People...it’s time I came out of the closet. There’s a secret I’ve been living with for over a year now and it has been weighing heavily on my chest. I wrote about my experience of being admitted to a psych ward and I mentioned that while there I got diagnosed with one of the most despised disorders available. To anyone with any mental health awareness, you probably immediately knew what that was. But for everyone else, let me end the suspense...
I have Borderline Personality Disorder. Announcing this to people always reminds me of a scene in Justice League Unlimited. Lex Luthor and Wally West (A.K.A The Flash) switch brains, so Lex is in Flash’s body. He decides that since he’s in the body of one of the members of the Justice League, he’ll find out the guy’s secret identity. So he goes to the bathroom, pulls down Flash’s hood, stares in the mirror and goes..."I have no idea who this is."
Suffice to say, for many of you reading this, this isn’t an interesting revelation. So, let’s take a moment to look at what exactly BPD is so that you’ve got some context if you find yourself caring about someone with it.
There’s a list of 9 symptoms that relate to Borderline Personality Disorder. In order to be diagnosed you need to exhibit 5 of them, and have experienced them for a long period of time. In case you’re curious the nine rings for the world of men are named:
- Fear of abandonment.
- Unstable relationships.
- Unclear or unstable self-image.
- Impulsive, self-destructive behaviors.
- Extreme emotional swings.
- Chronic feelings of emptiness.
- Explosive anger.
- Feeling suspicious or out of touch with reality.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re looking at that list and thinking “Well fuck, that’s basically a list of things that are incompatible with ever being loved.” Because who wants to love someone with all that baggage right? Well, let me ask you a different question. How would you feel about dating someone with PTSD? The reason I ask is because there’s a lot of debate about whether or not BPD should be re-classified as “Complex PTSD”.
PTSD and BPD often develop in people who have had similar experiences. Both come about as a result of experiencing some form of trauma, and both leave the patient struggling to regulate their emotions. Usually Borderline patients experience childhood trauma, while PTSD patients are more likely to have experienced trauma after adolescence.
In fact, history of adverse childhood experiences is so common in people diagnosed with BPD that in a study about childhood trauma in cases of BPD, it was found that 81 percent of subjects had childhood abuse in their past — 71 percent reported physical abuse, 68 percent sexual abuse and 62 percent had witnessed severe domestic violence.
A lot of the difference between PTSD and BPD comes down to the way we characterise them. Borderline is often seen as manipulative behaviour, emotional outbursts, fear of abandonment and a constant need for reassurance.
PTSD is often characterised by traumatic flashbacks, emotional numbness and increased likelihood of irritability and anger issues.
I say characterised because this is how we collectively think of these disorders, but not necessarily how they manifest. What I personally find interesting though is that women are waaaay more likely to be diagnosed with BPD. It’s curious to note that the one that’s known as being emotionally unstable and a bit hysterical seems to be universally diagnosed in women, but the one that’s about emotionally shutting down and getting angry seems to be attributed mainly to men. I wonder what that’s about?
So how and why are people with BPD like this? Remember that childhood trauma thing? Well it kind of has a big impact on people. When you’re a kid growing up in an environment that doesn’t meet certain emotional and physical needs, you learn to resort to more indirect methods of getting what you need to survive. As an example; if you have a parent who controls what or how much you eat, you might learn to manipulate other adults into feeding you by getting invited to friend’s houses for dinner a lot.
Unfortunately, you don’t get to unlearn this shit when you find yourself as an adult and free from that environment. I mean, for a start no one has taught you that the world is different to your abusive environment. You still believe the whole world will keep treating you the way you’re used to, so you keep your coping mechanisms. The problem is it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy since people with BPD behaviours tend to push away people they love, thus ending up confirming what they believe; that everyone will abandon them.
When I was diagnosed with BPD the nurse who took me back to my room in the psych ward told me not to advise any of the other staff about the diagnosis because they would “treat me differently.” I actually had trouble finding a psychiatrist after I was released, because many of them started seeing me as a “difficult patient”, despite the fact that I was the same person I’d always been and had never had a problem finding a therapist before. In mental health circles Borderline tends to have the same kind of reputation as Crystal Meth; you just don’t fuck around with it.
At this point you might be asking yourself why it has such a bad name. Like, that list of symptoms doesn’t sound great, but as long as you’re not dating someone with it, it shouldn’t be too bad right?
An online mental health resource called The Mighty talked to people with BPD and asked them what behaviours they display that most commonly get mistaken for manipulation.
Needing Constant Reassurance or Validation
“I ask for reassurance because I worry I’m miscommunicating or misinterpreting someone. But I’ve found some people think I do it to force them to say something I want to hear. Which really isn’t the case at all! I just don’t have the social skills to know if my communication is effective and often am consumed with anxiety about thoughts and judgments being made.” — Kirsty D.
“I used to get so depressed after a breakup I would become suicidal, so people thought I was just trying to keep them from leaving by threatening suicide. In reality, I’m so afraid of abandonment that I’d rather die than feel alone again. I know this can seem manipulative and it’s no way to deal with a breakup, so I now handle these things in healthier ways.” — Heather D.
Having Intense Emotional Reactions
“Crying. I feel things immensely so when I’m hurting, it shows. I’ve had people tell me I’m ‘just trying to get attention’ or ‘I want people to ask me what’s wrong so I can get sympathy.’ In all reality, I hate that I can so easily cry in front of people because I don’t want them to ask.” — Antasia H.
Being ‘Too Clingy’
“I always become too clingy around my ‘favorite person.’ Then when I feel like they’re about to leave me, I do it first so I can avoid getting my feelings hurt.” — Glory P.
Being ‘Too Distant’
“Pulling people closer then pushing them away then pulling them close again. It is an endless cycle of wanting to be loved but being absolutely terrified that a person will abandon you.” — Megan K.
I can only tell you what Borderline is like for me. I don’t have all the symptoms, and I most likely don’t have the same ones as that friend of a friend you have who got diagnosed. But for me, Borderline is like being in one of those films where you can’t tell if you can trust the narrator or not. You know those movies where the main character may or may not be crazy/imagining people that aren’t there and you kind of spend the whole movie trying to figure out what’s real and what’s inside their head? It’s like that; you’re constantly paranoid about everything you think and feel and whether it’s real or not. Because on good days your emotions and mood are stable, but on bad days, it’s like someone stripped the insulation off the wires that carry your emotions around. As soon as something touches them they go off like a live wire through your brain and you find yourself reacting emotionally to things before you’ve even logically registered what they are.
I message a friend. Facebook Messenger tells me they’ve seen the message, but they haven’t replied. Some people might get anxiety from this; they might spend time wondering whether they’ve upset that person and stewing on it until they get a reply. But for Borderline this is a perfect opportunity to start connecting some dots. You see, not only did they see the message and not reply, but the last three times we spoke it was me who initiated contact. Also, the last time we caught up in person they seemed really distracted and like they’d rather be somewhere else. I look them up on social media and see that they’ve posted recently, so obviously they’re not too busy to be trying to get all the likes, but they’re too busy to message me. Now that I think about it, it’s always been a pretty one sided friendship. Like, it always feels like I’m the one initiating social stuff. You know what, this is bullshit, I feel like I’m always doing the emotional labour with this person and they don’t ever seem to be putting in as much effort as I do. I think it’s time to end this friendship. I might’ve known them for over a decade, but you know what, it’s better if I start to pull away now because if I don’t they’re only going to end up fucking me over in a bigger way somewhere down the line. These thoughts occur in the space of about five minutes. Then they reply. “Sorry! I was just driving and couldn’t reply, how are you?! I’ve missed you!”
Borderline means constantly being on high alert for any sign that the people you’re engaging with don’t want to be there. Because somewhere inside you, there’s a fucking persuasive voice telling you that they don’t. You watch facial expressions for signs that their eyes are glazing over, that they’re not watching your face when you talk, to see if their feet are pointing away from you. You’re constantly scanning for evidence that you’re not wanted. You keep track of how often you’re initiating the conversation, vs how often they are, often finding yourself desperately wanting to reach out to them but not being able to because you’re so paranoid about coming across as needy and clingy.
Sometimes you get lucky and you have friends you can reach out to and say “Hey...I’m feeling a bit paranoid...are we okay?” And you’ll have a friend or a partner reply and provide the validation and reassurance that you need. But realistically everyone has their own lives and you can’t rely on external validation to help you cope. After all, there’s nothing worse than sending an “Are we okay” and not getting a reply for 2 days because that person was overseas or out of range. Since you can’t constantly ask for reassurance, and because you’re aware that you don’t want to be seen as needy or clingy you start to find fucked up ways around it. You set tests.
Instead of saying “Hey, I feel like I’m often the one who is organising our catch ups” you just stop organising them and wait to see if the other person ever does, and when they don’t (because some people are just kind of shit at initiating that stuff) you take it as evidence that they secretly don’t want to be friends with you and you start distancing yourself from them.
Instead of clarifying and saying “Hey, I feel like you’re not making much time for me” you let the narrative tell you that they’re pulling away because you never mattered to them, so you stop talking to them and start convincing yourself that you’re better off without them in your life.
The narrator in your head is giving you a huge amount of evidence that these people don’t care, and then it uses existing patterns of behaviour to back it up. If you know your friend is bad at initiating contact, guess what’s going to happen when you step back and wait for them to make the first move? You’re going to prove that they won’t initiate contact, but you’ve managed to set it up so that this also proves they don’t care about you. It’s confirmation bias at its absolute worst.
Borderline involves learning to hate yourself more than anyone else ever can, because that way no one else can hurt you. It’s a kind of shield against the world. It means you never really believe anyone when they say nice things about you (but being able to fake it well enough to not make anyone feel awkward). In fact the more compassion someone shows you, the more likely you are to want to punish yourself. Say you fucked up your partner’s night by having an episode, so they take you home early. You won’t be grateful that they understand you, and that they’re supporting you, you’ll end up emotionally flogging yourself for ruining their night (and their entire life) because you know you don’t deserve someone who is this kind to you.
With Borderline you will punish yourself constantly. For example, I’ve managed to completely erase my body’s ability to register the feeling of hunger, because I starve myself so often to punish myself for being fat (and therefore terrible). I do a lot of small things to punish myself, most of them are what I call emotional self harm. You’re probably familiar with this one if you’ve ever Facebook stalked an ex to see how happy they are now that you’re broken up, (or how good looking their new partner is). The only difference is I do it with people I haven’t broken up with, just stalking friends on social media to remind myself that everyone is happier when I’m not around.
You think that’s bad? It gets worse. My Borderline impacts who I allow myself to be attracted to. If I feel that someone is too conventionally attractive or cool, I literally can’t allow myself to feel attraction for them because I know I’m not good enough to be allowed to have those feelings. I’ve never been able to have a sexual fantasy about a celebrity or a crush because my imagination isn’t good enough to picture a world in which they would ever want to have sex with me. My sex fantasies used to exclusively involve “forced to fuck” scenarios because if I didn’t start out by apologising to the person I was having sex with, it just seemed too far fetched for me to be able to engage my suspension of disbelief.
I should stop at this point and clarify something. I’m not telling you all of this so that you realise what an unhinged weirdo I am. I’m telling you this to give you context for the behaviours that Borderline causes. Because none of it makes much sense if you don’t first understand the thought patterns that cause it. I’m lucky in that my Borderline is “quiet” so the anger, the hatred, the rage; it’s all turned inwards on myself. Other people aren’t so lucky and it all flows out towards the people they care about, which is where the stigma of BPD being tied to abusive partners comes from.
Some BPD people will lash out at the people they love for hurting them (or their narrative telling them they’ve been hurt, regardless of whether it actually happened). People with quiet BPD tend to do it through distancing themselves; the more they care about someone the more they overthink their behaviour and find proof that they’re hated. For me I start to just pull away, because I know no one will chase me, because no one actually cares about me (because I’m the worst, obvs). Either way though, the result is the same; if you have BPD, you end up isolating yourself from the people you care about. Because it’s only the people you care about that can hurt you by abandoning you.
Ultimately Borderline is a learned set of behaviours that have come about as a result of needing to deal with trauma. They’re coping mechanisms that have been established as a result of being hurt too many times. If you love or care about someone with Borderline be prepared to justify why you care about them, because they genuinely can't understand why you would. And wherever possible, try not make promises or offers to them that you can't back up. It might seem like a little thing to you, but it's a sure fire way to destroy the trust of someone who has a long history of being let down by the people they love.
Realistically I could tell you a million things you could do to help a person with Borderline in your life, but if I'm being honest the only thing that’s going to make any difference for them is getting professional help. Borderline isn’t like depression, or anxiety; it’s not a chemical imbalance. If you have BPD, you’re doing things you have taught yourself to do. Sometimes these things are abusive, manipulative, or simply unstable as fuck, but they disrupt the lives of people around you. The only way to stop them is to unlearn them, slowly unpacking each one and dealing with them in turn. There’s no drug you can take for BPD, just years of therapy and working on yourself. It’s an isolating experience, knowing that you’re the only person who can fix yourself, especially when the whole problem is that you don’t think you deserve to be happy or well.
I’ve had mental health issues all my life, and I’ve been working on them for just as long. I see mental health issues as being very similar to having a chronic illness. It’s not someone’s fault that they have diabetes, but if they’re not monitoring their blood sugar, not exercising and not taking insulin, then it’s reasonable to be pissed with them when they end up in hospital. It’s not my fault that I have Borderline, but I have a duty to the people I love; if I want them in my life then I need to own my shit. I need to be better than the disorder and do my best to work on my issues. And yes, I’ll fuck up along the way, and that’s when I’m grateful for the people who support me. But if I’m not actively trying to get better then I’m just asking for a lifetime of tolerance for problematic behaviours. Mental illness isn’t an excuse for shitty behaviour, it needs to be managed just as much as physical illness. But if you know someone with BPD, a little empathy and understanding will always help that along.
That is all.
You may go now.