What is it about the term “borderline personality disorder”? Glenn Close in the film Fatal Attraction, Winona Ryder in the film Girl Interrupted and Princess Diana. I’ve read that the two actresses portrayed a female with this diagnosis and I have read also that princess Diana was thought to have it because they were all highly emotional, unstable, manipulative and needy-not qualities we think to post about ourselves or advertise. But why? When the psychiatrist delivered his verdict to me in 2012, many years of my frequenting the doorstep of SEPT and the local A&E department, I was left a little stunned. Me?! Noo, surely you must be mistaken. I am too normal, I have friends, I am sociable, I run my own home and I am a health professional who manages a heavy case load of vulnerable patients!
I remember phoning one of my closest friends to tell her when I left my appointment. It seems she was not as surprised as me. Ok perhaps that was a clue. Then gradually it started to make sense. I did some academic reading on the diagnosis and I re-read some of the words I had put onto paper during many a crisis. I also analysed the severity of so many experiences I had endured. Yikes, perhaps I was mad. The words I had written over the years were seriously disturbing to re-read and I sounded dreadful. But also, a huge sense of relief-I KNEW that there was something different about me in comparison to my peers. I had been in so much emotional pain and been unwell. I knew that my teenage eating disorders, emotional meltdowns, obsessive ruminating thoughts and attachment problems were perhaps a little to the side of “normal”. Really, the severity of my emotional difficulties was such that in specific areas of my life, I had no chance of achieving stability. The excruciating emotional pain and torture (yes, that’s how I describe it-loaded but that’s part of it) that I sometimes felt was so great that I could not function. But conversely, I was (and am) very stable, calm in many situations, intelligent and organised. How can I be both?
Well, put simply, after years of psychotherapy treatment, now I see that not all my reactions were proportionate to the situation in front of me but just because some life situations were impossible for me to understand and navigate, it didn’t mean everything was, and here is the big point.. living in an acutely frail emotional state where the smallest of slights can cause feelings of suicide does not mean you ARE suicidal, dangerous and cannot actually be actually, well, “normal”. Who’d have thought! Having this borderline personality disorder traits diagnosis and obsessive-compulsive personality actually doesn’t mean I was/am fit for nothing or scary. To be honest, they actually work to my advantage in a work setting-my self-standards are so high and obsessive means conscientious! Where these symptoms and presentations play out and don’t help me, yes, I do need help and to some, they still make life intolerable. I get it. I still sometimes might feel like I am in the emotional stratosphere and I may regress to the age of around 5 when faced with known triggers, but it doesn’t mean I can’t go to work, go on holiday, socialise, run the house etc. I see a lot of people regress to the age of 5 in certain situations. I am just lucky enough to be aware when I do it and am willing to fess up! It is true that reliving my child but in an adult body is not particularly desirable or very helpful. But you can be touched by a mental illness and be highly skilled, intelligent, confident and successful. Yep, you can be both! And you can also be brilliant at “getting” other people’s distress and pain-a great trait for a health professional.
When I had treatment, I was challenged a lot by the psychotherapist and gosh did I push back. I did NOT like everything I heard. It is true, my reality was not always THE reality. But I did wise up to the fact that sometimes my reality WAS the reality and actually people did try to use the old classic-lets attribute every emotion to the mental illness and everything she does is because she is unstable. To some people it could not be that I was just actually elated at something that was funny, or angry because someone had been unfair or cruel, or upset because something was sad! That is where having a PD diagnosis can be so tricky to manage.
One important message I will deliver…. In treatment, I had to be prepared to hear it when someone used those words I mentioned at the beginning of this blog and it can initially fill you with shame and embarrassment. Let’s face it, who wants to admit they are being needy and unstable?! But actually, I was, and sometimes, I still am. Now though, no one around me makes a deal out of it. I’ll let friends/colleagues know I am feeling a bit unwell. We look at what’s going on. It may be obvious, it may not be and I am lucky enough to have reached a stage where I can use humour. I do laugh at myself and it doesn’t mean I can’t carry on with the days work. With years of experience, therapy and the right strategies in place, I have learnt to balance out.
I want other health professionals to feel able talk about their personalities if they want to, to lose feelings of shame or embarrassment. It’s what makes us so beautifully human. But if you think your difficulties are so severe and detrimental and are hurting you and others, that is when you must seek specialist professional help and BE PREPARED to be very honest with yourself and your therapist.