Just Because I Have a 4.0 GPA Does Not Mean I Don't Need Accommodations
I am a 20-year-old college student with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and severe co-morbid depression. College with these disorders is not an easy task, regardless of how much I love learning about my areas of study and passions.
BPD is a highly misunderstood and stigmatized mental illness, both in society and by many individuals working in mental health care. This disorder is characterized by hypersensitive emotions, intense emotional reactivity and a slow return to emotional baseline. These components lead to and are accompanied by unstable relationships, perceptions, and an unstable sense of self. Impulsiveness, acting on the spur of the moment in response to this stimuli, and extreme reactions and preoccupations toward real or perceived abandonment and rejection, are two other hallmarks of the disorder.
The hypersensitivity of BPD is better explained as my natural mood baseline, as opposed to periods of worry or stress. For example, mundane and everyday occurrences can trigger intense panic, anger, self-harm impulses, or even extreme euphoria at times of real or perceived passion, success, and care. Instances that would typically evoke sadness and embarrassment in someone, instead rise straight to intense depression and humiliation. The emotions are on and off, up and down, black-and-white, and the thought patterns follow. Minor day-to-day comments and occurrences can be perceived as threats and signs of abandonment. One moment, someone is idealized, and the next, I might fear them or feel rejected and hated.
One day in college with BPD can leave me utterly fatigued, stressed and panicked, ready to escape. This is why there are accommodations protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act for students who need them. I currently have a 4.0 GPA and have been determined to peruse psychology graduate school to further the treatment, study, and awareness of personality disorders. Before this, I graduated high school when I was 16 with a 3.9 GPA. Because of my grades, I often struggle with denial of how it actually affects me in school. I resisted any sort of assistance from my college disability services, until recently.
I feel like two opposites and two extremes. On one side, there is a functioning student and individual. On the other, there is my BPD. The symptoms drain me and greatly affect my emotions, thoughts, and perceptions. It is exhausting and strenuous to screen out emotional reactivity and environmental stimuli. Every semester, I have left each class at least once to cry. Other times, I have remained in the classroom with my head low, and I pretend to be invested in my notes, while I cry silently.
My thoughts of suicide and paranoia, suspicions that those I care about have a motive to humiliate, berate and abandon me, have often distracted me in class. I have found it near impossible to focus. Instead, my mind dissociates in an attempt to lessen the pain and impulses.
My intense emotions have induced severe headaches, nausea or trembling. The emotional intensities feel like a shock and throbs throughout my body. Anything can set it off, including my perception, a change or disruption in the environment, or the simple sounds of feet walking and pencils writing. To calm myself, I have had to leave the classroom or use all my strength to avoid extreme panic and anger.
I have had difficulty understanding and correctly interpreting criticism, which is a main symptom of BPD. Real or perceived public, negative criticisms and slights have provoked me to humiliation and anger for up to a month. This symptom particularly makes me feel ashamed, for it makes me feel closed-minded and immature. I highly value learning, constructive criticism, and any feedback to improve. I find this uplifts my mood. Yet, my symptoms are highly reactive to possible rejection or negative criticism, compared to constructive criticism. Some rather directive teachers or ineffective teaching styles have angered me to the point that it may have been quite noticeable what I was trying to hold back. One teacher eventually made a mocking comment to me in front of the class about it.
Indeed, research has shown a heightened response to negative words in BPD. Neutral faces can be perceived as anger as well, which contributes to feeling threatened, rejected or criticized. During times of heightened stress or anger, my mind entirely mixes up the order and meaning of words and reality, both in the text and in the lecture. My perception only clears up once my emotions pass. I have been distracted and distraught throughout entire lectures because of this issue. My past is filled with abusive or rigid experiences from teachers and authority figures, which contributes to the fear and pain.
You see, I am like a shapeshifter that shapes and reacts to anything and everything that is happening around me, and these descriptions are just a small glimpse of it. I have had immense difficulty spelling simple words like “the” and “when” on my paper during tests or simple in-class assignments because of this distraction, panic and anger. I have had to rush through tests, sometimes unable to finish them. Above all, I have hardly been able to function the week or so before and after a test. My mood has noticeably fluctuated, my self-harm has always increased during these periods, and so have suicide considerations.
Evidently, my disorder has greatly affected multiple areas, including my ability to concentrate, to block out my emotions and stimuli, and to adapt and manage stresses. My distress was becoming more and more apparent. Multiple college friends who are familiar with the college disability services encouraged me to seek out my doctor’s signature for some suitable accommodations.
Based on my symptoms and disorders, I would have the option to use extended testing time for processing and focusing issues, as well as the option to take tests in the disability center’s distraction reduced room. Teachers would be notified that I may remove myself from the classroom for a few minutes to calm down and/or go to talk to a counselor should my symptoms get to that point.
Finally, I brought up the issue to one of my many psychologists, expecting to receive help and feel relief. Instead, my stomach dropped, and my body surged in surprise. My now former psychologist immediately followed with a long explanation of why I do not need help.
“Well, you have good grades. How can you be struggling? You’re just gonna have to get used to it,” she exclaimed about the difficulties I detailed, before continuing on about how I cannot just come in and request I receive a diagnosis of a learning disability.
I did not, however, mention accommodations for a learning disability. I explained the accommodations are for emotional/psychological difficulties, which has its own accommodations on the form. After all, that is why I was in therapy with her. Her comment suggested good grades are evidence that someone is neither struggling nor disabled, which struck a nerve.
I was furious. The doctor trained to recognize my struggles, denied that they even occur. Her response showed that she assumed I was trying to manipulate her into helping me take advantage of a service when I truly needed it. I felt ashamed.
“That’s just the way it is,” she continued. She refused to put my disorder down on a piece of paper. She explained it as “too long” of a process and did not really provide a clear reason that she would not fill it out. I knew stigma had something to do with it, for anyone familiar with BPD knows it is a highly stigmatized disorder.
According to international experts John G. Gunderson MD and Perry D. Hoffman PhD., in the book “Beyond Borderline: True Stories of Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder,” this disorder and its symptoms are surrounded by so much stigma that it has been called the “leprosy of mental illness.” Particularly, we may be written off and labeled as people who are manipulative or “fake problems.” Admittedly, this stigma I am aware of is another reason it took me so long to seek out accommodations. This doctor did not seem to take me seriously from the start of my therapy.
Finally, she put her attention to her phone and began scrolling through it, inattentively saying, “OK, uh-huh,” every now and then in response to my pleas for help. I felt like I was drowning alone in my symptoms and disorder. My doctor had the ability to send out a buoy to help, but she would not. She was just watching me, telling me to stand up on my own, but I could not touch the bottom. All she looked at was the surface, but she refused to look deeper. This invalidation and minimization is especially painful with my symptoms.
I later explained what happened to my psychiatrist, who then helped me set up an appointment with a psychologist he was positive would help me. After this process, I am thankful to say I have received the accommodations I need. They have helped reduce my symptoms of panic, rage and distractibility in a number of situations.
There is comfort in itself knowing I do not have to deal with this disorder alone. This stigma toward BPD almost allowed another patient to go without the appropriate available services. No one should ever feel trapped and forced to hide their struggles, and that includes those of us with BPD.
Someone’s success does not prove it came easily. My 4.0 GPA does not mean I did not study or spend countless nights seriously contemplating suicide over small five-question quizzes, even in something like an art or food class. It does not mean I did not hyperventilate during tests, dissociate when trying to perform day-to-day tasks, or experience severe paranoia and anger that affected my performance.
To anyone reading this, whether it is a current or future doctor, teacher, or anyone at all, I urge you to remember anyone can struggle beyond what is on the surface. Do not be the one who refuses to help us when our strength and ability feels drowned out by our symptoms.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
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