There are many well-meaning people in my life who try their best to make me feel less sick when I talk about having borderline personality disorder. I understand why: it’s tough for them to hear me talk about a painful experience that they can’t relate to. They can’t give me advice about how to manage feelings they’ve never harbored because those feelings are unique to BPD. They can’t sympathize with my choices when they would have made totally different choices under the same circumstances. They are often stranded when I need help. All they can do is sit and listen.
However, it’s not human nature to stand idly by while a loved one suffers, so my loved ones tend to cast about for anything they can say to soothe me when I’m symptomatic. And unfortunately, it’s a rare occasion when they find something that does.
That’s because my condition renders me extremely sensitive to the things people say to me. BPD is sometimes referred to as the “emotional third degree burn disease” because it leaves its victims feeling exposed and raw. When I’m depressed, angry, or anxious – three common states for someone in my position – I’m like an open wound, and every word that’s offered to me stings like a fistful of salt, no matter how helpful those words are supposed to be. My borderline mind contorts the sympathy I receive until even the most well-meaning advice can feel like boiling water on a fresh burn. When this happens, I tend to lash out and smoulder all day, or just shut down and sleep for hours. Both behaviors take a lot out of me, and both are extremely painful.
Over time, the people in my life have learned that very few things don’t set me off when I’m already feeling my symptoms. Even in normal, happy conversation, I can frequently feel my family tiptoeing carefully around phrases that have triggered me in the past. I know I’ve pinned them into a permanent conversational corner: sometimes I don’t want advice, sometimes I need it; sometimes I want sympathy, other times I reject it. The only thing I consistently seem to require is that they figure out what I need without being told, which is nearly impossible to do. So when I’m upset, they’re usually reduced to taking tentative shots in the dark to figure out what kind of action is called for – without sending me past the point of no emotional return.
It’s a struggle for everybody.
I understand that I carry part of the responsibility of adjusting my irrationally negative reactions to the compassion I get from the people who want to help me. I understand that weekly therapy sessions are my burden to bear. However, the most practical way to avoid triggering me is to acknowledge that everybody has a role to play in keeping me from feeling like a burn victim. There is only so much I can do to divert my angry, depressed, and anxious energies into healthy behavior. It’s also up to my loved ones to learn what rouses my BPD in the first place, because once the fire in me starts burning, it’s almost impossible to put out.