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Amber Heard Trial: When My Borderline Personality Disorder Becomes the Villain of the Story

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Editor's Note

The following article contains details about the recent stigma against the borderline personality disorder community that may be triggering.

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

I traveled to Chicago, where I presented research at a psychological association conference as part of my work in my clinical psychology master’s degree program. I was happy, finally taking time for myself, and hanging out and laughing with my research lab members — until I noticed my phone notification late one night. I received an anonymous message that read:

I saw your article complaining about people describing BPD’s as abusive. BPDs get described that way because they are. That’s like saying we shouldn’t stigmatize drunk drivers who kill people. That’s projection because of your own guilt. #iftheshoefits

My lab defended me and joked about trying to find out who sent that unfounded message. Luckily, I was surrounded by support and reminders that the message is not an accurate depiction of who I am.

This stigma is nothing new. It was one of two comments and messages I received within 48 hours, and one of at least 100 harassing messages I have received over many years, directed at me, my borderline personality disorder (BPD), and the symptoms that I am candid about in my advocacy work. I do not even know who these people are.

This time, the stigma was further provoked by the Amber Heard case, domestic violence, and the recent speculation that she has BPD. Since then, BPD has been a central topic, weaponized in countless news articles, videos, and social media posts.

This article is not to defend Amber Heard or comment on the case itself in any way, but it is more about addressing BPD stigma. It should not be controversial to state that overgeneralized, villainizing statements about a psychological disorder are wrong, serious, and unsupported claims. The statements should be critically considered and understood for what they are— public stigma against a group of people who have absolutely nothing to do with Amber Heard and the case.

Public stigma can be described as negative and discriminatory attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that people have toward a psychological disorder (e.g., rejection, fear, avoidance).

Now, BPD has been thrown around as a term to refer to abusive and violent behavior, whether someone has BPD or not. People on social media have taken it upon themselves to “diagnose” anyone who displays abusive or otherwise harmful behavior as having BPD. They conflate BPD with abuse and use it to legitimatize their experiences. While BPD stigma is not new, it is notably more frequent and public.

For example, one video about Amber Heard generalizes that BPD is the reason she is is “not even fit to be a mom” while an article describes BPD as the type of people who have a harmful and counterproductive relationship with society.

Comments and social media posts cover the screen and claim that we should be “locked up,” we are “crazy,” that people do not understand “how dangerous people with these disorders are” and that BPD is all the more reason not to believe anything she says.

Terms such as “callous,” “violent/dangerous” and “manipulative” are being incorrectly used to refer to BPD and our symptoms, such that people who display these behaviors are weaponized as having BPD even if they do not.

Initially, I felt empty and scared after I read that message. That quickly shifted to anger and fear for what this means moving forward. I knew those of us with BPD would be targeted. I knew this would ignite more misinformation from both stigmatizing sources and even well-meaning people who intend to educate. I knew what this would lead to.

Clearly, we are seeing collective public attitudes that reject, insult, villainize, and discredit people with BPD overall. Many of us with BPD cannot go one day without seeing the stigma on social media and other outlets. We will be and are getting harassed.

Simply, the messages are loud and clear to those of us with BPD: I am worthless. I am a monster.

Unfortunately, people with and without BPD who address the stigma are getting accused of “taking a side” and “defending” abuse, when that is not what we are doing at all. We are concerned about the consequences of collective discrimination against people with BPD.

The message I received is a good example that demonstrates what people with BPD are encountering right now and long before the case even existed. BPD has long been considered a highly stigmatized psychological disorder in clinical settings. Both our diagnosis and symptoms have been stigmatized for so long, rather than understood through competent care and research. Stigma has pervaded popular culture where BPD is weaponized, and stigma is reinforced.

For example, rather than understand that BPD self-injury may be more related to self-punishment, a distraction, or an attempt to intrapersonally and interpersonally regulate emotions, it may be pejoratively referred to as manipulative. This overlooks research in basic psychological science that demonstrates the reasons and functional considerations of self-injury.

Simply, the messages are loud and clear to those of us with BPD: I am worthless. I am a monster. My symptoms, rather than being understood, are turned into insults. It contributes to internalized stigma, feelings of avoidance, and fear of reaching out for help or support.

I do not understand how others do not have compassion for people struggling with a psychological disorder that entails intense psychological pain. I struggle with reactive dysphoria, chronic emptiness, paranoid ideation, self-injury, suicidal ideation, and extreme reactions to and preoccupations with abandonment (and rejection). Mundane events, such as brief separations, perceived slights, or misunderstandings may trigger extreme emotions such as hurt, humiliation, and feeling hated and excluded, and efforts to try to avoid abandonment.

What I do not struggle with is being abusive, manipulative, and a danger to others. No one in my life would describe me that way.

BPD stigma and ableism maintain real consequences for real people and may trigger more symptoms.

This is especially concerning, considering people with BPD have high rates of trauma and suicide. Around 70% experienced trauma as a contributing factor to BPD, and around 10% or more of people with BPD die by suicide, while 70 to 80% attempt suicide.

As this case unfolds and the degrading continues, there are a few important points to keep in mind.

1. A psychological disorder such as BPD is not synonymous with abuse and cannot be used to justify or explain it. BPD does not make someone abusive. That is a very strong statement. If someone is abusive, it is not simply “because of” BPD but rather because of abusive tendencies.

2. Whether Amber Heard has BPD or not does not make it OK to excuse or blanket abusive behaviors under BPD.

3. Someone cannot claim to be fully against abuse and harassment yet harass people with BPD, and verbally attack us and the condition we live with.

4. Many of us with BPD do struggle with symptoms such as extreme anger. This is not synonymous with abuse, either.

5. It is dangerous to discredit people and what they say by simply referencing their BPD, especially considering people with BPD are also at risk for being victims of abuse and violence themselves. This could have negative implications for people with BPD overall, including gaslighting.

6. It is crucial to educate using credible and accurate resources. Organizations such as Emotions Matter and the National Education Alliance for BPD are two options. Emotions Matter has a BPD Fact Sheet. These organizations also have resource recommendations.

Getty Images photo via MStudioImages

Originally published: May 5, 2022
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