The Borderline Personality Disordered Family

Declan’s sister and parents sometimes felt like they’d been fighting a war, one in which they had neither adequate training nor defense. Declan was 14 when signs of his personality disorder surfaced, beginning with fits of rage. He wasn’t a particularly big kid then, but he was strong and his uncontrollable anger frightened even him. He once shoved his mother so hard that she received a concussion from hitting a brick patio wall. But as soon as his rages came, they were gone, and Declan was remorseful. He begged his family’s forgiveness and wept in his mother’s arms.

“I don’t know how many times I listened to my son cry and say he didn’t know what was wrong with him,” Sherri, Declan’s mom says. “We didn’t understand it either. I knew he didn’t mean to be so hurtful.”

Declan’s parents put him in therapy at 16, after a suicide attempt. He had cut his wrists on an evening when his parents were away, and his sister had been the one to find him and call 911. He’d wanted to go with them to dinner, but they’d needed a date night, and asked him to stay and look after his sister. Because of the anger and defiance, he’d been diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder, but Declan’s troubles were more nuanced, and it would take several more years before a professional or his family understood it.

There was the way his affections could so dramatically swing: for example, the way he would idolize his father for being a remarkable outdoorsman—praising him to friends and begging to go along on hunting and camping trips—only to dramatically tear him down as soon as his dad disappointed him by saying no to requests for money or extended curfew. His sister believed Declan could be conniving and manipulative, but couldn’t reconcile this part of her brother’s nature with the way he so desperately sought her approval and love.

His behaviors seemed designed to extract a reaction from his family, but as soon as they pulled away, Declan went into crisis mode—sobbing and begging for their love again. It wasn’t until he’d been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and they’d begun to educate themselves, that their son and brother finally began to make sense to them. He was 28 by then. And it would take many more years of therapy on each of their parts for the old family dynamics to change. Learning to set firm boundaries with love was an important lesson for each of them, even Declan, and it bled out into their lives in other ways. Strangely, Declan had become a teacher in ways his family couldn’t have foreseen.

When a Loved One Suffers from BPD

When the member of a family suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD), everyone suffers. BPD predominantly affects relationships—those who experience the disorder have a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships that frequently swing from periods of idealization to scorn and disappointment, sometimes with threats of self-harm or suicidal behavior. Its sufferers are often frantic to avoid real or imagined abandonment, and may become highly emotionally reactive, irritable or anxious at the drop of a hat. Family members find themselves caught in the storm: sometimes the object of a BPD loved one’s inexplicable rage—other times, the only one who stands a chance of reaching through it. These emotional storms, over time, create toxic family dynamics—a conditioned pattern of relating that serves to retraumatize members of a family, including the person who suffers from BPD.

Unlearning Toxic Family Dynamics

Despite its deeply troubling characteristics, BPD can be treated; it is sometimes, in fact, called “the good prognosis diagnosis” because of the way BPD sufferers tend to get better when engaged in effective treatment. When an individual is first diagnosed with BPD and commences therapy, it is often recommended that family members and loved ones—those closest to the BPD sufferer—also seek help. A person with BPD who begins to get better but returns to a toxic family environment will not remain better, and cannot continue to heal.

These negative family dynamics can occur even in the most well-intentioned families, and often, they are no one’s fault. Dealing with a personality disorder (and having one) is hard work, and there is no map to point the way. When a BPD sufferer swings from idealization to devaluation (termed “splitting”), experiences sudden mood changes such as rage or despair or when the sufferer imagines a loved one is planning to abandon him or her, words and emotions can become volatile. Sometimes terrible things are said and done. When a family has accumulated a history of these painful words and actions, seeking help for emotional resolution is important so that they are not still carrying hostility or despair with them, and potentially projecting it onto one another—something all of us, particularly family members, are unconsciously accustomed to doing.

Healing Wounds of BPD

The families of a sufferer with BPD can unintentionally pass down a legacy of negative interaction, codependence, enmeshment and chaos. And this is believed to be, in many cases though not always, how BPD is created. No family ever wishes to pass on such a legacy. But for any family battling the fatigue and pain created by this particular mental illness, help is never far away.

The National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder (NEA-BPD) offers a 12-week class through its Family Connections Program throughout the United States. The program offers education, skills training and support to family members of people with BPD. And many more mental health professionals than ever before are trained in recognizing and treating BPD sufferers and their families. Support groups exist in real time and online for loved ones—places to seek support and to ask questions. If you are the loved one of a BPD sufferer, consider the very real possibility that it is not just your family member who needs help, but that you too could benefit from treatment and recovery. Don’t allow this diagnosis to destroy you or your family; like Declan and his family, let it be your teacher.


On July 23rd, 2014, posted in: Mental Health by Tags: , ,