Updated: Aug 5, 2019
“I have never met someone else with BPD. Not someone who is successful and bright and confident. Someone who is confident and open about their life and their disorder. I wanted to thank you because you and your story gave me hope and courage.”
I received this message from someone who heard me speak about my life and experiences with mental illness. I spoke about my Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis and explained what the most prominent symptoms are. Little did I know that someone in the audience was already familiar with all this. That they had the same diagnosis and, like me, struggled to figure out how this fit into their identity.
Borderline Personality Disorder is an interesting one. While mental illness in general carries stigma, BPD is also often stigmatized even in the medical community. BPD patients are considered manipulative and dramatic, in short, problem patients. This is because BPD symptoms are very interpersonal. They affect the way we interact and connect with other people. These interpersonal difficulties are marked by unhealthy and ineffective communication.
While some people may call BPD patients manipulative, I like to explain that it is not conscious manipulation. It’s a desperate attempt to have an emotional need met. Oftentimes BPD is informed by what we lived through during our developmental years. Because of this, the unhealthy communication styles established in the household become our own. We end up asking for our needs to be met in any way we know how, which is usually one that is not entirely effective or sound. This can sometimes include unhealthy behaviours that simply elicit the reaction we are looking for.
I was diagnosed with BPD in my early 20s. This meant nothing to me, as I had never heard the term before. By the time I was in my mid 20s I was spending time in an inpatient facility for women with BPD. I learned a lot more about my illness. My favourite group therapy session was called Psycho-Education. I learned about the illness from medical literature, looked at fMRI images that showed me that my brain truly functions differently than that of a mentally healthy person. However, along side the individual counselling and the group therapy, what may have helped me the most was living with 9 other women with the same disorder as me. This allowed me to observe their behaviours, to support them in their struggles, and to see how they were undertaking their treatment. Seeing behaviours I knew in myself acted out by someone else taught me a lot.
Along with interpersonal symptoms, BPD patients often feel a sense of worthlessness, a lack of identity and a fear of abandonment. That sense of worthlessness is something I still fight every day, even 10 years of therapy and 5 months of inpatient treatment later.
This is why this person’s message caught me off guard. I have never thought of myself as a bright, confident and successful person. I have so many doubts, I am hard on myself, I expect the most from myself and I beat myself up when I fall short. Seeing myself through someone else’s eyes gave me reassurance that I am in the right field. It gave me reassurance that my decision to be raw, real, open and honest truly makes a difference in this world.
This leads me to believe that anyone who has struggled through BPD, treatment and recovery can be extremely valuable in the mental health field. I encourage anyone who’s struggled with BPD to believe that they can make a difference; that they can use their experience to create a connection with people who have felt the same. BPD is not a death sentence in terms of success and confidence. We may face challenges that others do not but with the way we feel feelings in their extreme also gives us heightened empathy and a propensity for connecting with people who also feel pain.
I’ve chosen not to let my BPD diagnosis label me as problematic. I’ve chosen to face it head on and realize my full potential while knowing that I have to manage certain challenges.
Here’s an anecdote. I once swiped right on a man on a dating app with the sole intention of telling him off. His profile read “No cluster B disorders.” To understand this, one must know that BPD is part of a cluster of disorder as organized by the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). There are 3 clusters, A, B and C. The B cluster is characterized by “dramatic, overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behavior and interactions with others.” I thought his caveat was extremely stigmatizing, judgmental and just overall garbage. I matched with him and began a conversation. I confronted him and asked for his reasoning. He started by stating that he had “treated 100s of cluster B cases in his career”. It is important to note that he was a medical student. I immediately wondered if medicine was now like McDonalds: over 3 million served. I challenged him on this and asked him how he could consider it treatment if he had the time to see 100s of patients in his short years as a med student. You could call this assessing at best. Certainly treatment takes more than a few hours.
I continued arguing with him, asking why cluster B disorder deserved judgment and stigma. He never directly answered my question and just kept harping on the fact that these disorders require different and specialized treatment. No argument there. However I would have liked to understand why this meant they deserved contempt and judgment. I got nowhere and eventually blocked him.
The stigma will live on for now, but the best fight we can fight is becoming fulfilled, successful and happy people. We have value and we contribute. It may be hard for us to believe that, in those episodes of worthlessness and doubt, but our disorder can at once be our super power. We have a capacity to feel and connect that is amazing. After all, Marsha Linehan, the doctor responsible for giving us the most effective treatment for BPD (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) was diagnosed with BPD herself and spent time in an inpatient facility.
BPD is nothing to be ashamed of. If anything we must be extremely proud of what we’ve overcome and the symptoms we have learned to manage. Do not ever let some ass on a dating app tell you otherwise!