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Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift.
-Mary Oliver

I can’t remember now how I ran across this poem by Mary Oliver. I saved it, because the box-full-of-darkness metaphor seemed genius. As time went by, its relevance to my experience became clearer. The poem eventually served as an epigraph for my book Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother.

First, here’s what I won’t be saying about these lines. I won’t say that all dark boxes become gifts. The loss of a child or debilitating pain or one’s own mental illness? Starvation? Violence? Are these gifts, or can they become gifts? It feels presumptuous to say so. I can speak only to my own experience, and a largely blessed and lucky experience it has been.

Like everyone, though, I’ve seen some darkness, and my relationship with my mom, who I believe had borderline personality disorder, threw some definite shade into my life. As I began writing about my mother and mental illness and my childhood, my thoughts often returned to the closet at the center of the house where I grew up — a walk-in closet with no light inside. A literal box full of darkness. Here’s part of what I wrote about it.

Dark and musty, this walk-in closet was reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe. Frequently-worn coats were hanging in the front, near the vacuum cleaner and some brooms.. With the closet doors closed from the inside, I could stand in almost perfect darkness. This was a spooky, ideal hiding place. But if I were looking for something, if an attachment for the vacuum cleaner had fallen to the floor, I was out of luck. I always had the sense that there was more in that closet than I even knew. It was full of stuff, and it was never cleaned out, and it was too dark to find anything.

That’s what happens with boxes full of darkness, right? You can’t see into the corners. You can’t make anything out. Somebody you love has an addiction. Somebody you love says something horrible to you, and you can’t get past the pain. Or, you’re the one who hurt someone you love. It seems like it’s all pain.

My mom shared her darkness with me and my sisters. She was unhappy. She complained. Nothing ever seemed right. She told us we disappointed her. She called us losers. She was poor, she was unlucky, she was sad. For much of my life, I’ve carried her darkness around with me, like the memory of that closet. How to escape the darkness?

That closet needed a light. We lived with many inconveniences in that house, much that was run-down and dirty and old-fashioned; few things were ever fixed or improved. A single light bulb would have illuminated the dark corners.

Borderline personality disorder has been that light bulb for me. Why did my mother grieve at her daughters’ weddings? Why did she sit alone by the TV drinking wine and then cry herself to sleep? Why was she missing altogether at times I needed a mother? BPD has shined a light into the murky corners of my childhood. It has explained things I never understood.

If someone had ever told me to regard my mom’s bitterness and pain as a gift, I would have replied with sarcasm. In a seemingly miraculous sequence of events, however, after many years (just like in the poem), they are becoming a gift. Not for my mom, who never really cheered up. But letting light into the corners of that box, learning about BPD, has made a huge difference. I have comprehended that my mom wasn’t just complaining, she was suffering. She couldn’t help being the way she was. She was ill.

This realization, at last, has brought me closer to my sisters. It’s given me a book. It’s enhanced my friendships. It’s deepened my compassion for people with mental illness. It’s introduced me to new friends, via my book and my blog. It’s helped me explore some nooks and crannies in my own psyche, which doesn’t always feel like a gift, but ultimately (she said grudgingly) it is. In life, as in dialectical behavior therapy, we must confront paradox. A box full of darkness can be a gift. It just takes years to understand.