For six weeks the Depp-Heard trial has exerted its lurid siren call, pulling us in, inviting each commenter to bring their individual torments and anxieties to the table.
Until now, I’ve resisted doing exactly that. But waking up on Thursday, the morning after the jury ruled in Johnny Depp’s favour, I felt a kind of quiet and pernicious hopelessness — one that’s hard to express, for fear of being pinned to a single side of the conflict, or being labelled a brainwashed victim of ideology.
I don’t particularly identify with Amber Heard, not that I need to identify with her, or even like her to take her allegations seriously. Much like those grey courtroom videos, the evidence presented during the trial did not portray her in a flattering light. But she and I have a diagnosis in common, borderline personality disorder. It’s a complicated, often wildly misunderstood condition, characterised by uneven emotions, extreme sensitivity, unstable self-image, impulsive behaviours and a history of trauma.
I don’t hide my BPD diagnosis, in part because I think it deserves further examination in my writing, and in part because I’ve never believed it’s something I should be ashamed of. It’s taken years of therapy and writing and hard work, but six years on from my diagnosis, I’m in a very different place to where I started. My life is calmer these days. I’m less prone to black-and-white thinking, and self-loathing, and despair. Furthermore, something beautiful, which I never expected, is that people have listened and even related to what I had to say in my book, The Disconnect. Instead of getting me dismissed as crazy, writing about my mental health has enriched my life.
But responses to the Depp-Heard trial have left me questioning whether my openness about BPD is misguided. There was something deeply jarring about watching Dr Shannon Curry, a psychologist hired by Depp, revealing Heard’s diagnosis, along with one of histrionic personality disorder. More jarring still was watching this be received by Depp’s supporters as proof of some deep-rooted malevolence in Heard, and not a response to life experiences.
The term “bunny boiler”, describing a psychotic, vengeful woman, has had a renaissance in recent weeks. It dates back to Glenn Close’s role in Fatal Attraction, released in 1987, forever associated in the popular imagination with borderline personality disorder. Reading responses to the trial, I wonder if the popular understanding of BPD, in particular in women, has progressed even remotely since that time.
Talk of trauma is everywhere at present; it’s a plot device in novels and TV shows, a dinner party conversation, a meme. But for all this talk, the trial highlighted how crude our understanding of trauma is, ignoring that it takes time and effort to resolve, that it will make you difficult to some, and exciting to others, and that it will lead you into bad decisions, and even worse relationships with other, equally traumatised people. People with BPD are more vulnerable to self-harm, depression and suicide. What commentary on the Depp-Heard trial seems to show is that they won’t be listened to, let alone believed, if they talk about their problems or reach out for help.
What stunned me throughout the trial was how many BPD-like behaviours Depp himself demonstrated; substance abuse, emotional outbursts and “splitting” (Depp would place Heard on a pedestal one day, buying her diamonds and telling the press that she was good for him, then accuse her of cheating and talk about murdering her in text messages). I’m not saying here that Depp should be diagnosed with BPD; I’m pointing out that few have pathologised his clearly abnormal behaviour the way they have with Heard’s. What constitutes a diagnosis for one person is considered a lifestyle choice for another.
It also doesn’t seem to have occurred to many commenters that in order to receive a diagnosis like BPD in the first place, someone has to go looking for help from medical professionals. “Borderlines” aren’t rampaging lunatics who refuse responsibility; they are people who’ve suffered in life, and are usually taking steps to recover.
That’s the cruel irony here, a self-fulfilling stigma, in which trying to address one’s problems means having to accept the label of an illness. What other choice does a BPD person have? If they refuse the diagnosis, they’ll be called deluded. If they try to hide it, they’ll be called a liar. If they accept it, they’re officially “mad” and apparently can’t ever be a victim of someone else. It doesn’t matter that troubled people attract each other, or that Depp, like Heard, has a history of assault charges. Heard is less the “perfect victim” than the perfect villain.
This trial has revealed glaring contradictions in a culture that pretends to understand mental health, affecting not only survivors of abuse, but people of any gender diagnosed with BPD. It’s unfortunate that it occurs at a time when beliefs around this diagnosis are changing; among mental health professionals, there’s a movement to re-evaluate BPD, and to question why 75 per cent of those diagnosed with it are female. There’s also a debate around renaming, or even abolishing the diagnosis entirely.
It seems ridiculous to automatically label Heard an aggressor because she has BPD — as ridiculous as it would be to do the same to Depp, because he’s a man. Then again, I’ve learned not to expect subtlety from comment sections.
My hope is that the discussion I’ve seen over the last six weeks is only a response to a ghoulish media spectacle, and not a reflection of how people with BPD are viewed by the world in general. To anyone reading who has this diagnosis, I hope you know that not everyone thinks this way, and that you deserve love and dignity, and to be heard as much as anyone else. The world needs sensitive people. Attitudes to BPD are evolving, but days like these convince me it can’t happen fast enough.
Roisin Kiberd is a writer