When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I thought my whole world had ended.
But, it hadn’t.
A year and a half later, when I was given the dual diagnosis including borderline personality disorder, I thought my entire identity was a lie.
But, it’s not.
I have spent a copious amount of time researching BPD. I’ve watched so many videos in which BPD sufferers are demonized and others in which they are defended. It seems people have trouble reconciling the idea that people with personality disorders are still very much human.
I can’t change everyone’s minds – I know that a simple blog post will not alter the opinions of so many that can only see evil in someone with a personality disorder. However, I want to at least do my part in adding my voice to the others that are trying so hard to erase the stigma surrounding this particular mental illness. So, I’ll share with you my personal experience with it.
According to the DSM, there are nine clinical criteria for the diagnosis of BPD.
1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
I struggled immensely with this for years. The manifestation of my BPD began when I was about 12 years old, when my mother spent a year in another state receiving cancer treatment. During this year, I also watched my dad leave on multiple short-term deployments. Three years later, I not only watched, but felt my mom die. I held her in the backseat of the car on the way to the hospital, covered in her blood. I then held her hand in her hospital bed as life support was disconnected.
Following this trauma, I’ve developed a massive fear of being abandoned. As a child, my young mind couldn’t process all of it and neuro pathways were formed in such a way to protect me from it. Constantly, I wonder when the next person will die or leave or just disappear. With therapy, however, I’ve learned how to manage it. While the anxiety is still there and sometimes the behaviors creep up, I know now how to better control the chaos.
2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterised by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
I was barely seventeen when the sexual abuse began, carried out by someone I considered to be a close friend. It lasted for months. I didn’t know what to do or who to tell. There were moments in which I could believe it was okay – that he wasn’t hurting me. However, they were often overturned by a deep repulsion and fear. The abuse finally ended after I was assaulted by a mutual friend. I don’t know why it ended – maybe because that was when I finally erupted into a swirling mass of emotions and anger.
I see the impact of that trauma in my life every day, though. I may meet someone and absolutely adore them, swear every bit of my loyalty to them, and then the next day want absolutely nothing to do with them. I may have an extremely hostile conversation on the phone with my dad, full of yelling and crying, and then two hours later just want to call him to discuss the weather. Through therapy and personal reflection, I’ve found that my most stable relationships have very clear boundaries. Emotions are kept in check, triggers are minded, and no one pushes to get too close. It’s not detachment, but it’s a healthy amount of privacy and respect.
3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
This one is trickier. I’ve always been one to maintain several social groups at once, never letting them overlap if I can avoid it. In high school, I had friends in every circle from theater to football. While I maintained my own personality, I found that I behaved differently around each group of people. Once I entered college, I became more capable of keeping a firm grasp on my own identity, but I do notice shifts in perception and behavior in certain social situations.
I think the most alarming part of this symptom is experiencing loss or a breakup. When I lose someone that I consider an important part of my life, it is like losing a part of myself. The behaviors I picked up from them become painful reminders of a loss I always feared, and I may feel unstable until I can reconcile the pieces of myself without the pieces of them. However, I have become remarkably more capable of handling loss in even the last few months thanks to therapy like DBT.
4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g. spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). This does not include suicidal or self-harming behavior.
This isn’t one I’ve had a terrible time managing. It is actually difficult to identify since these behaviors overlap with those of a manic episode. It takes at least two days to work out whether my impulsivity is a result of BPD or bipolar disorder, as one lasts longer than the other and carries with it a myriad of other symptoms. However, those behaviors were previously a pattern in my life that I was able to eliminate through treatment.
5. Recurrent suicidal behaviour, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.
This is the most crippling aspect of BPD for me, personally. I have multiple suicide attempts in my past and my arms are covered in scars from self-harm. Let me be very clear in stating that these were not, are not, and never have been for attention.
Cutting was a coping mechanism I picked up when I was only 14 years old. I kept it a secret from almost everyone in my life. I never flaunted the injuries for attention – I hid them as best as I could. I still try to cover the scars around new people and in public. Sometimes, I am brave and don’t mind the stares or the questions, but the judgement is often too harsh for me to manage.
Trying to kill myself? I did not want anyone involved in that. I just wanted it to end. I can’t even put into words the all-consuming desperation to die. It just hurt so bad and I wanted it to be over. The only reason I am still alive is because there are miraculous people in my life that want me to still be here. I reached out for help not for myself, but for them. I can’t deny the idea crosses my mind still in my worst moments, but I am learning how to cope with it.
6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood – intense feelings that can last from a few hours to a few days.
This on top of the mood swings that accompany bipolar disorder is the biggest headache of all. I can’t even tell you how difficult it is to maintain a poker face when it feels like you’re about to explode. Little things can affect your mood just as greatly as big things.
That does not make you evil.
Never apologize for having emotions. That is something I have had to work at. I can’t change the fact that the chemicals in my brain are wired to implode when something goes wrong, however through treatment I’ve learned how to manage the mood swings. I have more coping skills that help me to quell anger, stop tears, soothe panic, and enforce positivity. They are not 100% foolproof, but they help.
7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.
This symptom didn’t really rear its ugly head until I went to college. There are times I find myself seriously questioning my purpose. I look at my schoolwork, my career, and even my relationships and wonder what they’re worth. A lot of people have told me, and will tell you, that you can’t rely on others to find your purpose or your happiness. However, you can allow them to help you reinforce the idea that your life and your work, no matter how small, is valuable. If I didn’t have people to consistently remind me that I am important, I would have offed myself years ago.
8. Inappropriate intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.
Hahaha my dad might actually be the better one to discuss this one. I was quite the teenager. I could get worked up in about .5 seconds and have steam pouring out my ears before anyone knew what was happening. I actually started boxing so that I had a healthy outlet for the anger I didn’t understand or maybe didn’t know how to control.
As an adult, I’ve found that this anger has lessened. It rears its head on occasion, but I know better now when it is justified and when it is not. I know better how to calm myself down and not act on impulse.
9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideas or severe dissociative symptoms.
Oooh, I hate this one! It’s like anxiety on crack. When I get super stressed, my mind makes it look like the whole world is ending. I’ve really, really struggled with this one this year. Something may go wrong and, suddenly, rain looks like a hurricane.
I’ve only dissociated a handful of times, and two of those were the times I overdosed. It is a scary situation when you dissociate. It’s terrifying for not only you, but the people around you. This is something that may require medication in conjunction with therapy to manage. I know that my bipolar medication has also helped to ease these symptoms.
I know that I am not a terrible, manipulative person. It is so frustrating when a stigmatized label demonizes someone that is actually suffering. I did not ask for borderline personality disorder – no one ever has. It is one of those battles you have to fight every day. It is a battle in your own mind. There are losses and there are victories, but as long as you don’t let it claim you, you’re still in the game.
Borderline personality disorder may be a part of you, but it is not all of you. Don’t let others define you by it and define yourself by it. You can learn to manage it and have a healthy, successful life. I promise.
Keep your head above water. This is not the end.