Demystifying Borderline Personality Disorder

A few years ago, I mentioned my borderline personality disorder in an article for Slate, in the context of the difficulties it presented for dating, along with depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder. My friends and family were supportive, telling me it was well-written and brave.

The comments, over 800 of them, largely told me I was a toxic human being. There is no nuance in stigma, no qualms in telling a stranger, “You shouldn’t be in a relationship. You would ruin someone’s life. You would ruin a child’s life.”

Depression and anxiety are slowly, slowly losing their stigma. OCD is still a punchline to too many jokes. Borderline personality disorder is the equivalent of a dirty word, a license for people to vilify you, sight unseen.

The comments, over 800 of them, largely told me I was a toxic human being.

As much as I don’t see myself in the cruel comments, I identify with the symptoms. The mere thought of abandonment makes me frantic. I have a distorted self-image. I’m impulsive and prone to black-and-white thinking. I am incredibly self-pitying, or my own harshest critic. I have intense reactions that are disproportionate to the situation. I’m quick to get angry, but for the most part I turn that on myself.

I think to have borderline is to doubt, both yourself and others. You can never really get at the truth, and never stop trying to find it. I am trying to both prove and disprove my worst fears about myself. I’d say I was an ouroboros, but that’s too elegant. I’m a dog, trying to devour its tail that’s trying to escape its mouth.

I constantly look outside of myself to know myself. I am only who I am in comparison with other people, when other people’s thoughts and opinions of me make me who I am. I describe myself to people in the most horrible terms possible, even worse than I think I am, so if I do behave badly they’ll think I’m not as awful as they’d feared.

This lack of self is why I am interested in fashion that seems bold, in drastic hairstyles, because those sound like things that a person with a strong sense of self would do. I don’t want people to know I am just my hair and my clothes and my taste in books and movies. I wear them all like armor in case there is nothing worthwhile inside after all.

I constantly look outside of myself to know myself.

I cannot leave a thing alone. If I’m worried that someone is upset with me, I won’t let it go. They can tell me all they want that nothing is wrong, but I will keep saying, “But, but, are you sure? I’m sorry. Are you sure?” Have you ever met a person who will worry a scab until it’s a hundred times worse than it was to start with? I do that with both literal and metaphorical scabs.

The worst is break-ups. I don’t get over people within a normal time frame. For months, years afterwards, that person occupies what feels like my every waking thought. I talk back to myself, fight back tears, berate myself for what was surely my mistake, obsessing over what I presume is their new life with someone shiny and new who can think and function like a normal human being. Someone happy. I am sure they have forgotten me, and I’m cursed to do the remembering alone.

I think the worst is this: borderline changes, it becomes easier or harder to manage, it blows up out of nowhere. I cannot relax. It’s like being a night watchman waiting for intruders, and even when it’s quiet, they could come from any direction–and it’s dark, and there are no other guards. And I don’t think it’s going to get better. I know everyone was doing what they thought was best, but I wish they hadn’t said that it would get better. Maybe that’s been the biggest disappointment of my life: hoping it would get better.

I think the worst is this: borderline changes.

I am the latest of late bloomers. I have put off life, opted to stay in alone and sleep, distracting myself with books and movies, waiting for it to get better. It’s perpetual anguish, an anguish that people can’t see, so you’re written off as some sort of Dickensian malingerer, whining about nothing. Sometimes I wonder if chronic physical pain would in some ways be…not easier, I know that, but a pain I could be more stoic about. Because that’s a pain you can prove to other people.

Even now, I’m worrying. I worry that people will read this and think I’m selfish and deluded and toxic, that I don’t deserve happiness or love. And a huge part of that is the disorder itself, my brain telling me these things. But it’s also what the world says about me, which adds another layer that I’m trying to peel off of myself.

At its worst, borderline is a feeling that is at once indescribable and unbearable, and you don’t know how you’re going to make it to the next minute. And that’s what I wish people understood. People with borderline are just people, dealing with something unbearable that they can’t adequately describe. The diagnosis has too long been mistaken for a character judgement. They may be good or bad, but it isn’t the diagnosis of borderline making them an inherently good or bad person.

Don’t ever be ashamed of needing help, of asking for help.

I’m not saying this well because I don’t know how. I believe that I am inherently bad, or at least that’s what borderline tells me. There are people who believe that it is the borderline that makes me bad. Rationally, I believe that we are all wrong. And I’m just trying to escape from this trap.

UPDATE: It’s been a couple of months since I finished writing this piece. I read over these words, knowing that I wrote them, but feeling utterly detached from them. Life is good right now, not great, but good. It wasn’t when I wrote this. And I know that there will be periods again when I can read over these words and every one will resonate, but those times are not permanent. So I want to say, if you are dealing with this too, grit your teeth. You are not a monster. You’ve been dealt an unfair hand, and you have to face it. It will come and go, but there are ways to ride the waves. Don’t ever be ashamed of needing help, of asking for help. I know it’s scary. I am using a pseudonym here, because I know how scary it is. Find a therapist, a psychiatrist, stay vigilant. Take care of yourself.

If you are living in New York and are seeking mental health services, please go to NYC Well.

Photo by Carlos Arthur.