If I could start at the beginning, I would start with the blanket: blue with white polka dots. Or was it pink, with the edges so tattered you could stick a whole hand between the fabric? Or perhaps because I could not be parted with one, my mother supplied me with two: one blue, one pink, each one taking the place of the other. When one had to be washed, I clung on to the other like my life depended on it.
Where are they now? I don’t know between which houses I had lost them, just that they lay crumpled at the bottom of a box somewhere, in this country or the last. My mother laughs remembering how I used to follow her around the house, clinging to her skirt as she cleaned. When I fell asleep in her lap in the living room, she would carry me back to my own bed. But no matter how carefully she tried to slip her arm out from under me, I’d always wake up and cry.
My therapist calls them transitional objects—blankets, stuffed animals, toys with special meanings—that help children establish permanence and stability, remind them that the self they inhabit does not collapse even as the world around them continues to morph and change. She asks me if I have one: it would help with the diagnosis process, as those who still carry them more likely than not fit a borderline personality disorder diagnosis. I think of the blankets. If I hadn’t had lost them, if I had kept them with me, would I have managed to stay in place while the world spun on around me?
Would the houses have remained houses?
On Google Maps, I can still see the house we lived in: the small garden with the wide white rock, the pear tree my mother planted in the front yard, still blossoming in our absence, because or despite.
Or I could start at another beginning: in Manila, where my father first met my mother. He had known my mother’s sister back in California, who, upon hearing that he would be attending a social work conference in her home country, asked my father to deliver a small package to her younger sister who lived and worked in the metro.
Months later, they had fallen in love. Perhaps following her older sister’s footsteps, my mother agreed to start her life over in America. In the Golden State.
It couldn’t have been much, what she had to sort through to decide what to keep and what to leave behind. The first gold necklace she had bought out of college. A thick wool sweater her sister had sent over in a balikbayan box. Her good shoes, a square scarf, a photo album of her teenage days in Palapag, the surface of the photos gone pale and sticky to the touch.
Were these her transitional objects, the umbilical connection to the land she left behind?
A year after I was born, she would find herself crying in a car as she drove on the freeway for the first time, her hands shaking on the wheel. She was following my father, who was in a car in front of her. He had just accepted a teaching position at a university in Tennessee. After my mother had spent the past year trying to make their cold Delaware apartment feel something close to the warmth of her cramped Quezon City bedroom, she would once again have to choose what to keep, what to leave behind, a dilemma she thought she would face only once in her life.
She could only bring what would fit in the two cars they drove south. Once she had parsed down her new life into boxes, my father threw a garage sale for the things that remained: Everything Must Go.
And my mother cried for every lamp, frame, and chair she had to let go, each departure mirroring the last.
They were yelling in their room.
We were in Mactan. The year before, my mother had labored over shipping all our belongings from Murfreesboro to Manila, Manila to Cebu: mostly souvenirs and keepsakes from my parents’ travels before I was born. The house had been furnished with sculptures, vases, and photographs I didn’t recognize but accepted as my own. My room, in contrast, was nearly empty. The bedsheets were new; my mother helped me pick them out at the department store in the city. No clutter on the bedside tables. Clothes my mother had chosen for me swaying in the closet.
Moving to Cebu was my parents’ attempt at a compromise. My father couldn’t stand the chaos of Manila; my mother suffered in Murfreesboro. Mactan evaded both of their resentments for the other’s home.
They were yelling because it had barely been a year and they had already sunk into their rhythm of unhappiness. My mother’s constant efforts to please my father, his increasing silences. The books piling up on his bedside table. The place was neither the poison nor the antidote—they had to know that a new house didn’t mean a new life, but still they held onto the fantasy: a series of false beginnings, the fiction of returning to square one. The myth of eternal return.
There was a time when I relished the same falsehood: each new house was a new opportunity to recreate myself. Whatever I had done wrong in the last house, the last school, I could re-do to perfection in the new one. I was amazingly good at it—at becoming nothing. There was a certain thrill to it, reinventing yourself for a new audience, like telling a lie that no one could catch. It would last for about a year before the novelty wore off. There would be nothing new to become, nothing new to me.
I built myself up like papier-mâché, and bit by bit I’d imagine myself losing color. The paper would curl at the edges, form gaps at the surface. I feared they could see right through me, know that I had been hollowing myself out to absorb everything, fit anywhere, be whatever they demanded of me. Whatever I was wouldn’t last. Whatever I had I could always afford to lose.
My parents emerged from their room. I’d find out years later that they had talked about getting a divorce. My father’s ultimatum was to separate or to move back to America. Because her daughters were still young, my mother agreed to move again, to keep the family together. Because there was no use fighting, she acquiesced; she would begin the process she would come to know all too well, deciding what to keep, what to leave behind. She would become a master at packing. And because she could not trust a house, her daughters would become her only home, her only anchors.
How, at times, the weight of love has felt like a whole house on my chest.
My uniform had finally come in. One week wearing civilian clothes and all the kids at my new school had already whispered about the new American Girl. They murmured about where I was from, debated about my ethnicity. When my teacher called on me in class, curious about what I knew, I could barely squeak out an answer without shaking. All eyes were on me, their resident alien: would I be brash and unkempt, like they imagined American girls to be? Would I be loose-tongued and loose-bodied like the girls in Hollywood movies? Would I think myself better than them?
It didn’t matter that I was like them—that I was Filipino, that I spoke Tagalog, that it wasn’t even my first time studying in the Philippines. I would always be an outsider. They had no reason to like me: I was a transplant. They already had their routines, their long-standing friendships. Their world had already been formed without me. They made the rules; I merely followed.
Even my school uniform displayed my status: the fabric was different from that of classmates. It was smoother, hung straighter on the body—a different fabric, obviously new. It was all I noticed when I went to school. Although we wore the same outfits, they could always pick me out in a crowd: my hair, my skin, my brand new uniform. I didn’t belong there. I would always betray myself in my attempts to fit in.
In psychology, objects relations theory addresses the link between the internal (the self) and the external (the other). The distinction between the two, formed in childhood, is crucial for a stable sense of self. The ability to recall the self as an independent whole, especially in times of distress, is the first step to withstanding a changing world. A change in one’s environment shouldn’t completely change the person; the healthy child is able to integrate one concept of self with the other without any trouble.
Where did I begin and end? I knew my status as an insider depended entirely on my peers. It was up to them to determine who I was: whether I was more Filipino or American, whether I was good or smart, whether I could be an insider or forever peer in from the outside.
I wanted to drown in them—their likes, dislikes, their manners and mannerisms. I didn’t care what got snuffed out: the space that formed when I plunged into their world would mark all the edges of me. Measured against them, I could finally mold myself into a definite shape.
I remember: receiving my uniform was always my favorite part. In the blurry photographs I find, smiling among my classmates, it almost looks like I belong. If I could find the all the photo albums, I would see the uniforms morph from pleated white to checkered red to navy blue pinafore.
But the memory lies. There is no thread connecting one from the other. The uniform drapes a body long gone, then crumples to the floor. There is no use looking at photographs anymore.
Sometimes the urge still hits me—to sort through the things in my apartment, run a fine-tooth comb over my life, decide what to keep and what to leave behind. Find myself in a new city and introduce myself anew.
I’ve planned a move to San Francisco maybe three times now.
But I have my degree to finish. I still want to teach. And I know that if I want to live I can’t be alone. Even a few days by myself and I start to slip. I forget all that I have to lose by doubting they were ever mine to begin with.
I’ve been living in Manila for almost three years now with no plans of leaving—the first time a departure date hasn’t loomed somewhere in the distance. My family is here. Friends I’ve kept for more than a year. And they want me here. Despite it all.
Despite it all, I’m more afraid than I’ve ever been in my entire life.
I’ve always left before I could find out what happens next. I left before they could leave me, and let life went on without me. Life went on as it should.
They say that moving is hard, but it’s harder to stay in one place. To invite someone in, have them live there, and watch them leave. It’s all I know.
When my therapist asks me if I had any hobbies, any interests entirely my own as a kid, I don’t know what to say. In Manila, I bought a brand new trolley school bag to impress my friends. In Murfreesboro, I begged my dad to let me shop at Abercrombie so I could dress like my classmates. In Mactan, I bought supplies to make earrings like my new best friend: pliers, beads and sequins, wire and jump rings.
I kept none of them. The things I thought defined me—how easy they were to throw away. How replaceable, impermanent.
She still can’t figure out what’s wrong with me: it’s unclear to her whether I have borderline personality disorder or something else altogether. Though I exhibited many borderline traits, I exhibited others that complicated their presentation: unrelenting standards, emotional inhibition, extreme self-control.
Maybe the presence of the blankets would have given it away, tipped me in favor of one label instead of another. For now, she’s settled on a middle ground: PDNOS, or personality disorder not otherwise specified. Ambiguous even under the sterile, objective light of the shrink’s office.
She jokes that I should have my own condition noted in the next DSM: Orphan Syndrome.
“Right?” she presses on, and I smile and nod. This would be another one of her metaphors, so I listen carefully: “You’re being passed from one foster family to another, and you have to impress them, so you have to be on your best behavior. You have to make them like you so they’ll want to keep you as part of their family; it’s like life or death to you—it’s survival. And you still carry that need to be liked, to be chosen, into your adulthood. You see other ‘orphans’ being picked over you, and you wonder what makes them better than you. You think there must be something wrong with you. That if you were just yourself, you’d be the last one without a home. You’d be alone.”
I can’t do anything but smile and nod. I laugh quietly, shaking in my seat.
“Why are you laughing?” Her smile is soft, sympathetic.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” I mumble, and bite down on my tongue. What have I carried from home to home? Alone in my apartment, what was I left with besides myself?
And how replaceable, impermanent I was.
If I could start at the beginning—if I could take in all the loose edges and locate the point of unraveling—I would start with the blankets, lost. Or the absence the blankets filled: My mother?
Or the absence I failed to fill in her, a hole as big as a country.
More than six sessions in and we still struggle to pinpoint a reason. Was I born this way? Was it all the moving? Was it my parents?
The reason, to me, matters little: in my eyes, it’s in my blood. I was born to want too much—to be born into two worlds and fail in both, struggling to embody someone I could never fully become. A mixed race daughter is alienated from both her mother and father from the second she is born.
My therapist doesn’t quite buy it: mixed race children aren’t suddenly predisposed to personality disorders because of their identities.
What’s clear is that I never developed the ability to self-soothe, that I was always looking outward for validation I couldn’t supply on my own. Times of distress made me fear being alone, and I clung to others to make me feel safe, to validate who I was. I felt unreal, like a ghost haunting my own apartment, waiting for someone to conjure me into life, to give me form and body.
My “emotional object constancy,” she says, is shaky at best. I like to think of it as emotional amnesia. Every time I closed my eyes, I risked losing everything that was good in my life. I couldn’t trust that what I knew would still be true the next morning. That the people around me wouldn’t just up and leave.
Living with the constant fear that the world I lived in would collapse all around me. That it would any minute now, and I’d be forced to navigate the unfamiliar world all alone.
This mindset, apparently, doesn’t make for healthy relationships, with the self or with others. My therapist says I need to stop testing people, especially those who love me, to see if they will stay—stop pushing them away in hopes that they fight against the current.
I know she’s right. But I act on impulse, fight-or-flight. Fight, and see if they stay.
This behavior is an effect of black-and-white thinking, or “splitting.” As a defense mechanism against hurt, the mind thinks, If you don’t love me despite this, you never loved me at all; you were only out to get me, to hurt me, to leave me in the end. It lays down the groundwork for when they do leave, when the impossible-to-live-with becomes inevitable. They turn away from your fighting stance. They’re tired of this, you’re always doing this, you’re always starting something. They choose flight. They walk out the door. And you hate them now—you always have—so you let them. You let them leave; your whole life has prepared you for this.
“We need to work on your brain’s automatic responses so you don’t go into defense mode whenever your sense of constancy starts to slip.” And I want to get better, want to put my hands down and stop fighting. But the memory of the pain, its constant possibility, is so present, the motion against it is almost muscle.
They were my new best friends. They had known each other since the first grade, and I had managed to worm my way into their circle in less than a year. I visited their houses, and they visited mine. Before they saw my room for the first time, I made sure to decorate it to impress them. I put posters up on the walls and stuck some of the foam stickers we had been collecting on the cabinet doors. I fixed the beds and fluffed up the pillows, cleaned just enough to make the room seem effortlessly lived in.
A row of stuffed animals my mother had shipped over from America sat on the shelf in my room —hand-me-down Beanie Babies, toys from yard sales, plushies from Toys R Us. My friends examined them one by one, taking them off the shelf to examine them in their hands. They passed them around and fought over who got to play with their favorites.
I don’t know what prompted me to offer that they could take whatever they wanted, but they squealed with glee as they hugged their new toys. Would they think I was a good friend? A judgment that was reserved only for me: they had not given me anything, but I still thought the world of them. It was a small price to pay for their attention.
(The lesson here is that love is a transaction.)
My mother saw them leaving with my toys. She kept quiet, eyeing them as they said their goodbyes, but pulled me aside when they were gone. She was angry; she had chosen those specially from our last home in America, shipped them over just for me. But it didn’t matter what I had to give up—I had gotten what I wanted.
“But they asked for them,” I explained. “I couldn’t say no.” She warned me to be careful with my things—I couldn’t just hand over whatever someone else asked for. I should be firm with what was mine, I should learn to say no.
(The lesson here is that bartering for love is a thing of shame, but the lonely will not hesitate to clear out a home just to build it back up again.)
After that, my mother was always apprehensive about my friends’ visits. They stayed too long and spoke too loudly. They were careless with my things and reckless with their questions about my family, my home, the American life I had left behind. Still, she let them come over when I asked. They made me happy. They let me in. I imagined lifetimes with them. They were my new best friends, after all, though today I can barely remember their names.
My therapist gives me my final diagnosis: borderline personality disorder.
The label is suppose to give me comfort, help me understand why I am the way I am. And it does—it’s what I always wanted. But I can’t help but feel disoriented when I hear it. I knew the symptoms, knew I lived with them every day. It made sense. But the self who had made her first appointments out of desperation months before did not feel like the same self now receiving her diagnosis. I knew her, knew what she had gone through, but she felt unreachable to me. Was she still me? And if I couldn’t reach her, was she still there inside me?
My therapist tells me about “schema therapy,” her preferred treatment plan for patients with personality disorders. She’s printed out a four-page document detailing all my maladaptive coping mechanisms and schema modes—rigid ways of thinking and behaving that, while necessary for survival in childhood, become harmful when one can’t let go of them as an adult.
Different schema modes can be triggered by different life events: failure can trigger the Critical Parent mode, rejection can trigger the Angry Child mode, and abandonment, real or perceived, can trigger the Vulnerable Child mode.
I feared the last one the most: it made me unrecognizable to myself, tearing down everything I had built myself up to be. Anger I could take, make sense out of; hurt was wordless, illogical. Overwhelming. Life-or-death and all at once, over and over, everything I thought I had forgotten. It was something done to me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Someone could laugh and I’d regress into a little girl again, sobbing in my room, rocking myself knees to chest, bubbling that it wasn’t my fault, that they couldn’t blame me.
She was there—in all the houses I left behind, the little girl I abandoned in hopes I’d become a different person with a different life. A new house, an empty house, was wild with possibility. I’d be perfect there—I’ve had practice at pretending. And they’d have no reason not to like me. No reason to say I wasn’t good.
The goal of this kind of therapy is to strengthen the Healthy Adult mode, who learns how to cope with the maladaptive schema modes. Essentially, it’s to become person you wish you had as a child—who you still wished you had. It’s a process of learning to be kind to yourself, of forgiving yourself for what you did or didn’t do.
The houses I can’t quite remember, but the girl I tried and failed to be in any one of them all hollowed out inside of me. The shapes of all the selves I left behind, crying out for help, wanting their body back.
What puzzles my therapist as she’s going over my results is that, unlike other borderline patients she’s had, the form I answered detailing my mother and father’s parenting styles didn’t point her to any abuse or neglect that could have factored into my development of BPD. There wasn’t a hint of blame for either of them. And while it’s possible that some people develop it for no reason other than genetic predisposition, that wasn’t the case for me. I had certain themes I kept returning to, feelings and fears that kept repeating themselves in my relationships. My own eternal return.
I think of my mother again—how my emptiness had taken the shape of what she hadn’t given me, what I thought I had needed to feel complete. How easy it was to hold on to something that made sense: that love, unattained, did not have to be so—had I tried harder, reached out further, stretched myself out louder or quieter into pain. That although I had failed once, I did not have to again, that love was an empty house I could fill myself into, each time a better fit than the last.
To have the perfect house meant a perfect life. A perfect kitchen with meals served three times a day, eaten together at the dinner table. I would never be afraid to invite friends over, and they would never reject my offer. I wouldn’t have to apologize for the mess, for storage boxes perpetually opening or closing. And my mother and father would be happy; they’d never want to leave, to start over somewhere else. And I wouldn’t have to wonder if the next house, in this country or the next, could fix us.
Where was I without her? My parents were blameless. I was alone again, right back where I started. The beginning and end of it all.
When we moved back to America, I learned to hate my mother. She made me different from all of my friends, whose mothers were tall and blonde, who kept charming homes with manicured lawns and packed colorful lunches for their kids. On my first day of fifth grade, my mother prepared me leftover adobo to bring in my brand new lunch box. When I opened it at school, a white, cloudy layer had formed over the meat and rice: the fat from the sauce had coagulated inside the insulated walls. I shielded the food with my arm, overturning the rice at the bottom to cover the meat. I went hungry for the rest of the day.
I didn’t want my friends to see my house. The food was strange to them, and they looked at my mother with a foreboding eye when she offered it to them. So I made up excuses—my baby sister was asleep, my father was busy writing. I visited theirs instead, where I could be recklessly American, eat and speak how I wanted, pretend my family was just like theirs, that nothing they did was ever new or surprising. I was all eyes and ears, and I learned to play the part.
I learned to hate my mother when my best friend’s father made fun of her accent. He mimicked how she said my name, lengthening the soft y sound into a hard ee. When my mother came to pick me up from their house, my best friend’s parents didn’t bother to stand up and greet her. Neither one of us spoke on the car ride home.
In the middle of the American Bible Belt, the pollen from flowering spring trees of Tennessee bothered my mother’s lungs, suffocating her until she could barely breathe. Asthma ran in the family, but instead of empathizing, I became resentful. It became her excuse to return to the Philippines without me. She said she needed to spend time with my lolo, take care of the house there. Avoid springtime. She’d take three, four months out of the year to fly back to her homeland, taking my baby sister with her but leaving me with my father. They were sure I could handle being alone, taking care of myself for the most part: I had proven to be a well-behaved girl no matter where I lived. They had nothing to worry about with me, and because I couldn’t bear to disappoint, couldn’t deny the strength they ascribed to me, I couldn’t complain.
The first time she left, my mother made a deal with me: she’d buy me my own computer so we could video call each other everyday. I wouldn’t even miss her, she reassured me, wouldn’t even notice she was gone.
A transitional object to get me through the next few months. A blanket to get me through the night.
Because I couldn’t do anything to make her stay, I pretended that it was enough. That I didn’t care she was leaving without me—wouldn’t even miss her, wouldn’t even notice she was gone. The brand new monitor sparkled in my room, and I pretended that an object could ever be enough to mask the feeling of being left behind.
I began to hate the Philippines, where my mother would go to escape the country where I kept her tethered. I never wanted to go back. Back in her domain, she would have everything in the world to tend to, crumbling houses to fix, cousins to visit, province fiestas to attend—the world I had taken from her.
So when, out of anger, she accused me of becoming too American, I tried to rework it into some semblance of a compliment.
Good, I thought. Then go ahead and leave.
Because hate is the only answer I know to love that stretches itself out and ricochets back to itself.
To wake up and find my mother gone from my bed. To take a fall on the driveway and lie on the asphalt until she turns and notices. To get up at dawn for another early departure. To be a hand forever outstretched, unseen, unaccounted for.
How to make a house a home: Dress the walls with paintings and photographs. Furnish the rooms. Supply throw pillows and blankets. Plant around the facade. Make the kitchen clean and bright. Let the light in. The work endless and daily. So how could I blame a life I had relegated to an endless series of unpacking, the hands always moving, too busy to hold?
Eventually, my mother cared less and less about what the houses looked like. Homes became houses became storage units. When we moved back to America, boxes sat unopened in our living room for months. We put off buying furniture. We bought for the meantime, lived with the thought that we might leave at any moment’s notice. We slept on mattresses without frames, crowded the dining room with unpacked bags and containers.
You stop trying to make the house your own. You stop reaching out your hand. The room empty, the heart hollow.
Because I have learned to feign fullness in a barren home, because the hate that beats itself black inside me is the shadow of love that has denied itself a place to live.
I wanted to live in an empty house. It was supposed to be easy. There would be no damages. To move freely, without weight. To be like my father, who could leave at a moment’s notice. Whose most treasured life was the one he lived in a tiny New York City apartment: one futon, one pillow, one blanket, one glass, one bowl, one knife and fork.
Because a house is not a house once you leave it. So I am trying to build a house I cannot leave behind. Trying to make it last past the year. Trying to strengthen the foundation. Trying to remember now, not for the meantime.
But I forget. I stomp on the beds, upturn the cushions, pull the rugs out from underneath. I want to clear out the house, throw out all my belongings before they find their way into someone else’s home. I want to say this house is unlivable before anyone can find out that it’s true. Before they board up the the windows and plaster warnings across the walls. Let me unhinge the doors to let the stampedes through. Let me ruin it all so there’s nothing left to mourn. With nothing to keep and nothing to leave behind.
Krysta Lee Frost is a mixed race Filipino American poet who halves her life between the Philippines and the United States. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, Berkeley Poetry Review, Susquehanna Review, and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman.