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My Mother's Struggle With Borderline Personality Disorder

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Six months after my mom’s suicide, there is still a 12-pound lasagna she made in my freezer, and I can’t will myself to defrost it or throw it away.

“In case you have guests,” my mother had said, hoisting the slab of meat, noodles and cheese from her refrigerator bag into my freezer.

I took this to mean, you should have more friends over.

Now that she’s gone, I realize my translation was wrong. She was saying, I wish I had more friends to feed because I feel alone.

She’d had plenty of friends once, plenty of dinner parties, but that all ended years ago. Her friends had fallen from her favor over bizarre arguments of which I’d only hear the murky details, or been driven away by my mom’s general operating procedures: a consistent pattern of destruction to herself and others.

Some background: My dad divorced her when I was four. She tried to stab him with a kitchen knife. Her best friend became estranged and embittered around the time I graduated college. Their plan to manage an artisan cheese business went wildly astray. Her second husband, my sister’s dad, left when I was 25. She spent most of their 15-year marriage disparaging him. I don’t know how he lasted as long as he did. Actually, I do. He was well fed.

As much as she was stubborn, deceitful and conniving, my mom was equally passionate, charming and generous. I can hear her humming Dave Brubeck while dancing with the watering hose in the backyard. I can see her leaning over a simmering pot of chili, stirring it with one hand, and helping me finish my math homework with the other. Even now, I can recall from memory the taste of her tiramisu, the dessert she made for my surprise 21st birthday party, an event she organized and executed flawlessly.

The garden and the kitchen were her sanctuary, but they were also her dominion over which to rule. She could exert her wishes over ingredients that had no words or free will. Her cakes were never dry or burned. Plants grew exactly the way she planted them. People, on the other hand, she could not control. My mother treated anyone disagreeing with her or disobeying her wishes like an enemy combatant, especially her loved ones. This didn’t make sense to me until I realized my mom was suffering from a mental illness called borderline personality disorder (BPD).

According to the Mayo Clinic website, this is a common personality disorder, with roughly three million reported cases a year. The National Institute for Mental Health estimates the number of BPD cases in the U.S. at roughly one percent of the population. “Their emotions are like exposed nerve endings,” says Dr. Helen Grusd, past president of the LA County Psychological Association, and a forensic and clinical psychologist for over thirty years. “Those with BPD have a distinctively polarized view of relationships, idealizing themselves and others, but one mistake, and the person is totally devalued,” Grusd says. Living with a person with BPD is, in Dr. Grusd’s words, “like living with Mount Vesuvius always on the verge of erupting.”

There is mounting research that those with BPD lack brain chemical functions related to empathy, the ability to relate and understand the feelings of someone else. In a study last September cited in the online psychiatric journal Helio, researchers found those diagnosed with BPD “had reduced activity in brain regions that support empathy,” suggesting “that people with more [borderline personality disorder] traits have a more difficult time understanding and/or predicting how others feel.” Those........

© Psychology Today