Author’s note: This is a personal essay, written from my individual experience. While psychiatric medication has not proven itself to be an effective treatment for my particular case of borderline personality disorder, I want to acknowledge that it is an effective treatment for many. And even though I consider myself to have been failed by our medical system, I want to make it known that I am not against Western medicine. And I certainly do not recommend that anyone reading this stop taking their medication without first talking to their doctor.
Winter of 2011
“I don’t think you have bipolar disorder,” my at-the-time boyfriend says to me.
His claims are ridiculous. How could I not have bipolar? I have been struggling with depression for years, but despite being depressed I have an abundance of energy. Besides, bipolar II disorder is what the psychiatrist diagnosed me with, so certainly this diagnosis is correct.
Still, I entertain my boyfriend’s delusions: “Okay… why do you think I don’t have bipolar?” I do not hide the skepticism in my voice.
“Because,” he continues, a bit frantically, “I think what you actually have is borderline personality disorder.”
And he pulls up the symptoms. I read through them, expecting to disagree. I am shocked, however, that I do not disagree.
‘Difficulties with identity, such as a quickly changing self-image or sense of self.’ I do struggle with that one. ‘Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance use, reckless driving, binge eating).’ And this one too. In fact, ever since that terrible thing happened I have struggled with a lot of these.
But the symptom that stands out the most to me is the first one listed: ‘Frantic efforts to avoid abandonment, whether the abandonment is real or imagined.’ Does this symptom not explain the problems my boyfriend and I have been going through?
Yes, my boyfriend is avoidant. But I am the opposite of avoidant; I struggle whenever we have to spend time apart. Not because I don’t enjoy my time alone, but because I am worried I will never see my boyfriend again. I want to spend quality time with myself, just as I used to, but when I do have time alone, I waste it away worrying about whether or not my boyfriend really loves me. In fact, I am so afraid of abandonment that I will go to nearly any length to avoid it, including sacrifice my own sense of self.
Reading over the symptoms and reflecting on my past, I can see that, yes, it is likely I have borderline, not bipolar. But I can also see that this relationship with my boyfriend is unlikely to last, only further triggering my fear of abandonment.
Summer of 2013
For over two years, I have been trying psychiatric medication after psychiatric medication, and they have all failed to properly treat my ‘bipolar disorder’—if that really is what I am struggling with.
I had asked my old psychiatrist, the youth psychiatrist, about borderline personality disorder, after my now-ex-boyfriend showed me the symptoms. (Unsurprisingly, our relationship did not last.) However, the youth psychiatrist told me that what she saw in my self-reported mood chart was bipolar II disorder, not borderline personality disorder.
She also mentioned that borderline cannot be diagnosed until the patient is eighteen years of age. I pushed her to reconsider this, because, when reading through those symptoms, I had felt so seen, in a way I never had before. Alongside this, at that time I was seventeen, just months away from turning eighteen. Could an exception not have been made? However, she implored me to stop entertaining the notion.
So, I have accepted that what I have is bipolar, not borderline—after all, the doctor has to be correct, right? And I have been continuing to pursue treatment for bipolar. Still, at times the thought does enter my mind: What if what I actually have is borderline personality disorder?
Treatment for bipolar is a cocktail of psychiatric medications, none of which are proving to be effective. Back when I was seeing the youth psychiatrist, it was anti-psychotics: lithium and quetiapine. But when I turned eighteen, I was sent to a new psychiatrist, one for adults. She immediately pulled me off of these anti-psychotics, scolding the other doctor for prescribing me with them. “Why would she have you on anti-psychotics? You are not psychotic!”
This explained why these medications had done nothing for me—nothing but render me so drowsy that I would sleep for twelve hours a day. Actually, I had been so sedated that I would not wake up to use the bathroom, causing me to wet the bed.
My new psychiatrist seems to know what she is talking about, so I have put my trust in her, and I compliantly take the ever-changing cocktail of pills she prescribes me. These are not anti-psychotics, but a combination of weird medications, such as epilepsy medications that might have ‘mood-stabilizing properties’, whatever that means.
Honestly, I am not finding the medications to be effective. I still feel so down, yet so energetic and impulsive. I still have so much anxiety, so much fear of what other people might think of me, such fear of abandonment. While my peers pursue post-secondary education, career opportunities and travel, I am still struggling to consistently work towards a goal, something very important for a nineteen year-old.
I constantly worry about my future, but it’s a bit of a Catch-22: my mental health issues interfere with my ability to function, and yet my lack-of-functioning only worsens my mental health issues. So badly do I long to be able to pursue a meaningful career, but at this point I can barely hold down a job. My identity is constantly changing; I keep going wherever my wild impulses deign to take me. One moment, I feel on top of the world, and I will start working towards a new, exciting goal. But then the next moment, I feel completely deflated, and I will give up on said goal entirely, maybe even self-harm.
This is why I am anxious to see the doctor today. I have been struggling, and I am hoping she will change my medication (again). Her office smells like any other doctor’s office, but I have learned to associate the smell with hope—hope that, one day, we will find the right cocktail of pills.
“Alright, Melody,” she greets me, “going forward, I need you to see your family doctor.”
My heart stops. It takes me a moment to find my words. “What do you mean?”
The psychiatrist speaks in her usual inhumanly calm voice: “Well, I am cutting my patients in half. You are one of the more stable ones, so I will no longer see you. Instead, you will get your prescriptions renewed by your family doctor.”
My stomach seems to flip upside down. Now my heart is racing. The golden sun, leaking through the window, is suddenly very hot.
Caving to my emotions, I leap up and shout, “No! Please! I need you!”
“Melody, your moods are more stable than most of my patients.”
“No, they aren’t!” I cry, holding my mood-chart up to her. “Look at all these zeroes! I am depressed as fuck! I literally want to die!” And it’s true: the thought of suicide often dances through my mind, an evil but seductive temptress.
The doctor says nothing; she merely blinks hard a few times.
“I can’t go on with these medications,” I insist. “I need them adjusted. We still haven’t found the right combination of drugs.”
She still says nothing, but she is staring at me intently, taking me in.
The tears are coming now; “Please don’t leave me!”
The doctor nods and says, “Okay, Melody, you can sit down. I won’t leave you.” And she begins scribbling something with her pen, which she always does. “I am, however, diagnosing you with borderline personality disorder.”
“Borderline personality disorder?” I repeat.
“Yes. For a while now, I have suspected that you are suffering from a case of borderline as well. This little freak out you just had only proves my suspicions.”
Quietly, I say, “I have often wondered if I have borderline. How is it treated?”
“Through therapy. But I think if you focus on getting your moods stable with medication, you won’t need therapy. I think if you get your moods stable, the borderline will go away on its own.”
“I’m not so sure about that. I really feel I need therapy, to process the shit I went through.”
And then, to myself, I think, After all, my mental health issues got so much worse after that terrible thing happened.
“Well, regardless, I do not want you to seek therapy until your moods are stable. Otherwise, the therapy would be a waste. Understood?”
An obedient patient, I nod. Though I do wonder, But wouldn’t receiving therapy help to stabilize my moods?
Spring of 2014
Almost another year has passed, another year of trying different medications, another year of nothing working. Intuitively, I know the treatment I need is therapy. But every time I bring this up to the doctor, she denies me therapy, insisting we first need to get my moods stable. And then we try a different cocktail of drugs.
I am sick of this shit! I am sick of taking medications that do nothing but cause side effects. I am sick of taking even more medications to cope with those side effects. I am sick of being denied the help I know I need. I am sick of my doctor writing everything down in her stupid little book.
Around this time, I am in a new relationship—one that, down the road, becomes abusive—but I have yet to see this side of him. He, too, had been diagnosed bipolar, but does not take medication, just smokes a lot of weed. He seems fine though. In fact, he seems happier than me.
Actually, he keeps urging me to go off my medication. He is really against psychiatry. Eventually—partially because I, a this point, am skeptical of psychiatry, and partially due to the toxic power imbalance in our relationship—I comply to my boyfriend’s wishes. I quit my cocktail of pills cold turkey and never talk to my psychiatrist again.
This is bad behaviour on my part, of course, and I do not recommend anyone reading try this themselves. In my defence however, the doctor never once calls me to ask how I am doing or if I want to make an appointment. Can you blame me for feeling as though she didn’t really care about me?
I was misdiagnosed.
My path to recovery and healing was not a pretty one. Like many sufferers of mental illness, before I got better I had to get worse. I wish to save much of this story for another essay, but essentially, I went through a journey of self-discovery.
What I discovered, through a horrific magic mushroom trip, through hitting rock bottom with both my eating disorder and self-harm, and through finally receiving the therapy I needed, was that I do not have bipolar disorder.
For those unfamiliar, typically, bipolar is thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain; whereas borderline personality disorder is a learned pattern of cognition and behaviours. While bipolar tends to be of genetic lineage, borderline often comes through experiencing trauma. Borderline is a maladaptive coping mechanism for said trauma.
In claiming I do not have bipolar, this is not to say I have not suffered from serious mental illness. However, what I learned, in the Autumn of 2014 and into the following Winter and Spring, is that the bulk of my mental health issues stem, not from a chemical imbalance, but from trauma.
Come the Summer of 2015, and I was finally reassessed by a third psychiatrist. I was asked to keep a mood chart during the months leading up to the appointment, and I did. During the appointment, I intentionally did not mention my second psychiatrist’s hasty diagnosis of borderline; I only mentioned the bipolar diagnosis. Having just finished my first year of studying Psychology, I was very aware of the power of suggestion. If this doctor was going to diagnose me with borderline, I wanted her to come up with the idea on her own.
Nevertheless, after talking with me and assessing my chart, she informed me that what I have struggled with all this time is not bipolar; rather, what I have struggled with is, in fact, borderline personality disorder. I was not surprised by this assessment; my therapist said about the same.
I was, however, disheartened. While all mental health issues face their own unique stigma, the stigma regarding borderline is particularly nasty, framing us as toxic, or even abusive. Of course, all individuals suffering from borderline are, well, individual. That is to say: how one responds to their illness is less about the illness and more about their personal character.
The Origins: Where does my borderline personality disorder stem from?
I have always been sensitive—a ‘highly sensitive person’, to use the work of psychologist Elaine N. Aron. And, as I discussed in my essay Allegedly Autistic, I do believe I am on the spectrum—so, again, different. Honestly, anyone who spent enough time around me during my childhood would probably agree that I was born neurodivergant.
And then, with grade nine came the bullying—cruel bullying. No, I had never exactly been popular, but up until February of 2008, I had more or less been able to keep to myself. Before I became an outcast, you would find me writing and doodling in notebooks, day-dreaming, playing in a make believe world of all my own.
It was when I uploaded a terrible music video for a terrible song I had written—that was when I became the laughing stock of the entire ninth grade. Let me tell you: walking through the hallways, having my shitty song sung to me in a mocking, tormenting way, being made fun of for my dreams of making music, being told to kill myself… Well, if I wasn’t already neurodivergant in some way, I sure as hell was after that!
To cope with the bullying, I accepted my identity as ‘other’, embraced it, leaned into it. It was not long before I entered my goth phase. I was obsessed with Marilyn Manson and all things dark.
In the tenth grade, I started talking to a boy. He was in eleventh grade, a grade ahead of me. And he, too, was a social outcast. When it became public knowledge that him and I were talking, flirting, a few people from his grade cautioned me about him. They told me he was dangerous and implored me not to date him.
However, the boy and I had related on our experience of being ‘other’, of being social outcasts, of being bullied. So, instead of listening to these eleventh graders—who, in retrospect, I can see were genuinely worried about me—I empathized with the boy. I knew what it was like to be a social outcast. And my peers merely made fun of my eccentricity, my willingness to create art. I could not imagine how it would feel to have people defaming my character.
If only they had actually been defaming him.
The boy was exceptionally charming. He acted the part of the gentleman, paying for our dates. He never neglected to spend time with me or pay me attention. And when he met my parents, he shook their hands. I had no reason to believe the slander of his peers.
Or so I thought.
He was charming, until he wasn’t. Yes, he invested a lot of time, money and energy into me… but there is a reason I have amended the word ‘spend’ to ‘invest’. He expected a pay-off for his efforts. He wanted sex, kinky sex.
I was not ready to have sex, let alone sex involving the BDSM he wanted. But he kept pushing for it, and, eventually, he forced himself onto me. When he did, I just shut down, I disassociated. I knew, logically, he was coming onto me without my consent, but I did not know how to respond; for I had already said ‘no’, and he had proceeded anyway, so what was I to do?
Afterward, I did not acknowledge that I had been raped, not even to myself. As I said, I was in a state of disassociation. This only kept me in the relationship, allowing him to continue to rape and abuse me.
There is more to this story, and perhaps one day I will tell it in full, but the crux of it is this: at the age of fifteen, I was raped repeatedly by my psychopathic boyfriend. My psychopathic boyfriend who I had, due to my own experience of being bullied, ignored the warnings about, because he had claimed those warnings were just his peers ‘bullying’ him, and I had empathized. If I was not already on the path to developing borderline personality disorder, I sure as hell was now.
I am not sure if there is much to this scientifically, but I swear I remember the day the BPD emerged. I was walking to school (probably listening to Marilyn Manson). It was a beautiful Sunny Autumn day. But I felt somehow different. I still had not yet acknowledged that I was being raped and abused. However, I had become aware of just how worthless I was feeling. As of that day, the seed of the belief that I am unloveable had sprouted.
Now, I want to go through the symptoms of borderline personality disorder and talk about how they manifest for me, personally…
Frantic efforts to avoid abandonment, whether the abandonment is real or imagined
Out of all the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, fear of abandonment is, by far, what I struggle with most. Thanks to the sexual assault and the bullying, I have a crippling limiting belief that I am unloveable, that I am destined to be abandoned, that I am a bad person who deserves mistreatment. (And let me tell you: the stigma surrounding BPD does not help this!)
I know it is illogical, but I, somewhat unconsciously, anticipate the rejection and betrayal of other people. Anxious and on edge, I keep a lookout for signs and clues of upcoming abandonment. I read into things that need not be read into; thus creating chaos in my mind, my own personal hell.
In the past, I was so afraid of abandonment that I would abandon myself. I have stayed in relationships with partners I have outgrown, with people whose values were not aligned with mine, and, during my darkest days, with the aforementioned abusive partners.
Fortunately, embarking on a dating sabbatical—taking six months off of romantic relationships, taking six months to work on my relationship with myself—this really helped me know and understand myself, my true self. And now that I know I can be okay on my own, I am completely unwilling to settle. Actually, before I started dating my current partner, I wrote down a list of traits I needed in a partner—and I am so grateful to have found him!
Yet still I struggle with this fear of abandonment. It’s funny: I know, from experience, that I would be okay on my own. And I feel happy spending time by myself. I am whole. But still I fear abandonment.
A typical day for me is one littered with intrusive thoughts: thoughts that tell me those who I am closest with are going to, out of the blue, leave me. Through practises such as meditation, yoga and Tarot, I am learning to challenge these thoughts, to cope with them, and sometimes dismantle them altogether.
That said, this is a practise, and some days my practise is stronger than others. Some days are better than others. Some days I get lost in the dark woods, my own personal hell. More on this as I discuss the next few symptoms…
Unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation
Before I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I would, unknowingly, ‘split’ on the people in my life.
First, to give you a definition of ‘splitting’, I will quote my essay, I Have Borderline Personality Disorder—But I Am Not A Bad Person…
For those uninformed, ‘splitting’ is a defence mechanism: an unconscious attempt to avoid perceived abandonment. Fear of abandonment is BPD’s signature symptom. When someone with BPD ‘splits’, they will often shift from idealizing their partner to devaluing them. All-or-nothing thinking is a symptom of BPD; seeing the world in shades of grey can be challenging for us.”
In other words, during my darkest days, I would frequently switch—or rather, ‘split’—from thinking my at-the-time boyfriend or my best friend was the best person ever, to thinking they are the worst person ever. Because I was not yet diagnosed with BPD, I did not have any awareness of my health condition, of how my brain warps reality, and I mistook my perception for the truth.
Nowadays, thanks to dialectical behavioural therapy and meditation, I have more self-awareness. All-or-nothing thinking still calls me, and I still feel tempted to ‘split’ on people. But, before I do ‘split’ on one of my friends, I question my thoughts, I think critically.
It is actually quite rare that I ‘split’ on someone—with the exception of my partner. I still regularly ‘split’ on my partner, not because of any fault of his, but simply because I am so close with him.
When I sense I am about to ‘split’ on one of my friends, I usually pull away from them for a bit, not as a punishment to them, but to give myself space. This space is crucial for me, because it gives me time to sort out my thoughts and feelings; what is real and what is just my faulty perception?
For example, a few weeks ago, I was feeling upset with my friend for something she said to me. However, before I confronted her about it, I wanted to give myself some time to clarify my thoughts and feelings. After spending some time away from my friend, after calming down, I realized that she had only said that thing she said to me because she was worried about me, because she cares.
But if this had happened a decade ago, before I was diagnosed with BPD, I likely would have, blindly and unjustifiably, expressed my upset to my friend. Back in those ‘bad old days’, I damaged a lot of relationships this way.
What both DBT and meditation do for me is this: they provide me with more space between my thoughts. With this new bit of space, I am less reactive, and more able to assess the situation in shades of grey, rather than in black and white. From this place, I am more empowered to respond effectively.
Now, with my partner, because we are so close, it can be more challenging to find and take this space. Part of this is just a practical thing: our proximity. It is easier to take space from conflict when it is not happening right in your living room. And part of this is how threatening it feels, when my mind tells me my boyfriend is actually ‘bad’, and that he is going to abandon me. If I am about to ‘split’ on my friend, it is easier to ignore the situation altogether, to focus on other things for a while, to give myself that space. But if I am about to ‘split’ on my partner, it seems impossible to ignore the situation. It feels urgent, as though I need to figure things out right then and there.
So yes, I ‘split’ on my partner more than I do anyone else. Usually this manifests as me asking my partner questions like, “Are you mad at me?” or “Do you still like me?”. Or worse, convincing myself that, yes, he is mad at me, or that, no, he doesn’t like me anymore. And then falsely sensing that I need to withdraw from him, feeling as though I need to escape the situation, believing I ought to, for his sake, terminate the relationship—even though, in Truth, he is happy.
When I ‘split’ very rarely does it result in anger towards others; I am what is known as a ‘quiet borderline’, after all. I am much more likely to get angry with myself, to take things out on myself.
Actually, there is one person I ‘split’ on more than my partner: myself. Once again, I will discuss this experience in the next symptom…
Difficulties with identity, such as a quickly changing self-image or sense of self
These days, this symptom manifests mostly as me ‘splitting’ on myself. What does this entail? Well, I go from, one moment, feeling, more or less, at peace with myself, to the next moment absolutely loathing myself, thinking, genuinely believing, that I am the worst person in the world.
This is an incredibly uncomfortable feeling, almost unbearable. For those who do not struggle with borderline personality disorder, try to imagine being in immense psychological pain simply because you are you. Imagine being incredibly uncomfortable, just by being alive, just in existing. This is what splitting on myself is like: I see myself as ‘all bad’—and yet, obviously, I cannot escape myself, not without taking my own life. It is in these moments when I have considered suicide.
But I have another maladaptive coping mechanism: rather than a physical suicide, a metaphysical suicide. In the past, before I had this treasured self-awareness, when I happened to ‘split’ on myself, I would attempt to escape the feeling by assuming a new identity. I might morph from ‘rebellious punk-rocker’ to ‘quirky gamer girl’. And, within a day, I would change not just my hair, make up and style of dress, but my overall persona. I might talk in a different tone, adopt new lingo and hold myself differently. If I am really serious, maybe delete all the photos on my Instagram.
Maybe this all sounds ridiculous to you, but these were attempts to ‘start over’, to hit life’s reset button. Of course, this is silly, but once again, because of my BPD, it often feels more comfortable to keep things amiable to a black-and-white paradigm, as opposed to a grey one.
At the end of 2019, the relationship I had been in for five years ended. This forced me to get crystal clear about who I am, truly—about what my values and my strengths are—about my vision for my life. To quote my essay, Your Mind Is Your Home: How To Truly Love Yourself…
It was during that dark, gloomy Winter when I discovered myself, truly discovered myself. Like a snake, I had shed the layers of my skin, the layers of my ego. My sense of self had been burned to ash, but like a phoenix, I would rise again. This loss, this death, was all a part of me journeying to the core of myself, my authentic self.”
Since that time, as challenging as it was, I have not struggled with identity the way I used to. Actually, I just completed my first Saturn Return in March. For those unfamiliar with Astrology, a Saturn Return occurs every twenty-nine years, and it is a time of maturation. I have Saturn in Aquarius in my First House, the house of the self. So while Saturn has been in Aquarius these last three years, this has been a time of discovering who I am, authentically, in all my nuances and complexities—and then expressing that person, living them out.
Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance use, reckless driving, binge eating)
Before the soul-searching I did at the end of 2019, I was rather impulsive. As I shared earlier, I would make attempts to change my identity—and with that came, not just superficial changes, but lifestyle changes as well. I might, in my switch from ‘rebellious punk-rocker’ to ‘quirky gamer girl’, go from being someone who loved to drink and party, to someone who prefers to live life as a hermit. (And maybe I would impulsively spend all my money on geeky paraphernalia.)
Of course, my impulsivity was the worst during my teenage years and my very early twenties, before I was diagnosed. Back then, I engaged in some really destructive behaviours: binge-drinking, binge-eating and self-mutilation.
Once I was diagnosed and sought the proper treatment—dialectical behavioural therapy—my impulses became less self-damaging, and more about my identity. I was no longer hurting myself, but I still lacked a healthy sense of self. I had many versions of myself, but none of them were actually me, the authentic me.
And then, at the age of twenty-six, the aforementioned heartbreak was enough of a shock, enough of an ego death, that it forced me to really ask myself, “Who am I, truly?” Now that I had said goodbye to my partner, a person who had been a huge part of my life for so long, I had to learn who I was on my own. This is when I did much of my soul-searching.
I learned who I am, authentically, and what it is I truly value. Of course, these things are always in flux, but this flux is very different than it used to be. I used to swing from one extreme to another: from ‘rebellious punk-rocker’ to ‘quirky gamer girl’ to ‘nerdy psych student’ to ‘Wiccan hippie’ to something else altogether.
Nowadays I understand that I am all of these things and none of these things. I am allowed to be nuanced and complicated and even contradictory. I am allowed to enjoy punk-rock music and geek culture. I am allowed to listen to Sonic Youth and the score from Oblivion (my favourite video game). It is perfectly okay that I wear Doc Martens and Winnie-the-Pooh dresses from Hot Topic (and they go great together, by the way!) Who I am does not have to be so black-and-white. Actually, I am much more joyful living in shades of grey, because this way, I get to be whoever and whatever my heart desires.
Regardless of whether I am recording a rock album or writing a fantasy novel, it stems from my underlying value: creativity. I know my values and can express them in many different ways. And I am open to my values shifting and evolving over time. Having this new-found healthy sense of self really helps quell the impulsivity that can come with borderline personality disorder.
Recurrent suicidal thoughts, suicidal behaviours, or self-harm
With borderline personality disorder comes some intense feelings. In fact, brain scans have shown that people with BPD have smaller amygdalae than people without BPD. The amygdala is a primitive part of the brain that regulates fear. A smaller amygdala is more overactive than a larger one. This means that people with borderline, on average, are more fearful.
Alongside this, people with borderline have a hippocampus in a constant state of hyperarousal. The hippocampus processes the data that comes in through the senses and determines whether or not there is a threat—and then, if there is a threat, it communicates this message to the amygdala. Because a borderline hippocampus is hyperaroused, faulty messages are sent to the amygdala; in other words, messages that need not be sent are sent. This only causes the amygdala to be even more overactive—so again, creating more fear for the individual with BPD.
These are just two of the multitude of ways individuals with borderline are neurodivergant. What all this means is that people with borderline experience emotions more intensely than the ‘average’ person. As a person with borderline, anecdotally, I intuit this to be true.
To cope with said intense feelings, I used to self-harm. However, dialectical behavioural therapy helps me cope with these intense feelings in healthier ways, as do my spiritual practices: meditation, yoga and Tarot, mainly. These days, self-harm is not an urge I struggle with nearly as often. I cannot say I am never tempted to pick up the razor blade, but the impulses to do so come a lot less frequently than they used to, and when they do I am better equipped to handle them.
I could say about the same regarding suicidal thoughts. Ending my own life used to be perpetually on my mind, as was self-harm, and now it is not as frequent that I think about these things.
See, I used to be depressed, truly depressed. I used to wake up and feel sad for no reason. No, not sad. Empty. In these last few years however, I have not been depressed. Of course, I still experience sadness; I am a human being, and a rather sensitive one at that! And anxiety is something I still battle everyday. But I have this newfound appetite for life itself.
The difference is this: ever since I engaged in that deep soul-searching back at the end of 2019, ever since I identified my values and my strengths, ever since I cultivated a vision for my life, I now see life as precious. Back in my ‘bad old days’, I saw life as a chore. It felt so long, so hard, so scary and so daunting. Now, I see life as a gift, a blessing, a miracle. And I see that life is short.
These days, when I have thoughts of suicide it is not because I do not want to live. Rather, I have the potential to become so anxious I will start to see suicide as the only way to relieve myself of said anxiety. Of course, this is false; this is a lie the dark side of my mind likes to tell me when I feel out of sorts. But this is my maladaptive defence mechanism for coping with overwhelm, and one I am working on eradicating.
Emotional instability and quick-changing moods (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)
As mentioned earlier, due to my ever-changing moods, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar II. Although I think the youth psychiatrist was too quick to put a label on my condition, I can understand why it was believed that I had a ‘mood disorder’.
As a teenager, I was moody, incredibly moody, more than the ‘average’ kid. However, as told in the story at the start of this essay, ‘mood-stabilizing’ medication did nothing for me. It was not until I received the treatment I had needed all along—therapy—that I saw an improvement in my moods.
Through sorting out my shit in therapy, I became a much happier person, to the point where I am no longer clinically depressed. Sure, I still experience intense emotions (As mentioned in the previous symptom, borderline brains do feel more intensely!), but my sadness does not linger the way it used to. Instead, therapy taught me to simply notice my upset as soon as I can, feel it as promptly as I can, and then let it go.
Of course, this is a practice, and I am not perfect with it; I am only human, after all. But I have a much healthier relationship with my emotions now than I did in my teenage years and in my very early twenties.
And I feel the other emotions more deeply too. Yes, this means I get insanely happy over the little things people all too often see right passed, like watching the bumblebees pollinate the flowers, or settling into a good book while sipping a cup of tea. I would not trade this sensitivity, truly.
But getting back to the topic of mood swings, what I discovered in therapy is that I am not ‘chemically imbalanced’; it’s just that I sometimes struggle to cope with the trauma I have endured. I have a considerable amount of trauma, and the coping mechanism I developed to cope with my trauma was borderline personality disorder.
Personally, BPD seems to push me from one extreme to the other: one moment, I can be totally detached from my emotions, and the next moment, totally overwhelmed by them. Of course, neither extremes are healthy. A person is healthiest when they are aware of their emotions, honest about them, and—instead of making attempts to numb or distract themselves from their feelings, and instead of being totally swept up by their emotions—they simply sit with them and let them pass.
Alongside BPD, I also struggled with an eating disorder for many years. Fortunately for me, both BPD and eating disorders can be treated with dialectical behavioural therapy. Dialectical behavioural therapy is like cognitive behavioural therapy in the sense that both help one change their thought patterns. But CBT puts more of a focus on changing one’s thoughts and behaviours, where as DBT puts more of an emphasis on accepting one’s emotions.
DBT has a ‘mindfulness’ component to it that CBT lacks. This form of therapy is responsible for sparking my interest in meditation, although I did not develop a consistent practice until long after I had finished my therapy program, and even then, I have had periods of time during which I have neglected my practice. Through DBT and meditation, I learned to sit with sadness, rather than attempt to numb my sadness through my eating disorder and other maladaptive behaviours. This was a powerful shift in my consciousness.
Therapy helped me dig my BPD and my ED up, release them, and then dig even deeper… You see, therapy did not just help me uncover the truth of my diagnosis: it also helped me get in touch with myself, generally, as a human. It seems odd now, but until I got some therapy and did some soul-searching, I was genuinely unaware of how sensitive and how empathetic and, frankly, how psychic I really am. Reading The Highly-Sensitive Person by psychologist Elaine N. Aron properly introduced me to this part of myself as well, as did finding my Wiccan path.
Of course, I am skimming over my recovery process here. I am sure that one day I will tell the story properly. However, what I need to share, for the purpose of this essay, is this: I am a highly-sensitive person. And I have experienced trauma. I did not know how to cope with this trauma in a healthy way, so I developed borderline personality disorder.
While these days, I do not struggle with depression, not in the way I used to, I do, however, still struggle with episodes of dysphoria, and, of course, with anxiety. I am still terrified of abandonment, and this is what most of my anxiety stems from. But weirdly enough, I feel the most anxious when I am happy. I am sort of, well, afraid to lose said happiness.
The trauma I have endured has programmed my brain to look for all the potential ways things could go wrong. And if I let these intrusive thoughts take control of my mind, this kind of thinking will destroy my happiness.
Medication has done very little, if anything, for me. What I find truly helpful for my anxiety is, firstly, things that calm my sensitive nervous system: such as yoga, and herbs like lavender, and magnesium supplements. And secondly, practices that help me sort out my thinking: such as meditation, Tarot and journaling.
Because BPD is a learned pattern of cognition and behaviour, I really have to monitor my thoughts and, when I get triggered, practise choosing new thoughts, even if doing so feels counter-intuitive.
Chronic feelings of emptiness
Back when I was depressed, I felt existentially bored. I would often wonder, What is the point of life? Fortunately, as a teenager, I stumbled into song-writing, and I formed my own rock band. The project gave me not just a creative outlet for my very intense emotions, but it also gave me a sense of purpose. I clung to that sense of meaning, to avoid the existential boredom that came with my borderline personality disorder, to cope with the chronic emptiness.
Later in life, after recovery and after my spiritual awakening, I came to radically accept the meaninglessness of life. This is how I see things: any meaning we ascribe to life is created by the mind. Now, this might sound grim, but really it is a blessing. Because life is inherently meaningless, we as individuals can project any meaning we like onto it.
Knowing this Truth has helped me recover; it has helped me heal; it has helped me move through many dark times. Remember that soul-searching I did at the end of 2019? Before the aforementioned partner broke my heart, he and our relationship really was much of the meaning I ascribed to life. But once he was gone, I had to discover what life’s meaning was for myself, as an individual. What appeared to be a tragedy ended up being one of the best things for my mental health and personal development; for the hardship is what allowed me to know myself, to truly know myself.
Extreme anger or difficulty controlling anger
This particular symptom is not one I personally struggle with. It is rare that I feel angry, even when appropriate. But this lack of anger is not the result of me being some kind of saint; rather, it stems from my codependent traits. Naturally, I am an empath, and unfortunately, I have lived through some situations in which that empathy was exploited.
When it comes to dealing with fear, people tend to ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’. When dealing with interpersonal conflict, an individual who tends to ‘fight’ would likely get angry; maybe they harshly criticize the other person. An individual who tends to ‘flight’, would likely try to escape the situation; they might simply flee. And an individual who tends to ‘freeze’, would likely shut down altogether.
But there is one more fear-response: ‘fawn’.
I tend to ‘fawn’—meaning, when in conflict, I tend to try to please the other person, to make the conflict go away. It may sound nice, but ‘fawning’ can be very detrimental to relationships. In order to develop intimacy, it is important to share your honest feelings about things.
And, all too often, I have hidden how I feel from the other person, because I fear their response. I have stayed in relationships where our values were not aligned; I have abandoned myself in attempts to make things work. This pattern of behaviour is not only detrimental to my happiness, for I am no longer living authentically—but it is detrimental to the relationship as well, for, if I am not living authentically, this prevents my partner from truly knowing me.
But where did I learn this ‘fawn’ response? Well, as I said, I was born highly-sensitive, an empath. And then that sensitivity, that empathy, was exploited. But it was not just that my empathy was exploited: I also used my empathy to survive. I, unconsciously, used my empathy to predict the abuser’s next move and then make attempts to quell his rage. This is what ‘fawners’ do, we make attempts to befriend the abuser. However, while this might protect us in the moment, ultimately, the abuser is empowered by this.
In later relationships—relationships that were not abusive, but ones in which the dynamic had grown toxic—this empathy, this ‘fawn’ response, was taken advantage of, usually unknowingly on the other person’s part. I imagine it would be confusing: me telling my partner everything is okay, when really it is not okay. How are they supposed to know things are not okay unless I adequately communicate this to them?
In my current relationship, I have made progress with this bad habit of ‘fawning’. There have been issues that have been challenging for me to speak about, and yet I have spoken my mind. Fortunately, my partner picked up on my ‘fawn’ response from the very beginning, and he assured me then, that if I ever had problems, to tell him, and that we would come up with a solution together. His claims have proven to be true; this has been my experience in the relationship; we have always worked together to come up with a solution to whatever life throws our way.
My ‘fawn’ response was also improved greatly by taking my dating sabbatical: six months off sex and love! During this time, I was not only single, but I was, for the first time, living alone. I kept busy, finishing my first manuscript during this time. But this was also a time of self-discovery and falling more deeply in love with myself. Really, what my dating sabbatical did for me was raise my standards. I have experienced how abundant and fulfilling a solitary life can be, and I am now completely unwilling to settle in my partnership. This was a big piece of karma I had to live through, learn from and release, and I am so grateful to have done this work.
Yet ‘fawning’ is still my first response to conflict; unlearning behaviours that were a coping mechanism for trauma takes time. However, it does feel like I have broken through, unlocked the door to the other side.
Stress-related paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms
When my borderline personality disorder gets triggered, I can start to have paranoid thoughts that people do not like me, that they would prefer I was not here. I can even start to believe that everyone secretly hates me, as though they are all in on it. I will begin to feel afraid that people are going to convince my partner, my close friends and even my family to abandon me. This is mainly due to the bullying I experienced in high-school. During these times, I often withdraw from the world, because it is too painful to put myself out there. Or I might ‘split’ on myself. Or try to ‘reinvent’ myself, become someone new. All different ways of coping with the paranoia.
On this last note of ‘reinventing’ myself, I might attempt to assume a totally new identity, disassociating, cutting myself off, from memories of my old identity. Or I might get so absorbed in one particular interest, hobby or pursuit, totally disconnecting from the rest of my life. As mentioned earlier, this habit of ‘reinventing’ myself, and these identity issues, have gotten much better, though it is still something I can struggle with, if I get triggered badly enough.
Similarly, in the past, I was also disconnected—disassociated—from my emotions. Things could be happening, things that should make me feel a certain way, and I would feel nothing. Once again, I have come leaps and bounds in this regard. That said, when my ‘fawn’ response gets triggered, I do tend to cut myself off from my emotions, to better please the other person.
This is how borderline personality disorder manifests in me. This is what my trauma did to my brain. This is my chronic illness, my shadow, my demon, my karma. I still have a long journey of self-discovery and healing ahead of me, but I want to acknowledge, at the age of twenty-nine, just how far I have come.