Buddhism vs. Borderline Personality Disorder

Happy (?) Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) Awareness Month, gang! Did you know it’s also my birth month? Because of course these things are within the same month c;

I had begun to write a nice little “what BPD looks like” post to give you guys some behaviors, thought processes, and tendencies to look out for – because BPD is more prevalent than Bipolar and Schizophrenia combined. With utter certainty, I can guarantee that you interact with a person with Borderline in your daily life. Unless you never leave your home, like me. Though, to be fair, I have to interact with myself every single goddamn day so that’s not an entirely accurate exception! As Beyonce once sang, “Everywhere I go, damn, there I am!”

However, the truth is that I think that I’ve done a pretty alright job pointing out more common patterns in my BPD Trait Series. The series, though not entirely comprehensive (I actually have a recent story I may share in the near future that would probably best be described as “Perceived Abandonment”), sheds light on a few items in the diagnostic criteria: Explosive Anger, Unstable Relationships, as well as the unfortunate reality of Treatment Resistance. Today, though, I want to discuss something a bit more unique that lies smack dab in the middle of the venn diagram that is my human experience: BPD as it relates to my burgeoning Buddhism.

One constant feature in all folks with Borderline is the lack of stability in self image, relationships with others, and life in general. For many years, I felt like I was trying to keep up with everyone around me, riding along on their bikes, while I struggled to maintain balance on an electric unicycle. This was a metaphor I couldn’t tangibly understand until I started attempting to ride an electric unicycle (spoiler alert: it’s super hard!), but once I did, I cried the thing I’ve cried at least a hundred times before: “It’s a metaphor!”

Each time someone disappeared from my life, for reasons innocent or malevolent, my underdeveloped object permanence bucked me off the machine I had started to go a few paces on. I’d get my feet positioned on the pedals, lean gently and catch some wind when a change in routine or employment demanded a different side of me. The machine stalled underneath me as I spilled forward onto the concrete, barely catching myself. In the early years, I didn’t know to wear protective gear. The ensuing onslaught of scars marked every failed attempt at coping with my perilous center of gravity. Eventually I grew wise and put on knee pads. With this gear, I wouldn’t seriously injure myself. I could just barely keep up. Only the most intense falls would throw me behind.

Now I’ve become much more competent at this metaphorical unicycle (the real one, not so much). Most, if not all, of this progress is thanks to over a decade of practicing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques. You were probably expecting me to say meditation, right? Nope. Meditation came much later but truth be told, there’s a great deal of programming I’ve done to repair my self image and sense of constancy that meditation is now asking me to undo.

Anatta

Pali for “no self” or “substanceless”, this is one of the three characteristics of existence. In other words, this is arguably one of the most important factors to enlightenment. It is said that to understand two of the characteristics is to simultaneously understand the third, meaning one becomes aware of the reality of existence. When it comes down to it, this is my end goal. This is the real reason I meditate. It helps with a million other things, no doubt, but all the fruit I obtain slips away whenever I slack off on sitting. Truly understanding the characteristics means obtaining stream entry, and that’s not reversible. That’s seeing shit as it really is – and that sounds awesome.

The only problem? I’ve spent almost half of my life working really, really hard to establish a stable sense of self. Trying to more or less undo that work is… difficult. And scary, honestly. In doing this, will I relapse into old BPD tendencies? This stable sense of self I’ve created is nothing more than an illusion. In the conventional sense, there are things that “I am”. I am a cis woman, basically 30 years old, 5′ 5″, with wide duck feet, and a goofy buck-toothed smile that looks just like my father’s. “Carly” is a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a writer, a cat mom.

Here’s the thing though – I can rattle off all these things that supposedly make up “me”, but all these items are utterly transient. If I lose my feet, am I less “me”? If I cease to write, am I less “me”? Nothing about what “I am” is permanent. My body is constantly aging, my appearance slowly but forever shifting. Am I my hair? When I cut it off, are the strands on the floor still “me”? Perhaps I have a soul inside – something truly unchanging, some core that is utterly unique to this shell. Unlikely, though I can’t disprove this possibility. Considering the utterly impermanent nature of literally every other thing in this entire world, an ever-present, unchanging spirit just doesn’t sound realistic.

This sounds utterly depressing. Or at least I thought so. That is, until my sister talked to me about Indra’s net. The TL;DR of Indra’s net, or Indra’s web, is that every single thread that makes up our existence is connected. No one thing or person or action exists as an island – everything affects something, which in turn affects something else, and so forth forever. This results in everything being somehow connected through an intricate web beyond our fathoming. Where do “I” end and “you” begin? In a conventional sense, you could maybe say the cells of our bodies determine this line. What about the exchange of ideas? Or emotions that we invoke in one another? These things are much less easy to separate. But I’ve grown a bit long winded on this particular subtopic. For a more intricate explanation on the interconnectedness of all beings and Indra’s net, Alan Watts does a nice job.

So as a woman with Borderline who spent a long time cultivating a (false) stability of self, accepting the true transient nature of my existence may take a little time.

Anicca

Pali for “impermanence”. If you’ve been following my blog, these words should sound familiar to you. Impermanence is pervasive, y’all. Transience is the true nature of everything. Think about how a baby has to learn object permanence. We make assumptions constantly, all day. And for conventional purposes, this serves us. A train doesn’t “disappear” when it goes behind a building. However, in terms of meditation, reality is the sensations we perceive. Period. If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

Like my unstable self image, my relationships with other people and the world have been similarly inconsistent. I worked really hard to believe that just because so-and-so doesn’t text me for a week doesn’t mean that they hate me. And this is still probably true. But in order to truly treat each moment as the new moment it is – free of the past, with no concern for the future – I have to release my hard cultivated sense of constancy. It’s already begun in my emotional state. It’s… almost scary, honestly. I’ll be raging pissed and then suddenly I’ll remember that I don’t have to be angry anymore just because I was one moment ago. Each second is a new opportunity. So the switch flips and I’m fine again. Starting fresh. It’s the kind of emotional instability I used to be terrified of experiencing. Yet it’s different now because it’s intentional. It’s the kind of emotional control I used to dream of having – though I don’t always have it, unfortunately.

Reconciling these two schools of thought

But perhaps stream entry will change this. As much as I intellectually understand these two characteristics (which theoretically means I also understand dukkha, good ol’ “suffering”), I obviously haven’t grasped them with my heart. And truly the repetitive training I did to believe in “me” (so much so that I made a fucking brand out of my name), as well as the constancy of my relationships and world around me suddenly seems like a hindrance rather than a help.

For a long time, however, CBT teachings did help me. They still do in many other ways! And while it may have been better to not practice at all rather than to practice incorrectly, what’s done is done. I wouldn’t dare dissuade anyone with BPD to not work to cultivate a stable sense of self and relationships. In a conventional sense, it’s basically necessary in order to be a well-functioning human. In a spiritual sense, however, it’s been a very high hurdle that I may have to climb rather than jump.

Fortunately, a good deal of Buddhist teachings are more compatible with CBT/Dialectical Behavior Therapy techniques – like mindfulness. The first step to literally anything is to become aware. Awareness enables everything. So even if you’re not interested in “the big ‘E'” as I like to call it, meditation is still an incredibly useful tool for mental health. If you ever reach the point where walking the path sounds interesting or attractive to you, however, perhaps my above words will be of use to you on your journey.

As for the rest of you, this will at least illuminate my sudden mood shifts. Assuming I’m going from high energy to calm, anyway. Those are intentional and whatever just happened is 100% dead to me. Because clinging to the past is useless. And if I’m capable of remembering that, I’m going to let shit go. Hopefully you will join me. At the very least, you might understand. And that’s what I’m really hoping for above all else.

4 thoughts on “Buddhism vs. Borderline Personality Disorder

  1. Wow Carly thanks for sharing that you have a very beautiful way of explaining yourself. Buddhism and metal health is a growing issue in the west today and you really put yourself out there to explain the other side of my last post on my site. Have a read if you wish perhaps you might have something more to add to the discussion.

    Have a great day and stay wonderful.

    QP

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    1. They’re definitely related! I think most issues could be at least improved with a meditation practice, if not outright alleviated with a more serious practice. Thanks for reading!

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    1. I would certainly recommend it. Being a personality disorder, there’s little concern about triggering psychosis. Even so, the odds of that happening with a 5-30 minute daily practice are pretty low. Getting the advice of a medical professional is even better but in my opinion, not necessarily required. Unfortunately, most medical professionals aren’t quite as knowledgable about meditation as I would like but they tend to understand the human brain relatively well at least c:

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