Overcoming my Barriers to Borderline Personality Disorder Recovery
by Katie Kent
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
“Are you prepared to work on these changes and commit to one day a week for eighteen months?”
I looked up at the sea of expectant faces and took a deep breath. “Yes.”
This was a big moment for me. I was applying to become a member of the TC, Therapeutic Community, the next stage of the group therapy programme I had started eight months earlier. The previous stage, the ESG, Emotional Skills Group, had been helpful but I felt that I was ready to move on, to start more intensive work. In the TC, the work would be focused on therapeutic interventions, going into the details of our issues and exploring the reasons behind our behaviors. My hope as a new member of this group was to learn to relate to others in healthier ways and to work through my childhood issues, to understand the root of my BPD and OCD.
It’s taken a lot for me to even get to this stage. When people in the past asked, “Do you want to get better?” my honest answer was, “No. But I want to want to get better.” I was afraid to get better, I wanted to stay ill. But I wanted to want to get better. Most people I’ve met with mental illness wanted to get better. I didn’t, but I wished I could be like them and want it too. I’ve put in a lot of hard work over the past couple of years, with a private therapist and with the group, to get myself to a place where I am actively working towards recovery, to being healthy.
Before therapy, I was so wrapped up in self-hatred that I thought my mental illnesses were the only way I would ever get anyone to care about me. And once someone gave me sympathy, my brain subconsciously made me worse because I was afraid I would lose everyone if I got better. The only way to keep people’s attention was to keep continuously get worse. I was sure that people only wanted to know me because they felt sorry for me.
When I was three years old, my baby brother died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Not only did I feel confusion at this time but I also felt a lack of attention from my grieving parents.
As a child, I craved people’s attention. This feeling grew as I grew older. I found myself jealous of people who had physical illnesses, and I’d become overwhelmed with envy when people gave them sympathy. Once I was diagnosed, I found that people gave me that same sympathy I craved. A friend and colleague once followed me into the toilets as she thought I had gone in there to take an overdose after I told her I’d had suicidal thoughts. Having her worry and concern felt good.
Once I found someone who showed me sympathy, I clung onto them, bombarding them with text messages and emails about my mental health, wanting them to feel sorry for me so they wouldn’t want to leave me.
Beginning BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) recovery for me has meant overcoming barriers that could have kept me stuck. It’s hard to put the effort into getting better when your brain is telling you that recovery will mean you lose everyone, that there will no longer be any reason for anyone to pay you any attention. Sometimes the desire to stay ill has felt all-pervasive. The voice of my BPD told me not to get better, which made me feel scared, because I felt so unhappy and I didn’t want to keep feeling unhappy. I worried that the alternative was that no one would love me, it felt like they’d all leave when I got better. It was a catch twenty-two.
Balancing out the devil on my shoulder whispering to me that it was dangerous to get better was an angel on the other shoulder, telling me that it was dangerous not to get better. I experienced the BPD symptom of changeable emotions. When I was feeling okay, I felt positive and listened more to the angel. When I started to feel bad, the devil won over and I felt like I needed to stay sick. Black and white thinking is another symptom associated with BPD, and I swung wildly between thinking I was really sick and thinking there was nothing wrong with me and feeling like I wanted to get better and then that I wanted to get worse.
I’ve always believed that mental illness can explain, but not excuse, bad behaviour. Some of the worst times of my life have resulted from my BPD and my other mental health condition, OCD. I’ve driven people away. I didn’t want to keep losing people. Okay, so maybe my BPD meant that I got attention, but I developed a pattern. Find a new friend, get close to them, open up, latch onto them, get their attention, keep dominating conversations by talking about my problems, drive them away with my neediness, descend into self-hatred, feel ashamed, hurt myself. Then find a new friend and repeat the whole cycle.
I didn’t do this on purpose. It’s not like I was consciously waiting for the next person so that I could manipulate their emotions, affect their mental health and leave them no choice but to end the friendship. But that’s what happened, again and again. This left me feeling desperately sad; suicidal at times. I was afraid that I would drive away everyone who ever cared about me and that there would be no one left. I was filled with shame after I lost a friend; if someone really cared about me and then had to leave because of my behavior, it must mean that I’m a bad person.
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Having a ‘favourite person’ (FP) is something many people with BPD talk about. This is the person you latch onto and obsess over. It’s like an attraction, but an emotional one rather than a physical one. I realise now that, as a 20-something with undiagnosed BPD, I had several. But in my recent life it was an FP called Olivia who led to my diagnosis of BPD. I’d had suspicions, I always knew there was something not quite right in my brain, but doctors diagnosed depression. I came across BPD online one day and thought it fit with how I felt, but doctors dismissed it. So I forgot about it for a while, until things started to go bad with Olivia.
I met Olivia at work. We became close very quickly. She seemed to get me. We had fun times but the more I got to know her, the more the friendship became all about me and my mental health problems, especially when she left the job and I haven’t seen her in person as often. She worried about me constantly, and my BPD thrived on that. I started to get worse, until one day she told me she thought I should be in hospital. I was a bit scared, but thought it proved how much she cared about me.
After my therapist told me I didn’t need the hospital, it was a turning point in our relationship. Olivia wrote me a frank email saying I needed to make changes. We went from texting everyday to not talking for two weeks. I thought I had lost her, and I didn’t think I could cope. I took a few pills, and told my therapist about my BPD suspicions. She immediately took out a SCID, ‘Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-5’, used as a tool for diagnosis. After listening to my answers, she diagnosed me with BPD, saying she had already had her own suspicions.
When Olivia came back into my life, I told her about my diagnosis and promised her that I would change. But soon it was back to the way it was before; the focus became solely about me. One day I asked her to describe me without my illness. She replied that she actually couldn’t. I apologised, but she stopped texting me. On holiday, a couple of weeks later, I sent her a drunk text message saying how sorry I was. She didn’t reply, but a few weeks later she sent me the final text, saying our friendship wasn’t healthy and had to end. I felt despairing and immediately took a small overdose. Not enough to do much damage, but more than I had taken before. Then, slowly, after a few terrible months, I began to start to feel better. Then I met Claire.
Claire was another friend at work. I opened up to her one day, telling her about what had happened with Olivia. We began to get close, and she assured me that this friendship wouldn’t end the same way that one did. I told her I could feel she was becoming my FP. This friendship didn’t last as long as with Olivia. Within a few months, we stopped talking. She told me all I did was talk about myself, and that was true. I felt bad about myself and worried because I wasn’t sure how I could ever change this aspect of myself. I felt like I could never get close to anyone again, in case the same happened, but at the same time I really wanted another person to get close to so I could replace the attention she gave me.
I thought I was getting better, and that I’d never have another FP. But then a new manager started at work. She was keen to try and help me with my problems, and I realised I was getting too attached to her. When she told me that she was moving to a new job in the same company and would no longer be my manager, I cried and then had to take a few days off sick.
There hasn’t been an FP since. Since therapy, I’ve become a lot more self-aware and consciously try to take steps to prevent the cycle happening with someone else. I still feel powerfully drawn to certain people. But when I start to feel those feelings, I have a frank conversation with them and let them know about my illnesses and my past experiences. They are awkward conversations to have, but necessary. They mean that both I and the other person know what to look out for to stop things from becoming unhealthy. I encourage people to tell me if I’m becoming too intense. To date, none of the people I’ve told about this have said at any point that I need to back off. I do also consciously monitor my behaviour; for example, if I realise I’ve been having emotional conversations about my mental health with the same person for a few days in a row, I make myself back off for the next few days.
Therapy has led me to become more self-aware and recognise the feelings and behaviours I have and think about why I’m feeling/doing those things. Also, I’ve done a lot of reading on BPD and have written about BPD for The Mighty, which has meant I’ve thought carefully about my feelings and behaviours and have had feedback about how other people with BPD relate to them.
I know I will always struggle with these issues, to an extent. With most mental illnesses, it’s not a case of curing them, but rather managing them. I know what I need to do to prevent acting on unhealthy behaviours, and in the TC I will continue exploring the reasons behind my feelings and how to deal with them. There are days when I still wish I was sicker, or feel the desire to resist getting better. But now I can finally say that I want to want to get better.