Into the labyrinth — Unlocking the mystery of Borderline Personality Disorder
I often say that people are like a safe. Every single person has a unique combination that opens them up. While some people have simple combinations, other people have a combination that is immensely complicated and confusing. Very few are as complicated as someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This is part one of my ongoing story about unlocking the mysteries of BPD.
I first heard about Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as an undergraduate. I was green, I had just changed my major from English to Psychology and was excited to be sitting in my abnormal psych class. I had always been fascinated with how other people think and behave. Even when I was young I had a desire to unlock the mysteries of human behavior. I don’t remember much about that day or how BPD came up but what I do remember was the professor talking about BPD like the death star. The ominous tone to his voice had me locked in. BPD was almost impossible to treat, he had said. Most therapists turned away cases of of BPD, and if we had good sense, we would stay away from it. That day, BPD became a fringe disorder and one we should steer around. Getting pulled into BPD would bring certain doom.
About a decade later, I had finished my graduate degree and was a brand new, starry eyed therapist. I took my first job working in a psychiatric unit for adults. I quickly came to learn that if I was going to avoid the death star of BPD, this was the wrong place to do it. At any given time we had at least two and as many as six cases of BPD. Borderlines threaten and attempt suicide more than just about any other group and so they tend to get funneled onto hospital floors like ours. I quickly came to be familiar with the side of BPD that most people see. The emotional outbursts, the fits of rage, the verbal abuse and the failure to make meaningful connections. Not to mention the immense challenge that came when trying to help them. Medication was virtually ineffective and we all knew that they didn’t get much out of traditional therapy. We’d sometimes have to wait for them to be having a better day so that we could commit them to a safety contract and shuffle them out the door.
Right now I want the reader to understand something about me. At that point in my career, I understood mental health disorders. My experience through school and my education provided me with what I needed to “get” everything. And I did. I “got” bipolar disorder, I “got” depression, I “got” schizophrenia, I “got” addiction. And when I encountered my first cases of BPD I had confidence in my ability to dive into it, peel back the layers and “get” it just like I did everything else. I was wrong. It was a complete mystery. It confused and perplexed me. BPD truly became the psychological labyrinth. Once you were in it, there was no way out. Just when you thought you’d found an answer, the whole thing changed and you only became more lost. In retrospect, I realize that the mistake that I made was one that almost everyone makes with a borderline. I tried to interpret their behavior as a direct reflection of what was happening in their mind.
As time went on I grew to dislike borderlines. And then I grew to almost hate them. They were selfish, they were sadistic, they were manipulative, they were liars and I was starting to think that they should all be rounded up, branded and tagged for research and so that other people could spot them before getting sucked into their tangled soul sucking webs. I was even becoming convinced that the legend of the succubus could only have formed from ancient cases of BPD.
But once again, I was wrong. The labyrinth had me frustrated and confused but after five years I was no closer to truly understanding BPD. I was missing something about it. I knew I was. I still didn’t get it. I was frustrated and driven by the desire to excavate the psyche of BPD. I had no idea what made it tick but I had to know. I was driven towards it. The lack of working knowledge was frustrating, to say the least. And then I met Rachel; the recovered borderline. (She has become a close trusted friend and she gave me permission to use her real name in this story.)
A friend of mine had a radio show on a small AM talk radio station that operates locally and I saw one day that he was advertising that he had interviewed a woman who had recovered from BPD on his show. I was immediately all in. I listened to the show and felt extremely impressed and compelled by this person. She definitely did not talk like borderline. I had talked with enough of them to know how they talked. I could sniff them out quickly, this was one skill that I had definitely dialed in. Rachel didn’t talk at all like a borderline talked. Quite the contrary, she was brilliant, insightful, compassionate and intuitive. She had a passion for helping the world change how it viewed BPD.
In the therapy world, true cases of recovered borderline are a thing of legend. I knew that cases of recovered BPD existed but I had been doubtful that I would ever encounter one. I had even read a book called “get me out of here” about a woman who had recovered from BPD after several years of psychoanalytic, Freudian style therapy. She laid on a couch while the psychiatrist asked her questions about her mother. Current therapy models like DBT are showing some effectiveness but in my mind that was for big time psychologists that wore sweater vests. So when I heard Rachel on the radio with my friend, I knew I had to meet her, I knew I had to pick her brain. She was the key master and I needed to hear what she had to say.
I reached out to her on social media (you know, the “soc-meeds”), I told her I was a therapist and I was dying to talk to a recovered borderline. She responded quickly and before I knew it, I was talking to her on the phone about borderline. I don’t remember anything about that initial conversation because dozens followed. We sat and talked for hours both in person and on the phone. Many people locally regarded me as an expert on BPD but after meeting Rachel, I quickly learned that I knew almost nothing about it. I had to forget almost everything that I knew about it and relearn it all. We have joked many times that Rachel’s language is confusing and that she still talks in “border-babble.” She used terms like “find me” and the term “ish” as a word. (This still bugs me.) She fire hosed me many times and I had to ask her to slow down or explain things in a different way. She was quick to kindly correct me or tell me when my working knowledge was wrong. We wrote things down, we made notes, we explored concepts. Often we had to realize that we had completely different words for the same concept.
I want to make a note about Rachel. Rachel loves borderlines. In the way that a mother loves a child, in a way that a child loves a kitten, in a way that a teenager loves video games in the same way that I love ice cream. Rachel loves borderlines. She loves them because she knows their pain. She loves them because she has walked their path and found a way out of the labyrinth. She is immensely patient and compassionate when she talks to them. While other people may be afraid of a borderline and the things they might say and do, Rachel looks them in the eye and talks to them without a single glint of fear. She’s honest with them, she listens to them. They feel understood by her, they feel cared about by her. Rachel has a way of talking to and reaching borderlines that is probably unprecedented. She’s passionate about helping them, she’s passionate about changing how the world thinks of them. In reality, this is as much Rachel’s story as it is mine.
As I write this, I am currently doing something that I said that I never would. I take borderlines into my office and treat them in therapy. I use the skills taught in DBT but mostly I use the skills taught to me by Rachel. I look them in the eyes and tell them that I know they must feel so alone and in so much pain. Sometimes tears form in their eyes and I know that I couldn’t bring myself to turn this person away.
*I hope you have enjoyed this first installment. Whether you are BPD or love someone that is, there is hope. We will find the answers. I hope you will look for the next parts of mine and Rachel’s story. If you would like to see more of my articles and information on BPD, troubled teens and mental health, feel free to visit my website: www.SaltCityCounseling.com