Are Hungry Ghosts Just Ghosts with Borderline Personality Disorder? • Empty Mirror

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“You need to stop waiting for everything to click,” the psychic said, pulling her clasped fingers apart and then placing them together again, in a sort of locking motion. “There is no magic moment. Is this making sense?”

It was making sense. She was saying the same thing I’ve been told for years; there is no such thing as irrefutable evidence that things are falling into place. Life just happens. Sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once. Mostly a combination of the two. Things are always both good and bad; during times of darkness there is also light; blah blah.

The thing is, I want there to be an ‘aha’ moment. I want a giant fucking neon sign that says things are going well! flashing over my head when things are, in fact, going well. I want to be told that I am doing the right thing, making the right choices. I want to know that I’m making decisions that will get me to where I want to be, wherever that is. I want things to click.


As a child, I loved to go to religious ceremonies with my friends. Though baptized, my family rarely, if ever, went to church, and weren’t at all what I’d consider to be religious. I revelled at Friday night shabbat, feeling a part of something larger when I was allowed a sip of wine. Most Saturday nights I would sleep over friends houses, my bag packed with church clothes, and come morning, I’d venture with their family to whatever type of church they attended. Catholic, Presbyterian, Quaker–it didn’t matter what I was a part of for the morning, as long as I was a part of something, even if only for a moment.


In the third grade, I was placed in a different class than all the friends I’d made the years prior, and felt left out and forgotten by them. I was unable to interject in conversations at recess about whose petri dish of mealworms had tipped over or who had embarrassed themselves in Spanish class, and though I was still included in their playing, I felt othered and alone.

Sitting on the floor of my bedroom, I sobbed to my mom that I had no one.

“That’s because those girls weren’t part of your God Circle, Courtie,” my mom said. “Your God Circle is the top tier of friendship, your chosen family, those better than any boyfriend or girlfriend. I didn’t find mine until college. You just have to keep looking.”

The next day was my class’s turn in the infamous Star Lab, a blow-up dome that had been pitched in the library where the night sky was projected onto the rounded ceiling. As I sat there in the dark, hearing stories about Orion and Gemini, I thought to myself somewhere, there’s someone made for me.
If there is someone made for me, I am still looking.


In Buddhism, there are Four Noble Truths. The first Truth is that suffering, pain, and misery exist, the second Truth being that these are caused by selfish personal desires. Buddhists believe this suffering may be overcome through following the teachings of the Buddha, and the surrendering of one’s selfish cravings.

I do not want to surrender. I want to be full.


The morning of my first admittance to a psychiatric ward, I sat in the kitchen eating cereal. I stared across the room at nothing in particular, thinking about drowning myself and what I’d overheard in the emergency room the day prior. When a doctor asked how I was feeling, I’d explained the crushing weight of sadness I felt at all times, the endless hollow feeling that sat in my chest that no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to fill. The doctor had nodded and then taken my parents out past the curtain surrounding my bed to speak privately. In the hall, I’d heard them tell my parents they believed I have Borderline Personality Disorder.

Eating my cereal, I thought about how to be actively suicidal yet still alive was a type of borderline in itself, the toeing of life and death. I thought about how I was on the borderline of a new life, one where my parents knew about the depth of my sadness. Mostly, I thought about what it meant to be Borderline, what parts of me were me, what parts of me were it, and whether there was a way to seperate them from one another.


Can someone read my palm and tell me if I’m going to be okay?


For a long while, whenever someone asked how I was, I’d take a moment to survey how I was feeling, and no matter how much I’d been laughing or enjoying myself the second before they asked me, I would answer that I was doing badly. It seemed that regardless of how much my present self was enjoying a particular moment, my higher, cosmic self was still just as miserable and unfulfilled as ever.

At my residential treatment center, it wasn’t uncommon for Treatment Team to assign girls tasks to follow for the coming week with the goal of helping them along in their recovery. Once, Treatment Team assigned me to carry around a bear with a pouch for a stomach, and corresponding smaller bears with emotions written on them. I was to take it with me everywhere, and whenever I felt anything at all, I was to put the matching tiny bear into the larger bear’s pouch. I felt silly carrying a stuffed animal around, but sillier knowing that once I took the one small bear with nothing written on it, wrote ‘hollow’ on its stomach, and put it in the pouch, it would stay there indefinitely.

The bear still sits in my closet, the smaller bears scattered around it. The pouch is empty now, which, I guess, is how it was all along.


In the Buddhist afterlife, there are spirits driven by intense, animalistic emotions called ‘hungry ghosts.’ These ghosts are unfathomably, insatiably, starving. They have mouths the size of the tips of needles, and stomachs as large as mountains.

I think if there are hungry ghosts in the living world, I am an incarnation of one.


There is a Japanese legend that states that if one folds 1000 paper cranes within a year, they will be granted one wish. In some tales, rather than a wish, the folder is granted good luck, or a life free of illness.

When I was thirteen, I began folding. With each crease of the thin papers, I would whisper quietly to myself I want to be happy. As I made another fold, I’d whisper I want to stop feeling empty inside. Again and again, whisper after whisper, until it was just a chant I said inside my head.

I want. I want. I want.


For my sixteenth birthday, I went to see a psychic named Melanie; for every year I grow older, my desire to understand and know the future grows, too. Melanie gave me tea with crystals at the bottom, sprayed me with an aura clearing spray before declaring mine to be a deep blue like the ocean, and then told me I was what she called an ‘indigo’ or ‘starchild,’ someone whose soul is from another planet. She called me an empath, and told me to hang on.

For years, I treated this as a sort of pseudo-religion, blaming my mood swings and depressive episodes on my “alien” soul, her declaration that I wasn’t made for this world. I didn’t believe her assertions, not in the sense that I truly thought I was from another planet, but I did like the idea that there was something to blame for my feelings of emptiness, the ache in my chest.


Can someone who understands astrology tell me what planet is making me feel hollow today?


When meeting my newest therapist for our first session, I was asked to give background information on my life. When I was hospitalized, what are my diagnoses, why therapy now, do I believe in a higher power and if so is that something I wanted to bring into the space? I’d become immune to these beginning inquiries, finding no problem telling a near stranger that I’ve tried to kill myself, but I stumbled at her last question. Did I believe in a higher power?

Definitely not god in any formal capacity, no, though in times of distress I do find it comforting to pray to the trees or some other higher something, with some kind of faith that someone is listening. Fate? Sort of, in a complicated way. Not in the everything-is-prewritten-and-fixed type of way. No, that frightens me–but I do believe that things will ultimately end up the way they are supposed to be. I’m just unclear about what ‘supposed to’ means, exactly.


Things I have interpreted, perhaps mistakenly, as fate: a lover’s mother having gone to the same high school I attended for three semesters, sharing mutual friends, a shooting star, a man I was sleeping with wearing the same belt my father often wears.

What I believed these instances to mean: we’re meant to be.


Are hungry ghosts just ghosts with Borderline Personality Disorder?


On our third date, my now-boyfriend and I lay in bed, naked together for the first time. It was the end of September but still felt like summer, heat crashing in through the open window. I was new to Southern California, smitten with the smog and, living alone for the first time, felt that even the most mundane of tasks had a sense of magic to them. My date had introduced me to his friends for the first time earlier in the night, most of whom went to a local university that I’d applied to attend back in high school, and I couldn’t help but think that I was looking into an alternate version of my reality, what the previous four years of mine could have been had I not chosen to stay in the Midwest. It felt more than serendipitous that the only MFA program I’d gotten into was a mere ten miles from the town.

“Hey,” I said, facing the ceiling. “Maybe I’m fated to be here.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, rolling over.

“Like, I applied to go to college here and almost went, and now it’s where I got in for grad school. Maybe it’s where the universe wants me to be,” I said, gleeful in my discovery.

“Courtney,” he said, laughing. “It isn’t fate if you’re the one applying. Maybe you just really wanted to be in Southern California.”

“Oh,” I said quietly, sinking into myself. I didn’t want to believe him. I wanted the entire state, this entire new life I was building, to be written in the stars.


When my anxiety was at its worst, my stomach felt like it was on fire. It felt like a pit of lava, constantly gurgling and bubbling, ready to spill over. I finally went to an acupuncturist when Western medicine had no means to relieve my symptoms. After the woman stuck me with needles, she proclaimed I had too much yin and not enough yang. In order to fix this, she instructed me to buy pills of crushed up honey bees, and let two dissolve under my tongue each morning.

I did so for months, and though my stomach problems didn’t resolve, they were sweet as honey.


Are my feelings of emptiness Borderline emptiness, or just average existential human dread emptiness?


I have tried to fill my cosmic emptiness with psychics, other people’s religion, my horoscope, rose quartz I bought at a bookstore called Crazy Wisdom, innumerable self-help Business Relationships, scented candles, teddy bears filled with smaller teddy bears, bad sex, a number of dying houseplants, poorly cut bangs, organic deodorant that makes me smell awful, self-harm, spontaneously adopted dogs, prescription medication, making 1000 paper cranes, online shopping, impulsive tattoos I learn to love like a weird birthmark or mole.

Even still, I hunger.


August is Ghost Month, a time where it’s believed that ghosts and spirits are able to enter the living realm and visit the living. To pay their respects, families provide offerings of food, burn incense and paper mache versions of clothes and other belongings, and release miniature boats in rivers to help guide lost ghosts. Through these offerings, they hope to absolve the dead of their sufferings.

I am both a hungry ghost and its family member, every month Ghost Month in my world. Each morning, like an offering, I take my antidepressant and antipsychotic with my coffee to try and tame my mood swings, anxiety, and crippling depression. Once a week, I go to therapy, and try to absolve my suffering. Every day, like releasing a boat into a river, I try to guide myself home.

About Courtney Cook

Courtney Cook is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, and a graduate of the University of Michigan. An essayist, poet, and illustrator, Courtney’s work has been seen in The Rumpus, Hobart, Maudlin House, and Entropy Magazine, and is upcoming in Split Lip Magazine. When not creating, Courtney enjoys napping with her senior dog, Francie.

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