Although I strongly believe that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, writing this post still fills me with fear as I am sharing such a personal part of my life. But even though I am nervous to upload this piece of writing, I think it’s important to raise awareness for a condition that is quite unknown and sadly, pretty stigmatised. If this post can spread some awareness and understanding or even just make others experiencing similar problems feel less alone, then it is worth it. Also, hiding has never helped me get anywhere in my life so I’m going to try the opposite approach – being honest and open about my mental health problems. So here it goes – I have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or, the newer European term, Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD). This is the last time you’ll see these written out in my blog because honestly, who got time and patience for these long terms. Not me.
What is a personality disorder?
Before I even start talking about BPD, let’s shine some light onto a controversial term, personality disorder. In my experience, this term adds to the stigma since it makes it seem like we are fundamentally flawed and that there is something wrong with who we are. In reality, the term ‘personality disorder’ refers to a type of mental health problem, where attitudes beliefs and behaviours cause longstanding problems in our life. To quote from the Mind website: “The word ‘personality’ refers to the pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviour that makes each of us the individuals that we are. We don’t always think, feel and behave in exactly the same way – it depends on the situation we are in, the people with us and many other things. However, if you have a personality disorder you may often experience difficulties in how you think about yourself and others. And you may find it difficult to change these unwanted patterns.” Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about BPD itself.
What is BPD?
BPD is characterised by 9 symptoms (according to the DSM-IV): an intense fear of abandonment, unstable relationships, an unclear or unstable self image, impulsive and self-destructive behaviours, self harm and suicidal behaviour, extreme emotional swings, chronic feelings of emptiness, explosive anger and paranoia or dissociation when faced with extreme emotional stress.* In order to be diagnosed with BPD/EUPD, you need to meet at least 5 of these criteria and they must cause a significant amount of stress and impairment in functioning. Since you only need to meet 5 out of 9 symptoms, BPD is a very broad diagnosis and everyone is experiencing it differently. There are also different subtypes of the disorder and a wide range of functioning – I have always been very internalising and high functioning, no matter how dark things have been. This is a blessing and sometimes a curse as well since it’s difficult to communicate your struggles and to be recognised as needing help by mental health services. Mental health professionals have told me in my face that my problems weren’t really that bad because I still had friends or because I was still at university. Just finally getting a diagnosis was hard and frustrating after my problems were dismissed as a teenage phase or self-esteem issues. But I’ll write a separate post about that.
Can BPD be treated?
Yes. I have heard so many times that people with BPD cannot recover but it’s far from the truth. In fact many people with BPD recover to a point where they don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis anymore and the disorder is said to get less severe with age. Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) is a recommended treatment but there are different options out there. Although mood stabilisers and antidepressants can help, therapy is the main treatment. I am currently on the waiting list for a DBT programme and I really hope that it will make a difference for me.
How does BPD affect me?
BPD affects me in many ways that can differ from day to day. To me an intense fear of abandonment means constantly waiting for people to leave me and getting very distressed at small signs such as people not replying immediately or cancelling or sometimes even just them talking about other friends. An intense fear of abandonment comes with feelings of jealousy and reactions that might seem extreme to others – all of these things are hard on their own but they also leave me feeling ashamed and pretty much reinforce the belief that I am a shitty friend. It’s a vicious cycle that is very hard to break. Many people with BPD – including me – struggle with splitting and black and white thinking when it comes to relationships. In my head, friendships often end and start again several times a day, depending on what just happened a moment ago. This also explains relationship problems although for me, these are mostly internal and consist of me withdrawing from people since I am convinced people are better off without me. I am sure pretty sure this emotion is called ‘Mauerbauertraurigkeit’ (even in other languages apart from German) – it implies the notion of building a wall around you to prevent yourself from getting hurt. But of course this wall ultimately means isolation. The ironic thing about BPD is that you know the thoughts are somewhat irrational but yet can’t help acting on them or at least being taunted by them. Over the years, I have pushed away friends which I very much regret looking back – today I am more aware of these problems but I still in intense fear of ending up alone and basically think that once people have seen the real me, there is no way they will want to stay, even if they keep showing me otherwise.
BPD is often said to be the emotional equivalent of having third degree burns all over your body – every little touch can affect you and hurt you. I am triggered very easily and often experience emotional distress after small incidents, unable to calm myself down for a long time. BPD means I can go from feeling elated to suicidal within a minute. My mood is very easily affected and can go immensely up and down many times a day to the point where I can’t even keep track of my mood changes. Between the fear of abandonment and the mood changes, BPD often has my world collapse multiple times a day and always challenges me to rebuild it, it’s exhausting. Every emotions feels intense whether that is loneliness, anger, despair or anxiety and a lot of the time, it feels like simply having emotions hurts and like I am caught in a never ending storm of distress.
If you have been following me for a while you know that I also struggle with depression and even though they overlap BPD and depression still feel very different to me. If I had to compare BPD and depression I would say that for me, depression feels like drowning and BPD feels like being on fire. Trying to put out that fire often makes me do things that are soothing in the moment, but harmful in the long run. One of the worst things about BPD for me is being distressed but being unable to help myself, instead going back to self-destructive patterns and putting oil into the flames. A lot of the time, these problematic behaviours are the only thing momentarily calming the storm of emotions. BPD is very stigmatised and sufferers are often said to be dramatic and manipulative – in my case the only person that I manipulate is myself. Even when things are going my way, my self-destructive mind is trying to ruin it for me, it’s like it doesn’t believe that I am worth the fight and that I am worthy of happiness. BPD is scary and confusing, it makes you doubt even your own doubts and most of all it makes you doubt if you deserve recovery.
The flip side to intense emotions is chronic emptiness for me, feeling like you are completely void, like there is no substance whatsoever. I know that some people with BPD welcome this break in a way but to me it feels even less like ‘me’ and at least intense emotions show me that I am alive. Also, not feeling leaves me incredibly bored and often pushes me to try and ‘shock myself back’ and manipulate things for myself. Ah, that annoying self-destructiveness. Facing extreme stress, dissociation comes into play which I can’t even fully describe, it’s odd. It’s like you’re there but you’re not. I know it’s a way of my mind protecting me from when things get too much, though.
Another huge part of BPD is what they call an unstable self image – my self image and the way I feel about myself changes a lot depending on the day and depending on who I am with. A lot of the time I feel like I’m defining myself through others and I often feel like I got many different parts of myself that I can’t quite connect. Growing up, I always felt like I was just copying characters out of books and movies, unable to form anything consistent myself. It can be quite disturbing feeling like you’re changing so much and like there isn’t anything to fall back on. However, I’ve been trying to see the good side as well – I can really get into something and I can reinvent myself a lot. Still, some stability would be appreciated.
Speaking of more positive things – BPD isn’t all negative. To me, BPD also means getting to experience positive emotions intensely and connecting to others. I have recently read a brilliant article about people with BPD being ‘gifted’ with emotional intuition and sensitivity towards others. Although I was skeptical at first, this article changed the narrative for me and I highly recommend checking it out. I do believe that my struggles with mental illness have made me a more understanding and compassionate person and it’s definitely contributed to my plan to help others in a similar situation. Also despite the fear that comes with relationships, I have experienced people with BPD to be very loyal, probably because we know how painful abandonment can feel. I would basically do anything for my friends and any stranger in the street, I hate seeing anyone upset. Yes, I am the kind of person who speaks to someone at Starbucks because they look upset and I start to worry. But the bottom line is that even if nothing positive came out of this, I am more than a mental health patient. I am a friend, a daughter, a sister, a student, an environmentalist, a blogger, an avid reader and tea drinker. Most of all, I am a person who deserves love and support, like anyone else out there.
*Disclaimer: I am not a professional – if you’re worried about having BPD or feel like you need help please talk to someone (and if they don’t listen talk to someone else, I know it can be a struggle to be heard x).