Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder

The Stigma-Free Society recently had an eye-opening and important conversation with a thirty-year-old woman who lives with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). She wishes to remain anonymous due to the stigma that is unfortunately often associated with personality disorders.

For those of us who are unfamiliar with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), can you tell us what it’s like to live with this condition?

Basically, Borderline Personality Disorder feels like having no skin. When I was younger, I felt like I was getting poked really hard all the time by things that didn’t seem to bother anyone else. You feel things at such a high intensity, which is great when you’re happy, but becomes awful when someone hurts you. What’s frustrating is that people often don’t even understand why or how much it hurts, and you start walking around feeling like you’re crazy. Before I knew what was going on, I felt so lonely and misunderstood. When I felt sad, the sadness took over my whole body. When I was angry, I felt hot all over, especially in my head. But the worst part was it just hurt all the time and I never knew how to make it go away. The worst I ever felt was when I was a young adult in relationships, and I always picked guys who weren’t stable. I quickly became that mean emotional girl that they hated. Relationships were an all-encompassing whirlpool of confusion. I completely lost myself in them, and at the beginning it seemed perfect, but it wasn’t long before I felt that unbearable pain, that feeling of being poked constantly by everything someone says and does. It was awful and my stomach still aches when I look back on it.

Now that I know what’s going on and have found the right kind of therapy, I feel…softened? I think that might be the word. I still feel things much stronger than other people, but I’m getting better about learning how to soothe myself. I’m starting to build an identity that isn’t dependent on whoever I’m dating. Do I still have days when I feel completely overwhelmed? Days when I feel an aching emptiness? Absolutely, but I can cope with it now, and I know it’s going to eventually pass. Also, I think knowing that the way I feel emotions is about ten times stronger than anyone else makes it easier to be patient with myself and others. To be honest, I don’t think I would trade that part of myself for anything. But to this day, it feels like everyone else has this manual of how to get through life that I was cheated out of.

There are a lot of false assumptions and stereotypes about borderline personality disorder. Can you talk about the stigma you have experienced and how you’ve dealt with this stigma?

I can definitely speak to this. I still don’t talk about BPD to anyone except really close friends. Even my therapist, who I trust and admire so much, warns me to be careful about who finds out. And not because she’s ashamed, but she knows how people might react and that knowing I have BPD might make people look at me differently. It’s annoying, because basically I just have a hard time regulating my emotions, and it sounds so harmless when it’s spelled out like that.

When someone suggested I might be struggling with this disorder, I was in my third year of college. I wasn’t in a good place, so I went to the student counseling services center. They told me I should consider inpatient treatment and that I might have BPD. And of course, I googled it and basically had a nervous breakdown. There were all of these websites of men saying how awful women with BPD are, articles about therapists refusing to treat you, how treatment never works, how there’s no hope. I decided then and there I didn’t have BPD and let it go. If there wasn’t so much stigma, maybe I would have found the right help earlier. I can still remember sitting in my car and reading all those terrible things. My heart broke in half. I think with personality disorders, even the label is like saying your whole “you” is wrong. But even now I’ll be honest, even in the mental health field, a lot of people either refuse to treat you or cast judgment on this disorder. And it still stings. Recently, I had to reach out to our government access center to get medication for depression, and my therapist told me not to even mention BDP in my assessment.

What are some strategies, treatments and supports that have helped in your recovery?

My therapist saved my life, one hundred percent. Reading the right literature and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) workbooks are great as well. The Borderline Personality Disorder by Kim Gratz and Alexander Chapman was probably my favourite book on the topic. I Hate You Don’t Leave Me by Kreisman and Straus was the first book I read that really helped me understand the disorder. The more I understand this disorder, the easier it feels to manage. But you need to read accurate and compassionate information and stay away from the stigmatizing websites. It’s better today, but some of them are still there. I also like to think of BPD as this dragon that comes out to try and protect me, but the more I can take care of myself and keep myself in a good environment, that dragon can rest. Also, this might be too frank, but date the right person. Relationships become so much easier to manage when you date honest, dependable, and stable people.

What do you wish people knew about borderline personality disorder?

I’m not evil or crazy, and I really wish there was a way to communicate just how painful it can feel sometimes. We’re not like the stereotypes, and I hate when people label us as manipulative. Oftentimes, a lot of what’s happening is due to trauma or learned behaviour when we’re young. It’s true we struggle with boundaries, and at the beginning of a relationship I want to be around someone every second of the day. But I can respect boundaries and back off. At the end of day, we’re just like everyone else trying to fall in love and be loved. Relationships are hard for everyone. And I’m a human not a monster, I’m just a human who has monster feelings.

What is the best way people can support someone living with borderline personality disorder? Can you describe a scenario where you received helpful support from a friend or family member?

I think the best thing people should remember is if someone with BPD is getting really upset or worked up, applying logic or arguments to the situation is the worst thing you can do. Just validate what they’re feeling and let people calm down. When the emotions get too intense, they take over and it’s like a tornado. The more you invalidate or disagree with what they’re feeling, the more it’s going to take over and feel all-consuming. Having a plan for when that happens is helpful. For example, I have a little rock my partner hands me that I can hold to help me feel grounded.

Also, read! The more you know about what’s going on, the less confusing it all is. The partner I’m with now knows a lot about what I’m dealing with, and we can talk about it in a very open and safe way. I had one partner that refused to read the book on BPD that I have, and it was so frustrating because he kept labeling me as crazy and unreasonable. But I can’t stress this enough, make sure it’s the right literature! A compassionate and accepting outlook makes all the difference