Reflecting on the last 10 years, several key decisions accelerated my recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder. In these moments, I took risks that moved me further along the road to becoming well.
At the time, these actions did not stand out as turning points. Today, their importance is obvious.
Below is a scene from the movie The Dark Knight Rises that illustrates this type of decision. Bruce Wayne has been imprisoned in a pit-like prison from which escape seems impossible. The jump to freedom is too far. Bruce Wayne fails on his first attempt to escape, but he eventually triumphs:
Short 1-minute version – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BNW2By7ppo
Longer 3-minute version – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdQFRf-KqNw
It’s notable that Bruce Wayne has to feel anger about his horrible situation before he can make the leap. The feelings of doubt, uncertainty, hope and determination which we can imagine in Bruce Wayne as he looks across the gap are feelings I often had before making the decisions below.
The dark, hopeless conditions of the prison are an apt metaphor for the unfulfilling, frustrating life in which many borderlines are trapped after a traumatizing, neglect-filled childhood. Continuing the metaphor for BPD, the open world that Bruce Wayne sees after leaving the prison could represent mature adulthood and all its possibilities for fulfillment (although in the movie, Bruce Wayne’s story is very different, and he was never a borderline!).
I had to take risks – the metaphorical leap out of the prison – over and over again in order to escape into the open world. Not all of my ideas worked; there were many failures and frustrations that are not mentioned below. But here are some of my ideas that did work:
Age 17 (2003) – Asking My Mom for Help
As an awkward, overweight high school junior, I became increasingly depressed and thought seriously about committing suicide. My parents’ relationship was falling apart, I had no real friends at school, and I hated myself. Other kids were dating and talking about colleges, concepts that felt alien and threatening for me. I desperately wanted to tell someone how I felt, but could not trust anyone. I remember listening to songs like Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and feeling the songs were about me. I felt totally alone through my sophomore and junior year of high school, not allowing myself to turn to anyone for help.
I decided I had to do something. Since my mother had not overtly abused me and had provided some support, she was the only person I dared open up to. But it was too difficult to go to her directly. So instead, I emailed her. That email read something like, “Mom, I am not feeling well. I feel really depressed and need help. Can we talk about this? Maybe there is someone I could see that could help me.” To my surprise, my mother came immediately and told me how concerned she was. She was healthier and stronger than I had realized. I was so emotionally weak that I could barely respond. But to know that someone cared was a great relief.
A week later, my mother took me to see a psychiatrist. Although he was a poor therapist who knew nothing about BPD, it was a relief to have done something to help myself. It made me feel less hopeless. And it set a precedent for everything that would come later. Interestingly, at this age, I had never even heard of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Key Point – If you have BPD and feel desperate and hopeless, look in your surrounding environment for others who might be understanding and supportive. Your splitting will likely cause you to doubt whether they really care. Once you identify a person or group that might help, fight past your fear and take the risk of asking them for help. In most cases, you have nothing to lose by asking.
Age 17-20 (2003-2006) – Making a New Trusted Friend
Toward the end of high school, I met an older man in our neighborhood, Gareth, who took an interest in me. We shared a common interest, tennis, and would meet at the local courts to play. At first, because of my great expertise at hiding my emotions, Gareth had no idea how hopeless I felt. Nevertheless, I often struggled to avoid breaking down and crying on the tennis court.
My vulnerable child-self identified Gareth as a potential helper. There ensued a great internal battle – should I or should I not make myself vulnerable and ask for help from someone outside the family? Should I risk rejection? Not asking for help felt safer.
I vividly remember the moments leading up to my opening up to Gareth for the first time. We were sitting in a steamroom at the local health club. The other people walked out, leaving us alone. After about 30 seconds of painful deliberation, I forced myself to haltingly tell Gareth how my father had physically abused me. I told him how school was a terrible struggle, how I felt depressed and suicidal most of the time.
Gareth responded very kindly. He empathized with how difficult and unfair everything was. He got me to tell him as much as I was comfortable about my family. Over the following months, he became a regular confidant. He went out of his way to be available to talk via phone, email and in person. For the next few years, I cried many times with him and worked through grief and anger surrounding my father’s abuse. He taught me that men could be trustworthy and safe, unlike my father.
My and Gareth’s relationship did not always flow easily. At times, I became provocative, manipulative, and withdrawn. A couple of times, Gareth became so frustrated by this behavior that we briefly cut off contact. However, each time we reconnected and made up, because each of us cared about the other.
Key Point – True friends are an invaluable support for anyone, but especially for those working to recover from BPD. Letting someone really get to know you can make a critical difference in recovering from BPD. Even if you don’t think you know how to form a real friendship, risk opening up to an acquaintance whom you think might be supportive.
Begin with telling them how you really feel, even if what you feel is terrible! Being honest with someone else about your negative feelings, while difficult, can be a freeing experience if they respond supportively. It can be the start of a long-term relationship that is transformative. In my experience, most people really do want to help – often more than we realize.
Age 18 (2004) – Beginning to Research BPD
In 2004, I read about Borderline Personality Disorder on the internet. It terrified me. I “knew” that I was borderline. I found online forums where family members of supposed borderlines complained about how difficult, manipulative, provocative, unchanging, frustrating, and wicked borderlines were.
When I first read about BPD, I had a visceral physical reaction where a lead-like despair overtook me. I felt sure that I had BPD, and that my chances of recovering were low to nonexistent. The pessimism of many writers who talked about BPD being life-long, severe, genetic, and untreatable greatly influenced me. I was so distracted by the fear that I had difficulty walking around school, listening in classes, or having coherent conversations.
But part of me wanted to fight the idea that borderlines couldn’t recover. I felt a fierce desire not just to survive, but to live. I searched on Amazon for books about treatment of BPD. At first, I ordered popular books like Walking on Eggshells and I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me. Since they weren’t addressed to sufferers, these books did little to help, and I interpreted them pessimistically.
Then I found Jeffrey Seinfeld’s The Bad Object. From it I gained a weapon to use in the battle against the negative thoughts. For the first time, I saw a writer clearly describe several borderline patients with similar abusive histories to mine. They recovered – fully, in several cases. They had the kind of good life that I desperately wanted.
I particularly benefited from Seinfeld’s “Four-phase” description of BPD. It fit me perfectly. I understood myself, at age 18, to be somewhere between the Out-of-Contact and Ambivalent Symbiotic phases. Seinfeld’s writing gave me a roadmap, making the origin of my problems clear. More information on his writing is here:
The key point here is that I did my own research. If I accepted the status quo expressed by many writers 10 years ago – that BPD is a valid medical diagnosis that cannot be cured – then I would not be where I am today. These early readings were only the first among dozens of books on BPD and other personality disorders that I read.
Key Point – Education matters. Do not unquestioningly accept what any one person tells you about BPD, including me. No authority has all the answers on the disorder. Cultivate a healthy skepticism. Do your own research, think critically about what you learn, compare different viewpoints, and come to your own opinion about what is right. Trust yourself. How you define BPD and how you view the recovery process will evolve over time. There is no exact right way to think about BPD or recovery.
Early 20s – Confronting My Fears About BPD
Throughout my early 20s, I feared that BPD was a hopeless, incurable condition. I kept finding sources that espoused pessimistic, gloomy views of BPD sufferers. Their view of borderlines as people trapped in painful, inevitable destructive cycles from which they could not recover seemed cruel and terrifying. I had also read books like Seinfeld’s that asserted the opposite, i.e. that BPD, while challenging, but very treatable and even curable. But I could not trust the positive view or reconcile it with the negative. And what you don’t trust cannot reassure you.
I worked hard to overcome my fear about BPD with my therapist, who was positive about BPD, but could not fully trust her either. The authoritative-sounding writers of the pessimistic books continued to haunt me. I needed a way to more strongly refute them, to understand why these writers (falsely) thought that BPD could not be “cured”, and to convince myself that BPD could be fully recovered from.
Many things helped me to eventually believe that I could become well. One of the most important was my “systematic investigation” of BPD’s treatability. I decided to cold-call some of the most renowned therapists in the United States. I asked them their view of the “bad” writers, the ones whose views scared me Many of these therapists did not answer, but some did.
Among others, I spoke on the phone to Gerald Adler (author of Borderline Psychopathology and Its Treatment), Lawrence Hedges (author of Working the Organizing Experience), and James Masterson (author of Treatment of the Borderline Adult). Within the psychodynamic-psychoanalytic community in the United States, these are three of the “big guns” of writing about BPD and personality disorders in general. Their books are all on Amazon.com . Adler’s book on borderlines is even available for free download on http://www.freepsychotherapybooks.org
Between 2007-2009, I met Adler, Hedges, and Masterson in person, traveling to meet them in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York respectively. I told them how afraid I was about BPD being a hopeless, incurable disorder. Each of them described multiple borderlines they had treated who made great progress and in some cases recovered fully.
Adler, Hedges and Masterson also analyzed the “bad” writers, i.e. those writers whose pessimistic views about BPD scared me. They explained that these writers were inexperienced and/or poorly trained therapists whose personal failure at treating BPD had become rationalized into the mistaken view that the diagnosis had a poor prognosis.
They also described how the field of psychotherapy had become fragmented into different “schools”, and how many therapists were unaware of more effective models for how to treat BPD. They made it clear that the disorder presented serious challenges to therapists as well as patients, so it was not surprising that poorly trained, inexperienced therapists often failed to help borderlines. But they said that with good training, many therapists had had great success at treating BPD.
These three writers all encouraged me to continue treatment with my own therapist and to be optimistic about recovery. Hearing their optimism about the disorder in person made a big impact on me. They were very kind.
In retrospect, I over-idealized Masterson, Adler, and Hedges, seeing them as perfect, infallible authorities. But this all-good splitting served a useful purpose, as it allowed my fear about BPD to be gradually conquered by the belief that recovery from BPD was truly possible.
In the technical way I understand it based on object relations, I subjected the “all-bad” aspect of my anxiety-producing views of BPD to real-world analysis in a way that weakened my identification/attachment to those all-negative views. This allowed me to “correct” or make “less bad” those all-negative views, which in turn led me to stop splitting so severely. As I took in more positive ideas about BPD, I could eventually integrate the negative views with these new, more positive views. More information about object-relations and splitting is here:
Although I’m not a Christian, my great relief at the loss of the old fears about BPD caused me to think of this image from the famous novel, Pilgrim’s Progress:
Key Point – Anxiety is almost always related to specific environmental causes or lack of support. Whatever progress you want to make in your life, identify the fears that are holding you back. Brainstorm creative ideas in which you can challenge your preconceived beliefs and fears. Execute them. Do not be afraid to be take risks and be rejected.
Our fears are often like the ghosts in Super Mario Games. When you run away from them, they seem scarier. When you face them, they stop chasing you. Here’s a funny example:
Early 20s – Going to 12-Step Groups
At college, I began to overeat to cope with my depression, gaining 40-50 pounds. I mostly isolated myself from other students, having difficulty attending class regularly. As the twin problems of overeating and isolation intersected and reinforced each other, I realized that I needed something to address both of them.
I researched online and found something called 12 Step Groups. The vulnerable, dependent part of me quickly realized that 12 step groups might be helpful. But my antidependent side, being identified with my abusive father, feared that I would be rejected and disliked. I eventually fought past this fear and forced myself to attend a meeting of Overeaters Anonymous.
I walked into a small group filled with men aged from about 35-65. I was 20 years old. The first meeting intimidated me. But at the end, an elderly man came over and made a point of welcoming me. He told me how hopeful it was that I came to get help at a young age with my whole life ahead of me. This idea had never occurred to me. Over the next few years, I made many friends in 12-step groups, benefitting greatly from the fraternal, warm, encouraging nature of the group. I also disagreed with some aspects of the program, which eventually caused me to leave. But overall, it helped. Here is more about my 12-step experience:
Key Point – Look for support groups, whether 12-step, group therapy, Meetup.com groups, or other networks that might help you. Especially if you are socially isolated, these groups can be a great way to safely learn how to trust and be intimate with other people. Such groups are usually free or very low-cost.
Mid-20s (2008-2009) – Leaving a Therapist Who Wasn’t Working
By my early-to-mid 20s, I had made significant progress, getting a regular job and developing some meaningful friendships. I still got depressed and had problems with splitting, handling anger, and maintaining my self-esteem. Since I had found my first regular job, my mother required me to start paying for my own therapy.
Once that happened, I suddenly “discovered” that my therapist of three years, with whom I had been making quite good progress, was charging me for sessions while I was on vacation or if I couldn’t attend the regular time. My therapist had a rigid policy that patients had to pay for the same weekly time 50 weeks out of the year. There were no early cancellations. I thought this was outrageous, and I confronted her. She agreed to change the policy for me only. However, I lost my trust in her, feeling that she was not treating her other patients fairly and that she mainly cared about money.
I tried very hard to come to trust this therapist again, but it didn’t work. So I made the difficult decision to seek someone new. It made my life really unstable for a while, because the loss of the old therapist created a void, and who knew if I would find a good replacement. I searched extensively for a new therapist who had successful experience treating borderline patients, using the criteria described here:
Eventually, I found someone who proved to be a great fit. Shifting therapists involved a lot of research and some discomfort in the short term, but it had great value in the long-term.
Key Point – If a given relationship or work situation is not working, be open to making radical changes which give you a better chance of feeling good about the situation. That may mean ending a frustrating relationship or job, seeking a new one, or fundamentally changing how you deal with a person or situation. Don’t be afraid to experiment and to take calculated risks –the idea of taking a leap of faith is again important.
Mid-to-late 20s (2010-2014) – Dating and Getting My Own Place
Over the last few years, my independent functioning and relationships continued to improve. While I felt better, my problems did not all suddenly vanish. Instead, I confronted new challenges. Two of the most important were dating and moving out from living with my parents. I will discuss each of these topics briefly.
Many healthy, non-borderline men have anxiety about asking out attractive women. This was certainly the case for me, even after my self-esteem improved a lot and I was no longer borderline. Drawing on my earlier risk-taking experience, I forced myself to ask women out and go on dates.
In my early 20s, I had been so shy that I had barely dated, and had thought that women found me unattractive. But the real issue was my lack of confidence.Once I talked to more women and starting asking them out, I found there was no shortage of women willing to date a decent looking, athletic, friendly guy with his own job and house.
As for moving out from my parents, this is another phase that even healthy young adults can find challenging. In my early 20s, I became more and more frustrated at living at home with my mother. I was working and saving money, but didn’t like bringing friends to my mom’s house, or being on top of her all the time (although I do love my mom!).
Although it cost more to move out and rent, the potential benefit to my psychological wellbeing justified the added expense. I rented in two places, and finally bought my own house. Being a homeowner and having to manage my own place has only been a good thing!
Key Point: Challenging situations and the need to take risks do not suddenly disappear after we recover from Borderline Personality Disorder. Life is full of challenges, not in a bad way, but in an enlivening, interesting, meaningful way. To prevail through these challenges, it helps to stay open to the value of risk-taking and trying new things throughout life.
I welcome any correspondance at email@example.com
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