This guest blog is by two people who have family members with borderline personality disorder. Ed McEwen lives in Ottawa with his diagnosed borderline wife, who has gone through Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Ed has taken the Family Connections course offered by the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder and is now a Family Connections facilitator. Diane Laurence is the mother of two adult children, both of whom have been diagnosed with BPD. "Conventional" people with BPD are those who seek medical and mental health care for issues like suicidal feelings, pain, self-harm, relationship problems, and so forth.
If you have ever traveled on a plane, you have heard the safety speech telling passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before putting one on their child. This is because if you are suffering from oxygen deprivation yourself, you will not be able to think correctly to put one on your child. This same principle is true for anyone looking after a loved one with physical or mental problems, including people with borderline personality disorder who are suicidal, self-harming, and are generally low functioning. If you are not healthy yourself, you are not in a position to care for anyone else.
Following are some suggestions for not burning out.
RECLAIM YOUR PERSONAL POWER
Caring for a family member with BPD can result in feelings of guilt and victimization, which can cause a loss of personal power that impacts your psychological and physical health.
In his book What Happy People Know, author Dan Baker says that claiming your personal power keeps you from being a victim. He writes that people do not take away your power: you give it away. And so it is up to you to take it back.
DO SOMETHING FOR YOURSELF
One way to take back your personal power and regain your health and sense of perspective is to do something for yourself. This could be as simple as an early morning walk with your dog. The more physically and mentally demanding the task is, the better. When your mind is totally absorbed in your work, it is not mulling over the situation with your loved one.
A friend of ours in a seemingly dire situation started a night course at a local university. It was only on Thursday nights. But on Monday she was looking forward to Thursday night, and on Friday she was doing homework. Her situation did not improve, but her outlook did.
FIND SUPPORTIVE FRIENDS
Keeping occupied is often not enough. You need a support system and someone you can tell the truth about your situation. This person (or people) will enable you to keep some perspective and prevent you from becoming isolated. You do not need anyone's permission to do this.
Finding that right someone is not as easy as it sounds. That person must be nonjudgmental and empathize with your feelings and situation. Receiving Band-Aid solutions from someone who does not understand your whole situation can do more harm than good. In some cases, you may want to educate them about BPD and how it affects you. Sometimes all you need is a compassionate set of ears.
You might be lucky enough to have a support group in your area (Al-Anon, NAMI , or the National Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder). The more you know about borderline personality disorder, the better for both of you. If a live support group is not available, you can try one on the Internet such as BPDFamily.com.
ACCEPT THE REALITY OF YOUR SITUATION
Since you cannot directly change the other person, change how you view the situation. The first step is to accept the reality of your situation with your whole being. Acceptance is acknowledging that what is, is, without judging whether it is good or just. Sometimes you have to make the commitment to radically accept something over and over several times in the space of a few minutes.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
The problem is complex and sometimes is not one you can solve by yourself. Staying stuck and miserable will not benefit you or your loved one. So when learning to care of yourself, remember that we caregivers have rights too:
- We need to have a “healthy selfishness” (balance)
- We need to learn to say “no”
- We need to have our own emotional support network
- We need to accept that we cannot solve our relative’s problems
- We need to accept that we will lose our “cool” at times
- We need to take time for ourselves and be alone or out with friends if we want to
- We need to realize we don’t have to account for all our time to anyone, nor tell others our every thought or action. We deserve privacy
- We need to set consequences and limits when we become uncomfortable with another person’s actions.
BEWARE OF BEING ENABLING OR CODEPENDENT
One of the hardest issues a caregiver must address is whether the caregiving is enabling or helping. This is especially true when the person you’re caring for has multiple health problems in addition to BPD such as bipolar disorder, self-harm, thoughts of suicide, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or physical problems—things that often open the door to mental health treatment in a hospital or outpatient setting. Talk to your therapist or the professionals taking care of your family member about the difference between caregiving and codependency.
One couple with a borderline son realized they wee enabling their son rather than helping him by meeting his escalating demands for money. By deciding to stop being a continual cash machine, they fostered their son's independence by giving him a cash cut-off date and helping him brainstorm how he could earn money for himself. While that frightened them because it posed some dangers, they also considered the dangers of being their son's only source of financial and emotional support. If things stayed the same, they would be enabling him to continue to quit job after job and buy beer by the case twice a week.
It took several months for the son to really accept that his parents were no longer a money spigot. He tested them with threats, anger, and crying. But knowing they had given him plenty of notice, they kept fast to their resolve. It was vastly preferable that they help him become more independent while they were still around to support him emotionally. One cannot even imagine how difficult this is for a parent. The adage "a hand up, not a hand out” is an excellent guideline in such a situation.
Today—perhaps right now—go through this article and think about how the principles might apply to you.
- Do you need to reclaim your personal power?
- Do you need to do something for yourself?
- Do you need to find more supportive, nonjudgmental friends and family?
- Are you being honest with yourself about the way things are, rather than the way you want them to be?
- Are you familiar with your rights as a human being?
- Do you need to pull back to avoid being an enabler or codependent?
- Do you need to set any consequences to your loved one’s behavior?
This is a process that can take a long time to work through. Books that may help include The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder by Randi Kreger and Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder by Shari Manning.