The Curse and Blessing of Borderline Personality Disorder
It was a Saturday night and we had been to a pub in downtown Manhattan to watch Liverpool lose yet another match. After the usual post-match complaining and obligatory consoling shots of whisky from our favourite bartender, we left for the journey home. The subway squealed along the tracks into Brooklyn as I began what must have been our millionth argument that week.
Emerging from underground, I demanded that he tell me who he was texting. There was no doubt in my mind that it was another girl. With the argument, ongoing, we reached home, he decided to take a shower, and I decided to check his unattended phone. I knew the passcode and it certainly wasn’t the first time I had checked his phone.
I put the passcode in. Incorrect Passcode. I must have put it in wrong. I tried again. Incorrect Passcode.
NO WAY. I stormed into the bathroom yelling something along the lines of, “Are you fucking kidding me!? You changed your passcode so that I couldn’t see who you were texting!?” I then tossed his phone into the running water of the shower. Once he got out of the shower he retaliated by throwing my phone against the exposed brick wall (Yeah, we were that Brooklyn couple.) in the living room — the screen shattered. Upon seeing the unusable screen, I pulled his television down onto the floor and used it as a trampoline, stomping barefoot until the screen was a giant spider web of broken glass.
How had things gotten out of hand so quickly? Why did I even think he was texting another girl? This wasn’t normal. Normal people don’t act like this. The next day I made an appointment with a psychiatrist.
“You’re battling depression and anxiety that’s brought on by something called Borderline Personality Disorder.” The rest of the session was a blurred tangle of words that weren’t familiar to me and feelings that I couldn’t quite place. Tears ran hot down my face and salted my quivering lips. My stomach pulled and twisted like challah bread while his words floated through the still air as bubbles just out of reach.
I had an hour-long subway ride home to unpack the feelings. I was relieved to have a diagnosis and find out that there were treatment options, confused as to what exactly this meant for the rest of my life, and terrified about all the work that was ahead of me.
I still needed time to process. I cried for three days and didn’t tell anyone I had been diagnosed. When I felt like I had read enough about BPD to be able to explain it to somebody else I approached my boyfriend. He held me tightly and told me it would be okay. I didn’t believe him.
A few weeks later my dad was away on business so I spent the night with my mom. In the middle of cooking dinner, I hit her with the news. She peppered me with questions including, “Why didn’t you tell me you went to the doctor? I didn’t even know anything was wrong,” “Is it curable,” and “Is there treatment?” She cried with me, held me tightly, and told me it would be okay. I didn’t believe her.
Over the next few weeks I started anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication and signed up for online therapy. According to my medication, I had to quit drinking. As a young twenty-something who hung out in Liverpool pubs with pints of Guinness at 8am, I had to tell my friends why I was no longer getting drunk with them. Most of them were supportive saying things like, “That’s nothing, most of my friends are legitimately crazy.” Or “Okay, well, good for you for seeking help.”
Telling my family wasn’t nearly as simple or quick to do. At first, I didn’t tell anybody beyond my parents and brother. I had always been the golden child in our family. I was the first of my generation to graduate college, despite being the youngest. I’m the only one of my generation to have moved out of our home state. I’ve always been the ambitious and accomplished one.
Tarnishing that image isn’t what held me back from telling them, though. It was the fact that I didn’t want anyone to question my diagnosis. Given my reputation within the family, I certainly didn’t seem to be battling depression, anxiety, or BPD to them. People like to think they know you better than to have missed all the signs pointing to mental illness. They like to think that the face you show them daily is the only face you own and they have a hard time believing that it’s really just a mask to hide the dark demons burning down your soul.
Over the next few months, I told a few family members and hoped that word would spread so I wouldn’t have to do much more telling. I got several, “I don’t really think you have that,” “Did you get a second opinion?” and my favourite, “That’s crazy.” No, no. Let me fix that for you: I’m crazy.
The next year of recovery and treatment was completely life-altering. My diet, which had mostly consisted of macaroni & cheese and hamburgers, became a whole foods plant-based diet. For the first time since I was a kid, I discovered active hobbies that I enjoyed such as running and kickboxing. My dialectical behaviour therapy turned me onto meditation and I learned mindfulness, perhaps the most useful skill I’ve ever learned. Eventually, realising that my illness had tarnished any hope of a healthy relationship between my boyfriend and I, we split up.
In a way, I was starting completely over. As many sufferers of BPD do, I had made my relationship with my ex the centre of my life and my sole purpose of existing. When we split and I moved to a new apartment, I realised just how isolated I had made myself. Making friends was something I no longer even knew how to do, my social anxiety was at an all-time high, and for months I was the loneliest I had ever been.
Unable to make friends, I turned to dating apps for human connection. Rarely did I make the sort of human connection I was seeking, but often it was worth it to not sit at home thinking of the many ways I could kill myself. There were a few hopeful prospects for friendships and/or romantic relationships and each time I was faced with the decision of when and how to tell them about my mental illness.
There is no right time to tell a guy you’re interested in that you have an illness which causes black and white thinking — that one moment you will be thinking about the beautiful ways his light hugs your soul and the next you will be thinking about the destructive things you would like to do to his life (breaking his TV, calling the cops on him, texting his ex-girlfriends, etc. — all things I’ve done or threatened to do).
There is no right time to tell him that the carefree ‘Fuck yeah, let’s take a 5-hour drive to hike a mountain for sunrise on our second date’ attitude isn’t so much a personality trait as an exhibition of the impulsivity caused by BPD.
There is no right time to tell him that antisocial behavior, hostility, compulsivity, irritability, self-destructive behavior, self-harm, lack of restraint, anger, anxiety, general discontent, guilt, loneliness, mood swings, sadness, depression, distorted self-image, grandiosity, and narcissism are all things I deal with regularly and that by spending time with me he, too, would have to deal with them regularly.
There is no right time to tell him that the first time I self-harmed I was 14 years old and the last time I contemplated suicide only didn’t become a suicide attempt because he texted me just before the tip of my favourite paring knife pierced my skin.
There is no right time or right way to talk about my mental illness, but I must talk about it. For my own sake, for the sake of any man who is interested in me and the friends and family who spend time with me, and for the sake of all the other people out there who can’t talk about their own mental illness. I am a privileged sufferer of mental illness and I must use my status to erase the stigma for those who aren’t so privileged.
I come from a white, middle-class, loving home in a first-world country. My dad’s health insurance covers my psychiatrist fees and my family’s warmth covers my open wounds. I was born strong-willed and unashamed to be different and I was born averagely intelligent. I’ve grown to become averagely well-read, well-spoken, and attractive. I am a privileged sufferer.
Getting treatment, while not at all easy, is much simpler for me than my uninsured, lower economic class, different skin colour, different locale, less loved counterparts. Having the will to even face the challenge of treatment is much easier for me than my less hard-headed counterparts. Feeling confident in sharing my struggles with people is far easier for me than my counterparts who fear being different, are not as well-spoken, and don’t have a pretty face — because every time I tell a romantic interest of mine that I have BPD, I see his eyes clicking through the math to determine if I am otherwise successful enough, intelligent enough, and attractive enough for him to put up with my crazy. What if I were ugly, dumb, or unsuccessful? He probably wouldn’t deem me worthy of his effort — as disgusting as that is.
So, for all of those deemed not worth the effort by romantic interests, loved ones, friends, the healthcare system, your school, your job, or society: I see you. I hear you. I will be your voice and I will fight for you.
You deserve to know that you are loved and appreciated. You are unique in the most positive sense. Your struggles are real, they’re challenging, and they deserve to be addressed. You are not alone. Even when you feel like you have nobody else, remember that you have me. I am holding your hand as we trudge through this desolate landscape together. I am hugging you tightly when you feel there is no love in this world for you. I am grabbing your wrists before you slice them, before you stick your hand down your throat, and before you throw a punch at the partner who loves you.
I see you curled into a ball, hunched over a toilet, standing on a bridge. I hear you sobbing, screaming, pleading. I feel you hurting, your heart tearing, your soul crushing.
You are not alone. I am here. And I am not going anywhere.
Remember this too: Of all the negative things borderline personality disorder sufferers experience, we have some truly great qualities. This horrible illness has its advantages and I’d like to list them. This way, people who don’t know about the disorder aren’t so scared of it when they meet people who have it and people who have it remember how fucking amazing they are regardless of the way they are made to feel by their illness and society.
Firstly, we love deeply.
In my experience, BPD boils down to underdeveloped emotional regulation capabilities. Somewhere along the way, we missed a lesson in how to deal with our feelings. Often, BPD sufferers are described as cold because we tend to cope by shutting off our emotions altogether. Rather than wearing our hearts on our sleeves and immediately becoming excited, angry, happy, or upset when something happens, we just flip the feelings switch off and avoid emotions completely.
However, when we let people in we allow them to flip that switch back on and while that means they may get more anger than anybody else, they also get more love, compassion, and empathy. Personally, I like to shower my loved ones with surprise gifts and home-cooked meals, more hugs and kisses than a new-born puppy, and love notes/poems/essays that should really be reserved for some sort of ‘World’s Cheesiest’ collection.
We are loyal.
People with BPD have an immense fear of abandonment that drives nearly every action in a close relationship, whether it be with family, friends or partners. This can cause an unmanageable amount of jealous behaviour, but for me, it means I’m also the most loyal person you’ll ever love. Because of my own fear of abandonment, I refuse to abandon others. Sure, I sometimes stay in relationships or friendships longer than I should because of this but I would absolutely never do anything purposefully to make a person I care about feel unwanted or unloved.
We are intuitive and empathetic.
When we are allowing ourselves to feel we are incredibly intuitive. I am often analysing (even over-analyzing) people’s feelings and actions. This allows me to act in accordance with their emotions instead of ploughing through them with no regard. I’ve been told I’m an amazing listener and give stellar advice — all my friends come to me with their problems and I love being that person for them.
Finally, we are fucking strong.
Most of us have had so many bad days that it’s easier to count the good ones. We’ve faced addiction, eating disorders, self-harm, suicidality, and trauma. We’ve had to live with stigmas and wade through the mental healthcare labyrinth. I would never wish this disorder on another soul, but it has made me incredibly resilient and for that I am thankful. I do not break easily anymore, what are big problems to most are minor inconveniences to me, and I have so much confidence in who I am as a person because I have been broken down and built back up so many times by this damn illness.
Borderline Personality Disorder is a life-long struggle. The time and energy it requires just to live a ‘normal’ life is daunting and exhausting. Every day I make it through is another day I didn’t succumb to my illness, though. And every person I talk to about it is another person less likely to stigmatise it.
I’m doing my part for mental health. Will you do yours?
Written by Kammie Melton