By Kirstyn Smith
In this age of dynamic information, there is often a strange dichotomy framing mental health. Access to lived examples via blogs and social media means people are chipping away at stigmas every day. On the other, more chilling hand, a constant feed of experiences means interpretations of illness can be easily warped. Take Urban Outfitters’ “depression T-shirt,”or the well-documented and unconquerable pro-anorexia websites and Tumblr blogs as particularly saddening examples. Despite what these sites want you to believe, mental health disorders are not pretty, decorative, or glamorous. And if there’s any condition that really drives this home, it’s Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which takes the shittiest parts of being mentally unwell and runs a marathon with them. If you’re looking for a condition that blends anxiety, depression, OCD, disordered eating, anger issues, and more into the world’s least appealing smoothie, BPD is for you.
Having BPD is like living in a bubble floating in a hazy world of detachment. You know the bubble is going to pop; the real fun is in never knowing when or why. The central issue is that BPD is based around feelings. More specifically, people who are living with it experience emotions a lot more strongly than people who don’t. If that sounds intractable, it’s because it really is. BPD is more than your standard fragility. Think: extreme rage in unlikely circumstances. Bone-aching fury when your clothes horse doesn’t open, so you throw it at the wall, which makes a hole you never get around to filling in. Or intense sensitivity to criticism, like when you don’t receive the mark you want for a university essay, so you accept a full-time job on the other side of the country, starting immediately.
Fun fact: Those were both me. Here’s another fun game — try guessing how these situations go down when you’re dating.
BPD In Pop Culture
While there are few apt, direct portrayals of BPD in broad society, representations manage to creep into common consciousness through TV, film, and music, leaving the public, at least subconsciously, more aware of the disorder than they may realize. Even I managed to read Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted (perhaps more commonly recognized in its 1999 Winona Ryder filmic reimagining) twice and didn’t glean that it was ostensibly describing what I had. While these representations are regularly problematic, there are some that seize the essence of BPD and help to communicate its existence, flattering or otherwise.
Perhaps most pointedly, there is the psycho ex-girlfriend trope. Primarily embraced by various forms of media (check its extensive TV Tropes page), it also manifests itself in everyday life. The trope lambasts women for having emotions, existing mostly to invalidate feelings and to over-exaggerate the reaction women have for not accepting being ghosted, played, or treated poorly. When it comes to Borderline Personality Disorder, the trope is a prime example of the ways in which women suffering from the condition are dismissed out of hand for experiencing emotions that may be extreme, but that are nonetheless valid. People diagnosed with BPD are as much as three times more likely to be women than men, which doesn’t help with the inherent misogyny surrounding how people think about the condition.
Then there’s the fact that the direct portrayal of BPD in pop culture is often over-the-top and disturbing — the character Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was diagnosed with it in season 10 (“Psycho Pete Returns”). Dennis. Dennis who describes himself, without a shimmer of irony, as a “golden god”; who takes being compared to a serial killer as a compliment; who regularly allows trivialities to send him into fits of rage. Dennis who takes girls out on boats to seduce them knowing they are less likely to say no “because of the implications.” This is hardly a fair or accurate portrayal of the disorder or how it affects people’s sexual and romantic realms.
That’s not to say more accurate glimpses of BPD aren’t lurking in plain view all across popular culture. They are evident in songs, and in TV shows and films, often capturing BPD’s primary traits: fear of abandonment, feeling unlovable, hypersexuality, and impulsive behaviors.
Take intense fear of abandonment, one of the main traits of BPD. It’s the theme of so, so many songs sung by — you’ve guessed it — women, from Paramore’s “(One of Those) Crazy Girls” to Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” But it’s P!nk’s “Please Don’t Leave Me” that really captures the condition — intentionally or otherwise. The song’s protagonist traipses between being hurtful and bullying toward her partner (“How did I become so obnoxious? / What is it with you that makes me act like this? / I’ve never been this nasty”) to pleading — “Please please don’t leave me.” On the surface it seems counter-intuitive — stop being mean and he won’t leave you — but the nuances run deeper. Like the club Groucho Marx didn’t want to belong to, if somebody loves you, they must be an idiot because you know — your BPD tells you — that you are fundamentally unlovable.
BPD And My Dating Life
Long before I was diagnosed, my first boyfriend bore the brunt: At 17, we should have been exploring ourselves and each other, but he was hacking down my walls while I stood back and burned bridges. After our affair flamed out, it took a number of years for me to even consider opening up again. When I did, that partner bore witness to the opposite tendencies. I was so concerned with not making the mistakes of my first relationship again that I clung for months of intoxicating codependency. We spent just two days apart during the course of a year-ish relationship, leaving us husks of the people we once were, lost in each others’ crazy by the time he (because of course I wasn’t going anywhere) called it a day.
Impulsive actions, another defining feature of BPD, also popped up in my relationships. Often for BPDs, they show up as substance abuse, or self-destructive behaviors such as cutting, burning, or binge eating. All of which is followed by intense regret, and, subsequently, more impulsive actions; literally anything will do if it stifles the shame spiral. Sometimes this trait manifests as simple didn’t-think-it-through impetuosity. There’s a scene in How I Met Your Mother during Lily and Marshall’s break-up where Lily lets herself into his apartment and hides behind the couch, only to leap out when he tries to get close to another woman. Not cool, we’re agreed. But, as the heady world of BPD will teach you — it happens. When dating, I spent most of my time fighting similarly reckless impulses, like the day after my (ex) boyfriend dumped me and I eyed my phone maniacally, dialing his number on a bi-minutely basis, thankfully never giving in to letting it ring, but certainly wasting time I should have been using to focus on my (as yet, six years later, un-handed-in) thesis.
Or the time I mixed impulsive behavior with another, far less discussed aspect of BPD — hypersexuality — by ordering a man off the Internet. Before Tinder was a thing, before I could confide in any friends without fear of being judged, before it was socially acceptable, I trawled that online dumping ground, Craigslist, looking for dick. I only did it once, at the peak of a BPD spiral, feeling dank and musty and unloved and unwanted. Had I been wise to the signs of BPD, I’d have realized I was in no state to be alone with a stranger, but instead I hid my sharpest knife under my bed and hoped for the best. The knife went unused; we both left unsatisfied.
Diagnosis And Moving Forward
Despite wearing a neon “this girl is BPD” sign over my head, it was a long time before these behaviors led to an official diagnosis. It took more than 10 years of misdiagnoses, various pills, talk therapy, and generally wondering whether I wouldn’t be better off dead before someone clocked what was up. If I don’t owe my life to the therapist who figured it out, I certainly owe her my sanity and, along with it, the ability to conduct myself semi-normally in a relationship. I was finishing up over a year’s worth of therapy with her when I started dating my current partner and I definitely wouldn’t be two and half years deep into a relationship if it hadn’t been for our weekly “how do we sort out what I’ve potentially messed up now” chats.
To be sure, there are definitely hangovers from my worst bouts of BPD, mainly sensitivity to criticism and my old buddy, fear of abandonment. Pre-diagnosis, I broke up with a partner because he said my use of the word “macabre” in a theater review was “cliched.” (It was not). These days, while I feel as though I’m forever battling similar impulses, a diagnosis and an understanding of what the hell’s going on helps a lot. Slip-ups still happen, like the time I tried to break up with him before we’d even started dating. “I’m a mess,” I remember saying, over and over, trying to warn him about what he was getting into. Or the time, a few weeks later, I apparently did an about-face and thought it’d be a good time to ask: “So. In five years time, where will we be, eh?”
While awareness of triggers has improved my quality of life tenfold, often a self-fulfilling prophecy kicks in. Catching a symptom before it kicks off into something more serious is good, but not when you’re prone to analyzing, going through every emotion with a fine-toothed comb to try to make sure it’s the “correct” way to be feeling or thinking.
Smooth sailing might be a grandiose term for what I have with my current partner, but I’ve come a long way from the busted-up excuse for a human I was when we set out. Dating with BPD requires work. I’ve studied and researched the condition; he’s educated himself, trying to prepare and understand. He listens and I try to talk. When we realize good times are happening, we try to live in their ephemerality, while bad times just have to be tholed with as much mutual support as possible.
There’s still a dearth of truthful illustrations of BPD in the media, but, much like those who live with it, it needs to be shown some care. Research and understanding will lead to fairer portrayals in the media, and then navigating the waters of BPD dating will be more manageable for everyone involved. Which is to say, we need a little less Dennis Reynolds and a little more substance.