When I was first diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), I nervously typed the condition into Amazon to see if I could read up on it. My heart sank when one of the top results was a self-help book on “taking your life back” from someone like me.
The full title of that book, “Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder” by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger, still stings. It asks readers if they feel “manipulated, controlled, or lied to” by someone with BPD. Elsewhere, I’ve seen people call all people with BPD abusive. When you already feel like a burden — which many people with BPD do — language like this hurts.
I can see why people who don’t have BPD find it hard to understand. BPD is characterized by rapidly fluctuating moods, an unstable sense of self, impulsiveness, and a lot of fear. That can make you act erratically. One moment you might feel as though you love someone so intensely that you want to spend your life with them. The next moment you’re pushing them away because you’re convinced they’re going to leave.
I know it’s confusing, and I know caring for someone with BPD can be hard. But I believe that with a better understanding of the condition and its implications for the person managing it, this can be easier. I live with BPD every day. This is what I wish everybody knew about it.
A personality disorder is defined by the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition”in relation to the way a person’s long-term patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior cause difficulty in their day-to-day life. As you might understand, a serious mental disorder can be incredibly distressful. People with BPD are often very anxious, particularly about how we are perceived, whether we are liked, and in expectation of being abandoned. Calling us “abusive” on top of that just serves to increase stigma and make us feel worse about ourselves.
This can lead to frantic behavior in order to avoid this anticipated abandonment. Pushing loved ones away in a preemptive strike can often seem like the only way to avoid getting hurt. It’s common for those with BPD to trust people, no matter what the quality of the relationship is. At the same time, it’s also common for someone with BPD to be needy, constantly seeking attention and validation to soothe insecurities. Behavior like this in any relationship can be hurtful and alienating, but it is done so out of fear and desperation, not maliciousness.
The cause of that fear is very often trauma. There are different theories about how personality disorders develop: It could be genetic, environmental, related to brain chemistry, or a mixture of some or all. I know my condition has its roots in emotional abuse and sexual trauma. My fear of abandonment started in childhood and has only worsened in my adult life. And I’ve developed a series of unhealthy coping mechanisms as a result.
That means I find it very difficult to trust. That means I lash out when I think someone is betraying me or deserting me. That means I use impulsive behavior to try and fill the emptiness I feel — be it by spending money, through alcohol binges, or self-harm. I need validation from other people to feel like I’m not as awful and worthless as I think I am, even though I have no emotional permanence and am unable to hold onto that validation when I get it.
All of this means that being close to me can be extremely hard. I have drained romantic partners because I’ve needed a seemingly endless supply of reassurance. I’ve ignored the needs of other people because I’ve assumed that if they want space, or experience a change in mood, that it’s about me. I’ve built up a wall when I’ve thought I’m about to be hurt. When things go wrong, no matter how small they really are, I am prone to thinking that suicide is the only option. I have literally been the girl who tries to kill herself after a break-up.
I understand that to some people this can look like manipulation. It looks like I’m saying that if you don’t stay with me, if you don’t give me all the attention I need, I’ll hurt myself. On top of that, people with BPD are known to find it difficult to accurately read people’s feelings toward us. A person’s neutral response can be perceived as anger, feeding into the ideas we already have about ourselves as bad and worthless. That looks like I’m saying that if I do something wrong, you can’t get angry at me or I’ll cry. I know all of this, and I do understand how it looks.
The thing is, I might do all of those things. I might hurt myself because I sensed you were annoyed that I didn’t do the washing up. I might cry because you became friends with a pretty girl on Facebook. BPD is hyperemotional, erratic, and irrational. As difficult as I know it can be to have someone in your life with it, it’s 10 times more difficult to have it. Being constantly worried, fearful, and suspicious is exhausting. Given lots of us are also healing from trauma at the same time makes that even harder.
But that doesn’t excuse this behavior because it does cause pain to others. I’m not saying that people with BPD aren’t ever abusive, manipulative, or nasty — anyone can be those things. BPD doesn’t predispose those traits in us. It just makes us more vulnerable and scared.
We know that, too. For a lot of us, what helps us keep going is the hope that things will get better for us. Given access to it, treatments from medicines to talking therapies can have a real benefit. Removing the stigma surrounding the diagnosis can help. It all starts with some understanding. And I hope you can understand.
Tilly Grove is a freelance journalist in London, England. She usually writes about politics, social justice, and her BPD, and you can find her tweeting much the same @femmenistfatale. Her website is tillygrove.wordpress.com.