Am I a bad person? If I am, how can I be better? I’ll do whatever it takes to be better, please just tell me how.
My introduction to borderline personality disorder was through my best friend and my mother, both of whom I love very much. They both have mothers who have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and were horribly abusive to their children. My best friend’s mother is now seeing a therapist and improving, but my mom’s mom (my grandma) is 90 years old and losing her memory, so it’s far too late to get grandma into therapy. Both of these women with borderline have visited untold amounts of pain on two people who mean the world to me. I’ve been told story after story of outright abuse, and the reason always stated is “…because, you know, borderline.” Borderline personality disorder to me meant someone who functioned under the “I hate you; don’t leave me” maxim. BPD meant abusive, selfish, mean, twisted, and self-involved without a stable sense of self. It was a terrible label for terrible people.
I switched psychiatrists a few years back and the new psychiatrist was a student doing his residency. In our first appointment he diagnosed me with borderline and said he was going to take me off my medications. I panicked. There was no acceptable reason in my mind to take me off of a combination of medications that had produced partial remission in the past. If you get to partial remission with multiple mental illnesses, the chemical balance you’ve found is pretty damn great. I was not about to allow someone who misdiagnosed me to change what was working. I called the clinic after my appointment and applied to change doctors. The next doctor told me unequivocally that my diagnosis was bipolar II, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder. I asked him directly. And I believed him.
Two weeks into the divorce, I was seeing a lot of flaws in my thinking. I could see inappropriate reactions to others. The more that my behavior became clear, the more it looked like I had a personality disorder. Looking back, I could see signs of a secret BPD diagnosis couched in the language of all my past psychiatrists. Some mental health care professionals opt to not mention a BPD diagnosis to the patient if they think the patient will reject their care if told. I was once told I had BPD and rejected the doctor immediately. I emailed my doctor that night, saying that I would accept his diagnosis, I would not reject treatment, and I just want all the information I can get on what is wrong with me and how to get better.
The following afternoon (day 10 of the divorce), I received a response from my psychiatrist, confirming that in addition to Bipolar II Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder, I also have “strong borderline traits, but do not qualify for the entire disorder” and was instructed to begin researching. Having my own personal terrible biases against BPD, I went online and started to read symptoms. It was like reading a compendium of everything that has ever been wrong with me. In that moment, every symptom matched. In retrospect, there were plenty that do not fit with me, but in the moment, I felt like I was reading Emily’s List of Flaws. I felt weak. I felt pathetic. I felt like a terrible person.
As someone who writes about mental health and tries to dispel stigma, I found myself in a philosophical quandary. Some people do treat others poorly because they are mentally ill, but I do not believe that adults have permission to consistently hurt others. But if the person “can’t help it”, then where do we land? Are there as many good people with mental illness as bad people with mental illness? I know that most news stories about violent acts mention that the perpetrator was mentally ill, leading our society to more quickly ascribe mental illness as an explanation for horrible behavior. This leads to people like me having to repeatedly explain that my psychosis does not make me lack empathy or become violent. I have to explain that even though I’m bipolar, I’ve never flown into a rage. I have to explain that children are safe around me. Sure, I’ll cry on your baby if you let me, but tears wash off.
Personality disorders are strongly associated with horrible and harmful behavior. However, there are ten main types of personality disorder, and none of them doom you to mistreating others. Each comes with its own social challenges, and those challenges do not have to harm your loved ones. Some personality disorder symptoms can lead to problematic interpersonal behavior, including rage, physical or emotional abuse, neediness (me), paranoia, accusations, reclusiveness/withdrawal from others, lack of empathy, self-centeredness, self-aggrandizement, violence, mistrust, or overdependence. None of these qualities are destiny. Of course, no one wants to be that they have these qualities, nor are any of these traits are strongly associated with respect. But each of these traits is part of a specific disorder: a disorder that is not the fault of the patient.
A personality disorder originates from having a differently-shaped brain instead of a chemical imbalance, but most people hear “personality” and think of an ephemeral concept of the self: not the physicality of the brain. Chemical imbalances are widely recognized as physical; bipolar and schizophrenia are treated with medicine. They are the more “legitimate” mental illnesses: “She’s bipolar; she can’t help it. She just needs to take her medication.” However, if you change “bipolar” to “borderline”, you usually wind up with a sentence that looks more like “She’s borderline; she’s a vindictive, manipulative liar. That’s just how she is.”
I don’t want to have “strong borderline traits”. I don’t want to see itemized lists on the internet of exactly what ways in which my brain is wrong. I don’t want to be associated with people who abuse their children. I don’t want to have needy emotional episodes where I have to ask questions that make me feel pathetic to hear coming out of my own mouth: “Am I a bad person? Do you love me? Am I a burden? Are we safe?”
I also don’t want to slow anyone else’s recovery, or shame anyone who’s doing the important work of self-discovery and self-improvement.
It’s not my fault I have these traits, but they are fully my responsibility. Being an adult means that you are automatically responsible for everything in your life, including things that you did not cause and that are not your fault. It’s not my fault that I’m so fucked up, but it’s still completely my responsibility to live my life in a way I approve of. There are dozens of things in my life that I am not at fault for, but I am still completely responsible, because this is my life and my life alone. No one else can make a choice for me. Even if someone tells me what to do, I’m still the one deciding whether or not to obey the order. Since I have chosen “putting love out into the world” as a top value, I am responsible for living up to that value, which means I am responsible for not hurting those around me. That’s a choice that I can make, regardless of my BPD traits.
*Note: This was written 12 days after my divorce. I’ve since made great strides with my BPD traits, although the road is long.