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Grief Through the Lens of Borderline Personality Disorder

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One of the most significant ways my borderline personality disorder (BPD) affects me is through my thoughts surrounding abandonment and attachment. My unrelenting fear of ending up alone in a world where no one is who I need is something I’ve lived with for years and years, long before I received a diagnosis of BPD.

Before I had any knowledge of the disorder, I often felt the obsessive, destabilizing thoughts I experienced made me inherently wrong as a person — rather than a symptom of a mental illness many others also dealt with. Beginning to understand more and more about being borderline has helped me, at least a little, to challenge this belief that I am “wrong’”in the ways I think and feel, but the recent trauma of losing a loved one (extremely unexpectedly) has thrown that all out of balance again.

This has been my first real experience with grief — something that, until now, had always seemed distant and unfamiliar to me. I think this detachment from grief has a lot to do with the fact that we rarely talk candidly about death in our culture. It doesn’t help that although grief is undeniably something felt universally, it is also something felt entirely subjectively. So, is it really any wonder that when it comes along — as it will to us all at one point or another — it feels utterly bizarre and disarming?

In the last few months, I have learned that grief can have many faces — denial, reflection, despair, laughter, confusion, distress, anger, loneliness. However it’s worn, though, it is always there, just like love. Because grief is love, in a way. It is love that has lost its place to go; it is love without obvious direction and with brand new meaning. Experiencing grief can show and teach us so much about the full range of human emotion and the deeply complex ways we can feel about one other.

This is something of huge interest to me as someone with BPD — a disorder literally characterized by intensity and instability of emotions. I think becoming better at acknowledging, talking about and bearing witness to grief would help us all to live more authentically and empathetically. Practicing being actively more open about something as multi-dimensional as the experience of grief would surely help us to better understand mental illnesses such as BPD as well.

A key term to be aware of when talking about BPD is “emotional reactivity.” This essentially describes the intense emotional reactions that someone with BPD may demonstrate in situations that wouldn’t typically elicit the same response from someone without the disorder. It’s really important to explain that this isn’t a manipulative, ignorant or self-indulging behavior at all, as can be commonly thought. It is actually a symptom that can be painfully difficult to manage and live with.

People with BPD are almost always completely aware when their reactions might be being perceived as extreme, irrational or over-the-top as well, which can cause them secondary emotions like shame, guilt or embarrassment. This is an experience I am all too familiar with and one that never seems to get easier to cope with, especially when it comes along at the same time as grief. For someone with BPD, a bereavement (particularly a shocking one) can often result in a heightening of already hard to manage symptoms, such as emotional reactivity. For example, there could be an increase in destructive or impulsive behaviors such as self-harm or substance abuse, or else enhanced feelings of uncontrollable anger and shame, potentially resulting in violence or isolation from others.

Suppression is also something worth mentioning here, though it is not something usually discussed when talking about being borderline. Personally, as someone who often displays as what is referred to as a “quiet borderline” — meaning my emotional instability is largely something I deal with inwardly — I can definitely recognize patterns of extreme suppression throughout my life. Focusing particularly on the last few months, I see how I have sometimes shut away my grief and sense of loss, and instead favored things like anger or isolation, because I know how I can manage these emotions. They may be difficult, but at least they are familiar.

As I write this piece, I’m realizing the very specific ways my grief has affected and complicated my BPD. I struggle with separation anxiety and attachment issues as it is, but since suffering a bereavement, I have experienced these symptoms to a new level. I find myself terrified and often unable to go to sleep every night in case I have another vivid dream of a loved one dying; I especially hate to be apart from my parents and sister, which is really tough when I’m away at university; I am developing new, debilitating anxieties that have never affected me before; and above all, I am doubting everything I thought I knew and trusted in — all the ways I felt safe, supported and looked after are shifting.

I know this is something that comes with age and that comes with loss, but I have never felt less in control. Dramatic, swift changes in my mood are more frequent than ever — in just a couple of hours my emotions could have whipped from irrational anger to unbearable sadness to paralyzing terror to a dull emptiness, and these changes leave me so fragile and overwhelmed. I am constantly at what feels like an endless yet unsustainable breaking point. However, I am trying so hard to remember that my ability to feel like this is a strength as well as a struggle. Opening myself up to pick apart these thoughts and feelings may well be something that can help me come to terms with this loss, and with the inevitable losses that lie in my future. Just from writing this piece, I’m already starting to see clearer connections between the life I experience with my mental illness and the life I experience outside of it. Everything I know, I know through the lens of my borderline personality disorder — including my grief.

I read grief described somewhere recently as “half matter, half motion.” My own (probably completely inaccurate) interpretation of this is that grief is there with you as a constant, but it comes and goes, like the waves. They’re completely drowning you one minute and then pulling back out to sea the next — still in sight but further away and avoidable, at least until the next one rolls towards you. Often our instinct is to run away, to escape, to jump out of the bitter, freezing water and put a cosy, dry jumper on instead, and that’s OK. Falling head on into a powerful, difficult emotion isn’t always possible or best, but we do have to try and get much better with being open about the fact that it is there at all. It can appear impossible to translate the words of your grief when there is no simple, easy language for how it feels — particularly when it might be complicated by something like mental illness. So, let’s work on making one. Grief is for all of us, after all.

Photo by Aneta Pawlik on Unsplash

Originally published: June 13, 2019
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