Among the estimated ten million sufferers of Borderline Personality Disorder—whether diagnosed as such or not—ninety percent also suffer another or even more psychological conditions. This constellation presents an added level of difficulty. But when the sufferer is aging and beset with declining health, the challenges grow exponentially. Previously it was believed that symptoms mellow with age, but now with a rapidly aging population, BPD is increasingly recognized within this group, as it is in the general population. Their offspring outnumber BPD sufferers by fertile leaps of multiples; I am just one of those larger numbers. My experience is not an isolated example; there are uncounted numbers of people like my mother, with uncounted numbers of adult children like me who suffer and endure the perplexing fallout of their parents’ disorders. Those of us who come forward, I suspect, are only the tip of an iceberg.
Family and significant others, friends, co-workers, health providers and even therapists struggle to understand their individual who suffers an outwardly imperceptible and very slippery volatile sickness of the mind. Each of these “others” is also affected to some substantial degree by the illness that claims the one they care about. It creates distresses that may go unrecognized, misidentified or minimized until circumstances and symptoms become intolerable. This unavoidable contagion surfaces more often later than sooner, especially when we may have functioned quite normally in many aspects—while still under the shadowy secondary influences of someone else's disorder which may escape detection but causes no less pain to us all.
My story and my experience, unfortunately, are not unusual. Reflected in the online forums of adult offspring affected by BPD, even details of my account strike a resounding chord of recognition of the hidden realities and pain such a complex illness causes us by default. This is all too evident in lengthy postings from adult daughters like myself, and sons of our Borderline mothers.
Statistically, women suffer Borderline and Bipolar Disorders in twice greater numbers than do men, according to the studies. As adults, we often watch our mothers age into symptoms that worsen as the years pass. Older women are far less likely to have participated in therapy that would forestall their increasing pathology, because in a vast number of cases appropriate treatment protocols and diagnostics were yet to be refined in their younger days. Until more recent years, therapists lacked the training and often hesitated to take on these challenging patients. Lingering stigmas and denial still closet their complaints, and intervention for the offspring in these circumstances is still daunting to tease out. Too many of us slip through the cracks, but if we’re lucky and persistent, we find each other for support and a therapist who really understands our needs for recovery.
Now entering their years of physical decline and symptom progression, our mothers may never stabilize, even as mortality may be years away. Adult children find themselves called upon more often to tend to their aging mothers, many of whom now are widowed or divorced and alone. What may have been workable in our relationship with our BP parents and in our needs to carry on apart from them, now becomes challenged as fresh reminders of our traumas come rushing in on the heels of our mothers’ intensifying needs. If we have not yet found a way to our own recovery, which may take decades, the stage is set for even more heartache and confusion.
When the misery becomes unbearable and the transfer of suffering from source to offspring is no longer acceptable, we look for information, acceptance, validation and support. And, hopefully—very hopefully—we find a way to thrive and care for ourselves while we move through the maze of our misery, to see and avoid the littered landmines and eggshells, hooks and triggers in our path. Whether we stay in relationships with our parents, separate from them or choose to modify the terms in any other positive, self-affirming ways, we know our choice requires some major changes. We put energy into the task of finding answers, an antidote and a roadmap to recovery from the contagion that invaded our lives and our homes and families.
My memoir—Shuddering Out of Time: Transcending My Mother’s Illness—was for me that task, a way to help me find an exit strategy from a forested darkness of denial and very old pain, where my mother’s demons dwell. Within that context, it is a dialogue with myself as I analyzed and synthesized memories of seminal events, and gathered together what I know, have learned and have experienced. As material flowed, I found patterns, connections, insights, perspective and answers I may not have discovered otherwise, outside of intensive therapy. My book is a guided tour through my process of transcendence over the last year, when I finally accepted the extent of my mother’s illness, its effects on me and how our relationship supported both of these.
I wrote myself a book like one I had hoped to find but couldn’t, when I needed to discover and uncover and heal—because I take books seriously and depend on them for information and reassurance. Writing with honesty and as much accuracy and objectivity as introspection and memory allow, I did not intend it to be simply a journal, a repository of feelings and impressions. I needed more than that, so I gave my book an edge and created a tool for immersion into hard truths that came forth from the writing, supplemented by letters and phone call transcripts. The book explores the links I have seen between my mother’s mental disorders and her physical ones, that helped create tragic circumstances in the last two years of her life. Input from credible family members helped me with a historical perspective filling in time gaps when I wasn’t around as a witness. My book also includes a narrative around the overlap and parallels of my professional life and my private struggles. The built-in emotional safety valve of transferring a flow of repressed memories, feelings and thoughts to the written word enabled me to detach from and begin to resolve the long-delayed distresses I suffered and came to recognize as a form of unacknowledged Post-traumatic Stress that gathered momentum over the years. I structured the larger story in blocks of smaller ones, ranging over my oldest memories and more recent events, narratives of what also occurred around these times, and narratives that exposed my feelings, emotions and conclusions occurring while I wrote. My ongoing healing has been expedited through this participant-observer process of consolidation. Ultimately this exercise did what I had hoped it would—allowed me understanding, forgiveness, and a productive outlet leading to critical resolution.
My book is not a self-absorbed exercise of rubbing salt into my wounds, picking the scabs that formed and whining that it hurts so, poor me. Nor is it a bitter, angry indictment of my mother, whom I had to love from a distance while she lay in a nursing home bed. I sought meaning and purpose from my feelings and experience by writing my story. I wrote over a seven month period in 2007, after I had decided to terminate contact with my mother while I knew she had little time left. The memoir is an soul-baring exploration of the emotional scarring that has helped me navigate to a place of fulfillment, letting go and healing, in peace and in appreciation of the lessons I have learned from my mother and her diseases and of the unavoidable but reversible vulnerabilities and effects of conditioning resulting from both the illnesses and their host. I did find the balance, the voice and the understanding I needed, bringing full circle a lifetime's memories and present-time's difficulties into a place of closure and safe, healthy containment.
I have created this site to share a process of rediscovering and healing myself that many in my situation are seeking. My mother finally died in early 2008 and it is time to share my experience with others who want the validation we all have looked for and may not have yet found. She was multiply-disordered with the Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder and a strong likelihood of a factitious disorder on the order of Munchhausen's. She also had multiple physical challenges and conditions that played into the mix in often confusing ways, making it extremely difficult to tease out what was really happening at any given time, especially in the last few years of her life. My mother was higher-functioning, most of the time, and resisted psychiatric intervention. She was almost magical in her ability to manipulate people and events into crisis or non-crisis situations that served her needs at the time. I have learned that much of what I grew up thinking and knowing about my mother was a function of her disordered mind and my willing heart. And I have learned that much of what I knew and accepted about myself needed some serious re-evaluation.
If you are an adult child of a borderline parent, then you will undoubtedly find some similarities in our stories and I hope my process will encourage you on your own journey toward wholeness and wellness. If you are a practitioner interested in the back story and flip side of the borderline's Oz-like landscape, the familial map, then perhaps this will help fill in some gaps. If you are someone with this or bipolar or other related diagnoses, then I fervently hope you will take my offering as food for thought if you are curious about the infectious nature of your disorders--you are not the only victim and your pain is not simply your own, although none of us signed up for it. I hope you may find motivation to avoid consequences you may not now anticipate.