I know it’s been quite a while since you heard from any of us, but it has, once again, been one heck of a time. Amongst all of the usual university stuff and actually acquiring a social life (I know, I’m shocked, too), I have been a coming to terms with the fact that I have BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). And so, in a very on brand move, I’m organising my thoughts in a post.
This is very much a whistle-stop tour of BPD – there’s a lot more to it than what I’ve listed here, so if you’re here because you’re genuinely thinking of writing a BPD character, please don’t use this as your only source!
The Nine Traits
BPD is defined by nine personality traits. As with many illnesses, not everyone with BPD experiences every symptom, so when I say ‘people with BPD’ I don’t necessarily mean all of them. You need at least five traits to ‘qualify’.
1. Fear of Abandonment – Many people with BPD fear being alone. The smallest change in tone, routine or distance can trigger this fear. In response, many people either cut the potential abandoner off preemptively, or do everything possible to cling on to the other person. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect.
2. Unstable Sense of Identity – People with BPD often struggle to identify who they are or what they want. This can result in frequent changes in style, routine, morals, hair colour, occupation… basically you name it, it’s changeable. This can also mean very quick changes between inflated self-confidence and violent self-hate.
3. Unstable Relationships – One of the biggest indicators of BPD is unstable relationships. Relationships are likely to be very intense, but short-lived. This is complicated further by splitting – essentially seeing the world in black and white; either loving or hating people, with no in-between. The relationship is either perfect or terrible.
4. Extreme Mood Swings – BPD comes with very changeable moods. The tiniest thing can completely ruin a good mood, and an amazing mood can come out of nowhere. This is one of the major ways in which BPD differs from bipolar, which it is often confused with; the mood swings with bipolar tend to last much longer, whereas the time scale with BPD is much shorter.
5. Constant Feelings of Emptiness or, as I like to call it, my good friend The Void. People with BPD often feel empty or lost, and will try to fill The Void with things like drugs, sex, food and other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
6. Feeling Out of Touch with Reality – People with BPD can find that they feel suspicious or paranoid often. Some even experience hallucinations, especially when under stress. This can include disassociation, which is another fun experience to be explored another day.
7. Anger – Whether directed internally or externally, people with BPD can experience very intense anger. This can come in the form of a constant underlying anger, or in explosive outbursts that involve yelling and throwing things.
8. Impulsive Behaviours – As an unhealthy way to deal with The Void, many people engage in reckless and impulsive behaviours such as overspending, overeating, unsafe sex, reckless driving, or overdosing on drugs or alcohol. These are especially likely in times of stress, and may help in the short term, but quite often have the opposite effect long term.
9. Self-harm & Suicide – This one is fairly self-explanatory, so I won’t go into it too much. Threats of suicide are stereotypically associated with BPD, but there are many kinds of both self-harm and suicidal behaviours that are common in people with BPD.
I usually point people to this listicle using the universal language of memes to explain the nine traits.
Doctors are hesitant to diagnose BPD because there’s no cure for it. Because there’s such an overlap with other mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and PTSD, it’s also easy to bounce between diagnoses before settling on one (or more).There are multiple types of BPD. Nobody can really agree on what these are, or even how many there are, just that they exist. I started to research them for this post, but there are so many different interpretations of so many different types that I don’t feel qualified to talk about them. This is, however, a testament to just how different people with BPD are.In terms of treatment, the options are pretty bleak. I was offered such a high dose of antidepressants that I was warned they would have a ‘sedative’ effect, which I turned down. However, there are many people with BPD on varying forms of medication – again, it’s very person-specific. There are also various forms of therapy – a few people I’ve come across have found DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy), a form of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to be helpful. As a new kid on the BPD scene, I don’t quite know my way around the therapy options yet.
BPD in Media
There’s disappointingly little good fiction about BPD. There are very few examples where characters are explicitly diagnosed with BPD, and those where they are often conform to the manipulative, ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ stereotype.
Ironically, my favourite example of a BPD character is in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015). *SPOILER* but the main character isn’t diagnosed with BPD until the third season, giving the audience a chance to know and love Rebecca separately from her BPD. While she very clearly displays all of the symptoms of BPD, she as still funny, lovable and unique as any well-designed neurotypical protagonist.
Many people also feel that Anakin Skywalker is a good example of BPD. While this doesn’t exactly help in terms of fighting the vilification of people with BPD, I feel like it’s a pretty accurate statement. I was planning to explain more here, but I think I’ll do a whole post on this at some point – apart from anything else, it’s a good excuse to rewatch Star Wars.
The basic gist, though, is that characters with BPD are still their own people. Anakin Skywalker and Rebecca Bunch are still very different people, with personalities outside of BPD. And, while Anakin isn’t exactly the friendliest of guys (I once drunkenly tried to reassure a friend that my BPD wouldn’t make me kill all the younglings), not all people with BPD are villains – we may be somewhat dysfunctional, but, like everyone else, we’re all just doing our best.
As with every post like this, I should emphasise that I’m not a doctor – the information here may not be 100% accurate, and it definitely won’t be a representation of the experiences of every person with BPD. I’m only speaking from my own experiences.
If you found this post useful, you may also like my post on writing allergies and Finn’s post on writing autism. I also spoke about mental illness in fiction a while back.