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The Emotional Intensity of Borderline Personality Disorder

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I pinch the bridge of my nose as I try to get my pounding headache under control. With the other hand I grasp the desk so tightly my knuckles turn white. My chest is clamped in a phantom vice, making every breath like a thousand icy shards piercing my lungs. The lump in my throat won’t disappear, and I fear if I take one more breath my whole body will explode – or the tears I’ve been holding back will flow uncontrollably, and I don’t want that.

I sit in this rigid position, waiting for the moment to pass. To anyone watching me, they would think I was having some excruciating migraine, or an asthma attack, or trying not to be sick (although the latter is marginally true). Truth is, I’m just trying to cope with the intensity of my emotions – which at this moment in time are shame and sadness.

To the average person, these emotions would be uncomfortable at best. You might feel your face burn with shame, or a “hot, prickly” feeling creep up your back. But you can probably rationalize these for what they are, and soon enough may yourself laughing about whatever it was which made you feel that way. For me, however, these emotions are so strong, so intense, that it is like being burned by a fire over and over again. The wounds never heal, and each time a strong emotion overcomes you, the wound is reopened and scratched raw again.

Whatever pain I feel in my head is magnified tenfold throughout my entire body. Every strong emotion I feel radiates throughout my whole being, burning bright – if I were a lightbulb I would be at my brightest setting. The emotional becomes physical, and the physical becomes visible. People see me contort in pain, they watch my knuckles turn white as I squeeze the nearest solid object with all my might in an attempt to divert the pain from my head. They see me breathe a sigh of relief when the intensity finally passes, they watch me crumple in my chair as exhaustion takes over.

A common characteristics of borderline personality disorder is self-harm. I have come to realize  this is because the emotional pain we feel is so intense, that we will do anything to divert it or distract from it. I would do anything than sit for a minute with the thoughts and pain in my head. And the emotional pain always comes back – what do you do then? That’s not a question I have found the answer to yet.

Dealing with these complex emotions and the pain derived from them is a full-time occupation in itself. I constantly try to protect myself from criticism and comments from other people because even the slightest remark that someone else might brush off can trigger a downward spiral of pain for me, which could last minutes, hours or even days. I watch for situations where I might get hurt and wrap myself up in cotton wool to prevent that from happening. Unfortunately this makes functioning in everyday life extremely difficult. Keeping down a job and accepting criticism and trying to take things at face value rather than let them prick at me over and over again is near impossible on top of keeping everything else in check. It makes my life chaotic, and I can’t always keep a handle on my emotions, which is when the spiraling starts.

Learning to cope with my illness has made me better at dealing with the intense emotions, but there are still times – not infrequently – where I simply cannot cope. I become a child navigating an adult’s world, I need someone to pick me up and take the pain away because I can’t do it myself. One day I might learn how to be an adult and function normally, but for now, I’m taking it one small step at a time.

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Thinkstock photo by Victor_Tongdee

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On the Days I 'Lose' to Borderline Personality Disorder

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I have borderline personality disorder (BPD). It is incurable, but it is treatable with counseling, therapy and medication. It’s scary, and every day I have to fight to keep control of my own mind. Some days I win, some days I lose. I would like to walk you through one day I did not win.

I get up in the morning, and I’m normal. Calm and under control. I get dressed, do my hair, put on makeup. I’m ready to run some errands. I feel good. My makeup looks great, and I feel confident in my outfit.

Then I have a meltdown known as “splitting.” I split over something that most people wouldn’t even bat an eye over. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s usually something stupid. Something random that triggers me. Sometimes a trigger I didn’t even know I had. A word spoken in the wrong tone. An action I feel is dismissive. Usually, whomever I feel has hurt me doesn’t even realize they’ve done it.

I cry, I scream. I can’t control myself. I hate myself. I hate everyone else. I hate BPD. I can’t think. I can only cry or scream, or curl up in a ball. I’ve undone all the work I put into getting ready. Why did I bother? What was the point of pretending to be “normal?” I should know that my BPD controls me. My actions convey the exact opposite of what I want, what I need. I push everyone away, but inside my head I’m begging, please, don’t leave me. Please, hold me. Love me.

I can’t run errands, I’m exhausted to the point of almost being catatonic. It takes so much out of me. Physical touch calms me down faster than anything else, but I can’t figure out how to ask for it. It’s not that I’m too proud, too angry, too stubborn to ask for help. I simply can’t. I’ve forgotten how.

I disassociate. My boyfriend hugs me, pulls me into him, kisses me. He tries to comfort me. My body is like a rag doll. I’m not in there anymore. I can’t get out of my head and I’m barely aware of what’s going on around me.

Eventually I come back. I’m embarrassed, ashamed. I feel terrible for the way I acted, for who I hurt. I’m scared. I’m scared out of my mind every time this happens, that my boyfriend, my Favorite Person, will leave me. He will eventually have enough of it. Who wouldn’t?

The rest of the day is a chore to get through. I’ve ruined the day again. For myself, there is little chance I will be in a good mood at all for the rest of the day.  I’ve ruined the day of everyone around me, and I can’t fix it. It’s all my fault.

My body so heavy, it’s so hard to move. My shoulders are slumped over. I don’t have the energy for this. I can’t even run a simple errand. It’s depressing that this disorder has such a hold on me.

Most days are good, with medication, counseling and support. But some days are a war with myself. A bloody battle that no one wins.

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5 Things to Remember About My Borderline Personality Disorder Recovery in the New Year

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Recovery is a long process, much longer than I ever anticipated when I began treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD) earlier in the year. It’s been incredibly tough at times; however, the rewards have, so far, outweighed the challenges. I can finally say I am on my way to overcoming my disorder.

However, there are a number of things I wish my loved ones really understood about my recovery. Mental health cannot be reduced simply to being sick and being recovered. There is a huge gray area between those two points, and most of us will fall somewhere within that gray bit. Moving into the new year, these are the five things I would like my loved ones to understand about my BPD recovery.

1. My moods are still intense.

I’m learning to regulate the intensity of quickly-shifting moods, but I don’t always have it completely under control. Sometimes, I may still be irritable, sad or angry for reasons that perhaps even I don’t understand.

2. I have trouble concentrating.

Medications for mental health problems can affect levels of concentration, and I still have trouble staying focused. If I seem like I’m drifting off mid-conversation, then feel free to gently let me know. Usually, I don’t even know I’m doing it.

3. It’s OK to ask me questions.

A big part of recovery, for myself, has been learning to open up and talk about my diagnoses. If there’s something you don’t understand or would like to know more about, then please, ask me. Communication is a two-way street, and if you ask me something I’d rather not discuss, then I promise I will let you know.

4. Trust me.

I know I haven’t always given you reasons to think I can make healthy choices for myself. Yet, part of my recovering from this disorder will come from those around me trusting me enough to make my own decisions. You can feel free to ask me about these decisions, but ultimately, only I can guide my recovery.

5. Sometimes, I just need space.

I know I’m not good at communicating when I’m overwhelmed, but I’m trying to be better. There are times when things are just too much for me. I need to recharge because social situations can be draining. It doesn’t mean you did anything wrong, but sometimes, I just need a few quiet minutes on my own.

The biggest tool I have been utilizing in my recovery has been communication. A lack of communication between myself and those who care for me has always been a major obstacle, not only in my journey to wellness, but also in my relationships. In expressing what I need them to understand throughout this holiday period, I hope to better communicate the needs of my disorder and gain more control over my life with BPD.

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Image via Thinkstock.

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Live Video: Stacy Pershall - Borderline Personality Disorder

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Stacy Pershall is an author and mental health advocate who lives with borderline personality disorder. She’s part of the Active Minds, Inc. Speakers Bureau

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Live Video: Andi Chrisman - Borderline Personality Disorder

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Andi Chrisman is a mental health advocate and suicide attempt survivor.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
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'Don't Disagree or They'll Hate You': My Guide to Friendship With BPD

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If anyone out there doesn’t like me, I’m doing something wrong.

Not just a specific person. Anyone.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a massive people pleaser. As a child, I would write down the names of the other girls in my class (not the boys because ew, cooties) and evaluate my friendships with them. I would call them if I hadn’t done so in a while. I painstakingly hand-wrote invitations to birthday parties. I would go out of my way to be nice to absolutely anybody who might like me back. I’d laugh at unfunny jokes, I’d nod in agreement if someone said something that probably wasn’t true. Don’t disagree, or they’ll hate you was my philosophy.

Most kids seem to grow out of that phase as they realize not everyone in the world wants to be their friend. Heck, there are people out there who they don’t want to be friends with in the first place. Their own self-worth starts to be defined by more than just the opinions and friendships of others.

Yet here I am, desperately baking things for every single coworker’s birthday. Even if I don’t like them in the first place, I need them to like me. If even a single person out there doesn’t like me, how could anyone? Once that thought trickles in, I start hating myself. If I don’t know the particular reason someone might not like me, I’ll just hate every single thing I say or do, as well as how I say or do it. I moan to my therapist, “I have no friends! Why doesn’t anyone like me?” when in reality, I have plenty of friends.

Rationally, I can recognize that as a ridiculous idea and one of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. I evaluate myself based on how I think others do. Not knowing why someone doesn’t like me is agonizing. I try to change the way I act, think, talk… I basically try to change the way I exist. It doesn’t work, because fundamentally, I’m the same person, no matter how I act, think, or talk. It’s difficult to see that sometimes through my borderline brain.

I don’t realize I’m doing it. I still laugh at stupid jokes, write thank-you notes, and try to act agreeable. I fantasize about arguing with people, but at this point, it’s almost a physical limitation. I tried arguing with a coworker once, and I thought I was going to throw up. I was convinced she would hate me. In turn, I would hate me. And you know what? I don’t think she hates me. Sure, we were annoyed with each other, but we got over it.

I’m going easier on myself now, finally, in my 20s. It takes a lot of energy to be a people pleaser. So I’m learning how to say no. My husband helps me walk through rational reasons to say “no” to people sometimes, and it helps immensely. It doesn’t mean I like someone any less if I say no. Isn’t it funny how that works?

Before you know it, I’ll like me for me, not just for others.

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