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Why My Borderline Personality Disorder Is Not Like the Stigma

Last year, I received a new mental health diagnosis: borderline personality disorder (BPD). After many years of struggling with depression and anxiety but knowing that didn’t quite cover everything that was happening, this diagnosis was like a lightbulb. My psychologist initially suggested it and went through the diagnostic criteria with me. I then had a more thorough assessment with a psychiatrist and endocrinologist who confirmed the BPD diagnosis. Initially, I felt relieved. Medical professionals had actually listened to me and the new diagnosis gave me a lens to help me to understand some of my behaviors and where they were coming from. It also provided clearer treatment options and a way forward.

However, I have not been as open about this diagnosis as I am with my physical health challenges or other mental health diagnoses and I started to question this. Why? This is also a part of me; it is something I am working on and seeking treatment for, so what is it about BPD that makes me reluctant to share my experiences? I thought about it and realized it was the stigma — the negative perceptions of people with BPD being “manipulative” or “dangerous.” I didn’t want people to make negative assumptions about my experience or about who I was as a person. But the only way to challenge this stigma is to speak up against it, to provide alternative experiences and views and to try and show people what it can be like. 

So here it is. What is BPD for me?

It is asking my partner where he’s going every time he leaves the room.

It is chronic feelings of emptiness, of not quite feeling real or present.

It is an overwhelming, unpredictable rollercoaster of emotions that change so rapidly it sometimes feels like I’ll get whiplash.

It is a meltdown with such intense emotions that all I want to do is rip my own skin off.

It is dissociation in times of intense emotion.

It is becoming intensely angry with very little warning.

It is overthinking and overanalyzing what people say and what I say.

It is agonizing over the wording of an email or a text.

It is feeling like nobody cares.

It is forgetting I have support and people who love me.

It is thinking I’ve been abandoned and having a meltdown when my partner in the next room cannot hear me because he has headphones on.

It is being hypervigilant, jumping at loud noises, scanning rooms, being incredibly sensitive to anger and conflict.

It is believing the world is not safe.

It is needing to be organized and in control.

It is shutting down if I am reprimanded.

It is feeling like I’m too needy, a burden, a bother.

It is never feeling good enough.

It is struggling to wind down, to rest as my nervous system is always on high alert for threat.

It is all this and more.

Many of these behaviors only come out in close relationships, where it feels safe to do so. But it is always there, bubbling under the surface. Some aspects of the disorder such as self-harm, risky behaviors and unstable interpersonal relationships were much more prevalent in my teenage years and early 20s and have diminished as I have gotten older.

With all of this going on, how can others help?

Sometimes I need to say no to an invitation if I am feeling fragile and cannot bear to be out, but I may still be up for a visit at my home

Be patient; sometimes I need more time to process things, especially in crowded or noisy settings.

It’s OK to ask questions.

Be understanding and supportive, not judgmental.

If you’re looking at information online, be aware that some of it can be very negative and not representative of all people with BPD.

You don’t have to fix anything or make it better; just knowing you’re there makes a big difference.  

How do I manage?

I have developed strategies that can help make things less intense and easier to manage. Some days, things are hard; other days, things are easier. I really just have to take each day as it comes.

I see a psychologist regularly to explore patterns of behavior and the feelings connected to these. I have found the use of mapping in cognitive analytic therapy (CAT) extremely useful.

I have put up pictures of my friends and family members around the house to remind myself of the people who love me.

I take a daily herbal tonic and daily supplements that help make the mood shifts milder.

I try and get out into nature most days.

I work on maintaining a good sleep routine.

I am working on communicating my needs clearly.

I connect with people I care about and who care about me.

I schedule in activities I enjoy.

Sometimes, I can prevent a meltdown with distraction but once I’ve escalated to full meltdown I just have to ride it out until the intense waves of emotion pass. During these times, I often lie in bed with the blinds down. It really helps when my partner puts his hand on my back; it anchors me to the present as sometimes I will dissociate and feel like I’m drifting away.

As a final note, I just want to make it clear these are my own experiences and strategies that have worked for me, and I am still working on things. Everybody is different, with different experiences and different strategies, so you will need to find what works for you. But I at least wanted to add my thoughts to the conversation about BPD and get people thinking about the different ways mental illness can present itself.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash