a group of people sitting in a circle, talking

To be frank, when I was told I would have to attend “group therapy,” I was pessimistic.

It sent my anxiety into overdrive. The idea of sharing my personal experiences with strangers was petrifying. I was told if I refused to attend these sessions, I would be taken off the pathway and wouldn’t be able to see my therapist anymore. I thought it was ridiculous to be threatened like that, but I really was given no choice and had to go.

The first few weeks were awkward and difficult as you can probably imagine. Once people started to come out of their carefully constructed shells, we ended up being able to have a laugh. It became easier and easier to share my experiences, and other people did the same. The best thing about being in a room with people with the same disorder as you is that for the first time ever, I felt like I wasn’t struggling alone.

Don’t get me wrong. We may all have the same diagnosis, but we are all different. For example, I’m a bugger for impulsive spending, but others don’t have that problem.

Sharing my personal experiences with people who have the same disorder relieves so much stress for me. Some of the people there are like, “OMG, I know exactly how you feel.”

Do you know how wonderful it is to hear that? To talk to people who relate to you like only people with BPD can is an amazing feeling. We laugh, joke and sometimes we’re sad. Yet, we are getting through this therapy. We are getting better. We are recovering.

I’m 20 sessions in now. I can honestly say I enjoy the time I spend at group. I won’t go as far as to say I look forward to it each week because group means I have to get out of bed. Ugh! Yet, it is totally tolerable.

The most valuable thing I’ve learned so far is therapy isn’t meant to change our personalities. Our personalities are totally fab. Therapy is giving us the skills we need to get through life. It is teaching us to be strong.

I can, hand on my heart, say that without the skills I have learned from group therapy, I wouldn’t still be here. It has taught me how to get through hard times. It’s taught me how to have better relationships with people. It’s taught me my personality isn’t bad or broken. It’s taught me I’m totally freaking awesome.

My advice to anyone with BPD is to get involved in any sort of group sessions available to you. It’s really scary at first, but it becomes so rewarding.

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I know it can seem annoying or like I am pushing information at you, but I really just want you to understand. I keep hoping to find articles I can relate to that can describe more eloquently than I can what it is I live with every day.

You see, I love you, and I want you to know why it is I cancel plans with what looks like no good reason, or why I decline to do something that seems simple to anyone else but causes panic attacks in me. I want you to know on the days I seem to be out of control or so wildly emotional that it’s not me just being melodramatic. I have a brain that is wired incorrectly from trauma. I have to live every day with that brain, and it will never recover.

Yes, I go to therapy, and I learn tools to put in my toolbox of coping mechanisms. Yes, I have medication to help with the depression and anxiety that comes along with my diagnosis. However, I often feel so uncomfortable or judged when I try and talk about it from my perspective that most of the time all I can do is share the articles that ring with truth to me — the articles I feel describe what I am dealing with every day.

Having a personality disorder that undermines my own self-confidence at every turn means that much of the time I feel like I am nothing but a burden on those I love. I’m sharing articles to my social media in a quiet attempt to help you understand.

So when you pass by a new article I’ve posted, take a moment to read it and try to understand what I am conveying by sharing it. Don’t be afraid to ask me questions. I won’t offer information otherwise due to my own inherent fear of being rejected for the challenges I face. I am trying to be more open about who I am and what I am facing. I hope you can do the same.

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A lot of people will come across someone who has borderline personality disorder (BPD). These same people are often unsure what to do when it comes to wanting to help someone with BPD if they are struggling or even undiagnosed.

I hate the term “dealing” because saying you are “dealing” with a person with BPD can make it sound like they are a burden, which isn’t the case at all. I think everyone around the person with BPD could practice a few steps of their own without automatically thinking their loved one needs more medication, a hospital visit or a doctor. It’s important to remember that even when a loved one is in therapy, a lot of traumatizing stuff will come up after some sessions. So it’s always good to be considerate of that instead of suggesting a person isn’t helping themselves when in fact they really are trying to.

I wish I could say an average person usually thinks with logic, but this hasn’t always been the case with people I have come across in my life. From time to time, humans will react on emotions regardless of the situation. I think what people with BPD long for is someone who can validate their emotions, regardless of how little or big your judgment may think it is. I know the complex and stubbornness someone with BPD can display in certain situations of hurt. But this is where people can practice certain skills to help calm them down. First, remind them you love them. Then ask them what specific thing has upset them. Listen to them, and do not tell them how they should be feeling/acting. Just sit with them through it and remind them their feelings are valid and you are there to support them.

Following up is essential to reminding the person with BPD that you are here for them. The next day send them a message suggesting to see them and invite them places. When someone with BPD is sick, the last thing they need is to be isolated and discriminated against. Obviously make time for yourself, too. But if you’re out with friends, tell your friend with BPD you want them there and make them feel loved. As soon as you isolate someone with BPD, he or she may start to stress from anxiety and feelings of abandonment. Even if they turn down your offer, keep suggesting small things and just listening to them.

Allowing the person struggling to be themselves. For a person with BPD to really want to improve, they need a positive environment and patience. You cannot rush someone’s recovery, as it can stunt their growth. You are valid to be angry at them if they hurt your feelings, but this is where so many loved ones get it wrong. You have to try to view the behaviors they’re working on as an illness, not a choice.

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Someone said something hurtful today or something I perceived as hurtful. Now, I am afraid. They told me they forgot we had plans today and would need to reschedule. Something else came up. Something more important than me, I guess.

They really don’t want to see me, and they really don’t want to spend time with me. Now I’m crying. Look what they did! People who love you don’t do this! They don’t like me and that’s fine because now I hate them. Yes, I loved them yesterday, but I hate them today. They never liked me anyway.

This is why I don’t have friends. This is why I can’t have friends. Friends hurt. Relationships hurt. I’m too scared to try again. It is much easier being alone.

Something as simple as cancelled plans can send someone, like me, into isolation. Before my diagnosis, I was unaware that what I was doing was isolating. I just knew there were periods where I was terrified to be around people. If someone said something I perceived as hurtful, then my relationship with them could change in an instant. We could go from speaking every day, to hardly speaking at all.

The only thing I felt was everlasting was the fear of the intentions and words of others. That is still true today. Having borderline personality disorder (BPD) means perpetual misunderstandings. Misunderstandings on both your end and on the end of the person you are communicating with.

Communication is a never-ending problem for me, affecting my ability to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships. I have an aching, nagging desire to interact with people on a personal level, but that fearful, irrational voice in my head wins me over every time with “what ifs.”

“What if this person is just trying to get something from you?”

“What if he/she is just pretending to be your friend?”

“What did they really mean when they said (insert said dialogue)?”

I manage well in passing interactions like, “Hi, how are you?” I can respond, “Good, and yourself,” and continue on with my day with little to no interaction with that person again. However, creating personal relationships is unbelievably difficult. Wanting to create relationships while having BPD is like being pulled in two directions.

Imagine a weak person is pulling on your left arm, and a strong person is pulling on your right arm. You are swaying from left to right, and both your arms are becoming stressed. You may start to panic, wanting someone to let go. The stronger person will end up winning, but both of your arms will be exhausted. The weak person is my “rational” thoughts, and the strong person is my “irrational” thoughts. My irrational thoughts about forming relationships always win because my fear is stronger than my courage. As much as I want the “weak person” (my rational thoughts) to win, it hardly ever happens.

Isolation with BPD is not wanting to be alone, but not wanting to be around people either. This is extremely conflicting and creates a lot of anxiety. I cling to just one person, and when that one person is busy, I will stay at home by myself no matter how much I want to interact. I can also become hostile towards them because I will feel as if they have abandoned me if they have other obligations.

Because I cannot trust anyone else, I would rather be alone for days on end waiting for one person than take a chance and spend time with someone new. The lack of support around me causes me to develop a lot of feelings of emptiness, depression and boredom.

Here are some things to know about the isolation BPD causes:

1. Isolation causes an inevitable sense of paranoia.

Since I am too afraid to spend time with people, I can go days without too much social interaction. Because I am lost in my own mind and alone during these times, I become paranoid. I become even more paranoid people are saying things behind my back or are planning things that could hurt me. This becomes an unbreakable cycle of delusions that is problematic because it only causes me to isolate myself even more.

2. Isolation also causes panic attacks prior to arranged interactions.

Being in isolation also worsens the anxiety I feel before social gatherings or interactions, causing me to have panic attacks. The idea of having to communicate builds up so much uneasiness that I become exhausted even hours before interacting. If I can avoid it, then I will. If I cannot, then it causes panic to the point of crying and hyperventilation. If I do have a high level of anxiety/panic, then I will disassociate.

This feels as if I am watching myself in a movie or as if I am out of my body. Since I had been in my own head for so long, it almost feels like I have forgotten how to have normal communication. I develop poor eye contact and look at my feet a lot. I will then resort to a corner or isolated area of the gathering to avoid social interactions.

3. The isolation in BPD can cause you to lash out.

Part of having BPD is extreme emotional reactions, even aggressive ones, to simple situations. If I have isolated myself for quite some time, then I will become irritable as a result of all of the racing thoughts I have failed to manage on my own. I may scream, slam doors or throw objects. I have never (and will never) hurt anyone; however, I have turned my anger onto myself with self-mutilation.

4. When I am being social, I can only pretend for so long.

I have BPD, but I am also a public speaker and Miss Maryland 2015 for the Miss World Organization, which puts me in social situations on a regular basis. I was able to manage social situations over short periods by making myself feel beautiful and glamourous. It was a lot like playing dress-up and make believe. I loved partaking in pageants because it allowed me to embody a confident, outgoing woman when I often felt unsure and nervous, with an unstable self-image. While I “pretended” to be much more confident and outgoing than I was in reality, it also gave me the courage to show parts of my personality while feeling safe in a physical image I felt was more acceptable to society. I still struggle with feeling “safe” in being myself.

Eventually, it became exhausting to keep my true feelings and changing identity a secret. Part of having BPD is having an unstable identity. One minute I want short hair and dark clothes. The next minute I would want to pretend to be Barbie. Being in pageantry required me to have self-confidence and knowledge about myself that I truly did not have and am still struggling to find. I could only pretend for so long. The same is true for having social interactions. It becomes exhausting and difficult for me to manage.

BPD is a serious, complex mental illness, with isolation as one of its primary symptoms. It is an illness that is often difficult for the public to understand as people with BPD struggle with “back and forth” thinking — we want relationships but also push people away. We want you to understand our intentions are not to hurt you, and we really do not want to hurt ourselves. All we want is understanding and love.

With patience and a commitment to helping loved ones struggling with BPD, they can get to a place where isolation from others can be an occurrence which happens less often. All we need is your support.

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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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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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. 

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