a woman looking in the mirror

Imagine having this thought on a daily basis: Who am I?

I don’t mean it in some round-about philosophical way. I mean literally. Imagine not knowing who you really are. There’s a point in each day of my life that this strange question intrudes my thoughts.

I am so many different things. I shift so many times in a day to keep up with the different people who surround me I don’t know which “version” is the real me.

See, this is one aspect of borderline personality disorder which is often missed. Like most things, not every one with the condition will experience this. Yet, for me, it is one of my biggest (and often, most unbearable) symptoms.

If my best friends are drinking, then I’ll be a binge drinker. I’ll live for the weekends, dance nights away and spend the following week recovering from a hangover.

If I’m with my musician friends, then I’ll be a musician too. I can ramble on about practice, technique and gigs for hours.

If I spend the day with my work colleagues, then I’ll listen to them talk about their grown children and grandchildren. I’ll try to find a way to join in the conversation, talking about my goddaughter or young cousins.

The list goes on.

Everyone thinks I am someone who I’m not. It is utterly exhausting sometimes trying to keep up with who each person/group thinks I am.

The worst part, though? It has to be the fact that I’ve created so many different “versions” of me that I can no longer identify what I’m actually like as a person. I don’t know my own personality. I struggle to find my own interests. Sometimes, I don’t even know what I dislike because everything changes depending on who I’m with.

Does that make me fake?

No, because it’s OK to take some time to find yourself. When you eventually do, it’s OK if not everyone likes you. I’m still trying to get the hang of that concept myself, but one day, I hope I will confidently be able to say, “I am me,” and that will be just enough.

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Relationships in the best of circumstances can be tricky waters to navigate. They require not a captain and a first mate, but two co-captains, who are not only plotting out a similar course but are willing to stick together when the tides change their direction. Surviving childhood sexual abuse leaves emotional scars that can twist your views and feelings on life and relationships, and the after-effects tend to weave their way into various areas of your life, often on a subconscious level. One of the main attributes of borderline personality disorder (BPD), aside from the intense fear of abandonment, can be a pattern of unstable interpersonal relationships. For me, the combination of the two is like being a one-eyed captain trying to navigate the seas on a raft, with no compass and a map in Latin. In dealing with both of these things, I had to self-protect in order to survive — and my coping mechanisms involved shutting down, among many things, trust and love.

That being said, living behind that wall of safety can also limit both our life experiences and the corresponding emotions. We may miss out on a lot because we are lacking in confidence, and remaining behind our wall in our comfort zone can seem a lot easier than facing the unknown fears outside. In my mind, it is a matter of weighing out risk versus reward. Is the risk worth the (in my mind) inevitable pain that will come at some point? I also tend to compare if this impending pain could be worse than something I have already been through, again trying to measure out the risk, and when emotionally rational, I realize there is very little in life that could traumatize me any more than what has already occurred. Now don’t get me wrong, that by no means implies I have broken down my wall and jumped head first into my fears. It is more a case of taking down a few bricks at a time, enough to sneak out, but leaving those bricks within arm’s reach in case we need to rebuild in a hurry.

Being a survivor, I carry with me a sense of shame, a lack of trust and self-worth, and the constant feeling of being a “burden.” I have major attachment issues, which are severely increased in intensity with the BPD — and the combination of that, depression and anxiety leaves me feeling almost unworthy of a relationship. How could I weigh someone down with my baggage and complexities without feeling guilty, or expect someone to put up with the frequent and extreme mood swings that come with BPD? If I feel all these negative things about myself, how could they not be clear and apparent to someone else — or is it me projecting my thoughts onto somebody else? Do I even know how to love properly, or can I trust enough to let someone pass through the door in my wall? Am I just too messed up to be loved? All those things have run through my mind so often and for so long they have become true to my emotive mind. And so I deem myself unworthy of a relationship, and by convincing myself of this, it becomes my reality. It is shoved to the back of my mind as a truth that no longer needs to be dealt with. After all, there are more pressing issues to deal with at the moment.

Life tends to throw things our way at the most unexpected times. I find it happens often in therapy, where you think you have done the work to get past an issue, and boom, there it is in your face again, and all you can hope is to put some of the new coping mechanisms into action before the innate instincts of self-protectiveness take over. So after having spent the last few years convincing myself I would be alone for life, suddenly someone walks right on in. At first, I don’t take anyone’s interest in me seriously, because I can be a convincing outside package, but when they find out the truth about my emotional instability and traumatic past, they don’t stick around anyway. In the past, I have tried to hide it, but one can only mask their true identity for so long. So this time I decided I would just get it over with up front — part of the basics: “I love soccer, animals, ice cream, and I am diagnosed with more mental health issues than you can count on one hand.” After my spew, I put my phone down, fully expecting that — like with everyone else — that would raise enough red flags to have her running in the opposite direction. Instead, the conversation continues. She starts asking questions about BPD, and every answer I give her comes with no reply of shock or judgment.

The longer we talk, the more she asks, and although she may not understand everything, she seems to be accepting it, which is amazing. But it also sets off my BPD abandonment issue; the closer they get, the more it will hurt when they leave. It also raises red flags with the survivor part of me that has yet to develop a proper sense of self-worth. So as the days pass, some of my past comes out, and again it is met with understanding and empathy rather than intolerance and apathy, which brings both a sense of ease and fear to the table. Ease because the comfort level has almost a sense of familiarity to it, like you have known each other for years, and the fear because the closeness is completely overwhelming. Taking a few bricks out of my wall was the plan, but now there’s a full door, someone standing at it and not leaving.

I would like to say after all the therapies, workbooks and readings, I employed all my acquired and practiced coping mechanisms and am dealing with the situation in a rational manner with a level sense of emotion, but that would be untrue. Instinct and BPD took over in full force, and although I tried to fight it, it carries the same comfort and familiarity as that favorite old sweatshirt you just can’t let go of yet. BPD has this fabulous quality that can in essence make you test people as a child would test their parents, almost a form of “go away, you are too close” to “please don’t leave me.” And as with most everything else BPD-related, these emotions can bounce around five times a day or 100 times a day, with almost incalculable speeds.

So I push her away, thinking every time will be the last. And she stays, so I pull her closer, and the cycle repeats. I discount the positive things she says about me, and she patiently reinforces them without hesitation. BPD can also include this fantastic trait of impulsivity, which for me, is primarily verbal. When my words precede my thoughts, she doesn’t get angry, but rather quietly listens and asks to learn more about BPD and depression. I figure if I tell her about the suicide attempts and constant thoughts as well as the history of cutting, that will be her breaking point and she will definitely leave. But instead, she says she is sorry I had to go through all that and allows me to express the ideations at my darkest moments, without fear of judgment. My mind is spinning. This is not how life works for me.

Fast-forward to today, and even with a countless number of tests, the rounds of verbal impulsivity and the rest of the issues that come with my mental illnesses, she remains, and despite the inconvenient circumstances which I will not get into, she makes sure I wake up to a morning text and go to sleep with a sweet goodnight. Despite the physical distance and her hectic schedule, she makes an effort to spend time with me and is always willing to provide an ear to listen or kind words of support. I have only ever had this depth of relationship once before, many years ago, and she remains my best friend to this day. I am trying again to learn to accept love, to believe I am worthy of it, and to grasp the idea that someone sees not what I think of myself but the things I can no longer see. And as much as the BPD is screaming at me to push and pull, I am trying to recognize when my emotive mind has taken over so perhaps I can control the impulses a bit better.

This is a big risk for me, letting someone get this close, allowing vulnerability and trust, all while trying to put a muffle on the BPD, which is screaming about fear of being left yet again. That being said, being a minimizer, I convince myself the possible impending hurt of being left can’t be worse than the other traumas I have endured to this point in my life. My instincts (my gut feelings) have kept me alive this long, and if they are saying take a chance, then I follow that path. After all, the heart truly is a remarkably resilient organ.

I hope she knows how appreciated and cared for she is, and how thankful I am for her support, patience and understanding, and for choosing me and following me down this often dark and unpaved road when she easily could have exited and taken the highway.

Image via Thinkstock.

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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I identify as borderline more than anything else. More than being a woman, bisexual, a daughter, an aunt or a sister. Before I am anything else I consider myself borderline.

I think that’s why recovery scares me so much. What will I be if I’m not borderline anymore? I have a lot of identifiers — as we all do — but borderline is the one I feel is most true.

Everything I have ever done is because I’m borderline. Every lie, every cut, every attempt, every cheat, every broken heart, every sexual encounter and all 10 years of treatment. At the end of the day, every move I make can be explained by this disorder.

I spend all day in borderline thought cycles. The what ifs, the maybes, the whys, the yes’s, the no’s. Every time I agree to go somewhere or decide to bail. Every decision I make is thought through the borderline pathways in my brain. It’s all ingrained.

What would I be without that? Without those pathways? Would I be “normal?” Would I have decent thoughts? Self esteem? Hope?

Would I need therapy? Could I handle crisis? What is handling crisis? Would I finish school? Could I finish school? Would I achieve my dream of being a therapist? Would I even want to do that anymore?

Recovery leaves everything unknown. Recovery means starting over new and making new paths. And that is terrifying.

All the work and effort it would take, can I even do that?

Do I even want to?

I think starting new would be scary for anybody, but recovery means leaving the only person I know how to be.

How does a person do that?

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Although borderline personality disorder (BPD) seems to be becoming a more commonly diagnosed mental illness, it continues to be misunderstood. Perhaps its increasing diagnostic frequency is due to the wide range of symptoms it can present. At some point in time in many people’s lives, I am sure they have exhibited a trait or two off the list of BPD criteria. I have all but one, and the symptoms and mannerisms are not once in a while but every minute I am awake. So in an effort to enlighten as many people as possible, I am going to share some of my personal experiences related to the recognized symptoms of BPD.

1. Impulsive and risky behavior

Borderline personality disorder often means a life of extremes where we bounce from happiness to sadness, each emotion felt at a level of great intensity. Impulsivity is the tendency to act with little regard for restraint and without considering the consequences. For many people affected by BPD, these bouts of impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors tend to go along with the periods when we are at the extreme top end of the scale. The BPD symptoms of impulsivity can present in many ways, but some of the most common are:

I have an addictive personality by nature and genetics. I have been through a gamut of both recreational and prescription drugs, becoming addicted to a few different things along the way. My drug addictions were all short-term, and I was able to “control” them by replacing the heavier substance with a lighter one until I was weaned off one and addicted to a lighter drug — the supposed premise being that I replace the more damaging substance with something less harmful. In many cases, however, until the source of the addictive behavior itself is identified and dealt with, the addiction will linger.

I also struggle with self-harm and suicidal thoughts and have done so for the majority of my life. My body tells a story with its scars; each one tells a tale, and I wish I could tell you I remember what they all represent and why they are there, but those memories are limited to only a few. The common denominator, though, is the instigation factor: rejection. Whether it is evident or perceived, it feels completely real to me. The suicidal thoughts become so heavy I feel like I am anchored to the bottom of the ocean floor, dark and drowning. I have learned to allow myself to have those thoughts and feel the corresponding emotions, as fighting them only seems to increase the urge. I will say although I may not have control over these thoughts, I have learned to make sure they stay thoughts and do not turn into actions.

2. Unstable and poorly regulated emotions

BPD can feel like having your emotions on constant sensory overload, or like being in the eye of an emotional hurricane. Regardless of which emotion, the intensity can present at a level that is almost indescribable. The best comparison I can think of is… imagine your most devastating moment of grief, pain, or anger, double it and live with it daily. My feelings can get so intense I feel like the only way to deal with them without physically hurting myself or verbally abusing others is to shut down emotionally or dissociate from those feelings. It has been a safety method I have resorted to since before I can remember and a skill I have yet to let go of.

Adding to the intensity and instability of my emotions is the frequency with which they occur. On a good day, I am lucky to have only three or four mood swings, ranging from anger to tears, lasting maybe 15 minutes to an hour each time. On a bad day, I can expect at least double that amount and the length of time varying so much it is too difficult to keep track of. It is like living in a state of hypo- or hyper-arousal every single day, which on paper might look like the ups and downs of an unstable heart on a heart monitor. The lines go way up then drop way down with no real predictable pattern.

So now I am rampant with intense emotions, bouncing from feeling OK to being severely depressed — emotions I can barely understand, and yet I am expected to have complete control over them. I am working through therapy to try and get a grasp on them, and I will admit my defeats far outnumber my victories in this category.

3. A pattern of unstable relationships

Given what has already been mentioned above, there is probably no surprise that people with BPD can tend to have great difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships. My relationships may be very intense, unstable, and alternate between the extremes of over-idealizing and undervaluing people who are important to me. It stems from fear of rejection and abandonment and encompasses a whole lot of push and pull and testing — almost like a child would test a parent, to see if he/she is just another person who will leave. I lost a lot of friends due to this aspect of my illness, as it can be difficult to understand why one day I am their best friend and the next I’m pushing them away, simply to see if they will come back. If you do this enough times, many people don’t come back, as they simply can’t handle the emotional whirlwind. For me, it makes perfect sense. I have to test over and over, and if you come back, I am able to build trust. I guess this is why I have very few friends and trust very few people.

This pattern of unstable relationships is not only confined to friends, but affects family, co-workers and just about anyone I come into contact with for any extended period of time. I am always so afraid people will leave that in order to maintain some control, it is easier if I make them leave and they don’t do it on their own accord. It makes socializing with friends and family terribly difficult and establishing relations with co-workers just as hard. As my resume would indicate, I have a hard time holding a job for more than a few years as the random emotional outbursts are generally not welcomed in a workplace.

Being social and wanting to have people to love and who love you is a part of human nature. It is something I desperately crave, yet at the same time, doing so leaves me vulnerable, which usually ends in me getting hurt. It feels like the proverbial being stuck “between a rock and a hard place” and simply not yet having the skills or tools to dig myself out.

I continue to try a bit more each day. I try to be conscious of my push and pull and attempt to lessen the number of times it occurs. I try different techniques so my anger does not unleash its fury instantly. I try to limit the amount of time I allow myself to feel suicidal, not that it always works, but the effort is there. BPD is a constant learning experience, and it’s a good thing I am up to the challenge.

Image via Thinkstock.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

I was first diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) during a hospital stay in 2013. I was 20 years old, horrified to my bones, and distrustful not just of myself, but of every person in my life. Wearing only paper and chewing my nails to the point of drawing blood, receiving the diagnosis felt to me like being tossed into a nearly frozen lake.

Albeit sometimes fragile, I’ve worked hard since then to gain a bit more stability, some elbow room and freedom from my illness — but the sense of mistrust hasn’t faded. Driven by a fear of my own wild emotions, an earmark of the condition, this tendency to sniff out (and when I can’t do that, simply create) signs of dishonesty has been an exhausting and destructive habit.

Only yesterday did I learn many people strive to trust others. The ability to trust a friend, family member, religious influence, or anyone else is often considered a rewarding achievement. In contrast, I actually very easily trust anyone and everyone, but I strive not to. Trust is a liability, something that too often in my life has led to abuse, scarring, or otherwise damaging consequences. It isn’t that I’ve lost the ability to trust. It’s simply too difficult to let myself do it very often anymore. It would be like tossing myself into that ice cold body of water.

If you love someone with borderline personality disorder, please understand your loved one can trust you. It’s their personality disorder that may not, that may whisper to them warped “logistics” that can breed intense paranoia.

You see, I care for my loved ones even more deeply than my words could explain. My desire to trust them, to see them as a safe place, is actually overwhelming. Both out of true, healthy love and the paradoxical, unhealthy symptoms of my illness, the urge to see their innocence and warmth is central to my fantasies.

Sometimes, it can be hard to control it. After all, it’s spent years controlling me. To some extent, the personality disorder was always seen as the part of my mind that kept my heart safe, even if that meant keeping my heart alone or in fear. Many of us may still be figuring out where the borderline ends and we begin. We may get it wrong sometimes, and that can hurt you. Please understand that I am — we are — sorry.

To my BPD brothers and sisters, as I always say, please remember you aren’t as alone as your illness can make you feel. You aren’t an empty, hollow person in a world of overflowing monsters. Put on a warm life jacket, take that icy plunge, and remember to take gentle care.

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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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