By Cortland Pferrer & Irwin Ozborne
She was crying like I had never seen anyone cry before. As she sat with her head in her hands, the large, clear tears rushed down her cheek and dripped on the floor. Her husband had just informed her that he would be leaving her and taking their six-year-old daughter with him, with the parting words “until you can change.”
The look on her face in that moment is forever engrained in my memory as the pain and anguish which this woman was experiencing was nothing I had ever seen before. She leaned towards me and it took every single ounce of energy left for her to attempt to speak to me, but no words could even make it to the surface. But the look said it all; “Do something! Help me! What is happening to me?”
“All I want to do is lie down and go to bed,” she finally muttered. I knew that there was an implied “forever” at the end of her statement. She was experiencing pain in the form of shame. She has been repeatedly told that she is not OK, she is sick, and she needs to change. Now, everything she has ever loved was going to be taken away from her due to her “illness.”
“Sammy, just look at me,” I said with a sincere tone, “there is nothing wrong with you.”
She lifted her face, the tears had stopped, hands and chin ceased to tremble anymore, and I had her attention. She glared at me with a mixed look of confusion and hope. It was apparent she had never been told this her entire life.
Sammy has been diagnosed with what is deemed the most difficult personality disorder to treat, and also the most difficult to bear. Sammy is one of more than three million Americans diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
But is this really a disorder? Or is it a spiritual gift? As mental health practitioners we have come to understand: If we can look beyond the surface of the dusty, imperfect, oddly looking bottle and look within, we may be surprised of the magic the genie holds for us.
What is Borderline Personality Disorder?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) defines BPD as a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects. It also includes problems regulating emotions and thoughts and can include impulsive and reckless behaviour.
Clinicians will refer to this illness as being “addicted to drama.” We are told that those with this “illness” depend completely on the external environment for clues as to what emotion to feel. Symptoms may include behaviour that is manipulative, gamey, attention-seeking, dramatic, self-damaging, and emotionally unstable.
The term “borderline” was first used in 1938 by psychiatrists to describe people who they thought to be on the “border” of diagnoses of neurosis and psychosis. This term is outdated as “neurosis” is no longer recognised in any diagnostic material and BPD is no longer believed to be a psychotic disorder.
In Western medicine and society all mental illnesses focus on what is broken in the person and what needs to be fixed. In the East and ancient cultures, shamans view mental illness as the birth of a healer and good news from the outer world.
From a shamanistic perspective, the “symptoms” of BPD include feeling intensely connected to everything; and therefore, highly affected by everyone and everything. The person is seen as not bad, but having a spiritual gift. They can sense the emotions of others instinctively and feel things that we cannot. They know how to make people feel as if they are reading your soul.
Dr. Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and leading expert in the understanding and treating of
BPD, explains patients with BPD are like third degree burn victims. Just by walking by them, you may hurt them.
Linehan had her own personal struggle with BPD and was and hospitalised for 26 months in 1963. In her discharge summary it states, “Miss Linehan was, for a considerable part of this time, one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital.”
It is reported that she had attempted suicide multiple times because she could not close the gap between the person she was and the person she wanted to be. The gap was insurmountable which left her desperate, hopeless, and homesick for a life she would never see.
Living with BPD is like the earth beneath your feet is constantly shifting and changing which keeps you off balance, scared, and defensive. It is a roller coaster of moods, thoughts, emotions, relationships, self-image, goals, and even your likes and dislikes at such frequent intervals it is overwhelming and confusing.
Is this a disorder? Or, like the shamans believe, is this a healer in training that already sees the truth and is strongly dissatisfied in the current reality? Whereas, the rest of us put on a mask everyday as we get dressed to go to a job we don’t like, to make money to buy stuff we don’t really want to impress people we don’t really like.
The greatest sages, philosophers, and spiritual masters have always understood the interconnection of the universe. People with BPD also have this sense of connection with everyone and science is finally catching up with the innate knowledge of the greatest thinkers.
Quantum physics has taught us that once a particle is joined, it is always connected regardless of distance. Scientists have conducted experiments with 100-percent certainty that when splitting photons, even at great distances, they act as if they are still connected and communicating with each other. Other experiments have taken a swab of human DNA, sent the sample hundreds of miles away, and then using electronic messages the DNA would react to the person’s emotions which were being intentionally stimulated for the experiment.
We are breathing the same air that people inhaled and exhaled thousands of years ago. The air we breathe is composed mainly of nitrogen and oxygen gas. Very little is lost in space and only occasionally is there a new source of carbon or oxygen introduced into this planet. So every breath you take has atoms that have been here for billions of years.
The Big Bang Theory is the most accurate explanation for the beginning of the universe which states that we all came from the same source – hence, we were once connected, and therefore, are always connected.
Yet those who have this innate sense of connection we label as overly emotional and difficult. We are labelling our future healers and spiritually gifted as insane and medicating them to be “normal” or more like us.
However, no drug has currently been approved for treatment of BPD, which is the sole reason that the number of those diagnosed has remained relatively low. The best form of treatment is individual therapy, which is the last thing the psychiatry industry wants. It is easier to label them as bipolar and give them a “mood stabiliser” or “anti-psychotic” medicine to chemically restrain them. Due to being doped up, tired, and sleeping all day the symptoms disappear so it is a quick success and an easy paycheck for the psychiatry industry.
As soon as a medication becomes approved for BPD, I guarantee the number of diagnoses will skyrocket immediately. You’ll see.
Causes of Borderline Personality Disorder
While the experts are in the infant stages of determining the roots of BPD, it is actually a simple formula. This formula includes biological temperament, social invalidation, suppressed feelings, psychological trauma, stigma and judgments, and a yearning to escape the suffering of the phony existence in which we reside.
We are all born with a fundamental personality type. There are a number of different temperament traits including adaptability, approach/withdrawal, distractibility, intensity of reaction, quality of mood, and sensory threshold. Then, of course, each of these can have a wide range of levels of intensity. Some of us are born at the lower end of the spectrum of not being emotional at all and others on the high end of being extremely emotional.
About fifteen to twenty percent of children are born as highly sensitive with a nervous system that is more aware and quick to react to everything. They are also easily overwhelmed at high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and emotional distress of others. This is something we have no control over, we are born with it and it is with us forever – just like the colour of our eyes.
Temperament alone will not cause Borderline Personality Disorder. We all know emotional people, you know those people who we say “Wow they took that harder than anyone else.” The pain that they feel is intense.
Imagine you are eating a pizza, and you feel it is warm. The guy you are eating it with thinks it is burning hot and is burning his mouth. We don’t understand him, we do not get it, and we roll our eyes and make jokes and tell him to settle down. That is invalidation by telling the person to not feel something that is real to them.
This happens all the time at a young age. Parents (functional or dysfunctional) will invalidate children who are feeling a way in which they do not understand. A young child that is crying over losing a balloon may be a very emotional experience for him/her because the balloon was a gift from a stranger. The parents may view this as an extreme over-reaction in which they tell the child they are “over-reacting” or “stop being a baby” or “stop crying, you are embarrassing me.”
The implicit message to the child is “quit being yourself; it is not OK to feel that way.” Over a long period of continuous invalidations the child begins to believe that something is wrong with him/her and that they should not be feeling this way and they look to the external environment to see how they should feel. They do not trust themselves or their feelings.
This is the formation of the mask. The intense feelings are still there, they are just hidden, which makes them even more difficult. This is also referred to as our “shadow” or repressed emotions.
Over time, these suppressed emotions continue to build up and start to give our shadow great power over our well-being. The more we try to resist this part of ourselves, the stronger it becomes. This can lead to compulsive risk-taking behaviour such as gambling, alcohol, drugs, cutting, burning, eating disorders, excessive spending, reckless driving, or hypersexual behaviour to mask the feelings.
Which is why, according to the NIMH, about 85-percent of people with BPD also have another mental illness. This is typically depression, substance abuse, eating disorder, bipolar, self-injury, narcissism, or they are anti-social.
Prolonged and severe trauma, especially early in life, tends to result in a chronic inability to modulate emotions. When this occurs, people develop a large range of behaviour to self-sooth such as the ones listed above. I believe that 100-percent of the people with this disorder have suffered some type of trauma in their lifetime. Only each individual can determine what is traumatic for them, again it has to do with individual temperaments. If you are standing on the top step of the ladder (extremely emotional) and fall down it is going to hurt a lot more than someone who fell from the first step (not emotional at all).
With regard to BPD, it is likely the person suffered from some type of attachment trauma when they were young. It is when we are infants and toddlers that we first learn how the world responds to us. If our caregivers are cold, inconsistent, or highly anxious, then we do not learn to care for ourselves and we internalise that we deserve to be treated poorly because there is something wrong with us.
Stigma and Judgement
To add to the mix is if behaviour is highly criticised and unfairly judged which only adds to the shame and guilt of the person who is already suffering. The person attempts to fake it in the world in which they do not wish to reside until eventually it blows up in some sort of self-destructive behaviour. Some books refer to this as “unrelenting crisis”, and which I refer to as blaming the victim.
Someone with these symptoms has already been through hell. We do not understand their struggle so to say that they are attention-seeking and addicted to drama only makes the problem worse and is the next level of invalidation.
This then leads to self-harm behaviour and suicide attempts because it is the only time the person is reinforced by loved ones. This reinforcement becomes the only time they are supported ie. when their behaviour is extreme. So the person comes alive with this newfound feeling, hence the addiction to drama.
Inside clinics, staff don’t want to work with BPD people. Before they even walk in the door if they have that diagnosis, the staff is instantly on edge and wary of the person which negatively affects the treatment in which they receive.
Even the clinicians who are supposed to be providing care cannot “deal with them” because they are too “high maintenance.” (I find it odd that people enter a field because they want to help people, but then don’t want to work with those who need the help …)
When I was first told about BPD it frightened me. I was trained to think that it is all just “attention-seeking and manipulative behaviour.” I believed the way I was trained and that it was all fake and I didn’t want to “deal with it” either.
I was taught that these people were “bad” and that we were “good” for the services we provided by ignoring and avoiding them. Yet, now I see that these are the people that have endured some of the greatest pain. And with this pain, often comes the greatest moments of clarity. As Rumi states:
“The wound is where the light enters.”
But, instead of trying to help them through their pain to experience that light, we are adding to their suffering. With this pain and suffering, these people know the truth. They are the ones who understand life and the connections at a deeper level. Instead of validating them for who they are, we place a stronger mask on them to ensure they are never allowed to use the gift we don’t understand.
Over the last few hundred years, the psychiatric industry has consistently been wrong about how to treat patients. They have killed and tortured patients in asylums, sterilised them in the 1900s, performed lobotomies to remove any life from their mind, and now give them chemical lobotomies with medications that render them to less than human. Treatments inside psychiatric units has not changed much today. If the general public knew what went on behind closed doors, there would be an uproar and outcry for the mistreatment of the mentally ill. But the facilities are locked in order to “protect the patients’ rights,” when in fact they are protecting themselves from the abuse they carry out.
Sammy was one of those patients that endured the abuse both outside and inside the psychiatric unit. She sat there trembling in fear as her husband was about to take away her children because she was sick and “refused to change.”
“What do you need to change?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she cried uncontrollably, “I don’t know.”
“There is nothing wrong with you,” I told her again.
I would like to tell you that there is a happy storybook ending here, but that is not the case. I didn’t save her life. She committed suicide a few months later.
However, for that one day, she felt she was OK and for the first time in her life she did not think that there was anything wrong with her. I could sense this as she was brighter, happier, and carrying herself differently.
That is all we can do. Embrace every moment with each other and make it the best moment possible – radical acceptance. In that room, for that day, she accepted herself in all her perfect imperfections.
This is part of Dr. Linehan’s groundbreaking DBT treatment which features two opposing principles: (1) acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be and (2) the need to change, despite that reality and because of it.
But Sammy did not kill herself. Society and the psychiatric profession killed her.
We will never change the problems of the world until we start embracing diversity and gifts. We have these intuitive, special people and they are invalidated and abused. We continue to abuse and punish them. We need to stop punishing them. I agree, yes, the behaviour is tough to deal with. But there is truth in their behaviour. There is a truth that sometimes we do not want to deal with.
We have to simply change or reframe the way we see things. See beyond the mask. To do this, sometimes we have to forget all the knowledge we think we think we have.
Sammy, there was nothing wrong with you, there is something wrong with us.