May is BPD Awareness Month.
No, that doesn’t stand for “bipolar disorder”; it stands for “borderline personality disorder.”
“Borderline between what and what?” asked Winona Ryder’s character in the film Girl, Interrupted, echoing the sentiments of the memoir of the same name by Susanna Kaysen.
It’s a good question. BPD is a controversial diagnosis, given mainly to women who self-harm, frequently attempt suicide, or possess significant histories of abuse and trauma.
People with BPD are often re-traumatized in a medical and psychiatric system that sees them as manipulative, difficult, and unlikable. Insurance companies often deny coverage of treatment because personality disorders are seen as intractable and incurable.
I wish I could say that my knowledge of this shameful state of affairs is due simply to years of meticulous research, but unfortunately I have experienced it first-hand as a consumer of mental health services. Just a few examples:
I had one therapist tell me there was no way I could have BPD because I was a pleasure to work with.
Conversely, I had an ER psychiatrist diagnose me with BPD after a five-minute conversation, based on the fact that I was experiencing urges to harm myself.
And worst of all, when I took legal action against a hospital where I was sexually assaulted as a patient, the hospital’s attorney told mine that “We both know the only reason this case is happening is because your plaintiff has borderline personality disorder.” (This was almost ten years after my initial diagnosis, since retracted, and almost five after I’d stopped self-harming.)
I’m among the “lucky” ones, though, believe it or not. Other women have had their self-harm injuries sutured without anesthetic as a sort of punishment, or even lost custody of their children. My latest novel, Etched On Me, is inspired by one such case in the UK in which a successfully recovered mother-to-be faced removal of her newborn at birth, all due to a history of BPD and self-harm back in her teens.
People who have been diagnosed with BPD need compassion and validation, but everywhere they turn, they find just the opposite. Mental health professionals refer to them scoffingly as “borderlines”; self-help websites for their families demonize them, painting them as Fatal Attraction bunny-boilers. What an affront to individuals who already feel such tremendous shame!
Thankfully, there are some caring professionals and advocates out there. Chief among them is Dr. Marsha Linehan, a courageous psychologist with her own history of BPD. Dr. Linehan devised dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), one of the most effective – and validating — treatments for women who self-harm.
Valerie Porr, who lives with a loved one with BPD, has also spearheaded a movement for education of family members about the disorder. Her book, Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder, is in my opinion the most respectful and positive book on BPD for families available.
I hope you’ll join me in educating yourself about BPD and self-harm, treating people with BPD with the kindness they deserve, and supporting efforts to spread hope for recovery.
About ETCHED ON ME
Girl, Interrupted meets Best Kept Secret in this riveting, redemptive coming-of-age story about a young woman who overcomes a troubled adolescence, only to lose custody of her daughter when her mental health history is used against her.