My Identity Disturbance

Since being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), I’ve been interested in it and how a test uncovered something about myself that I didn’t know or realize.  Okay, the last line was a bit of a lie.  I’m not just interested, I’m obsessed about it.  And while some would say that in itself is unhealthy, those same people believe that knowing your enemy is the best way of defeating it.  BPD is particularly interesting because unlike other mental illnesses and like other personality “disorders”, there isn’t a medication you can take or therapy that will “cure” it for all people and guarantee its remission.  In fact, that would be like saying that there is a pill or a certain amount of a particular therapy that can cure you from your like of the color blue.  It’s ingrained in our personalities and part of those of us with it.  The best we can do is to try to reduce the behaviors deemed unacceptable in society (or would deter our ability to succeed in society). 

Medications can help ease some of the emotional instabilities, such as depression or rapid mood changes, but now we know through genetic testing that someone can be at a higher risk for depression, especially if they have gene variants affecting their use of serotonin or norepinephrine.  However, the same genetic test can be matched against the long list of antidepressants on the market and an effective one can be found, tested, and prescribed for those individuals.  In my case, my genetic test came back with a very short list of drugs that may help and with my psychiatrist, we found one that is holding strong for me – so far.

I don’t want to say that therapies for BPD are ineffective.  Personally, I’ve been in a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) class for a while now and it has helped me through some rough periods.  But it hasn’t been easy to use the information and tools that I’ve been given.  It’s not just remembering the steps I’ve been taught – and even have a cheat card in my bag – but recognizing when to use them.  Like everyone, sometimes I act before I’ve had a chance to think about what I’m doing.  Most people in a situation can think about the correct course of action to take in a split second.  I may react with the same speed, but my brain doesn’t fully understand or process the situation that quickly, so what I end up doing can be detrimental to myself or others in the long run.  It’s not every situation, just some of them, where there may not be a rulebook to follow.  For example, I know I need to stop at a red light because it’s actually a written law – not counting the fact that it could result in personal injury if I don’t.  But when it comes to interacting with other people, where there are no hard and fast rules, I make mistakes – lots of them.

When it comes to interacting in the world, constantly having to stop, run through my list of DBT skills, and then make a decision feels a lot like “filtering”.  Not always, but if I have to “filter” myself in every single interpersonal interaction, I don’t feel authentic.  See, I’m very familiar with the “filtering” concept and practiced it for a good portion of my life thus far.  Because I’m transsexual, I learned to “filter” my thoughts, actions, and words because I knew that I wouldn’t be accepted and that my interpersonal interactions would all be completely negative (and was sexually assaulted twice when I was younger and didn’t “filter”).  But doing all this “filtering” or hiding my true personality, even when having nothing to do with my gender identity, probably made my identity disturbance even worse.  Those of us with BPD have been dubbed chameleons – we can blend in with those around us by essentially matching their energy level and personality.  (This in turn helps us avoid our abandonment issues, another defining characteristic of BPD.)

It wasn’t until recently that I really thought about how this plays out in my own life.  Going back to high school, I realize that I didn’t have just one set of friends – I had many sets of friends who usually didn’t associate much with the other sets of friends.  As I moved from one social group to another, my personality also changed – I became the person they wanted me to be – and that’s how I was accepted by those social groups.  This has continued into my adult life, with both friends and coworkers.  I simply adapt my personality to what the person or group I’m with at the time expects or wants me to be.  Even though I’ve transitioned from male-to-female, when working with a group of men, I seem to take on that gender role that I didn’t want in order to be accepted by them.  I have lots of individual friends now, but not a group of friends.  And my individual friends don’t really know each other – with a rare exception here and there – and I think if they did, they might find that I’m a little different when I’m around them versus being around someone else.

I don’t do this intentionally, because I might not recognize that I did it for months or years after I’ve done it.  And even though I recognize now that I do it, I may not be able to stop doing it.  Because I still have that intense fear of abandonment that comes with the BPD territory, I am subconsciously agreeable to everyone.  Case in point, when someone asks me if I want to do something with them, I always answer in the affirmative.  Even if it’s something I might loathe or think would become boring to me, I still want to be around them, so I agree to it.  Which brings up the question – why would I do that?  Why wouldn’t I put forth my own ideas, opinions, or say no?  Now we’re to the next level of identity disturbance.

I have thought about trying a new career, job, wardrobe, et cetera so many times that it would make anyone’s head spin.  Some of it could be chalked up to being bored with the same thing and wanting to try something new.  But most of the time, it’s because I don’t know what I want to do or even the person I want to become.  Don’t get me wrong, some of the hats I’ve worn and are still wearing – like being a parent – are ones that I chose willingly and will never relinquish.   But when it comes to “who am I?”, I have no answer.  I can only list off what I was or what I did in the past.  The future is an empty slate for me.  Maybe part of it is fear of being “stuck” being someone or doing something and then not liking it later, so I keep my options open.  More so, I constantly question my decisions about who I am or what I want to do, in part of my past failures and repeating those mistakes.  So, I live up to being a Pisces and simply “go with the flow”.

Yet, knowing all this about myself makes no difference to the way I handle it.  Thinking about the fact that I can’t make these kinds of decisions about myself makes it excruciatingly harder.  I’ve discussed this on a few message boards and asked others with BPD how they figure out who they are.  Unfortunately, no one has yet to come up with an answer.  I read story after story about how many jobs, homes, cities, even spouses they have gone through in what seems to be an exercise in futility.  I’ve also heard that nothing in DBT helps resolve this issue.  That other BPD issues – like self-harm, interpersonal relationships, and risky behaviors – can be managed more easily with the DBT tools, but this one isn’t touched.  After all, it’s not like you can be taught how to choose your favorite color (it’s blue, by the way) and no one can even logically explain why they like a certain color than the others.  Maybe one day they will find a gene that will explain why you like a certain career, person, or color – but until then, no one has the answer.  Take that to the extreme and you’ve got identity disturbance in BPD.