It’s not everyone who can watch a horror thriller, point at the villain and say, “Hey, that’s me!” But you can if you have borderline personality disorder — that’s the condition that Hollywood loves to scare the shit out of men with in movies like Fatal Attraction. Any movie of that “woman seems OK at first, turns out to be an obsessive psycho!” genre is actually portraying someone with BPD.
Since pop culture treats these BPD sufferers (and no, they’re not all women) as a walking Worst Case Scenario, we thought we’d sit down with one and see what it’s like to live with it. She told us …
If you’ve heard of borderline personality disorder, it probably wasn’t in the real world, since we don’t make headlines (sociopaths are such spotlight hogs). No, you probably learned about it from a movie, even if the movie never used the term. At worst, these are the thrillers about obsessive, murderous women (Fatal Attraction and Single White Female), and at best they’re about clingy, out-of-control types (Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Silver Linings Playbook and Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted). It’s always a female who becomes obsessive and completely irrational at the prospect of rejection (though if you want to dig up a male example, throw Anakin Skywalker in there, too). So not a lot of positive role models, is what I’m saying.
Now, since the beginning and end of their characterization is often “boiling family pets in a fit of jealous rage,” people tend to think BPD just encompasses any and all psychotic behavior — or as some call it, “crazy bitch syndrome” (I’m imagining a waiting room questionnaire with, “Have you turned into a crazy bitch in the last 30 days?” as one of the checkboxes). It’s actually a very specific set of behaviors, though. There’s a long list of criteria that a diagnosis must meet, especially intense fear of abandonment (and drastic efforts to avoid it) and no strong sense of identity.
That would explain why Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Single White Female copied her roommate’s haircut and tried to run off her boyfriend when they decided to move out (attacking people with stiletto heels, on the other hand, is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) Basically, you feel hopeless and lost, you look to other people for a sense of belonging, and you get scared shitless and act out at the slightest indication that they might take their affection away. So there was a little more going on there behind all the bunny-boiling.
That’s the name of the go-to book about borderline personality disorder, because that’s more or less our constant emotional state. The clinical terms are “idealization and devaluation,” but what that means in normal person language is that someone is the best person in the world, until they’re the worst person in the world — but even then, you still intensely desire his or her attention.
Do you remember the relationships you had in your early teens, when the hormones first started pumping and absolutely everything was HUGE and DRAMATIC? One day, you’re madly in love with a person or she’s your best friend, but as soon as she does anything to make you feel even slightly insecure, she’s suddenly the subject of pages of bleak poetry in your diary? Do you remember the constant anxiety and self-doubt, the fear that if you went even one day without talking to him, it meant he didn’t like you anymore?
Well, imagine that, only worse. And you never grow out of it.
So people who have BPD tend to go through relationships like the tissues they go through over the course of those relationships, and I’m no exception. I fall in love whenever I look at someone for too long, but I’ve always been on the lookout for the next person since (according to my stupid brain), he will inevitably leave me. It becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, I had only been dating one guy for six weeks when I informed him that I was in love with him and we were meant for each other. After that understandably freaked him out a bit, I went into panic mode and found another guy within 36 hours. I had about four “serious” relationships that summer. You see, staying single is not an option.
I can feel like the only way to protect myself is to reject people before they reject me, even if they weren’t thinking about rejecting me at all. Maybe they were just thinking that I could stand to take the trash out more often, or that they’d like some time alone to play video games and blow off steam. But everything feels like a personal denunciation — remember, this is all coming from the personal assumption that I’m worthless on my own. Then I become convinced that their bad moods are my fault and I have to fix it before they send me away, which just irritates them more because no, really, they just want to shoot some terrorist pixels.
It’s basically fight or flight, if your version of fighting would be grossly ineffective in most street brawls, since it mainly involves smothering people with your love.
Have you noticed that just about every depiction of BPD we’ve mentioned has been a woman? That’s not a coincidence, and most likely, neither is the fact that up to 75 percent of people diagnosed with BPD are women. Take a look at those symptoms and compare them to the way someone of the asshole persuasion might view women as a whole. Indecisive? Check. Needy? Check. Emotionally unstable? Billboard-sized Nike swoosh. Bros on the Internet warn each other, “Don’t stick your dick in crazy.”
For many women, according to some scholars, a diagnosis of BPD is just this generation’s version of hysteria (although, thankfully, no one is trying to masturbate us out of it). There appears to be no biological basis for the discrepancy — when men and women are presented to clinicians with the exact same set of symptoms, the men are actually more likely to be diagnosed with pst-traumatic stress disorder , while the women are more likely to be diagnosed as borderline.
Harvard professor Judith Herman even believes that BPD may not exist at all, suggesting that it’s actually a form of PTSD that has turned into a label to be slapped on troubled women because it fits so neatly into our ideas about them, conveniently allowing them to dismiss us as “born bad.” Add the fact that most people diagnosed with BPD have experienced severe trauma to the list of things that are probably not coincidences.
This tendency to overdiagnose women can be really harmful, especially if you do suffer from a different disorder but got the borderline label slapped on your bitch ass. My mother is schizophrenic (which is diagnosed more often in men), but she was originally misdiagnosed as borderline, which meant she went without proper treatment for way too long. Especially because …
Here’s where it gets confusing. We’re living in supposedly enlightened times in which no one blames the mentally ill for their condition. If you meet people with schizophrenia, you assume whatever they do is just the result of chemicals going rogue and fighting epic battles in their head meats. But then there is a category of illnesses that are deeply entwined with an individual’s personality called — wait for it — personality disorders. These are a series of destructive behaviors and thought processes that are part disease, and part … just the way you are.
Science doesn’t really know what to do with them. They’re incredibly difficult to pin down and diagnose, since the symptoms are less “hearing voices” and more “I keep ruining my relationships.” Well, BPD is one of the most common personality disorders in the U.S., and treatment often consists of 100 milligrams twice a day of “shut up and deal with it” — which is to say, current guidelines do not recommend medication because none have proven effective.
I take medication to reduce anxiety, depression, and mood swings, but there is no pill for “clinically clingy.” A few forms of therapy have shown promise, particular dialectical behavior therapy, but good luck finding a therapist trained in it. I’ve been on a waiting list for six months with another four or so to go, and I just have to hope my life doesn’t fall apart in the meantime. And I’m one of the lucky ones, considering that therapy is expensive, and people with mental health issues aren’t exactly the most employable (note that every mentally ill person eventually has to deal with the fact that a pill is a lot cheaper than a person).
I sure don’t feel lucky a lot of the time, though. The tiniest things can be landmines. Once I tried paying for my groceries with a type of credit card the store didn’t accept, and the cashier informed me in a tone of voice I heard as hostile. By the time I got to my car, I was in tears and ended up sobbing in my car for an hour before I drove home. I had to pretty much close down my business because I was having panic attacks every time I went in. I just have to try to take a buddy everywhere I go and otherwise avoid people as much as possible so I don’t have a breakdown over some little fucking thing.
When I’m alone, I’m left to my own devices to come up with coping mechanisms. Keeping myself on a routine of eating, sleeping, and showering regularly does wonders. That might seem weird, but you’d be surprised how fast these things go down the shithole when you start to slip out of control, which makes you feel even more out of control. When I’m dealing with negative emotions, it helps to find something to distract myself, like focusing on song lyrics playing over the loudspeakers in the grocery store. It also helps to force myself to challenge my irrational thought patterns. If I can’t stop thinking, “You’re so fucking useless, you’re such a burden on everyone, the world would be better off without you,” I make a conscious effort to take a step back from the thought and say to myself, “Well, I’m not useless because I did all the laundry this morning, and my husband would be sad if I died.”
It’s a process of fumbling around and figuring out what works. It hasn’t always been productive — I’ve gotten relief by cutting myself, and I have a bitch of a smoking habit because sometimes a cigarette is the only thing that helps. With no practical treatment options, people who have BPD are at a sky-high risk for substance abuse, according to the Institute of Duh at No Fucking Wonder University. The prognosis is pretty bleak. And it’s not helped by the fact that
1: No One Understands, and That Leads to Fear
Considering movies tend to portray us as violent stalkers (or at the very least, out-of-control whirlwinds of emotional destruction), it’s easy to lump BPD sufferers in with sociopaths or other groups that lack basic human empathy. But more recent studies suggest that we actually just have way too much of it. Since you’re constantly assessing the emotional state of the people around you (primarily because it’s all your fault, and oh god you have to fix it), people with borderline personality disorder kind of have people-reading superpowers. That’s bad if it leads you to overreact, like I did at the grocery store, but it can also mean you’re the Stephen Hawking of interpersonal relations.
What that means on a practical level is that we’re good at gauging the temperature of the room. We’re like emotional sponges. We can be great diplomats, really good at keeping everyone in the group happy, because we are self-appointed, full-time Keeping People Happiers. When someone’s in pain, we really feel that pain, so we’re an excellent shoulder to cry on. Everyone I know who has BPD is generally as warm and gentle as a blanket made of kittens. But there’s aLord of the Rings-sized elephant in the room here, and it’s that all of those positive traits come with the caveat, “when we’re not in devaluation mode.”
I can quite honestly say that we can be the most intensely loving, generous people you’ll ever encounter, but we can also be impressively nasty and spiteful. When I tell people about my disorder, they get that look on their face where they kind of give you the side-eye and take a step back as if you radiate psychic dick spines, and given what the movies show, I can hardly blame them.
But here’s the facts: Like most other psychiatric disorders, we are really unlikely to hurt another person. Even when we’re really upset at someone, we’re still convinced that it’s entirely our fault, so we mostly take it out on ourselves. That’s a big reason why we self-injure — it’s punishment as much as relief — and why suicide attempts are as routine as daylight saving timefor many of us.