I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine named Shawn (real name withheld). She was a girl I grew up with and was the kind of best friend we all deserve. She was fun, spontaneous, smart, beautiful, and talented. More than anything, she wanted to become a singer and she spent long hours practicing her singing, guitar playing, and even lyric writing skills.
And it was good! We all knew that she was going to be a success and she was voted “most likely to succeed” in high school. Sure, she had some struggles (she liked cigarettes and drinking a bit more than she should), but those seemed like minor problems she could overcome. However, four years later, she was squatting in an abandoned building and living injection-to-injection.
What happened to my beautiful friend? She fell victim to an undiagnosed case of borderline personality disorder. This debilitating condition nearly destroyed her life and derailed her dreams. However, she climbed out of addiction by fighting her disorder and learning how to live life in a healthy manner.
And you know what? So can you.
Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder
A borderline personality disorder is a condition that causes a person to struggle from difficulty maintaining a stable lifestyle. After high school, Shawn suddenly found herself living a college lifestyle which was new and strange. Her self-perception disappeared and she could no longer control her behaviors. Her previous spontaneity became impulsiveness as she did wild and crazy things.
I watched her behavior become severely manipulative, dependent, and dramatic. Or rather, I was watching a magnification of these problems. Shawn had always shown a streak of needing to “get her way” and of manipulating situations for her own self-gain. I was just noticing them for the first time.
She was afraid now of losing friends and family members and even boyfriends. Her relationships became fractured and hard to maintain. Boyfriend jumping, she joined new social groups, and partied hard, ignoring classes. And eventually, she turned to drugs to self-medicate.
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Identifying Problematic Behaviors
Borderline personality disorder causes a wide range of problems that can make life difficult for the person who suffers from it. My undiagnosed friend really struggled with the disease during the course of our friendship. Part of her wanted to be the sweet, fun, and kind person she was at her core. But the unpredictable nature impressed on her by her condition made it hard for her to maintain stability.
The following are all symptoms of borderline personality disorder and each is followed by a brief explanation of how Shawn exemplified these symptoms:
- Fear of abandonment – She hated to be left alone or discarded: once, the two of us spent hours sitting outside the home of a boy she liked because he had stopped calling her and she couldn’t bring herself to go and talk with him.
- Intense and unstable relationships – This includes idealizing and denigrating behaviors. The boy she loved struggled with alcohol and drugs, but she had built him up to be an Adonis in her mind. However, as we sat in the car, she cursed him out and called him nasty things.
- Changes in identity – No one changed their interests or redefined herself more than my friend. One moment, she found truth only in the Catholic faith of her family and the next she was dropping acid and selling cocaine. She was desperate to find a place to fit in and she was grasping at straws.
- Paranoia and problems with reality – Shawn was always worried that everybody was talking about her or making fun of her behind her back. Sadly, her paranoia was founded: her difficult behavior made her stand out in our friendship group. But her paranoia would subside as she bent reality to her own whims and excused their behavior.
- Impulsive behavior – Drinking, driving, going home with random men, squatting in abandoned buildings, and trying to fuel her drug addiction with pushing: all of these problems were impulsive, last-minute decisions that ruined Shawn’s life.
- Suicidal behaviors – Shawn was a cutter and in her darkest moment, she would claim she was going to drown herself in the lake. Being a caring friend, I had to talk her down more than once and it was exhausting, especially when paired with her addiction.
- Wild mood swings – One minute, Shawn was the happiest person on Earth and we were walking through fields of daisies. The next, her life was falling apart and she was a failure. Every moment was a roller coaster of excessive emotion.
- Feeling empty – All of Shawn’s behaviors were designed to fill a void in her life that for some reason was seated right in the center of her existence. This included her drug use.
Intense anger – The smallest things would set of Shawn and she would lash out with cruel words and even physical violence. Once, I saw her get mad at her boyfriend because her mom moved her backpack away from the foot of the stairs. It took three of us to hold her down.
The hardest part of my friendship with Shawn was watching her fall into the world of drug addiction. She believed that it helped calm her mind and gave her a new focus and a new “support group” that only dragged her down. More than anything I wanted to help her, so I had to investigate where these feelings originated.
Causes Of Borderline Personality Disorder
The strange thing about Shawn was that she came from a very large and loving family. She had four brothers and three sisters, all of whom were well educated and brilliant in their fields. And Shawn was spending her time taking back bottles to buy her next shot of heroin. What had happened in the life that had pushed her into borderline personality disorder?
Part of it, I believe, stemmed from the fact that she was the baby of the family. Shawn was very spoiled by her mother, especially after her father died. But she was also very shy and withdrawn as a child: the brilliance of her siblings often made her feel worthless. They all had their own unique identities and skills they brought to the family. As far as she saw, she had none.
As a result, it’s safe to say that her primary influences were the difficulties she felt growing up. However, childhood problems aren’t the only ways that borderline personality disorder can start. While I don’t think she qualified for any of the following problems, others across the nation undoubtedly do:
- Physical or sexual abuse by family members or loved ones that made them feel abandoned
- Family members who possessed borderline personality disorder in the past
- Abnormalities in areas of the brain that control mood
- Unbalanced brain chemistry, such as excessive serotonin producers
Any of these situations can cause a person to develop the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. With Shawn, it was enough to push her into situations that led to drug use and an addictive lifestyle that she struggled with for years.
How It Can Fuel Addiction
If you or someone you love has a borderline personality disorder, you know how unpredictable and emotional it can be to everyone involved. My friend Shawn turned to drugs when we were in college. At first, it was just marijuana and it actually seemed to slow her down. But then it became everything she could get her hands on.
The problem was that Shawn was driven to compulsiveness by her erratic mental processes. So if somebody offered her a line of coke at a party, she would snort it. And when one of her boyfriends pulled out a needle, she couldn’t help but shoot with him. Her impulsive behaviors combined with her need to fill the “void” left by her disorder as she fell head-first into addiction.
For years, we tried to get her to admit her problem, but her personality disorder made her ignore our suggestions. She alienated a friend after friend until there was only two or three of us left. This young girl who had once shown so much promise as a singer was trapped in an addictive lifestyle and we feared the worst.
One day, however, she called me up and said she wanted to change. She NEEDED to change. Her latest boyfriend had left her, she had lost her job, and was about to be evicted from her apartment. And worst of all (to her) she was out of drugs. I told her I would help her, but only if she would get treated psychologically. To my surprise, she agreed.
Getting Help Is Possible
And do you want to know what happened? Shawn not only beat her drug addiction, but she now understands how to cope and live with her borderline personality disorder. Just recently, she self-recorded an album of her singing all-original music and sold it to friends and people at concerts in the area. Though she may never achieve the fame she thought was hers, she has learned to be okay with that.
How did she go from the depths of despair to personal success? By going through dialectical behavioral therapy. This treatment is a behavior-adjustment therapy that is designed to teach a person how to identify their problematic behaviors and how to cope with them to behavior in positive and constructive ways. Once this problem was treated, detoxing and undergoing the rest of her rehab was surprisingly easy for Shawn.
Four skills are taught in dialectical behavioral therapy: mindfulness (being present in the moment); distress tolerance (positively tolerating difficult situations); interpersonal effectiveness (maintaining a stable and reliable relationship with others); and emotional regulation (learning to keep a cap on the emotions that were previously uncontrollable).
During her therapy, Shawn learned how to stop and take stock of a difficult situation as it occurred (mindfulness). Then, she learned how to emotionally handle situations she couldn’t control (distress resistance) by mastering communication with those whom she had trouble with (interpersonal effectiveness). Through all these processes, she kept a cool head and kept a balanced emotional approach to create a successful solution (emotional regulation).
As a result, Shawn could control her impulsiveness and her emotional “neediness” and utilize her new self-control to avoid using drugs. But how did she learn all these skills? By going through the following dialectical behavioral therapy processes:
- Skills training groups – Here, people learn skills that help them cope with their emotional difficulties. For example, Shawn learned how to say “no” to her fears of abandonment and was able to maintain a healthy relationship with a man to whom she is now happily married.
- Individual therapy – Shawn learned how to apply the skills learned in her skill training groups to her real life. For example, her particular coping method for impulsiveness is to walk away from a situation while counting backward from 100. By the time she reaches one, her impulse is gone.
- Phone coaching – Shawn was assigned a life coach whom she could call at any time to receive advice and suggestions for how to live her life. Even now, she occasionally calls her coach for help in awkward social situations she doesn’t know how to handle.
Shawn’s newfound freedom wasn’t gained overnight: it was a long and difficult struggle that taxed every aspect of her troubled personality. However, much to all our pride, she worked through the four stages of treatment to emerge the person we always knew she would be if given the chance.
Treatment Comes In Four Stages
Shawn’s borderline personality disorder and addiction treatment were administered at the same time. This is known as dual diagnosis and it is designed to treat what is known as “co-occurring disorders.” This is a situation when a person suffers from a mental health disorder and addiction at the same time. Shawn is more than qualified for this treatment.
So while she was going through a typical rehabilitation routine (detoxification and psychological counseling), she was also going through the four stages of dialectical behavioral therapy. These stages are designed to gradually lift a person out of the doldrums of their problems and bring light and hope back to their life. The stages are broken down as follows:
- Stage One – The person is out of control and miserable, perhaps even trying to hurt themselves. The first day of Shawn’s therapy was scary. She immediately screamed at everyone and tried to storm out of the room. But gradually, her therapist was able to help her move out of this private hell and into stage two.
- Stage Two – While Shawn’s chaotic behavior was under control, she was still feeling desperation. But she worked with her therapist to move to healthier behaviors. Basically, they are learning how to fill the void of emptiness that people with borderline personality border often feel.
- Stage Three – Desperation has passed and hope has returned in this stage. When Shawn hit this stage, it was like watching a flower bloom. Suddenly, she was making plans to start playing guitar again, start writing songs, and was even singing during therapy. But sustained mania is not the goal of this stage: a person must feel ordinary feelings of happiness and unhappiness, rather than extreme mood swings.
- Stage Four – Though not strictly necessary, some people utilize the fourth step to get in touch with their spirituality. Shawn renewed her Catholic faith and used it to fuel a sense of deeper emotional connection.