do we tell we have the borderline personality disorder
do we tell we have the bipolar disorder
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Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder: Telling Others About our Diagnosis

by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W.


When should we tell others that we have the borderline personality disorder (BPD) and/or the bipolar disorder (BP)? Whom should we tell and whom not? In what situations should we tell? Why should we tell? What will happen if we tell? How do we tell them?

The answers to these questions depend on the situation and the disorder. There is no pat answer.

However being a mental health professional for many years as well as a consumer, I will attempt to provide guidelines that hopefully will assist you.

The Disorder - BPD or BP?

There is a profound difference in telling someone you have the bipolar disorder rather than the borderline personality disorder. Most people have heard of bipolar disorder and have a sense of what it is and many already know someone with the same disorder.

You should receive much less stigma by telling them you have the bipolar disorder. Most of the time you will not be perceived as "crazy" but with a biological disorder.

However, telling them you have the borderline personality disorder is a whole different matter. Most people have not heard of this disorder and if they have they don't have a clue as to what it is.

The term "personality disorder" alone is very stigmatizing. It says there is something wrong with your personality - with you. It isn't that you just experience depression and mania, you are defective and many feel you are "crazy." Of course we know that this is not the case.

Many people will ask you if you have more than one personality as they remember the term for dissociative identity disorder by the old name "multiple personality disorder" and here you have a "personality disorder."

There are some people you can tell you have bipolar disorder and not borderline personality disorder.

When people ask you what bipolar disorder is, you can explain it without much stigma. However with BPD, there is much stigma and the explanation can seem much more disabling and personal.

How do these both sound?

Bipolar Disorder - "I experience periods of depression and periods of mania where my mind goes too fast, I talk too fast and get very anxious and nervous.

Borderline Personality Disorder - "I experience intense abandonment issues, have difficulty in maintaining relationships as they are usually quite intense, I hate myself, I can be very impulsive and feel slighted very easily and over react with intense rages and feel chronic anger."

If you have the BPD and are asked by someone who is uneducated about the disorder, what it is, it might be easier to say that you have problems regulating emotions and leave it at that. Even many mental health professionals have the view of BPD is what they were taught in school which is completely wrong from what we know today. Very few clinicians know the latest research and truly understand the disorder.

You may ask yourself how you will get better by seeing such clinicians. You probably won't. You will either have to bring in information for them to read from a book or off the net and help educate them if they have an open mind, or look for another person to help you.

Who is That Person?

Much Depends upon the situation - who that person is.

  • Work - our boss, our co-workers, our supervisor
  • Dating - someone who is not our significant other but someone we are presently dating.
  • Our Best Friend
  • Other Friends
  • Our Spouse or Significant Other
  • Our Parents
  • Our Children
  • Other Siblings
  • Other Family (aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc.)
  • Our Therapist and/or Dr.
  • Acquaintances (People in our swim group - anyone we know and socialize with but are not considered friends).
  • People in the Community (our mailman, post office, store clerk, PTA, landlord, etc.)

Are There Benefits?

What would it benefit you by telling someone? If you don't experience any personal or professional benefits, why tell?

What is the Reason?

What is the situation for telling? What is the reason? Is it a good enough reason to tell someone?

The Individual Person

The Person Themselves -How much does the person you want to tell understand and empathize with those people with mental health disorders? Do they stigmatize others? Are they na´ve about these issues? Do they know others with these disorders and not treat them differently? Are they a supportive type? Are they understanding? Are they looking for anything to use against you? What do you think their response would be? It could be quite different from what you imagined.

A Right to Know?

Does the person have a right to know? Some people in your life have the right to know. It would be unfair not to tell them. Who are those people? A significant other - spouse. Our Therapist.

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Remember otherwise it is no one's business. That's right. It is a private matter and many people do not have the right to know. I would say anyone other then your significant other and your therapist and Dr.

Which Disorder Is It?

It depends upon which disorder it is. Borderline personality disorder is much more highly stigmatized than the Bipolar Disorder. Most people are familiar with the Bipolar Disorder where virtually few have even heard of the BPD.

Let's try to put some of this together:

Work

If there is no reason or benefit in telling your boss, supervisor or co-worker your diagnoses, I do not advise telling them.

I made the mistake once of giving out personal information to some of my "trusted" co-workers who swore they wouldn't tell a soul. Well the next thing I knew, my boss was told and I was stigmatized on the job since then.

It was also made worse by the fact that the people I told were of a lower career position. I was the social worker and they were the workers. If you are learning how to be in a job position where you are above other people, it is vital to understand what is good job strategy and what is not.

You need to have the respect of those that work at a lower level. In order for the duties of your job/career to go well, and to receive adequate support from others, you need to remember to give no information out about your personal life. You keep that private. You are to be seen as the person who does your job and nothing else.

At times it is even advised not to have lunch with the people who work below you. At the time I heard this I felt it was rude and asinine. I was wrong. We don't become friends with those that we supervise, etc. It is imperative that you keep strong boundaries in your job. This is office politics and my advice is to adhere to these policies.

Situations you would tell your work:

In my past I have had to take a temporary leave of absence and in order for this to be approved by my work, I needed a note from a Dr. or other professional. This does not mean that my diagnosis should be in that note. I recommend that it not be. However a good reason needs to be given about why you need to take that break from work. Other words can be used such as "adjustment disorder, depression, anxiety," etc.

When I left, no one knew my most disabling and most stigmatized disorders. My boss was a social worker herself, very knowledge about mental health disorders and a very kind and compassionate person. However the BPD and BP are very debilitating disorders and I believe my boss may have rallied for me not to return if she had known my diagnoses. That would have put me in the role of "client," not therapist.

I do not recommend you tell anyone at work you have the bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder at all unless it becomes necessary for a very good reason.

Dating: Many people you date may feel that the best thing to do is to be fully honest about our lives and tell everything upon meeting that person. You may feel pressure to disclose your mental health disorder.

Resist this kind of pressure and understand that it is not their business. It is not the business of the person you are dating to know this about you until the relationship revolves into something very serious.

I remember listening to an excellent tape about relationships. One man approached the speaker and said "I can never get a second date and I don't understand why." When asked about what goes on in that first date, the man reveals that he feels he should just be himself and let the cat out of the bag about everything in his life. He admits that he is a recovering heroin addict.

The speaker advises him that something as personal as that should not be told until at least the tenth date. We don't reveal all of the skeletons in our closet right away. The person is virtually a stranger to you and you want to put your best foot forward to get that second date. It does not include lying to the person but telling the person intimate details about your life is not appropriate.

I tell people they own the keys to their own castle and we don't give out those keys unless we are safe, have a permanent commitment, etc. Remember it is NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS.

Our Best Friend

Telling your best friend depends primarily upon two factors:

  • Will that friend be supportive, understanding and not change their opinion of you?
  • Will the friend keep that information private?

If you have the kind of friend who is supportive and understanding who will not stigmatize you, I recommend telling your friend. They can be a good support system for you. They will also have a better understanding of you, instead of looking upon you for not trying hard enough in life, or not being able to "pull yourself up by your boot strings" without the proper kind of treatment.

Other Friends

Ditto on the above understanding that friends who are not extremely close to you may be less likely to stay your friend and perhaps less likely to keep your information private. It depends mostly upon the person you tell.

Our Spouse/Significant Other

I believe that your disorder(s) are their business if they are supportive, non-abusive and truly care about you and your welfare.

The best way for them to be a support to you is to fully have the picture of what your issues are and it is extremely important for them to be educated about your disorder. They too, hopefully when they understand your disorder(s), will understand you will need outside assistance and medical treatment. They will begin to understand hopefully that you are not your disorder and that when you display symptoms of your disorder, it is due to a biological disorder, not something they did and not a part of the real you.

It is no secret that both the borderline and bipolar disorders are very hard on families. Both disorders have very similar symptoms and in fact are many times diagnosed wrong because the disorders are so similar. Your significant other will probably need support and understanding your condition will help them tremendously.

However there are circumstances if you do not have a good relationship with your significant other or if they are abusive, narcissistic or uncaring, that it may be good to keep that diagnosis private. This is for those partners who would use that information against you and stigmatize you. Again it depends upon your partner.

Hopefully getting into recovery yourself will assist you in getting out of those bad situations.

Our Parents

Many people with BPD have been abused in some way from their family of origin or a non-caregiver. If your parents are abusive and non-supportive it may be a good idea to simply divorce them out of your life if they are toxic to you as an adult.

However there are many parents who are loving and supportive and want to be involved with your recovery. If this is the case, studies show that family support can greatly assist in your recovery.

It depends on the parent and it is none of their business unless telling them will benefit your life.

Our Children

This depends upon the age of the children, the person your child is and the kind of relationship you have with your children.

For very young children you are raising it is helpful to explain many things to them, such as "Mom has a problem of getting too angry at times and it is not your fault that this happens," or "I know I am in my room a lot by myself and it is because of some problems that I have that I am trying to get rid of and it has nothing to do with you. You are not the reason I am in my room by myself a lot."

Two things are vital for your children at any age:

  • Your behavior is not their fault.
  • The unpleasant experiences they have had due to your mental health disorder(s) need to be validated. They need to know from someone that what happened to them was wrong and that others know that indeed things did happen. They need to express their feelings about these events.

When your child reaches adulthood, if knowing what disorder(s) you have will assist them in any way, do explain to them what those disorders are. Let them know you understand what they endured and that you do see they went through some tough times due to your illness and if you can, tell them you are sorry. Apologize to them. Let them know that your disorder explains the events but does not excuse the events.

You are always responsible for your actions even with mental illness. It is your responsibility to get out of denial of your illness and to seek help.

Let them know your behavior was due to a mental health disorder and not a lack of love on your part. Reassure them that you do love them.

Also forgive yourself for anything in the past caused by your mental health disorder. If they never forgive you, you are powerless over this. You can however forgive yourself and know you did the best you could.

Our Siblings and Other Extended Family Members

Many people now understand that family has nothing to do with blood. Families come in all shapes and sizes and degrees of dysfunction. Telling them depends upon the person and what you can benefit by telling them. Otherwise it is none of their business.

Our Therapist and/or Dr.

It is VITAL that you tell them exactly what your diagnoses are as well as what particular behaviors you exhibit. Tell them what is going on inside of you - your feelings and your thoughts. Tell them everything and don't leave anything out. They cannot fully assist you unless they know as much as possible about you. This is vital to your recovery.

If you feel stigmatized in anyway, find another Therapist or Dr.

Acquaintances and people in your community usually do not have an interest in having that much personal information about you and may not know how to respond. Mental health disorders are a very personal thing and probably not a good idea to share with these folks. Again, you need to ask how you will benefit by telling them.

It is common for people to treat you in a different way after they find out, depending upon that person.

Stigma is alive and well in this world and if you don't want to be stigmatized, don't give them that very personal information. Having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed about, just like having diabetes is nothing to be ashamed about. Mental health disorders are "brain disorders" and they indicate nothing negative about you personally - that real authentic self that you are.

Most of society remains ignorant to this day about mental health disorders and although it is not a "nice thing to say," it is nonetheless true. It is also common to be stigmatized in the mental health care system of which you are seeking help. You will usually experience this by the people with less training and experience than a mental health professional. Unfortunately it is common to have to meet up with staff who are not trained well, are apathetic about their job, are burned out, and depending upon their own issues, some mistreat you due to power and control issues and mis-education.

This is not always the case but if you experience this while seeking help, understand you are not alone and do not let that prevent you from getting the help and care you need.


Visit Mental Health Matters for information and articles on a variety of mental health topics; Get Mental Help to find a therapist or list your practice; and Psych Forums for message boards on a variety of MH topics.

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