I am a text book definition, but that doesn’t make me less of a person

On living with Borderline Personality Disorder

We all live on a spectrum, in one way or another. Our diets, sexuality, gender, physical health, and mental health puts us somewhere between two extremes. For those lucky enough to live with Borderline Personality Disorder, those extremes vary depending on the day, the hour, or the minute. My doctor says that diagnosis labels aren’t helpful. But it’s hard to ignore a label when you’re the text book definition of a disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, to be considered Borderline Personality Disorder, you have to have a “pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning.” Intense emotions and impulsive behavior, depression and anxiety, are all markers of someone living with BPD. For some, this sounds like the typical life of an American woman living under the pressures of society, work, and family. Of being over-worked, underpaid, and trying to live up to impossible expectations set by yourself or others, whether it’s the way you’re supposed to look, how you’re supposed to live, or the level of ambition you should have. Unfortunately, Borderline Personality Disorder goes deeper than that.

As I read through the article, I got to the “other symptoms include” section and saw myself begin to unravel right on the screen.

Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. It’s hard to tell the difference between when someone is leaving and when someone is leaving. So I cut down on the amount of people who have the potential to hurt me, to leave me, and try to be as perfect as possible. If they do abandon me, it’s my fault.

A pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation). One day, I’ll be fine and happy with the people in my life. The next, I convince myself they’re toxic to me, they want too much from me, and I try and cut them out.

Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self. My sense of self is constantly changing. I lose sight of who I am, what I want to be, and convince myself that what I’m doing is wrong. The unstable self-image is even worse. I flirt on the edge of eating disorders, my perfectionist-mentality a perfect breeding ground for unhealthy habits. There’s a constant loop of “you’re not good enough, you’re going to get fired, you’re too fat, you’re not in shape, you don’t belong” playing in my head.

Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating. “Retail therapy” is something we all joke about, until it’s 2 in the morning and I’ve convinced myself that if I don’t buy all of these things I’ll never be happy again. Or that the only way to make myself feel better is to bounce from one website to the next, because when packages show up at the door, it means I’m real and I’m good and I deserve things. Binge eating, on the other hand, falls into that tenuous relationship I have with eating disorders. Eating is a way to fill the emptiness inside of me, but getting back to feeling empty also feels powerful.

Recurring suicidal behaviors or threats or self-harming behavior such as cutting. It’s so easy to write someone who self-harms off as “attention seeking”. It’s what we’re conditioned to do. But it’s not what it is. At least, in the past that’s not what it was for me. It was a way to deal with pain I could control. But suicide, on the other hand — it’s something that’s just a constant idea in the back of my head. I could, I could, I could.

Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days. I’ll start the day in one mood and end it with another. I bounce back and forth between extremes: happiness or emptiness, depression or anxiety, no energy to lots of energy that I don’t know what to do with (which also leads to those spending sprees).

Chronic feelings of emptiness. Emptiness is a pain in my chest, or in my spine, that reminds me that no matter how much stuff I have, have many people I have in my life that care about me, it’s not enough.

Distress over minor separations — such as vacations, business trips, or sudden change of plans. Last minute plans, changes in routine, and even plans made far in advance can be too much. Ask my husband how easily I deal with last minute changes to plans (spoiler: I don’t). Or how well I deal with changes in routine, or not having one. A schedule in constant chaos makes me shut down, or get angry and then shut down. I need my life to have stability because that’s what my thoughts and emotions lack.

I went through the list, checked each box, explained to myself how I fit into each of these symptoms perfectly. I sat there knowing that this was me — but this isn’t who I am. Just because I get an official diagnosis for one mental illness or disorder doesn’t mean that defines who I am as a person. It doesn’t stop me from living (except when it does). I don’t have to walk around with a scarlet “BPD” on my shirt. And I definitely don’t expect people to treat me differently because I have an internal struggle that’s hard to manage. A certain level of understanding from the people in my life is a great thing to have, but not being treated like a fragile little dove is better.

What I do expect is that my thoughts and feelings are taken seriously and not written off as part of my diagnosis. Just because I can have mood swings and erratic thoughts doesn’t mean that the things I say aren’t valid. I’m still a person, still someone who thinks and feels, who can love and be loved, who can hurt and be hurt. When someone second guesses my thoughts or feelings because of my diagnosis, it only feeds into my lack of sense of self. My fear of abandonment. My need to try and fill that emptiness inside of me.

I am valid. My thoughts and feelings are valid. I am not my diagnosis — and I need to remember that.