If you have recently been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, you are probably wondering what to do to start getting better. Or perhaps you’re wondering if it’s possible to recover at all.
Deep, lasting recovery from BPD takes a significant amount of time – in my opinion, at least 3-5 years to move far along the road to being emotionally well. However, it is possible to begin going in the right direction immediately. The early years of recovery for a borderline individual, while sometimes very challenging, can be rewarding and meaningful in the long run.
Step 1 – Educate Yourself about BPD
One of the most important things for someone diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder to do is to become informed about the disorder. In my opinion, three interrelated areas are useful to learn about:
1) What BPD is and how it “works” from different viewpoints.
2) Different treatment options.
3) Case studies of former borderlines who have now recovered.
For step one, the most basic, but limited way of understanding BPD is reading its definition in the DSM. After that, basic books like The Borderline Personality Disorder Survival Guide (Chapman), Stop Walking on Eggshells (Mason), and I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me (Kreisman) can give a basic overview of BPD’s characteristics.
While they can be useful initially, I no longer give much credence to these books, since they are superficial and give little guidance about how to recover. They tend to cater to friends and family, rather than to the individual diagnosed with BPD. Also, some of them hold the viewpoint that BPD is a disease to be struggled with for life, rather than a condition that can be fully recovered from. That is something that my experience has disproven.
Books that Helped Me Understand BPD And Have Optimism About It
To address steps one and three – how BPD works, and stories of people who recovered – I learned the most from two sources. First, from reading therapists’ case studies of borderlines who they successfully treated. These case studies usually illustrate important facets of the disorder, including its developmental genesis, the use of splitting and projective identification, typical phases of treatment, how the attachment to bad relationships works, the fear of trust and dependence, and so on. Second, I learned from reading material on the internet and in print by borderlines in recovery. These first-hand accounts of recovery written by former borderlines can be more powerful and direct than second-hand accounts of recovery seen through the eyes of a therapist. All of these books provide hope that lasting recovery from BPD is real and possible.
Realistic hope for BPD recovery is critical – hope that committed, hard work over a lengthy period will lead to a better life free from borderline symptoms. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that how one thinks and fantasizes about oneself in relation to Borderline Personality Disorder makes a big difference. At first, via my research and through therapy I worked on convincing myself that BPD could be deeply recovered from. Replacing my former pessimism and fear about BPD being a hopeless, life-long disorder with optimism about recovery helped me immeasurably. Later on, I came to question whether BPD was a valid diagnosis at all, which I no longer believe it is. But that is not so important initially as nurturing the simple belief that no matter what one’s problems are, they can get better.
At the bottom of this article, you can find listings of books by therapists about their successful treatment of BPD patients. They are mostly psychodynamic or psychoanalytic, since that is the viewpoint that was most useful in my own journey. I bought all these books used for low prices off Amazon. Also, some good online and print sources written by recovered borderlines are described.
Treatment Options – Psychotherapy
If one is diagnosed with BPD and can afford it, therapy can be one of the most important drivers of recovery. As a teenager, I was fortunate to have my therapy funded by my parents. Later on, I lived frugally while paying for treatment myself. Therapy can be expensive, but many therapists use a sliding scale of reduced fees correlating to ability to pay. If you want therapy but feel you cannot afford it, do not give up. Make sure you search around your area for different reduced rate or pro bono options. In large cities, there are hospital-based nonprofit clinics which offer low-rate or even free group and individual therapy.
What type of therapy is the best? Obviously, that is a question that cannot be answered objectively. In my view, the more important factors are the motivation of the person suffering with BPD, and the personal qualities of the therapist regardless of their orientation. However, with that caveat I believe that that the two best kinds of therapy for BPD are psychodynamic/psychoanalytic therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). I am biased toward psychoanalytic treatment for BPD because it worked for me. I have no direct experience of DBT. However, it has worked for many others suffering from borderline symptoms, so I recommend it also.
Many uninformed therapists are pessimistic about BPD or do not know how to treat it. However, there are also many therapists out there who are skilled at treating BPD. They know from experience that lasting recovery from BPD is possible. If you seek treatment, it is obviously important to find the latter kind of provider.
How To Find A Therapist
My favorite source for finding therapists is the Psychology Today’s Therapist Finder. It can be accessed at: http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/
This site has the largest and most up-to-date listing of therapists currently available in the United States and Canada. Once you click on a region, you can search for therapist by orientation (psychodynamic, dialectical, etc.), by specialty (borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, anxiety, etc.), and so on. For example, I just searched in the large American city nearest me, and found over 70 therapists who specialize in treating Borderline Personality Disorder. You can also find therapists that are covered by different insurance providers, which is important because insurance can often cover a significant part of the cost of therapy. And you can directly email or call the therapists directly from the site.
My Therapist Interview Process
I used Psychology Today’s site to find a good therapist several years ago. What I did was to email and call all the therapists I was interested in, asking them a few brief questions. I introduced myself in a friendly way and asked them some version of the following:
– Do you have a lot of experience treating personality disorders, in particular Borderline Personality Disorder?
– Do you believe that individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder can be successfully treated? In particular, do you believe that a sufferer of BPD can become free of the disorder over the long term, i.e. come to live a healthy life free largely free of borderline symptoms?
– Are you willing to meet with me for a 15 minute free in-person consultation to see if we might be a good fit?
If the therapist answered no to any of these questions, I rejected them. For me, a therapist who won’t volunteer 15 minute of their time for a brief consultation is not worth your time. If the therapist had little past experience treating personality disorders, I discounted them. That might be arbitrary, but it made sense to me that I wanted someone with a lot of experience treating a difficult condition. And most important, if they were at all pessimistic or doubtful about recovery from BPD being possible, I moved on. I met two therapists in person who thought that BPD was a lifelong “disorder”, the symptoms of which could be managed but would always remain with the sufferer. These “therapists” were poorly educated charlatans who shouldn’t be given the time of day. I was happy to walk out of their offices and go on to find someone much better.
Alongside these kinds of questions, one might also ask if the therapist offers a sliding scale of fees based on income. Good therapists often do this, but they will not always advertise it up front, since of course they have to treat many patients at full price to make a good living.
For me, finding a good therapist for BPD was like shopping for a car or a house. It’s a big decision that requires careful consideration and research. In some cases, the buyer should beware.
Much more could be written about different types of therapy. Those will not be explored here, mainly because I am not an authority on different types of therapy for BPD (I only know a significant amount about psychodynamic-psychoanalytic approaches). However, I encourage you, if you are diagnosed with BPD, to research other types of therapy and come to the best understanding possible of your options.
I hesitate to include this part, because it is controversial. However, it is best to be honest about one’s views. For most people, I do not believe that psychiatric medication is a major long-term contributor to recovery from BPD.
Medication can play a role in the early phases of treatment. It can be useful because it controls symptoms in the short term, usually for a period of months. If a borderline individual is struggling with overwhelming suicidal impulses, or with terrible, unamanageable anxiety, medication can be useful to stabilize them. It can bring down the temperature and stop a person from “overheating” emotionally. I was prescribed anti-depressant medication for this reason myself in my late teens and early 20s. However, I then decided to taper off of it, and I have not used medication at all for the last six years.
However, beyond stabilizing short-term symptoms, I believe that medication is a waste of money and potentially dangerous. I recently read the books Anatomy of an Epidemic, by Robert Whitaker, and The Myth of the Chemical Cure, by Johanna Moncrief. These and many other books on the subject make clear that psychiatric medication carries with it the risk of severe long-term side effects that are currently poorly understood. In particular, there is the scary and very real possibility of tardive dyskinesia (uncontrollable, often irreversible movements of the mouth and other body parts) in those who take psychiatric medication long term.
For me, there are several problematic emotional aspects to using medication long-term in the treatment of BPD. Using medication long-term promotes the myth that taking a pill can magically solve one’s emotional problems. It implies that one does not have the ability to deal with long-standing issues interpersonally. And it suggests that the primary source of one’s problems is biochemical or genetic, which for me is pessimistic and false. As referenced in Whitaker’s book, disturbing long-term studies are now showing that if they take medication long term, patients with several types of psychiatric disorders do worse on most measures of recovery than those who never take them. Big Pharma companies are denying these results. But of course, they have billions of reasons to do so.
I recommend that people do their own research and come to their own conclusions about medication. My position is that therapy, self-help, and support from family and friends are the main drivers of recovery. If I were to start over with recovery, I would remain open to taking medication in the short term to provide relief from overwhelming symptoms. However, I am so glad to be off medication for the past six years. It gives me the empowering feeling that my own actions are responsible for my recovery, that I am a free agent.
Other Sources of Support Early In Recovery – Family and Friends
On my recovery journey, learning about how the borderline disorder works, reading stories about how former borderlines recovered, and finding an effective therapist were key early steps.
Support from family and friends is also very important. If one’s family can come to understand BPD in a compassionate way and be supportive of one’s recovery, that can obviously be tremendously helpful. My mother never actually knew that I had BPD, but she nevertheless supported me to go to therapy, gave me a place to live, and was available to talk for several years after I graduated from college. Without her financial and emotional support, I would not be where I am today.
Opening up to friends about BPD can also be valuable, although it can feel risky. Over the course of five years (between ages 17-22), I told four people I met about my history of physical abuse and the problems between my parents, who divorced when I was 18. Although they never knew that I had BPD, Gareth, Julian, Andrew and Helena did discover that I was severely depressed, occasionally sometimes suicidal, and that I had great difficulty trusting and opening up to other people. They became invaluable sources of support and helped me to feel less alone during the early period of my recovery.
I was very hesitant initially to confide in these people, since I had no real friends at the time and feared that they would reject me. The antidependent side of me did not want to risk asking anyone else for help. However, the healthier, dependent part of me correctly sensed that they were kind, mature people, and it eventually won out. Gareth was an older family man in his 40s that I met through tennis, Julian was a fellow high school student in the class above me, and Andrew and Helena were young people in their mid 20s who worked at a spiritual retreat center that my family went to every summer.
Where to Find Friends Who Support Your Recovery
If you don’t have friends like this yet, there are many people out there willing to help. Online web boards and forums can be useful places to find support, but nothing replaces meeting people in real life and talking face-to-face. For that reason, I believe that group therapy and 12-step groups are extremely valuable. I attended both in my late teens and in my 20s.
Many therapists listed on the Psychology Today site above run or make referrals to group therapy. To find such groups it is usually necessary to get referrals from therapists or local hospitals and social work clinics. I went to a group for emotionally troubled young people at the state college that I attended. The university hospital ran this group, and it was free.
Regarding 12-step groups, I met several great people at these meetings that became friends whom I could call or meet in person during difficult periods. Twelve-step groups exist for almost every possible emotional problem, including eating disorders, sex addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, gambling, self-harm, and many more. Here is a list of 30 different 12-step groups, along with their websites:
Also, Meetup (www.meetup.com) is a great way to make new friends in your local community. This worldwide online platform creates groups for specific interests that meet in real life. I met several of my current friends through Meetup groups in my area. This might not be the very first step to take in BPD recovery, but once the borderline individual is more confident and ready to leave behind past abusive relationships, Meetup provides access to a whole new world of people.
I hope this article has provided some useful ideas for those wondering where to start looking for help with BPD recovery (and please also see the books below). The central, overriding goal throughout my recovery from BPD was to learn to trust and develop satisfying relationships with other people. Good long-term psychotherapy can help a borderline individual come to trust and truly depend on another person for the first time. Therapy groups, 12 step programs, friends, and family can be invaluable sources of support, with or without individual therapy. Lastly, the individual’s own self-advocacy and motivation to get better are perhaps the most critical drivers of their recovery.
Therapists’ Books About Borderlines Who Recovered
The Bad Object – By Jeffrey Seinfeld. Seinfeld’s successful cases of Kim, William, Justine, Diane, and Peggy are detailed 20-30 page “stories” of these borderline patients’ lives. Seinfeld tells how they went from severely borderline to learning to trust him and becoming increasingly functional and independent. Seinfeld, a New York-based social worker who recently passed away, is one of my heroes for how optimistically he writes about BPD.
Six Steps in the Treatment of Borderline Personality Organization – by Vamik Volkan. This internationally renowned psychoanalyst was a master at conceptualizing and treating BPD. In this book he illustrates his conceptual understanding of BPD, and outlines six phases of successful treatment that he used. His account of his treatment of Patti, the borderline patient whose history fills half this book, is a touching and ultimately triumphant story of how Patti became a mature adult over a period of several years.
Borderline Psychopathology and its Treatment – by Gerald Adler. In this book, Adler defined specific phases in the successful treatment of BPD and reviews the treatment course for several borderlines with whom he worked. Adler, a Boston-based psychiatrist, uses a deficit model of BPD which is different from some other psychodynamic writers. He focuses on the relative absence of positive introjections and the inability to regulate emotions, rather than on the attachment to bad objects. I met Adler in Boston in 2008 to discuss BPD, and he is still very optimistic about treating the disorder, while not being unrealistic about the major challenges involved. Adler is such a kind man, and he is another one of my “idols of BPD” 🙂
Psychotherapy of the Borderline Adult – by James Masterson. Masterson describes his theory of BPD treatment, which is focused on working through negative feelings and encouraging independence in the patient. He tells the stories of several young and middle-age adult patients who had strong outcomes, becoming able to love and work. I’m not a big fan of Masterson’s theories, since for me they overemphasize autonomy at the expense of dependence and closeness, but I respect his success in treating BPD. Until he recently passed away, Masterson practiced therapy in New York where he developed an institute which trained other therapists in how to treat personality disorders including BPD.
The Difficult Borderline Patient, Not So Difficult to Treat – by Helen Albanese. This book has a strange title, but it’s a great book! It was written in 2012, by a Texas-based university therapist who has worked with borderlines for decades and is very optimistic about BPD. In this short volume, she describes her understanding of how borderlines repeat and cling to past traumatic experience. She describes how therapists can help separate the borderline from bad external relationships and promote the development of an authentic self.
The Angry Heart: Overcoming Borderline and Addictive Disorders – by Santoro and Cohen. This was one of my first introductions to BPD. It is a very empathic and informed view of BPD and how to recover from it, from a mainly cognitive-behavioral viewpoint. However, it does not have the lengthy case studies of some of the other titles above.
Listening Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Interpreting the Countertransference – Lawrence Hedges. I hesitate to recommend these books because they is quite technical. However, they moved me toward my current viewpoint about BPD being more useful as a metaphorical term than as a mental health diagnosis. In this work, California psychoanalyst Hedges explicates his theories about Borderline Personality Disorder, as well as about psychosis, narcissism, and neurotic conditions. He explains how these conditions are formed in past childhood trauma and perpetuated by adult relational patterns and defenses. However, Hedges also believes that these disorders do not exist as distinct medical entities, and he explains why. When I went to Los Angeles last year, I got a chance to meet Hedges in person. He is still very optimistic about borderline-spectrum conditions. He told me how he, his colleagues, and his supervisees had treated dozens of people with severe borderline conditions over the past several decades, often with significant success.
Online and Print Accounts of Recovery by Borderlines, in their own words
Borderline Personality From the Inside Out – by A.J. Mahari
You can find A.J.’s website at http://www.borderlinepersonality.ca
In my opinion, A.J.’s website is the best online source of information about BPD. A Canadian blogger who was diagnosed as borderline many years ago, A.J. writes with great wisdom and experience about every aspect of the borderline experience. By the mid 1990’s, A.J. had meaningfully recovered from BPD, and she has spent the last 15+ years encouraging others to do the same. She also offers “recovery coaching” services to current borderlines. If I had known about her 10 years ago, I would not have hesitated to get coaching from her (well, being honest about myself 10 years ago, I might have hesitated, but that’s another story! 🙂
Healing from BPD – by Debbie Corso.
Debbie’s website is – http://www.my-borderline-personality-disorder.com/
Debbie is a young woman from California who tells the story of her journey to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder using DBT. Over the past few years, Debbie has progressed to the point where is no longer diagnosable with BPD, and she is a great example of how motivation and hard work can lead to successful recovery. I highly recommend her website and blog.
Get Me Out Of Here: My Recovery From Borderline Personality Disorder – By Rachel Reiland.
Rachel Reiland, a young mother and wife, suffered from severe BPD which manifested itself in symptoms including anorexia, promiscuity, and suicide attempts. In this book, she tells the story of how she faced these challenges using intensive psychotherapy and the support of her family and friends. By 2004, when she published this book, she had meaningfully recovered from BPD, and her recovery has been stable and lasting for the past 10 years. Today, Reiland does radio interviews, blog postings, and generally spreads the message that recovery from BPD is real and possible. More information about her can be found at http://www.getmeoutofherebook.com
The Buddha and the Borderline: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder through Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Buddhism, and Online Dating – by Kiera Van Gelder
This is another moving account of long-term recovery from BPD. Van Gelder honestly describes her traumatic family history and the resulting behaviors it led to including drug addiction, suicidal thinking, and severe mood swings. She courageously sought help via group therapy – the book contains interesting accounts of how DBT works in groups – and via the unconventional methods of Buddhist spirituality and online dating. These unusual things that helped Van Gelder are reminders that every recovery process is different, and that what works for some people may not work for others. I would not use online dating, but I’m glad it helped her!
I welcome any correspondance at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are struggling with BPD yourself or would like to more effectively help someone who is borderline, I would be happy to listen to your story and provide feedback if possible. Feel free to provide constructive criticism of this site also.
This article is the opinion of a non-professional layperson, and should not be taken as medical advice or as the view of a therapist who is professionally qualified to treat Borderline Personality Disorder or any other mental health condition. Readers should consult with a qualified mental health professional before undertaking any treatment.
– Edward Dantes