This made me pause, because I come from an even more stable and middle-class background than Buffy. And yet, there's always something about Faith I've found very relatable. What is it?
The answer, I think, is mental illness.
Is Faith mentally ill? I don't think I've ever seen fandom ask that question. This despite the fact that characters describe her as such. As early as Faith, Hope, and Trick, Buffy says that Faith is "not playing with a full deck". "She has almost no deck," Buffy elaborates. "She has a three."
When defending Faith to Willow in Doppelgangland, Buffy says, "I know Faith's not gonna be on the cover of Sanity Fair". In Graduation Day 1, when Giles says Faith has Buffy at a disadvantage, Buffy retorts, "Cause I'm not crazy or cause I don't kill people?" Giles replies that he meant both. In This Year's Girl, Faith refers to herself as a "crazy chick" (note though that Faith is imagining herself from Buffy's perspective).
So much for casual slurs. More interesting is Five By Five, when Angels tells Wesley and Cordelia that Giles "described [Faith's] mental state as borderline psychotic." Giles is not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and he had hardly interacted with post-coma Faith enough to make any kind of diagnosis. Nonetheless, his assessment sounds more thoughtful than the previous examples of characters casually throwing around the word "crazy". And it raises the question: Are all these references to Faith being "crazy" just pejoratives, or is Faith actually mentally ill?
I don't think Faith is psychotic. There's no indication that she has hallucinations or delusions. But a person can be mentally ill without having psychosis. I would say that it is not explicit canon that Faith has a mental illness, but I think it's a reasonable interpretation of canon.
As for what mental illness, I couldn't tell you. Borderline Personality Disorder is my first thought, but I'm not familiar enough with BPD to say with certainty. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of labels. They are helpful for finding appropriate treatment (in theory) and communicating in brief to people what is going on with you (also in theory). But I think they are limited when used to describe a person or understand what goes on in their head. Many people with mental illness have the experience of having different labels applied to them at different points in their lives, as doctors change their minds about what is wrong with them and the labels themselves evolve in meaning. Yet their problems and the way they experience the world do not change.
So for the rest of this post, I'm going to talk about "mental illness" in general, and not any specific label.
Regardless of whether one considers Faith to be canonically mentally ill, there is a lot about her personality and experiences that resonate with someone who is mentally ill. In this post, I'm going to look at Faith through lens of mental illness, and viewing her behavior as that of someone who is struggling with a mental illness.
I would like to emphasize that although I'm interpreting Faith through the lens of mental illness, there are other explanations for her actions. Faith has a lot on her plate. She was raised dirt poor by a single, alcoholic mother who was neglectful and abusive. She may have been raped before she was called. Her first watcher was killed in so horrifying a manner that Faith didn't want to describe it to Buffy. And that's before she even arrives in Sunnydale. In my interpretation of Faith, her trauma both contributed to her mental illness and concealed it - after all, any personality problems could be blamed on her upbringing. The line between nature and nurture when it comes to mental illness is a complex one, and even experts don't really understand it. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to prioritize the explanation of mental illness in areas of ambiguity. This is partly since the post isn't just about Faith herself possibly being mentally ill, but how Faith's experiences, regardless of cause, can be relatable to someone who is mentally ill. However, other factors besides mental illness could explain Faith's problems and personality.
Onward to the analysis.
In Enemies, Faith ties Buffy up and lays out her problems with the other slayer. "You know, I come to Sunnydale. I'm the Slayer. I do my job kicking ass better than anyone. What do I hear about everywhere I go? Buffy. So I slay, I behave, I do the good little girl routine. And who's everybody thank? Buffy. "
I once saw a fan suggest that had Buffy never returned to Sunnydale after S2, Faith would have had the same resentment towards her. The fan argued that Buffy's absence would mean that the Scoobies would put Buffy on a pedestal, and Faith would be unable to compete. I disagree - not about the Scoobies putting her on a pedestal. But that Faith's reaction to competing with a gone Buffy would similar to her reaction to competing with a present Buffy.
Faith's issue in this rant in Enemies is not simply that she is compared to Buffy and found wanting. It's that she's compared to Buffy and found wanting, and she has no idea why. There is no tangible reason for Buffy succeeding while Faith fails, except Faith's less privileged background and circumstances, which only go so far in explaining the difference. Faith is left with two possible conclusions: Either the world's out to get her, or she's just a loser.
Because mental illness is intangible, some mentally ill people (especially young people who may not yet have been diagnosed) go through life struggling to keep with others, and unable to figure out what is wrong with them. They have no narrative or explanation for why or how they are different from the people around them, and often have to craft their own (which can be complicated by a shaky grasp on reality). A number of high-school aged school shooters were boys from intact, successful middle-class families in successful, middle-class communities with a successful older sibling or two - and they themselves had a serious undiagnosed mental illness. They had no explanation for why they were struggling when they had every reason to succeed. Despite her working-class upbringing, Faith has always reminded me a bit of those boys in her competition with Buffy. By all logic, she should be able to keep up. But she can't.
I've heard many people say that if you see someone who makes life look easy, you should just remember how much of a struggle life probably really is for them. I suppose the people who say this find it comforting. I don't. I think it dismisses and renders invisible the huge amount of work mentally ill people (of all degrees of functioning) do on a day-to-day basis - great effort spent to accomplish the sort of basic achievements that *are* easy to the people who make life "look easy". Everyone has problems. That doesn't mean that all problems are created equally, or that even that similarly bad problems are remotely the same.
I once read a blog kept by a woman who had survived severe childhood abuse. I'm paraphrasing because I can't remember how to find the blog, but she said something really resonated with me: "Our victories look like failures to the outside world."
I think that is a large part of Faith's problem. She can't keep up, and she doesn't know why. She can tell herself that the world is out to screw her, but the only explanation that really makes sense is that she's just a loser.
See, for example, her self-projecting interpretation of Joyce's situation in This Year's Girl: "You think you matter, you think you're a part of something and you get dumped. It's like the whole world is moving and you're stuck. It's like those animals in the tar pits. It's like you just keep sinking a little deeper everyday and no-one even sees."
In Enemies, Faith lists the privileges Buffy has that she does not. "You get the Watcher. You get the mom. You get the little Scooby gang. What do I get? Jack squat." The fact that Buffy has a watcher and mom while Faith is on her own is something that Faith has absolutely no control over. But the fact that Buffy has friends while Faith does not is different.
There's a lot of debate in fandom about whether the Scoobies excluded Faith, and are to blame for her inability to integrate with them. With the exception of Giles, who was responsible for Faith and neglected her, I say the Scoobies were not to blame. The only example of exclusion I can come up with is the meeting in Revelations, which I believe was organized by Giles. The Scoobies are pretty delighted with Faith in her first episode. In The Wish we have Xander asking after Faith, and Buffy stating that she's tried repeatedly to reach Faith and failed. Willow then suggests they try to socialize more with Faith. In Consequences, Xander is the one who assumes he and Faith have a connection while she doesn't see it that way. Our knowledge of the Scooby + Faith dynamics is limited only to what we see, which is admittedly pretty limited, but based on what we see, Faith seems to be the one pulling away from the Scoobies. Not them rejecting her.
But I think the entire argument about the Scoobies' treatment of Faith somewhat misses the point. Even if the Scoobies were rejecting Faith, they aren't the only people in world, or even in Sunnydale. I suspect that Faith sometimes found it difficult to be friends with high school students who lived at home while she was a drop-out struggling to get by in her own apartment. But if that was the problem, surely Faith could have made friends with people in her world, people who had less money and stability. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that Faith made any connections outside the Scooby gang prior to offering her services to the mayor.
There are many possible explanations for this, but I'm going to go with the mental illness metaphor here.
Mental illness can make it difficult to make friends. Going out into the world, interacting with people, putting on a face of sanity, is exhausting. I've frequently had this dismissed when I try to explain it to more mentally stable people. Everyone puts on a face when they're trying to make friends. But there's a difference between a reasonably sane person hiding their weirder traits and less desirable behaviors until they have a closer emotional connection to someone, and a mentally ill trying to disguise their very ways of thinking and viewing the world. The latter is both more exhausting, and less rewarding. The mentally ill person works harder, is more likely to slip up, and even if they don't slip up: they have a greater chance of being rejected anyway when the people they become friends with start to see their true self.
We see the difficulties of this with Faith in Faith, Hope & Trick. Faith's face is at first very effective - she wins over all the Scoobies (including Giles) save Buffy. She also impresses Scott Hope. And Joyce. But in a tense situation, in the midst of a fight with vampires, Faith's mask drops. She starts acting insane, beating the crap out of a vampire instead of staking him and going to help Buffy, screaming that her dead mother hits harder than that. In a way, Faith is lucky. Buffy responds to this by reaching out to her, accepting her, and helping her. But it's at this point that a condescension enters Buffy's interactions with Faith that never goes away. We see in Enemies that Faith has a problem with this: "Why [should I listen to you]? So you can impart some special Buffy wisdom, that it? Do you think you're better than me?"
I argue that the stress of concealing the extent of her mental health problems is part of why Faith withdraws from the Scoobies. She doesn't have faith (ha!) that they will accept and respect her if they see her true self (an insecurity everyone has, but one that's a lot more valid and more complicated if you have serious mental health problems), and her face is just too exhausting to maintain on a regular basis. Even when she does manage to maintain her face, her ability to get close to the Scoobies is limited by other factors. As previously mentioned, they live very different lives to her. In addition, Faith is the only non-core Scooby who is not a love interest of a core Scooby. Her connection to the gang is through Buffy, but Angel is in the picture and is Buffy's priority (this, I think, is a major element of Faith's resentment of Buffy's relationship with Angel…one wonders what Faith's arc would have looked like had Angel never returned). Hanging out with the Scoobies is a lot of work with minimal pay-off. So Faith avoids them - but avoids everyone else, too, because maintaining her face is just so much work.
So, in final, I leave you with a quote from Faith that makes her sound to me like a person with mental illness: "You have no idea what it's like on the other side! Where nothing's in control, nothing makes sense! There is just pain and hate and nothing you do means anything."