If you ask the average person on the street to reel off the symptoms of depression, chances are they could. Ask the same person what Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is and my guess is the answer would fall into one of three categories:
- Never heard of it.
- Is that when you have multiple personalities?
- Oh my god, that’s what crazy people have.
I admit I fell into all three categories when I was diagnosed with BPD in 2016.
I wasn’t “doing” life successfully. Nothing made sense to me; I was frustrated by continual relationship breakdowns, annoyed by my hypersensitivity, confused about who I was and sick of adjusting to people and places. Oh, and I was also in the throes of love addiction (which I was seeking help for).
It was time to find my millionth psychologist.
I’d always put my drama-filled life down to some childhood experience mixed in with clinical depression and a pinch of bad life choices to top it off. But there was always that underlying niggling feeling that something else wasn’t right.
Deep down my head resembled a mass of squiggly lines with a smiley face etched on, though I could also switch quickly and appear perfectly fine.
It didn’t take too many sessions for my new therapist to suggest I was suffering from BPD.
“WTF is that?” I thought. It didn’t sound good. Then I remembered Angelina Jolie in that movie “Girl, Interrupted.” Then I remembered Jolie also carried the blood of her then-husband in vials around her neck.
“Uh, if I’m not crazy already, I’m heading that way,” I thought.
What did the diagnosis mean for me? If I automatically jumped to the “crazy” label, how many others would jump to this conclusion? As BPD isn’t openly talked about, why wouldn’t people hear “personality disorder” and think I was two seconds away from smashing their car up with a baseball bat or killing their beloved pet?
After the shock had worn off, a strange wave of relief flooded through my body. Most people are anti labels but I welcome them as they give me validation.
This clarified what I knew in my gut, that something wasn’t quite right. Now I could start the process of recovery and management – finally.
Borderline Personality Disorder is described by SANE, a government-run mental health advocacy group in Australia, as a mental illness where the “people affected have difficulty managing their emotions and impulses, relating to people and maintaining a stable self-image”.
In essence, it’s the inability to regulate emotions appropriately.
It is estimated that around 1.6 percent of Americans will experience this disorder at some point in their life, according to Psychology Today, which may sound small but that’s just over five million people. So why is it whispered about behind closed doors?
BPD drips with stigma because of misconceptions, misrepresentations and the lack of knowledge around the disorder. Sufferers can be seen as difficult to treat, difficult to manage and hard to be around which all re-enforces our shame so we suffer in silence and we don’t get help.
The criteria for a proper diagnosis are very specific yet it’s heavily misdiagnosed because symptoms can fall into so many other mental health areas.
There is a HUGE spectrum when it comes to BPD as well. I know of a number of people who suffer from this disorder and it’s interesting to see how we all experience symptoms differently and to varying degrees. I probably sit in the middle tipping back and forth on the severity scale, depending on the situation and my triggers.
My hope is that BPD gets the recognition that depression has fought so hard to have. It’s a distressing mental health issue that could affect anyone. It doesn’t discriminate — there’s no one size fits all model.
Here are some of the crucial facets of BPD and areas I personally struggle with daily.
- A skewed sense of self: Borderline sufferers lack a core sense of self. I’ve always compared myself to everyone as a benchmark of who I should be. My negative self-image along with not knowing the “real” me means it’s incredibly easy to adapt to different surroundings. I’m a chameleon when it comes to role play.
- Maintaining personal relationships: Even eight years old, I remember intensely strained female relationships, where the fear of being rejected was horrendous. Today I still struggle with boundaries, basing my worth on how I’m treated and the inability to handle any form of negative interaction. One rejection tinged comment from a friend can see me spiral into a depressive episode which if I don’t get a handle on can turn into disassociation, or “splitting.”
- Splitting: Splitting is a coping mechanism for a sufferer when something’s occurred to rock our confidence or stability. Black and white thinking is normal for a BPD sufferer when facing an uncomfortable situation; there is no grey. One day someone can be “all good,” the next they’ve been sent packing off their pedestal and become “all bad” all thanks to something small that has triggered the BPD sufferer’s abandonment issues.
- Engulfment and abandonment: The title of the BPD book, “I hate you don’t leave me” says it all. It’s no wonder BPD is often confused with Bipolar; we can love, hate, need, and push away in a manner of seconds. I can crave closeness but get consumed with it at the same time. I might tend to push away but the slight sniff of you distancing yourself from me is terrifying. The fear of that abandonment is so intense; it often leads to manipulative behaviors to bring a person closer again.
- Self-destructive behaviors: Because loneliness is a huge issue, we are prone to do things to ignite the fire. Any risky behaviors from drug taking, inappropriate sexual conduct or cutting are high on the to-do list, anything to feel something and get excited by life.
- Intense emotions and anger: Shame is a daily emotion for me but it’s amplified when it comes to my anger. Most people wouldn’t think of me as an angry person but when I’m in a state, (usually with my partner), I feel out of control and out of my body. I act like a crazy person, unable to regulate the words spilling out of me which are often painful, mean and above all shameful. Panic attacks are not uncommon. The next day comes the shame hangover, where the self-loathing begins again which in turn leads to the fear of being left, yet again. It’s a never-ending cycle of torment, with your brain the torturer.
One of the hardest things about this condition is always questioning my reality. I wonder if a reaction is my BPD talking or the real me. Where do I begin and end? But does it matter?
I get that BPD may sound like an excuse for bad behavior. It may seem like we can control some of our impulses but it’s like saying to someone with depression “just snap out of it.”
If only I could when I’m in it. I hate that it’s so self-indulgent, narcissistic and makes others feel like they are constantly walking on eggshells.
A gold star of bravery goes to any loved one who sticks by someone with BPD; it’s not easy for either party.
SANE and other organizations put a strong emphasis on help for family and friends as it can be very distressing for those around us. Understanding it and finding ways to communicate with us is imperative.
Personally, consistency is a trait that eases many of my fears and worries.
The good news about this illness is there is help. Once diagnosed there are a multitude of options to help relieve and manage symptoms, one being Dialectal Behavioural Therapy or DBT.
For now, I’m coping with regular psychology sessions and focusing on finding new improved ways to cope with uneasy feelings and situations.
I won’t let BPD define me. I won’t let depression define me. They are just two parts of me and I have many more.