a woman with her hand out

When I was first diagnosed correctly with borderline personality disorder (BPD), I was 27 or 28 years old. I had spent years in and out of psychiatrist and psychologist offices. I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, severe depression,anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder general anxiety disorder and a number of other disorders that didn’t quite fit the bill. This is not to say I don’t have some of those, because I do. Alongside the borderline personality disorder, I live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which caused it, social and general anxiety, mild obsessive tendencies and severe depression.

My psychiatrist who diagnosed me did so after months of meetings with her and my therapist. They finally ran me through the list of symptom after they had discovered I exhibited all but one on a fairly frequent basis, as well as a history of them. When it was finally explained to me, my doctor couldn’t recommend anything other than helping me find an antidepressant and an anxiety medication to help manage the worst of it.

However, the worst thing about living with BPD is the assumptions people make about you and then proceed to voice to you. Here are three assumptions I have gotten regularly, often enough that I try to avoid bringing it up in front of people I don’t consider among my closest friends.

1. “You’re crazy. Like, you know, psychopathic and terrible. You must be a narcissist.”

No, not at all. First, no one gets to call me “crazy” but me. I’m not narcissistic or psychopathic, which are, by the way, legitimate mental illnesses. Just not mine. Do some research or talk to me about it. Not every borderline personality disorder diagnosis is the same and not every person with it has all the symptoms. Generalizations about a disorder that the speaker knows almost nothing about, and certainly doesn’t live with, is just insulting.

2. “You just want attention.”

This is one of the most painful assumptions. It’s right up there with “but you don’t look sick.” Invisible illnesses are awful and do include mental illness. I have good days and bad days. I just don’t let folks see the days where I spend 18 hours in tears debating if it is all worth it or the days I can’t bring myself to leave my house and deal with humanity.

My least favorite are the days I can’t even get myself out of bed because I feel so low that it’s affecting me physically. Yes, it affects you physically when you have a mental illness. Even more to the point, no, I don’t want your attention. I am not striving for it. I’m striving to get by another day, past another episode. In fact, I don’t actually want you to ever see me when I am having an episode. I’d rather the earth swallow me. So no, I don’t “just want attention.”

3. “You’re so melodramatic.”

Sure, I’ll cop to that. I absolutely tend to be melodramatic in how I feel. However, saying that to someone who is overwhelmed by the barrage of emotions that batter them every single day is one of the worst things that a person can do. It invalidates how I feel, and it makes me less inclined to trust or speak to the person who does it about anything at all. It is damaging to me to such a degree that it can plunge me into a severe state of depression for weeks.

Every person diagnosed with this disorder is different. The disorder itself has such a broad list of comorbid disorders and illnesses that each case can be wildly and dramatically different. It’s hard to accept, but it’s harder to live with when I have to fight every step of the way for my health care, treatment and acceptance by my friends. So try and stay aware of what assumptions you make about people. You can’t always see what they are living with.

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Image via Thinkstock.


This article was originally published by Active Minds and was written by Stacy Pershall, a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau who speaks to schools and groups nationwide about mental health and eating disorders.

The place: Prairie Grove, Arkansas. The year: 1985. The setting: a bedroom closet with burnt-orange carpet and a brown slatted door. The protagonist, who’s also the antagonist: me, age 14.

The supporting (or not-so-supporting) characters: the boy who used to call me a dog, but now just stands in front of my locker every morning and barks at me while his friends laugh. The boyfriend who just broke up with me because, despite the fact that I don’t feel worthy of eating, I’m still not skinny enough. The cheerleaders in my all-white school, who think it’s an insult to say, “Gosh, Stacy, if your nose and lips were any bigger, you’d be black.” 

By the time I was in high school, I’d let them fill my brain. I no longer had any idea who I really was; they told me now. And so, in deference to them, I hid in my closet and sat on my shoes and wrote their insults on my skin with a Sharpie. DOG, I’d write across my face – I’d done it so many times I didn’t need a mirror anymore. Sometimes, when I was so hungry nausea took over, I’d allow myself to get down on my hands and knees and eat food out of a bowl on the floor. Then I’d pray for forgiveness for thinking my stomach deserved to be filled like other people’s.

The setting today: an EMDR therapist’s office in New York, where I’ve lived for 18 years. I tell her, “I’m mostly recovered since I did DBT a decade ago, but I have these things from childhood that won’t let go of me.” She places small, alternately vibrating buttons in my hands and says, “So, let’s make your brain reprocess them. Let’s make them let go.”

The acronyms: EMDR is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, but you don’t have to use your eyes; other kinds of bilateral stimulation will do. I like the buttons because they give me something to clench my fists around while I talk about the people I still want to punch. 

DBT is dialectical behavior therapy, a treatment for borderline personality disorder, which – surprise! – can be based in trauma. One of the diagnostic criteria is out-of-control rage, which makes sense; when you live in a brain filled with long-gone people who are still making fun of you, you often lash out at right-there people who aren’t.

So I close my eyes and clench the buzzers and my therapist asks me what I’d like to believe about myself. “That I’m competent,” I say. “That I’m strong. That I don’t belong to those people anymore.” And then I cry, for the millionth time, because I’m still not sure I deserve to be free.

And I remind myself of what I’ve reminded myself so many times: dogs are good. Dogs are faithful. Dogs don’t deserve to be hurt.

The next night, I stand in front of an auditorium full of college students and speak about bullying for Active Minds, like I’ve been doing for the past five years. I tell myself that instead of fighting the Prairie Grove High School class of ’89, I’m fighting stigma. I’m standing in front of a room full of people who think maybe they don’t deserve not to hurt either, and I say in a strong, competent voice that they are allowed to let go of the pain. They’re allowed to eat. They’re allowed to have skin they don’t degrade. They’re allowed to have skin, period.

And after the presentation, I text my therapist. “I did it again,” I say. “I kept a few more alive.”

“That’s what guide dogs do,” she says. “Look at their beautiful, shiny fur.”

Don’t miss Stacy Pershall live on Mental Health on The Mighty, Friday, 10/21 at 5 p.m. EST. 

For me personally, one of the most challenging aspects of having borderline personality disorder (BPD) is having a “favorite person.” When I was first diagnosed, I searched all over the internet for information about my disorder because I had no idea what it was. One aspect of my disorder not many people spoke about, but I related to most, was the idea of having a “favorite person,” or FP for short. 

The easiest way for me to describe how having an FP works is this: I’m like a dog who destroys the house when she’s left at home, but then acts really happy when the owner comes home and pretends nothing happened.

To put this into a real life situation, I will text my FP every morning when I wake up saying “good morning xx,” and if they haven’t replied within five minutes I automatically assume they either hate me or I have annoyed them. That thought sends me into utter panic and causes a lot of distress. If I were to think about it logically, I would probably tell myself they’re probably still asleep — but when it comes to having an FP all rational thinking goes out of the window. 

For example: 

FP: (talks to me all night)

Me: They love me.

FP: (doesn’t text me back in the morning)

Me: They hate me, this was all a game. I am a fool to think they ever loved me.

It is well known that people with BPD struggle with abandonment, and having an FP makes that struggle even worse. An FP is someone you absolutely adore, whether it be a friend or a partner, but the problem is you give that person the responsibility of your happiness. My first ever FP was my now ex-boyfriend. Our relationship was a struggle because without him by my side I couldn’t be happy. When he would leave, I’d be incredibly upset, which even sometimes turned into anger. I only understood he had become my FP after we broke up, and when I look back, I think if I had the knowledge and understanding I do now we would have worked better. When your partner is your FP, it can make your relationship incredibly difficult. You constantly need reassurance and validation from your FP, but sometimes asking for too much assurance comes across like you doubt them or don’t trust them, and that can lead to so many problems. 

It’s not impossible to have a relationship with your FP. It’s no walk in the park, but with a lot of dedication and hard work it can be so very rewarding. Because at the end of the day, your partner is your favorite person and being with them is awesome! The one thing you need to learn when your partner is your FP is self-validation. Now believe me, I know self-validation doesn’t come easy to people with BPD, but with practice it does become easier. You have to constantly tell yourself that your FP loves you and that you deserve to be loved by them. 

All I can say is that be proud to have an FP! It means you can show that person so much love and passion.

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My patient is sitting in front of me with a concerned look of his face.

“What’s going on in your mind?” I ask.

“Look at you. You’ve got it all together. You’re married, have kids, have a job… I want those things, but I’m not focused enough. One day I work for something, then the next day my goal will be completely different.”

He is older than me and we met each other at a job training a long time ago before I was a psychologist. Now he’s in front of me and while he’s lamenting the “wasted years,” he’s also viewing me as a person who — to put it quite bluntly – has her shit together.

You don’t even know, I think to myself. I studied two years of computer science, one of graphic design, finally finished psychology and then worked three years in neuropsychology, four in human resources and now clinical psychology. The reason: borderline personality disorder (BPD), same as him.

“I’m tired of this,” he continues. “I feel like a failure. I haven’t accomplished anything. I don’t like how my life turned out.”

While it’s true he isn’t happy with his life right now, he’s working to accomplish the things he wants to accomplish. He’s still not there, but at least he’s on track. However, this state is more than that. It’s the characteristic period of hopelessness that we BPD warriors go through.

If we look at the cycle of BPD, there’s usually an intense motivation (“World, get ready for me”) that lasts a couple of days, then the sudden and sharp decrease of motivation (“What the hell was I thinking? I can’t accomplish this”) and finally the depressive phase (“I hate my life, I’m not good enough for anything.”) He is in this last phase right now. He’s living in the darkness, the rage, the disappointment and the suicidal thoughts. I know them well.

So I try to show him the bigger picture, explaining the stage of the cycle his illness is taking him through. I tell him the goal of therapy is to have these cycles be more manageable and less significant in his life. I tell him this period will be over soon, this part of the cycle repeats sometimes and that we’ve only been in therapy for two months.

He acknowledges what I’ve said but then replies, “It’s easy for you to say because you don’t know what it’s like.”

Oh, but I do.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be so desperate to stop the voices in your brain that you will try anything.”

The small scars on my arms prove you wrong.

“It’s exhausting, I can’t live like this. Who can ever be happy this way?”

It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. You can have a life worth living.

He’s going through one of the most difficult emotions a human being can experience: Hopelessness. Hopelessness is a thick fog that permeates everything it touches. It suffocates, poisons and steals the worth of everything. He needs hope.

So I do it.

I take my armor off and become completely vulnerable and exposed.

“I know you feel lonely and feel like no one understands you. Not even me. How would I know, right? I know that you feel like a failure because you have dreams you haven’t accomplished while everyone else seems to be on track with their own dreams. I know you feel like you are a burden to those who surround you and you constantly feel guilty for that. I know that you get to the point where you hate yourself for not being stronger, smarter, braver and more focused. I know because that person is me. I don’t know it out of a text book, I know it because I’ve lived it.

And you know what else I know? I know there is hope and help. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be able to sit here in front of you or my other patients. I didn’t believe I’d be able to have a family and yet I have a wonderful husband and two sons. I’m going to be completely honest with you. You can feel better and have a good life. I’m not necessarily saying you will be ‘cured,’ but I am saying you can manage your symptoms if you know yourself and learn how to deal with unwanted situations. But in order to do that, we need to work on it. Trust me, I’ll do everything I can to help you get better, but we need to establish that I do know what I’m talking about and it does apply to you. I can help you help yourself. Please let me.”

His eyes filled with tears as he nodded. Several months later, he confided in me that this was a turning point for him, not only regarding my knowledge as a therapist, but in giving him hope that those of us with BPD really do have hope.

I always thought I had to show strength in order to help others, but this experience taught me that in some cases you simply need empathy and humanity. There is strength in vulnerability.

Goodbye superwoman, hello flawed me.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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I wrote an article for an Irish national daily a couple of months back, in which I stated the following:

My concern is that the current media representation of [mental health] issues is in danger of doing the subject more harm than good by having a really restricted focus in terms of how mental health problems manifest, who they affect, and how they are managed.

I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), which occasionally joins forces with severe depression, and as a service user/patient/client it frustrates me when I see the same stories being told over and over again, the same limited number of issues being discussed, the same “solutions” being presented.

One could be forgiven for believing that the only issues that affect people are depression and anxiety, that it’s only our younger population who are impacted, or that exercise will fix everything. While these are all valid points, they are merely the tip of the iceberg…

We’re making huge inroads in talking about [mental health issues], but we’re still dancing around the edges. I don’t want to hear anyone else “opening up” about their successful “battle” with depression. I don’t want to hear soundbites about how mindfulness, a good diet and regular exercise will help keep me well. I want to hear reality. I want to hear open, honest, and above all real conversation about this. About depression. About bipolar. About borderline. About schizophrenia. About all the other countless illnesses that affect us.

About people.

Immediately after the article was published, I was contacted to do both TV and radio interviews to discuss it further, which I had to decline. I knew while I would get great energy from them and it would possibly help take the national conversation about mental health a little further, it would also knock the stuffing out of me, and the fallout wouldn’t be worth whatever slim gain may have been made.

I realize there’s a massive irony in this — I gave out that media representations of mental health issues are very one-sided, yet when given the opportunity to do something about it, I had to say no or my mental health would suffer.

So I decided vlogging would be the next best thing. I’ve been writing about trying to manage BPD and depression for years, and now I want to show you what it can look like. None of these vlogs are scripted, rehearsed or edited in any way. They’re mostly recorded in my car because it feels like a really safe place to do them, if a little dull visually. And they are short — generally between one and three minutes. I tend to think a lot when I’m driving, and it helps to record my thoughts this way on a day when I may not get time to write. What you see is how I am — I don’t usually wear makeup, and I often look extremely tired and/or spotty. This is my reality. I’ve never sugarcoated my writing, so I’m not going to sugar coat these.

Image via Thinkstock.

Watch Fiona’s vlogs at Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers.

“You can let it destroy you, or let it strengthen you.”

I don’t mean to, but I’ve always had a kind of “save me” mentality. At 14, I wrote stories of poor, fragile girls passing out at school from lack of food or trying to kill themselves, only to be saved by handsome, older boys. I always hoped the boys I liked would save me. And hey, before ya judge, I was unwell mentally at 14 years old.

I made my first suicide attempts at 14. There was a part of me that hoped someone would save me, but as I spent weeks in hospital, nobody visited. Just my parents. None of my friends. Definitely no handsome, older boys.

woman crouching in front of a mirror

At the end of the day, it was me who saved me. I pulled myself out of the desperately dark hole I lived in and got better for a while. At 19, same thing. More suicide attempts and more loneliness in the hospital. Eventually, there was someone who sat by my side. He cancelled work for days to sit by my side. We ended up dating for three and a half years.

He helped in a lot of ways. I also started to get therapy. He refused to feed my desperate needs for reassurance. I’d sob on the floor, begging him to tell me he was going to stay, that he loved me, just one more time, and he wouldn’t. It wasn’t to be cruel, but rather, he was trying to teach me to self-soothe.

I had more than enough proof he was going to stay and he loved me. I had to learn to calm myself down. I learned with him I didn’t get the things I wanted by playing “weak,” a victim or by needing constant reassurance. I got what I wanted by being a strong, self-assured, young woman.

Eventually, our relationship turned abusive in other ways, and I left. However, I left stronger than I’d ever been before. The fire in my heart was roaring, and I was ready for anything. As I migrated to Melbourne, I started dating a few others, and, as I did, my mental health started to crumble. I am almost at the point where I wonder if new relationships are my trigger. I’ll be fine, so wonderful, until the onset of a new relationship.

Yet, as I got to know these handsome men, my mental health slipped backward. I found myself clingy, needy and breaking down regularly. I wanted to be held by them and comforted. I wanted them to come to my aid, and in a sense, I wanted them to rescue me. In a f*cked up way, it’s an unintentionally manipulative way for me to get comfort, affection, dedicated time and attention.

People are only willing to oblige so much. I mean, the relationship is new, and I’m having a meltdown in front of you. It can be scary, and a lot of people just aren’t down for that.

I, then, met my current partner, D. When he met me, he felt overall I had my life together. I lived in a cute apartment on my own in St. Kilda. I had a shiny finance job in a shiny office in Docklands. My own car. No debt. A wardrobe of gorgeous clothing. Experience sexually. A bunch of gorgeous friends. I was, by many counts, “put together.”

Yet, the same thing happened that always did. As the relationship progressed, my mental health slipped. I slipped back into self-harm and having episodes. Out of nowhere, I would start shaking, fall into panic attacks, curl up on the floor sobbing over nothing. He said it was almost like I was possessed because I’d go from laughing and fine one minute, to a shaking mess the next. When he looked me in the eyes during episodes, he said he didn’t see me in there at all.

After six months, I made the first call of, “I think I’m going to kill myself. I need you here.”

More followed. Luckily, I didn’t make any actual attempts on my life. By New Year’s, I was suicidal. His best friend had to stop me from walking into traffic twice. The next day, he broke up with me. He said he couldn’t do it anymore.

For three days, I laid in bed sobbing. It wouldn’t stop hurting. How did I make it stop hurting? Eventually, I realized I had two options following that break up: I could let it destroy me or I could let it strengthen me.

I booked psychologist appointments. I started running again (which my fatigue prevented me from getting further, but I made the effort!) I cleaned the apartment. I cleaned myself up. I organized to meet him a few times. I didn’t break down in those conversations. I didn’t beg for him back. I laid out, rationally, why I felt it was silly for us to be broken up. I pointed out the positive changes I was making.

After a few days, we got back together. Many months later, he told me the fact that I got up and kept going was a key reason why he came back (another being that he loved the sh*t out of me.) He said if I’d laid there, broken, then it would have reinforced the decision to leave, but I didn’t. I got up, I worked and I saved myself.

Things are a lot better now. However, recently, I’ve found I like someone new a lot. What am I noticing? I’m starting to get into that “save me” mentality. Damn. I’m facing this really hard battle every time I talk to them. My mind screams “be weak, be soft, make them want to protect you and save you.” Yet, evidence has shown me, time and time again, that needing to be saved has done nothing for me but alienate me and cause me to lose valued friendships and relationships.

What has made those relationships flourish is when I’m the badass I am. It’s being a strong, powerful woman with a love of colors and vibrancy. Nobody has wanted to save me. The only person who keeps saving me, day in and day out, is me. What has lured more people in than I can count  is walking like I’m 10 feet tall, embracing every beautiful aspect of myself and shining in every way possible.

I’m realizing my method of being a “damsel in distress” is a poor form of communication. I don’t know how to ask for cuddles, affection, more time, more compliments and more conversation. I feel guilty for it. Somehow, I feel less guilty when I’m in meltdown mode. In meltdown mode, I have the belief that I’ll get those things without asking for it.

What I really need to be doing is working on my communication. I need to say, “Hey, I like you. I’d like to talk more,” “Let’s hug,” or “I think you’re fantastic. Can we spend more time together?” I have a suspicion those will get me more of the things I want than any tears ever did.

Image via Hannah Penklis.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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