The Perks of Being a Borderline

Closeup of a young woman smoking. (c) Erin Bardwell

There are upsides to almost everything, if you’re around the kind of vaguely annoying person who can find, well, upsides to almost everything. Pancake batter too thin? Voila – crepes! To drink? Turn those lemons into lemonade, and when the lemonade gives you heartburn, pop a few Tums. They’re full of calcium, you know, which prevents brittle bones, thereby protecting your wrist while you repeatedly smack your hand against your forehead and scream, “SOME THINGS ARE JUST BAD! JUST LET THEM BE BAD!”

Unfortunately, I have good news for you. borderline personality disorder isn’t all bad.

Sorry. Have some Tums.

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Note: This is obviously not a scientific article, but I’ve done my best to make sure the science-y references are reliable and accurate. Also, I’ve included unedited quotes from real people with borderline personality disorder, and their first names have been used with permission.

Look, If you have BPD, you don’t need me to tell you how much it sucks. Your emotions yank you around like an unruly stallion. You feel like a hollow shell that is filled to the brim with self-loathing. Your personal relationships are a disaster and you have no idea who you are and you’re full of so much anger that you’re afraid it might literally kill you – that is, if the crushing depression doesn’t get to you first. Oh, and god forbid you try telling anyone that you’re borderline, my friend. They’ll give you that look, the one that says “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings or anything, but you basically just told me that you have rabies. Ew.” (As we’ll see, though, this is changing.)

But you know what? Haters gonna hate. Allow me to redirect your focus to some upsides you may not have considered.

Yes, Virginia, borderlines do have empathy.

“Borderline has been a gift for me in the sense that I can really truly feel others’ feelings. I consider myself an ‘empath’. When others say ‘I know what you mean’ or ‘I feel your pain’, I really do. When someone I am really close to, such as my girlfriend or my children, is in pain or is incredibly happy, I can feel that. I can feel their feelings.” -Heather 

One of the reasons people flinch from us is because, well, a lot of them still confuse borderline personality disorder with antisocial personality disorder, which is a fancy term for “sociopath.” Ouch. (No offense if you have APD and not BPD – you seem to have taken a wrong turn somewhere.)

I don’t need to tell you that you’re perfectly capable of empathy, but maybe I should elaborate on just how capable you are. A relatively well-known study involved rounding up thirty people with BPD and twenty-five people without BPD and then showing them partial photographs of people’s faces – specifically the eyes. “The BPD group performed significantly better than the [non-BPD group]” at correctly guessing what emotion those faces were expressing, suggesting “enhanced sensitivity to the mental states of others.” (source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3427787/)

I do have a bit of bad news for you: the study also concluded that this may be why we have such difficulty with our interpersonal relationships (actually, you might not want to read that article I just linked to, because it’s kind of gloomy). See, there are different kinds of empathy. If you’re borderline, you probably have reduced “cognitive empathy”, which is the ability to understand another person’s mental state. When you’re freaked out that your partner is going to leave you because they didn’t like the way you cooked a pot roast, you’re taking your own fear and throwing it over someone else like a butterfly net. Your partner probably isn’t thinking “oh, good, finally an excuse to bang my intern” no matter how much you suck at making pot roast, but you’re definitely displaying your low cognitive empathy.

However, that same study shows that you likely have very high “emotional empathy”, or the ability to be genuinely affected by another person’s mental state. You feel what they’re feeling and can therefore respond appropriately (unless you’re having a Pot Roast Freakout, but you’re not always or even usually having a Pot Roast Freakout). Emotional empathy isn’t something you choose to have. If someone drops their ice cream cone and you immediately feel bad for them, that’s your emotional empathy showing, and you might react by getting them a new ice cream cone. A person with low emotional empathy probably wouldn’t care.

What’s more, your cognitive empathy can be boosted through dialectical and other forms of behavioral therapy, making you less prone to Pot Roast Freakouts and leaving you with that beautiful Ice Cream Empathy, which, frankly, the world could use a lot more of.

You’re interested and interesting.

“I’m an adult and I still don’t quite know who I am. But that’s the beauty of it, too. I’m not stuck. I don’t know who I can be, or will be, and that is exciting.” -Jennifer

Most borderlines struggle to understand what they want and who they are. Granted, that sometimes sucks and it’s uncomfortable, but it might make you more likely to try new things. Maybe you went to college for psychology and then decided you’d rather study French. Intéressant, don’t you think? And then maybe after college you became a documentary photographer before working as a caterer. Perhaps you want to sell all your things and join the Peace Corps, so you’re doing a lot of research on Ghana. The point is that you’re pretty well-rounded, you French-speaking ex-psychology major who’s handy with both a camera and a chef’s knife and knows Ghana’s national anthem.

Then again, it’s possible that you’re a lower-functioning borderline who’s still crippled by depression and can’t always manage to shower, much less buy a plane ticket. That leads me to…

BPD really is treatable.

“I was super skeptical of DBT when I first heard about it and totally didn’t expect it to work. But it’s really changed how I look at the world and interact with people, and it’s only been a few months.” -Mark

Yes, you have one of the more disabling and stigmatized mental disorders in existence, but you also have one of the better recovery rates. See, a lot of your symptoms are more behavioral than biological, which means they can dwindle with targeted psychotherapy. And some types of treatment were designed just for you! Dialectical behavioral therapy and schema therapy both target personality disorders, and both have been proven effective.

One study of “treatment-seeking” (key element) people with BPD was performed in nineteen clinics and four cities. The results? Over the course of ten years, eighty-five percent of those participants went into remission (no longer had five out of nine BPD symptoms and therefore no longer had BPD) and only twelve percent relapsed. (source:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3158489/) Granted, the behavioral symptoms are more likely to be knocked out; your intense temperament will probably remain – it’s a part of who you are. But if you struggle with rages, self-injury, suicidal gestures, impulsivity and paranoia, you have every reason to be hopeful and little reason to be, well, paranoid.

You may be thinking “ten years? I don’t want to feel like this for ten more minutes”, and that’s a perfectly logical reaction. But other studies have shown BPD to go into remission within as few as two years, and it may go away on its own as you age. Not bad for something once considered untreatable.

Drugs, and lots of ‘em.

“I take Lamictal and I can finally feel one thing for more than ten minutes at a time. I take an Ativan if I feel an ‘episode’ coming on, and more often than not it keeps it from happening.” -Becca

Currently there’s no specific medication for BPD; you won’t see any commercial featuring a frolicking lady and a soothing voice saying there’s a miracle pill for the borderline brain. But until there is (and there probably will be), you can still take certain medications to alleviate some of your symptoms.

Newer antipsychotics (no offense) may help with behaviors such as all-or-nothing thinking, dissociation, and paranoia. A medication called Abilify has proven particularly effective, and according to patients, it also boosts the effects of antidepressants in days, not weeks or months. mood stabilizers can significantly alleviate, well, your unstable moods, and some also have antidepressant properties. Topamax and Lamictal are reported to work especially well for BPD symptoms. You also have quite a few antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills, and even ADHD drugs to choose from. It’s entirely likely that you’ll find something that works for you. Combined with psychotherapy, medications may all but eliminate some of your more annoying symptoms.

People are finally starting to understand you.

“I was terrified to tell my friends and boyfriend that I had BPD and I thought I’d have to give this embarrassing explanation of what it was. But most of them had heard about it, and they were cool with it. They don’t treat me any differently than they did before.” -Allie

In 2011, the creator of dialectical behavioral therapy was featured in the New York Times after revealing that she herself had Borderline Personality Disorder. Marsha Linehan took an obscure and stigmatized disorder and pushed it into the light. Since then, BPD has gained more and more “general public” awareness, and the more people understand the condition, the less likely they are to be afraid of you or avoid you. There is every reason to hope that soon you can have your own “Marsha moment” and uncover your BPD without fearing a negative reaction. Plus, the more BPD is understood, the more likely it is to develop other effective treatments.

Finally, you’re a unique and worthy human being.

“Trust me.” -Me

Borderline Personality Disorder affects approximately two percent of the USA population and, I presume, a similar percentage elsewhere. That’s about how likely it is to have red hair (in the USA) and far less likely than it is to be left-handed, double-jointed, color-blind, or many of the other quirks that make us unique. You are not a bad person, there is nothing “wrong” with your personality (despite the name of the disorder, which, by the way, will probably change), and you have no reason to be ashamed.

No, what you are is empathetic, emotional, interesting, intuitive, creative, and about to embark on a life-changing journey, should you choose to do so. You’re incredibly strong and you’ve overcome obstacles that many people haven’t had to and possibly couldn’t. You’ve made it this far, my friend. Don’t ever give up.

Erin Bardwell is a New Yorker currently living in Seattle, Washington. She received her BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts, and her work (both written and visual) has appeared in Frankie Magazine, Ruby Magazine, Look Look, Sovereign Nation, F-Stop, Nerve, and other publications.In recovery from borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder and anorexia, she now wants to share her story and give others hope. Erin aspires to be a licensed Peer Counselor in Washington state so she can help other people struggling with mental health and addiction issues.Her website is erinbardwell.com and her personal blog is wtfisbpd.tumblr.com

2 Comments

  1. Silvana

    September 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Sorry about your mom,? I hope you find peace and realize that you are not only hepilng those with BPD, but those of us who have a person who suffers bpd in their life. You create an honest and narrative perspective and I think you are incredibly brave. The difficult time you went thru when you tried to encounter the same fate as your mom was no failure in completing your goal,but rather proof that you are a survivor with purpose and I really appreciate the vivid look introspect i

  2. Pingback: The Perks of Being a Borderline | Mental Health Matters | MAKE BPD STIGMA-FREE!

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