What it’s like living with Borderline Personality Disorder

Living with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is like going through the looking glass and getting stuck there.

First published by Dazed and Confused, December 2015

Living with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is like going through the looking glass and getting stuck there. As much as I might bang on the glass, it doesn’t shift, and I’m marooned in a world of nonsensical contractions and miscommunication. For me, one of the most difficult parts of having BPD is the impact it has on my interactions with others. It’s difficult to form lasting relationships when I constantly misinterpret social cues, believing that people are attacking me or being snide when in reality, this isn’t the case.

The diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder is very broad, and includes people with symptoms of varying degrees of severity. Most BPD sufferers will experience intense emotions that can change very quickly, moving from feeling euphoric to very low and even suicidal in the space of a day or a few hours. Some people have difficulty maintaining a strong sense of self. Others report feelings of paranoia, numbness and emptiness. Seeing and hearing things that other people don’t, and intense worries of abandonment can all be part of Borderline Personality Disorder.

BPD is also characterised by impulsive and dangerous behaviour, including self-harm, binge drinking, drug use, dangerous driving, shoplifting, unprotected sex, and disordered eating. Others are often quick to judge and see this as evidence of the sufferer being a ‘bad person’ or an ‘attention-seeker’, but in reality those with Borderline Personality Disorder are using such behaviours as coping strategies, to mitigate the overwhelming pain or emptiness or confusion they’re feeling.

I was diagnosed with BPD while under the Coventry and Warwickshire Eating Disorder Service, which is in itself is a damning indictment of the state of mental health services in Britain. I had to get to five and a half stone before anyone would take my need for treatment seriously, and I tried to end my life four times before Borderline Personality Disorder was even mentioned. I struggled with my mental health very seriously during my undergraduate and master’s degrees, and am only now, at 24, beginning to understand why I experience the world as I do. Still, life is anything but ‘normal’. Here are some scenarios where my BPD can really mess things up for me.

BEING ASKED OUT ON A DATE

Most people are both excited and nervous when they’re asked out. I’ll have these feelings, but they’ll be magnified to crazy proportions. I’m usually good at making superficially good impressions on new people, but I fear that once they get to know me, I’ll be rejected. I might make an excuse and cancel, and then spend the evening under the duvet, eating a jar of olives.

GOING TO A PARTY WHERE YOU DON’T KNOW MANY PEOPLE

Large groups of people make me want to disappear. I’ll spend hours choosing an outfit and oscillate between refusing to go and fearing I’ll miss out on an awesome party if I don’t. I’ll drink too much, and either end up being the most gregarious person in the room, or someone who sits in the corner, anxiously clutching a beer and tweeting so I don’t have to talk to anyone. I’ll go home, convinced that the experience has been a disaster, and beat myself up about it for days, imagining that everyone else who went to the party has been talking about how rubbish I am.

MANAGER AT WORK KEEPS UNDERMINING YOU

This is a nightmare scenario for me. It brings up all kinds of insecurities and I’ll start to feel disliked in the office, and as though my work isn’t good enough. It’s like a siren starts going off in my brain. I freeze up and shut down, convinced that all my previous bullshit-paranoid thoughts have been validated. I’ll call in sick, avoid the manager in question, and I’ll probably start planning to leave my job.

AN ARGUMENT WITH A FRIEND

I’m very bad at resolving arguments, and if I have a disagreement with a friend, I’ll believe that the relationship is already ruined so there’s no point in trying to sort things out. I see even minor arguments as proof that I’m unlikeable and a bad person who doesn’t deserve to have friends.

It’s common for people with the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder to swing between intensely valuing and devaluing others. This means thinking someone is amazing for a while, and then as soon as they disappoint you, believing that they are the worst person in the world. I have to fight every day not to see well-meaning comments as slights or attacks, and to be forgiving and understanding, because it feels like every cancelled appointment or thoughtless remark is done on purpose, because I’m a shitty person who is disliked and doesn’t deserve friends.

I have difficulty forming and maintaining stable relationships, partly because of my urge to behave impulsively, and partly because I have trouble knowing what was really going on in a social situation. After a night in the pub with my boyfriend and his friends, I invariably believe that the experience has been a disaster and everyone hated me, even if my partner swears otherwise. It’s like I’m seeing the world through a warped filter and I can’t trust my own perceptions of situations. I feel like I’m experiencing everything drunk or high, and not in a good way.

I may sound like an exhausting or unpleasant person to be around, but I’m generally pretty kind and thoughtful. I’m always ready to listen or get the bus to a friend’s house with wine and chocolate if they’ve had a bad day, and I explain to my close friends exactly why I’m prone to oversensitivity and why I often misinterpret harmless situations.

It’s helpful to have at least one person in my life that I trust to tell me the truth about how an evening with friends or a particular interaction has gone. I’ve also realised that I’m much more likely to experience things in a ‘BPD way’ if I’m in a large group of people I don’t know well, because my social anxiety amplifies this.

Borderline Personality Disorder is still a very misunderstood illness, and although my experiences with it are both intensely personal and painful, I feel that it’s essential that I keep writing about it. No one who’s going through this should have to suffer silently, believing that they’re alone.

How Borderline Personality Disorder Put an End to My Party Days

In the summer of 2010, just before I turned 19 and in my first year of university, I attempted suicide with a month’s supply of my antidepressants and ended up in intensive care, breathing on a machine.

First published by Vice, 10th August 2015

In the summer of 2010, just before I turned 19 and in my first year of university, I attempted suicide with a month’s supply of my antidepressants and ended up in intensive care, breathing on a machine. By my second year, my good-time friends had had enough of me. I was no longer invited out, and became very isolated and increasingly unhappy. I got into an abusive relationship and attempted suicide another two times. I was also bulimic – vomiting everything that touched my lips.

During the first year of my undergraduate degree I reduced my calorie intake to 250 a day – about two and a half slices of bread or five medium apples – and started to go slowly insane. I drank, took drugs and went to clubs with a religious fervour. My body started to cave in. I was starving and my hair started to fall out. My nails went blue. My skin turned to flaking scales. I once ate a burger after a night out and forced myself to run up and down the stairs until I actually passed out to “make up for it”. I went to my campus GP and told him I needed help. At five and a half stone, he said I wasn’t sick enough to warrant eating disorders treatment, and Borderline Personality Disorder was never even mentioned.

People couldn’t keep up with my impulsive behaviour, the manic phases and the fits of crying. The labels of “drama queen”, “attention seeker” and “total fucking mess” followed me around like a bad smell. I tried to conceal it, but being called those things hurt. I didn’t know how to explain that all the stuff I was doing was an attempt to manage my out-of-control emotions, because when I’m going through a bad patch it feels like being on a sickening rollercoaster – only, I can’t get off.

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Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at the mental health charity Mind, describes BPD as “a very broad diagnosis that can include lots of different people with very different experiences”. He told me that BPD can involve experiencing a number of symptoms for extended periods of time, including “feeling worried that people might abandon you; feeling very intense emotions that are also very changeable; feeling like you don’t have a strong sense of who you are; finding it hard to make and maintain relationships; acting impulsively; having suicidal thoughts or self-harming; feeling angry; feeling paranoid, having psychotic experiences; feeling numb; or feeling empty or alone a lot of the time”.

To me, it was more like going from feeling suicidal and totally despairing, to reasonably positive within an hour. The intense mood swings were terrifying because they were – and still are – coupled with impulsive urges to harm myself or do things I know I’ll later regret. The negative emotions I have are immobilising. They crash over me like huge waves, knocking the wind out of me and forcing me underwater. It means living with a devious voice in my mind that whispers ugly thoughts and orders. It tells me that I’m a shitty person, don’t deserve to exist and that my life is meaningless.

Author, pictured right.

According to the NHS, personality disorders often become apparent during a person’s teenage years and are commonly associated with childhood trauma, with eight out of ten people with BPD experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during childhood, or parental neglect.

I wasn’t neglected by my parents. I had a very happy childhood up until I started secondary school. It was the kind of school that concerned middle-class parents tend not to send their kids to. Discipline in classrooms was practically nil and I was bullied badly, branded a “lezzer” and a “dyke”, greeted with laughter whenever I entered the room, pelted with chewing gum, dismissed by boys as a “rat” and a “dog” that “no man would ever want to touch”. Girls would pretend to be scared of me in the swimming pool changing rooms because I hadn’t realised, age 11, that I was meant to shave my legs.

This continued for about two years, and by the time I was 14, I’d become completely disconnected from myself and overwhelmed by feelings of worthlessness and anger. This was when my impulsive behaviour kicked in, and I started self-harming, drinking, taking drugs like cocaine, mephedrone and speed, and looking for attention from dubious men. I didn’t know what Borderline Personality Disorder was. I began limiting myself to 1,000 calories a day and visiting pro-anorexia websites. I told myself that I’d feel calmer and people would like me and the raging hurt would leave me if I just became thin enough.

It wasn’t until the end of my second year of university – when I was finally accepted on to an eating disorders treatment programme – that I was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I did a course of Compassion Focused Therapy, which is designed for people with high levels of shame and self-criticism. I learned more about how to navigate my overwhelming emotions, and not listen to the hateful voice that pushed me to starve myself and hurt my body. The therapy was coupled with medication to help me sleep and negate some of the crushing depression that so often accompanies BPD.

Some BPD sufferers hear voices outside their heads, usually with instructions to harm themselves or others, and at the more extreme end of the spectrum, some sufferers also experience prolonged delusions or beliefs that they cannot be talked out of. Others – like Rachel Rowan Olive, a girl I talked to who also suffers from BPD – tend to disassociate or shut down when their emotions become too difficult to deal with. “BPD is hard to describe to someone who doesn’t have it. I never liked the label ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’. It’s the kind of term that makes people back away slowly. I used to think that a lot of the criteria for BPD didn’t apply to me, but as time has gone on, I can connect things that have always been part of me to the diagnosis.

“My main problem is self-harm and that’s the most outward and obvious symptom of my BPD. I experience a lot of anxiety, so I feel like if I’m going to be frightened anyway for absolutely no reason, I might as well make myself frightened of something that’s real and within my control. I experience a level of emotional dysregulation, where I end up feeling really empty a lot of the time. I think a big part of it for me is finding it hard to tell the difference between my emotions and other people’s. I notice it even with fiction – if I’m reading or watching TV I can end up getting panicky because it’s like I’m feeling what all the different characters are feeling at once and I don’t know which emotions are mine any more.”

Nowadays, I try to keep my environment as calm as possible, and use distracting and soothing techniques to mitigate the effects of bad episodes. Most of the time I keep my emotions under control, but there are still times when I swing between crying and not being able to get out of bed, hyper productivity and manic states where I’m tempted to be super-impulsive.

I still have a hard time forming long-lasting friendships. The majority of my friends from school and university are no longer in my life. Part of BPD is forming intense relationships that don’t last very long, and the illness ends up being very isolating. My emotions are so overwhelming that other people find it hard to understand why I’m laughing and bouncing around for no reason, and then suddenly in floods of tears. I don’t usually tell people that I have BPD because I’m afraid they’ll judge me.

Managing Borderline Personality Disorder usually involves a combination of medication and talking therapy. There’s no drug specifically licensed to treat BPD but mood stabilisers, antidepressants and antipsychotics (all of which I take) are commonly used. Rachel uses Dialectical Behavioural Therapy to manage her BPD, coupled with art therapy at a studio in Hackney. She will also plan her week out in advance to give herself a sense of structure and control.

The stigma that surrounds all mental illness is vastly unhelpful, does much to damage sufferers and can prevent them from getting help. As a “personality disorder”, BPD gets more than its fair share of social stigma. People with BPD aren’t cold and emotionless, as Rachel felt others perceived her to be, or attention-seeking and deserving of social isolation, as I was dubbed at university. They are merely trying to manage an illness that’s every bit as real as a physical condition, with the tools they have at their disposal.

It’s very easy to succumb to feelings of frustration and hopelessness when you’re stuck on a waiting list and it might be six months to a year before you even get an assessment appointment for any kind of therapy. Despite this, it’s essential that anyone experiencing BPD-like symptoms informs their GP. No one should have to get to such a breaking point with their mental health that they try to end their life. It’s five years since I was unconscious in intensive care, unable to breathe, with a nurse washing my hair because of all the sweat that had run into it. I owe it to my partner, my parents, my sister and myself not to end up back there.

Things You Only Know If You Have Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder is a mental illness that manifests itself in a range of distressing symptoms and abnormal behaviours.

First published by The Debrief, 11th April 2015

I’m lying in a hospital bed and I have little memory of how I got there. I sit up and suddenly realise that I have my second year university exams in a matter of weeks. The panic hits me. I have to revise. I have to do well. What am I doing here? I remember a blur of booze and pills and tears. I reach for the tube in my wrist and I start pulling it out. I’m pulling and pulling and there seems to be yards of tubing inside me. I finally get it all out and the hospital bed is soaked in blood. I get dressed, blood staining the arm of my coat. I run out of the hospital, get on the bus and go back to my flat to revise.

Borderline Personality Disorder is a mental illness that manifests itself in a range of distressing symptoms and abnormal behaviours. It’s been recently recognised as a disorder of mood that affects how the sufferer is able to relate to other people – if you have BPD, you’ll experience extreme emotions and may go through periods where you totally lose touch with reality. Between 60% and 70% of BPD sufferers will attempt suicide at some point during their lives – which is a terrifying thought for me.

Your emotions get really crazy

When I’m explaining BPD to people for the first time, I usually describe it as having overwhelming emotions that are very difficult to deal with. My emotional state can change very quickly, pushing me from euphoric happiness to crushing despair within the space of a few hours. My feelings always seem completely valid to me, when they usually aren’t grounded in reality at all. After a perfectly nice evening with friends, I might still go home and burst into tears because I feel like I said all the wrong things and none of the people I was with really liked me. I have to trust my partner when he tells me that my assessment of the situation isn’t correct, and my feelings aren’t rational. My emotions can feel like huge waves breaking over me, knocking the wind out of my chest and pushing me underwater.

BPD often accompanies other mental health problems

Due to the overwhelming emotions that come as part of BPD, the illness often goes hand in hand with other mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. For me, it made slipping into the grip of a nine-year eating disorder very easy. I suffered from serious anorexia, dropping to five and a half stone, and this quickly segued into bulimia, making the mood disorder elements of BPD so much worse. It’s a lot harder to cope with life when you’re got that going on.

It’s difficult to maintain relationships

Mental illness isn’t particularly easy for other people to understand, particularly when it manifests itself in so many different ways. When I was completing my undergraduate degree and my BPD and eating disorder were at their worst, I lost most of my friends because  I was judged as attention-seeking, difficult, a drama queen, pathetic, and selfish for not ‘pulling myself together’. I now have a much smaller friendship group, and I am very careful who I tell when I’m having a bad ‘BPD day’. It’s still difficult to form strong friendships, as I’m crippled by the fear that people won’t like me and will reject me like my university friends did, if they find out that I’m unwell. I have a few close friends who know.

You take unnecessary risks 

One of the scariest parts of BPD is that I often have impulses to do certain things that I know are harmful to me, but I think they will make me feel better in the short term and make the pain of overwhelming emotions go away. I have to work very hard to keep myself in balance from day to day, so I don’t get into a place where I think that disappearing for days at a time, or walking around at four in the morning on my own, or self-harming (all things I used to do regularly to try to manage my emotions) are really good ideas. Impulsive behaviour, often fuelled by drugs or alcohol, seems like it will have no consequences at the time, but it always does and it’s very difficult for people who care about you to deal with.

Getting treatment is not easy, but there are ways you can cope

Many GPs aren’t trained to recognise the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, so it can be a struggle to get a diagnosis. Outwardly presenting symptoms like depression and related behaviours like self-harm are often focused on by doctors, leaving the underlying problem unchallenged.I got diagnosed with BPD when I was 19, during my treatment at an eating disorders outpatient clinic. The Compassion Focussed Therapy used to combat my mix of anorexia and bulimia was really helpful, as were books that taught me how to use Dialectical Behavioural Therapy to alter my thought patterns. I try to keep my environment as calm and stable as possible, because when I feel safe, I’m less likely to experience BPD symptoms. I have mood boards that remind me of all the good things in my life, things I have achieved, and reasons why I’m a worthwhile person. There are still bad days, but I have a very supportive partner and family, and two beautiful kittens, and just sitting down and  stroking them can chase away some of the worst overwhelming emotions.