Content warning: descriptions of self-harm and violence
By Jaclyn Supkoff
I had been excited about going to college since I was in kindergarten. I worked hard in school and stayed out of trouble to get accepted to one of the best universities in California. As September 2015 loomed before me, however, came this gnawing desire to roughen up my edges. As I progressed through my first year of college, this turned into nightmarish bouts of depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior and constantly feeling empty and worthless. I was sick, and I would have no idea why until a counselor diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder.
Borderline Personality Disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is a serious mental disorder characterized by frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, a pattern of intense and unstable relationships, impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, chronic feelings of emptiness, suicidal behavior, unstable self-image and problems controlling anger. This is a frightening list of symptoms to imagine living through, but I’ve experienced everything on that list to some degree. Life with BPD sometimes feels like living in a movie; one dramatic conflict after another. I’ve been called an attention seeker, a drama queen, and—most memorably—an "attention queen" by a former acquaintance who wasn’t very adept at idioms. That’s because for me and other people with BPD, life does feel like it’s constantly attacking us, and we would do anything to defend ourselves from the pain, even if we’re trying to escape a situation that isn’t real.
During my first quarter of college, I found myself spending my weekends getting drunk at frat parties with my roommate and a group of girls who also lived in my dorm. Walking around in the cool air at two in the morning, thinking about all the stories I could tell my friends back home. I felt like this was how I was meant to be living.
I was fooling myself to think that everything was perfect. I never really felt quite comfortable in the crowds my friends were swimming in with ease. They seemed to get social cues perfectly, and would end the night being swept away by cute guys and acquiring a million phone numbers. The seeds of resentment grew in me. I wasn’t good at hiding my anger either; I threw a metal water bottle at a drunk friend of ours once because he was trying to cut me off from drinking. I tried to apologize afterwards and felt genuinely guilty, but the incident significantly strained many friendships.
In late January 2016, I was prescribed Ativan for anxiety issues. The next week was a blur of uninhibited behavior; the Ativan made me more able to articulate the issues and express my discomfort and rage towards everyone better. I would find out later that benzodiazepines, the class of medication that Ativan belongs to, affect people with BPD extremely negatively because they reduce inhibitions and are therefore likely to increase impulsivity.
My roommate unfortunately got the brunt of this. When the pills wore off, I couldn’t remember exactly what I had done to make her so upset with me; and what I could remember mortified me. Those hours between pills consisted of nonstop crying, panic attacks and talking about how much I hated myself. This made me even more difficult to be around. Our mutual friends accused me of emotional abuse which just made me more upset and more prone to acting out.
I also started having extremely intrusive thoughts about self-harm. I would look at my razors and imagine romantic scenarios of digging the blade into my skin, peeling away the skin I felt trapped in and imagining the sensation of blood trickling out of the wound. I would always come to my senses before I could do that, but I did like to lightly trace the blade right on top of my arms and legs, enough to leave trailing white marks of dead skin and irritated pink patches. I obsessively picked scabs and relished in the feeling of the blood trickling down my body.
Eventually I ended up being put on a 5150 hold, which is when you are involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility for up to 72 hours. It felt like I was in some awful horror movie: incoherent screaming, a bathroom coated in urine and blood, employees peeking into your room with flashlights. Thankfully, my parents drove three hours up from Los Angeles to vouch for me, and I was released just twelve hours later. They gave me a diagnosis of unspecified depressive disorder, instructed me to throw my Ativan away, and prescribed me Lexapro.
The meds still weren’t a miracle cure. I moved out of the dorm into the apartments way on the other side of campus in an effort to start over. Depression gave into hedonism in the form of drug-laced hookups with long-forgotten names and faces. I spent a lot of my nights using marijuana, cigarettes, cocaine, sleeping pills and painkillers. I never said no to anything I was offered because nothing felt worse than the depression and emptiness that I felt in every sober moment. Everything school-related became a drudge and I watched my GPA drop, ending up on academic probation by the end of spring quarter. My life consisted of waking up in different beds three or four mornings every week. I was only happy when I was on a substance or in bed with someone. It was an escape from the constant cloud of negative energy in my mind; a temporary escape that would leave the real world feeling duller the next day, but an escape nonetheless.
So here I was, a little girl lost in the dark underworld of my very own mind. I’m sure you’re wondering how I climbed out, or if I even made it out at all. One part of it is that the Lexapro that I take to this day helps me act more rationally. Another is that I put energy into creating new, meaningful friendships that weren’t based on me trying to increase my social status. The biggest factor, however, is that I started taking counseling seriously. I met with my counselor from January to June, and I learned to feel comfortable being unabashedly honest with her. She didn’t flinch at any of my stories. When I would cry and act hysterical she would help me pull myself together, because she knew that landing in the hospital again was my worst nightmare.
It was in the middle of one of our meetings that she brought up the term that would change my life: She told me she felt that I fit the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. I asked, “That’s what Winona Ryder had in Girl Interrupted, right?” I even got a little bit excited just because I love that movie. She gave me a small chuckle and went over the list of symptoms with me. It really did sound like she was reading a list about me. I didn’t want to make too big a deal out of this revelation, but I became a tad obsessed. I spent the whole next day watching endless videos about BPD, reading mental health forums, going on Facebook support pages, and I felt for the first time that I had found people like me in the world. People who also lament over how they burn their relationships to a crisp, who have been called oversensitive their whole lives, who give in to impulsive behavior as much as me. This was a label I was surprisingly ecstatic to slap onto myself, just so I didn’t have to feel alone in the world anymore. It also led to starting a modified version of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a specialized therapy for people with BPD that ended up helping me considerably.
Managing my personality disorder is something I will struggle with my whole life. I’m still emotionally sensitive, suffer from panic attacks and have my days where I feel too drained to get out of bed. However, these days are much less frequent now that I’m committed to managing my thoughts and actions. My grades are improving, my vision of the future is more optimistic than ever and my personal life is stable for once. None of this would have been possible without my awareness of Borderline Personality Disorder. There are many mental health professionals who shy away from diagnosing patients with it, for fear that the diagnosis will make patients upset. However, I believe that keeping an open dialogue about BPD, no matter how difficult talking about it can be, is the key to afflicted people all across America to learn how to live mindfully and have the successful life that they deserve. I especially urge people who have been personally affected by Borderline Personality Disorder to come out of the woodwork. Share your story to end the stigma, and help people who are struggling today thrive tomorrow.