Back From the Border: Recovery From BPD

Tara’s husband tells me how far his wife has come since the early days of their relationship and while he talks, Tara leans into him, sometimes nodding, occasionally smiling. I know the couple from a workshop for families of borderline personality disorder sufferers I help to coordinate.

Shortly after I became acquainted with Tara, she began calling at odd hours or showing up at my workplace in tears. Her husband travelled out of town for work—he’s an entomologist and has to go where the bugs are. His absences terrified her. She took them very personally, even though she knew he didn’t want to leave her.

We carefully discussed her feelings of abandonment each time, and I encouraged Tara to keep searching for a therapist. Sometimes her frequent texts and visits seemed to stop suddenly; it was as if she’d simply vanished. After a while, sometimes a long while, I’d hear from her again, and usually I’d learn of an anger outburst or a psychiatric hospitalization that had occurred in the interim. Once or twice I was called to see if I might help locate Tara after she’d taken off for several days and no one in her family knew where she was. These times were difficult; I knew my friend was hurting and felt out of control. She was running from the chaos inside of her more than anything in her exterior world. This woman who was brilliant and funny and just a good person, was choosing to put herself in dangerous situations. She’d acted out sexually or by spending too much money—giving in to impulsive urges. More than once Tara had harmed herself physically in order to try to make sense of the pain she was dealing with internally.

But as the years went on, I started to notice something I hadn’t expected. Tara started to get better. She had found the work of a former BPD sufferer who’d come back from the illness and was helping others. Tara found a form of therapy that helped her to find ways to experience her emotions differently, to tolerate them better, and today, you might say she is a different person. But I know Tara and I can say that she is the same person, but more completely herself, finally.

Border__, A Documentary

Dr. Tamra Sattler, a psychotherapist, producer and director, created a documentary about women recovering from borderline personality disorder (BPD). The film, called “Border __,” peaks into the lives of some brave former sufferers, but also reveals some powerful statistics. While a lot of people know about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, BPD, which is not as well known, turns out to be more common. According to NAMI, one in 20 to 25 people lives with BPD. Somewhere between six and 10 million Americans live with the disorder (BPD Resource Center), and 70 percent to 90 percent of BPD sufferers are women. It isn’t understood why so many of the people who experience BPD are women, but it is known that childhood trauma can make some people susceptible to experiencing this disorder (APA 1994). Ten percent of people with BPD will commit suicide, making the disorder a serious public health concern.

Risk Factors for BPD

The causes of BPD aren’t entirely understood. Experts agree, however, that contributing factors include genetics, environment and brain abnormalities, particularly areas in the brain experiencing increased sensitivity to emotional regulation, impulsivity and aggression. According to the National Library of Medicine, some of the environmental risk factors for BPD are:

  • Abandonment in childhood or adolescence
  • Disrupted family life
  • Poor communication in the family
  • Sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

Recovery From BPD

In Tara’s case, she discovered a treatment known as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which has been shown to be highly effective where drugs, in the case of this disorder, are not known to be. Unfortunately, many sufferers can sometimes go years without a proper diagnosis—being diagnosed and treated for depression or bipolar disorder instead. Many who have BPD do suffer from these other illnesses, but the treatments for them are not effective for BPD and the problems of BPD will continue to exist without effective measures to heal and correct them.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven effective in getting at some of the underlying issues behind the disorder, or some of the disruptions the disorder may cause in one’s life, such as unstable relationships or work life. Still, treatments such as DBT and others that are geared specifically for the BPD sufferer may be of real benefit. If you are a sufferer or love someone who is, be willing to look into these treatments and know that there is hope. Even someone who is desperately struggling may surprise you in the end.