Borderline Personality Disorder

Two years on from my diagnosis and I am finally at peace with it. More than that … I am embracing it. The first year, after learning of my condition, was a year of denial; raging against being labelled and struggling with my anger around the various perceived causes of my condition. The second year was one more of acceptance; educating myself and tentatively raising awareness of BPD. During those last twelve months I have battled with emotions of shame and guilt, having been made to feel that I was using my diagnosis to excuse past, and ongoing, indiscretions.

Now I am learning that, if you have a mental health disorder, it’s OK to own it. I am reconciled with the concept that my condition provides reasons for my behaviour, rather than excuses. I can now confidently say that if some people think I’m a bit of a dick, or put me in the too hard basket, then c’est la vie. Like it or not my BPD defines almost everything about me. Whilst once upon a time I very much despised being labelled as anything, after a life of constantly being a misfit (a label in its own right), it is actually a relief to belong so neatly in a box!

When people hear that I have BPD they often confuse it with other conditions — usually Bipolar Disorder. Whilst occasionally incorporating mild examples of typical bipolar symptoms BPD is actually an entirely different beast altogether. It’s a condition that most people know very little about even though it is estimated to affect around 4% of the Australian population. So what is it? Well, BPD is defined by most health organisations as a condition that biochemically impedes the ability to: control impulses, regulate emotions, form and maintain relationships, and develop identity and self-esteem. It stems from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, the latter usually (but not always) involving adverse childhood conditions. These adverse conditions can range from overt sexual or physical abuse to more subtle examples of repeated emotional abuse, abandonment, detachment and so on. BPD regularly coexists with clinical depression and includes chronic suicidal ideation as a common symptom.

For more information on BPD check out the Australian website here.

So that’s what BPD is, but many people have asked me how it can be identified in my behaviour and what impact it has on my day to day life and long term mental health journey. The number one thing that friends, associates, colleagues and family members will notice about me is my inconsistency. Inconsistency in my opinions and, in particular, in my behaviour. Those who have known me for many years will be nodding as they read this.

This chronic inconsistency comes from a number of key BPD symptoms and associated traits that have been my constant companions since childhood. In a nutshell my main clinical issues are:

(1) identity crisis,

(2) splitting countertransference, and

(3) fearful-avoidant attachment.

Sounds scary? Well, it is a little bit!

In terms of identity I was diverted from my natural path long, long ago. Unfortunately, when this happens, finding your way back is almost impossible. I want to tread carefully here, however. In the recent past I am aware that I have sounded like someone who blames all of their problems on their parents. I want to be clear — my parents aren’t bad people and they have suffered more than their fair share of trauma. Importantly, what they didn’t have was the knowledge, support, resources and skills that parents have today. They were products of 1970s and 1980s societal pressures, as well as their own individual experiences as children in the 1940s and 1950s. Their motivations weren’t malevolent in any way, but their methods and choices were problematic to say the least.

Unfortunately for me, that created the perfect storm. The way it has been explained to me is that I was genetically predisposed to suffering identity crisis in response to emotional and physical abuse. Without going into finer details around my childhood I learned that the way to survive in such an environment is to pretend to be someone other than myself. Fighting the daily battle, as an ignorant and powerless child, to “be myself” was simply not possible. My interests outside of the mainstream were unacceptable. My sexuality was unacceptable. What I wanted to be when I grew up was unacceptable. In short, I was not allowed to be me. Consequently, as a child, I felt mocked, misunderstood, restrained, railroaded and afraid.

How has this impacted those around me as an adult? For many it has meant that I have simply disappeared from their lives. For some it has seen me drift in and out of their lives, fluctuating between periods of intense engagement and baffling disengagement. For others it must feel like I used them up and spat them out, or that I’m a quitter, or simply a bad person. Constant attempts to reinvent myself in a desperate bid to reconnect with who I am deep down have resulted in me repeatedly wiping the slate clean and starting again. Where I live, who my friends are, what my job is, my beliefs, even my social media profiles … all erased and replaced. Over and over again. It’s a pattern of extreme behaviour, which leads me to my second major symptom; the concept in the BPD community known as “splitting”.

Splitting is a defense mechanism. It is involuntarily used by those with BPD in response to a range of triggers associated with concepts such as intense fears of abandonment, profound perceptions of reality, or dramatic losses in confidence. Splitting is quite complex in its psychology yet reasonably straightforward in its manifestation. It appears to those around us as an “all or nothing” approach to life and the use of extreme, or “black and white” language. Moderation, balanced viewpoints, consistency … all of these things go out the window. We drink all of the wine or not a drop. We become obsessed with people, tv shows, hobbies etc. only to drop them entirely months or years later. We are opinionated, we are emotional, we are rude, we are selfish, we are eccentric — all because we are afraid.

Splitting has left me prone to addiction, catastrophizing, risk taking, boundary crossing, overreacting; basically all the stuff that means people think I’m an arsehole. I don’t understand or agree with social conventions, I break rules and generally see the world through a different lens. I genuinely want to kill myself because I stepped in a puddle yet the song I just heard is the best song ever and has made me so happy. Oh, and splitting often involves hearing voices in my head that are not mine (but they are, but they aren’t, but they are …you know?). If you ever see me tapping or pressing my forehead with one finger, when I think I’m alone, that’s part of a strategy used to disperse those voices! So, yes, we are a little bit old-school “crazy” as far as society goes. Australians may talk the talk when it comes to accepting mental health disorders but, as with most things, a large percentage of them don’t walk the walk.

On a more conventional topic I also have significant attachment issues. My particular category, or label as it were, is the apparently rare “Fearful Avoidant” attachment style. This aligns quite well with the BPD subgroup often described as “Disturbed Relatedness”. Neither of those labels are particularly flattering, but it is what it is. Again, I don’t want to get too detailed here because it’s not only my life I’m talking about when I venture into the realms of relationships. Suffice it to say that fearful-avoidant attachment involves the coexistence of what would normally be the two extremes in a dichotomy. In relationships I either want everything and nothing at the same time or, more commonly, my feelings are ignited immediately and intensely until they simply burn out — like a star going supernova and reducing to a black hole. Again … all or nothing, reinvention, and neatly tying in to the common experience of those with BPD which is a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships. Relationships are always on my terms which, understandably, doesn’t endear me to folk in the long run. I wish it were otherwise but I have come to understand that it is not, and cannot be. That’s really hard on those with whom I have been in close relationships … and it is devastating for me.

So with the help of a wonderful psychologist I have been able to “find myself” and overturn decades of identity crisis.

With knowledge and support from the BPD community I have developed strategies to limit and control my “splitting”.

The fearful-avoidant attachment style is unfortunately a result of early childhood and is hard-wired.

“Excuses, excuses” I hear you say.

C’est la vie.

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