Borderline Personality Disorder and Five Foundations for Recovery
What Recovery feels like, and how I set about creating a life worth living.
The Buddha said: ‘The lotus flower is born and grown up on water, yet it is not soiled by water. It remains fragrant and delightful.’ Not that I’m comparing myself to Buddha or anything; it’s just that a person who has reached recovery, is also like a lotus flower — dwelling in the world but above it. Untouched by the mud of reality.
Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder is not only possible, it’s likely. In fact eminent Harvard psychiatrist John Gunderson, concludes over 10 year period, 91% of individuals diagnosed with the condition will get better.
But what is recovery? It’s a word bandied about so frequently to have lost all meaning. As someone who’s risen above fifteen years of emotional instability, in my opinion recovery is the ability to sit serene above the floodwaters of life undamaged. These are my five foundations for getting better
1/ Let go of your story
How long are you going to carry the burden of the past? Like Sisyphus condemned to roll the stone up the hill for eternity — a punishment for cheating death — we all have watch the same stone roll back down the other side. This goes on for eternity, only heres the catch. The heavy stone of childhood is you, you’re the stone, crumbling to dust as you keep rolling forward. Relinquish the burden, let go of the trauma, and climb the hill without extra baggage.
So many bad things have happened to me. In thirty-two years I’ve experienced enough pain to last a dozen lifetimes. I’ve been skewered, cut and punctured at the hands of others, and yet at some point the “licking of wounds” became pathological. Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer once said ‘Man does love suffering very much sometimes. He loves it passionately. That is an undeniable fact.’ At some point I became “in love” with suffering. Why? Because suffering was my story, and my story was all I had. This story replete with angels and demons, put me as an embattled hero, fighting for justice. Like the hero of Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov I wanted revenge on those who hurt me, and while I didn’t envision putting an axe in the head of any landlady, I came perilously close to the Criminal Justice System.
I had every right to smash the world, considering how it had smashed me. And yet what did it matter? My story is just a single tear drop in a wide sea of suffering, and therefore I should let it dissolve naturally. Those of us who have been hurt, have to come to terms with the fact we will never get true justice. How could we? No punishment or compensation would ever be enough. No one knows how it felt. Therefore it’s better to let it go — for you as much as anyone else. The fixation on the past, becomes an intrusion on the present. Throw it all away, and seek a brighter future.
“let it go” “let bygones be bygones” “Forgive and forget” I used to balk at such expressions. In fact they’d elicit in me a feeling of utter contempt! I knew the people who uttered such blandities really had no idea what they were talking about. Unless you’ve directly experienced trauma, you’ll never quite know the abyss you’ll be forced to confront. The existential terror of feeling like the world has been pulled up from under you. So when I say let go of your story, I mean something more radical. You have to let the old life die in order to have a new one. Don’t let your story become your identity. You are more than this. As Carl Jung said: ‘I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.’
2/ Accept Limitations
In May 2018, surgeons at University College London Hospital fitted me with a permanent colostomy! An operation I begrudging accepted as necessary, because for the last decade, I’ve suffered a crippling bowel condition which has decimated my life. As I lay in the hospital bed, connected to saline drips, and wires, my large intestine literally pulled out of my abandon and stitched like a sleeve cuff to my stomach, I was thinking: Why me? Isn’t it enough that I have recovered from Borderline Personality Disorder, why did this have to happen as well? I could only reply why not me? Life is full of bizarre meaningless tragedies, and some people seem especially unlucky. While I knew that intellectually it didn’t mitigate the emotional pain I felt when I looked down at my insides now sticking out of me. Nevertheless I didn’t relapse; a testament to how much I’ve grown in stature I was able face injury down with equanimity. Eventually I simply had to let go of the question. We all have to submit eventually, so it’s better to submit gracefully, than kicking and screaming, which causes more suffering.
Since surgery, life has certainly become more problematic. There’s certain things I have trouble with: Travelling abroad, public transport, working 9–5 in an office. What choice have I got but to accept this “new normal” as a reality I neither wanted or expected, but which nevertheless I have to bear. Some of my difficulties were already present from the beginning. Having BPD means even in recovery, too much socialising exhausts me. I feel engulfed, and half-savage from all the false-smiles and forced etiqutte of a polite conversation. Meanwhile working in an office makes me feel trapped. Perhaps owing to my school days, where I literally felt imprisoned by bullies as soon as I entered the classroom, I loathe systems and heirachies, and seek my escape. Some on the other hand were new like travelling abroad — I realised many countries won’t have facilities to deal with my condition. Either way, I’ve had to accept it. Life requires more maintenance but I’m learning all the time.
My recommendation for recovery is accept your limitations. Perhaps after years of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or Self-Help you’ve convinced yourself you have to be better, and be better. I’m here to tell you, that you are ok just as you are right now. Ask yourself what do you really want? For years I laboured under the illusion that I needed to have a good job, a nice pay cheque, a wide circle of friends. However, when I achieved those things, I felt absolutely awful. In 2017, I had a reaonsably high paying job, but crashed out after six months. Money becomes pretty useless when the work makes you feel like you want to jump off a bridge. Meanwhile a wide circle of friends is irrelevant if you don’t want to see anyone. I realised all those things I thought that I wanted didn’t make me happy. I read a quote by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer which is my new creed.
A man must remain true to himself and run the course drawn by his daemon. He will hesitate, deviate, turn back, and prepare for himself repentance and pain. All this because, in great things, and small he sees before him as much as is possible and attainable. Yet does not know what part of all this is alone suitable and feasible for him. Therefore he will envy many on account of a position and circumstances which yet are only suitable to their character not his. Every man is happy only in an atmosphere suitable to him.
You will only be happy in an atmosphere suitable to you. Ask yourself what you really want, accept limitations if they are present, and then strive to maximise your potential.
3/ Always find something to be grateful for.
I think psychiatrists should start also looking at Borderline Environments,rather than foisting labels on damaged people. There are environments which are so bad, they cause a person to get BPD! I grew up in one, within very dysfunctional family, my childhood was miserable. My parents were not ready to be parents. Their emotional and physical violence, toward me was unbearable. The shouts, insults, and threats of physical punishment, hurt me. As a result I developed complex-post traumatic stress disorder. As of today, I still feel angry about it. There were times when I swore I’d never forgive my parents for such wilful blindness. In fact I’d find a way to punish them. I thought if they can only see me as an antisocial BPD monster, then that’s exactly how I’m going to act. Of course it didn’t work, they didn’t understand the irony, and so I wasn’t able to prove anything. They remained oblivious. Besides which, even if they understood what I said intellectually, they wouldn’t be able to act upon such information. Their characters were set, even as mine continued to evolve.
Nevertheless, I remember to be grateful. I think about the fact that both my mum and dad live in a world without sufficent understanding. I think how horrible that must be for them! At least I have insight, they are just wandering around lost. I also know, that they help where they can. After surgery in the summer of 2018, my mother was around my house bustling. Sure, the ways in which she’s helped were chiefly practical — sweeping, cleaning, shopping for groceries. My dad, provided monetary support, lending me money for a new car, or to pay off a housing debt. Both did these things because they care. When I have been in absolute crisis, my mum has come out to see me. She has sat there with a kind of non-plussed look on her face, unable to respond, or contrarily mad and frantic, trying to fix everything. Neither attitudes were particularly helpful, but she came, because she loves me. So I’m grateful, that my mum and my dad, even from a place of limited insight, are still capable of good actions. Feel free to blame your parents for what they did wrong but don’t forget to thank them for what they did right.
I have a gratitude journal and every night I write down three things I’m grateful for. I’m grateful that I have found a loving partner, and that my wife is by my side through all this. I’m grateful, I have a family — broken as it is — they are still there for me. I’m grateful for the tiny circle of friends that I have. There is only a few, all can be counted on one finger, but they have been a buffer against despair. Frankly after two decades of crisis I’m grateful just to be breathing. Can I say that? For years, as someone with BPD, I could never construe myself as being grateful for anything let alone life itself, but here I am saying I’m grateful for the breath in my lungs! Perhaps I wouldn’t have wished this life, but since I have it, I’m grateful that I’m living here in this state of calm. I’m grateful, that I didn’t end my life in self-destruction, but persevered. I now get to enjoy the fruits of my labour — that deep sense of peace, which I would have never known about, if I’d checked out early. So always be grateful for something: You have a chance to recreate yourself.
4/ Reflect reflect reflect
If you have Borderline Personality Disorder, you may have trouble identifying emotions — Alexithymia is the technical word for it — we feel passionately, but often our feelings are so undifferentiated as to be lumped together in a singular feeling of distress. Lacking a coherent sense of self, beset with identity diffusion, we are buoyed up by moentary wishes and dreams: I will be a bestselling author, a rockstar an astronaut. I am gay, straight, bisexual. I want a big house and a nice car. I want nothing just an empty hut in the woods. I want everything but simultaneously I want nothing at all! Why do we have an appetite for self-destruction, engage in reckless activities like self-harm or substance abuse? Why are relationships so chaotic. Why are we splitting people into all-good and all-bad objects? Reflect reflect reflect.
Whatever emotion you feel, it is like this. Anger — it is like this, fear — it is like this sadness — it is like this, shame — it is like this, guilt — it is like this, whatever it is, even this nebulous sense of absolute pain, which ravishes the body and mind like fire — it’s like this. Use this ritual refrain to understand the pulsing emotions surging through your own body. Practise even when you’re calm, because when your distressed reflection becomes nearly impossible. Learn to recognise the minor fluctuations of your own feelings as they arise in your mind. See what triggers an emotion: Some toxins are unavoidable: Social media, advertising, news cycles, materialism, consumerism. However others are unnecessary. Are you hanging around people who are no good? Do you indulge in ways which increase your pain? Are you invalidating yourself with your own thoughts and thinking? Look at what is driving the emotional responses, and then observe what the primary emotion is: Is it anger, fear, or sadness? Then look to see if there’s secondary one. Does sadness create anger? does anger create sadness? What thoughts are attached to such emotions, what behaviours are apparent? I’m against safe spaces — the world’s inherently unsafe, and besides which, how are you going to learn anything if your cossetted in a tidy corner of nothingness? At the same time I’m against dwelling in a corner filled with cobwebs, spiders and chaos! You don’t have to deliberately seek out danger. That leads only to further degradation. Instead find a middle path, a path which keeps you sane, a path which gives you time to reflect, but also engage.
Look at those vagabond thoughts — watch as they tell you, you have to become something, do something, acquire or destroy something — Why are they there? Are they accurate or illusionary. What conditions have created them? Is it at desperate desire which is actually the cause of your unhappiness? See it all clearly. Above the Temple of Delphi in Greece is the famous Maxim of Apollo, the God of Wisdom: “Know Thyself.” That is your task, know who you are and what you want. Reflect, reflect, reflect.
5/ Above All Don’t Lie to Yourself
In Dostoevsky’s novel the Brothers Karamazov, the wise abbot of the town monastery Father Zozima, has some strong words for the debauched, unruly patriach of the Karamazov household Fyodor Pavlovitch. He tells him:
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than any one. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill — he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. But get up, sit down, I beg you. All this, too, is deceitful posturing
When I was trapped in the crisis of Borderline Personality Disorder, I assumed my symptoms were caused by the diagnosis. That is to say, the emotional dysregulation, the behavioural impulsivity, the cognitive instability, and the gratutitious appetite for self-destruction, were ascribed to this rather nebulous label BPD. What did that even mean? That such symptoms were attributable to a mere label, formulated by fusty psychiatrists in the 1930s, to deal with troublesome patients. Should I believe it? Of course there is a condition, which we call Borderline Personality Disorder, but the label is just an umbrella term for symptoms, but what causes the symptoms? Otto Kernberg, the Hungarian-American Psychiatrist who first concieved that BPD was treatable, back in the 1960’s said the reason such symptoms exist is due to chronic identity diffusion (i.e. an unstable sense of self) and propensity to splitting (which means back and white thinking). Meanwhile, the tough midwestern behaviourist Marsha Linehan arrived on the scene back in the late 80’s claiming symptoms were the result of a biological predisposition to emotional sensitivity richoteting of an invalidating environment. More recently Peter Fonagy the psychodynamic theorist from the Anna Freud Centre in London, has cited the inability to mentalise (which means observe and identify self and others via reflection) as the key problem. All of this made sense, but for me I observed that there was something else going on. How could I explain this overall hatred of everything, absolutely everything? What was sustaining the symptoms.
I realised that overtime I’d developed a deep nihilism toward the world. This wasn’t mental illness it was a viewpoint that I’d acquired as the result of years of mistreatment from those in positions of authority. I couldn’t concieve of reality as anything other than a devil-ridden chaos, and a bad dream. Meanwhile the people in the world were either helpless victims or tormenting devils. It was a dark view, borne on the wings of experience. After loosing faith in the world, I fell into despair, and that was a ripe feeding ground for all sorts of monsters to emerge. Soon they’d set up shop, and the inner emptiness I felt inside my heart was replaced by a burning sense of indignation. Once faithless, I was now a fundamentalist. I was after only one thing: Justice for myself. What such a vague concept really translated to was a quest for revenge. In this solipsistic nightmare, I was heading towards destruction somehow I was able avert a disaster. As I recovered from BPD I began to disentangle the viewpoint from the symptoms. Now, many years later, I still retain some BPD-esque symptoms: Inner feelings of emptiness and heightened emotional reactivity, alongside more subtle problems of adjusting, but my viewpoint has changed.
Life is much easier now. These “symptoms” are just part of who I am. Residual things from an old life which will shift on their own accord, or just personal traits that have been there all along. They are what they are, I’ve long since stopped looking for a cause. The most important thing however, is not to mould a viewpoint around them. A viewpoint is not a lie — I honestly hated the world as much as myself — the lie was what sustained it. I thought I was a strong warrior seeking retribution, but in reality I was simply unhappy! I felt alone, inadequete and bereft. I wanted to be loved, and love someone in return. When I recognised this, I let go of rage, passion, fundamentalism. I let go of old viewpoints to emerge in clear light. Embattled but not embittered, perhaps more limited, but certainly not broken. When I ceased lying to myself, I was able to be more forgiving of others, we are all human we do our best, imperfect and sometimes stupid, if I was to be given the benefit of the doubt, I’d have to extend it others too. I threw off this sense of entitlement and started to live freely.
Let go of your story and start again. Accept the limitations and ask what you really want. Be grateful — happiness is found in the essence of your heart, not in the details of the world. Reflect on everything! Don’t lie to yourself, don’t use the diagnosis as an excuse.
You are more than a label, more than a list of symptoms. Recovery — at least my recover — emerged from the five steps above, and these five steps continue to sustain it. Recovery is the inner peace and equilibrium, I now experience in my daily life. This heart can apparently bear all the knocks and tragedies of life without breaking. I use to think “that’s because its broken already” now I believe it’s because we all have the capacity to renew ourselves each and every day.
Life is suffering, and therefore I expect more trials up ahead, but like a weathered pilot of a dilapidated ship I sail towards an inclement storm . I’m confident that I will not break.
And on my journey I make sure to look at the lotus flowers as well.
Find out more about the journey at www.skylarkrecovery.com