The Price of Freedom: Living With Borderline Personality Disorder
living with borderline personality disorder

The Price of Freedom: Living With Borderline Personality Disorder

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Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

When I was five years old, I stopped talking. Upon beginning kindergarten, my voice seemingly disappeared once I set foot in the halls of my elementary school. My silence was a shield I carried with me, a way of protecting myself from the world I was blindly stepping into. Although I don’t remember exactly what prompted my silence, I remember certain details of this time, specific things I can recall nearly three decades later that define these first years of what would be a long and arduous journey through my own mind.

I remember how the world seemed to exist only in shades of gray, as if I was looking at everything through a thick layer of fog. The sky could not have been constantly misting, nor clouds obscuring the sky day after day, but that’s how I remember it. I remember sitting alone on the swing set at school, wishing I could dissolve into the air that seemed to stifle my lungs. There was a perpetual lump in the back of my throat, as if my words had gotten caught on the way out and lodged themselves in my windpipe.  I felt different in a way that I could not explain, out of place, like an uninvited guest at a party. I remember, most of all, the words of the child psychologist after my first appointment when she described her findings to my mother, referring to me as if I were not sitting right in front of her on a worn leather couch, my eyes fixed on the ground. I would not look at her, and she had gotten frustrated with me in the session.

“There is something wrong with your daughter.”

So it was settled. My conviction that I was fundamentally flawed at five years of age was verified. Being a child, I did not question the validity of this belief, rather, I accepted it as fact. It was as if someone had just told me that mountains were tall or water was wet. I already knew it; the psychologist merely confirmed it.

living with borderline personality disorder

As I grew older, my life became a revolving door of counselors and psychiatrists, all prompted by my refusal to speak. Over the next two years, professionals diagnosed me with conditions that would become a normal part of my family’s vocabulary, textbook words that felt heavy on my tongue: depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, all by the age of seven. These diagnoses came along with the requirement to swallow two small pills before bed. When, in third grade, I began to speak in school, my psychiatrist was satisfied, although my mental health continued to decline in the years to come.

During the formative years of my late childhood, it occurred to me that I did not live in what would widely be considered a “normal” household. I first noticed a change in my mother’s behavior when I was nine. Once an attentive stay-at-home mom, she started to become careless around the house. There were fluctuations and slurs in her speech that had not been there before, and her personality shifted. I did not recognize this person she was becoming, but I found it even stranger that this behavior was not consistent; I could never be sure from day to day which mother I would get. My dad was dealing with his own mental illness, which would later be diagnosed as bipolar. I remember feeling confused at this shift in my family dynamics, but the explanation for my mom’s behavior did not come until the first time she went to inpatient treatment for alcoholism when I was ten. At the time, I did not know much about addiction or mental health, but sensed that my parents’ struggles were things that should not be talked about outside of my home.

Heading into my preteen and early teenage years in the early 2000’s, I was heavily influenced by diet culture and the “heroin chic” aesthetic that was trendy at the time. With my mom in and out of treatment and my dad having moved out after they separated, I gradually eliminated foods from my diet and exercised compulsively. I poured over fashion magazines in desperate attempts to curb my hunger, convinced that the answer to all of my problems could be found by attaining the perfect body. I spent every minute of every day ruminating over food and how to eat less of it in order to starve myself down to a weight I deemed acceptable, which proved to be impossible. The satisfaction of achieving a body I could finally love, or at least be at peace with, constantly evaded me. On more than one occasion, I curled up and sobbed on the bathroom floor next to the scale when my weight had not decreased from the previous day, or, God forbid, increased.

By October of my eighth grade year, I was diagnosed with anorexia and admitted to an inpatient unit for eating disorders. After thirty days, partially weight-restored and uncomfortable in my new, unfamiliar body, I went home. Despite appearing healthier, I was not cured, and would continue to relapse into eating-disordered behaviors for the next twenty years.

Throughout high school and college, I continued to feel like an outsider. There were times when I felt strangely at peace with myself, but these times were fleeting, mere glimpses of sun before another thick layer of clouds.  It was too exhausting to explain what went on in my head to anyone else. How could anyone relate when even I didn’t understand my emotions? I could not tell anyone how hopeless I felt, or how it never felt like I could take a deep enough breath to fill my lungs. No one would understand how exhausted I was from simply existing, and even if they did, I could not bear to be judged or perceived as weak. So I controlled everything, from the size of my body to the image I projected. I controlled it until I couldn’t anymore.

living with borderline personality disorder

By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I was desperate for a solution for my continuous emotional turbulence. In addition to my depression, anxiety, and eating disordered behaviors, I had become dependent on benzodiazepines, a powerful anti-anxiety medication that had been prescribed to me years earlier due to recurring panic attacks, and opiates, which I had been introduced to after breaking both of my ankles in a devastating car accident. Furthermore, I was still in the midst of unresolved grief after the sudden deaths of both of my parents. I was nineteen when my father had passed away from an underlying heart condition. At twenty-three, I found my mother six days before Christmas; she had died from a stroke in her sleep due to alcohol withdrawal.

Emotionally fragile and devoid of a support system, I was not in a position to process the loss of my parents. To live in a world without them was to live in one I had feared so greatly as a child, and in order to avoid my newfound reality, I numbed my emotions with anything I could find. Living without drugs had become too painful, since feeling anything at all was comparable to being punched in the gut a thousand times over. Even small inconveniences would send me into a downward spiral. I had been to over ten treatment centers for substance use by that point, and was becoming seasoned to the repetitive nature of the rehab world. Follow these twelve steps to get better, they said, and we would recite the revered Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous as if it were a liturgical chant, our arms around each other, heads bowed, heat of our bodies pressed together. But I didn’t get better. Instead, I got worse.

living with borderline personality disorder

For just over twelve years, drugs and alcohol offered me what I believed at the time was freedom. Depending on how I was feeling at the time and how I wanted to feel, my mood could be altered in a matter of seconds. As someone who had never heard of emotional regulation, this instant fix felt like the greatest superpower in the world. Yet, I couldn’t deny the dark places it took me to. Since drugs became the only component I deemed necessary for my survival, I didn’t care who I got them from or what I had to do to get them. The fear of withdrawal, of being sober and facing the growing list of shameful things I had done was a powerful motivating factor for my continued use. I couldn’t imagine thinking about the friendships I had lost, the lies I had told, the money I had spent, the laws I had broken, and all of the people whose trust I had betrayed. I couldn’t think about all the times I had overdosed and woken up in disconcerting places, only to use again. The situations I put myself in were dangerous, but nothing seemed as dangerous or more horrifying than getting sober.

 

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During rare periods of sobriety that ranged from one week to eight months, I took it upon myself to research my conditions and any possible remedies. I devoured memoirs on mental illness and addiction, feeling at home in the pages written by people who had similar experiences. It wasn’t until I picked up a book recounting one woman’s struggle with borderline personality disorder that I saw a mirror image of myself. Everything from her heightened sensitivity to her disordered eating and addictions resonated with me. After years of hospitalizations and therapy, the author had come to learn skills to manage her disorder, and she went on to live a relatively normal life. I was awestruck by her transformation, by her ability to develop healthy relationships and coping skills and even graduate from therapy. After spending a lifetime convinced I was an anomaly, I had found a single ray of hope.

I brought up the topic to the therapist I was seeing at the time, asking her if it was possible that I could have borderline personality disorder. She quickly dismissed the idea, seeming to swat away the thought by waving her hand in front of her.

“You don’t have BPD. Borderlines are nearly impossible to communicate with. They react explosively to the smallest thing. You’re not angry or manipulative; you’re just depressed and anxious.”

My heart sank after her response, both because I felt stupid for asking and because the view of BPD by someone I had come to trust was profoundly negative. Is that how people with BPD are viewed by the world?, I thought. Manipulative and angry? Although it was true that I did not often have angry outbursts, it did not mean that I didn’t get angry. At times I could feel the fire burning within me, but I pushed it down, taking it out not on other people, but on myself through my impulsive and addictive patterns. I had an overwhelming amount of empathy for others and a heightened sense of self-awareness, which prevented me from acting out. But the more I suppressed my anger, the more extreme my self-destructive behaviors became.

It would be several more months before I was given a formal diagnosis. In search of a new psychiatrist, I made an appointment with one that was recommended to me. Dr. Z. was a tall man with Slavic features. I could see the compassion in his eyes as he asked me questions about my family history, my previous mental health diagnoses, and my current symptoms. After two hours, he rose from his chair and pulled a hefty book from the shelf above his desk. He leafed through it for a moment and stopped, silently scanning the page, then read aloud nine diagnostic criteria.

“Do you want to know what you have?,” he asked when he finished reading. I nodded, but I already knew.

Relief is not something one would think about experiencing after being diagnosed with something like BPD, but it is the only word that could accurately describe the lightness I felt walking out of the office that day. It was as if I had been holding my breath for years, and I finally let it go. My emotions and behaviors were no longer a mystery. Getting a formal diagnosis from a professional was important because it validated my experience and offered me hope for treatment and recovery. I wasn’t dismissed because I didn’t appear a certain way or outwardly display specific behaviors. Most of all, it allowed me to feel like I wasn’t alone.

Although getting a professional evaluation of my mental health was important to me, I do not believe that a diagnosis should be the single identifying factor for an individual, nor should it determine how they are viewed both in the mental health community and society as a whole. Labels aren’t all-encompassing, hence my tentativeness to identify people as “borderlines;” no person is solely his or her diagnosis. I do think, however, that understanding one’s own diagnosis is key to successful treatment and recovery. For BPD, even getting diagnosed can be challenging due to the negative light cast on it by society. Even before I fully understood BPD, I was aware that it was associated mostly with women, particularly those who were emotionally unstable, manipulative, or abusive. This is still very much true in the media, with the term “borderline” being thrown around to describe female criminals or psych ward patients who are deemed beyond help.

My life did not magically get better after I was diagnosed. I spent several more years engaging in destructive behaviors and also received yet another diagnosis—complex post-traumatic stress disorder—before completing another treatment program, participating in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and finally getting sober. Sobriety was something that happened for me out of desperation, a last-ditch effort to save my own life. After a long string of negative events, some near fatal, caused by my addiction, I sat on the floor of the hospital detox unit for the fourth time that year, my back propped up against the bed, journal in my lap. At the top of the page, I had written, “How to Fix My Life.” I tapped my pen against my cheek as I looked down at the first item on the list: start treatment. By this point, I had lost count of how many treatment programs I had been through. I dreaded signing myself up for yet another six months of daily group sessions, but I was at a loss. There was nothing left for me to do but to start over.

Looking back over the past two years, I cannot pinpoint exactly what it was that allowed me to start healing. Maybe it was the people I met in those rooms, others like myself who had spent their lives searching for answers within the four walls of therapists’ offices and treatment centers. Maybe it was my current therapist, a congenial man in his fifties who, within an hour of meeting him, told me he used to shoot up heroin and patiently saw me through an emotional breakdown that lasted nearly an entire winter. Maybe it was pure exhaustion from a lifetime spent running from myself. Likely, it was a combination of all of those things. Gradually, something happened to my life that I had previously thought impossible: it got better.

These days, I try to recognize the growth within myself along with all of that I have yet to do. I still consider myself to be fairly early on in the recovery process, although the progress I have made since receiving my BPD diagnosis five years ago is evident in how I now choose to deal with the daily challenges of my diagnoses. I have fought to shed the ghosts of my past, yet I am well-aware that I can never fully leave them behind. There are moments when I am reminded of that five-year-old girl I once was, when my voice will catch in my throat or my eyes hesitate to meet someone else’s. She is still with me, longing to be understood. I think back to the last few minutes of my appointment five years ago, so different from my very first appointment as a child.

“You see,” Dr. Z. said, the warmth in his voice tangible, like the sun streaming in through the window, “you were just a flower trying to grow. All of your life you were trying to break through the soil to see the sun. But everything around you was pushing you down, not allowing you. You wanted to grow, but you couldn’t, and it wasn’t your fault. But now, eventually you will grow and sprout and become the beautiful flower that you were supposed to become all along. The journey will be long, but it will be worth it.”

He paused for a second to look out the window at the tree branches swaying in the summer wind. The sky, previously overcast, was a pure blue through the leaves.

“So now that you finally know,” he said, “you can begin”.

​EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman

 

 

Jaclyn Melander lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her two beloved cats, Fiona and Mira. She is a classically trained musician and enjoyed a brief career as a freelance trumpet player before returning to school to obtain her license in addiction counseling. She hopes to use her own experiences to help others overcome the challenges of addiction and mental illness. In her spare time, Jaclyn enjoys spending time in nature, practicing yoga, reading, and writing. She has had pieces focusing on mental health published on several websites and blogs, and hopes to eventually write a full-length memoir.