If you've ever experienced a relationship with someone who's dysfunctional, you know how hard it is to feel good around that person. If you are a child and that person is your parent, that relationship can color your whole life. It affects the way your brain develops, the way you perceive events, and the way you think and feel about yourself.
Today I want to talk about a dysfunction that's often not diagnosed--Borderline Personality Disorder, BPD.
I have a friend who has BPD but was not diagnosed for a long time, simply because she didn't think there was anything wrong with her. She continually called me, asking me to help her with problems she was having, but no matter what I did or advised her to do, she wouldn't listen to me. I began to notice that she would tell me one thing one day and contradict herself at a later date. It took me a while to realize that she wasn't forgetful, but that things looked different to her from one day to the next, depending on her emotional state, and she was extremely emotional. When I tried to get her to look at a situation logically, she'd object, "But that's not how I feel." After visiting with her or even just talking on the phone, I'd experience a headache and a sense of bewilderment. Eventually I realized I couldn't help her, and for my own well-being, I had to distance myself from her. When she was finally diagnosed and I learned about BPD, I began to understand her behavior, but sadly, I still had to keep my distance.
A child who has a parent with BPD has a lot to cope with and can't distance herself when the parent reacts with intense emotions inappropriate to circumstances. A small annoyance may be met with rage. To make matters worse, the parent isn't predictable and at times may function well and appear to be very competent and reasonable. At other times he or she will be demanding, critical, even physically, verbally or mentally abusive. Life in this house is like walking on eggshells. Small children can't escape, but teenagers often spend as little time as possible at home, which can anger the parent even more, since BPD's fear abandonment above all.
Because of the BPD's behaviors, there is often conflict with the other parent. The BPD may react by setting the other parent as "the enemy" and demand that the children take sides.
The BPD parent is incapable of understanding a child's emotional needs, seeing the child only as someone who is supposed meet the parent's needs. Consequently the child may experience:
1. Neglect. No appropriate food in the house. No clean clothing available. Parent "forgets" to provide lunch money or needed school supplies, etc. Parent can't or won't help children with homework or daily problems.
2. Parent may be overcontrolling, deciding what the child must wear, what food the child must or can't eat, which friends and activities are "acceptable" to the point where the child feels unable to make any choices on his own.
3. The child is blamed for the parent's unhappiness or anger. Child may be labeled "ungrateful," "lazy," "naughty," or "stupid," etc. for normal child behavior or mistakes.
4. The child may be labeled "the good child" or "the bad child." In a home where there is more than one child, the other children may be pitted against "the bad child."
5. In extreme cases, the BPD parent may threaten or even attempt suicide, making the child feel responsible for preventing future attempts. The child may experience anxiety when away from home, fearing what might happen when no one is there to "protect" the parent.
Because none of the above behavior is consistent, home becomes a crazy-making place. Not surprisingly, the child who is trying to make sense of the world and understand what is expected of him or her is continuously bewildered.
If you suspect that one of your parents suffered from borderline personality, what can you do?
First of all realize that your parent didn't choose to be this way. At this point, experts look to genetics, abuse in childhood, loss or separation from a caregiver at an early age, or inborn brain abnormalities as possible causes of BPD.
You have to let go of any anger you feel toward that parent. Anger only eats at you, destroying your ability to experience happiness.
Next, you have to become aware of any distorted thinking you've developed because of growing up in a crazy-making atmosphere. Some of the effects of having a BPD parent are:
1. Being unable to trust others or feel close to them.
2. Experiencing constant guilt or uncertainty that you are doing the right thing.
3. Feeling responsible for the unhappiness or anger of others, leading you to be a people pleaser.
4. Feeling worthless, as if your life has been a waste.
5. Being unable to make decisions because you fear that whatever you do will turn out badly.
6. Always feeling guilty.
You may need to get professional help to undo the damage that has been done to you, but simply understanding what happened is a big first step.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.