Borderline Personality Disorder: what it really feels like from the voice of lived experience…
I’m wary of diagnosis. Not because it’s not useful to understand more about what’s going on with you when things really aren’t right, but because often diagnoses are:
- Used by professionals to make decisions about a person’s behaviour rather than working with their actual feelings or their experiences
- Used to medicate someone without thorough investigation
- Used against someone in abusive relationships
- Support stereotypical gender or racial profiling
- Sought after when they won’t help
- Used to box an entire person rather than just something that is going on in their lives or something that happened to them
Having some close friends, family and clients who have found relief in diagnosis and treatment, I wouldn’t want to take that comfort of diagnosis away.
At the very least it’s a way to find other people who know what you’re going through. These days- thanks largely to social media- people who have a mental illness ‘diagnosis’ can find each other.
They also get to describe the experience for themselves.
This has opened the gateway, for the first time in history, for people to really talk about, own and share what is happening to them without restriction.
And often- especially in the case of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)- the medical descriptions and diagnostic criteria are so outrageously offensive (and misogynistic if you want to go there) that I think it’s really important as a mental health professional and a friend to understand what is going on FOR the person.
Chuck the hideous DSM 5 away and let’s talk to each other as humans, try and understand each other.
And luckily enough I happen to know an extraordinarily generous and poetic soul who has written this post.
It’s his response to the diagnostic criteria of BPD, his own descriptions of what it’s like when things are at their absolute worst.
Let’s be clear: BPD is basically trauma.
And trauma is caused.
You aren’t born with it, although it may have occurred as a result of something that was no one’s fault or a whole bunch of experiences you don’t even remember. Check out this post if you want to know more about trauma.
It’s very likely that many mental ‘illnesses’ are caused, and if we accept that and learn from it, we might be able to help people more.
So let’s stop victim-blaming and start being curious. You may save someone’s life just by seeking to understand.
And thank you to the wonderful person who wrote this. I’m so glad you are in my life.
Borderline Personality Disorder traits:
Intense fear of abandonment, real or imaginary. Having intense relationships with lots of strife, and seeing the other person as “all-good” or “all bad.”
It’s like there’s an umbilical cord between me and the people closest to me (most significantly in affairs of the heart or close family). It is a delicate tightrope to keep this umbilical cord at the 50/50 mark. I rely on the oxygenated blood in that umbilical cord. And I’m exquisitely fine-tuned to feel any change in the balance of that cord.
I mean, it’s oxygen, it’s keeping me alive.
There’s little margin for error despite the fact that the calibration changes in every single interaction, or indeed seemingly unconnected independent action that the other person takes.
Some examples on the scale:
- Slightly ill at ease: I can see you read my text message three hours ago and I haven’t had a response yet. Or maybe you make a derogatory/teasing remark about my hair and I can’t forget it.
- Increasingly precarious: You say you will call me tomorrow, then I don’t hear from you.
- All-consuming turmoil: You’ve gone on holiday for two weeks, the Facebook happy snaps look amazing, I don’t know who some of the hot men in the photos are (despite studying their FB profiles to try and figure it out) and you’re having a great time and possibly not even thinking about me.
And I feel really pissed off by your actions, whilst also getting pissed off with myself for being irrational with largely baseless emotion/feeling.
The classic, “I hate you, don’t leave me”.
Then the cord might become more like a rope to be used in tug of war, where all I want is the rope to be exactly in the middle but I end up pulling too hard (with passive-aggression, anger, undermining, belittling, arguing etc.)
Before you know it the other person has been pulled off their feet.
That wasn’t what you wanted so you feel crap.
The other person didn’t even know they were having a tug of war.
The funny thing is, you may not understand or be able to articulate what is needed for the “rope to be at the halfway point” but you can still FEEL when it is.
Everything is based on feeling and everything is ‘felt’.
Everything needs to be at the 50/50 mark and halfway. The greater the number of close interpersonal relationships in my life that seem off-balance (be it immediate family, close friends, exes, old flames, or the person I kinda fancy in the office and hang on their every word), the more chaotic and stressful life is.
The more it feels like the plates I am spinning are smashing on the floor.
Strapped in a car going too fast weaving in and out of traffic, soon I might find it’s just one big pile-up on the freeway of life. And every so often, it is!
It can turn on a six-pence with the same person being on a pedestal one minute and in the gutter underfoot the next. And I’m perhaps not even sure of the chain of thought that brought it about.
It’s not so much a chain of thought as a change of feeling.
Limbic system in overdrive.
I must be loved by all the important people in my life at all times or else I am worthless. I must be completely competent in all ways to be a worthwhile person. I must look as acceptable as possible to ensure the ongoing equilibrium.
If I am good enough and try harder then I will crack all this.
Life will fall into place if I keep striding through the salt pans and get to the other side of the desert, over their beyond the heat haze.
I’ll be worthy and know what I’m all about by then.
However if you want to get too close, then something must be wrong with you. Nobody could possibly want to get with the “real” me as he is too messy and unlovable.
I start with the assumption nobody will want to talk to me or see me so you really have to be showing interest loud and clear for me to get the message.
Feeling unsure about one’s identity; a lack of “personhood” or non-existence.
The reason I make a good boyfriend is because the moment I’m with you, I’m with you. You are the centre of the universe and the person on the other end of my main umbilical cord and have my full attention.
I am really just an assortment of clothes strewn on the bedroom floor. Put together to make a look that I think works for the situation I’m in with you. I’m just a brand created to get with you and be acceptable.
If you spend your whole life just hacking through the undergrowth, with unexploded devices littering the path in front of you, and looking at random rocks and rubble …. then you don’t realise it’s actually one of the temples of Angkor Wat.
You can’t take a step back and appreciate the whole picture, the bigger helicopter view.
Only the detail of each carved piece of rock. And fuck knows how all those bits of stone actually piece together to make any sort of cohesive whole.
It just seems too fragile and precarious to hang together.
Also, if you have the memory of an elephant and can replay all your worst hits in an instant and relive the feeling and emotion of it completely, then you don’t get past that scar and it’s still an open wound.
You are the burns victim with no skin who feels pain when there’s a breeze.
Feeling empty, like one has a black hole inside them that can never fill up.
Speaks for itself really. See the rest of this tirade.
And that’s exactly what it feels like. But no matter how many people or how much rubble fell into that hole, it would never fill up. Because that doesn’t come from the external world, or hating the internal, it comes from self-acceptance. Self-acceptance and unconditional love for oneself is the only way that hole is every going to be adequately plugged. And for the reasons above, that’s not an easy thing to achieve.
Dislike at being alone.
When I’m alone it’s like I cease to be. And it’s a struggle to be productive. To follow through on things that need to be done and make any sort of slow and steady progress.
And I’d rather have a knight in shining armour than be left to my own devices to keep any forward momentum going.
Engaging in impulsive “pain management” behaviors, such as going on spending sprees, having promiscuous sex, driving recklessly, abusing drugs or alcohol, binge eating, breaking the law, threatening suicide or making attempts, and engaging in self-harm.
Grindr is pain management. Like putting a dummy in a baby’s mouth, I can shut everything else out and just focus on receiving compliments and beguiling strangers with my charm, even although we will never meet.
So it’s harmless in the sense that nobody is contracting STI’s or full of the shame of a bad hook-up that can come from following through on such interaction. It can also be done while lying in bed your own bed with your head glued to the pillow with no energy to move.
Plus there’s no vomit to clean up the next morning like there is with alcohol.
If I want to self harm, then I will not eat for 24-48 hours. As a means of depriving myself and showing that I get what I think I deserve. Cutting or any other sort of mutilation would be unsightly. Visible scars. So a long, slow game of attrition and abandoning myself works best.
Plus, some people swear by the 5+2 fasting diet, so maybe I’m actually going to live longer in the process.
Driving a little Fiesta at 170kmh on the Stuart Highway is some sort of pain management and liberation. Driving or jumping on public transport has always been my go to.
If you’ve left point A but not in point B yet then there’s some sort of freedom to be had in that.
Plus if there’s the added frisson of risk about maybe hitting a kangaroo, well, that’s just the will of Allah if it happens.
Being emotionally unstable: frequent and fast mood changes; uncontrolled, intense anger and rage; and intense sadness and irritability.
I’m in a little dinghy at the mercy of the storms of my emotions.
Waking up in the morning, it’s generally as if you have to piece together the moods of yesterday and the last few days to get a sense of where things are at. Although that’s no indication of how I might feel this morning but it helps to get a feel and reminder of who I am these days.
Like looking through mental photo albums.
Or picking myself out in a police line-up in an investigation.
Consider what’s on that day and psych myself up for wading through work or maybe even just getting out of bed. Because there’s a whole lot of acting involved in drawing up the energy to perform at work and not make the torrent of negative thinking and criticism apparent to others around me.
The price of that smiling mask is that there’s an oil painting in the loft of the same man, showing all the pain and anguish.
And the more I smile and swing my arms like a windmill to get through the day, the more ugly the figure in the painting becomes. The more removed from myself I become and the more repulsed by the “real me” under the mask I become.
The primitive and animalistic being who is jumping around baying for blood.
Now triggers can be anywhere.
Some days there are none and others they come at you hard and fast. A classic example might be hearing an Adele song playing in a shop as you walk past the door and suddenly you FEEL every inch of the hurt you had at the point you played that song after an argument three years earlier.
Or going back to the romantic waterhole in the middle of nowhere but this time it’s twelve months later and you’re now with friends … but you feel a sense of danger, impending jeopardy, from a place that is thick with memories.
You have happy memories, but there’s a sense of dread from now being in that spot and it’s as if a grenade might go off because you don’t want to feel old stuff.
It’s perhaps a trigger for intense sadness/anger/sentimentality/whatever despite enjoying the present moment.
Yet sometimes the tune from the past drowns out the tune you’re trying to compose in the present. Like a stadium full of vuvuzelas up against a jazz quartet. So that might change your mood!
Emptiness is a mood state all in its own right. With an odour like damp that’s hard to get out of your clothes.
Stuffing down all the emotional/feeling crap is as exhausting as constantly trying to push a boogie board under the water.
So you’re so knackered you just get inside the front door of your place, collapse on the bed and don’t even lift your head until you need to scrape yourself together the next morning.
Because the show must go on.
Rarely trusting yourself when things are going really well because it won’t last. And best not get too conceited because it will blow up in your face sooner or later.
I’ve had too many moments of, “Right, this is it. This is how it’s going to be now. This must be what it’s like to experience life as happy and confident and never again will I go back to my old ways” only for it to revert to default maybe as quickly as a few hours later and feel swept out to sea again.
People don’t really understand these visible shifts in energy, so it’s best to keep quite quiet so it’s less apparent.
Sometimes it’s honestly as if there’s a guy holding a knife to my throat making me go to bed and withdraw.
Getting out the house and carrying on the day interacting with people just seems like an impossibility, despite at least half my mind wanting to fight it.
All I can do is comply with the demands of the man with the knife at my throat and be as small as possible, whilst knowing that it makes no sense whatsoever, my mood will improve sooner or later so let’s not do anything stupid and just try ride out the storm quietly.
Paranoia in very stressful situations; episodes of numbness or “zoning out” or “dissociation”.
Being able to drive for 9 hours straight listening to the same song on repeat and have no real memory of it.
Just a memory of the road being like a treadmill.
Feeling totally unable to keep going with life because you have no energy left for it any more.
Mentally and physically.
So dear reader, you may ask… what do you do?
Well, if you recognise yourself here, then please do reach out. Try not to be too frightened.
A place to start might be to simply jump onto Instagram and check out Jane the Clapp who has lived experience, understands trauma, and takes no shit from the ‘professional’ world as well as the alt health world about what is and is not appropriate for those trauma and mental health.
There are bloggers like Monica Cassani on Everything Matters, Beyond Meds sending out email updates regularly and a wealth of resources.
Then you could check out the bpd foundation website for Australians, with the slogan ‘Support Promote Advocate’ and the group is concerned with building a positive culture around BPD.
All of the above can recommend books and other resources.
Most importantly- say it with me- I Am Not Alone.
You Are Not Alone.
You Are Not Alone.
And to my friend who wrote about his experiences: thank you again for sharing- I look forward to a written update as i’m sure anyone who reads this is too.
Love you. OXO
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Images are all attributed to the incredibly talented artist Kaye Freeman. Check out more of her work here.