My biggest wish is that people could understand what it’s like to have Borderline Personality Disorder.
Well, if I could have any wish, I guess I’d rather not have BPD myself, but it’s a close second.
It’s so difficult to describe what it’s like to live with a personality disorder, especially in the face of so much stigma, both from mental health professionals and everyday people. My BPD affects every single day of my life, and yet the people who love me most will never truly be able to understand that. People I meet don’t even know what it is, and then I’m tasked with trying to explain my mess of a brain to them.
I think one of the ways people learn best is through seeing, and with that, through having something represented in the media. For example, having different sexualities, ethnicities and life experiences portrayed in TV shows and films gives people a chance to experience a world they won’t know themselves. It helps them to have empathy and respect for struggles they’ll never comprehend.
Until now, the only confirmed portrayal of Borderline Personality Disorder is in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’, an amazing show by Rachel Bloom. And while she did a terrific job in representing BPD, I want more. I want to be able to sit down the people I love and have them watch a TV show that captures the BPD experience so I can say, “That’s how I feel! That’s what it’s like!”
I want them to turn to me and get it, just a little bit more. I want them to be able to see life through the eyes of someone with BPD so that I can feel less alone in this.
In case anyone is planning to create a TV series about Borderline Personality Disorder, here are my tips on what needs to be explored.
A huge component of Borderline Personality Disorder is the extreme fear of abandonment. Individuals with BPD feel like they’re constantly working to keep people in their life, whether that’s family members, friends or romantic partners. I described it once to my therapist as that I feel as if I started several steps behind everyone else, so I’m working to reach their level of worth.
How do we do this? By going out of our way to help others, at least we think we’re helping them, but this isn’t always the case. We try to sacrifice our own needs to put others first, which doesn’t help anyone in the end.
A character with BPD would need to capture this fear of abandonment. They would be constantly worried that their loved ones are leaving them. If they had a romantic partner, they would be paranoid and jealous. Maybe repeatedly confirming their love and panicking at the smallest incidents. There could be episodes where their friend has an issue, and they go out of their way in a misguided attempt to solve it.
An episode could have them actually being alone: for example, everyone else is busy, or they decided it would be good for them to try time alone, and follow how difficult this is. The character could be pacing around, constantly checking their phone and trying to get that serotonin fix by posting something on Instagram or online shopping. They’d give in and message everyone they know, absolutely everyone, before heading out to find a stranger to befriend. It’s vital to capture that being alone leaves you vulnerable for your thoughts, and without the ability to define your identity through others.
The series would need to focus on how they’ll try to fill themselves with other people, namely romantic and sexual partners. This is something achieved well in the series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as the lead character Rebecca consistently defines herself by her current love interest and focuses her whole life on getting and keeping them. So the show would cover the character trying to find someone to love them, and then the struggle once they do.
Another key marker of BPD is unstable mood swings. I describe it as going from the top of the world to the floor in an hour. It would be important to differentiate this from Bipolar Disorder, as the two are commonly confused. In BPD, the mood swings are far shorter with more switches; they’ll rarely cover days but rather hours.
We’d have the character go from being ecstatic over something small to turning just as quickly over something trivial, like a comment by a friend or a mistake at work. This mood switch could be mirrored by the music and colour schemes, going from bright and joyful to gloomy and blue. There would be several switches within the episode to show just how frequent it happens, with the intention of making the viewer as exhausted as the character by the end.
The series would need to differ from the common layout of having it build to one big issue or breakup, as for people with BPD, life is a continuous series of big blowups. Our struggle to maintain a stable mood means we feel everything more fiercely, so small arguments feel like life-changing moments. A struggle would be to capture this without the viewer brushing it off as merely overdramatic, as to someone with BPD, it does feel like the end of everything. What would be necessary is the contrast of a friend character without BPD to provide an accurate baseline. You could have this friend come to understand that just because the emotions and thoughts aren’t rational, they still feel just as real to the person with BPD.
The chronic emptiness could be captured by how often the BPD character changes themselves in an attempt to feel ‘full’ or at least neutral. They could dye their hair, get a tattoo on a whim, cut their hair, and then decide to redo their entire wardrobe - all in one episode. They could meet two “loves of their life” within an episode and then struggle with which one to choose. They could change job several times within the season as they search for their passion.
This is usually considered the trait that really sets Borderline Personality Disorder apart from other mental illnesses, as a symptom of it is impulse and self-destructive behaviours. People with BPD will burn their lives down repeatedly. It could be in a search for one of those highs. It could be an attempt to gain empathy from others and avoid real or imagined abandonment. It could be that genuine happiness feels so foreign that you’d rather feel terrible as it’s more familiar.
The BPD character would frustrate viewers by how they manage to get in their own way. They’d ruin a good relationship just to avoid being the one who eventually gets abandoned. They might go to a wedding and drink too much, causing a scene. They might isolate themselves from friends and say cruel things just to ensure distance. A very recent example of such frustrating self-sabotage is Devi in ‘Never Have I Ever’, although the character does not have BPD.
In the end, the person they’re trying to hurt most is themselves. The majority of people with BPD will self-harm in some manner, and it’s vital to remember that behaviour can be a form of self-harm as well. Hurting people you love to ensure they don’t love you anymore is a way of hurting yourself. Spending money you don’t have or not taking care of yourself is also a way of punishing yourself.
Borderline Personality Disorder is quite the social butterfly of mental illnesses, as it doesn’t like to travel alone. One of the reasons BPD is often misdiagnosed initially is because it presents as many other mental illnesses. I simply thought I had depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, not realising that all of those things were part of something bigger.
People with BPD can also present with substance abuse issues, depression, eating disorders, ADHD, anxiety and more. I think the TV series would need to capture that comorbidity to show it’s never as simple as one issue. In the past, a character will have depression, and that’s it, and it gets solved within an episode or two. To accurately display BPD, you need to show the various aspects that feed into it. Perhaps how they use alcohol as a coping mechanism and can never just have a few drinks. Or how their low self-esteem and unstable sense of self feeds into an eating disorder. I think the latter would be particularly interesting, as you could show how an eating disorder isn't just about body image but mental image. They could use food or purging as a way to punish themselves or ‘earn’ their worthiness. You’d need to especially show that this won’t be wrapped up quickly or easily, it’s for life.
I also think that it would be beneficial to have them join a support group at some point to demonstrate how differently BPD can appear. The same goes for all mental illnesses, as they’re displayed so little in media that we only know the most obvious description or stereotype. People with any mental illness present so differently, so a show dedicated to shedding light should take the time to show how it can vary. This could also be an important teaching moment for the character themselves, a chance to know they’re not alone and valid in how they experience their BPD.
The list could only go on, as there is so much to capture in this stigmatised mental illness. There is the chance to make people laugh, cry, think and empathise. There is a chance to give a voice to the 1% of the population who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder, and to give their friends and family a chance to see how differently their minds and emotions work. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get to help create a show like that.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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