Call it coincidence, call it serendipity, call it what you want: Over the past 2 weeks, I’ve seen two different crime shows on Discovery Channel that each featured borderline personality disorder. The portrait of BPD painted by each program was less than glamorous, and in general gave me the impression that people with Borderline Personality Disorder are either ticking time bombs waiting to explode, or people whose lives are a complete disaster. To be sure, these two characterizations aren’t necessarily wrong. It’s true that people with BPD are short fused, manipulative, and have chaotic existences. The thing I found troubling was the “take away” of each show was that people with BPD are dangerous to society.
The first show I saw was called “Wicked Attractions”, a mini-series about couples that either commit a heinous crime, or go on small time crime sprees. The show detailed the story of Elizabeth Haysom, daughter of a well-to-do couple who was attractive, intelligent, and also suffering BPD. Elizabeth’s frustrations with life revolved around her parents, who she viewed as responsible for her rocky upbringing, which included frequent moves to new places due to her father’s job. Things seemed to settle down when Elizabeth gained entry into a University in Virginia, and life began to take on some semblance of normalcy similar to that of any other college student.
Sadly, however, there was no story book ending to Elizabeth’s struggles with BPD. While at college, she met a naive and sexually inexperienced man named Jens Soering. They connected immediately because they both lived the jetsetter lifestyle as youths, and generally felt like outsiders around their peers. Elizabeth pounced on the opportunity to connect with someone, and ensnared Soering by seducing him. Once she had control (in part governed by sexual favors) Jens Soering fell under help spell and began to take on some of her fears, sadness, and general frustrations with life. Elizabeth used her manipulative abilities to convince Jens that her parents were the root cause of all her troubles, and that it was necessary to get even. Their level of angst as a couple was also increased when Elizabeth’s parents rejected Jens as an appropriate boyfriend, citing his naive personality, nerdiness, and odd behavior.
Ultimately, Elizabeth Haysom was able to manipulate Soering into murdering both her parents in a vicious stabbing incident, in which she was not actually physically present. Her grip on Soering was so strong that he would do almost anything for her, and this was evidenced when he slaughtered her parents in cold blood. Meanwhile, Elizabeth planned their future together, knowing that her evil and domineering parents were out of the picture.
As with most Discovery Channel shows, there was a brief digression into Elizabeth’s mental health and family history. The narrator gave a brief outline of Borderline Personality Disorder, summarizing some of the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV manual. Additionally, it was revealed that Elizabeth was a difficult child, who frequently had family relationship issues, and claimed that she was being abused. Before returning to the conclusion of the story, which was a life sentence for Soering and a short prison/psychiatric commitment for Elizabeth, the narrator concluded that those with BPD are menaces to society: unstable, angry, and manipulative people that lacked any sort of emotional regulation in their lives.
The next show featuring BPD was “Most Evil”, a running scientific investigation into the world of society’s most notable criminals. The show’s subject, Dr. Michael Stone of Columbia University, created a “scale of evil” for serious crimes, 1 being the least evil and 22 being the most. Other episodes of the program have featured the likes of Ted Bundy (serial killer), Gary Heidnik (serial killer, rapist, torturer), and Jim Jones (Reverend of “Jonestown”; presided over largest mass suicide in recent criminal history). In each case, Dr. Stone summarizes the circumstances of each crime, the lucidness of each perpetrator, and any mental health issues before placing them on his scale. It’s worth noting right away that Dr. Stone considers mental illness a mitigating factor in any criminal acts; that is, those with diagnosed or obvious diseases like Schizophrenia can not be considered as evil as someone who knowingly commits horrific crimes and understands the difference between right and wrong.
The episode I watched that focused on BPD was about spree killers and the increasing incidence of spree killing in America. In general, Dr. Stone characterized the perpetrators as troubled people that lived on the periphery of society, rejected by family and/or peers, abused, or otherwise excluded from a “normal” course of life.
One example was Charles Whitman, a bright but troubled individual who had a difficult childhood due to an abusive father. When Whitman left home in early adulthood, he took solace in joining the armed services and became an expert marksman. He also became obsessed with guns and killing. Whitman eventually married and had a constant battle with his demons. He was a voracious journal writer, and would often type out lists of things that he needed to do in order to appear civil to others, such as “Do not get angry…Do not hit wife” etc. Despite these efforts and sporadic counseling with psychiatrists, Whitman still lived a tortured existence, and eventually began to abuse his wife. The marriage ended in divorce.
During the course of his final years alive, Whitman had enrolled in the University of Texas At Austin, in hopes of pursuing a degree. Unfortunately, the social experience at school proved difficult for Whitman, and as a result he became increasingly isolated and reclusive. He began to have intense headaches and delusions. Finally, one day, at the end of his rope, Whitman packed a bag full of rifles and food. He climbed to the top of the Clock Tower of U-Texas Austin. Without warning, during the lunch hour of a pleasant day, he began shooting random people from the tower, killing more than 30 and injuring countless others before he was killed by law enforcement.
Upon autopsy, it was revealed that Whitman had a small tumor on his amygdala, a portion of the brain that regulates behavior. The presence of this tumor also explained Whitman’s headaches and general instability.
Like the “Wicked Attractions” show, “Most Evil” had a background segment about people with Borderline Personality Disorder. A doctor in Massachusetts explained a study she was conducting, which showed how people with BPD react differently to visual stimuli opposed to those with normal mental health. Another doctor focused on the “social exclusion” element of BPD. He created an experiment with college students and word association to prove that those who are left out of the crowd tend to have more evil and perverse thoughts compared to those who are accepted. Overall, the conclusion was that individuals with Borderline Personality live troubled, isolated lives; and more often than not are shunned or ignored by their peers. These environmental factors, plus the indications of BPD proved to create disastrous results for those afflicted by the condition and the victims of their crimes.
Although “Most Evil’s” conclusion that spree killers arise from a number of different circumstances, it was clear that the brief explanation of BPD was clearly apart of the mental diagnosis of some people who snap and suddenly take the lives of others.
How did I feel watching these shows? Well, a bit ashamed, embarrassed, and quite honestly fearful that one day I might commit some sort of mass killing. I fit most of the criteria of those profiled in each show, although the degrees to which I experience certain aspects of a “BPD life” were different from the murderers on the shows. In some ways I’ve been socially excluded, in other ways I haven’t. Further, while I wasn’t consistently “abused” as a child, I did suffer abusive incidents at the hands of family and peers. Finally, now, as an adult, I tend to isolate and have difficulty maintaining relationships. Does all this mean I’m going to be a killer one day?
NO. If you take anything away from this blog, please realize that not all sufferers of BPD are soon-to-be spree killers. We don’t need to be locked in prison as preventative law enforcement, nor confined to psychiatric hospitals for the rest of our lives. I was a bit angry that Discovery Channel chose to describe BPD in a very sensational manner, picking the most extreme examples of tragic BPD lives, opposed to showing the day-to-day struggles AND improvements that most BPD sufferers make.
Instead, please realize that the vast majority of those with Borderline Personality either improve in time, or at minimum have intensive counseling and medication regimens. People with mental illness are people, too. Perhaps if all you “normal” folks removed your heads from your asses and included us in society, this world would be a happier place. Excluding people with mental health problems is no different than racism, sexism, or discrimination based on creed. It really needs to stop and it’s time to focus on getting people better opposed to pushed to their breaking point.