Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Dysfunctional Personality

The subject of Borderline Personality Disorder came up during a recent on-line conversation. That’s when I remembered finding out, to my surprise, that my complete diagnosis actually includes that one too. I’m not sure if it’s because my doctors just don’t have the time to go into all of their findings with me, or what, but I never would have known at all if not for having a “friend with access” who provided me with a complete printout.

Amazingly enough, I’ve never gotten around to dragging an explanation out of my doctors. Between the fact that there were more than one little “mystery” in that printout, and having to reveal just how I had come across the information in the first place, I simply could never figure out how to go about it.

Prior to this on-line conversation, I hadn’t thought about my “mystery” diagnosis for years. But once my curiosity was aroused I decided that I wanted to know more. So I finally clicked on a link in one of the e-mails I get on a regular basis from various mental health related sites, and after a little more clicking, came across an interesting New York Times article that provides some fascinating insights into an often misunderstood condition.

What I found so fascinating was the fact that the definition for Borderline Personality Disorder is so broad that it not only includes my symptomatology, but also that of other members of my own family that I wouldn’t have thought shared the same illness I did. If you’ve read the other articles in the My Life series, then perhaps you can understand my amazement.

For example, the article says:

People with the disorder are said to have a thin emotional skin and often behave like 2-year-olds, throwing tantrums when some innocent word, gesture, facial expression or action by others sets off an emotional storm they cannot control. The attacks can be brutal, pushing away those they care most about…


In an effort to maintain calm, families often struggle to avoid situations that can set off another outburst. They walk on eggshells, a doomed effort because it is not possible to predict what will prompt an outburst. Living with a borderline person is like traversing a minefield; you never know when an explosion will occur.

While the part about having a “thin emotional skin” may certainly fit in with my symptoms, there are members of my family that this entire description fits to a tee. To this day, I have a very difficult time being around them because the stress of having to “walk on eggshells” is just too much for my fragile mentality to deal with.

But “family history” plays such a large role in mental health issues that I have always wondered if there is a common link between my illness – that I have decided to recognize and deal with – and the obvious issues that my family has never even been willing to acknowledge. Fortunately, the article addresses that as well:

… affected individuals seem to be born with a quick and unduly sensitive emotional trigger. The condition appears to have both genetic and environmental underpinnings. Brain studies have indicated that the emotional center of the nervous system — the amygdala — may be overly reactive, while the part that reins in emotional reactions may be underactive.

As children, people who will develop the disorder are often “hyperreactive, hypervigilant and supersensitive,” Valerie Porr, a therapist in New York, said in an interview. Typically they receive a host of misdiagnoses and treatments that are inappropriate and ineffective.

“Some children need more than others in learning to regulate their emotions,” said Marsha M. Linehan, a psychologist at the University of Washington who devised the leading treatment for borderline disorder.

“These kids require a lot of effort to keep themselves emotionally regulated,” Dr. Linehan said in an interview. “They do best with stability. If the family situation is chaotic or the family is very uptight, teaching children to grin and bear it, that tough kids don’t cry, these children will have a lot of trouble.”

Finally, I’m beginning to see the whole picture. “Hyperreactive, hypervigilant and supersensitive” absolutely describes both myself and other members of my family. And if there was a picture of my family in some “encyclopedia of dysfunctional families,” the caption would read: “An uptight and chaotic situation, where children are taught to ‘grin and bear it’ and ‘tough kids don’t cry.’”

In the end, I guess the only thing that really distinguishes us is that part about “a lot of effort to keep themselves emotionally regulated.” While it has cost me more than I ever expected, I’m the only one out of my entire family who tried to model his behavior on the example set by Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. Of the limited choices my childhood provided to me, I’ve chosen to just be cool. 8-)

To read the full article: An Emotional Hair Trigger, Often Misread.

I want ice water.

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