[Content warning: mental health, self-harm]
I first pitched this article to qmunicate a year ago, when the ‘Let’s Talk About’ series first launched. Since then, I’ve been trying to find the words to adequately explain my diagnosis and all the baggage that comes with it. Being diagnosed with a mental illness is never easy, but just like physical illness, some diagnoses sting more than others. When I speak to people diagnosed with more socially acceptable mental illnesses, they speak of the moment they received their diagnosis as one of relief. It felt like they finally understood what was wrong and how to fix it. But for me, it felt like I’d been loaded with a burden that would forever weigh me down. I had Borderline Personality Disorder. Everything did make sense, but thinking of a future with BPD was not a relief.
It’s not the diagnosis itself that frightened me, but rather the stigma attached to it. So called “borderlines” are maligned even within the mental health profession. We’re accused of being difficult, needy and manipulative. Psychiatrists’ notes are often filled not with descriptions of patients and their symptoms, but with observations on the motives of the patient and the feelings of the psychiatrist towards them. Where does this come from?
Popular culture hasn’t helped. Say the words borderline personality disorder and people’s minds are most likely to jump to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or Winona Ryder in Girl Interrupted. BPD epitomises the manic pixie dream girl trope. The erratic but exciting woman romanticised in everything from film to young adult fiction, and it is a diagnosis disproportionately given to women. The reality of living with the disorder is far less romantic and far more painful than these depictions suggest.
The term Borderline Personality Disorder is a relic of the disorder’s conception in the 1970s. Initially, psychiatrists believed that sufferers were on the borderline between psychosis and neurosis. Whilst this belief was disproved, the name stuck. No one wants to be told that their personality, the very essence of their being, is disordered. However, it turns out this part of the label is not entirely accurate either. As it stands there is no medical definition of a personality. So, what exactly is BPD?
For the most part, borderline personality disorder is about our emotions and how intensely we feel them. People with this diagnosis are prone to emotional extremes, and may suffer from black and white thinking, where something or someone is either good or bad with no room for nuance in between. BPD sufferers also struggle with building and maintaining relationships. It is not uncommon for a BPD sufferer to present at a psychiatrist office with a history of intense but short-lived relationships. However, just like any other mental health diagnosis, every person with BPD will have a unique experience. I can’t speak for everyone with BPD any more than one depression sufferer speaks for everyone with depression. So here I hope to give an insight in to my own experience of Borderline Personality Disorder, and perhaps give a human face to an illness too often ignored or maligned.
Like many people with BPD, I experienced a series of traumas at a young age that affected my development, most markedly my ability to regulate my emotions and my ability to form healthy relationships. As a result, I struggle to handle my emotions, particularly negative ones. This distress intolerance led to me beginning to self-harm at the age of 12. I have a tendency to form unhealthy relationships, and become overly attached within them. I struggle with impulsive behaviour in everything from communication in my friendships to online shopping and even sexual behaviour. Ultimately, all of my behaviour is an attempt to reduce distress and meet my emotional needs. This is no different to the motives of a mentally healthy person, I’m just not as good at it as most people.
Reading about my illness online is something I try to avoid. Take a quick look at the comments section on any article about BPD and you’ll see why. You’re likely to encounter everything from someone referring to BPD as “bad person disorder”, to those wishing society still “locked up the loonies”.
However, the picture painted is not one that is familiar to me or indeed to other sufferers that I know. People with BPD are not scorned, malicious or out to ruin innocent lives. People with BPD are suffering. We are no more manipulative than any other person trying to function and be happy in this world. In fact, due to a tendency to become overly attached and seek out intense relationships, we are more likely to be the victim of physical or emotional abuse than to be an abuser. Most shockingly, 10% of people with BPD will die by suicide.
Contrary to popular belief, Borderline Personality Disorder can be effectively treated. Antidepressants can help with comorbid depression and anxiety, and therapy is proven to be effective. Those who have undergone therapies such as Psychotherapy and Dialectical behavioural therapy have reported complete relief from symptoms. BPD is not a fundamental flaw in my character. It is an illness, one that is a part of me but can be controlled. Currently, I am in a happy and stable relationship, have just graduated from university with a 2:1 degree, have a network of close friends and I hold down a full time job. However, even when I am not considered high functioning, I do not deserve the stigma heaped on to me by the label of BPD.
I do have Borderline Personality Disorder, but there is so much more to me. I’m political. I’m a feminist. I bake a lot and watch too much Gilmore Girls. I’ve been told I’m funny. And contrary to the stigma of my diagnosis, I’m empathetic. When you feel every emotion to an extreme, the thought of someone you love feeling the same way is agonising.
It is time we talked about Borderline Personality Disorder. It is time we cleared up the misconceptions and discarded the shame and stigma. Most importantly, it’s time we started treating everyone with a mental illness with kindness and support. Because ultimately, that is what everyone deserves, regardless of the palatability of the label that has been ascribed to them.