It is the structurally unsound foundation upon which a fluctuating identity rests. Around this core swirls a fog of complex behaviours – all connected, all problematic in their own right, and all unconsciously developed to cocoon the centre, from which it all stems.
My own secondary disorders and symptoms intersect with each other in different ways, triggering each other individually. Sometimes, anxiety triggers intense paranoia – or vice versa – or sometimes it sets off an OCD flare-up. The discomfort of OCD can cause a binge-eating phase, or a period of deep depression. Sometimes the binge-eating comes from the paranoia – and then I can’t make myself leave the house. Sometimes this, sometimes that, and so on, and so on. Every time one of these problems occurs, it triggers intense reactions in me, which comes from emotional dysregulation, which, in turn, triggers any one (or all) of these difficult behaviours. Occasionally, they all set each other off, like a chain of dominos – and that’s a really bad day. There can be skin-picking, binge-drinking, ‘hermitting’ (withdrawal from the world), panic attacks, intense phobias, ‘splitting’ (all-or-nothing thinking), and many, many others – here and there, with no discernible pattern.
Then there’s The Big Three: emotional dysregulation (poorly modulated emotional responses, or intense ‘mood swings’), severe dissociation (detachment from reality and physical/emotional experience), and ‘mirroring’ (‘the Chameleon Effect’ – changing the persona to reflect that of others). I refer to these as ‘The Big Three’, because these are overarching symptoms/secondary disorders that are constant – where the others flare-up and ease off in response to emotional or environmental situations.
That all sounds like a bit of a horror show, right? It certainly is exhausting – constantly fire-fighting flare-ups of all kinds, managing thought-spirals and basically trying to stay on the tightrope – just managing symptoms, day-to-day, while functioning as a mother, wife and human being. With all of that constantly happening inside my head, my greatest sense of achievement comes when someone says “Oh, I didn’t realise you had a mental health problem.”
But, I know my mental health problem inside and out, and that is why it no longer frightens me. I know that the horrid swirling fog of complex behaviours, while difficult and draining, are just an elaborate distraction. My mind – being the incredible, monstrous, self-aware machine that it is – created this central conceit, this maze of coping strategies, to draw my attention away from the true horror: my fundamental lack of a stable sense of self.
So, logic would dictate that, in order to achieve lasting recovery from BPD, it is necessary to see through that swirling fog and build a stable sense of self. That sounds great – let’s all do that! Well, sadly, though it sounds obvious and simple, it’s really not. As ever with BPD, it is the intangibility of it that can obstruct progress. You cannot grasp and draw back a swirling fog like a curtain – you have to slowly and carefully feel your way through it. That, in itself, is a daunting challenge for emotionally dysregulated Borderlines that struggle to tolerate feelings.
That fog will be different for every person with BPD, as will the nature of the instability of self. For me, the penny did not really begin to drop until a particularly observant psychotherapist pointed out – very matter-of-factly – that my self-worth was entirely based upon what I could do for other people. This statement blew my mind for two reasons: firstly, she was absolutely right, and secondly because – while I recognised that that was not healthy – I literally could not see what else I could base it on. Because there was nothing else to base it on. There was, quite simply, nothing there.
This was my first introduction to my Chameleon, and my first realisation that there was something buried deep, deep inside that fog that I really needed to address. Everything since then has been about reaching that core, safely. That idea of safety highlights the first important challenge of this process: trust.
Trust is not easy. When you have a mental health problem, you can understandably become distrustful of your own mind. That’s where the problem lies after all. The mind is complex, mysterious and filled with automatic safety valves. It can play tricks, mislead you and make you doubt yourself at the drop of a hat. It is easy to regard your own mind with suspicion, when it seems to make your life so difficult on a daily basis. This combative stance can be a great obstacle to progress when it comes to recovery. Rather than resisting the processes developed by the mind, it is far more effective to work with them.
Just as a woman in labour must trust the fact that her body is designed for childbirth, in treating the mind we must trust the fact that it too is designed for purpose. If your mind has developed an unhealthy coping strategy, instead of ploughing in and attempting to excise it with a chainsaw, stop, and ask yourself “why”. When your mind throws up a barrier, or a symptom, it is a huge red flag that something troublesome is hiding there. Answers are not always forthcoming, but with a gentle, precise, one-at-a-time approach, progress can be made at a safe and manageable pace.
Hand-in-hand with trust comes acceptance. Just as acceptance is an important part of dealing with diagnosis, it is also an important part of recovery. You have to accept your unstable sense of self before you can do anything about it. This is perhaps the most difficult part, because in order to accept it, you must understand it. You have to be willing to dig very, very deep, and have the strength and motivation to deal with whatever you uncover down in the dirt.
Underlying the requirement for trust and acceptance, is tolerance. In order for a person with BPD to address their unstable sense of self, they first need to develop their emotional tolerance. If you are going to dig into the crux of your issue, it’s going to get emotional – and emotional dysregulation is a barrier to progress. Having cognitive and/or dialectical behaviour skills in your emotional toolkit, means you are better prepared to head into that core to make the necessary repairs.
Lastly, and perhaps most challenging, is honesty. Honesty with others, and crucially, honesty with yourself. The Chameleon gets in the way of real honesty, and it is The Chameleon that is the gatekeeper of a Borderline’s sense of self. Your fragile sense of self is flickering in the centre, encased entirely in outward-facing mirrored walls. It takes brutal honesty to bypass The Chameleon and smash those mirrors, but once you do, far from having seven years bad luck, you will instead have the greatest chance of a lasting recovery.
‘Recovery’ is not the same as ‘cured’. Borderline Personality Disorder is always there. Symptoms still need to be managed, and care still needs to be taken. But, with time, it just gets easier. It is possible to be in the world without every interaction feeling like you are being stabbed with a million needles. It is possible to live life without constant fear of emotional upheaval. It is possible to re-build a sense of self that you can actually have confidence in. It just takes patience.
***DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional – I am a person with Borderline Personality Disorder. This blog post is based solely on my experience dealing with my illness. If you are unwell, or in any kind of distress, you should seek medical assistance.***