Life on the Borderline

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Like many in my generation—I’m 50 years old—I grew up in a home that was wildly unpredictable. My mother could seem attentive, even loving, at one moment, and fly into a rage over something as trivial as my leaving my handbag on the kitchen table the next. Much of my mother’s wrath was aimed at my father. She picked fights, shrieking obscenity-laced accusations and demands, and when that didn’t work, grew stonily silent until her next explosion. My father dealt with my mother’s baffling behavior by walking out the door for a day, a night, a week, at which point my mother would then turn her anger towards me. As a child, unfortunately, I didn’t have the option of leaving.

Today I do. And yet I stay. Dealing with a mother who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is perhaps my biggest challenge in this life. Despite the insanity, cruelty and downright dishonesty of some of the things my mother has spit out at me and continues to spew, there’s a part of me that believes her. Despite 20 years of recovery for alcoholism, 18 years of psychotherapy, 14 years of yoga and meditation, 4 years of somatic therapy and having read numerous books and articles about narcissistic and borderline personality disorders, I can’t seem to break free of the thought—the belief—that my mother is right: there is something terribly wrong with me.

I’m staying in my mother’s one-bedroom apartment in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as I write this. I’m here ostensibly because my mom had spinal surgery, developed a pulmonary embolism, and needs my help. My only sibling, my younger sister Cindi, died 10 years ago from pulmonary embolism. That my mother will in all likelihood survive hers is a direct contradiction of the claim she’s been making since I was a child: that she wishes she would die. Borderlines frequently threaten suicide.

Cindi was developmentally disabled. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, she was called “retarded.” When I was about nine or 10 years old, my mother screamed at me in a department store, “You should be the retarded one.” When I asked her about that recently, she explained. “Cindi was always so sweet. You weren’t.”

When I was a teenager, my mother told me my acne was “the evil on the inside bursting to the outside.” She told me there was something wrong with me because I had no friends and that no one liked me. She told me my grandmother felt sorry for me because I was always alone (in fact, I was a member of every extracurricular activity I could think of and had many friends). She couldn’t pick on my grades—I was always an honor student—so she focused on my appearance. I was too fat, unless she gained weight and then even though my weight remained the same, I was too skinny. My hair was wrong, my makeup (or lack thereof) was wrong, my clothes were wrong. Despite all evidence to the contrary, any time she and I disagreed on anything, I was wrong.

Cindi and I had polar opposite reactions to our mother’s BPD. My method of coping, developed at an early age, was to become energetically bigger, meaner, more angry than my mother, eventually developing a borderline personality of my own (hence, my 18 years of talk therapy). Cindi, on the other hand, matched every rage with the determination to become sweeter, more loving. She tried harder and harder to please. And when that didn’t work, she put on her headphones.

Sometimes I marvel at my little sister’s brilliance. I’m reading yet another book about BPD, entitled Surviving A Borderline Parent (Roth and Friedman, New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2003), which suggests putting on headphones when the borderline rages or rants.

BPD is perhaps the most common and least understand of the personality disorders. Since the borderline is able to appear normal at times, it’s hard to see the disorder as a disease. It often feels as if the borderline is choosing her behavior. Others may see the borderline as charming, attractive, even loving. Recovery from the disorder is rare since the borderline is almost categorically incapable of taking responsibility for her behavior. With a borderline, everything is always someone else’s fault.

I should know. I was forced to confront my BPD after getting sober. It would be impossible for me to stay sober and drug free without addressing the underlying personality defects that caused me to drink in the first place. I’ve been on my healing journey from BPD for over 15 years and, still, I can’t claim I’m cured. But, I’m better. Sometimes my recovery feels like one step up, two steps back, and, less frequently, it feels as if I’m taking giant strides forward. But, overall, I can see—and feel—my progress.

I’m scheduled to stay with my mother for another three and a half weeks. The only way I’ll make it is if I remember to use the chief tool I have against my mother’s rages and attacks, against her disease: prayer. Cognitive and behavioral therapies have served me well. I am self-aware. I know myself. I know my shortcomings. And I know the only method that works for me in changing my deeply ingrained reactions to my mother: prayer.

I pray for myself and for her. I use a simple metta prayer: May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be free from suffering. I know my mother suffers. Her BPD is the result of a horribly traumatic childhood and choices throughout life that continually affirm (in her mind) that she is a victim.

I can’t say I feel honest compassion for her. Right now, her behavior and words are so heinous, the best I can muster is detached annoyance. But I really do believe in the power of prayer to change me, so that’s what I need to focus on. I don’t know what I’m praying to and I don’t care. My prayer is simple: Bless her, change me.

For more information on Borderline Personality Disorder:


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