Content warning: mentions of abuse, suicide and self-harm.
[note: For clarity and simplicity, I will refer to those with Borderline Personality Disorder as “borderlines” multiple times in this article. However, the general consensus within the BPD community is that it is inappropriate for those without BPD to refer to us as “borderlines”. It is offensive, dehumanizing and reduces us to our diagnosis. We are people, not a disorder and are defined by more than our diagnosis.]
Growing up, I always had trouble controlling my emotions. I got too angry too fast, cried too easily, held onto fights for too long and got too excited. A common criticism was that I was “overreacting” to everything. No one experienced the emotional extremes I did.
I remember my sister asking me, “Why do you have to feel everything so much? Why do you have to be so dramatic? Why can’t you just stop?” She meant it as a criticism – that my emotions made other people uncomfortable. That they made me hard to understand and get along with.
But, she had a valid question: why did I feel everything so much? Why did I have such rapid mood swings? Why couldn’t I control how strongly I reacted to things? How could I go from euphoric to suicidal within moments or hours?
For years, I went without an answer. As a teenager, I put myself into danger often – I’d leave for hours without saying where I was going or when I would be back. I changed my appearance frequently and cut my hair off multiple times. I begged to see a doctor, knowing that these feelings couldn’t possibly be normal but because I would seem “okay” much of the time, it was brushed off.
At twenty-three, after years of questioning, pain and an incomplete diagnosis, I have an answer: I have Borderline Personality Disorder.
For me, BPD is intense and often uncontrollable emotions, feelings that consume my entire being. It is wild and overwhelming mood swings – intense mania and paralyzing depression. It is recurrent suicidal ideation, self-harm and three suicide attempts to date – the most recent being in January of 2015.
My BPD is dissociation and unshakable feelings of emptiness and unreality. It’s being convinced that the world is out to get me, trapped in my bed by fear. It’s not knowing who I am each day and relying on outside sources for definition. It’s going from loving someone to hating them over a tiny argument and despite knowing that it’s wrong, being unable to change it.
It’s thinking my loved ones are angry at me even when they’re not. It’s constant apologizing and the paralyzing fear that the people I care about are just pretending to like me. Or that I’ve somehow manipulated them into staying with me. It is a daily battle against myself to gain control over my life and my emotions.
On the positive side, my BPD makes me passionate, loyal and empathetic. My identity struggles have led me to develop a truly interesting and unique sense of style and personal expression. Mood swings have taught me that nothing lasts forever – both sadness and joy are only temporary. My suicide attempts and fear of abandonment have taught me to value every moment and cherish my loved ones.
Compared to many other borderlines, my life is stable. I’ve been in a loving relationship for three years and I have a thriving two-year-old. I have steady relationships with my friends and I have never struggled with substance abuse – although I struggle every day with self-harm.
I have a compassionate and understanding counselor who listens and takes my problems seriously – who hasn’t refused to see me because of my disorder. I have coping mechanisms that are very effective.
For all these things and more, I consider myself lucky.
On a good day, my symptoms are manageable – maybe even barely noticeable. I might go the whole day without a crash or dissociating. I may not lash out or get angry at all.
On a bad day, my symptoms rule me and take over my life. I will end up arguing with my fiance over practically nothing. I get irrationally angry over small things and lash out – usually at myself in the form of biting or hitting myself, although I might yell at others. If it gets bad enough, I might spend much of the day contemplating suicide. I might dissociate for long stretches or experience intense depersonalization.
Most days, though, are a mix of good and bad. I experience both the highs and the lows – which can make my life feel chaotic and stressful even if it would otherwise be calm. My mood swings can be exhausting.
Really though, it’s only thanks to constant self-examination, self-awareness and hard work that I’ve gotten this far – oh, and an incredibly patient and understanding fiance.
So, what IS Borderline Personality Disorder?
The DSM-V uses the following criteria to define BPD:
Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation
Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self
Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., substance abuse binge eating, and reckless driving)
Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior
Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)
Chronic feelings of emptiness
Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)
Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.
It’s estimated that 2-6% of the population suffers from this highly stigmatized and much misunderstood mental illness. A cursory search on the internet brings up a wealth of negative and stigmatizing “information” about borderlines. You might read that we are evil and abusive. That we are life-ruining manipulators. That we are “dramatic” and always seeking attention. You might even find sources telling you we “can’t be saved” and it’s better to just run before we destroy your life.
The reality is that many borderlines are victims of past abuse and many symptoms of BPD (dissociation, fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, etc.,) contribute to us becoming the victims of future abuse. These symptoms also make it even more difficult for us to leave or even recognize an abusive relationship if we get into one. Additionally, resources for those with BPD are few and far in between. Most online communities cater to the loved ones of borderlines and are downright abusive towards us. There are few books that are any better.
Discrimination against those with BPD is intense – especially in the medical and psychiatric fields where psychologists will outright refuse to work with borderline patients because we are “too difficult”, “can’t be cured” or “too sexual”. Many practices do not have counselors trained in the most effective forms of counseling for those with BPD such as DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) or CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Medical doctors will dismiss our physical problems saying we’re only looking for attention. Psychiatric doctors will often brush aside our suicidal thoughts citing the same, even though 80% of those with BPD will attempt suicide at least once in their lifetime and one in ten will succeed. This makes BPD the second most deadly mental illness – right behind eating disorders.
Surprisingly, many people have no idea that BPD even exists and often, their first exposure to the disorder is the diagnosis of a loved one. This makes the lack of accurate and unbiased information even more dangerous as many sources of “advice” for those who live with BPD sufferers. will encourage abusive tactics to “help” us.
That is, if they don’t tell you to cut and run before the evil, nasty borderline destroys your life.
What can we do to help those with BPD?
Educate yourself! Search out non-biased and accurate information! Learn about the counseling methods used for those with BPD, learn about what the disorder does. Most of all – listen to those of us who have this disorder. Read our stories, listen to our feelings, be patient with our emotions and don’t talk over us.
For those of us with BPD, self-awareness and understanding of what’s going on can help us to make our lives less chaotic. Reliable counseling and (in some cases) medication for common co-morbid disorders like Depression, Bipolar, Anxiety and PTSD can make a world of difference. We also need patient and understanding people in our lives who can stand by us as we try to navigate through a world that is often cruel to us and indifferent to our difficulties. Having people who care about us and are willing to try to understand can be life-saving. We may not be at our lowest for long, but it doesn’t take long to do something that may be life-threatening. Take our suicidal thoughts and feelings seriously – we might seem okay later, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t feel horrible before.
Shit Borderlines Do (shitborderlinesdo.tumblr.com), a blog run by people with BPD – has a VERY comprehensive faq, provides support for those with BPD and also has a list of resources for loved ones. I highly recommend this blog.l
Lost in the Mirror: An Inside look at Borderline Personality Disorder, by Richard Moskovitz. I haven’t personally read this book, but it comes highly recommended within in the BPD community.
That BPD Feel (thatbpdfeel.tumblr.com), another blog run by BPD sufferers. Answers questions, provides support, shares information and relatable posts.
I also highly recommend looking up and reading anything by Marsha M. Linehan – the inventor of DBT and a sufferer of BPD herself. Her writing as both a psychologist and as a person with BPD is incredibly spot-on and useful.
In conclusion, awareness of and education about BPD is absolutely necessary. While it can be a horribly debilitating disorder, understanding it and approaching it with patience and without stigma can greatly improve lives – for those with the disorder and those without it alike.
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Jess Canaan is a twenty-three year old non-binary woman with BPD, PTSD and Bipolar II. They have a beautiful two-year-old and an amazing fiance. They work as a freelance artist and novelist who plays the guitar in their spare time.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person standing next to a brick wall. A faded secondary image of the same person is also standing next to the wall, their face facing the camera. They have dark long hair, a black shirt, a silver necklace, and are wearing jeans. The image on the left has their hand outstretched to the secondary image. Source: Kathryn]