On being diagnosed with a personality ‘disorder’.

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I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 1997. I was hugely offended to think my personality was disordered in any way and I’ve never labelled myself with this definition.

The same year I started attending a mental health support group and discovered everyone there had the same personality ‘disorder’ too! I congratulated myself on my instant dismissal of this seemingly one-size-fits-all ridiculous summary of people’s difficulties. When I got to know the other people in the group better, it seemed that they didn’t easily fit into any sort of mental health category, myself included – but is this a good enough reason to label people with something that knocks your whole sense of self?

I’ve never been one to just accept what I’ve been told, but I can imagine it would be difficult to question a mental health specialist and challenge them if you were feeling particularly vulnerable.

I was intrigued enough to do some research into it. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) refers to a set of behaviours and emotional states which seem to stem from an ‘unstable sense of self’. It is apparently characterised by extreme emotional reactions and unusually high sensitivity to rejection and perceived feelings of abandonment. It sounds very much to me like a modern day version of being highly strung, having an artistic temperament or being over-sensitive. It is believed that people with BPD may be also prone to suffer depression, anxiety and also to self-harm.

I think some labels and definitions can be really helpful. For me, finding out I suffered from depression and anxiety was extremely useful. There were recognisable symptoms I could relate to, specific treatments and a sense that something awful was now explainable and quantifiable.

I don’t feel this is the case when I was diagnosed with BPD. I’m concerned about how you can measure an ‘unstable sense of self’ for starters. At the time of labelling, I was going through a drastic period of change. I’d just moved out of home and got a flat on my own, was still wondering what I should do after graduating from my degree and was trying to unpick why I’d ended up in the worst relationship of my life. I was depressed as fuck and yes, I felt unstable, but I still think it could have been explained as a bit of a rocky rite of passage into adulthood. What is a stable sense of self anyway and who has it? Surely we are all constantly changing and evolving, our personalities grow and develop as we move through life. Does anyone fully know who they are?

I also think that if you have ended up being diagnosed with anxiety and depression, this will cloud your personality and emotions and make you feel and behave in ways that are not ‘yourself’. My feelings and behaviour were as a result of my illness, not because my sense of self was unstable. When I am depressed and anxious, I feel bad about myself, but that’s because I am ill. When I am well, I feel good about myself. Does that mean that BPD is a transient state that applies to only certain periods of your life? Now I feel much stronger and very well, does it mean I don’t have that personality disorder any more?

I don’t think this is how it’s billed. The diagnosis was put on me as though it was a fixed and permanent state, it was who I was and I suffered with problems because I had a disordered personality.

Sufferers of BPD are apparently more afraid of rejection and abandonment, but again, how can you measure this? I think the majority of the human race fears these things as we are programmed to love and form relationships with each other. I’m not sure how you can measure the differing levels of hurt. I think if you have mental health problems everything is harder – school, work and relationships. It’s harder to keep it all together and harder to deal with it if things fall apart. If I look at my own past relationships, I will admit to being clingy and needy at times when my depression was very bad. I worried that boyfriends would leave me, but that is what a depressed mind thinks. It’s part of the illness of being depressed. Now I am well, I don’t worry about rejection because my mind can think clearly and my relationships are more healthy.

The extremes of emotion that BPD sufferers are meant to experience also bothers me. If I had to describe myself and sum up other people who have had this diagnosis I would use the following words – intelligent,sensitive, deep thinkers, analytical. I’d rather describe myself in these terms which are infinitely more positive than a ‘personality disorder’. Again, depression sufferers will experience extreme lows, but that’s because they are depressed!

Also, everyone I’ve met with this label has also been extremely creative. Without wanting to move into another argument, I do think there is something to be said for creative people feeling things more deeply and intensely than people who aren’t. Is this disordered and does the creativity spring out of the intensity of experience?

After 20 years of seeking professional help and trying to fathom myself out, I think a lot of my problems come from the fact I had very low self-esteem for a long time. I was a shy, quiet child and it took me a long time to make friends, learn how to be in the world and understand how I could be the best version of myself possible. I had no confidence and this made me worry a lot about whether people liked me. If I’d accepted the BPD diagnosis there is a danger that I may never have changed. It would have been easy to continue through life using it as an excuse not to challenge myself.

It is frightening that you can spend one hour with a mental health professional and be given a label that might stay with you for life. I think it’s so important to always be open to receiving specialist help, but it’s also just as important to question everything.

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6 responses »

  1. I’d agree with your thoughts on creative people. We do have greater imagination and do see things differently. Businesses today are trying to tap into creativity, or lateral thinking as they call it, to solve problems and develop their business in innovative ways. Creativity is a prized commodity as not everybody has it.

    Any definition of what’s ‘normal’ behaviour is only ever an average and probably 95% of the population, or more, are outside this average. So it’s normal to be abnormal and it’s this that give us the great and wonderful variety of personalities we have in the human race.

    I think the mental health ‘professional’ (there’s a whole range of definitions of what is a professional and what isn’t) was being a bit too creative with his little diagnostic stickers in the same way that people can be creative with the truth.

    • I agree with what you say and I may well do a whole other post on creativity! It’s a shame that mental health professionals have such a free and easy way with their definitions. It makes me wonder how many people have a diagnosis that isn’t accurate, or could be seen in a more postitve way. Thanks for your thoughts and comments.

  2. My diagnosis was a lot more recent than yours, but I’ve experienced many of the thoughts/feelings you’ve expressed about the disorder. But it was also a sort of relief to have a name for what was going on with me. I’ve had depression and anxiety for years with no light at the end of the tunnel. I’d always attribute my extreme behaviors and emotions as part of my depression, but it never completely made sense…why is my depression so much different from how everyone else experiences depression? Why is my life so much more dysfunctional than everyone else who experiences depression and anxiety? It just didn’t add up, until Borderline became the answer to those questions. It was a relief because instead of searching for answers, I could finally focus on making efforts to get better. We’ll see how that goes…

    • I’m glad you feel that the diagnosis helped you and gave you answers. I have to say though that I think everyone’s experience of depression is completely unique. We may share similar thoughts, feelings and behaviours whilst depressed, but it will be subjective to the individual. You can never really know, or measure what goes on in someone’s head. Also, the point you made about your life being so much more dysfunctional than everyone elses is also a subjective experience. As I understand it, depression and anxiety can be measured on a scale ranging from mild to very severe. You can never know how everyone else experiences them and chances are, there is always someone coping less well than you are. I’ve seen this from my own experiences and also from seeing how friends have coped. I have felt similar to you at times and expressed this to various mental health professionals. I cross questioned the mental health crisis team and they told me shocking stories of people’s suffering and dysfunctional lives. We were all accessing the same emergency intervention, but experiencing depression and anxiety so differently. Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it and wish you all the luck in the world in getting better.

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