“I wish I could count how many people in my life I’ve lost.”
Twenty-year-old Isabelle Galus sometimes finds herself wishing she had bipolar disorder.
“I wish I could just have this well-known illness that they know how to treat, and that allows my friends and family to predict when — and for how long — those manic and depressive swings will last,” Galus told Revelist. “It’d be easier on everyone.”
Instead, Galus suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD), a mental disorder characterized by mood swings, erratic behavior, and unstable self-image. People with BPD often suffer a crippling fear of abandonment, and engage in unstable relationships and dangerous behaviors.
While BPD affects almost as many people as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder combined,researchers know much less about it. That’s likely because the American Psychiatric Association only officially recognized the disorder in 1980 — nearly 30 years after it first recognized schizophrenia and bipolar.
The lack of knowledge around BPD makes it difficult to treat. Sufferers are disproportionately likely to drop out of treatment, or become abusive toward their doctor, leaving many physicians at a loss. The Food and Drug administration has yet to approve a drug to treat BPD.
Perhaps more damaging, however, is the amount of misinformation about the disorder. Revelist spoke with five women who suffer from BPD and asked them to clear up the most common misconceptions. These are their responses.
First of all, BPD is not bipolar disorder.
“Living with borderline personality disorder is not just living with two extreme emotions,” Alex García told Revelist.
It’s also being scared of yourself, or how you will treat your parents, friends or partner. [It’s] being scared of making the wrong decisions, waking up in the morning really happy, then in the evening starting to feeling annoyed or anxious, and finally at night feeling suicidal or having anger issues.
The rapidly cycling emotions Garcia described are common to those who suffer from BPD. Unlike those with bipolar disorder, people with BPD can experience both both manic highs and depressive lows within the same day.
Controlling these emotional highs and lows can leave BPD sufferers exhausted.
“It’s emotionally draining when you’re starting a friendship or trying to get a guy you’re into to not think you’re crazy,” Galus told Revelist. “There’s just this voice inside you saying, ‘Remember: you’re insanely unstable. Just keep it the hell together before you wreck another relationship.’”
The disorder often comes with periods of extreme energy, too: Galus said she has read entire books, or finished entire paintings, on manic nights when she cannot sleep. But the strain of controlling her emotions still stands out as the biggest drawback of her disorder.
“To have to hold yourself back from being truly you — that’s what takes the biggest toll,” she said.
The disorder can also make sufferers feel like they’re spiraling out of control.
“Impulsivity can control our lives,” Payton Raick* told Revelist. “…Whether that would be dangerous behaviors like spending money, unsafe sex, self-harm, or suicide attempts, it’s sometimes impossible to separate the urge from the action.”
Impulsivity is a hallmark of BPD, and sufferers are prone to engage in damaging behaviors like gambling, binge eating, and drug abuse. Specialized therapy, like dialectical behavioral therapy, can help with impulse control.
“Learning to sit with your urges and not act on them is one step I’m working on to better control my impulsivity, but it does take a lot of work,” Raick said. “If people knew that this is a battle people with BPD face every day, there would be more understanding and acceptance in our community.”
Many people, however, see the behaviors of those with BPD as just a ploy for attention.
Friends, family, and partners can grow tired of the mood swings — and occasional spurts of aggression — from BPD sufferers. Beth Wainwright told Revelist that she wants her loved ones to know that these episodes are far from her control.
“What I’d really want people to understand is that my behaviors, past and present, have not been for the sake of causing drama or seeking attention,” she said. “They’re maladaptive coping mechanisms and it’s hard to undo that. I wish people could look at BPD sufferers with more empathy than they do.”
Still others see a BPD diagnosis as an excuse for acting out.
“I would say the one thing that gets to me is that people tend to think [BPD sufferers] are just over-dramatic and use it as an excuse for bad behavior,” Terri Jones told Revelist. She explained that her disorder is the cause of her impulsive behavior — not a way to cover it up.
“I think it’s a huge insult to say that we do it ‘because we can,’ and just blame our BPD”, she said.
More than anything, BPD sufferers told Revelist they resent being labeled “crazy.”
“I think if there’s one thing I could say, it would be to ask people who know very little or nothing at all about BPD not to call us ‘crazy,’” Maia Champion told Revelist. “Because I’m still a human being.”