How to Explain BPD to Family/Friends/Others

The members of my family (myself included) suffer from either one of two maladies: mental illness or physical illness. Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes suddenly appeared with me and one other sibling. In terms of mental health, my mother, brother, and I all struggle with varying degrees of depression and BPD. So, as a result, one would expect that dealing with these conditions would be frequent conversation, since talking about ways to deal to with illness of any kind should be a regular part of any family’s discourse.

There’s a catch with my family. My parents openly discuss and bemoan the fact that diabetes has stricken two children, and they have made a great effort to understand Type 1 Diabetes and how to treat it. Over the years, they have figured out how to help order insulin, insulin pump supplies, find news about groundbreaking treatments, and get reputable doctors. The phenomenon of having an insulin reaction or high blood sugar is thoroughly understood and dealt with seriously and with great attention and care. It’s just as acceptable in many ways, to them, as not having a functional limb, having a gastrointestinal illness like Crohn’s disease, or suffering from migraine headaches.

Mental illness, and BPD in particular, is a whole different matter. My parents hardly ever speak about it unless there is either an emergency situation, or a very deep moment when everyone can openly communicate. Since these two situations are rare, they pretty much don’t acknowledge the role mental illness plays in the family’s daily lives. For example, a BPD mood swing, equivalent in importance to a Diabetic high blood sugar, is completely dismissed and ignored. If they chose to ignore the diabetes, there would be clear consequences that would manifest themselves physically in the bodies of their children. On the other hand, mental health issues are given the cold shoulder and almost no attention.

It’s clear that my parents are in denial about their children’s mental health status, and their own mental health, for that matter. The result is a big rift, one that causes a lot of emotional turmoil and stress that could be easily explained if they understood the “vocabulary” and aspects of BPD and depression.

For example, if one moment I am content and satisfied watching the TV, but the next flying off the handle at a sibling over something that seemed completely innocuous, my parents shut down and only “spot check” the issue by resolving the conflict, but not the cause. This means that I have to find other avenues for communicating about my BPD and mental health.

In early February our family dog of 12 years had to be put down because she was suffering from kidney failure. I was very upset, of course, but was even more upset by the fact that no one in the family made an effort to call me and discuss the situation personally. The fact that I live in Costa Rica is no excuse for not communicating: it’s the year 2009 and everyone knows how to dial a phone.

After hearing about my dog’s death in an offhand email from my father, I became very distraught and depressed, as if the dog was my own skin and blood. She was a wonderful pet and was a very soothing presence in my life, one which never wavered no matter how I was feeling, acting, or behaving. She was always there for me.

I spent about 4 days in bed (getting up to eat and work a little), and didn’t leave my apartment. I didn’t know what to do, how to talk with my family about it, or how to reconcile my emotions and grief. I wrote my Mom and Dad an email stating that I was essentially non-functional and very upset. My Dad replied stating that he was sorry all this happened; however, he also said that he is feeling very stressed out and bothered by all the mental health issues that have been present in our families over the past several years between my mother and I. The idea of feeling grief and being depressed clearly doesn’t register with him.

I decided I would take this opportunity to write a letter to him specifically, outlining what I believed to be some of the biological, emotional, and environmental causes of BPD in our family. I carefully walked through the symptoms of BPD, recounted troubling family history, and then, at the end, stated that my mental illness is my cross to carry, even though he was and continues to be stressed by all of it.

I printed the letter out and hand signed it, to be more personal, and sent it off in express mail, to be sure it would reach him.

He’s been in touch since by email, but hasn’t really mentioned my letter, even though I asked if he received it. I think he needs time to process it and collect his thoughts. Maybe he would rather talk about it in person. I think a lot of it has to do with some regrets and deficiencies in his own life. Maybe he is unhappy in marriage, looking for more romance, but instead has to deal with his BPD wife. I stated in the letter that he should look for outlets to enjoy himself, and to take a break from things.

Ultimately, I think explaining my BPD by letter with scientific facts, family history, and various emotional issues was probably the best way to go about explaining my situation to my father. It was neither overly formal nor detached; it was simply the facts and my interpretation of them at this time.

If you have BPD and are in a situation where friends and/or family clearly are in denial about your problems, find a way to communicate with them. Some people might prefer to have a family meeting with a disinterested psychiatrist as a third party to moderate the discussion; others may want to sit down with someone and have a heart-to-heart, while others may decide to put their thoughts in writing.

Timing is also a factor, although not the most important aspect of talking about BPD. I tried to use my dog’s passing as an opportunity to not only explain why I felt so upset about her death, but also to tell my father, at an important emotional juncture, why I act the way I do.

I hope he learned something from my letter and has some new perspective. Time will tell if he or anyone else in my family brings up mental health for formal discussion, but for now I’m content that I reached out and tried to offer some sort of explanation for the tumultuous atmosphere that BPD creates in a household.

Best of luck to all those suffering from BPD and attempting to explain it to others…

8 Replies to “How to Explain BPD to Family/Friends/Others”

  1. I hope your father addresses your letter. I tried something like that, before knowing what was wrong with me for sure. I wrote a long letter explaining how I felt about things that had happened in the family, and sent a copy to each of my parents and sister. My mother said it didn’t deserve to be addressed, my sister never mentioned it, and my father refused to read it. I no longer speak to any of them. I truly hope your outcome is better.

  2. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, as much as one “enjoys” reading about BPD. I’ve recently started blogging about my experiences with BPD as well, and will continue to blog about my experiences with DBT, which I should be starting soon.

  3. I just made an attempt to open up with my father about BPD. I hope for everyone who takes this step that positive results are ultimately seen. I have a strange feeling that the abuse / neglect that contributed to the development of this illness might take the win in this instance as well, though. Hopefully parents will learn to accept BPD and look at it as less than an accusation toward them and more as their child asking for their help and support. That’s not easy for any of us to do with BPD. It’s risky. Good luck everyone.

  4. Thank you for this post. I too have trouble talking about my BPD and my Bipolar to my family. My mom, who accepts it, I think, doesn’t really talk about it and when I told my dad about it I think it went in one ear and out the other. He accepts that I have “issues” but can’t accept a diagnosis. I’ve been trying to figure out how to best approach it, but I’m so afraid of once again hearing: you don’t have BPD. Every time I hear that I feel like the person is rejecting a part of me.

  5. It’s devastating to lose a family member like a dog. I’m sorry you had to face the situation alone. I hope that your dad comes around and becomes more open with you about BPD.

  6. Hi Tami,

    Thanks so much for your words. It was a difficult time for sure, but I think my father has a little better understanding; and a “little” for him is a lot of difference at this point.

  7. Hi there

    I’ve opted for not bringing mental health issues with my Dad at all simply because it always seems to end up in a massive fight. There seems to be no way that I can possibly relay to him what I’ve been going thru without him taking it personally. Maybe he knows something I don’t, he was there after all when I was growing up (well actually he wasn’t there much at all really, mainly down the pub), but I guess he must feel a lot of guilt and is really not ready to face the fact that he’s little girl has a mental health issue that may have resulted in part from the growing up environment. He’s 67 now, and although I never thought I would say this, but I believe it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie, and not rock the boat. The problem with this is that I can’t spend much time with him now, and have to keep the conversation very shallow – but at least we can spend time together and be civil.

    I used to be very close to him telling him virtually everything, but that was before I was diagnosed, and when I was a very big boozer, and life was just one big party, albeit a sort of roller-coaster ride of a party! Now that I only have the odd glass of an evening, and don’t go out so much, basically trying to get my life on an even-keel, it seems hard to relate to him on a deep level without talking about my therapy etc. I don’t think he really can accept that I’ve decided to clean up my act (he still hasn’t!), and part of that is getting therapy.

    It’s quite interesting now being aware of how adept he is at changing the subject when anything emotional is mentioned – he’s masterful at it, and it feels very invalidating, but I’ve learnt or should I say, I am learning to not go to him for validation after all I’m sure the lack of validation my mother & myself received from him (and my sister who also doesn’t talk about emotions) has contributed to the manifestation of BPD – hence it makes no sense to go there.

    He once said, when I mentioned my mental health issue, that maybe he had a mental health issue too! And at another time he said he wouldn’t want to “open that can of worms”. I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that we grow up in these families that reinforce our disfunctional behaviours and it would be nice to be able to overcome them and bring our families with us on that road, but often there aren’t prepared to dread that bumpy road with us and we can choose to accept that and still maintain a relationship with them, albeit a much shallower one. I guess that sums up life though, and especially for BPD people who seek validation so badly, and often don’t get that validation – we have to choose who we open up to and who we maintain merely shallow relationships with.

    All the best

    Lisa xxx

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