What it’s like to live with Borderline Personality Disorder

Meet Sonia Neale. She's 45. The recipient of SANE Australia's inaugural 2014 Barbara Hocking Fellowship. And a sufferer of Borderline Personality Disorder. She shared her story with The Weekly Online.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a complex and commonly misunderstood psychological condition that causes people to have difficulty relating to others and the world around them.

It leaves people appearing angry and resentful even over minor incidents in their lives, but these outward emotions are often associated with deep fears of rejection or abandonment that they may have had their entire lives.

Symptoms often include insecurity, volatile emotions, ruptured relationships, and impulsiveness and sometimes self-harm, including cutting and burning.

During its most serious forms some experience psychotic episodes.

Researcher and academic Sonia Neale, 45, is the recipient of SANE Australia’s inaugural 2014 Barbara Hocking Fellowship. The fellowship promotes better mental health through public understanding of mental illness.

Sonia recently travelled to the USA, UK and Canada to study and research organisations for the betterment of services and programmes for people suffering from and affected by Borderline Personality Disorder.

Not only is Sonia a leading authority on BPD: she also suffers from it. Here she shares her story with Michael Sheather.

“BPD is a personality disorder of extreme emotions. When you have somebody criticize you or judge you or say something about you, it triggers a response that is simple horrendous and over the top.

It might be shouting or anger and resentment in terms of reaction on the outside but the truly horrendous part is what happens inside you.

Innocent remarks are construed as damaging to you. So the people around you tend to walk on eggshells.

When you have this emotional dysregulation, for want of a better description, you tend to overreact. However, it is a catastrophic overreaction.

You see everything as a variation of happy or angry but not the thousands of emotional degrees that exist in between those two points. It is black or white or nothing.

In addition, when something upsets you, no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot let go of that comment and it escalates to the point where you can feel all these toxic neurotoxins percolating through your brain and your body. It is literally like acid coursing through your veins.

If you can remember Brittany Spears when she shaved her head and everyone was wondering what on earth was going on.

Your hair is an incredibly intimate and important part of who you are as a woman, so to shave it off is an expression of self-loathing.

These external acts are based in self-loathing or self-hatred and feelings that you are not good enough. You feel this so deeply that you can’t control your actions.

Your behaviour becomes impulsive in the extreme. You might shop lift compulsively or begin cutting yourself, drug abuse, burning yourself and various eating disorders.

These are ways to relieve the pressure from these intense emotions.

You can feel physical pain from your emotional dysregulation in this state.

Hand in hand with this are many abandonment issues.

Someone might say ‘I’m going down to the shop for some milk’ But in your mind you completely misconstrue that as ‘you hate me and you are leaving me and never coming back’.

What causes this invalidating environment? It might be physical abuse in someone’s childhood, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, chronic physical neglect, or bullying BPD is thought to be an extremely sensitive body-blame structure due to a combination of genetic and biological reasons.

We each have a basic sensitivity that we are born with. And there a lot of very sensitive people around. But when you also introduce the ‘invalidating environment” – it might be bullying, abuse or even simply being regularly told your opinion doesn’t count– then it can switch on the gene for personality disorder.

That self-loathing often comes from an inability to know who you are or what you are supposed to feel. It is often described as an ‘inner core of emptiness”.

Moreover, because you are empty and believe your own feelings are not valid, then you take on other people’s feelings as more valid than your own: no matter what you feel you are wrong.

The environment in which you exist exacerbates the sensitivity that already exists but to an extreme level so that eventually the feeling you are always wrong leads to shame – the most toxic feeling you can have – and that becomes a feeling of you are bad, you are contaminated and poisoned beyond help.

If you have BPD then it’s not ‘I feel shame’. It’s ‘I am shame’.

That is why people cut. It regulates the emotions. Cutting does several things. One is to ground you in reality because you see the blood; you see the cut.

The other thing is that when you cut, when your integrity is broken you get a release of an endorphin, an opiate like substance that is a neurotransmitter.

It is like taking an Oxycontin tablet, which is a narcotic pain reliever. It is a feel-good substance that goes through your bloodstream, so you feel better, more regulated.

BDP is a disorder that is often misunderstood by doctors and people who work in emergency departments. People are often scared of the reactions from someone who has BPD.

However, the person with BPD is simply doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances.

It’s like schizophrenia in that if a person is untreated then they can be violent but if a person is being treated, has been diagnosed, is on medication and is having therapy, then they have the skills to modulate their behaviours and regain emotional regularity.

For me, having a diagnosis was a huge relief. Others don’t want to know. Everyone approaches it differently. I had been in therapy for some time, but hadn’t been diagnosed with BPD. But for me, when it came, I suddenly knew what I was dealing with. I fitted into every category on the list. I used the symptoms as part of a framework within which I could work toward healing.

Without my BPD diagnosis I would not be where I am today, which is working in a job I love (Peer Support Worker) and living happily with my husband of 30 years and adult children.

The diagnosis of BPD and therapy gave me a consistent framework in which to heal myself through my relationship with a therapist. My therapist is a warm, kind person who liked me despite my diagnosis and my behaviour.

My experience is though, that some mental health professionals no matter how much I speak about recovery from my BPD experience and my clients’

BPD experience is that they are sceptical that people can live a life worth living. Yet the most current research clearly states that recovery is possible.”

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