Mental Health Month “Personality Disorders”

The first day I was interning in a crisis center, I heard two women talking, and one said; “Whatever you do, don’t ever see a client who has Borderline Personality, they’re the WORST”

Shamefully I had studied but didn’t know very much about BPD yet, as I was only a year into my studies. I went home that night and read up on it and subsequently read some books devoted to BPD including the well-known book “I love you / I hate you.”

Shortly afterward I found out a friend of mine was BPD (BPD often goes hand-in-hand with Bipolar, as we often see Anxiety and Depression co-morbidly). She educated me significantly in a first-person account of what it was like to suffer from a personality disorder.

The very words ‘personality disorder’ strike me wrong. It’s not really giving someone a chance is it? If we label them as being disordered in some way?

It is thought personality disorders ‘grow’ in childhood and upon reaching maturity can be responsive to treatment or not, depending on the depth and extent they were reinforced in childhood. They usually have triggers such as the link between BPD and being sexually abused in childhood.

Why this is – isn’t so hard to understand if we consider, we all have personalities that are shaped by our experiences – any wonder then that certain experiences will commonly shape certain personalities and responses/reactions. If we take this to an extreme, a ‘disorder’ is a disorder of that personality caused by something wrong and traumatic that occurs to a child.

Why then doesn’t every child who is sexually abused BPD?

Because BPD and other personality disorders must be reinforced. If you are abused as a child but someone finds out, the person is taken away, you are told it was not your fault, the trauma is made better by a rectify and love and lack of shame, then you may well be affected by that abuse but not altered by it in terms of your personality.

If however, the opposite occurs and that trauma is reinforced, then by its very nature of reinforcement, the personality ‘disorder’ forms and every bad thing that happens afterward goes to continue that reinforcement.

It can work something like this;

Child A gets raped by her step-father. Child A tells her mom. Her mom calls her a dirty little liar and beats Child A. Child A is then raped repeatedly by her step-father who threatens to kill her if she ever talks again. Child A remains silent to her abuse for years and it goes on, unpunished. At 15 Child A goes to a party, gets drunk and is raped by a friend. Child A is told by her friends she is a slut and deserved it. Child A internalized all of this and develops BPD which among other things is characterized by a profound lack of trust in others.

Phrased like this, are any of us surprised?

In other words, a personality disorder is a consequence to abuse. As such I find the use of ‘disorder’ punitive because we’re saying the person has something wrong with their personality we are focusing on that, without really considering how this occurred.

Why? Because BPD can be very destructive, both to the person with BPD and those who know them. When you are dealing with someone who is capable of throwing everything into flux, it’s hard to make time to consider the background. You are too busy putting out the fires. And that is why BPD is so feared by therapists and wrongly, stigmatized as being a personality disorder people dread. Whether people dread it or not, any health care worker should aim to help those under their care and treat everyone equally. Perhaps that is easier said than done, but this is why more time should be spent learning about the formation of personality disorders.

Later on in my training I was warned again about BPD folk and told that they can be highly manipulative and destructive, they can and will always try to bring you down. I recall thinking ‘I can’t see how anyone could do that’ but later on I saw several colleagues have to defend their licenses against false accusations by BPD patients who were ‘testing’ them or flexing their muscle.

It appalled me to think anyone, even someone mentally ill, could deliberately go after someone with the sole purpose of trying to ruin their life. I found it hard to understand and empathize with them on that. Which is why I now understand why mental health workers can fear certain diagnosis in people. But despite this, I believe, given the right training and awareness, people can find ways to help those who even lash out at them.

BPD is characterized by a pull-push approach to relationships, an intensity, followed by a rejection, both of which are extreme, due to an inability to trust people shifting from intense attraction/like, to repulsion and hate. For most of us, this extreme is not impossible to imagine, perhaps if we have fallen out with a friend who back-stabbed us or a relationship went wrong because someone cheated on us, we went from love to anger at very least. With BPD those emotions are amplified and far more aggressive, with anger as the source. BPD individuals stoke the flame and are among the most angry and vitriolic of the mental spectrum.

For this reason when befriending someone with BPD it’s important to secure firm and unwavering boundaries. Ensuring the BPD knows the ‘ground-rules’ in other words, don’t flirt one day, and be cold the next, don’t be close one day and distant the next, because by doing that, you are feeding into their fears that nobody is trustworthy, and that will only bring on an extreme response.

Many BPD’s confess that the hardest part of the illness is the social disapprobation and isolation. They do not maintain long-term friendships or relationships, they are at high risk for suicide and self-harm, they vacillate between self-incrimination and feelings of persecution. In short, it’s an instability of their psyche due to being fractured in childhood.

This is among the myriad reasons I condemn child-abusers unreservedly. It is not just rape and abuse, it is messing a child’s life forever when you take someone and you fracture them. If we can take child abuse more seriously and catch more of them before they go on to ruin more people’s lives, this will have the knock-on effect of reducing the numbers of people who grow up to develop BPD and save them from difficult and unfair experiences in life. The one positive of a personality disorder is you can prevent it from happening, we cannot do that with all mental illness but when we can, we have no excuse but to try our hardest.

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