I’ve written on here before about neuroplasticity, and since it is kind of a massive deal in the world of neurology, mental health, etc., doubtlessly most of you have heard about it by now. Basically, everything we thought for a long time about the brain’s development – i.e., that you reach a certain level of cognitive development and then it’s set for life (or worse, inevitably eroding little by little) – is total bull. Neuroplasticity posits that as long as you’re alive, your brain is growing and changing. It’s like a forest, with neural pathways become clearer and more familiar every time they are used, or fainter and less reliable as they are left untaken.
As my therapist pointed out in my final session with her a couple months ago, I’ve actually physically altered my brain by actively fighting BPD through therapy, medication and DBT. She showed me some MRI scans she had of BPD brains versus “normal” brains. The differences were astounding. For the non-BPD brains, light/activity covered most of the brain, with information travelling smoothly from left to right and back again: constant communication. In the brains with BPD, whole sections were dark, void of any activity. This tied into what we had discussed regarding “part work” – wherein parts of the brain (such as painful memories or beliefs) are closed off from other parts (such as the adult brain which regulates emotions), thus leading to massive mental health issues as you literally fight with yourself for control. Accessing suppressed parts of ourselves isn’t just some airy-fairy imaginative exercise: it correlates to the physical and observable disassociation between the parts in your head. So yeah, pretty important stuff.
Anyway, suffice it to say, I was feeling pretty proud of myself as I wrapped up therapy – like that feeling you get when you’ve been working out consistently and you can actually start to see little muscles peeking through the chub (“mmmhm, check out THIS well-developed amygdala, everyone”). I’d physically changed my thinking! But as the months have gone by, I’ve noticed another way that neuroplasticity has affected me.
Despite my clear awareness of how much computer time/technology affects my mental health, I’m still just not able to put my money where my mouth is and DITCH THIS SHIT. I spend hours – I shudder to think just how many hours – staring into a computer screen and accomplishing NOTHING. I’ll open a word document to work/edit or write, and suddenly find myself on instagram or Facebook 45 minutes later, bewildered as to how much time has just passed. Or a poorly written piece of click bait catches my eye and I waste 4 minutes skimming it… and then another 4 minutes skimming the comments on it… and then another 4 minutes skimming the next article that it links to… and so on and so on. Far too many times a week, I’ll find myself heading to bed wondering where the hell the evening between work and sleep went: I literally just sat there on a couch for THAT long?!?!
It’s a disturbing trend that is affecting virtually everyone who uses the Internet, and the implications of it really only started to scare me after reading this awesome article (which won a Pulitzer btw, and is infinitely more compelling than this post itself so please read it instead if you’re strapped for time!). Is my computer usage actually making me “stupider”?
There’s no doubt that everything this author said hit home. Over the last few years – and the last few months, in particular – I notice alarming changes. I am less creative. I am less focused. I have far more difficulty immersing myself in a narrative and I barely read real books anymore (which is INSANE when I think of my past and how much I love to read). I also struggle on a daily basis with productivity and the ability to listen to my gut and make decisions. I often feel pulled in so many directions by so many bits of unsorted information that it’s no wonder my ability to really sink into deeper levels of contemplation has evaporated. I don’t know what the answer is though. I mean the benefits of computer/Internet use are obvious (this blog being one of them, for me!) and I’m not sure how I’d even function at my job(s) without them. But surely there must be some way to grow my creativity again, which is currently withered to nothingness by all my senseless surfing… any ideas?
(Part 2/follow-up to this post)
It was kind of telling that this post was so much harder to write than the first part. The truth is, even as someone who had/has BPD, I find the disorder totally bewildering, illogical, overwhelming and bizarre. When I picture myself in full borderline mode, I realise there are about a million ways to make things worse – and very, VERY few ways to help. That’s because most borderlines actually want the people who care about them to fail in these situations – they want (or maybe a better word is “expect”) to be triggered, upset, exacerbated and worsened. It feeds into the belief that no one cares, no one can help, no one can save us, and we might as well give up now.
With that in mind, it’s hard to say the following suggestions are surefire ways to help someone with BPD (as I really do believe a borderline is capable of twisting almost anything into “proof” of all their worst fears about being unloved), but they are all based on things that were said to me – things that really did help when I felt like nothing could.
1) I want to learn more about this.
This demonstrates a fews things: a) You really do believe that BPD is a thing, and not just this person acting selfish/manipulative/crazy. b) You care enough to invest time in understanding why they feel and act this way. c) You respect this person enough to tell them you’re doing your homework (instead of having them think you’re reading up on them “behind their back” and forming all sorts of secret conclusions). When I found a stack of books on BPD that my best friend had checked out of the library, it broke my heart because I had to admit that all my BPD-fueled rants against him and his supposed “betrayals” were bullshit. He obviously cared about me way more than I’d ever given him credit for.
2) You’re allowed to feel _________ (insert emotion).
The man I will probably marry was the first person to say this to me and if anything could have further cemented my gigantic crush on him, it was this. I think a lot of borderlines really need to hear this simple statement out loud, even if (like me) they’ve never realised it. That’s because many of us became divorced very early on from the whole concept of being allowed to experience normal emotions, allowed to react, allowed to cry or yell, allowed to feel. How much distress would be averted if we all felt 100% entitled to our emotions? If we all believed that our thoughts and feelings were okay and not reflections of how weak/stupid/sensitive/fucked up/awful we are? This statement gives the person a permission that they may not be ready to give themselves. It can also be expanded to, for example, “You’re allowed feel hurt, but it’s not okay to hurt me because of it.” This confirms that you care about the person but you also care about yourself; trust me, having a human punching bag never cured anyone’s BPD.
3) I cannot be the only person who knows about this.
Notice a theme here? The most helpful things you can say to a borderline have nothing to do with giving advice, and a lot to do with self-care — both for borderlines and the people who love them. Disclaimer: this phrase is far from soothing in the moment. In fact it could be explosive. But in the long run, I really do believe this is one of the best things to say to a borderline. Of course there is a big difference between gently but firmly saying this phrase to a person with BPD, and going behind their back and telling someone all about their situation (please do not EVER do the latter, unless it is literally a life or death situation and you are willing to sacrifice the relationship as a result). It’s not fair to either party to have BPD be your dirty little secret. Everything about it is a recipe for absolute disaster. Unfortunately, I would know: it’s a formula I applied to my closest relationships for many years. We get close, I tell you everything that no one else knows, now you’re literally the one person on earth who can help me, and everything you do is therefore held to an impossible standard. It’s way too much pressure on one person, eventually there’s disappointment, catastrophic fallout, and the relationship goes up in flames. Rinse and repeat with a new person. The only way to break this classic borderline cycle is to create a support system rather than a single lifeline. My own BPD wasn’t even close to treated until it involved about a dozen medical professionals, family members, spiritual mentors, friends and online support networks. Did I fucking loathe the person who pushed me in the direction of opening up for help? Yes. For a while. It was hard and awful and awkward and painful and against every fibre of my being to be honest about what was happening. But I don’t think I would be here now if this hadn’t been said to me.
4) I made this for you.
Whether it’s a cup of tea, a one-sentence note, a playlist or a special dinner, little gestures (especially if they’re “just because” and not in an attempt to fix something) go a long way with borderlines. They interrupt our perpetual inner narrative about how alone we are, how no one sees or understands, how we don’t deserve love or kindness, etc. They’re also more effective than simply saying “I care” or “I understand” because a lot of people find that words become pretty meaningless when they’re in the grips of depression; it’s like they’re part of this fake world where people just say all kinds of things they don’t really mean. Another weird aspect of BPD: it drives us absolutely crazy (perhaps literally?) to decide/choose anything for ourselves when we’re in a dark place. I don’t know why, but it does. Saying “Here, I made this, take it” doesn’t give us any choice in the matter – and that’s a good thing. It’s not a “Well gee, would you like me to…?” or “How about I get you…?” (which make me want to tear my hair out when I’m low). I know it’s a small/strange distinction, but just being forced to accept kindness, without any opportunity to deliberate or agonize over it or turn it down or feel obliged to decline it, is really really nice when you’re too depressed or upset or exhausted to choose anything. Plus, whose day, no matter how crappy, isn’t brightened at least a bit by something thoughtful?
5) I can’t fix this, but I want to help.
Never believe (and never let your loved one believe) that you can save another person from BPD. Untreated borderline personality disorder is a like a black hole: it will greedily suck in all the energy, sympathy, love, devotion and patience that you can muster, and just turn it into more meaningless darkness. Bleak but true. The only way forward is to support the borderline as they seek to heal themselves – a truly daunting quest for anyone. Letting them know you’re committed to helping with it is never unappreciated, even if it seems that way when you offer. Finding concrete ways to actually help – e.g. offering rides to doctors’ appointments, helping with the cost of therapy or medication (not that this is appropriate in all circumstances), little gestures of kindness on hard days (see above), etc. – is even more appreciated.
What about you guys? What phrases/gestures have helped you (if any)? Cat xxxx
A recent comment on one of my posts made me think a bit more about all of those unfortunate souls looking in on BPD from the outside – the families and partners and friends who have no idea how to help someone struggling under this pernicious disorder. I often think about what I would do if someone I cared about started acting the way I have over the past 15-20 years, and the best approach I can come up with is: 1) Stop saying the things that harm; and 2) Start saying the things that help (which will form a second, follow-up post to this one).
So, without further adieu, here’s a list of the five most harmful things I think you can say to a borderline:
1) Tell me everything.
Ah, the classic after-school-special approach to comfort. For many years, I thought this was exactly what I wanted to hear. I thought all I needed to do was spill my guts to a perfectly sympathetic, listening ear, and I’d feel understood, validated, reassured… Except oddly, talking about it never actually made me feel much better. In fact, sometimes it made it dramatically worse; for example, when I’d tell someone way too much, freak out and hate myself for it, then self-harm as punishment. The problem is that BPD is a lot like a dam in that many of us only have two settings when it comes to emotions: sealed up tight as a drum or gushing billions of gallons of turbulent feels. It means that the very fears that make us so walled up in the first place (e.g. emotions are scary and they make me miserable and vulnerable and nothing helps) get reinforced 99% of the time that we actually work up the courage to talk about what’s happening. Until I saw the right therapist, I thought I was broken, damaged, unfixable. After all, I’d done what was supposed to help – talk and talk and talk about my “issues” until I was blue in the face – and I’d gotten nowhere. Conclusion: I must be beyond help. It wasn’t until I found someone who actually knew the first fucking thing about BPD that I realised how harmful all this previous “help” had been. You don’t delve into a dormant volcano without packing some basic equipment, but that was exactly what I was doing every time I cycled through all the crap that had plagued me since childhood. I was totally unprepared to handle what lay in the darker corners of my psyche, and I had no tools to get myself out of the many pitfalls that came up along the journey. Conclusion: don’t encourage over-sharing when it comes to mental health (certainly/especially, don’t push for information). You could be setting your loved one up for serious self-loathing and regret, not to mention the fact that they may eventually turn on you for not knowing what the hell to do with all the explosive information they’ve been vulnerable enough to share.
2) What do you want me to do?
If there’s one thing sure to drive me towards dangerous levels of frustration during a crisis, it’s this phrase. I DON’T FUCKING KNOW, DOES IT LOOK LIKE I KNOW WHAT I WANT?! DO SOMETHING, DO ANYTHING. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (even though it’s a bit demeaning to acknowledge): being a borderline means being a bit of a tantrum-y toddler now and then. Would you desperately ask a flailing, screaming, red-faced child what they wanted you to do? No, because they need an anchor, not someone adrift beside them in an emotional storm. In addition, many borderlines have this deep-seated and unfortunate belief that people who “really” care will be able to intuit exactly what they need/want (especially when it “really” matters). When you tell them that you have no idea what they need, it just feels like a reminder that they are alone with their pain. Try to remain calm and offer suggestions (as in “let’s do this.” not “well, would you maybe like to…?”): suggest a drive or a walk, make a cup of tea, put on a podcast or even read aloud (this is actually one of the most amazing things someone can do for me when I feel really trapped in my own head). Try not to take it personally if they reject your attempts to help and please don’t give up.
I’m not going to pretend that it’s fair or okay that the borderline acts like this and requires this kind of delicate handling, because it’s not. It’s not fair when someone’s cancer or schizophrenia or autism causes them to lash out either. But when you love someone and want to help them, these are the kinds of things you do because you know they are more than their demons.
3) Try to take your mind off it.
Borderlines are hyper-(HYPER) vigilant for signs of rejection or dismissal. Suggesting that their all-consuming mental anguish is a pesky thought they can just push aside is likely to be interpreted as intentionally dismissive and hurtful.
4) People get over far worse things than this.
Ouch. This phrase was actually said to me once, by someone very close to me, and I still remember the instantaneous and irreparable damage it did to our friendship. Again, not only is there a fairly large dose of derision and dismissiveness about this statement (as in “well your problems are obviously nothing compared to ___”) but borderlines already feel this way. Trust me: during really dark times, we have this thought about 1,000 times a day, and it fills us with guilt and self-hatred. In fact, I think this is a fairly common refrain for people with mental illnesses in the developed world. Without something physically, visibly and tangibly “wrong,” it’s hard to convince yourself that your feelings are justified. You think of the Holocaust and Hiroshima and AIDS and wonder how you dare to feel sad, how you dare to hate your existence. But it doesn’t matter. No amount of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps works – mostly because your boots are like, at the bottom of an ocean and you don’t even have the energy to figure out wtf bootstraps are anyway. In defense of the person who said this to me, I think he was simply trying to give me a dose of perspective or something. However, at the time, it felt like he was agreeing with every voice in my head, telling me to just give up immediately if I was going to be so useless, over-sensitive and pathetic.
5) I will never let you down.
This might seem like a nice, reassuring thing to say to someone with a rampant phobia of disappointment. But make no mistake, it is, hands down, the single worst and most dangerous thing you can say to a borderline. The minute these words leave your mouth, you’ve got a target on your back. Because having BPD means everyone lets you down eventually. Everyone. Remember what I said about hyper-vigilance? As badly as borderlines crave intimacy, we also fear the risks involved in it so much that we set a thousand invisible traps to make sure it never, ever happens. Someone’s getting kinda close? Well let’s just see if they remember that today is the five-year anniversary of my hamster dying and do something special to demonstrate that they know how hard this day is for me. Wait – WHAT?! They did NOTHING?! They came home as if this is just a NORMAL DAY?!?! WHY DO YOU FUCKING HATE ME?????
I wish to God I were joking, but anyone who has BPD (or knows someone with it) knows that this is a completely accurate depiction of the lengths borderlines will go to in order to “prove” that no one truly cares about them. Meanwhile, the completely unsuspecting individual is now blacklisted forever, caught up in the classic cycle of idealisation/devaluation that borderlines view their relationships through. Never try to be someone’s saviour. It will blow up in your face and destroy the relationship, 100% of the time. Instead, make it perfectly clear that although you love them and will do your best to help them, this is something you simply can’t fix. Remind them that treating BPD with love and attention is as ludicrous as treating infected wounds with promises and hugs. Curing this disorder requires specific therapy, medication and – perhaps most importantly – intensive self-care.
I know this list is far from exhaustive – anyone else have other suggestions for truly disastrous things to say to a borderline?
Hello! And apologies for the massive absence! I won’t go into the various reasons that I took an extended break from blogging but suffice it to say, they were fairly illegitimate and I’m embarrassed about it. Mostly, life just kind of happened. I moved from my lovely rented farm back into the city (mixed feelings; missing the country but happy to be living on my own in a cozy flat). I’m still dating the same great guy (we had our one-year anniversary last week). I took some courses (writing and Italian) and I took on some new freelance work (tutoring ESL academics in English).
But enough about me. Let’s get back to the BPD (um, which is also more “me” but anyway…).
I always kind of knew when I would end this blog. It wouldn’t be when I considered myself “cured” of BPD (which, for the most part, I pretty much do), because I think it’s kind of important to have blogs about BPD that are written from a perspective of “thank God it’s over” – if for no other reason than to show those in the throes of it that recovery is possible. So I do want to keep this blog going and focused on BPD, even though I’m looking at it from something of a distance at this point.
Rather, I want this blog to end when the title no longer applies – in other words, when I no longer feel like “half of a soul.” How will I know when I’m fully and truly a “whole soul”? I’m not sure, but I am sure that I’m not there yet. I don’t say that with any particular despair anymore. It’s just where I’m at: I know I’m not as happy as I could be (is anybody ever? unclear), but it’s no longer enough to make me want to give up.
With that in mind, I made two major choices recently: I elected to stop therapy in January, and I’m in the process of gradually reducing my medication.
Regarding the first choice, it felt like a really big deal. Like, a surprisingly big deal. I honestly didn’t expect it to affect me that much. It had gotten to the point where I found myself without much to say during the sessions, and I saw them as more of an annoyance than anything (since I had to take the day off work just to accommodate the appointments). In addition, I was really aware of the fact (and I know this isn’t the healthiest/best way to look at it) that there are so many others who needed Karen’s services much more than I do now. This being the public healthcare system, I knew first-hand the wait lists for mental health services, and how it had felt to be desperate enough to seek help only to be told a therapist wouldn’t be free for 6 months.
So with little to no hesitation or fanfare, Karen and I said “welp…. see ya.”
And that’s when a major dose of BPD hit me.
Was it just me or was she a little too quick to agree that my problems were not as important as others’? Was she happy to finally be rid of me? Why didn’t she care enough to even try and convince me to keep going?
Thankfully, I’ve reached the point where at least a small part of my brain remained objective at this point, looking down on these statements with a sigh and an “oh God, not this again.” But truth be told, it was still enough to send me into quite a bit of a funk. Just like old times, those closest to me bore the brunt of it. When my boyfriend didn’t do anything special to mark the end of said therapy sessions, I immediately accused him of not caring about my emotions or understanding me at all. I sat alone, staring into the darkness and crying. I didn’t answer his calls or texts until he finally had to come over and forcibly enter my apartment just to confirm that I was alive and uninjured. (Meanwhile, inner BPD voice is going “Well if he *really* cared, he would have barged over here immediately, fearing for my safety.” Ugh.)
As embarrassing as it is to recount these emotions as a 30-year-old woman (and not, you know, a three-year-old having a tantrum), the take-away point here is that things are getting slowly but surely better. Yes, there will obviously be setbacks, and no, 25 years of ingrained borderline behaviour isn’t going to disappear overnight, but I can finally see a point on the horizon where my path and BPD diverge forever. It blows my mind to say that.
From now on, this blog will probably have more of a focus on recovery, wellness, overall emotional health, etc. than on specifically BPD experiences, but that being said, a big part of my absence from this blog has been a severe lack of topics – I just couldn’t think up things to write about without misery driving my every creative impulse. So if there’s anything you’d like me write about, specifically, please do comment/message as I’m starved for subjects of late!
You know those articles that espouse all the wonderful benefits of detox – the kind with annoyingly perfect pictures of smiley, glowy models doing yoga in the sunrise or eating fruit on a pristine white couch? Raw foods, juices, cleanses, whatever?
But yeah they’re actually starting to seem kind of appealing right now.
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I just stuffed my face with crispy spicy salmon rolls, or the fact that I’ve skipped out on my exercise routine for about um, two months (ugh), or maybe the fact that I’m boxing up my life and moving on the weekend and realizing I have way too much random STUFF – but I feel so in need of a giant detox.
So many of us – especially those of us on potentially weird medications that do potentially weird things to your brain and body – have a general feeling of blehhhh. We focus so much on our mental and emotional well-being but the truth is that physical well-being is kind of paramount, and stress and unhappiness manifest themselves in all kinds of long-lasting ways throughout the body: fatigue, muscle pains and aches, digestive difficulties, headaches, the list just goes on and on.
So: I’ve decided to try to make my body a happy body, and see if that helps in my quest for overall improved happiness.
The first step I took was to start weaning myself off drugs. No, I do not necessarily recommend this, and yes, I did it with my doctor’s approval. My borderline symptoms/tendencies have drastically reduced over the past months due to a combination of therapy, medication, hard work, and probably a bit of sheer luck too. For this reason, tapering off of one of my two medications was recommended – I just don’t need it like I did before. I’ll still stay on my anti-depressant, Wellbutrin, but it will not longer be augmented by the Abilify.
The doctor recommended I start taking the Abilify every other day rather than every day. He said going faster would bring on “unpleasant side-effects.” He wasn’t kidding. I feel so nauseous the majority of the day. Anyone else experienced this? I even wake up throughout night wanting to throw up. Before I looked up “Abilify withdrawal symptoms” I was terrified that I was pregnant or something. Who would have thought that this seemingly innocuous drug would bring on such strong withdrawal symptoms? Bleh.
Another side effect has been some mild insomnia. Not terrible, but definitely making me stay up a couple hours past my usual bedtime. Though surprisingly I don’t feel that tired because – hooray – saying goodbye to Abilify means saying goodbye to a rather sedated, tranquillized feeling I’ve been experiencing throughout using the drug. I’ve also lost a couple pounds, thus confirming my suspicion that Abilify has been making me gain weight.
As for the rest of it – I don’t want to go overboard (carrot sticks and running every day simply remind me of my stupid ED days), but I do want to make November a much more fruit-and-veg-heavy month than its predecessors, and I hope to get out for some walks and ballet exercises at least four days a week.
So that’s my plan. Amidst all the chaos of moving, I’m not entirely optimistic about the chances of it succeeding perfectly, but hey, who needs perfection?
Greetings and apologies for the rather long absence!
I’d like to say I’ve been living life in the fast lane or something but in reality, it’s just been a bit of a lull that’s kept me from blogging. I’ve said it before, but the problem with feeling “better” (overall) is that you really do lose a little bit of your creative edge (or is that just my long-term love affair with misery talking?).
Anyhoo, life’s been good. OK. Fine. Swell. And this brings me to one of the hardest parts of recovering from mental illness that I’ve discovered, one which many of you may already be well aware of.
Being healthy is really, really boring sometimes.
Does that sound unbelievably warped or ungrateful? I don’t mean it to. But it’s the truth. After riding the towering rollercoaster of emotional and mental instability, guess how it feels to take a safe, wholesome ride in the spinny teacups?
I am grateful that I feel as good as I do. I realize several dozen times a day how lucky I am to still be here, to be doing okay when so many don’t make it. But I just can’t shake the fact that part of me does have a need for speed, for drama, for unpredictability, for risk. Combined with poor mental health, that need turned into a million dysfunctional behaviours and patterns. In fact, without poor mental health, I don’t even know what that need looks like. Is it okay? Can I get rid of it? What the hell do I do with it?
This is what Karen and I talked about in our most recent therapy session.
When my terrible relationship (2008-2010, RIP) ended, the greatest loss I felt had very little to do with the other person involved. I didn’t know it at the time, of course. I was convinced that this person was my soul mate, and without him I was incomplete, and it was meant to be or I just wouldn’t feel this way, etc. etc.
In reality, what I feared and cried for the most was the conviction that nothing was ever going to feel exciting again. I wasn’t grieving someone, I was grieving an emotion – I was grieving being in love.
Karen told me all kinds of fascinating information about the brain on love. For example, being in love literally hits our system like a drug. And pursuing that high can turn just as dark and twisted as any other addiction. When I thought to myself that nothing would ever feel that good again, I was right in a way. I’ve often heard that heroin addicts are perpetually seeking the experience that their first high gave them – I knew I’d never recreate my first high. I thought, with terror and dread, of a whole impending lifetime lived without that feeling. Kill me now (literally), was my reaction.
The hopeful part: I’m very much in love now – with a wonderful, thoughtful, incredibly well adjusted and amazing guy. But I won’t deny that it isn’t the same. It’s a love that is mellowed (which is a good thing) by maturity, experience, wisdom. It’s rewarding in ways that my abusive relationship never would have been (obviously). Am I ready to accept that those things are worth infinitely more than the first-love euphoria? Yes. But I see now why I wasn’t ready to accept it before.
Whether it’s being smacked by your boyfriend, getting in raging verbal fights with people, cutting yourself, or shoplifting, most unhealthy behaviours are MASSIVE adrenaline highs – particularly against the backdrop of dissociation or numbness that characterizes most depression. They make you feel alive.
I’m actually shocked that this topic isn’t better addressed in any of the mental health literature or self-help stuff I’ve come across. It suddenly became so obvious to me: you can’t just take those highs away and expect to feel fully charged with life.
So now my therapy goal for the month is finding ways to inject some risk and adrenaline into my otherwise happy, healthy *cough* dull *cough* existence.
I’m thinking adventure-planning (for my next trip) and maybe a jaunt to the casino in the interim (IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE: I have never and would never spend more than $10 at the casino, nor do I recommend it in general. Know your limit, play within it.). Any suggestions?