Note: The featured image was done by Shawn Coss. Every October artists from around the world take part in a challenge called InkTober where they draw one ink image a day. This year Shawn decided to do all of his drawings on various mental illnesses. You can check out the rest here.
Update: In the past year my diagnoses have changed pretty drastically from Borderline PD and Avoidant PD to PTSD. While I feel like a completely different person now and do not exhibit the symptoms described in this post, the emotions at the time were very real and I’m leaving this post because people have told me how much it’s helped them. Thank you for all your support!
I have Borderline Personality Disorder. There, I said it. I’ve also developed excellent acting skills from years of hiding who I am. When my therapist said the word “borderline” I felt a knot in my stomach and the intense desire to lock myself in a room, say mean things to myself, and cry for hours. Any image I have seen of BPD is a psychotic, abusive woman, who lies and cheats and steals to get attention. But here I am – a fairly normally-functioning member of society – who doesn’t do those things. I have a Ph.D. for crying out loud. BPD people can’t do that……can they?
Well they can. They do. I did. So what is BPD? Women are diagnosed way more often than men. About three-quarters of those diagnosed are women. Estimates of prevalence in the general population is anywhere from 2-6%. That means, at the low end of the spectrum, at least a few people reading this post have BPD. It’s a personality disorder – which are notoriously difficult to treat and often mean lifelong symptoms. It’s characterized by an intense fear of abandonment, a shaky (or non-existent) self-image, a pattern of highly intense and unstable relationships, and self-destructive impulsiveness. But what does that look like? In vague terms, anyone could fit that description at some point in their lives. Which is precisely why doctors (those who are worth their degree at least) do not diagnose people under the age of 25 with BPD. If you did, 99% of teenagers would have that diagnosis. Well I’ll walk you through a typical day living with BPD.
Wake up. Get ready. While getting ready, throw horrible comments at myself about my appearance and my abilities. Worry incessantly about things to do that day. Find anything in my surroundings that doesn’t sit right (e.g. random piece of paper, stray bobby pin, bowl in the sink I didn’t put there) and begin the obsessively thinking about your partner leaving you (how those things are connected doesn’t matter – there doesn’t have to be any connection). Continue that obsessive thinking throughout the day. Let the potential scenarios become so wild that they consume you. Come up with sneaky ways to answer the questions you have about these random things in your environment. Constantly accuse and question your partner. After all, you’re sure they’re gonna leave one day anyway, right? Listen to the same responses you’ve heard a million times and remain unconvinced. Since I dabble in Avoidant Personality Disorder, too (because hey, why not?) I may also pretend to not like a friend or avoid them entirely because I think they are going to leave me as well. Pretend to forget about a lunch date because you’re certain the other person has forgotten or doesn’t want to go with you anyway. Get home and replay conversations in your head repeatedly, picking out a word or a phrase that you shouldn’t have said and punish yourself for it. Do this over and over and over. Day in and day out.
How does a person control this everyday and manage to be a successful scientist? Lots and lots of practice. After a while, you get used to the dance. You get used to wearing different masks in different situations based on which “you” you are with that person. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. For me, this thought pattern led to consistent anxiety attacks and a deep, persistent feeling of emptiness. That’s hard for people to comprehend if they’ve never felt it before – if you can relate to what I’m saying then you may have more reading to do.
Admitting that I had BPD was about the most empty I have ever felt. Mostly because of the stigma associated with the disorder. I thought “I’m going to be this way forever” and “I am broken”. It is like that feeling will be with you forever and you’ve forgotten what happy even feels like. But if you’re reading this and thinking “that sounds familiar” then the faster you get over the stigma the better. I will preface this next part by saying that my therapist has told me a dozen times that she cannot believe how quickly I’ve started the recovery process – it’s not always as easy of a turn around as I’ve had. That said, I work my ass off at everything – why would this be any different? But there is recovery and, spoiler alert, it’s effing amazing.
The first thing she told me to do was read The Four Agreements. If you’ve talked with me at all in the past few months I’ve probably told you to read this book. I’ve sorta become the Four Agreements version of a Bible thumper (I won’t show up to your door step…..okay maybe I will). But seriously, it will change your life. Hell, even if you don’t have BPD or any other personality disorder – still read this book. It’s about personalization (i.e. thinking everyone hates me, doesn’t want to be around me) and catastrophizing (i.e. my partner didn’t say ‘I love you’ with the same gusto as normal, therefore he must be packing his bags and looking for an apartment in New Brunswick). And regardless of your relationship with those feelings, I still think it’s a beautiful book for everyone to read. Multiple times. Seriously. Go read it.
The next thing I had to do was grieve. This part might make less sense but bear with me. I began replaying things from my life that left me feeling empty. Relationships I wanted to be different. Unmet expectations I had from family members that never satisfied my need for a deep connection. Past abuses I never quite let go. Horrible things I had said and done to people I loved. It was a bit like going through AA (I know that because, as I mentioned before, I have a string of intense and unstable relationships, one of which was with a card-carrying member who took me to meetings with him). I was making amends. That meant accepting people for who they are. Recognizing that their slights against me were about themselves and not me. And letting go of all these things I’d been holding onto. This is called ambiguous loss and it took weeks to feel whole again (for the first time?) I’m not sure I’ll ever be done fully processing everything I need to. Every time one thing passes, another comes up. But that letting go has removed a nasty filter through which I had been passing every interaction I ever had.
So, long story short, it’s not a dirty word. BPD isn’t a life-ending thing. You’ve already been dealing with this for years, what is an acronym going to change about that? You just go from someone out of control to someone in control. You go from feeling empty to finding whole-ness. Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Trust me, it’s way easier to continue the victim role, but it’s way more satisfying to just be.