October 11, 2019

By Nikki Mattocks

One of the conditions I have lived with is borderline personality disorder (BPD). I was diagnosed with emerging BPD when I was 14 years old, which was changed to BPD when I was 18. To be diagnosed, you need to have a combination of five out of nine of the following symptoms:

  1. Intense fear of abandonment
  2. ​A pattern of unstable interpersonal relationships
  3. Unstable self-image or sense of self
  4. Impulsive behaviors, such as promiscuous sex, eating disorders, binge eating, substance abuse or reckless driving, that are potentially self-damaging 
  5. Suicidal or self-harming behavior
  6. Instability and mood swings
  7. Chronic feelings of emptiness
  8. Inappropriate anger or difficulty controlling anger
  9. Paranoid idealization, delusions or severe dissociation 

These symptoms (or a combination of them) are absolute hell to live with, and when I was experiencing these, I felt like I was always in the wrong. I was always wrong for how I felt, and I felt I was wrong for existing because I was such a burden. What made it harder are the many misconceptions and stigma around this illness. 

Now that I’m doing better and feeling better, I’d like to clear up some of the myths that negatively impacted my experience with BPD. 

Myth: You cannot treat BPD.

Thanks to a mixture of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, inner child therapy, counseling, my own strength, the support of family and friends, and medication, I now only experience one or two of the BPD symptoms, but I no longer fit five of them. Therefore, I now no longer fit the DSM-5 criteria for BPD. It isn’t easy, but BPD can be treated, and I’m an example of that. 

Myth: People with BPD cannot lead their own independent, fulfilling lives.

With the right treatment, some with BPD will not need to be in the mental health system forever. Just like if someone with a broken leg doesn’t receive the treatment they need, they would keep turning up at the emergency department asking for help — and so will anyone with BPD because they need treatment. 
Once a person has received effective treatment, they often are able to be independent and live the lives they want to. Although there were bumps in the road, once I received the right treatment, I was able to work full time, study full time at university and spend spare time volunteering, hanging out with friends, forming healthy relationships and enjoying hobbies. 

Myth: BPD behavior is just attention seeking and should be ignored.

My behavior (self-harm, suicide attempts, impulsivity) was typically due to my distress. I did not wake up thinking, “I want attention.” I woke up feeling agonising emotional pain and thought, “I need help from my care professionals, family and friends.” While I won’t say that I never acted for attention, I only did so because I needed that attention. Giving attention to people in distress can save lives.

If someone with chest pain doesn’t seek attention, they could end up having a heart attack/cardiac arrest. Similarly, if people in emotional distress don’t seek help, they also suffer. Why should we let someone suffer and ignore their distress just because of their diagnosis? Sometimes all it takes is taking 10-15 minutes to listen and tell them that while you may not understand, you care, and how they feel is valid. 

Myth: Those with BPD do not complete suicide.

This diagnosis is so misunderstood that many with BPD will often go without the right treatment. And when that happens, it can lead to suicide or self-harm. Borderline personality disorder is associated with higher rates of suicide and self-harming behaviors.When someone makes a suicide attempt, they are in distress, just like I used to be. Instead of viewing that as purely attention-seeking, show empathy and look at ways to help that person.

Myth: Having BPD is a choice.

People with BPD would never choose to feel like they do. Without lived experience, it is impossible to know how intense the negative feelings can become. But I can tell you, no one would choose to live that way. BPD often stems from childhood trauma. I work in mental health and I have never met someone with BPD that hasn’t also been through trauma. So can someone please explain how they chose that? 

Myth: People who have BPD do not help themselves.

When I was unwell, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to help myself. I was unwell because I didn’t know have the tools to support my wellbeing. I never learned as child how to manage my emotions because I was neglected. When I went through DBT, I learned how to cope with my distress, and I learned how to help myself. For a long time, I was not helping myself, but with time and support, I got there. And so will others. People with BPD deserve time, treatment and empathy.

Nikki Mattocks is an award-winning mental health and human rights campaigner in the UK. She has spoken at Parliament and in the media, and, shared her story at events. She also runs a peer support group that she started at age 17. Find her on twitter @ducksdietcoke or Instagram @nicolanikkijane


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