BPD Stigma

I was recently upset and appalled by an article in the August 2018 issue of Psychologies magazine, which I previously respected and have found useful in the past, referring to people who have borderline personality disorder as “energy vampires”. I have written to the editor, explaining how the article perpetuates stigma and thought other people might be interested in what I have to say. The article refers to a book by Christiane Northrup which I have not read (and have no intention of reading if it has been accurately represented), but my main concern is with what Psychologies actually approved and published.

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Psychologies magazine

Dear Suzy,

I am writing in response to the “How to avoid the energy vampires” article featured in the August 2018 issue of Psychologies magazine. The opening paragraph states: “When I use the term ‘energy vampire’, I’m talking about a subgroup of people — about one in five of us — who, in psychiatry, are called Cluster B personalities, with narcissistic, borderline, histrionic and antisocial personality disorders., and there’s a spectrum; you can certainly live with someone who’s a little self-centred and has narcissistic traits and then, at the other end, there are full-blown psychopaths.”

This email shall discuss borderline personality disorder (BPD), simply because I don’t feel qualified to comment on the other conditions mentioned. I have personal experience of BPD, having been diagnosed in November 2010, at the age of 26.

Labelling people with a mental illness — which includes BPD — is always harmful and increases stigma. To label us “energy vampires” is offensive. While the article mentions a spectrum, it uses the term “energy vampire” to refer to all people in that spectrum, including all people who have BPD. I can’t imagine that this paragraph would be accepted if, instead of referring to personality disorders, it had referred to depression, anxiety (both of which I also have been diagnosed with) or a physical illness.

Unfortunately, some mental illnesses continue to receive a disproportionate amount of stigma, stereotyping and discrimination compared to other mental illnesses. BPD is a key example and part of the problem is that it’s misunderstood, rarely being mentioned in mainstream media. On the rare occasions it is mentioned, such as in this article, it’s usually in negative terms.

The extent of this stigma can be seen across the internet and social media. Whenever Mind or Time to Change publish a blog post written by someone who has BPD, there are inevitably Facebook comments which perpetuate the negative stereotypes and stigma. These comments usually say that people with BPD are a nightmare to live with, difficult to interact with and generally not worthy of good relationships. Because BPD has not received the same amount of positive publicity as other mental health issues, people cling to the old stereotype as portrayed in Fatal Attraction. Yes, the most common impression people have of BPD is garnered from a 30 year old, misogynistic film!

Given this background, it should be obvious that labelling people with BPD as “energy vampires” feeds into the existing stigma.

I appreciate the apology you gave on Twitter and welcome any efforts to educate the general public abot BPD. There is a lot of ignorance and lack of understanding surrounding BPD, so positive representations would go a long way in addressing the damage caused by negative depictions and references. Many of us make positive contributions to our friends, families, communities and societies, but this is rarely mentioned in mainstream publications such as Psychologies.

If people with BPD are difficult to deal with, it’s because they are not receiving adequate treatment, help and support. This article makes no mention of this, simply terming all sufferers “energy vampires” who have a negative effect on the people around them.

Ironically, I had bought the magazine because I was interested in the “restore your energy” dossier and as BPD makes me incredibly sensitive to other people’s moods, I identify more as an “empath” than an “energy vampire”.

I would like to see Psychologies increase understanding of BPD. The negative stereotype is ridiculous considering the range of symptoms which can be experienced: individuals who have BPD may seem complete opposites. For example, both promiscuity and withdrawing from romantic relationships can be symptoms. Of course, the name itself is difficult for the general public to understand, with its connotations of character defects — many people assume BPD means “bad personality”. A lot of people I encounter don’t even realise BPD is a mental illness.

Please show that people with BPD are worthy of love and respect. We are capable of maintaining good relationships and contributing to other people’s lives in positive ways.

For example, I volunteer with a local youth mental health organisation. Last year, I ran a crowdfunding campaign which secured £15,000 to save our peer support groups in one particular town, which had been threatened with closure. In May last year, I completed a four day trek to Machu Picchu and raised over £1000 for Amnesty International, despite having panic attacks throughout the final morning of the trek. I blog about my mental health in an attempt to inspire other people with mental health issues to achieve their goals.

However, my own contributions are very small compared to a lot of people who have BPD. On Twitter, I see amazing examples of activism and personal achievements. People who are amazing parents, partners and professionals. Yet I never see them mentioned elsewhere.

I hope this email has explained why many of us with BPD find the article offensive and worry about its potentially damaging effects.

Kind Regards,
Hayley

 

Update: Psychologies magazine’s editor, Suzy Walker, has emailed me to take full responsibility and says that she is taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again and to promote understanding of BPD. She also invited me to blog about BPD on the magazine’s Life Labs website: click here.

I am impressed with Suzy’s response and optimistic that this mistake will lead to positive outcomes which will reduce the stigma surrounding BPD.

.

Rushing and Waiting

Progress in anything is often slow and nonlinear, but these qualities are exacerbated when you have mental health problems. In particular, anxiety and depression can create conflicting symptoms: it feels like I’m progressing too slowly and have the urge to rush into everything, yet it’s difficult to find the energy and feel motivated, plus many activities are too challenging. It feels like being torn in different directions.

Dog waiting

I have been feeling this way a lot over the past few months. So much of my time has been lost to mental illness that I feel frustrated when it steals more time from me. I’m glad and grateful that nowadays these increments of time can be (usually) measured in hours, days and weeks — in the past, they were most commonly measured in months and years — but it’s still stolen time. Time I can never get back.

My frustration might be due to my experience of losing so much time during my teens and twenties, when most of my peers were achieving amazing things, changing their lives and having fun. I may never reach the milestones of adulthood which the majority of people consider “normal”, like living independently and supporting myself without relying on state benefits, so it feels like everyone has overtaken me. I feel a deep need to prove myself, to demonstrate that my goals are worthwhile and I can make a valuable contribution to the world.

I constantly worry I am failing at life. I tend to dismiss my achievements, because it feels ridiculous to be proud of them when I struggle with tasks that most people find easy. I pressure myself to reach high standards because I hope it can atone for my failures, which include relying on my parents and finding driving a huge challenge nearly 9 years after I passed my test. If I could choose to exchange my achievements for being able to do everyday tasks, like shopping on my own and holding down a full time job, I think I would. Other people, I suspect, would find me more acceptable.

 

Waiting times.

Lately, I have been in a reflective mood. I think it’s because I had to wait several weeks for my results from my first Psychology module. In the event, I got an overall score of 95 and surpassed my expectations, but I was anxious about failing because it would effectively terminate my pursuit of the degree. I managed to almost convince myself I had messed up my final assignment so much that I had failed the module. As frustrating as it was to waste yet more time worrying for no reason, my anxiety  sometimes gives me insights: studying Psychology is very important to me.

While it should be obvious that I’m not choosing to accumulate more student loan debt for no reason, I think part of me worried about my reasons for pursuing a Psychology BSc. I have no career path mapped out. No way of knowing how my mental health will affect my life when I complete the qualification. However, I do feel a strong desire to improve my understanding of psychology and mental health so that I can help others. Perhaps I will do this through my writing; perhaps it will be via research or something else. I don’t know the route I will take, but I have clarified my first steps and am heading in the right direction.

The experience has highlighted a few truths:

1. There will always be waiting periods in my life, whether it’s waiting to hear about results or taking action in the face of excruciatingly slow progress

2. My mental health issues might mean I have more waiting periods than the average person

3. The only way to deal with waiting periods is to accept them

 

Acceptance is bloody hard.

Acceptance. It’s a simple concept, but difficult to practice. My instinct is to get upset: “why should I accept chronic mental illness when other people don’t experience it at all or for shorter periods?” And no, reminding myself that other people experience more severe mental illness for longer periods doesn’t help. Yet acceptance is the only way forward, because fighting against mental health problems doesn’t work — you have to take a collaborative approach, working within your constraints while pushing for progress.

Unfortunately, accepting my mental health issues can be difficult for other people. Many friends have dropped away because they couldn’t understand my symptoms, or why my symptoms differ from their own experiences of mental health problems. I know I’m better off without these “friends” but it’s still painful. Society in general doesn’t seem to accept mental illness. Even when people express understanding for “high functioning” people who have mental health issues, they are quick to judge those of us whose ability to work is affected. Stigma still prevails: people assume you are lazy if you need to rely on benefits, many express sympathy while acting in unsympathetic ways and judge you based on how you appear on your good days, without considering how they might be outweighed by bad days.

It’s difficult to accept your own situation when other people send negative messages. Even common assumptions can be hurtful for those of us who don’t fit the “norm” and these assumptions seem to increase as I get older. People assume a woman in her mid 30s should have her own home, be in a serious relationship, work full time, want or have children, socialise at least a few times a week, etc. I don’t fit the pattern and probably never will.

Yet everything boils down to the same old truth: improving my situation requires acceptance.

 

Learning to be patient.

I know comparing myself to others is ridiculous. Everyone’s situation, experiences and challenges are unique to themselves. All I can do is work on my own goals, try to improve my mental health and hope it all works out in the end. Oh, and I should probably try to enjoy my life along the way!

Maybe that’s the key to self-care, achieving goals, managing mental health and life in general: to aim for progress, not perfection, and have fun whenever you can.

Setting deadlines for myself isn’t always healthy, although they can sometimes help me to feel motivated. Sure, I would love to turn my life around in an instant, but that’s not realistic. I need to hold on to the positive aspects of my life, especially when they are overshadowed by the negatives, and see what happens.