Living With and Recovering From Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
online conference transcript
Melissa Ford Thornton, author of "Eclipses: Behind The Borderline Personality Disorder, joined us to discuss what life is like with Borderline Personality Disorder. She discussed her suicide attempts, self-injury, fears of abandonment, hospitalization, and progress with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). She also answered many audience questions regarding relationships, medications, and wanting to die but finding the will to live.
David: HealthyPlace.com moderator.
The people in blue are audience members.
David: Good Evening. I'm David Roberts. I'm the moderator for tonight's conference. I want to welcome everyone to HealthyPlace.com. Our topic tonight is "Living With and Recovering From Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)." Our guest is Melissa Ford Thornton, author of "Eclipses: Behind The Borderline Personality Disorder."
For many years, Ms. Thornton suffered tremendous pain because of Borderline Personality Disorder. She describes it as like "living in hell." Although there are still many therapists today who feel that BPD is untreatable or too difficult to treat, Ms. Thornton is living proof that it is possible. She details her life with BPD and recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder in "Eclipses: Behind The Borderline Personality Disorder." You can purchase her book by clicking on the link.
Good evening, Melissa and welcome to HealthyPlace.com. You say life was like a living hell with BPD. Why? What were you feeling? What was life like for you?
Melissa Thornton: Hello to you and our audience. I was first diagnosed with anorexia and had difficulty not dissociating - that is losing my consciousness of being in my own body. It was as if I were watching my life from above with no participation in events, including starvation and cutting behaviors.
David: And you were how old at that time?
Melissa Thornton: I was 29 - perhaps significant.
David: Why do you say that is significant?
Melissa Thornton: I was preparing to enter my thirties and I wanted children with my husband as well as the public relations/writing career I had at that time. Decade transitions can be quite difficult for many people.
David: Prior to that time, had you suffered any sort of mental illness?
Melissa Thornton: I believe, as does my psychiatrist of more than a decade, that I have been emotionally vulnerable and sensitive and had glimpses of childhood molestation, beginning as far back as 17 years of age.
David: For those in the audience who want to know what Borderline Personality Disorder is, please click on the link for a full description.
And so you started dissociating and became involved with anorexia. This must have been scary for you.
Melissa Thornton: Yes. It was terrifying. Since I had not recognized the earlier, overt signs that could lead to this mental disorder I certainly felt alone and that was "hellish" for me.
David: For those people who aren't intimately familiar with Borderline Personality Disorder, can you please describe what kind of behaviors you were involved in and the kinds of feelings you were experiencing?
Melissa Thornton: The formal physicians' diagnostic criteria lists at least five of nine symptom categories for BPD to become a diagnosis. I didn't know this and saw all nine and was afraid I would develop what I didn't already have. As nearly as I can recall, I was very depressed, had low self esteem - sometimes none. I was perfectionistic. I was over-spending (on clothing mostly). I was intensely suicidal with several parasuicidal episodes. I wanted to die. My mother had committed suicide several years before. No one explained that you can recover or live productively with a mental illness or disorder, so I just wanted to save my family from another round of hope and heartbreak.
David: By the way, what year was this when the BPD symptoms started to appear (when you were 29)? And how old are you now?
Melissa Thornton: Ah, you admitted it. I thought you were trying to reveal my real-time age! It began in 1991. I turned 38 in June, 2000.
David: So, it wasn't that long ago. And you were already married at that time. How did your husband react to this?
Melissa Thornton: It wasn't that long ago, and I do have bouts with Borderline maladaptive behaviors to this day. My husband is one strong soul-mate. He has stood by my side every step of the way. I think, emotionally, this has affected him as much or even harder (when I was dissociative or on heavy doses of medication) than it has me.
David: Melissa, let's get to a couple of audience questions, and then we'll talk about your recovery and experiences with DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). Here's the first question:
bordergirl: What is a good description of dissociating?
Melissa Thornton: That's a good question. Dissociation generally refers to the separation (perceived by the person experiencing this) of their mind and body. It is a form of psychoses. It is a loss of the ability to be in touch with reality. Doctors working with abuse victims often say it is a coping mechanism in that the mind cannot handle the reality - molestation, beating, etc. Therefore, the mind goes elsewhere and does not feel current pain/humiliation. Is this helpful? Obviously, I didn't remember the abuse - however, I was suicidal and was cutting my wrists yet I felt no pain at all and it seemed as if this was happening to someone else.
lostsoul19: Melissa, why, specifically, did you want to die?
Melissa Thornton: I did not feel worthwhile at all. I felt I was a failure at work and too unhappy to be a good spouse much less future mother. My mother had suicided (clinical depression plagued her for more than 5 years). That was 5 years before my problems began. I did not know that someone did not die if they were diagnosed as mentally ill. That made it hard for me to avoid the "lie" that "everyone would be better off without me."
David: So, are you saying that you believed that having a mental illness was really like getting a death sentence?
Melissa Thornton: You took those words right out of my mouth. I was so uninformed and confused by multiple diagnoses with the eating disorder invisible to me - I was in denial and pain constantly.
David: One of the signs of Borderline Personality Disorder is inappropriate,intense anger or difficulty controlling anger. Did you experience that and could you describe that for us?
Melissa Thornton: Yes, my poor spouse experienced that! I threw things and had crying and screaming jags that lasted hours at home. At work, I snapped at co-workers which was very unlike my normally optimistic and encouraging personality ( so others have said)!
David: Were you aware of these things as being inappropriate and you just couldn't help yourself or were you unaware?
Melissa Thornton: I was aware much later. When I calmed down, often with my husband's encouraging, unflagging love leading me to that point emotionally. I would became so regretful and self-punitive that the cycle of depression and suicidality would begin again.
David: Here are a few more audience questions on what we've discussed so far:
skier4444: How can you be married? One of my biggest problems with having BPD is that I can't have any relationships - I've never had one.
Melissa Thornton: I understand that and know it must be painful. I understand that one of the hallmarks of BPD is instability in relationships or inability to remain in one. I was hospitalized long-term once diagnosed. There, I saw many long-term singles, divorcees, and divorces in progress. I suppose I was more mentally healthy when I married at 20.
missnic: Also, I have met someone and he is real kind, caring, and sweet, yet I feel like pushing him away, but I feel I don't want him away. I feel scared, why? How do I tell him I have BPD?
Melissa Thornton: This sounds like a complex issue for discussion with a mental health professional. Have you read "I Hate You, Don't Leave Me?" That describes the relationship 'push/pull but don't abandon me' feelings pretty thoroughly.
David: Here are a couple of audience comments, then I want to talk about your recovery.
abyss: I am in a relationship with a man I totally love or hate. Relationships are always painful for me. I want to die when I feel that pain. I feel so uncontrollable in relationships.
missnic: I have met people in my life who don't know I have BPD and I'm afraid to tell them in case they freak out and leave me.
SpunkyH: I have the same relationship problem. I functioned well until about 42 - been married to the same man and he is so good to me. I think the reason he is able to be supportive is because he knows how I was before the BPD showed itself.
SADnLONELY: I know how you feel, abyss.
David: Your BPD symptoms started in 1990. What year did you check yourself into Highland Hospital for inpatient treatment and what prompted that?
Melissa Thornton: It was 1991, actually. By April of 1992, my psychiatrist (I'd been locally hospitalized for the physical ravages of anorexia at first) recommended and made it a condition of her continuing as my psychiatrist that I enter either Highland Hospital or New York Hospital, Cornell, after a near-fatal overdose.
David: And what happened while you were at Highland?
Melissa Thornton: That was a miracle. I learned, slowly but surely, the main skills used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), developed by Marsha Linehan, a Seattle based psychologist. However, DBT had not been used in an inpatient setting until 1991. My good fortune! I entered this therapy which has clinically been proven to reduce self-harm over time.
David: Can you define Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)? What is it. Can you describe the DBT process?
Melissa Thornton: Borderlines tend to think of things in terms of black and white. Basically, things are either so good I can conquer the world or so terrible I am lonely and in pain and want to die. Dialectic means holding or relating to two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. Thus the DBT is behaviorally based and accepts a person where they are but insists on incremental changes to the point of using the skill "tool-box" offered by Linehan's approach. For example, people would learn to see that Winter might be very cold and an isolating time for some, yet it is a natural seasonal change and allows the ground to be fallow, the sap to lower in trees, and thus allowing a time for post-harvest activities such as tilling the land for food, and trees to be transplanted, and, most importantly, for cozy indoor activities and/or fun adventures even for sufferers of SAD (Seasonal affective disorder) to try skiing or skating, etc. So winter is neither good nor bad; it is neutral or both. I like to think of good/bad things or happy/sad things and find not a grey area but the full spectrum of colors - the rainbow inbetween black and white.
David: A few site notes, then we'll continue: You can click on the Personality Disorders Community link and sign up for our weekly newsletter, so you can keep up with events like this.
Dr. Leland Heller's site, Life on the Border, is here. I'm also getting some questions on self-injury. We have several excellent sites that deal with many aspects of self-injury: A Healing Touch and Vanessa's "Blood Red" site.
So what you are saying, Melissa, is that DBT is a therapy that allows the person to see that not everything is black and white, good or bad, but there's a grey area where most people live.
Melissa Thornton: That's it on a very basic level. There are many skills and an outpatient DBT groups session includes homework on honing those that work for a person. The idea is to realize that most if not all things are "both" - even if the "both" sound opposite. Life is good but hard - both are true. Is that more clear?
David: Yes. How long did this therapy take to have an impact in the way you felt and the way you behaved?
Melissa Thornton: I was a pretty sick puppy. I was hospitalized long-term. For me, that was close to one year with many subsequent hospitalizations locally. I had to make a safety plan matching inappropriate emotional states to actions - DBT skills I would use. These were reviewed in Highland prior to release and then made contractual (binding) with my very skilled psychiatrist at home.
David: We have a lot of audience questions. Let's get to some of those:
Filly: I am 7 months into DBT (and very thankful to have found it), but sometimes I have trouble finding the willingness to use my skills. Did you find this, and if so, how did you deal with it?
Melissa Thornton: I really do understand motivational problems. However, we both know how painful BPD can be for us. If we've made it through even one really tough episode and lived to tell the tale we can always say: Hey, I've felt this bad (or worse) before. I can make to the other side - if I use my skills, be it making it out of bed, to that doctor appointment, or calling 911 BEFORE self-harm occurs.
SweetPeasJT2: Melissa, what do you think about psychotherapy to deal with those issues that caused the BPD?
Melissa Thornton: I have found that really important in my recovery. Different things work for different people. That includes medication intake or not.
little1scout: Several questions: Are you on any medications currently? Do you regard DID and Borderline as one and the same? Was inpatient treatment important? What is the hardest part of therapy now?
Melissa Thornton: Yes, I'm on several medications - mostly antidepressants and a brigade of mood-stabilizers (in my case a few anti-seizure medications have worked to help my self-control). Dissociative Identity Disorder is one name for Multiple Personality Disorder - likely because so many MPs have DID in some form. Dissociation is a psychotic episode that can be part of many mental illnesses, including BPD to schizoid personalities, etc.
Can you tell us how you are now, symptom-wise?
Melissa Thornton: Inpatient treatment was imperative for me. I would surely have successfully suicided by now had I not been in such a controlled environment. I'm much much better, thank you. In fact, I am on the books as bipolar (manic-depressive) only. However, I still tend to recognize BPD symptoms, such as lack of appetite, loss of motivation, overspending, and dangerous driving that could be parasuicidal when I feel overwhelmed or under extreme stress. I have been blessed with a baby boy, born in 1, and remained on my medications duirng my pregnancy. He is just perfect. I feel so blessed that my husband and I have that long-awaited pitter patter of little feet.
David:Melissa has a two year old son now. And I want to talk about that in a minute, too.
Psych_01: After dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder myself and in group atmospheres I have found that it appears that an individual must WANT to get better. Do you feel this is a big part of recovery?
Melissa Thornton: The psychologist and psychiatrist on the BPD ward had clinical data that revealed an early committment to life, i.e. will to live, was the best indication of a successful move toward wellness and or productively living with the illness in much less pain. I want to say that if you don't have that, please don't give up. I didn't. The odds toward suicide were stacked against my survival, but I'm so very glad I am here. Even if I hurt more than I feel others might at times and more frequently, I know my mom would be proud to see me now.
David: That's interesting, Melissa. You went through the eating disorder, the self injury, the mental torment, the suicidal behaviors. You said your life was a "living hell." How and when did you develop the will to live?
Melissa Thornton: To be honest, one spring day at Highland, when I had the privilege to go to and from my psychiatrist's appointment unescorted and I noticed the sky was blue and the birds were singing and I felt a teeny-tiny surge of happiness. It was probably my response to one of many antidepressants that had finally begun to work for me. That is, they ruled several out one by one and this one seemed to affect me positively. But, I also think I had some skilled behaviors under my belt by then and attribute my life to both.
David: Here's an audience member comment on her DBT experience:
Willow_1: I just finished a DBT program at McLean hospital. It was wonderful.
Melissa Thornton: That's fantastic. Keep maintaining those skills.
David: Here's the next audience question:
SADnLONELY: One trait of BPD is self-injury. DBT teaches skills to learn other ways instead of self-injury. I am still having the hardest time with this. Did you have this trouble? If so, what did you do to not self-injure?
Melissa Thornton: One DBT skill is to replace the need to feel pain or be self-punitive by swapping a self-injurous item for a painful but harmless item. For me it meant holding a piece of ice in my hand until it melted entirely. This hurts! I also saw my scars stand out from veins turning purple. This made me realize how much I'd hurt myself and mainly others in my life. I simply felt I would not do that again. There are other alternatives: snapping a rubber band against your wrist until you feel calmer, a COLD shower, and painful excercise sessions may work for you.
David: Here are a couple of comments on that subject:
SADnLONELY: I have tried this and the rubber band thing, but it's still not satisfying my need.
SpunkyH: My swapping is cutting my hair. It feels so good to pull it straight up and CUT, but it does me no harm.
David: You are married. You have a 2 year old son. I am wondering about the emotional bonding process with your son. Did you/are you finding that difficult at all?
Melissa Thornton: Wow! At first it was very difficult. I had a very happy pregnancy but when that child was in my arms needing me for everything and I couldn't just say, "hang on I need a nap," I suffered a severe post-partum depression. This was so unexpected by me after so many months of happiness - real happiness! So many family members just jumped in and took Ford's (my son) care into their hands. Well, I guess that left me feeling even worse - useless. But he still heard my voice and knew my smell even though I coudn't breastfeed (meds), and eventually I gained enough self-control to show others I was safe and so was Ford. About 3 months into this parenting business we laughed and sang.
I wasn't always the happiest person. I felt so alone and isolated, but I can say I love to bathe that boy and he gets muddy at any chance! I try to be patient and to forgive myself when he willfully disobeys - don't we all? And he runs to hug me in the mornings or to be picked up and says MAMA - his 1st word. Yes, we're very closely bonded.
David: Are you concerned at all about him picking up on your BPD behaviors? And, if so, how do you handle that?
Melissa Thornton: Yes. In fact, I worry about the fact that there is a genetic link to have a tendency toward (not necessarily to develop) emotional disorders and my illness(es) could well have come through my mother's genes. I use a lot of self-control skills and listen to upbeat music when I'm with him. I haven't cried in front of him except once a few weeks ago. He was very upset and patted my face. My husband got angry at me for showing such emotion in front of him. I saw it as a healthy opportunity - to say Mommy's sad. It's ok to be sad sometimes. I know when you can't find your favorite stuffed animal you are sad and a little lonely. That's ok. I hope you always feel you can trust Daddy and me with your feelings and will share them with us. He's only 2 but I think over time this will sink in and help us all be more emotionally aware.
David: Here are a few more audience comments on what we've been discussing tonight:
nomobody: Aren't tears a normal thing? I mean, everybody hurts, not just people with BPD.
Melissa Thornton: So true.
Browneyes83: Do you know if Borderline personality is hereditary? Can it be passed on to your children?
Melissa Thornton: At this time, I am not aware of any scientific evidence proving that. The propensity to be more emotionally demonstrative and sensitive is proven to be genetically passed in some families. Not every family with emotional individual(s) will find that propensity in their offspring. It is just a theory in my case between my mother and me.
David: A few more comments:
Nyoka75: I worry that my husband will eventually get scared off due to the BPD and that I will be alone with no one to help me when I need it. Do you ever feel that way?
Melissa Thornton: Sure. Borderline Personality Disorder brings on abadonment fear oftentimes.
SADnLONELY: The anger is the worst part for me. The slightest bit of anger brings me to a boiling point and it takes control over me. It has me so afraid of hurting others that I must hurt myself in order to stay safe.
SpunkyH: I do push him away. Since we have a brother and sister relationship, I feel so bad because he is a wonderful man and I am not willing to give of myself since the memories have came back. I, like you, want to die the minute I feel that he is not supportive because life is just not worth hurting the ones I love over and over again, but then I realize the truth that me not being here would hurt them more. I learned this through years of psychiatric care.
bordergirl: I can SO identify with the black and white part. I struggle with it everyday. The worst part of having BPD is staying in therapy on a regular basis (for me anyway).
SpunkyH: Boy, I can relate to that. The 'Good or I want to die' switch happens so quick sometimes.
David: Here's the next question:
furby5: Are you able to maintain close relationships with people or do you run away when people get too close?
Melissa Thornton: I tend to maintain close relationships - quality not quantity. BPs tend to be caretakers of everyone but themselves. Some relationships with friends became too unhealthy for me. If I was up they'd bring me down; if I was down they might sink my boat almost.
David: Do you still deal with fears of abandonment?
Melissa Thornton: Yes, I do. Sometimes I dream my husband has taken my son and left me. This has translated into really terrifying clingy behaviors. I finally got a mental analogy that worked for me to stop the clingy behavior or slow me from it. That is when you're swimming underwater (which life with BPD feels like a lot to me), the more you reach out to grasp something - a penny floating down or whatever, the more your own movement pushes it away from you. So, I try to be less afraid of my unconscious thoughts (dreams), but very much on top of my early warning signs of negative behaviors so that I can put my safety plan and skills into motion before I do something that might be pushing my husband away and/or making him feel I am unsafe to be a mother.
David: You have been dealing with mental illness for over 10 years now. A lot of times people come to the site or conferences and ask "when will I recover?," meaning when will all the symptoms go away. Do you still hold out hope for that or do you believe it's a matter of managing the symptoms for the rest of your life?
Melissa Thornton: I do want a full recovery, but I have learned from several doctors that I will likely be on medication for my lifetime. I also know from Highland Hospital studies that as we grow older with BPD we can "outgrow" the worst symptoms. In fact, some Borderlines have reached the point - 75% of the known BPD population, in this aging group in fact - no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for the illness. So there's always hope. But to live hopefully is a life worth living. Not hoping for full recovery, I believe.
David: And when you say "grow older," at what age are you talking about when you outgrow the symptoms or many of the symptoms?
Melissa Thornton: That's a grey or "rainbow" area, David. The Highland studies found that those approaching 50 and having had the illness and professional help for it for at least 5 -10 years met the criteria for the 75% recovered group.
David: One of the other things I noticed is that you keep track of your moods, symptoms, behaviors, feelings; like you monitor your condition so you know when things are off kilter and you need to take some positive action. I don't know if you have ever heard of the author Mary Ellen Copeland, but this reminds me a lot of what she advocates as part of her "wellness plan."
Melissa Thornton: Yes, I have seen her work book. I journal - maybe a natural outgrowth of being a writer by trade, but others help me as well. My husband mentions when he thinks something is off and it might really hack me off but then I reflect or look over journal entries and/or ask a close friend and usually apologize and thank him for his insight.
David: Here is Mary Ellen Copeland's site. There's a lot of excellent information there about developing a crisis plan, dealing with depression, manic depression, suicidal thoughts, having support and a wellness action recovery plan .
And do you have a website, Melissa? If so, please post the link?
Melissa Thornton: No, but my publisher does. http://www.childadvocacy.com/msano.html
David: Good. Melissa's book is: "Eclipses: Behind The Borderline Personality Disorder." It can be purchased by clicking on this link.
Some kind words from an audience member for our guest tonight:
missnic: I wanna thank you Melissa. I have always felt so alone and different and isolated, but after seeing everyone here and reading your chat I don't feel so alone or so different. It has helped. Thank you.
David: Thank you, Melissa, for being our guest tonight and for sharing this information with us. And to those in the audience, thank you for coming and participating. I hope you found it helpful. We have a very large and active community here at HealthyPlace.com. You will always find people in the chatrooms and interacting with various sites. Also, if you found our site beneficial, I hope you'll pass our URL around to your friends, mail list buddies, and others. http://www.healthyplace.com
Melissa Thornton: Thank you for having me this evening. I learned a good deal and feel less alone also.
David: Thank you again, Melissa. I know you were a bit nervous at first, but you did a wonderful job and we appreciate you coming tonight and staying late. Good night, everyone.
Disclaimer: We are not recommending or endorsing any of the suggestions of our guest. In fact, we strongly encourage you to talk over any therapies, remedies or suggestions with your doctor BEFORE you implement them or make any changes in your treatment.
Last Updated: 12 April 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD