I struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder traits. This does not mean that I have been officially diagnosed with BPD, but I’m not sure that having, or not having, an official diagnosis means much in terms of personal healing. In fact, I think our fear and misconceptions of mental illness make it all the more difficult to learn how to cope with emotional and mental challenges. Perhaps PTSD is the best illustration of why I feel this way. At this point in our history, we tend to be empathetic to soldiers who experience PTSD. We do not judge men with PTSD to be emasculate or say that something is wrong with them, that they are just more susceptible to getting PTSD than others. We do not accuse soldiers of making up symptoms just to get out of war. But we did all of those things in WWI. I think the reason we are able to affirm those people is because we now know some of the horrors they face, so we do not question whether it happened or not. As a result, we don’t accuse soldiers of making up or exaggerating their stories of war, yet we are not so kind to people with other challenges. If the person has been tagged with other mental illness labels—Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, etc.—we often assume that it is the genetic make-up of the person that is the real problem…not any events that person perceives as traumatic. In fact, we often use the diagnosis to invalidate the person’s perception of trauma. But the line between environment and character/personality, between trauma and disorder, is not so clear cut. As discussed in The Borderline Personality Survival Guide, many psychologists believe the whole debate about nature versus nurture—about whether our genetics or trauma causes mental disorders—is outdated. While our brains may be wired to process the environment (including trauma) in a specific way, trauma also affects how the brain hardwires itself. In other words, trauma and genetics are inseparable; they influence and intertwine like strands of thread weaving together to form a rope. Some people may struggle with a disorder because of genetics, but just as many, if not more, struggle with a disorder because a traumatic event triggered it.
So why does this debate matter to me? One of the challenges in my journey is embracing what seem like contradictory ideas: my trauma distorts my sense of reality and my sense of reality can distort the way I perceive my trauma. My counselor once described it as a dial on a radio. My BPD traits can make it feel like the dial is turned up to a 10. When I’m able to manage those reactions, I can see that the dial is typically only at a 6 or 7. I have feared that this feeling of intensity means that my perception of my childhood is incorrect: I must be lying about it. Ironically, this kind of black-and-white thinking about disorders and trauma IS part of the distortion. And perhaps even more ironic is the fact that, in many ways, society has affirmed this distortion because it is acting very much like a person struggling with BPD: it can only think in extreme, either/or scenarios. I can even see this in the conversations surrounding our current Presidential debate. So for me, part of my journey has been finding the balance between validating my feelings without letting them become so loud that they drown out all other perceptions and thoughts. For example, in some of my previous blogs, I included writings that illustrate how I can feel like my father is a monster. It is important for me to be able to express that feeling, but that feeling doesn’t represent the whole of who he is. He may have done some monstrous things, but he is a complex person with his own struggles, his own victories, and his own acts of kindness and courage and strength. In other words, he is a human. When my BPD traits are on the surface, however, everything inside of me FEELS like he is 100% monster. Once I embrace that feeling as 100% truth, I am caught in an epic battle of victim versus perpetrator. I need people to affirm that they, too, see that he is 100% monster, and when they recognize other parts of his humanity, I can feel betrayed and alone. As I hope this example illustrates, my BPD traits are about my extreme reactions to what I am feeling, not the feeling itself. Perhaps this seems like an irrelevant distinction, but to me, it is important, not only for myself but also for the way I treat others. If I am able to distinguish between valid feelings and my reactions based off those feelings, I do not have to convince people that the way they think or feel is wrong. I do not have to argue inside my own head about whether my feelings are valid or not. My feelings ARE valid…and so are the ones of those who perceive situations differently than me.