Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) seems to have become a hot topic this year. From Amber Heard to Disney’s “Moon Knight,” personality disorders have suddenly become part of public conversation. This was not the case when I first started researching and writing about BPD over a decade ago. For me, interest in this subject was not fueled by Hollywood or celebrity gossip. It was personal.
My mother, Barbara, struggled with Borderline Personality Disorder. In the 1950s, as children, her erratic behavior was our normal. Eventually she was committed to a state institution and we children were placed in foster homes. Not until 70 years later, when I inherited a treasure-trove of family documents my mother had kept hidden, did I learn the details about her life-long struggle.
When I first broached the idea of writing a book on Barbara’s life, I began reading mental health literature about schizophrenia because that is what my grandmother had “diagnosed” her daughter with. I often came across the term Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). While killing time between flights in a concourse kiosk, I discovered Borderline Personality Disorder Demystified by Robert O. Friedel. By the time my plane landed several hours later, pages of Friedel’s book were dog-eared and underlined. Notes filled margins with phrases such as, “This is Barb,” or “her rage,” or “hatred toward Herman” or “estranged from family.” During that first read of Friedel’s book, I realized that today Barb would probably be diagnosed with BPD. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) states, “BPD is a pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, and marked impulsivity.”
Adolph Stern first used the term “borderline personality” in 1938 to describe patients who did not fit the standard classification system. At that time they were often diagnosed as schizophrenic. Thus my grandmother’s conclusion that Barbara was schizophrenic makes sense, and I can begin to understand her frustration and lack of empathy with her daughter’s behavior.
In The Everything Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder, Constance M. Dolecki, MS PhDc, writes, “Parentification is a process in which parents turn to their children to parent them.…They also look to the child to take care of them—plan meals, clean, cook, keep them on schedule, etc.” Dolecki’s description summarizes my childhood.
Over the past decade, I continued to study BPD. Marsha M. Linehan’s Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder section on “Characteristics of Invalidating Environments” was very illuminating as I juxtaposed Linehan’s findings to primary source documents from my mother’s early life and the relationship she had with her parents—especially a child’s sense of abandonment.
Several psychiatric disorders may co-occur with BPD including many of the mood disorders and personality disorders. Barbara presented with symptoms of several disorders over the course of her life, including eating disorders. I single out symptoms of two possible comorbid disorders that my primary source documents chronicle.
First, PTSD commonly co-occurs with Borderline Personality Disorder because both disorders are most often the result of trauma. Early in Barbara’s life, she was exposed to traumatic events.
Second, and I think of greater impact, dissociation is a common characteristic of BPD. But at what point does dissociation become so extreme that it progresses from a characteristic of one disorder to a comorbid—additional—disorder?
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, is controversial. A primary cause of DID is attributed to a coping mechanism to deal with severe trauma. Some in the mental health profession do not believe it exists. Over the course of six decades, I witnessed Barbara display bizarre behavior—at times violent.
Early letters document Barbara accusing schoolmates of stealing things only for her to find them later. People suffering dissociative identity disorder harbor alternate personalities (alters) that perform specific tasks—revealing themselves as alter fragments. In later life Barbara often wrote grocery lists in French. A person with dissociative identity disorder can speak a foreign language when an alter is in control.
In 1939, Barbara was involved with a Polish soldier named Zdzislaw “Kristaw” Konopka. In researching Konopka, I discovered that his brother was a priest and two of his sisters were nuns in the Catholic Church. They died during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Konopka was forty-six years old and a Major in the Polish Army (Barbara was nineteen in 1939. She had a preference for older men—later, two of her husbands were fifteen years older than she was.)
Barbara was fluent in Latin. I can imagine her convincing a Church official that she was of the Catholic faith. Did Barbara, in the hysteria of approaching war—less than two weeks out—become a member of the Catholic Church and marry the Polish Major? I found evidence that he was captured by the Russian army and murdered in the Katyn Forest Massacre.
When Barbara later told my stepfather, Herman, “Don’t be sacrilegious—he is the head of my church,” was that a Catholic alter speaking? Did Barbara, in her acute stress of escaping Poland and abandoning her school friend and new husband six days before the Wehrmacht invaded, unconsciously create a new alternate personality to shelter her from the trauma she was living? An alter that despised German men? Is that why she often referred to Herman as an ignorant German immigrant and a Nazi stormtrooper?
Barbara changed her name to Linda in 1948.
Was it the alter Linda who married Schoenwandt in 1948, and Herman in 1950? Was it the alter Linda who kept my brother, Tim, home for sixty-four school days in 1951? Barbara signed all four quarters of his report card, Mrs. L. [Linda] Affield.
The afternoon Barbara proposed to the neighbor while Herman and we children listened—was that Linda or another alter?
Was it an alter who danced naked on the table while her children watched? An alter who beat me when I was a child; who terrified me to the point that I jumped out a second story window to escape from her? Was it an alter who refused to unlock her door in the dead of night during a violent storm to give her children shelter? Was it an alter speaking, when Barbara wrote to her mother in the 1960s: “I’m still your little girl”? We’ll never know the answer to those questions, but as I reflect on Barbara’s journey, I’m amazed at her resilience.
In The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook, Deborah Bray Haddock, writing about bodywork therapy and memory, says, “An individual never completely forgets what has happened to her in the past. Sometimes, though, those memories have been dissociated and stored very far away, like stacks of boxes packed away in the corner of a basement.” (p. 166).
Had a community of alter fragments relegated those “boxes” of memories to the chickenhouse for me to later discover? Had Barbara, as a final act a few days before she died, regained control and put me in charge so her story would be told?
In 2021, my book BARBARA, Uncharted Course Through Borderline Personality Disorder released. I am currently giving away 10 copies of the book. Register below by June 8 to enter.