If you have BPD you may well know what I mean when I say you experience ‘episodes’, although you might refer to them as ‘outbursts’ or by some other name. These are fits of emotion that take over not only your mind, but your body too. They are probably quite scary to see someone go through, but are terrifying to the person experiencing them.
It’s a feeling of complete loss of control. I will try and explain it by giving an example I had only a week or two ago…
For a while things have been piling up. I won’t bore you with the details of what. But memories from the past, anxieties about various things and people. I’d got to a point of wanting to shut everyone out, as nobody could understand the pain I was in because of the past. I was severely depressed, on edge the whole time, and nobody knew – I kept it bottled up. And that’s the danger in BPD… eventually these things will build up and up, and then one day something will happen that’s too much. The limit will be reached and you’ll snap. That happened when I got a letter in the post, making me have to deal with something that I wasn’t ready to face.
I started talking it through with someone and suddenly I was shouting, swearing, thumping my fist down on the table, and then I punched the wall next to me. I burst into tears, covered my face out of embarrassment. I thought the person with me might’ve comforted me or said something, but they had left the room. This only made me feel more misunderstood and alone, and added to the pile. So I ran upstairs, shut and locked my door and punched my door hard, 3 times, before eventually self-harming.
From the outside looking in, anyone would think how I reacted was crazy, over-dramatic, an overreaction, and perhaps manipulative in some way. But let me tell you this, I didn’t plan to do any of that. When it happens you go into a sort of ‘fight or flight’ mode. You’re running on adrenaline. You feel detached from your body. Seriously, when I hit the wall and the door, I didn’t feel a thing. It almost felt like I myself was watching it. Like it wasn’t me.
It’s scary because you don’t feel in control of your actions. This does not mean that people with BPD are dangerous and violent towards other people. I’m sure it happens. All I know is I would never knowingly hurt anyone… it’s not in my nature. The behaviour may seem violent, aggressive, intimidating, but it is mainly expressing anger and frustration with the self, or the situation the person is in. It’s like a volcano finally blowing its top. It’s not aiming to erupt and hurt someone… it’s just built up pressure that has to go somewhere. And unfortunately sometimes it has to come out through shouting or punching things. For me, the punching, though out of control in itself, actually serves to try and bring myself back under my own control. It’s like I hit the wall, to bring myself pain, to pull myself out of whatever intense whirlpool of emotions I’m caught in. It’s not planned. I don’t think ‘hey I’ll punch a wall’ – everything in an ‘episode’ happens so quickly there’s not time to think… but it’s more like an instinct.
I’ve had other moments like it. When I was abroad with family for my brother’s wedding, the night before, they were outside practising dancing, and I was taking a photo, for them to remember the whole experience. She wasn’t happy about it. So I stopped and went in. I felt embarrassed about it, and it was only amplified when talking to others about it. It was meal time and I decided to hide away in the next room, as my brother’s friend was with us too, and I just felt humiliated. I explained quietly in private how I felt, but it fell on deaf ears and someone was particularly insensitive about it and started raising their voice at me, embarrassing me further…. so I got up, ran off, shutting the door behind me – I ran up God knows how many steps, all the way along the corridor, shouting ‘this is all your fault!!’ as I went… I went into the bathroom at the end of the corridor, locked myself in and harmed myself, then collapsed on the floor by the door. I was terrified that someone was going to come after me and make it even worse. I’d never felt more scared or alone. I was in a new country, my friends all back at home. I didn’t want to be there after that.
Another time I was in the car with two of my friends. I was sat in the front passenger seat, my best friend driving, and another friend behind me. The one behind me told me some news that I found deeply upsetting and confusing, about a guy, and a ‘friend’ who had lied to me about said guy. My reaction was to throw my phone on the floor of the car, and it broke apart. I still to this day feel embarrassed that I reacted like that. That they had to see me like that. I always try and keep a handle on things in public.
I had a couple of moments at work, where people made me feel stupid, or accused me of things I didn’t do. And I successfully managed to keep a lid on it. But I excused myself – the first time going upstairs to be alone, and I sat on the floor and cried as I scratched at my arm. The other time I got my coat and left, as I could feel myself losing it.
These are just some of the episodes I’ve experienced. There have been many others. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve punched walls, shouted, thrown things… one of my ‘favourites’ is in the bathroom, running the tap full force and splashing water all over the mirror, or squirting handwash everywhere. It sounds so juvenile – but those ‘favourites’ have sometimes kept me from punching walls and self-harming. Doing silly things that ’cause damage’ but don’t actually cause damage, it lets it out in a safer way. Pulling leaves off of bushes that you pass is another one if you’re out and about and experience something really upsetting – as long as it’s not one with thorns!
In general I can keep a lid on it in public. I’ve had my close calls…. my urges. Many times I’ve been this close to sitting on the floor and crying, kicking lampposts, or just shouting my head off at the world. But generally if I’m in public I’ll do something like scratch at my arm, or dig my nails into my hand, and cause myself some level of pain, to stop me doing anything to publicly embarrass myself. This is not healthy either, but I fear the trouble my episodes may get me in one day. That is a very worrying aspect of BPD. I fear something could trigger me one day, and if I’m at work (not where I am at the moment as they know of my issues), it could cost me my job… then I would spiral downwards from there. I worry it could one day cost me a relationship if I had one. Or friends even.
It’s not just a simple case of ‘having a tantrum’… it’s much deeper than that. It’s made up of many layers, and it does build up… you just might not notice it early enough. You have beliefs about yourself and the world, formed by your previous experiences. And when things happen, however small, that back up those beliefs, it starts to build up.
Someone might give you ‘dirty looks’ on the bus…. if you have had experiences of people judging you, you’ll think everyone’s judgemental, and you’ll start going through the list of what’s wrong with your appearance, which will bring your self-esteem down. If someone then says something bluntly to you at work or in the shop, it’ll go on the pile, of ‘everyone being out to get you’. If you drop and break something that isn’t yours, or you make a mistake and have it pointed out, you’ll think ‘I can never do anything right’. If a friend lets you down or betrays you, you ‘can’t trust anyone’, and ‘nobody cares about you’. Then you’ll find you need to take time to yourself because you feel if one more thing happens, you might explode. This is the big flashing warning sign. This is near the end of the line. If you feel like this then yes, take time for yourself and treat yourself kindly, and remind yourself of the good in life, the good in people and the good in yourself. Because trust me, if you don’t step back, then you will hit that breaking point. You’ll get that letter through the door, and you’ll think ‘WHY CAN’T LIFE GIVE ME A ****ING BREAK!?!’ And then you’ll need all kinds of damage limitation – I know, I’ve been there!
I liken it to when an old friend and I fell out. Whenever we had slight issues between us, she wanted it swept under the carpet, to pretend it didn’t happen, just ‘move on’ and forget. Which we did, for a long time. And eventually so much got swept under the carpet that it had nowhere to go. Things blew up bigger than they had to be, because we didn’t deal with the little issues as they arose.
It’s the same with BPD, you must swiftly deal with each thought, emotion or issue as it arises. If you let it fester it will only bring you more suffering later. This does not mean to ‘dwell’ on your issues. But for instance if you’re criticised in front of someone, you may want to bite your tongue, breathe, maybe write down how you feel about it, or quietly talk to a trusted person. But take five minutes out, just to clear your head, say ‘that’s their opinion’ and list 5 things you’re good at. It’s like ‘you might think I’m toxic, and you’re entitled to that opinion, but I’ll tell you this – I’m friendly, compassionate, loyal, creative and honest, and those 5 things outweigh your 1 opinion, so there’….and then get back to what you were doing. It helps if you can speak to a friend or someone, to have them reassure you that you’re not what someone says you are, or to pick you back up again. But sometimes you have to be your own best friend.
The key is to challenge thoughts as they come in. Acknowledge the emotion you’re feeling, and don’t fight it. But think ‘Why am I feeling this way? What thought is behind it?’ and then challenge the thought. Think of the other possibilities. If someone has called you toxic, and you now think you must be, so you feel terrible about yourself…. the thought could be ‘I’m an awful person and don’t deserve friends’. Turn it around and say ‘I’m a good person, and just because I had a disagreement with this one person, and they now think I’m toxic, it doesn’t make it a fact… and it doesn’t change the fact that I’m a good, strong, loyal friend, and am fully deserving of all the friends I still have’.
Writing things down really helps me. It’s good to rant about everything, and ‘shout’ onto the paper. Most people who don’t have BPD would say ‘just forget about it, let it go’, but assuming you’re like me, it’s hard to do when you analyse everything. The main thing, whether you write about it, or talk it out with someone you trust, is to seek validation, either from another or from yourself. It’s okay to defend yourself, to yourself. And it’s actually okay to stand up for yourself to others too. I will touch more on that at a later point.
After an episode / outburst, you’ll likely feel deep embarrassment, shame and guilt. Yes, this behaviour of ours is far from ideal. At times it’s not socially acceptable, but if we could control it don’t you think we would’ve already? You’ve likely been having a hard enough time, been beating yourself up and been taking knocks, left, right and centre, for it to have come to a head in an outburst… the last thing you need afterwards is to feel even worse about yourself, and give yourself an even harder time. I think the feelings of shame you get afterwards are similar to the ones you get after self-harming. And I’ll be talking about self-harm sometime soon, and will try and cover how to deal with the feelings of shame and guilt. Don’t want to ramble on about it too much right now, but I just want you to know you’re not a bad person for having these outbursts. It’s good to have an aim to work on them, and to prevent them from ever reaching that stage – for your own benefit as much as anything else… but it’s a switch when things get too much. It’s like dissociation, and the self-harm itself – the emotions become so heightened, something inside you flips the switch and you’re not you anymore. I guess it’s a sort of defence mechanism, to prevent you feeling any more emotional distress. Like with dissociation the mind ‘checks out’ to protect you… I imagine this is similar. It’s just more demonstrative.
I’d advise you to, if you’re able to, discuss these episodes you have with those closest to you. To make sure they know that if it happens, it’s not an attack on them, and you’re not a crazy person! You may even be able to tell them your early warning signs, so they can look out for you, and tell when things are getting too much for you. It’s always good to have allies against BPD. The more people you can share your story with and get support from, the easier it will be to find the quality of life you want and deserve. But I know it can be hard to talk about these things at first, so don’t lose hope if you’re feeling alone with it at the moment. If nothing else there will be places online you can talk to others in the same boat. That’s the upside of the internet!
And just a last note, to those who witness these episodes but don’t necessarily understand them… It’s understandable if you feel threatened by our behaviour. But please know we have no intention of harming you or anyone. We just need to let out our frustration. We need to be heard. It doesn’t always come out how we want it to, and we feel bad and ashamed about this. If you cannot cope with our outbursts, then that’s okay. What I would ask and advise is this…. give us a little time to cool off, calm down and hide in embarrassment. Once our adrenaline has stopped pumping and we’re calmer, it would be nice for you to check up on us, come to see us, give us a big hug and tell us it’s okay. That’s what we need. It may sound like negative reinforcement, as you might think we’ll learn to have these outbursts to get a hug. But it’s not like that. What we have to deal with inside day in, day out, is more than you could ever comprehend. And when we experience an episode, we think badly of ourselves, and we fear you’re going to hate us and leave us because of it. Please show us you won’t. If you do abandon us because of something out of our control, it will only make the problem worse. We need to know there is good in the world… kind people…. loyal people…. people who see our worst sides, but know what goodness is within us. People who still want us in their lives, despite our flaws. We all need that – every single person in the world.
We are no different to other people. We’re simply more emotional, more sensitive, we hide our emotions more, until a point they can’t be denied anymore. We have a lot to give others… a lot to offer the world. And we just need to be loved a little bit stronger than other people. To know we’re good people… even if we can’t see it ourselves.