Author: Peter Miller
My path to getting diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder…
I come from a broken home. My parents divorced when I was about 9. The whole family endured lots of conflict and drama while my parents worked through their divorce process. It was an awful time. Mom left the country after a couple years of leaving the house, and thereafter I stayed with Dad and two older sibs. I’m sure I suffered attachment issues due to mother leaving during such an early time in my life, although I still haven’t pinpointed or fully resolved these issues. The way I remember it, I didn’t mind her leaving because she was so embarrassingly consumed by religion. I haven’t reconnected with her since or had a desire to do so.
I had issues throughout childhood, teens, and early adulthood in regards to anxiety, depression, emotions, and functioning in relationships. At a few points I went to doctors and therapists to investigate things, but the investigations were always short-lived, either because doctors offered suggestions and treatments to address the apparent physical manifestations of my problems (e.g., stomach problems or food intolerances) or I couldn’t connect with whoever was attempting to counsel me.
My first experience of debilitating mental health issues as an adult was in 2009 (age 34) when I started having panic attacks. I experienced my first panic attack at work – seemingly out of the blue. It hit me fast and hard. I suddenly became frantic and started looking for somebody/anybody to support me through the panic symptoms and figure out a way to get me home.
While having panic attacks I was extremely dizzy and short of breath, full of dread and fear. I believed I must have a brain tumor or something worse was happening (misinterpreting symptoms). I had no understanding of what was going on inside of me psychologically (or physically) at this time, but now realize there were lots of irrational thoughts and related emotions happening all at once, and this no doubt took a large toll on my mind/body system over time until it reached a tipping point.
My wife took me to the hospital emergency after a couple days waiting for the dizziness and other symptoms to pass (but they didn’t) and that lead me to thinking more that “something really bad must be happening”. At the hospital I waited in agony for a doctor to attend to me. It was probably a relatively short wait in emergency, but it seemed like “forever” and as though they weren’t noticing or caring how bad I was suffering. Once admitted, the emergency doctor quickly determined I was suffering from some sort of “anxiety issues”. He gave me an Ativan prescription and suggested I seek out counselling and consult my family doctor for follow-up.
Over the years on my path of mental illness, I sought out other brief counselling and doctor consults. I recall only going to one or two therapy sessions and not really being motivated to explore meds. Therapists gave me some tips for managing anxiety and explained why taking an antidepressant might be a good idea (to adjust certain brain chemicals, etc.). I mostly decided that going back for more therapy wasn’t necessary… truly having no idea that I needed so much more understanding and help than a couple short consults. I just didn’t (or couldn’t) believe my mental health issues could run so deep and that my mental health needed to take a much higher priority in my life.
Continuing to experience anxiety and depression symptoms over the years, I started looking at my issues and as a real nuisance that “I shouldn’t be having”, or like “they were stifling my career progress”. I wasn’t prepared to take a much deeper look into things… to really be honest with myself. I suppose I had some type of mental health denial that I just couldn’t move past.
I realized I had insecurities and intermittent anger issues in my family relationships (especially with wife, and with girlfriends before marriage) and that these recurring moments were hinting that something was definitely not right with me. Nonetheless, I never made looking deeper into “my stuff” a priority. Everything else… work, money, providing for family, and finishing education, always seemed like the most important places to keep my focus. Putting my health-related matters above these other “much more important things” just wasn’t going to happen. I believe this may be a common type of thinking and behavioral pattern for many males coming into their adulthood, unfortunately.
Honestly, I was also afraid of being exposed as “broken person” or “a piece of garbage abuser” if a therapist ever knew how abusive I had been in my relationships; and likewise if my partner ever discovered I had serious mental health issues that would take extensive work to correct, then maybe she would want to give up on me. Truth was, however, I did have serious mental health issues and I was lucky I didn’t lose all of my family relationships after all I had said and done over time in the midst of my disordered functioning.
And imagine this… I maintained all this resistance for doing self-inquiry/mental health work despite being half way through a master’s degree in psychology and working towards becoming a psychologist! Lol!! That said, however, I now also realize that going to school does not necessarily provide a complete understanding of self, mental health issues, motivation for self-help, or fully inform as to how mental health issues really play out in real life – not even close actually, in my experience.
My big moment of “mental health truth”…
I didn’t even consider BPD as something possibly relevant to me until an experienced colleague in mental health (who understood personality disorders very well) pointed out some of my traits (e.g., tendencies to misinterpret the meaning of events, having unrealistic demands and expectations, avoiding assertive communication, reacting to emotion, impulsive decision-making). Truthfully, I didn’t know very much about personality disorders at this point in my psychology career (about age 37) and was surprised my colleague would even suggest it. I was at the tail end of my psychologist registration process and arrogantly assumed I could recognize whatever she saw if anything was there. But I couldn’t!
And so I looked into it further… watched some videos, read some books, etc. Eventually I recognized I couldn’t continue running away from my issues, and so I diagnosed myself with BPD. I embraced it… in large part due to this mental health colleague in my life, but also recognizing for myself that my mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns were indeed a BPD pattern. I didn’t go for any other official assessment; I knew well enough that I had this problem.
Lucky for me I was surrounded by mental health and BPD resources because of my work environment, and over time I figured out which symptoms I could manage with therapy skills and which symptoms I needed the help of medication to manage. My interest level in everything about BPD skyrocketed. I remember reading a book called “Overcoming Borderline Personality Disorder: A family guide for healing and change” (Valerie Porr, M.A.) and being completely shocked by how much this information applied to me and how long it had taken to figure this out. I thereafter read several similar books and studied myself relentlessly so as to heal my mind/body system as much as possible. I started writing blog posts as my BPD learning progressed, and I developed a lengthy PowerPoint presentation for teaching others what I had learned though my journey. I am now sharing this PowerPoint presentation at BreakAwayMHE.com (see “The 9-Steps”).
To add to my reading and writing about BPD, my helpful colleague was willing to engage me in several private conversations (basically free consultations) about personality disorders and how it affected my life. She also allowed me to “co-facilitate”, for two years in a row, an 8-month/once-per-week group therapy session that she and another therapist developed for patients suffering with BPD symptoms (inspired by Dialectical Behavior Therapy, credit Marsha Linehan). The therapy group was provided for women (only) because women in general seek out therapy more often than men, and the group could also help women feel safer to express their thoughts and emotions when they otherwise couldn’t feel safe in regular life. And again, lucky for me my colleague needed another therapist to run the group as her other female helper left the clinic, and so she made an exception to allow me (a male) into the group to help run things and learn at the same time.
Since I have been part of the public resources for mental health in Alberta (Canada) since 2012, I would have to recognize that services to investigate and treat disorders like BPD are potentially available, although disorder identification and success in treatment could depend a great deal on who you are meeting with, how they practice, and how much they know about personality disorders. Recall I was almost all the way finished becoming a psychologist but didn’t know very much about personality disorders? Psychologists and other mental health professionals have varying skill levels due to varying years of experience, and also quite often different areas of interest that they focus on and therefore become more or less qualified to assess and treat.
Where I live in Canada, I would say the available public resources for mental health in general (and possibly for BPD) are the same for men as they are for women. Anyone can call in, get assessed, and receive a treatment. But again, it depends on what clinic you go to and how much the available therapists know about BPD. For instance, public clinics in Canada run groups for certain conditions and sexes at certain times, while others do not. My guess is that a men’s BPD group might be hard to find anywhere. Getting the right help with BPD may also very well depend on how much money you have or how good your mental health benefits are… so if you have ample financial resources to work with, it could greatly expand your options for receiving timely, private, and specialized mental health treatment.
Being a male with a condition like this, it can be very hard to admit to because of stigma, but also very difficult or impossible to allocate time to deal with it. The most discouraging BPD resource issue for the average male, I believe, would be that BPD is a complicated disorder that takes lots of time to talk about, understand, and treat (several months to several years). However, most men are almost entirely preoccupied with training to earn a living, already earning a living and/or supporting a family. Treating BPD effectively may also involve informing family members how best to interact with the suffering person, therefore requiring even more time, transparency, and vulnerability.
I am very thankful I was immersed in a BPD treatment environment as part of my job – so my learning became more or less a part of my everyday life and I could still get paid! Recognizing that my mental health progress was so closely connected with my physical survival, I now believe that addressing mental health issues properly also requires addressing the priorities issue of acquiring money versus taking time to learn how to become and remain healthy in your body and mind. It usually takes lots of time and energy to earn money, but it also takes lots of time and energy to get healthy. Talk about a conflict of interest!
The stark realities of late diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and delayed treatment of BPD…
I think the diagnosis and treatment of BPD often comes too late in a person’s life, although there may be no way around this. I think the development of BPD could be spotted and prevented by parents, if the parents were better informed about mental health issues and what types of situations and experiences were harmful to childhood brain development. However in my experience working with patients and learning about their histories, I am not convinced at all that parents at large are sufficiently capable of noticing how their actions contribute to harming the brains of their children.
Diagnosing BPD may also be delayed as it may not be considered as a possible diagnosis until some of the more obvious manifestations of the disorder become apparent (e.g., suicidal threats, self-harm, extremes in affect). Even then, the symptoms may be explained away as “chemical imbalances” or “behavioral issues” depending on who’s making the diagnostic opinion and how old the patient is. It sometimes seems like everything but BPD is considered diagnostically first (e.g., medical conditions, depression, anxiety, bi-polar, trauma) therefore leaving a BPD condition unrecognized and untreated for long periods of time. This is exactly what happened to me!
**My personal belief is that it may be good practice to consider BPD as a highly common “root mental health issue”, with other common conditions and symptoms being secondary. **
Bipolar and BPD diagnoses, in particular, seem to be variously applied to patients depending on who’s doing the assessing/diagnosing. But again, there are many different types of clinicians who take different approaches to assessing, diagnosing, and treating, despite the fact that all these clinicians may share the same working titles (e.g., psychologist, psychiatrist). Going even further, there may be a medical bias in diagnostics, such that bipolar may be chosen over BPD because there are more medical (pill) options for treating bipolar than there are for BPD.
All that said, however, and even if there is very good early detection of BPD and treatment options at the time when traits and symptoms start to become more apparent (I would say in late teens and early twenties), there still needs to be a way to get a person onboard with a lengthy (and learning intensive) mental health/self-help project. How many young people are prepared to focus their time and energy on this sort of thing? I would suggest not many, simply because people in this population are more focused on getting a career going and otherwise participating in the modern materialistic/capitalistic world. Young people are also focused on being in new relationships and starting families, despite the fact that an undiscovered and severely debilitating mental health condition (like BPD) could undermine it all. Pause here to consider the high divorce rates and how much BPD might be playing a role.
Good health in several aspects (in both body and mind), and otherwise relatively high functioning, are needed to survive the demands of the modern world – especially when the demands include all the expectations of a middle-class (or higher) lifestyle. An unfortunate but inevitable reality may be that discovering the facts about having deep seated brain health/developmental issues such as BPD may not come until later in life, if it comes at all. This “discovery time” may be one of the most challenging phases of life, since people often “hit a wall” when they realize through hard experience that their emotional and relational skill levels are not where they need them to be in order to keep up with all of the demands of life. Things keep breaking down emotionally and relationally, and so it isn’t possible to solve the work/life problems efficiently and continue meeting basic human needs.
This is when people will commonly be looking for quick fixes to solve complicated problems. For instance, doctors are consulted for pills. Natural health remedies might be considered. Sometimes people focus on religion and their beliefs and “getting right with god”. Sometimes other methods of coping may be attempted to deal with the suffering that can’t be alleviated skillfully, such as substance-abuse and other vices. Sometimes a combination of all or some of the above are attempted before looking further. This “attempting to solve problems without the right set of tools (or complete set of tools)” can go on indefinitely, especially if any of the approaches attempted bring temporary relief, but in reality just dig a deeper hole.
I would suspect it is somewhat rare for people to take a longer/closer look at themselves through mental health services, and then to also realize there are no quick fixes to their issues. In my experience, this genuine type of health-seeker comes for a brief period of time… perhaps until benefits run out, or money runs out, or patience to continue attending appointments runs out. Sometimes these people leave services and then come back to continue their work; sometimes they don’t. Again the question is: How much ongoing time and attention are people willing to invest into these matters, especially when there is no obvious short-term benefit, or when the action taken does not seem directly connected to meeting their physical survival needs? This is why I have been developing a new concept and approach to mental health at BreakAwayMHE.com
Legitimate reasons alternative approaches are needed to help people work through BPD (hence BreakAwayMHE.com)…
In my psychology practice, I do see BPD more often in female patients than I do in male patients, and I do believe any available statistics would support this pattern as well. That said, and as I said before, females tend to access therapy services much more often than men do… in my experience about 8 females to every 2 males. Also when males do attend therapy, they tend to have only a few sessions rather than complete a full intake, diagnosis, and treatment. This time commitment issue makes sense to me as a fellow male who has struggled with mental health issues… the main reason being that time allocation for a big mental health project just isn’t realistic when you have so many other responsibilities and obligations pressing down on you.
If I see a male or female in therapy and BPD seems like a relevant diagnosis, and if they continue attending past the number of sessions needed to complete intake assessment, I will absolutely inform them what I think. Other clinicians make take a different approach. I don’t see the point in calling BPD something that it isn’t, or focusing on a secondary or related diagnosis. I could see how a gender bias could come about if males were getting assessed less overall, and therefore being diagnosed less. Even for myself, I am fairly certain that if I wasn’t in “psychologist training”, or if I didn’t have my helpful colleague to point me in the right direction, I would have been only partially treated and ultimately lost to myself.
In addition to the “time constraints issue”, I would say it is very hard for males to break through cultural stereotypes of masculinity, to be more vulnerable, and therefore to get the mental health treatment they need. I have gotten used to openly sharing my mental health struggles (on my blog and social media). I have also gotten used to talking about my issues with wise and caring others. It has been harder to openly discuss my issues in everyday/family life… especially when saying the diagnosis name out loud. I would in fact say that if I didn’t have a way to put my issues into a clinical perspective, openly admitting to having BPD (or anything like it) would be extremely embarrassing and hard to bear.
Part of the reason for and design of BreakAwayMHE.com was to not only keep the information free to all, but to offer an alternative avenue for the information to be received by people who wouldn’t normally receive it through traditional means, such as through clinics and meetings with therapists. At BreakAwayMHE.com we acknowledge that the male population (and perhaps others as well) may be less likely to seek out therapy using traditional formats, but nonetheless still very much require the information to get started with helping themselves and initiating a healing journey.
We hope that BreakAwayMHE.com offers a format for learning about BPD that is useful, flexible, far-reaching, and appealing to BPD sufferers who struggle to give up their time used for earning a living, or struggle to move past stereotypes and stigmas about mental health in a timely manner, even though under different circumstances they may willingly take time they need for figuring out these important mental health issues.