By Caroline Kotter as told to Emily Anderson
I have Borderline Personality Disorder.
I’m akin to a burn victim.
Burn victims are so raw and so exposed all the time that any sudden movement hurts, and BPD is like that. It’s like I’m an emotional burn victim because every little thing–things you wouldn’t even think of–can be painful for me.
BPD is a condition characterized by extreme emotional sensitivity and impulsivity.
So the essence of that is emotional dysregulation–when I react to things that upset me, I have very intense, very strong feelings.
My emotions spike stronger than they would for someone without BPD, and it takes longer to get back to baseline. The most challenging daily tasks are ones that stir up emotion in me, which, because of the makeup of the disorder that I have, can be as simple as interacting with other people.
Take criticism. Everyone deals with criticism. It’s not always the easiest thing. And everyone experiences impulses, and wanting to calm down but not being able to. It’s human stuff. People with Borderline are not aliens.
But, for me, criticism can be extra painful, just because my emotions are so much stronger than the average person’s.
Here’s an example: I go to art school, and we have critiques for our art projects. There was one time when I was not doing well emotionally, back in January, when I got a critique from a visiting artist whom I really admired. It was pretty harsh. It was her job to critique our art and give us feedback, but she was laying into mine in a way that I wasn’t prepared for.
I was in a bad state. I wasn’t sleeping. I was having a lot of anxiety. A lot of things were off in my world. And because of all those things, and because of the fact that I feel things so strongly, I left that meeting and went and cried in my studio. And then I went from crying (extreme sadness) to extreme anger. I was like, “[Expletive] her. I can’t believe she didn’t like my art. How dare she.”
That’s the sort of thing that sets me off. It could also be a friend blowing me off, or it could be somebody giving me a look on the street.
There are so many little things that people deal with every day, and I don’t think they consider how someone who has strong feelings would deal with them differently.
I exist in a constant state of needing to regulate myself and calm myself down.
I’m always working to re-regulate, to bring myself back. I see other people experience things that bother me, but those things don’t seem to bother them. They don’t take things as personally. They don’t feel as much pain. They’re able to move on. For me, it takes a lot of work and concentrated effort to re-regulate my emotions and calm down. It’s not easy for me.
It’s not easy for me at all.
My emotions have been like this my entire life, and I think I’ve confused people over the years. I was a very sensitive kid; I always had that element to my personality. When I was in elementary school, I was bullied a lot. Kids are vicious. But if you react to them, if they can get a rise out of you, you’re screwed. You are going to be targeted.
And I was such a sensitive kid.
I hadn’t yet learned the techniques of controlling my emotions that I developed later. I was raw and exposed and sensitive. So if someone made fun of my red hair and called me a ginger or gave me a bad look—any little thing—I’d lose it. I’d cry right in front of them. I would make a scene, and people didn’t know what to do.
My parents didn’t know what to do. It was an overreaction, in their minds. It was too much. It did not fit the situation. It was a tantrum. So they sent me to my room. They didn’t realize that by doing that, by telling me, “Hey, calm down,” that they were actually invalidating my experience.
Being told to “move on” or “let it go” is the kind of thing that your average person is fine with. And it may be all they need to hear.
But to me, or to someone else with BPD, it can be very invalidating to hear, “It’s not a big deal,” or, “Just calm down.” It’s condescending. If I could calm down, I would. I would love to be able to “just calm down.”
Still today, I get more upset about certain things than you’d expect so I’ve had to do a lot of explaining to people. I tell them that the most helpful thing they can do is to try and validate my experiences.
By validation, I mean just saying, “Hey, yeah, that sucks, and I’m sure that must feel really crappy for you,” and to just be there as a source of support. You don’t even have to problem-solve or do anything.
Just be there to listen.
That’s what I expect most from my loved ones and my friends. That’s what I need right now in my life–someone to validate me, to be understanding, to ask questions if they don’t get it and to be human with me. Be around. Be there. Support doesn’t mean: Fix everything, fix all my problems and do everything for me. It just means: Be there for me. Literally. Next to me on the couch.
Just sit with me and be understanding. I think that’s the thing I want most from my relationships.
Caroline Kotter, 25, is a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she is slotted to get her BFA next spring. Her areas of study include video, painting, and installation. The painting pictured above is a self-portrait she completed in 2011. She also made a short documentary, Who Will Help Me? Who?, which profiles the lives of two young women living with BPD. You can watch it below. For more from Caroline, visit her blog, ‘hurricane headspace.’
Photos by Liam Carleton