Since my diagnosis, I’ve tried to figure out two things based on reading and personal experience.
The first is the origin of my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). For most people, the origins are in traumatic incidents, most often in childhood. This is supported by research.
So I have started to unpack this mess with my therapist. I was not prepared for what was going to happen to me when I did. I don’t know whether it would have helped to attack this piecemeal. I have talked about my childhood to other therapists before but it took a long time to talk about all of it — And all of it was what was unpacked during that session.
And the effects didn’t happen right away. I, of course, ruminated on what we discussed and the longer I did that, obviously, the worse I felt. ‘Worse’ is probably too soft a word. I was devastated. I had several breakdowns with one large one where I made a halfhearted attempt at suicide. I am still suffering the after effects of that session. I don’t know if I want to return to my childhood too soon.
So I know the origins of my personal illness. Now I wanted to see what makes people with BPD so emotionally unstable. I also wanted to see if my personal reasons are the same of many, if not most of people with BPD.
So here is my hypothesis.
Most child psychologists believe that little children have a strong sense of justice and fair play. One very critical point in a child’s development is how they adapt when they realize the world is not fair. This is a key point – if the child can understand how to navigate an unfair world, they have the tools to be content and successful despite that knowledge. They develop psychological work-arounds to find the best in life while understand that existence is not all roses and ice cream.
However, at that critical stage of development, if a child is treated unfairly by their parents or by any authority figures or those the child looks up to, the results are devastating. If a child is beat by the parents, ridiculed by their teachers, sexually abused by a sibling or bullied by their peers, for instance, they will not only see the world as profoundly unfair but that they have been singled out to be its perpetual victim.
How does one react to these events that basically rewire the brain’s coping mechanism in addition to preventing the child from developing normal emotional reactions to external events? I think we get a sense of this reaction to trauma when looking at how BPD emerges in adolescence or young adulthood.
At least for myself, I became withdrawn, sullen and angry. Having a father to whom no reproach was tolerated without threats of violence, I had to eat all the rage that came from dealing with him. This meant my emotional storehouse became filled with his violence, his belittlement, his arbitrary and capricious nature and his severe disappointment that I was not the son he wanted.
So too, in elementary school (K-8) with all my teachers nuns from a particularly sadistic order, I was on the receiving end of many traumas, the worst being a sort of ritualistic humiliation in front of my classmates, because, for instance, I was hopeless at diagramming sentences.
Please don’t try to tell me that being made to stand in a classroom full of your peers, red-faced, with tears of shame streaming down your face as a teacher accuses you of purposely making mistakes to get her angry does not have a long-term effect. I can still remember these incidents as if they were yesterday.
Each child in similar circumstances, I believe, deals with whatever childhood trauma(s) in their own way but along a similar path – either it must be suppressed, or it comes out with being incorrigible as a young adult. Eventually, it grows to whatever form of BPD the person deals with as an adult, typical BPD or ‘quiet BPD.’
Essentially, I believe that whatever the child was becoming as a human being at a critical age, was suppressed and boxed up. I feel personally that, although I live in an adult world, and write here, for instance, in adult language, in many, many ways, I am still the 10-year old child whose development was arrested.
The longer we think about it, we arrested children, if we bring ourselves to think about it at all, the more we feel the sting of what was done to us for simply existing and trying to be the people we were becoming. We were prevented from our natural emotional development by the abuse, in whatever form it took. And for me, all the emotions I suppressed became a hot ball of rage at the injustice of it all.
At the time we were most concerned with justice and fairness, we were treated most unjustly and unfairly. And because of that, not only to we seek relief for the suppressed rage of what was done to us, we seek justice and, in many cases, retribution, for all the times we were made to cower, to be forced into silence and were compelled to participate in unspeakable acts.
This, I believe, is the central core of BPD behavior. It’s only my hypothesis based on a lifetime of observation. I have no training in mental health, rather, I live the condition. I think I have a right to make this case.
Let me tell you of one such repressed rage. My father died when I was 20. In the years leading up to his death, I would often comfort myself by imagining the most awful ways of killing him. In my imagination, I would deal him a blow from behind, say, with our fireplace shovel. This would incapacitate him and leave him at my mercy. They I would methodically and with malice and glee, gradually beat him to death with whatever instruments were at my disposal. Sometimes I would imagine myself with the shotgun he forced me to learn to use and, when it broke, would not fix it. I would methodically shoot him in non-fatal areas (like in some movie) until he would be on the ground begging for mercy as he bled out.
Is that too much? I would bet that those with BPD who are reading this right now are probably nodding their heads, having had similar fantasies.
Justice delivered instead of justice denied.
So let’s go to a real life example then.
In the online BPD support group I belong to, a woman with BPD told a true story that happened to her and her child on a public bus. She had the child in a stroller and a man took offense at that, claiming she was taking up too much of the aisle or some such thing.
The woman said she gave the man a chance to have his say and let it go, but of course, in our age of outrage and boorishness, he didn’t, and continued to berate the women.
Obviously this lout did not know who he was dealing with. He was about to find out.
I hope she will not mind if I quote her post anonymously:
“I could feel my blood boiling and my legs were shaking. It ended when I threatened to follow him off the bus. He asked if I was going to be a baby and call the police to say he was harassing me. I replied with “no, I’m going to follow you off the bus and bash your head into the cement.” When he realized I was being serious, he quickly got off the bus.”
I highlight those words in her writing for a reason I will get to in a bit.
When she came out of the rage, this woman was thankful that she had not acted on her impulse and destroyed her life by beating this man to death. Those of us reading her post also said we were grateful that she had not done so.
However . . . and that being said . . .
We also, by and large, agreed he would have deserved it, at least theoretically. My point was that she was protecting her child and who knows how much more aggressive this man could have become to the point he would have physically assaulted her? I’ve seen enough You Tube videos where just such incidents have escalated into violence.
But there is more to this for those of us with BPD: when as adults, we are threatened like this, all the suppressed hurt and rage from our past comes to the surface with the burning fury of a thousand suns. All the feelings of shame and injustice and victimizations snap back light a light switch and take over our reptilian brains. It is like a superpower being employed.
I can only imagine the terror that man experienced as he looked into this woman’s eyes and saw her rage. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he wet himself fleeing the bus.
We don’t want to admit it, but I think most of us would be clapping and whistling with admiration for this woman. Because, in our own heads, touching on our own experiences of shame and rage, we know what it feels like and we would have loved to have done the same thing. For one brief shining moment, justice was served deliciously red hot – and no one was hurt.
Was there a specific trigger for this woman in anything the man said? I have no idea but I can guess what it might have been. I know what it would have been for me:
“He asked if I was going to be a baby and call the police to say he was harassing me.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the words of my father written above. “Are you going to be a baby?”
At that point, I would have seen black. Like the woman, I have felt my blood boiling and my legs shaking and I would have looked for anything that could have been used as a weapon. I probably would have instantly gained the strength of three men and the killer instinct of a tiger hunting his prey.
‘Yes, dear father, I am going to be Baby Chucky and slice your fucking head off.’
Justice. For what was done to us and what continues to be done to us.
In interpersonal relationships, we push those away we need the most because in the back of our minds, that person will betray us eventually like our parents or other adults did when we were children.
In my mind, every authority figure at some point becomes my father and my reaction is mistrust, paranoia and, eventually, hate. I know behind the smiling face and calm words, eventually will come the knife.
The hundreds of little personal slights we experience all day in our hurting hypervigilance – these are our own microagressions – build up and either we explode at some insignificant word, look or gesture that happened to be the last straw, or drag ourselves home to collapse and slowly decompress.
In some ways, I think Dialectical Behavioral Theory is, if we really break it down, a methodology designed to redirect this primal rage for justice into something socially acceptable.
Here’s the thing – we always wanted to be good people. We were kind and full of the wonder all children had once. That was taken away from us. We spend our entire lives, in one form or another, trying to get it back.
I use to get up in the morning to watch the sun rise. I would watch in wide wonder at the gradual revealing of the landscape, the change of night sounds into day sounds and the smell of dewy earth. For me, this was truly a religious experience.
I made the mistake of trying to explain this to my father. He opined that I was turning into some kind of queer (his words). I never spoke to him (or anyone) about these feelings again for decades.
We were innocent, kind and trusting people when we were young. We still are – deep inside of us is a great untapped reservoir of goodness and kindness that is guarded by walls of hurt and suspicion.
The shame of it all is that, for many of us, we’ve spent many years burning through relationships and jobs before finally finding out just why we are the way we are (notice I didn’t write what was wrong with us). So much wasted potential, so many lives gone to rage, incarceration, drug addiction or suicide.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,(1)
We did not ask to be this way. We do not want to be this way. What we want, at the very least, is some sense that perhaps not for us but for those that come after us, that we will give a damn about children – to find a way to protect and nurture them, at least until they get their bearings in this unjust world. Aside from child abuse prevention, parenting classes and anti-bullying efforts, I don’t know how this can be accomplished.
But if nothing else, take this away from my essay – when you see a person with BPD, know that we don’t stand in front of society as broken and dangerous people. We stand as a reproach to a society that allowed this to happen, in open and in secret. Whether is be from genetic or environmental causes, we are the product of society’s worst urges, hatred, jealousies, resentments and prejudices.
We are akin to the two children in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, shrouded by the Ghost of Christmas Present:
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit ! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”(2)
I can do no more than wish us peace and understanding.
- Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” from Collected Poems, 1947-1980. Copyright © 1984 by Allen Ginsberg.
- ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, Chapman & Hall, 1843