Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder

    “I hate you – don’t leave me” is the name of a popular book on Borderline Personality Disorder. The title only begins to describe the intense, rapidly changing emotions and fear of abandonment that people with this mental illness experience.

    “I hate you – don’t leave me” is the name of a popular book on Borderline Personality Disorder. The title only begins to describe the intense, rapidly changing emotions and fear of abandonment that people with this mental illness experience.

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    By her own admission, Talya Lewis was a strange child – as early as kindergarten:

    Lewis: Like I remember one day I came in with white sticky tape wrapped all around my arm, and I told everyone that it was a cast and I had broken my arm.

    Desperate for attention, she convinced her mother she couldn’t see, and got prescription glasses. By age 8 – her behaviors were self-destructive:

    Lewis: I had a game, and I called it TP, and TP actually stood for taking pills. I would rummage in my parents’ medicine chest and I would take their pills.

    This was only the beginning. Over the next years, Talya knocked her front teeth out with a hammer, started taking drugs, cutting herself, her behavior out of control in school. Her parents, whom she describes as distant socialites, didn’t seem to notice. But then came the wake up call.

    Lewis: I overdosed on a bottle of sleeping pills in my high school, in the front lobby, and that was the beginning of what ended up years of long-term confinements in a private psychiatric hospital.

    Talya was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD. Philadelphia therapist Edie Mannion describes it as a severe and complex mental illness with many symptoms:

    Mannion: Difficulty regulating emotion, like a broken emotional thermostat, and difficulty controlling impulses, and what I see as mostly a profound amount of emotional pain

    For people with this disorder, small problems explode into catastrophes, friends become enemies, love turns to hate – often with breath-taking speed. Relationships crumble, jobs rarely last. And their families are along for the ride. Camille Myers describes life with her daughter, who is in her 30s and has BPD.

    Myers: You know, at times, she doesn’t want to live, she hates me at times, her world falls apart, at times she’ll walk into a room with my friends and family, and havoc breaks loose

    Myers says relationship with her daughter is an exhausting roller-coaster.

    Edie Mannion says the disorder has a bad rap among therapists, and many of the are reluctant to work with those who suffer from it::

    Mannion: People were taught that people who have this are manipulative, and split people, and all of these kinds of stereotypes, that make people not want to work with people who have this

    A very high suicide risk also scares therapists away. Paradoxically – that’s what attracted the field’s premier researcher to this disorder.  Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington set out to test treatments for highly suicidal patients – and found herself working with borderline patients:

    Linehan: They have a ten percent suicide rate, so they are the highest rate of any group that I know, and really they are really incredibly interesting to work with.

    Linehan has developed what many hail as the most successful treatment for this disorder.  It’s called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and is an intensive, long-term intervention that tries to end the destructive cycle of intense pain and strong reaction.

    Linehan: The first thing you have to do is radically accept that you ARE hurt, and be mindful of that emotion, but also, you then have to move to trying to regulate the hurt and regulate actions related to hurt

    Patients learn these skills in individual and group sessions, during phone coaching, and the therapists have a strong support system.

    Part of the treatment is to teach family members how to de-escalate situations. Camille Meyers has taken the course and gives an example. Recently her daughter asked her for help with directions, but got very angry when Camille printed out maps for her:

    Meyers: I don’t want to read maps, I don’t like maps, maps don’t help me!!!!!!!!

    Camille remembered not to fan the flames:

    Meyers: Previously my reaction would have been okay, I can’t believe you’re telling me this, you asked me to help you, I spent all of this time … if you think they are not going to be helpful to you, I understand, maybe maps don’t work for you

    Her daughter has started Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and is doing well so far.

    Talya Lewis, meanwhile, says she’s in recovery after many turbulent years. She works as a therapist, helping people understand Borderline:

    Lewis: With this disorder I want people to have a wall of compassion, where you protect yourself, but at the same time, you can deal with the person in this kind of ongoing way, and empathetic manner.

    She says her disorder didn’t go away, but she works constantly to manage the symptoms.  It is, she admits, exhausting to be her.

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