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Personality Disorder Families: Thoughts and Advice
by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W.
To Parents of those with Borderline Personality Disorder
How many of you have seen the movie "Ordinary
People" years ago? A young boy is in therapy with a psychiatrist
and he is experiencing grief over his brother's death. I think one of
the best parts in the movie is right before the session is over, the
psychiatrist says to the boy "let yourself off the hook."
The boy insists "what do you mean? Come on, please tell me."
All the psychiatrist says is for him to think about it and that the
session was over.
This is what I want to say to you, families of those with borderline
personality disorder (BPD), and I will say it as loudly and as
clearly as I can - LET YOURSELF OFF THE HOOK! I want you to say this
to yourself again and again and again until you are free.
Some of you instantly know what I mean and some of you are still
wondering what is meant by that statement as that young boy did. He
didn't understand what the psychiatrist meant at the time until he
allowed some feelings out he wasn't aware he had - feelings that were
hidden deep inside, causing so much pain.
Later in the movie, the pain comes out. He telephones his Dr. in the
middle of the night and they meet in the office. He is finally able to
describe the accident that he and his brother were involved in - where
his brother died and he survived. What feeling was this young man
holding on to that hurt and hindered his life so much? GUILT! He felt
he had not done enough to save his brother. He wondered if could have
done something differently, could it have saved his brother? He felt
he was a terrible person for not saving his brother and he felt guilty
that he was the one alive and not his brother.
So, my message to parents is LET YOURSELF OFF THE HOOK. Why should you
do this? How can you do this? Do you deserve this?
Paul Markovitz, M.D., Ph.D., a key person in the BPD field, feels that
it is almost conclusive that borderline personality disorder (emotional
intensity disorder) is caused by genetics. He does state
that the parent's own disorders could be involved in how the child is
raised but we are looking primarily at genetics. the research says the
risk of a BPD mother giving birth to a child with the
BPD is 5 times more likely that a parent without the BPD?
If you are experiencing guilt over your child having the BPD, isn't
knowing about the genetic links enough to assist you in stopping your
feelings of guilt? Did you do the best you could while raising your
child? Did you make mistakes? Of course you did, I did. We all make
mistakes as parents no matter if we had some disorder we dealt with
while raising that child or whether we had enormous baggage ourselves
from our own lives and or families of origin. We simply did the best
Did you cause physical, emotional or sexual abuse upon your child?
Were you yourself abused as a child? If these are the case, your best
course of action now is the get all the help you need for yourself to
be a happy and productive adult, work on those abusive issues and if
your child is young and you honestly feel your presence is a danger to
that child, please reach out and call the child protective services
agency where you are. If you love your child, you will want to keep
them safe while you are working out your own issues. Remember, there
are no bad people - only people that need help.
If your child is already grown, and you inflicted abuse, as I said,
please get some medical and therapeutic counseling for yourself. Work
hard on being a happy and productive adult that your child will see as
a role model and it will show your child that they too can be happy as
In the meantime, guilt will keep you stuck. If it makes you feel
better, hit yourself over the head forty times with a pillow and let
it go. If you are a spiritual person, ask God to forgive you.
I strongly recommend that you ask your child to forgive you. This
action will not only help free you but your child as well. It will
demonstrate to your child that you actually acknowledge that what did
happen to them was not their fault and that they were clearly abused.
Let them know they didn't deserve it. Give them a reason if you can.
Tell them you are sorry, only if you are. It is up to them whether
they forgive you or not. That is not your business. If you are not
forgiven; perhaps in time…
If you are a parent saying "but I didn't abuse my child!," I
hear you. Many parents simply did not abuse their borderline children.
What can you do for your child? If your child is still not an adult,
your first goal is of course to get an accurate diagnosis of ALL their
diagnoses. As Leland Heller, M.D. says "All disorders need to be
treated." Then comes medical treatment which can take some time
to fine tune it to fit your child. What is key here is having your
prescriber someone who really is updated in treating this disorder.
You don't want to waste time on someone who is telling you there is no
help, or is not aware of the correct medications used to treat this
disorder. During this time, get your child into some kind of
psychodynamic therapy, cognitive
therapy or DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). If your child attends
talk therapy, make sure your child is kept in the present, not in the
If your child is grown, are they aware they may have this disorder?
Have they been evaluated? Are they in denial? If your child is not
wanting help, there is absolutely nothing you can do but to go on with
your life and be a happy person. You need to remember you are
powerless over your child and their illness. For those of you who saw
the movie "The Matrix," do you remember Morpheus repeatedly
saying "I can show you the way, but you yourself must open the
door." This is the same with your adult child.
I can hear you saying "but my child is in so much pain and they
engage in self-mutilation or self harm and their life is in a crisis. How can I just let go? I hurt so
much!" Yes I hear you. I hear you very clearly and I know the
extent that hurt is, inside of you. However my advice remains the
same. Perhaps this is a time for you to get some counseling to help
you with the pain you are experiencing. You clearly need support. I
also urge you to read "New
Hope for Borderline Personality Disorder." It has an
excellent family section.
Remember also that splitting is part of the borderline disorder.
Splitting is when the borderline sees a person as either all good -
white, or all bad - black. There are times where you will be in the
white and times you will be in the black and you probably won't
understand "what you did" to make your child distance you.
You may not understand "what you did" to make them rage at
you. Remember, we are talking about a medical disorder your child has
and this disorder has an effect on their moods, their thoughts, and
their behaviors. What borderlines feel, they feel it more deeply that
you do. The limbic system in the brain is affected and regulation of
mood is impaired.
If your child is still raging at you, has extreme mood swings,
depression, constant anger, etc., though I am not a doctor, that tells
me they may not be treated medically. If they are on medication, they
need to return to the Dr. for a medication evaluation.
Borderline Spouses or Significant Others
Much of the above applies in this same situation, except that you have
the option to leave your borderline if you feel you cannot cope.
I am hoping you will understand that there IS hope
for your partner and your relationship. They key however is if your
partner is out of denial and ready to receive medical treatment and
therapy. Do they realize they have a problem?
How can you help your partner? Remember always he/she is not a bad
person, that they truly have a medical disorder they do not deserve
and that they are not their illness. When they rage, leave. Don't
argue back. Remember that you cannot control their rages or their mood
swings or their thought patterns, etc. You are not in control. You
cannot control whether they self-mutilate or not. You are powerless
and knowing this and remembering this will help you tremendously and
will hopefully free you. However give your partner all the love and
support they need that anyone with a major medical disorder would
need. They suffer and they suffer tremendously. Their level of hurt is
severe, so severe that borderlines will do almost anything to relieve
If your partner's behavior is in anyway hurting your children you need
to take steps to protect them. If your partner does not appear to want
help and you feel that the relationship is toxic for you, you need to
think about yourself and what is good for you. There comes a time if
we cannot help our partners if they don't want help, that we need to
get the focus off of them and back onto themselves and what we need to
do to take care of ourselves. Evaluate your own level of codependency.
Perhaps reading some of Melody Beattie's books on codependency will
help you. My favorite is "Codependent
No More." Honestly it changed my life.
Other Today Websites
Mental Health Matters for information
and articles. Get
help to find
a therapist or list
your practice; and Psych
Forums for message boards on a variety of MH topics.
Copyright © Patty Fleener, M.S.W. All