A common symptom associated with Borderline Personality Disorder is the presence of addictive, self-destructive behaviors.
This can include drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and overeating. Other compulsions include sexual promiscuity, gambling, and eating disorders, which are related to overeating but can be more damaging and complicated.
It is useful to consider why these addictions develop. Many authors view them as methods of coping with and numbing severe emotional pain. When one is tormented by chronic anxiety, anger, and uncertainty, blocking out the feelings with an addictive behavior makes sense in the short term. A deeper view is that addictions are a compensation for some “lack” – that is, if one has low self-esteem and few good personal relationships, addictions can serve to compensate for this void.
In the long term addictions are destructive and do not make the underlying problems disappear. But in the absence of better ways of coping, it is not surprising that so many people turn to addictions to make their problems temporarily “go away”. Since powerful negative emotions and a lack of healthy interpersonal relationships are both frequently associated with Borderline Personality Disorder, it makes sense that many borderlines develop destructive addictive behaviors.
Between about ages 16 and 24, I developed the addictive behavior of eating massive amounts of junk food. My favorite items were a giant 500-gram family-sized bag of Utz potato chips, along with a big bag of Hershey milk chocolate candies. I would ravenously eat these snacks – often totaling 3,000-4,000 calories or more – and then feel very bad about myself afterward (but, while it lasted, eating chips and chocolate together did feel awesome!).
I overate most often when feeling hopeless, alone, and angry. At the time, I wouldn’t really reflect on why it was happening, but the behavior also related to my negative beliefs about myself. Namely, that people didn’t care about me, that I had no future, was unattractive physically, was worthless and so might as well do it, and so on.
Usually, my overeating would be followed by efforts to restrict my eating to “even things out”. The idea was to punish myself and to prevent myself from becoming overweight (and miraculously, I did not ever become obese). Obviously, this whole cycle was terrible for me emotionally and only made my self-esteem worse.
Early Efforts to Deal With My Addiction
At first, I viewed my eating habits in and of themselves as a primary problem, i.e. as a cause of my other problems. Later, I would realize this was mistaken. However, as a teenager I focused a lot of energy on forcing myself to stop overeating. As the reader might guess, such efforts of willpower normally failed. I would frequently call myself bad names, berating myself for my lack of self-control. A vicious cycle developed where the more I overate, the more such self-attacks would occur, the longer the subsequent “starvation” periods would become, the worse the next round of overeating would become, and so on.
Visits to 12-Step Groups
Eventually, I discovered that 12-step groups existed that specifically addressed overeating. I visited these Overeaters Anonymous groups starting at age 19 and attended regularly for give years. Many people will know something about these programs even if they have not attended. Such programs usually involve an addicted person getting together with other addicts in a church, hospital clinic, or other accommodation for for at least one hour a week. At meetings, one gets to verbally share one’s experience recovering from addiction with the group, while also learning and gaining encouragement from the “shares” of others.
In 12-step groups, people also “work the steps,” the steps being positive, spiritual guidelines that encourage reliance on the help of fellow addicts and on God rather than on one’s own willpower. Often, a new person will get a “sponsor,” a more experienced member that mentors them in their recovery journey.
To oversimplify it, 12-Step groups involve a group of “addicts” sitting around a table and performing what outsiders might view as “mutual therapeutic sharing,” although 12-step leaders would not call it that.
Positive Aspects of 12-Step Groups
I benefited greatly from attending 12-step groups. Given that I had experienced very little honest sharing of feelings in my family, the openness of people in the 12-step groups represented both a new emotional world and a massive source of support. People would share their most intimate feelings about their personal and family problems, knowing that they were protected by the “anonymity” of a program in which everyone starts on a first-name basis.
Seeing that other people were conquering their cravings for food encouraged me that I was not doomed to suffer with this compulsion forever. Having to drive to the meetings bolstered my self-esteem, because it meant I was taking action to help myself. The general tone of the meetings was one of acceptance and tolerance, which became incredibly therapeutic for me.
Over time, I came to see that most of the people in 12-step meetings were genuinely kind, good people. I lost the image of addicts being twisted, innately disturbed freaks. Many of the better-adjusted men and women that I met functioned well in the outside world. They had real friends, spouses, children, and jobs that contributed to the community. But they struggled with an often-hidden compulsion that caused them great anxiety and lowered their self-esteem.
There were also some more disturbed people who attended meetings. Often these addicts did not have a regular job, were involved in abusive relationships, and had trouble trusting or sharing feelings with others in the group. They seemed to have had more severe abusive and neglectful family histories. Nevertheless, many of them were eventually able to share their experience meaningfully and to begin to make friends. I learned from meeting them that even the most severely disturbed people can still want help and love. Near the end of my time in 12-step groups, I made it a point to reach out to them and make them feel welcome.
Nevertheless, during the first 2-3 years that I attended 12-step meetings, I failed to make significant progress in reducing my destructive acting-out behavior. While I made friends in the program, I never developed a trusting relationship with a sponsor. This partly related to my fear of authority figures which came from my physically abusive father.
More importantly, I was having trouble trusting my therapist outside of the program. The lack of a good relationship there, which also related to my historical lack of trust in my parents, led me to continue to feel alone and uncertain. This lack of a good core relationship in turn drove me to continue the addictive behaviors that masked the bad feelings.
Why I Left 12-Step Groups – The Christian Focus
Eventually, I decided to leave 12-step groups. There were several reasons why I did this. At around age 23-24, I had begun to work full-time and found it difficult to consistently attend meetings in the evenings. Looking back, I was overworking but did not know it then.
More importantly I disagreed with some of the core viewpoints of the 12-step program. The 12-step program is a Christian program, and I am not a Christian. I never liked being forced to say the Lord’s Prayer, having to admit out loud that I was “powerless” over my addiction, and needing to submit my problems to God.
My personal belief is that the Christian God is a fabrication invented by primitive, tribal, pre-scientific people. For early humans, Christianity many important functions, among which two stand out for me: 1) To give an illusion of knowledge about the origin and structure of the universe, and 2) To protect them from the fear of death, via the illusion that they could transcend death by going to heaven.
To admit that we have no idea why the universe started can be unsettling. And to face the fact that we may die and nothing comes afterwards may be similarly disturbing and depressing. However, I do not find these things depressing – they are simply mysterious, fascinating, and perhaps tragic, although not in a bad way. I would rather face these uncertainties than blindly place my faith in something that is unproven.
I realize these last two paragraphs may sound arrogant to Christian readers, but in fact I am only agnostic, not atheist. I admit that I could be wrong and that the Christian God could exist. I just find it extremely unlikely, since I believe in evidence, not faith, and no evidence has thus far convinced me that a Christian God exists. I do believe that some non-human “god-like” force could exist which initiated the big bang and thus the universe. But what that might be is a mystery.
To conclude, I understand that others feel differently and I do not begrudge them that; everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs.For the purposes of this article, what matters is that human relationships and human love “works” in terms of promoting recovery from addiction and BPD. I have gotten better with the help of humans alone. If other people need both their fellow humans and faith in God to recover, that is fine!
To return to the 12-step group, my viewpoints about religion differed too fundamentally from the group’s. This contributed to my eventual decision to leave.
Addiction As a Disease
People within the 12-Step group also referred to addiction as a “disease”. This is ridiculous, since it ignores everything we know about diseases. Actual physical diseases are caused by a preexisting physical agent or genetic condition.
To start with, like BPD itself, addiction is not a discrete entity or syndrome like a physical disease. At what exact scientific point does overeating become an “addiction”? Doesn’t everyone eat more than they should at some point? So is everyone addicted? Etc. The brains of the severely addicted do look different, but these differences can plausibly and entirely be explained by environmental factors.
Second, even if someone does have a relative genetic weakness (vulnerability to stress), that would not be the cause of their addiction. In most cases, addiction could again plausibly be explained almost entirely by environmental stress, such as abuse, neglect, low self-esteem, and poor personal relationships.
Addiction cannot be reduced to the level of a physical disease; to do so is reductionist and dehumanizing to the addict. However, we should not be surprised that psychiatrists and drug companies are currently trying to label addiction as a disease, given that they stand to make billions of dollars in additional profit from doing so.
“Cui bono?” (meaning who benefits, financially or otherwise) should always be asked whenever Big Pharma and research psychiatrists are involved in making some pronouncement about addiction or BPD. More often than not, their self-serving conclusions should be rejected outright.
To return again to 12-step groups, their blind acceptance of the disease model of addiction caused them to lose credibility with me. Many overeaters in the group unthinkingly accepted this idea and referred to themselves as having a “disease.” They conceptualized it as some physical process that they could not control. This fit with the idea about needing to admit “powerlessness” over addiction, discussed below.
Powerful or Powerless over Addiction
One other aspect of the 12-step groups bothered me – their insistence on admitting one’s “powerlessness over addiction”. This never made sense to me. I wanted to build capacities and a sense of personal strength that would let me overcome my addiction. Why should feeling powerful be a bad thing? Today, I am probably burdened with an over-abundance of confidence, as the reader may see in this writing, but I am not ashamed of it. The 12-step program viewed “pride” as a sin, but in moderation I view personal pride as a virtue.
Neither the disease model of addiction nor the admittance of powerlessness over addiction are ideas that I am accept. Rather, I am proud to reject them wholesale. I never had an addictive “disease”, and I was never personally powerless to start recovering from my addiction.
In any case, the Puritanical, God-fearing, self-effacing aspect of 12-step groups were what finally led me to leave them. For a while, I continued to attend while trying to take the good things out of the group and ignore the “bad” things. However, this did not work, since as I developed more of an identity, the focus on “God” and “powerlessness” made me feel out of place there.
I searched for a similar but non-religious addiction recovery group, but did not find one. So, today I am without such a group. I feel the better for it, since I am being true to what I believe, and because I have found other ways of overcoming my addiction.
What Helped Me Overcome My Addiction
In reality, many complex interrelated factors helped me to overcome my addictive acting-out with food. Three of them stand out:
1) My work in therapy on not attacking myself for overeating, but instead compassionately understanding my acting-out behavior.
2) A focus on reducing the underlying need for the addiction, rather than on stopping the addiction itself.
3) A focus on building a positive,trusting relationship with my therapist, and later on with friends and family that replaced her.
I’ll discuss each of these in more detail.
1) Replacing self-blame with compassion
The psychotherapist Theodore Rubin wrote a great book called Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative To Despair. This book inspired me to start changing my attitude toward myself. Rubin describes dozens of ways in which people perpetuate destructive cycles by attacking themselves themselves rather than choosing self-compassion. He devoted a chapter to addiction in which he described it as one of the most insidious forms of self-hate.
Developing compassion for myself became a primary tool that allowed me to escape the metaphorical labyrinth of addictive behavior. I started by often repeating to myself the cliche that everyone is a person who deserves love and understanding, especially from themselves.
In various ways I would tell myself that I deserved better than to attack myself as worthless and horrible. I would particularly try to be gentle with myself right after I had relapsed and acted out, that being the time at which I most needed self-compassion. This eventually helped me to stop starving myself after the overeating episodes.
Eventually, it dawned on me how much energy I wasted calling myself names. My therapists often told me how “harsh” I was on myself, and their defense of my true self against the “false self” and its attacks proved a valuable model.
2) Focusing on what drives the need for the addiction, not the addiction itself
Early on in my addictive struggle, I obsessed over “stopping” the addiction. I would try to will myself to stop going and eating. Of course, this did not work, because underneath I still felt alone, unhappy, afraid, and hopeless. Even if I did will myself to stop overeating for a while, I would inevitably restart a few days or weeks later.
For long term recovery, my real need was to build an entirely new, healthy personality for the first time. This initially daunting task took years. Food did not drive my addiction. Rather, my entire borderline personality structure created and then drove the addiction.
My severe ego-splitting, low-self-esteem, inability to regulate feelings, and lack of identity created the fertile ground on which addiction grew. Some kind of addictive behavior was almost bound to develop, since the emptiness, hurt, and fear were so great that they could not be tolerated without an addictive distraction. If it were not food, it would have been something else.
Viewed in a more positive light, my lack of being nurtured in childhood created the personality problems that led to my addiction. I needed to find a good way to fill the emotional void created by my abusive childhood, and to begin to tame the swirling cauldron of fear, rage, and despair that accompanied it.
If I could come to trust other people, take in their love and comfort, and raise my self-esteem, I would have less need for the addiction and it would naturally diminish.
3 – Developing long-term good relationships
It is obvious, but it bears reminding ourselves that good, supportive human relationships are as crucial for a healthy personality as oxygen is for a healthy body. Without good relationships to real, external people, we do not develop adequate security, self-esteem, or the ability to regulate our feelings.
By around age 20, I had read extensively about Borderline Personality Disorder. From a psychodynamic standpoint, I understood that BPD reflected a faulty personality structure stemming from extremely poor relationships in childhood. It was hardly coincidental that so many borderlines reported abuse and neglect growing up.
To use Gerald Adler’s terms (from his book, Borderline Psychopathology and Its Treatment), the core of borderline psychopathology was a failure in the formation of soothing, comforting images (or functional introjects) of other people. This in turn resulted from a lack of sufficient good, comforting relationships in early life.
Since the ability to self-soothe never developed, the future borderline could not resolve splitting (which requires a predominance of positive over negative introjects) and continued to see themselves and others as all-good or all-bad into adulthood. All the other borderline symptoms like addictive behaviors, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, etc. flowed from this central failure of nurturance and love in childhood development.
Given this research, I understood that I absolutely had to develop a trusting, dependent relationship with another person, or I would not get better in the long term.
This is what I worked so hard on with a series of therapists for several years. At the outset, it can be very difficult to trust someone when you have been let down and rejected countless times in the past. I often distrusted my therapists, telling myself that they cared about my money and not me, and that I was innately not worth caring about. However, over the years it gradually dawned on me that they were genuinely interested in helping me and that I did deserve help.
So much changed during the years that I pain-stakingly became able to trust my therapists and feel their support. It is impossible to describe it all here. But gradually, the external world became “real” and “in color” to me. For the first time, I became able to form real, loving relationships with people outside therapy as well as with my therapist. I developed real friends that I liked and that liked me. My relationship to my parents improved. I gained the courage to date women, and believed that a woman could love me for myself.
All of this internal and interpersonal progress helped my addiction. I felt less and less need – less desire – to overeat. I was not even thinking about it as much, because my focus shifted away from my inner world and toward the real, external world of human relationships. The previously exciting, addictive “thing” relationship to food held progressively less allure.
In this way I gradually conquered my addiction, replacing the inner emptiness and lack of love that drove it with real positive relationships and healthy self-esteem.
A Metaphor for Recovery from BPD and Addiction
This whole process of recovery makes me think of a long, slow version of the famous movie scene in which the Beast transforms into the Prince in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The curse on the Beast and his friends is lifted, the whole castle transforms into vibrant color, and the returned Prince can finally take in Belle’s love as a human being. It is a dream come true.
Although the Beast in the movie did not have an addiction (probably because Disney did not want kids to see a drug-addicted Beast!), he easily could have, given his isolation and despair in the castle for most of the story. The lesson that human love and taking the risk of opening up to another person transformed the the Beast is a timeless one and something I often remember.
That scene can be viewed here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eM3j3S465oo
Or by searching for “Beauty and the Beast final scene” on Youtube.
I welcome any correspondance at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are struggling with BPD yourself or are trying to help a borderline individual, 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