Imagine you are ice skating for the first time on a frozen lake. Unless you are a natural talent, you will be very wobbly at first. You desperately search for support, which you can only find from your fellow human beings, as there are no boards like on a skating rink and no penguins to practise on. Eventually you will get better, with time and practice. You might even get into a flow where you glide elegantly across the ice like a figure skater and enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with it to the full. But then you may stumble and your insecurity on the ice increases again. Once again, you look for a foothold until things get better again. The only thing that remains constant is the risk of falling and, in the worst case, breaking into the ice if it is still too thin in some places.

The connection may seem very abstract at first, but it feels very similar to living with borderline personality disorder. The only differences are that it’s rarely enjoyable, and you’re more or less trapped on the ice without the option to simply get off when tired or weak. Additionally, sitting or lying down on the ice is not allowed, as that would be too easy. This leaves you permanently without firm, stable ground under your feet.

Borderline personality disorder, also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder, is a mental illness associated with a high level of suffering, and as the name suggests, emotional instability. I don’t like the term personality disorder. It implies that my personality is inherently pathological. On the other hand, it’s an illness that often persists for many years despite therapy and has a profound influence on one’s life, even if you don’t define yourself by your illness.

It has been scientifically proven that the brain of a person with borderline personality disorder functions differently resulting in significantly heightened emotions. Even minor occurrences can trigger intense emotions. This can be difficult in everyday life. For example, a slightly curt response from a friend can quickly spiral into a chain of emotions, including fear of rejection and subsequent sadness or anger. Mistakes often evoke intense feelings of guilt and self-hatred, as individuals with borderline personality disorder commonly struggle with low self-confidence and seek validation externally. On the other hand, positive emotions can also be very intense and the mood can sometimes fluctuate very quickly.

As I mentioned in my ice skating comparison, other people play an important role. Individuals with borderline personality disorder often form intense attachments to specific individuals, feeling as though they cannot live without them. Conflict or abandonment in these relationships frequently triggers severe emotional crises. However, it is also possible for individuals with borderline personality disorder to develop particularly intense, wonderful, and deep relationships.

Tension is one of the most common symptoms of borderline. I constantly feel as if electricity is running through my body.

(Sometimes people notice the tension by trembling or a tense posture)

It’s an unpleasant tension that I actually want to get rid of somehow because I can’t find peace. However, when it disappears, I often find myself plunged into an unbearable inner emptiness and boredom.

Black-and-white thinking also plays an significant role. It’s all or nothing.  Contradictions are difficult for those with borderline personality disorder to understand, yet themselves are walking paradoxes. They jump from one extreme to the other instead of choosing a middle ground. For instance, I can alternate between being hard-working and achieving above-average results at university and then being completely demotivated and listless again. But it’s not just my own behaviour that is all or nothing. The behaviour of others is also seen as either black or white. If someone does something bad, I struggle to reconcile that with their good qualities. So, they are alternately viewed as completely good or evil, idealized one moment and completely devalued the next. 

(The reasons for this often stem from childhood experiences. For instance, if a child couldn’t comprehend why their mother suddenly shouted at them or treated them poorly, it’s easier for them to perceive their mother as two different people: one loving and one consistently malevolent.)

In general, traumatic experiences in the past often underlie borderline personality disorder.

When reminded of these experiences, individuals typically experience so-called dissociation, a protective mechanism of the brain triggered when emotions become too overwhelming to bear.

When dissociating, I feel as if I’m wrapped in cotton wool. All the noises sound quieter, as if I’m far away, and my vision is blurred. That’s why everything feels so unreal, as if I’m dreaming. Even when I look in the mirror, I hardly recognize myself. This feeling is truly frightening. However, in therapy, you learn methods to navigate out of this state, primarily through exposure to strong stimuli, such as the smell of ammonia or immersing your face in a bowl of ice cubes.

Depending on the severity of the illness, individuals may experience frequent crises accompanied by suicidal thoughts and self-harming behavior. Self-harm is a harmful but effective short-term strategy to cope with the feelings and intense tension or to feel oneself again in the event of dissociation. Unfortunately, like any other addiction, this behaviour is addictive and can have a very deterrent effect on other people. For me, summer is therefore the worst time of year. The warmth makes it difficult to wear long clothes, yet the scars from my self-harming behavior mean I must endure the sometimes pitying, shocked, or even disgusted looks I receive in public. 

(I’ve been in therapy for years, been hospitalized numerous times, and rely on medication. Despite ongoing symptoms that significantly affect my daily life, there also are phases when I feel better. These periods are becoming more frequent and lasting longer as I work hard on myself. I’ve also developed more willpower to get through the bad phases and a support network that catches me. I think this is particularly important for improving my condition.)

There is a wealth of support available, including counseling centers, self-help groups, therapy, clinics, assisted living facilities, and medication. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has been particularly effective for me, as it teaches skills to better understand and regulate emotions. So, you don’t have to face the journey alone, and things can improve. Along the way, I hope that everyone affected by mental illness will gain understanding, and that one day I’ll be able to openly discuss my illness, much like discussing the flu, without encountering prejudice or undue expectations, or being judged for my scars. People with mental illness aren’t “crazy”. We all carry our own burdens, and ours may just be a bit heavier and more visible.

This is my personal experience with the illness, while everyone’s experience can be different. If you relate to these points and/or if you’re generally feeling mentally unwell, please consider seeking professional help.

You can find these, for example, under the following numbers/pages:

Borderline Netzwerk München

Krisendienst Oberbayern 0800 / 655 3000 (crisis service)

Kinder- und Jugendtelefon 116 111 (children and youth telephone) (crisis chat)

Telefonseelsorge: 0800 1110111 (telephone counselling service)

Translated by Joeline O‘Reilly

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