Last winter my life fell to shit. I couldn’t function. My substance abuse and reckless behaviour escalated and began to frighten the people around me, and myself. After a short stay in my friendly neighbourhood psych ward I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is a devastating mental illness characterized by intense and raw emotions, a frantic fear of abandonment, reckless and impulsive behaviour, and often self harm and suicidality.
For me, the diagnosis made a world of sense. All of a sudden the previous 15 years of my life made sense. I finally had an explanation for my pain, an observable reason for my chaotic behaviour. I could finally begin healing because we knew what was wrong. But my friends didn’t have that same aha! moment. They were left wondering how to love and support me, both in times of crisis and on ordinary grey days. This list is for them, and for anyone who loves someone living with BPD.
Each person's experiences with BPD is different, and I can only speak for myself about what will help me when I’m suffering, but there's a good chance that if a friend with BPD shared this article with you that these are ways they would like to be supported as well.
1. When I am discouraged, Remind me of past successes. I often cannot remember anything that doesn't coincide with my current feeling. If I am depressed I can’t remember ever feeling happy, If I’m anxious I can’t recall ever feeling safe. Be specific if you can, remind me that I've survived some pretty shitty stuff and I can survive this too.
2. Remind me that normal is relative. That I'm not a freak or hopeless. Anyone who has been through what I've been through and has the challenges I have would be struggling with whatever I am in this moment. So in that respect, my fears and feelings are perfectly normal.
3.Distract me. Tell me about the great new book you are reading or that great new man you are dating or what you ate for dinner last night. Remind me to journal or exercise or create something. When my thoughts and feelings are spinning out of control I sometimes need help refocusing that energy in a safer and healthier way.
4. Don't be afraid to ask me if I'm safe, if I have a plan to hurt or kill myself. Asking me point blank reminds me that it is safe to tell on myself. And that somebody cares whether I live or die.
If you fear for my safety, get a professional involved. I want to live, but I have moments where all I can see is a way out. If thinking about suicide turns into making plans, I cannot be alone until I’ve been assessed by a mental health professional.
5. Play up my successes and play down my crises. Nobody likes to be pegged as "attention seeking" but a very present temptation for me is to engage in risky behaviour so that people will come to my aid and tell me that I matter. So celebrate with me when my life is ticking along quietly with no big crisis. A quick text to say “hi” when nothing is wrong shows me that I don’t need to act out in order to be cared about.
6. Affirm and validate instead of criticizing and dismissing. When I feel abandoned or betrayed or vulnerable, my perception of the events is more powerful than the reality. Accept that I feel the way I do, acknowledge and validate those feelings. You don’t have to agree with my sometimes skewed understanding of the scenario in order to accept that my feelings about it are legitimate and genuine.
7. It's okay to set boundaries. If I'm texting or calling you too much, tell me. Preferably kindly and when I'm not in distress. Remember that my greatest fear is being abandoned by someone I think I need, so assure me that you aren't going anywhere and that you are setting these boundaries because it's what is best for both of us and our friendship.
8. Know that I don't mean to be clingy. Since I am sometimes unable to sooth my own difficult emotions and I have an ever changing sense of identity, I tend to attach myself to people who help me to feel safe and loved. I might latch on to you, don’t get weirded out. Understand that I don't consciously choose who I will latch on to, and I don’t want to be this way. Through therapy and practicing of new skills I will learn to be more independent. In the mean time, refer to tip #7.
9. Have normal conversations with me. My life right now is a whirlwind of appointments and meetings and self care, and it can be hard to relate to friends who are living with a more ordinary set of challenges and experiences. But please don’t let that stop you. I need to laugh and chat and feel like a regular part of the human race, to feel like I did before mental illness blew my life into fragments. A good chat over a cup of coffee can go a long way to making me feel like there is hope for a normal-ish life again someday.
10. Don’t give up on me. I know that when I hurt myself, it hurts those who love me. I know that I can be needy and clingy and irrational. And although I am making progress, some days I return to old habits of thinking and behaving. I start conflicts and push people away. But those times that I am difficult to love are the times I need it most, so please continue to be patient with me.
Loving each other well is hard work, but it is a sacred work. I am thankful for all the people engaged in the hard and sacred work of loving me when I am most unlovable.