Navigating College with Borderline Personality Disorder
I was recently diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) after spending two weeks in a mental hospital following two failed suicide attempts. While anything with the phrase “disorder” naturally sounds terrifying at first, it was more than a little bit relieving to have the answer to the one question I had asked all my life: “why am I the way that I am?”
What exactly is BPD? Trying to explain it to someone who has never experienced it can be quite a daunting task. My psychiatrist describes borderline personality disorder as having an “emotional sunburn.” Imagine touching the skin of a person without a sunburn as opposed to touching the skin of someone with a horrible, blistering burn. While the person without a sunburn will be fine, the one with a sunburn will be in excruciating pain. Having BPD is like always having a bad sunburn but instead of covering my skin, it covers my emotions, making it so every negative thing I feel is magnified.
Living with BPD can be tough, especially when you go through all of your childhood not knowing exactly what is wrong with you but having the overwhelming feeling every day that you aren’t exactly normal. Now, thanks to a concrete diagnosis, I can pinpoint the areas in my life that I have always had trouble with as symptoms of my disorder.
- I am extremely sensitive. I have zero capacity to accept even criticism that is being given with good intentions. I take it as a personal attack instead of seeing it from the logical standpoint that someone is simply trying to help me out. When people make negative comments about me, I overreact. I have a bank system in my brain of disparaging comments that people have made to me throughout my life. I still remember when girls were mean to me in kindergarten. I guess you can say that I have a hard time letting go of a grudge. This extreme sensitivity made growing up in a household where yelling was common very difficult.
- I can’t process stress. Stressful jobs, stressful relationships, people fighting, large groups of people, driving in traffic are all extremely difficult for me to deal with. Holding down a job when you have zero capacity to tolerate stressful situations is a challenge, along with being a college student.
- I change my identity … a lot. Finding one’s identity is a normal part of growing up but what isn’t normal is when you don’t eventually settle into one and when you alter yours so often that it eventually begins to take a toll on your wellbeing. One day I’ll be wearing Lilly Pulitzer and pearls and playing the role of a perfect Southern belle and the next I’ll be dyeing my hair black, wearing tie dye and hemp necklaces, smoking pot and listening to The Grateful Dead. I’ve been to three different universities since I started college three years ago, and I’ve changed my major about ten times. Not knowing who you are can make choosing one thing and sticking with it an impossible feat. One day I see my future self as a journalist, the next day I see myself as a psychiatrist and the next I see myself as a housewife married to a rich executive.
- I am terrified of abandonment and will do anything to avoid it, at any cost. In college my friends all wanted to join sororities. Because of my borderline personality disorder, I perceived this as them abandoning me, when in reality they really weren’t. It’s sort of a catch-22; I fear abandonment so much that I start to act so crazy when faced with the prospect of it that it ends up driving people away.
- I am extremely impulsive. I’ve shoplifted, I’ve drank myself into a coma, I’ve abused drugs, I’ve had sex with people I probably shouldn’t have had sex with, I’ve signed leases I couldn’t afford without telling my parents, I’ve gotten five speeding tickets, I’ve gone on food binges, I’ve gone on spending sprees when I didn’t have the funds.
- I think about killing myself virtually every day. This can be a tough one to deal with. It’s hard to function when you’re constantly thinking about how you want to slit your wrists or stick your head in an oven a la Sylvia Plath. My psychiatrist refers to this urge as a wave that I have to learn how to surf, instead of drowning in.
- I have severe dissociative symptoms. For example, I’ll be driving and 20 minutes later I’ll realize that I have blacked out and have no idea where I am, which can be extremely scary. Sometimes I convince myself I’m not real, or that the world around me is not real, a phenomenon that can be very unsettling. Life constantly feels like a dream (or sometimes a nightmare) to me. Sometimes I even go as far as convincing myself I am dead and that I am in purgatory. I tend to retreat into my mind when I feel anxious or stressed.
- I’m constantly paranoid that other people are talking to me, even though I know that logically they have no reason to be. My mind also tricks me into believing that my friends hate me and that they want me to go away.
- I’m constantly bored and will do anything to fill the big black hole in my heart. I’ve learned that filling it with meaningless sex, and drugs just makes things harder.
Being a college student with BPD can be extremely challenging at times. I have to closely monitor my thoughts and actions and separate the ones that are really mine from the ones that belong to my BPD. Seeing a therapist, attending support groups, sticking to a strict regime of taking antidepressants and mood stabilizers and finding ways to reduce my anxiety such as writing have helped me learn how to manage my disorder, however, and I am confident I can graduate college and have a normal life despite the hardships that stand in my way.
O'Brien, J. (2013). Navigating College with Borderline Personality Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 1, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/navigating-college-with-borderline-personality-disorder/