May is Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness Month, according to the US government. Coincidentally, May is the same month that I was diagnosed with BPD two years ago, after a particularly unpleasant mental health episode and subsequent hospitalization. In those two years, I have been in intensive therapy, tried a variety of medication (both professional and self-prescribed), found solidarity in others with my diagnosis, and taken the time to educate myself on the realities of living with BPD. My bookshelves, once lined with speculative fiction, are now mostly occupied by self-help books and personal accounts of BPD. My future degree was supposed to read “photojournalism,” but at the end of next year, I will be graduating with my bachelor’s in social work. It’s safe to say that, aside from the obvious daily experience that my diagnosis lends me, BPD and mental illness are a constant presence in my life.
But lately, what’s been on my mind the most is the way in which our treatment methods are structured. Now, sure, there are certain therapeutic methods and prescription pill cocktails that are generally effective over a long period of time. But I believe that, at the base of the false media portrayals, the overwhelming stigma in psychiatric circles, the stereotypical strawmen in informational materials, and the general hatred aimed towards those of us who suffer from BPD, there is a fundamental misunderstanding: the false notion that we need—or want—to be cured.
If all of those misguided family members, bewildered romantic partners, angry authors, and avoidant psychiatrists had their way, my illness would disappear in a puff of smoke. These people are seeking a miraculous counseling method or a one-and-done prescription medication, but between you and me, this will never happen. What so many of these people fail to understand is that for those of us with BPD, our symptoms aren’t so clear-cut.
Sure, the DSM can list a few general symptoms used for diagnostic purposes, but the ever-growing branches of this deeply rooted illness far outweigh a simple checklist. In fact, for most of us with the illness, we have no idea where our symptoms end and where our personality traits begin. After all, BPD is classified as an Axis II illness, meaning it is lumped in with other personality disorders and with autism, far away from the realm in which depression and anxiety are classified. Axis II diagnoses are characterized by complex and deeply-felt symptoms that are often interlocked with core personality traits.
For instance, BPD provides one with an immense amount of empathy—hence our predisposition to emotional outbursts when faced with minor upsets. But, at the same time, we’re also capable of great shows of joy at the most minor accomplishments (for example, I cry whenever people on The Price is Right win a car because I get so happy for them).
Similarly, our intense fears of abandonment may lead to overwhelming pain when faced with the possibility of our romantic partner leaving us, but at the same time, we’re also capable of being incredibly loyal, thoughtful, and loving companions (e.g., my partner can confirm that I am a sucker for sentimental gifts, and I am happy to make them a handmade present for every special occasion, no matter how minor).
To give one more example, people with BPD are prone to making major, on-the-fly decisions. The usual examples in psychiatric literature involve sex, drugs, and reckless financial choices. But, at the same time, I’ve made some really great impulsive decisions—my brain will often dream up enormous ideas seemingly out of nowhere, and this habit has led me to create some of my most elaborate and accomplished artistic works.
When our symptoms are portrayed only when veiled in negative stereotypes, we lose sight of all the perfectly wonderful things that BPD has given us. And when these traits are neglected under the guise of seeking a “cure,” those of us with BPD begin to feel defeated. The part of ourselves with BPD is tightly interwoven with our core personality traits and our most basic interpersonal habits. In fact, this particular part of myself is so prominent, that I often find it beneficial to refer to it as someone else living inside of me—almost like another version of me, who pokes her head out and takes over whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by emotion, good or bad.
This part of me was born out of a need to process very difficult childhood experiences, and she learned how to protect me from these traumas—but the world only wants to acknowledge her when she’s punching a wall or screaming at her loved ones. Thus, if the world had its way, they would cure me, and subsequently kill her.
But I don’t want to kill her. I want to befriend her. I want to understand why she is so sensitive, why she is so fraught with emotion, why she is so protective of me—and then I want to use this understanding to channel her in a way that benefits me and those around me. To kill her would be to kill an integral part of myself, and I’m certain that those of us with BPD will never experience true acceptance from family members, media, and the psychiatric system until these people acknowledge that we are far more than 9 simple symptoms in a diagnostic manual—we are interwoven from thousands of very delicate strands, and we will be far more fulfilled if we are just trimmed up around the edges, rather than unraveled completely.
Art by Jyoti Kami.