found some sort of pseudo-leftist-utopian political thought that resonated a lot with me called The Zeitgeist Movement.

I don’t wish to write much about TZM here but think perhaps my deteriorating mental health influenced my openness to their ideas, especially the more utopian aspects. I was never really a follower, probably due to the prolonged periods of social isolation in my childhood, so I wanted to make my own thing. In Bourdieusian terms, we might say that due to usually being in socially isolated fields, my habitus is used to being more congruent in such fields such that it has become somewhat of a disposition of that habitus, which results in endeavours that reflect that.

I tried to start a charity fundraising company that contributors voted at the end of each month about which charity to give the funds to. It would get money by entertaining people with youtube videos, mainly about videogames, and at the time I was delusionally confident about the potential success of this model and my future youtube career- so much so that I quit my job at the supermarket chain!

I think this example not only illustrates some of my delusional thinking in the past which has fulfilled the diagnostic criteria about it effecting my “occupational functioning” and “particularly at risk of suicide”, but is a kind of critique of the often nonsensical hyper-individualism and new-age self-belief pseudophilosophy of our culture. When successful entrepreneurs become so, the advice we often see in cultural artefacts is to have this self-belief which can overcome any obstacle- “follow your dreams”.

This is a kind of Marxist opium of the masses which covers up the reality of the social relations which make “success” possible- capital. Simultaneously, it inhibits the ambitions and confidence of lower-class people, shifting the blame for their “failure”- low socio-economic position- on the level of ideas, while buffing the ego of those who succeed, more likely due to their ability to successfully accumulate, convert, and mobilise capital, in all its forms, and partly luck. Overall, these ideas obfuscate how what’s really possible for individuals is regulated by the social system of capital.

In conclusion, this has just been a brief look at how aspects of the Bourdieusian schema can help explain some mental health problems, and the parallels between diagnoses and causes, and practices and habitus. In the next article, I would like to end this tangent and return to looking at Diane Reay’s article and comparing her insights with my own experiences.


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