Elias sits in front of me on the soft, L-shaped couch, the scent of old marihuana puffing up into the air every time either one of us moves. He fingers a purple post-it note I´d given him not too long ago, a simple distraction while we wait to be called back into the room. We are silent, stale in the awareness of this, as it tends to happen while the camera rolls. The faint sound of hip hop music stretches out to us. This is the song we are bringing to life via the production of a music video. Consider us the invisible parts of your favorite audiovisual experiences, the undetected efforts. For the art department, the one Elias and I belong to, this means decorating and redecorating as quickly and efficiently as possible. If the DP shifts her camera a few degrees to the side, we must pin a series of stickers on the surface of a closet unseen in the previous shots. And I, doubling as a makeup artist, also run inside to powder the artist´s face as she retorts “Not too much. It must look natural.”
The star is sixteen years old and clad in tattoos. In between takes, she points out how badly she wishes she could “roll up a fatty”. And yes, her mom is there. She also happens to be her manager.
The location is a filmmaker´s house, ergo, the lingering smell of pot all around us. This is as unsurprising as looking up and finding the Costa Rican sky beginning to drizzle; for some strange reason, stoners and film students make a popular match. Light a blunt and write a script or edit on ProTools or plan out the shoot´s lighting. You might as well order the craft service while you´re at it.
“Here, Elena, this one is for you.”
Elias stretches out his hand and reveals an origami swan. I immediately wonder how he managed to fold up such a small piece of paper into something so irrefutably elegant.
“Whoa,” but my eyes are dead. “It’s—it’s beautiful.”
Just like that, the swan goes into my iridescent pencil case. Elias stares at me with his wide, endearing eyes, a look that says, why have you gone? Where is that curious mind of yours? If we weren´t in a pandemic, in a situation unforeseeable even by the sincerest fortune teller, he´d see that I´m attempting to emit a faint smile underneath my mask. All he sees is the lost gaze of the makeup artist he met a few hours ago and was trying to befriend.
But how could I ever explain to a man I just met under a professional setting the truth of my condition?
So, he asks if there is something wrong, a question I’ve heard so many times it feels like I’m frozen in an endless time loop. The tone of his voice is light, playful. He hasn’t the faintest clue of the pain he just conjured up because, in the back of my throat, I´m whispering, I´m BPD and stuck in a routine dissociation. Instead, I simply and organically sigh.
Getting lost at work, tucked away into a corner of reality where I’m alone but safe, is not an uncommon situation for me.
In 2018, I wrote a small script. It truly wasn’t a leap of faith to make it in the industry, no, it was more of a remedy for the crippling anxiety I was dealing with at the moment. Something to keep me busy as a film school dropout. But this life is unpredictable and the piece took off faster than I could’ve ever anticipated. People with far more experience were getting involved. Elaborate costumes where being procured. Grants were sought out and fancy equipment was set aside for us. These things were done in my name, my scared, first-time-director name; a 21-year-old leading a continuously growing expedition.
I was also juggling the first phase of reporting the sexual assault that had led me to leave school months prior.
Timing in this universe is weird but strangely fitting.
During the filming of the short, a familiar veil fell over me like a thick layer of white frosting. This was it—the tucking of my mind into the smallest corner available. Naturally, the dissociations fixed my face into a blank expression I only managed to shake off while directing the actresses. However, I knew the rest of the crew saw right through the mask and into the soul of the ghost anyway.
My producer became increasingly weary as the team would continue to ask her about my state.
“Ele,” she´d get close to me and lower her voice, a weak attempt at privacy. “Are you… Are you happy with the results?”
“Yeah, totally. Why?”
She´d get even closer. “They keep asking me if you´re okay.”
“You know how I am. Serious at work. A hereditary trait from my father´s side of the family.”
“I suppose you´re right.”
And she’d begin a short dissertation on how unfair it is that female directors are expected to be bubbly and lively while their male counterparts´ emotional states aren´t even regarded.
What people often miss to see is the very understandable coping mechanism of the closed-off individual. Arms crossed, eyes squinted, lips pursed, we´re holding our pieces together. They could fall apart at any given time, at the mention of what might seem to be an innocent word but could be the unfortunate trigger of a breakdown. We pray for silence. We pray for only the usual banter of the workplace.
My BPD diagnosis was made when I was fourteen. This was way too young, but also, way too accurate. My parents withheld this information from me for God knows what reason and only referred to my newly found community as “people like you”. People like me? Teenage hurricanes with cuts on their forearms and bony, starving stomachs? I was so childish that this was enough information to silence my loudmouth for a few months. Then, I watched the movie. The movie. Girl, Interrupted. In the next few years, it would become apparent to me that it was fate because this was the only way I found a name for what the people like me suffered. Borderline Personality Disorder.
“Mama, mama,” I shook my mother´s shoulder. She opened one eye and narrowed it on me. It was midnight.
“Am I borderline?”
She sighed, tired.
So, it was settled. There was, in fact, a name for my insanity. For my self-destruction. For my gigantic, unimaginably graphic feelings. And with that proper label, a lot of the symptoms began to make sense, especially the black outs, the blank spaces in my memory where crucial scenes should be. It was easier to accept something I had already lost rather than the traits that would keep me on the same, declining path. So, my obsession with finding the missing pieces grew substantially. I needed to know what I kept forgetting and I needed to know why it happened.
“Dissociative episodes,” my current psychiatrist calls them. “A shield the mind wears when it feels itself dangling from a string.”
I’d press my thumb against my chin during these sessions. Would I notice when the tape recorder inside my head took breaks?
“No, a dissociation happens at a subconscious level.”
But I found this out to be false. Take, for instance, this very moment, when the director of the music video calls for the art department. Elias and I scramble off the worn out couch, bags of makeup and props in our hands, and head towards the set. Once inside, I look around. The walls close in and out around me, the air grows thin and scarce. I feel my throat drying up. The rest of the crew also pulsates, their heads bobbing up and down like buoys. It seems to me that I’m looking out through fisheye lenses, it’s the only reasonable explanation for my sudden change in perspective.
Nonetheless, my hands find their way around the brushes. They gently hold the rapper’s face and angle it so my fisheyes can look at it best. Small particles of translucent powder swirl into the room. I thank God that I’m not wearing my glasses for they would’ve caught all these sugary bits. With the sound of my compact snapping shut, I squint my eyes at the girl to convey a smile. She shrugs it off and takes out her phone.
I take a step forward and watch the floor rise up to my face. I haven’t fallen, no, it is just an illusion. The ground shrinks back down to its proper place. “This is just the shield,” I think, “the armor, the coping mechanism. Memory doesn’t make a person.”
The crew glances back at me every now and then. They’re trying to figure me out, to catalogue me. But I’m stoic, and it doesn’t match the charisma I put out when I first arrived at the house. These inconsistencies give me away.
I dodge their eyes and leave the room with Elias. It is worth noting that as the layer of my dissociation grows thicker, the less I crave any type of attention.
“Please, do not take note of me while I am not whole,” I plead in my head. “This is only a temporary filter, much too like the ones you place in front of your lights to diffuse their strength. It also can and will be removed, sooner rather than later. Just give me a little more time.”
Instead, the producer, a young and athletic-looking woman in her 30’s, emerges from the set to approach us back at the couch. She’s tired and sweaty, we’ve been here for more than twelve hours. Her hands clutch the schedule, which by now looks like a crinkled napkin.
“Elena? Are you feeling okay? I’m a bit worried.”
I wish I could disappear into the cushions.
“Yeah, I’m only tired, that’s all.” With one hand, I lower my mask and flash her my best smile.
“Oh,” she sighs in relief with a light chuckle. “So, that’s why you’ve been acting like—”
Cue a pause. The producer points her schedule in my direction.
Now, it’s my turn to sigh. Elias looks over at me and pats his palm against the couch to summon my gaze.
“It’s all going to be alright. We’ll go home soon.”
And I look over at the origami swan still wedged into my pencil case, repeating his words over and over again in my head.