Borderline Personality Disorder is not just about mental illness and emotional distress, it is also about social skills (or lack of them), empathy, manners, conflict resolution and self-care. Most children learn these vital social skills early on at pre and primary school where they observe other children’s behaviour, learn a “theory of mind” or how other children think and feel (mentalising) and experience compassion and empathy for others. These things come naturally to them.
But some children, through no fault of their own, are unable to learn and remain totally clueless about how to survive socially in the playground. These are the kids who suffer social neglect, rejection and abandonment. These are the children who need a step by step guide or a “recipe” on how to learn empathy, how to be a team player, how to get on with other children, negotiation skills, conflict resolution, the rough and tumble of give and take and sharing toys with grace and dignity.
These kids need to learn that when this happens, this is the correct response. I was not one of those naturally cluey children; I lived in social Siberia most of my school life and became a library refugee.
Here are five survival techniques desperately needed when suffering from BPD:
There is a saying in a self-help group I used to be in back in the eighties. When a “normal” person gets a flat tire, they call the Automobile Association. When someone with (what’s now known as BPD) gets a flat tire, they call the suicide hotline. There’s an awful lot of truth in that.
My goal recently has been to respond rather than react to what I perceive are excruciatingly provocative circumstances and situations. I want to think and act with grace and dignity, to deep breathe, turn around, walk away, move on, learn the lesson and get a life. This attitude has, in the past, kept me in relationships, out of the law courts, out of jail, out of psychiatric hospitals, in employment and in therapy (or life coaching as we are now doing).
No longer is my therapist my nurturing supporter, smothering me endlessly with loving/kindness, reassurances of never abandoning me and justifying my bad behaviour and lack of social skills as a result of my environment. We have a more pragmatic egalitarian relationship where I feel mentored, rather than mental.
At my last therapy session my therapist turned into a savage rottweiler; baring her sharp teeth at me, picking me up by the scruff of my neck and shaking the living daylights out of me. The doggone woman deliberately picked a fight about nothing, provoked me into a snarling row, called me a liar and then threatened to sue me for slander.
Interpretation of unfolding events is always a personal perception. I have been seeing her again for some workplace issues that need resolving. I was having problems accepting constructive criticism from the top dog in my organization. I found I was getting deeply triggered when told I was not achieving what I was supposed to achieve in the way she wanted it achieved and I was getting my feathers ruffled in a big way, getting upset, huffy and resolving the issue by fleeing or freezing.
So when within five minutes of arriving, my barking mad therapist activated every button on my panel and almost blew us both up, I almost called her a bitch, walked out the door and planned on brooding, ruminating and plotting impotent revenge against her for the rest of my natural life. Talk about an idealizing transference killer.
Learning how to accept criticism graciously is a form of art, but for me it is a work of art in progress. This is because I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and part of that syndrome is being unable to tolerate critical comments, no matter how well-meaning.
So what happens when I get criticized? No matter how mindful my brain wants to be, my body has an anaphylactic reaction. I feel as though someone has thrown acid in my face. I feel my body disintegrating and my internal organs shutting down and psychological and physical death is imminent. Does that sound familiar to you?
This isn’t planned, this isn’t about me being a Drama Queen or a Princess with a slipped tiara; it’s about staying alive. I go into survival mode where I have to sit in a chair, breathe deeply, count my fingers and toes and make sure that I am all here. I have to detoxify my body before I can even start to work out cognitively what was said, why it was said and what the ramifications of the criticism were.
When therapy is over and you are healed to the best of your ability, is it time to mourn or celebrate the end of the therapeutic relationship?
Ten years ago, I went to a David Cassidy concert in Perth and pressed myself up against the stage for him to come down and hold my hand, which he did. But apparently I held on for so long he had to scream in my face, “LET GO!”
That was the best advice I have ever received. I have finally taken David up on his offer and would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his insight and wisdom. I have let go. I have let go of all that emotional baggage I have been carrying around with me for nearly fifty years.
Imagine carrying fifty kilos of rubbish on your back, an amount that has accumulated with every year you have lived on this earth, then picture yourself dumping it forever down a deep, deep shaft.
After embracing mindfulness and acceptance I have done that and the feeling of freedom that entails is quite an intoxicating experience. That is not to say my problems have vanished in a puff of blue smoke; quite the contrary, they are still there only now I have a different attitude towards them. I am not carrying them on my back. They appear to have taken on an amorphous, abstract quality whereby they exist somewhere in space and time but are no longer part of me. They are a separate entity that has no power, no legitimacy and no control over my thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviours.
Eight years ago, after many months of frantic searching, I finally found a photo of my therapist with her family on the internet. I cut her face out and stuck it on her business card and carried it in my handbag. Every so often, when I was feeling insecurely dependent, I would take it out and look at it until it became rather worn around the edges. It was a great source of comfort to me and kept me connected with her through some very dark times. She never knew about this.
Perhaps it would be a good idea, especially for therapists who conduct Dialectical Behaviour Therapy to have a business card with a photo – a professional one not a personal family photo. This way clients do not have to ask, beg or grovel and debase themselves asking for a photo from their beloved but reluctant therapist, nor spend hours furtively searching on the internet for an illicit image of someone they are perhaps pathologically attached to. When you have a legitimate source of something private the guilt and shame of dependency, something which regressed clients seem to feel a lot of, can disappear or at least lessen in intensity.
It took a lot of mindfulness and mental strength to get through December 2010. Christmas and the New Year are incredibly stressful times for some. In Australia it is hot, so we have the heat to contend with, but cooking all day in a stifling kitchen with inadequate air conditioning is not part of my challenge of the season.
Organizing who goes where on what day, getting the tree up, buying the presents, posting the cards, making the Christmas cake, food shopping, wrapping the presents and decking the halls with boughs of holly is the easiest part in the world.
What is not so simple is coming to terms with the fact that we do not see certain family members because of a major fallout fifteen years ago. One could very easily blame my mental health issues for this and sometimes when I feel kicked and down I do blame myself. But relationships are never quite that black and white.
My therapist sent me a text message a few weeks ago on the morning of my therapy. Would I like to go for a walk with her? Instead of sitting in her office and trying to find a logical, rational solution to my problems, would I like to go for a walk around the local park? She had been trying to get me to exercise for many years and finally I was walking on my own but I’d lost some of that motivation recently and was having difficulty finding it again.
Many years ago this offer would have sent me into a transference psychosis tailspin with its endless possibilities of real love and a post-therapy relationship, but with a lot of water under the therapeutic bridge she understood me well enough to know I would now be able to make creative symbolic meaning out of it, rather than a literal one.
There are some things I need to be taught, that I cannot learn for myself. If I had my way, I would mire myself in binge-eating, TV marathons, smoking, drinking and drug-taking all enveloped in a toxic bubble of anxiety and depression. It’s an easy, seductive path I get lured down occasionally. But with help and inspiration from others, especially my therapist, I can pull myself out of that hole and into life.
Here are five things I have learned from my therapist that I could not teach myself.