Living With a Borderline Parent

Three days ago I read this moving account of what it’s like to live with a parent who has borderline personality disorder. Hayley Iannantuoni’s writing perfectly captures the child’s mystification – why can’t I ever make her happy? Why can’t I ever love her in the way she wants me to? Why am I such a disappointment to her? Her account of the fierce, tempestuous, confusing and frightening relationship, and the way in which a diagnosis helped her to understand what was going on has an extraordinary clarity. Many thanks, Hayley, for giving us permission to share the article here.

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Dear Mom, It’s Not You, It’s Me

When I was a little girl I did not have a favorite teddy bear, pacifier, or blanket that I brought with me everywhere, instead I treasured a photo album. This album was filled with pictures of me and mom with ear to ear smiles, dirty faces, and countless matching mother daughter outfits. I would look through the pictures every night before I went to bed.These pictures gave me something that I didn’t have growing up, and that was the love from my mom.

I could never understand why I failed to make her happy and carefree like she was in the pictures I have engraved in my memory. I could never clean the house good enough to keep her from yelling when she came through the door after work. Nor was I able to be responsible enough at 12 years old to be left home alone so she could go out, even though I desperately wanted her to stay with me. Most importantly, despite the hundreds of pictures I drew for her, bubble gum machine rings I got her, or how many times I told her “I Love You,” I could never love her the way she desired.

As a teenager I came to accept the fact that I would never have the traditional mother daughter relationship that I had desired for so long, and that I would always be a disappointment in her eyes. I knew that my mother’s love was conditional based on what I could do for her. Many times I had to be the shoulder for her to cry on, forcing me to grow up much faster than any child should. I began to blame myself for her behavior, I was her problem. I was the reason I didn’t have the ‘John and Kate Plus Eight’ family I dreamed of.

The summer before my senior year, my parents decided to get a divorce. This news was not a surprise to me due to the common background noise of yelling, screaming, and crying that filled my house everyday. I decided that I wanted to move in with my dad instead of staying with my mom. My mother did not take this news lightly, she took this news as if she had lost a limb. In a panic she locked all of my sister’s and I’s clothes and belongings in her house. She then bolted the windows shut and made it impossible for us to grab our things, and leave her. Instead of throwing us out, she decided to lock us in. I could not understand why my mom wanted us to stay with her when she was always in a bad mood and wanted nothing to do with us for days at a time locking herself in her room or leaving us to go visit her boyfriend. As soon as we told my dad what happened, he waited for her to get home and called an ambulance for her, like he had done this before.

My first day of  senior year did not include wearing my brand new shoes that I had picked up specifically for that day, nor did it include a new backpack, or fresh school supplies, those were still bolted behind locked doors. My first day of senior year included going to the guidance counselor’s office to put on a spare uniform, a plaid skirt two sizes too big, a stained white collared shirt, and a uniform pass because I did not have the right color shoes for the first day. Shortly into the day, I got called to the guidance office this time, to my surprise, my dad was waiting for me. My dad told me that we would be taking a bus to his house today after school, and with police company we would be able to go grab all of our belongings out of my mother’s house. Due to the circumstances, he also told me that I would be missing swim practice and all of my club meetings after school to go to court mandated therapy sessions with my mother once she was released from the hospital. After many therapy sessions, I understand why my mom could not hold a job for more than a few months, why she was always fighting with my dad, me and my sister, and why she pulled us away from her family and so many other things throughout our lives.

To meet a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder under the DSM-V you must show: ‘a persuasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts as indicated by five (or more) of the following’ –

  1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
  2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by altering between extremes of idealization and devaluation
  3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self image or sense of self
  4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self damaging (e.g., substance abuse, binge eating, and reckless driving_
  5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self- mutilating behavior
  6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g. Intense episodic dysphoria, irritability or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)
  7. Chronic feeling of emptiness
  8. Inappropriate intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, consistent anger, recurrent physical fights)
  9. Transparent, stress- related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms)

When my mother received this diagnosis, I remember the unfamiliar feeling of her crawling into my bed grabbing my hand with tears in her eyes and telling me that she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. After some research, I felt like everything finally made sense and I was not the only person who felt unloved and unwanted by a person with BPD. I finally understood that throughout all these years my mom drove me away in fits of rage, that was the only way she knew how to pull me closer. Additionally, I found opinions from other people with BPD, offering advice on how to “get off the emotional rollercoaster” and start focusing on yourself and distancing with love, opening a healthy line of communication. BPD researcher Marsha M. Linehan has developed a communicating style known as D.E.A.R.

D – Describe the situation as you see it without exaggerating, making judgements, or explaining how you feel about it

E – Express your feelings or opinions about the situation clearly (do some thinking beforehand to determine your exact emotions)

A – Assert your limits making them simple (remember you have decided there are limits and those are your personal preferences)

R – Reinforce the benefits of your limits, if appropriate, making it clear you are not acting against the other person, you are acting for YOURSELF.
There is nothing that can compare to the relationship of a mother and her daughter, or to a mom’s home cooked meals and phone calls just to say “I love you.” My mother and I work hard to keep in touch, and try to talk everyday but for her the intense emotions she cannot escape makes this relationship a challenge, facing more bad days than good days. Growing up with a mother suffering from a mental illness has impacted my life in so many ways, particularly, in my choice to become a social worker. Finding my passion has been something I struggled with for many years, when really the answer was right in front of me the whole time. I have my mom to thank for helping me make that decision.

By Hayley Iannantuoni, The (I’m)Possible Project
(Shared with permission from the author)

 

Self-help strategies for anxiety

If you feel that your anxiety is affecting your daily life, it’s good to check in with your doctor. There are some physical conditions that can cause anxiety, so ask your doctor for a full physical check-up, if possible, or to check for medical conditions known to cause symptoms of anxiety, such as hyperthyroidism, Vitamin B12 deficiency, or heart irregularities.

Once you’ve been reassured that there’s no physiological cause, there are many ways you can help calm the body and the mind. These two work on each other in a two-way system, so you can do things to calm the mind and they will slow down the body’s anxious reactions (this is known as working ‘top down’), or you can work on the body and notice how your mind begins to become more calm (this is known as working ‘bottom up’).

CALMING THE MIND

When we start associating certain things with making us anxious, we begin to avoid them. This is completely natural and ties in to our evolutionary psychology – anxiety is there as a prompt to keep us away from dangerous situations. However, when anxiety becomes a common or everyday state, it comes into play with situations that are not potentially dangerous in terms of our physical safety. And it turns out that avoiding things that make us anxious isn’t a good idea – research has shown that avoidance increases anxiety, rather than lessening it. So someone might start by avoiding large gatherings, then small parties, then even an outing with close friends, because the avoidance has fostered a sense of anxiety in ever-smaller situations. This means that anxiety is best overcome by facing your fears rather than avoiding them, and the earlier this is done, the easier it is to ease any anxiety that has become associated with particular things, people or events. No one needs to do this on their own, so be sure to seek professional help if this feels right for you.

Here are some other ways for calming the mind:

  • Mindfulness has proved to be especially useful as a way to ease anxiety both short- and long-term, so you might want to consider using a mindfulness app (such as Headspace) or website (I like AudioDharma.org but there are lots more to choose from). The Oxford Mindfulness Centre – home of mindfulness-based CBT – has lots of resources, including a great three-minute ‘Breathing-space Meditation’ to calm the mind and body – click here to listen now.
  • See your anxious thoughts as guesses, not facts. Your mind is trying to predict what might happen, but it might be wildly out! Are you basing your predictions on what happened in exactly the same situation in the past? And if so, how likely is it that every factor will be exactly the same? (The philosopher Heraclitus famously said that “we never step into the same river twice”.)
  • Remember that just as our muscles are there to allow us to stretch and move, the brain is there to produce thoughts. Some of these are useful, and some are less so, while others are not useful at all. Spend some time when you’re not anxious just noticing some of the thoughts that arise in your mind. Perhaps think of them as clouds passing by, in front of your awareness – you can pick one or two up, or choose to let them all just float on by. There’s no need to act or even react to our thoughts – noticing them in a detached way allows us time to evaluate their usefulness and respond with choice.
  • Be aware that the mind can also make up whole stories, especially about ourselves (perhaps that we are unlovable or worthless or ‘stupid’). These messages are likely to have evolved from past experiences, and do not necessarily bear any relation to any truths about ourselves. If you have had difficult relationships in the past – with family members, friends or work colleagues, for instance – it’s possible that you’ve picked up faulty information (this is a useful area to explore in counselling). Notice any thoughts or stories like this and allow them to float on by. If they’re ‘sticky’, write them down or draw something that represents them. That way they have been expressed, and you can always come back to them later.
  • Broaden the picture. It’s possible to become very drawn to one particular aspect of a situation and become scared by that. Broaden your view, so that when you consider the situation again, it’s just one part of a much larger picture in your mind. If you like, you can ‘zoom out’ all the way to a satellite view of earth. Or imagine how you’ll think about this situation in 10 years’ time. Give yourself more distance, either geographically or in time. How big does the problem seem now?
  • Stay in the present. Look around you now, and notice the colours, sounds and shapes. What’s moving? What’s still? Are there any smells? Is any part of your body touching the ground or a piece of furniture? How is it, being in this body, today, here and now?

CALMING THE BODY

Here are a few effective ways of calming the body (the mind will follow!)

  • Reduce caffeine intake to 300 mg or less per day (that’s two cups of filtered coffee or three cups of instant)
  • Do some physical exercise every day for at least 30 minutes (even a brisk walk will do, but a run is even better)
  • Spend time doing things you love – make sure you’ve got room in your weekly schedule for fun stuff
  • Practise breathing exercises when you’re feeling anxious and just at occasional times during the day. Breathe gently in, drawing the breath down to your lower abdomen (as though you’re blowing up a balloon in your belly), hold the breath for a count of three, and then gently breathe out of your mouth as slowly as possible. Try to make the out-breath at least twice as long as the in-breath. Don’t gulp in the air, because that can cause the physical symptoms of panic. Take it slow, and focus on the slow out-breath. Repeat at least three times whenever you want to calm the mind and body.
  • Everyone has personal favourites (or ‘tools’) too, which they can use to restore balance to the body and mind, such as music, reading, dancing or swimming.

Lastly, it may be that anxiety has a unique meaning for you and actually does ‘make sense’ in a way that you haven’t yet realised. Once this is known, you have a very powerful way of reducing anxiety or even banishing it forever. I’ll look at this in my next post.

As always, thanks for reading.

Sarah Tomley is a counsellor working in Suffolk, UK (www.insightcounsellingipswich.com)

What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, but sometimes it can begin to take over a person’s life. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterised by a constant state of high anxiety that has continued for at least six months.
It is relatively common and is also known as ‘chronic worrying’ or ‘free-floating anxiety’, because it continues regardless of the reality of everyday life. People with GAD may find themselves worrying about daily issues such as work, health, money or relationships to an excessive degree, and be filled with a horrible sense that something very bad is going to happen. GAD can affect daily functioning in physical, mental and emotional ways, and make life increasingly difficult, as tension, fatigue and lack of sleep begin to increase the level of the worry cycle.
How anxiety differs from fear
Unlike fear, which is a response to an event, anxiety is worry about events that may occur in the future; it is an emotional state produced not by events in the external world, but by worry in the person’s mind. This is the bad and the good news: because it is fear of the future, it can be seen as potentially present all the time. On the other hand, because it is an emotional state produced by the mind, it will disappear if the emotional state ceases to create it. People with GAD may have evolved strategies for managing the anxiety; most often they prevent themselves from entering situations that could provoke anxiety by using ‘avoidant strategies’ such as distraction, excessive preparation (such as arriving very early for appointments) constant checking (that a door is locked, for instance), and procrastination (putting things off that need to be done). However, by avoiding these situations, they may be inadvertently causing the anxiety to grow, because the sense of dread and worry increases each time the feared situation is avoided.
Key symptoms
There are five main symptoms of GAD:
  1. A constant feeling of being ‘on edge’ or ‘keyed up’ which manifests as irritability and jumpiness
  2. Muscular tension
  3. Continual fatigue
  4. A tendency for the mind to ‘go blank’ and a lack of concentration
  5. Sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Other symptoms can also arise, such as impatience, feeling over-sensitive and reactive, loss of appetite, nausea, excessive urination, shallow, rapid breathing, palpitations, feeling faint, and experiencing a sense of dread or panic.

On a cognitive level, people with GAD have a tendency to ‘catastrophize’ and may find that they are expecting the worst possible scenario to emerge from situations. Confidence in problem-solving can take a dive, and decision-making can become difficult. They may also find themselves feeling hyper-alert to threatening stimuli and interpreting ambiguous situations as threatening.

Psychotherapy for GAD

Some therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focus on the perceptual biases that cause the negative thoughts and expectations, and CBT has been found to help reduce these thoughts and responses. However, when challenges to thinking patterns are combined with a therapy that also looks at emotional reactions and learned behaviour from past situations, new learning can take place at a deeper level, preventing a reaction from taking place, rather than managing an arising reaction. Recently, therapies such as Emotional Coherence therapy have suggested that anxiety can stem from a positive attempt to keep an important, learned code of behaviour in place, which may no longer be in the person’s best interest and so creates internal conflict and anxiety. Find out more about how anxiety can be serving a real but unconscious process here.
 As always, thanks for reading.
Sarah Tomley is a counsellor working in Suffolk, UK, at Insight Counselling Ipswich