Reclaiming our Narrative — 5 Young Women Open up about Borderline Personailty Disorder
Part One: Diagnosis and Representation
I’ve been talking about Borderline Personailty Disorder (BPD) for almost eight years now, ever since a therapist suggested it when I was 15 years old. Though it wasn’t until I was 20 that I was officially diagnosed, because of hesitation from medical professionals to stick the label onto me at such an early age. I guess they hoped I was just being a difficult teenage girl, but Borderline wasn’t a phase — it is my reality.
Borderline Personailty Disorder is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behaviour, and relationships. The disorder has made regulating my emotions and thoughts very difficult. It has played a significant role in making my relationships unstable, because of my deep fear of rejection, and abandonment. Recently it has been suggested that BPD may in fact be a very extreme case of PTSD — and I’m on the border of agreeing.
Over the past eight years, I have done my best to educate myself about my disorder; after all, I need to get to know myself. I’ve tried to memorize the phrases explaining the characteristics word-for-word. Read any memoir or self-help book I could get my hands on. I’ve glared at the DSM and shook my head. I’ve rolled my eyes so hard when I watched Fatal Attraction, and thought “okay, maybe… just kidding, not at all”, after viewing Gone Girl. I’ve talked and sometimes even debated with therapists about the rhetoric of Borderline. I have really made getting to know this disorder inside and out, my mission.
It hasn’t been easy, especially because there are so few resources for people who have been diagnosed with BPD. There’s actually more for our family and friends than there is for us. I’ve also noticed the copious amounts of articles and forums about and for people who apparently “survived” us. Now, I want my friends and family to have resources, because I do have a deep desire to be understood. But even more I want to understand myself, because I have to consider the possibility of those relationships not lasting forever. My relationship with myself however, is forever.
For years, I have been frustrated with how hard its been to find information about myself that didn’t demonize me, or write me off as a lost cause. I have also been disappointed in what once seemed like an endless search to find other women out there like me. I am tired of being angry at the portrayals of femme-fatales and crazy ex-girlfriends that plague our representations in media and film. I am disgusted at the websites devoted to allowing our ex-partners to slander us, and suggest that we deserve no compassion. I’m even tired of medical professionals, because it wasn’t long ago that they locked up and over-medicated women like me.
Women with Borderline Personality Disorder are incredibly capable and intelligent women, and thanks to Twitter not only have I been able to find them, I’ve been lucky enough to hear their voices and their demands to be heard.
I spoke to five young women with Borderline Personailty Disorder, and asked them to partake in a two-part interview highlighting issues of diagnosis, media representation, relationships, and recovery. This first part will focus on diagnosis and media representation.
In your own words how would you describe Borderline Personality Disorder:
Imogen (@imogenaliceee), 21, London, England: A mess of spaghetti — like all my emotions and my behaviours and behaviours of other people are interconnected. Also a roller coaster or my brain has a wheel of misfortune where it decides what emotion I’ll swing to next or whether I’ll dissociate instead. It’s so complex and when it’s bad I want to claw my brain out to make it stop.
Rachel, 19, Florida, USA: For the longest time, I didn’t know what Borderline was. Describing it is hard because it was never described for me. I’m still learning what it is with every passing day so at this point in time, I only know how to describe it by saying that it is a disorder that seriously affects my life in every way.
Sara (@maybegray), 22, Edmonton, Canada: If moods could be described like weather and climate, Borderline Personality Disorder has made the weather of my moods so violent and erratic for so much of my life that it would be very difficult for me to describe what the upcoming forecast of my moods will be.
Natalia (@supernasst), 27, Montreal, Canada: I’m sensitive to my surroundings to the ultimate extreme. Marsha Linehan’s quote about having no emotional skin is apt. I experience emotions differently than other people. Other people have something to cushion their fall into extreme negative emotions, something that I don’t have. I just hit the ground and break. My emotional pain is deep and unbearable and debilitating. It impairs my judgment and causes me to act in ways that defy rational thought, because ending the pain is so urgent and imperative that I’m desperate for any kind of relief — and the ways I find to cope are often self-destructive.
Isabelle (@fortunafiasco), 19, Los Angeles, USA: My grandmother suffers from manic bipolar, a similar disorder and I think she describes it best when she says that it feels like a wet towel has been wrapped around your brain and your heart feels raw from being rubbed the wrong way. You feel everything so much harder than everyone else so no one is ever as high as you, and no one ever feels as low. Borderline Personality Disorder is lonely.
What age were you diagnosed:
Rachel: A couple months before my 19th birthday. However, when I was diagnosed and the doctor said Borderline Personality Disorder, he didn’t explain to me what it was so I didn’t identify with the disorder for a long time. Since he said BPD, I thought that what he was really trying to say was that I was on the cusp of having a multiple personality disorder, like schizophrenia. It wasn’t until recently that I had learned that it was its own separate entity.
Imogen: 20, although had been in and out of therapy since I was 15 with no diagnosis until last year.
Isabelle: I think I was 15. 16 at the latest. By the point I was diagnosed, I’d been in several therapies and programs for about 6 or 7 years already and had become pretty apathetic to my treatment, so I only remember having the conversation with my psychiatrist and my parents, but am hazy as to exactly when.
If you’ve experienced an “a-ha!” moment is treatment/therapy, what was it:
Natalia: That I’ve internalized the stigma against the disorder to such a degree that when I’m in an extreme state I start wondering if I’m being manipulative or evil or faking it for attention or any of those awful (and false) things people say about BPD, which makes my pain even greater and makes me take it out on myself.
Sara: That I need to at least try to give myself the kind of support I wish I could accept from others.
Isabelle: When I was in DBT group therapy and we were learning about dialectics — that two things that are seemingly opposites can both be true at the same time. It really helped someone like me, who was wired to think in black and white/extremes. For example: “Right now I want to self-harm AND I know that the consequences would be too great, so I will not” or “I feel hopeless AND I know tomorrow will be a better day.” It was also a pretty great “a-ha!” when it finally clicked that I can control my actions by controlling my thoughts. That realization made me feel incredibly empowered.
Are there any characteristics of the disorder that you’ve embraced or feel empowered by:
Imogen: I’m in a romantic relationship and honestly, the depth of love I can feel for my significant other is amazing. Also ‘splitting’ on people, although awful, can help me remove genuinely toxic people from my life.
Isabelle: My sensitivity, it’s my most intense symptom — I’m an emotional empath. Every time someone around me or someone I care about is feeling bad, I’m like a sponge and I absorb that energy and feel bad myself. I can use my sensitivity to my advantage, and be a better friend. I often hear that I make people feel truly special and understood. When I absorb the energy instead of focusing on how shit I feel, I focus on how it can help me understand what the other person is going through so I can better help them.
Natalia: My ability to read people’s emotions definitely feels like a superpower sometimes. It makes me a thoughtful, caring, and devoted partner, friend, and family member, even though it’s rooted in the same sensitivity that is my weakness at other moments. I don’t mean that I use it to manipulate people. I pride myself in the way I devote myself to my loved ones and care for them. I think the disorder gives me a heightened capacity for empathy that attracts people and makes me a good partner and friend.
If you could throw one characteristic of the disorder in the trash bin, what would it be:
Sara: Fear of Abandonment. Brings so much unnecessary pain into all of my relationships.
Rachel: The impulsive behaviours. I know exactly when I’m being impulsive but I can’t help it. I have the worst spending habits. I’ve been working since I was 16 and I don’t have a dime to my name. I went through tax records and if I stopped spending it all immediately, I would have $15,000+. Also, I’m completely unsafe when it comes to my sex life. All of my decisions are in the moment and I regret every single thing that happens when it comes to how impulsive I can be.
Natalia: The dissociative episodes. I hate feeling like I’m not in control. I also have an intense, debilitating fear of being abandoned, which manifests in ways that hurt the people I love most, and that I have an extremely difficult time controlling. I become hurt and frustrated when I feel that the people I love aren’t reciprocating my feelings with the same depth of emotion that I’m capable of feeling, and I lash out, aiming for their emotional Achilles heel, pushing them away, sealing my fate of abandonment and loneliness, which leads me to think of myself as an unlovable monster. Basically I’m constantly bouncing off people and things without the protective equipment to keep me safe from harm.
Is it difficult to admit when you’re wrong? Are you self aware about your own “flaws” (self sabotage, shame, guilt, anger, mania) and if so how do you work to control them:
Rachel: Very rarely will I have trouble admitting that I’m wrong when I am aware of it. However, if I don’t know that I’m in the wrong, I am incredibly stubborn. I am aware of all of the flaws though. I understand when I’m sabotaging a relationship and when I’m being irrational and they’re all hard to control in different ways. Anger, mania and self sabotage can all be contained in the same way. I typically don’t experience any of those in my day to day life so when any of those happen, I accept that I’m going through an episode and I need to step away from the situation. I feel different types of anxiety through each of the different emotions and the anxiety that I get through these three is set heavy in my chest. Shame and guilt go hand in hand. I feel the anxiety for those two in my throat. These two are harder for me to control because most of the time, I can’t tell when I’m feeling them because I’m going through an episode of if it’s actually something that a “normal” person would be feeling in the situation. So for the first step, I need to evaluate. I look at the bigger picture surrounding why I feel guilty or shameful and go from there. Most of the time, there is no control for these two besides time and a big crying session.
Natalia: There are times when I’m extremely self-critical and I shame myself for my flaws and unhealthy behaviour, which is not really productive. There are also times when it’s difficult for me to take a step back and have that self-awareness, because this disorder warps my entire experience and view of reality. My ultimate goal is to learn the skills to manage those behaviours, but the process to getting there is long and I have a lifetime of unhealthy coping mechanisms to unlearn, and I get impatient and also start feeling helpless when I think about it. But I’m trying.
Imogen: If it’s in an argument then in the heat of the moment it’s v difficult to admit when I’m wrong, but once I’m calm I can (although usually (apparently) this is incorrect, I just blame myself for everything that goes wrong). I’m intensely aware of my “flaws” and I do my best to control them, but I’ve had no therapy since May — due to bumps in my life — so generally the more I try to control them (with no professional help) the harder they explode so it backfires. So usually I just let them happen.
Have you ever felt empowered by a depiction of Borderline in media? If so what text or character:
Isabelle: I think the obvious answer is Susanna from Girl, Interrupted. She was the protagonist, she had a good heart, and throughout the movie you mostly see her as a self-aware and kind person that is just having some problems being healthy emotionally. I liked that. Instead of being portrayed as a hopeless psychotic, we went on that journey with her and saw a happy ending. I don’t think the way they wrote her character is a very accurate depiction of borderline — we didn’t see her being very unstable before she was admitted — but I guess we take what we can get.
Imogen: Slightly in Girl, Interrupted because I know no one aside from people on Twitter with the disorder, but I wouldn’t describe Girl, Interrupted as empowering me, more relatable I guess?? All the other depictions have been awful and probably have contributed massively to the bad attitude towards the disorder (when I had to leave my last therapist he told me to be careful because even mental health professionals are wary when they see “Borderline Personality Disorder” as a diagnosis).