In my experience, borderline personality disorder (BPD) still remains one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized mental illnesses in the DSM.
Many just simply cannot understand what it’s like to live with the disorder and how truly debilitating it can become. My experience with BPD has left me unable to perform properly in the workplace for months and unable to leave my bed because I was consumed in episodes every time I would try and fight my way through the day. My brain felt like it had no emotional protection and I would become reactive to every single bit of stimuli around me. It became exhausting, embarrassing and hopeless.
Today, I thought I would talk about my experience with BPD episodes and what it’s truly like to go through them. Many of my friends and family have asked me in times of distress: “How do you feel? What’s wrong? Why can’t you calm down?”
People with BPD can experience emotions far deeper and for longer than those who do not have the disorder. There is a slower return to an emotional baseline, and emotions can be excruciating. As BPD specialist Marsha Linehan once said, “People with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.”
My experience with BPD episodes and crises began as young as 14. Before I was even officially diagnosed, I can remember the absolute destruction, loss of control and violence of the episodes I would endure. So, what’s it like inside an episode?
For me, it begins slowly. There is always a trigger, even if I don’t recognize it at the time. For me, it was always the fear of abandonment, rejection or guilt. A rough day; perhaps. Maybe someone said something mean to me, or gave me a wrong look. Maybe I already felt low when I snapped my eyelids open at 3 a.m. It begins to bubble, like molten lava. Everything around me becomes too much. It’s like there’s a bright light being shined into my eyes and my brain and it won’t stop. Everything feels like it’s too close. As it progresses, my brain begins to chatter. Whispering things to me, convincing me that people would be better off without me and suddenly my brain becomes an extremely dangerous place.
The people around me I once trusted with my whole heart become the enemy. I am on high alert. My brain is now on overdrive. Everything around me is now a threat and I feel unsafe. Suddenly, I’m unable to breathe. Anger begins to bubble within my skin, and now my skin feels like it’s eroding like acid. Everything is painful. Excruciatingly painful. It feels like someone has stuck a fiery iron bar into my brain and I am suddenly alight in a fiery inferno. All I hear is white noise. I am so angry I cannot hear what anyone is saying. It sounds muffled, as if someone has put the world on mute. Now, I am at the mercy of my heightened emotions. I have completely lost control. My hands are no longer on the steering wheel and I am watching myself from above.
Anger, depression and agony rip through me like a summer storm’s tidal waves. I am consumed. The pain is burning, agonizing, unbearable. It aches physically on the surface of my skin and I feel like someone has set me alight. It won’t stop. My heart races and I try to catch my breath, but I can’t. I am now so angry that everything is white and I am not in control of what I am doing. My fists pop against brick walls as I try and release the rage that is burning me alive. It doesn’t help. People around me try to calm me down, try to talk to me; but I can’t hear them. When they touch me it hurts. My skin has lost its protection and I am open, aching and raw. Now, I am screaming. I am lying on the floor, choking on my tears. My brain is white with rage and pain, and I no longer belong to myself. My forehead is bloody from where I hit it against the floor to make the thoughts stop but they won’t. It feels like someone has turned the volume up again and now the pain has gotten worse. This is unbearable now. I can’t calm down.
Human touch makes it worse and a calm voice feels like a threat. Everything feels like a threat. I am suffocating. I am now seeing people who aren’t really there, and hearing the voices of people I care about saying nasty, degrading and awful things about me — but it’s not actually them. Of course, I don’t know this at the time.
I am crying so hard I can’t breathe; I can’t speak. In the white rage I have managed to throw things and put my fist through glass. I have no conscious awareness of the people around me because I can only see the demons that haunt me and I am trying to escape. I tear fingernails down my face to try and exile the pain from within. It doesn’t work. I try the next thing I know — self-harm.
Self-harming in an episode is extremely dangerous because it can be severe due to the fact that you just don’t feel the pain. I let out the emotions that have now begun to drown me from within, like emptying a bottle into the sink. I don’t feel the pain at all, but there is suddenly a few moments of calm. It washes over me, and I sit there staring at the wall for a few minutes, completely silent. My breathing becomes slower. It feels like I’ve been disconnected from a power source, the source of pain.
Soon, it returns.
It is absolutely unbearable now. My whole body hurts, my throat is torn from screaming for someone to help me. I have been set alight and I am writhing from within from the inferno. My skin is burning. My brain is now unable to find anyway to relieve the pain other than attempting to end my life and end the pain I am suffering. Often, I hadn’t even thought of a plan, I just do what I think I can to make it stop. It was common for me to turn to alcohol to make it stop. I drink until I can’t think straight. I drink until the voices stop and until I can’t feel a thing anymore. This is when I would end up in hospital, in bandages and being treated for overdoses and attempts to take my life. I completely dissociate and lose myself, unable to remember what I’ve done, who I’ve hurt or what I’ve said. I’ve ended up in the back of police cars and taken to hospital after an episode so bad I don’t even remember what I’ve done.
The aftermath is always the worst part for me. Days spent in stitches, hunched over the toilet bowl throwing up the poison I tried to use to silence the beast. The exertion of such intense emotion leaves me physically and mentally exhausted. It’s like someone has sucked the absolute life out of me. My head aches, my whole body is stiff and painful. My throat is sore from screaming and I usually wake up covered in wounds and bruises. The world is always two hues darker, and I often struggle with suicidal thoughts days after the incident. The worst part is trying to make sense of what happened.
When you dissociate involuntarily it is your brain’s way of detaching from the emotions that even it can’t bear. You lose memory and don’t actually know the extent of what you’ve done. It is an incredibly isolating and humiliating feeling. I have spent the aftermath of episodes in mental health units, emergency departments and in emergency appointments with my mental health team after sometimes forgetting completely what I’d done.
Everyone experiences BPD episodes differently, but this is my experience. It is truly agonizing, destructive, horrific and humiliating to go through this — even a few times a week. To live without emotional skin and experience the world deeply and wholly can be a brilliant thing — I find I feel joy deeply, I love with my whole heart and I feel gratitude swell through my whole body. However, negative emotions can become debilitating, dangerous and life-threatening. Rebuilding yourself after a destructive episode can feel pointless. You feel defeated, hopeless and stuck. I often found myself immersed and consumed in guilt. It had a physical ache between my rib cage.
It is a process, one that takes courage, perseverance and hope — but it is possible. There are services that can help, skills you can learn and plans that can be put in place to ensure your safety. Learning to identify triggers was pivotal for me in trying to stop the recurrence and severity of my episodes. This can help you put in place steps to prevent it from becoming a full-blown episode, and you can learn how to calm yourself down before it becomes out of control. You can let someone know, talk it out and address the trigger before it consumes you.
Self-forgiveness is so important too, because at the end of the day you experience pain nobody else can see or feel. The fact that you are alive and survived every episode you’ve had to go through is proof of how strong you truly are and something you should be incredibly proud of. It’s no easy feat to experience the world without emotional skin and be open and raw all the time, and that again proves your incredible strength and resilience. I am so happy to say that my experience with episodes has lessened significantly — when I used to go through them a few times a week, it is now a rarity for me. I’m not cured, of course, but I have learned to work through the emotions that once destroyed my life. I want you to know it is possible and your life is valuable — you will get through this. Every storm that comes also comes to an end.