I have a secret: I have borderline personality disorder.
Yes, I am one of those people. I could tell you the story of how this particular illness came to manifest in my brain, but perhaps another time. For the purpose of this essay, really, all you need to know is that I, like many other people, have trauma.
The specificity of my trauma matters not; all that matters is that at some point things got fucked up. Things got really fucked up—so, in order to survive, I developed some maladaptive coping mechanisms. One of these maladaptive coping mechanisms was an eating disorder; another was self-mutilation; another, social alcohol abuse; and finally, my most addictive, borderline personality disorder.
You may be familiar with the BPD stereotypes. If not, I am glad, as the stereotypes are not very kind to those of us who suffer from this deadly illness. (“Deadly?” you ask. Well, statistically, eight to ten percent of those diagnosed commit suicide—a disturbing prevalence.) These stereotypes paint us as manipulative, maybe even abusive. They imply a relationship with someone who has BPD is impossible, that we are too ‘crazy’.
While some people with BPD may very well be abusive, most of us are not. In fact, some of us work extra hard—even over-function—to ensure we do not abuse those who we care about. Speaking for myself, I have no inclination to abuse. However, I do feel a great amount of shame for my diagnosis. This shame causes me to be hyperaware of any which way I could potentially become abusive.
But I am getting ahead of myself… First, I ought to make you aware of the different kinds of BPD: ‘classic’ and ‘quiet’. In other words, there are people with BPD who have learned to externalize their emotions, and there are people with BPD who have learned to internalize their emotions.
To externalize your emotions is to express them—and in the case of someone with BPD, maybe express them inappropriately. For example, someone brought up in a violent household might develop a ‘classic’ case of BPD, and they might, too, have inappropriate fits of anger.
On the other hand, to internalize your emotions is to swallow your feelings—distract yourself from them, maybe blame yourself for them, even when somebody else has wronged you. People with ‘quiet’ cases of BPD tend to internalize their feelings—‘mask’, pretend things are okay when they are not, ‘people-please’ or ‘fawn’, take things out on themselves. This actually makes someone with ‘quiet’ BPD much more at risk for being a victim of abuse, rather than a perpetrator of abuse.
I have ‘quiet’ BPD and can only speak for someone with ‘quiet’ BPD—and, ultimately, only for myself. That said, I have absolutely no desire to manipulate other people, let alone abuse them. In fact, if I suspect something I said or did might have swayed someone’s behaviour, in a way they were not happy with, I am plagued with guilt. Authenticity is something I value. So if I, even by accident, influence someone into making an inauthentic decision, I feel terrible.
I know, from empirical evidence, being in a stable relationship is something I am capable of. As I write this, I am twenty-eight years of age, and have already spent five of those years (between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-six) in a relationship—a relationship that was happy, healthy and stable for much of its duration. Yes, that relationship ended—but not because of my BPD. In fact, for most of that relationship, after getting the therapy I needed, I experienced little-to-no BPD episodes. Thanks to therapy, and developing a certain level of trust with my partner, I was able to stop ‘splitting’ on him.
For those uninformed, ‘splitting’ is a defence mechanism: an unconscious attempt to avoid perceived abandonment. Fear of abandonment is the signature symptom of borderline personality disorder. 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 ‘classic’ cases, when this ‘split’ happens, it is not uncommon for the person experiencing the ‘split’ to break up with their partner. If we end things first, it will not be as painful—that is the idea.
This push and pull—from being idealized and put on a pedestal, to being devalued and broken up with—would undoubtingly be distressing for the other person. But, speaking for myself, as a ‘quiet’ BPD patient I have never broken up with my partner due to a ‘split’. When I ‘split’, I just become a clingy fuck. And then I hate myself for it. In fact, I am so afraid of abandonment, I tend to stay in relationships even when they are no longer healthy. I am too anxiously attached to break up with a partner due to a ‘split’. And, perhaps, too empathetic—if I am being a little kinder to myself.
Reflecting on my dating history, I know I am an empathetic partner. Actually, in the past, I have been too empathetic in relationships—too flexible—too forgiving—too willing to compromise—and even willing to sacrifice myself—because of my ‘quiet’ BPD. At times, I have been so afraid of abandonment, that I, myself, have tolerated manipulative or abusive behaviour—stayed in toxic, codependent relationships. You can read more about my dating history and how I released this karma in my essay: Why You Should Take A Dating Sabbatical. But, in essence, I have learned to not sacrifice myself for the sake of a relationship—because any relationship that requires me to sacrifice myself is not worth it.
I know I am a good partner and have a lot to bring to a relationship—profound levels of love and care—and many of my past partners have told me just this. But, as mentioned earlier, I do carry a great deal of shame regarding my BPD diagnosis. And I know, for many potential partners, knowing about my BPD would be a deal-breaker, purely because of the stigma. Even though I have been through dialectical behavioural therapy and have worked hard on myself. Even though I do my damned best to not take my trauma out on my partner.
Of course, other people are entitled to their preferences; if someone prefers to date someone who does not have BPD, who does not have so much trauma and baggage, then that is their prerogative. I, however, am done feeling shame for my BPD. I am coming clean and writing this essay to do my part in reducing the stigma around this illness—the stigma that worsens the illness.
I have BPD, but I am empathetic and loyal. I carry trauma and baggage, but everyday I choose to rise above it. I experience flashbacks and sometimes I ‘split’, but I find ways to ensure I do not hurt those around me due to my trauma responses. I work hard to ensure the ghosts of the past do not cause me to hurt those who are in my life today.
I have borderline personality disorder—but I am not a bad person.