The Truth About Borderline Personality Disorder

Several weeks ago, I read a Vice article called ‘How Borderline Personality Disorder Put an End to My Party Days,’ and it has been playing on my mind ever since. In it, Harriet Williamson discusses her battle with Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD, while referencing substance abuse, impulsive behaviour, and her personal struggle with bulimia.

The problem was not so much Vice’s forced sensationalism of the piece, but rather the ignorance I encountered – and then had to subsequently set fire to my laptop as a result of – in the comments beneath the post. One read, and I quote “so basically Borderline is just being an awful human being.” There are so many things wrong with this statement – most of which are certainly not helped by the isolating nature of an article titled in such a way. I’m here to properly explain what BPD is, dispel the ‘awful person’ myths, and divulge why articles like these may be emotionally damaging to those who suffer – and especially to those who suffer in silence.

Harriet Williamson -
Harriet Williamson

So, BPD is Borderline Personality Disorder, or Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder as it’s known within some circles. It usually appears in late teens to early twenties, but an individual can exhibit signs from childhood. BPD is characterised by a reoccurrence of instability in relationships, an intense fear of abandonment, and wild mood swings. It’s classified in the DSM-V as a Personality Disorder as it is currently believed to be a learned behaviour triggered by childhood trauma, although twin studies have suggested a possible genetic cause too.

What does all this mean, you might ask? Well, a person with BPD may have trouble keeping friends or partners as they fear they will be abandoned by this person. They may interpret things people say as threats of abandonment or personal slights, and will react in a way that seems perfectly rational to them – but is seen as an extreme overreaction by everyone else. They may have trouble expressing and regulating emotions or thoughts, and typically see things in a ‘black or white’ or ‘all or nothing’ fashion. This just means that a person with BPD may see a friend or partner as being wonderful, exceptional, or extremely close to them until said friend or partner does something to offend them, in which case the person with BPD’s opinion of that person shifts to thinking that they are awful, terrible, or cruel. The offence may be something as small as cancelling an appointment – but to a person with BPD this could be seen as the person attempting to abandon them. [pullquote] People with BPD may have trouble expressing and regulating emotions or thoughts, and typically see things in a ‘black or white’ or ‘all or nothing’ fashion. [/pullquote]

What’s more, a person with BPD may experience a multitude of mood swings over one day as they are hugely affected by environmental conditions. One moment, they may feel on top of the world and fully in control, and the next, they may feel despair and incredibly suicidal. This is one of the contributing factors as to why BPD often occurs as a ‘co-morbidity’ in conjunction with other mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and bipolar II.

In addition to this, a person with BPD may suffer from extremely low self esteem and engage in reckless and damaging behaviours; such as drug taking or unprotected sex. Low self-esteem is often caused by identity issues, where a person with BPD will have an unstable sense of self. With identity issues come reckless choices, as well as an ever-changing set of goals. A person with BPD may at one moment want to be an actor – and be focused and determined to reach this goal – and then the next moment, be set on a career as an anthropologist. This can create difficulties for the person with Borderline as they are constantly unsure of what they want to achieve, how they will achieve it, and may have issues ‘picturing’ their future. This can be caused by an ineffective integration of ‘self’ – a psychological concept learned in childhood. Substance abuse is not uncommon in the lives of people with BPD, but will not always be a factor.

However, as with all mental illnesses, BPD is a spectrum and not everyone will display all of these symptoms at any point in their lives. Similarly, nor does everyone who does any of these things necessarily have BPD. To refer again to the Vice article – the author would be regarded as being on the more severe spectrum of BPD, as BPD is just that – a spectrum. People with BPD are just people. The fact that it is a ‘personality disorder’ is often a bone of contention for sufferers as it creates a stigma – even amongst therapists.

Marsha Linehan -
Marsha Linehan

There is an unwritten assumption that therapists ‘won’t work’ with people suffering from Borderline – however, this is most certainly untrue. The wonderful Marsha Linehan devised a method of treatment for BPD sufferers called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) back in 1980, which has been proven to be a highly effective and increasingly popular method in the treatment of people with Borderline. DBT is essentially a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and mindfulness, that teaches the BPD sufferer how to effectively manage their emotions, while challenging the thought patterns and mechanisms that cause the sufferer to overreact or become distressed.

Reading the article again weeks later, I really feel for the author. She was brave enough to write about her experiences with BPD and was met with a wall of stigma which, to a BPD suffer, is akin to abandonment. Although not everyone will have had that exact experience, the sensationalist click-bait title did little to end the stigmatic bubble surrounding the phenomenon of Borderline. They are not awful people. They are misunderstood and wildly misrepresented in the media, and as a result, a person suffering with BPD is unlikely to be open about their experiences.

So, Harriet Williamson, I would like to congratulate you on being brave enough to speak out. Once I got halfway through the article I understood that you were using a platform to give a voice to sufferers such as yourself. Vice, I am disappointed that – given the far-reaching platform you have – rather than increasing understanding of what BPD is and how devastatingly painful it can be for sufferers, you used it as sensationalist, attention-grabbing nonsense designed to shock and dismay. The title of the article was misleading – especially considering we live in a world where many people don’t actually read past headlines, and will instead post devastating and insensitive comments concerning things they don’t really understand.

So, what have we learned? First, take everything you read with a pinch of salt (even this article, if you like). Secondly, Borderline Personality Disorder sufferers are people too – they just need a little bit of help and understanding. And finally, don’t believe everything you read in Vice. Chances are, it will blow things out of context in epic proportions.

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