My mother has Borderline Personality Disorder. If you are unfamiliar with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), start here. For those of you with a relative, or even parent, with BPD, you know how exhausting this situation can be to endure. While many people have been formally diagnosed before they realize they have a personality disorder. My mother has never been formally diagnosed by an outside professional and has not received any form of treatment to address this diagnosis.
I unofficially diagnosed her. I realized her diagnosis when I was in graduate school working in my internship with people with co-occurring disorders. More on that later. I use this information solely for my own understanding of her and do not attempt to provide any kind of treatment.
Like anyone else with a mental illness, she has good days and bad days. I’ve come to think of my mother as two different people: my real mother and the borderline version that controls her. On good days, my real mother is there, pleasant and fun. On bad days, which are unfortunately the norm, my borderline mother is there, arguing and trying to guilt-trip into spending time with her.
Word of Warning: If you suspect someone you love has Borderline Personality Disorder, refer them to a professional to be assessed, diagnosed, and educated. Do not try to diagnose them yourself or tell them your suspicions. This can be an incredibly difficult conversation, even for professionals. There will be a backlash and it will be ugly.
I’m going to walk you through my experience growing up with a parent with Borderline Personality Disorder. Be prepared, it is LONG. I wrote it over several days and I had to write this post from present to childhood.
Also, I have not always handled situations with my mother in the best possible way. This is partially due to my own ignorance when I was younger and emotional exhaustion in the more recent years.
Notes About My Mother
- My mother’s default weapon is guilt (this is not true for every BPD parent)
- I am her only child, and I was born on Christmas. She basically holds my birthday/Christmas hostage, complete with overwhelming guilt
- She had an incredibly close, positive relationship with her mother
- I didn’t see many BPD traits until her mother died
- Both my mother and father work at the college I attended
My mother didn’t display many borderline traits (that I saw) when I was very young and few directed at me. She did have an overwhelming ability to make me feel guilty for the stupidest things or would regularly say “I love you but right now I don’t like you.” I mostly saw her traits when she interacted with people outside of the family (rapid changes in relationships, paranoia).
This lasted until my grandmother died, when I was 12. My theory with this is that my grandmother could help her regulate everything in her life and after my grandmother committed the ultimate abandonment act (dying), she didn’t know how to handle her life anymore. Then her symptoms really started showing.
Once my grandmother died, my entire family shifted. We had a lot of overall shifting but one of the biggest shifts was the emergence of my mother’s borderline traits. After the catastrophic aftermath settled, I noticed one very significant change: my mother was hyper-focused on me.
She started interfering in my relationship with my dad, preventing us from spending quality time together. Showing any interest in this relationship meant I didn’t care about her.
During high school, she looked through my files on the computer, listened to my phone conversations, barged into my relationships, and essentially refused to allow me to have any sense of independence. Her overwhelming fear of abandonment overshadowed her parental ideal of fostering independence. I thought she was going to lose her mind when I opened up a bank account by myself.
I also noticed she didn’t have any friends. Literally zero friends. And she tried to use my friends to help her develop some sense of self-identity. Being my mother was her entire identity and she needed my friends to see how incredible she was to help better develop her sense of self.
This pattern of overbearing, controlling, crazy-making behavior continued until I finally graduated and left for college.
Once I was finally able to move into my dorm, I felt free. I no longer had to answer to anyone, fear someone barging in on my safe space, or worry someone was looking through my stuff. I could expect relative consistency from the people around me and I thrived.
Around the 3rd week of school, my mom started this awesome habit of calling me at 6:00PM on Fridays. I’m assuming this was her attempt at preventing me from partying (which she really didn’t need to worry about). She would try to keep me on the phone for hours, talking about nonsense or simply being silent. She’d also use this time to attempt to guilt me into visiting her on campus several times per week. This pattern continued until my second semester when I finally agreed to meet her once a week for lunch, within a time limit (because I was a full-time student with 2 part-time jobs). I also primarily stopped answering her Friday night phone calls.
In her defense, I had really started to avoid her so her noticeable pushback for attention drove me extra crazy. And she hated my boyfriend at the time so I wasn’t thrilled to hear about that every time we talked.
The first year went well overall after she finally adjusted to the fact that I didn’t live with her anymore. Looking back, I realize this was an incredible struggle for her because being my mother was her only identity prior to my leaving. For someone with a disorder characterized by unstable image, that’s like pulling out the bottom block in Jenga.
After she got over the loss of her long-term sole identity (“mother”), she started developing really intense friendships with other women on campus. She got really involved in Pogo.com games and chatted with a ton of people on there. Somewhere in there she started emotionally cheating on my dad. I’m not sure if this is still going on but I suspect it is.
During my second winter break, my then boyfriend (now husband) invited me to Christmas with his dad’s family. I was so excited to get invited and I happily agreed. To my mother, it was the same as stabbing her. To her, my actions didn’t say “I want to spend part of my birthday here and part there.” They said, “I hate you and I never want to see you again!” She still hasn’t let me forget this heinous crime.
When I decided to work at a rafting company the following summer, it was like I twisted the knife from Christmas. She was very upset that I wouldn’t be home all summer and I wouldn’t be spending time with her (despite the opportunity to work full-time, rent-free). She never came to visit me that summer.
The next fall, I bought a car to replace their unreliable-at-best minivan I was driving. I’m pretty sure my mother thought I was trying to kill her. She repeated nagged me about how I should keep driving their van on their insurance, I wouldn’t get an insurance discount as good as what we had now, and she wanted my dad to look at the car. In reality, I was about to get rid of her last big area of control over me. I’m certain she had some normal parent concerns but for the most part, it felt like a control issue.
Then it came time for me to apply to graduate school. She was her normal, negative self until I needed to conduct interviews. She offered to drive me to the closest interview (3 hours away) and I happily accepted. Leading up to that day, we have a pleasant relationship. When she picked me up that morning, it went downhill. She criticized my outfit for about 30 minutes then later informed me we would be stopping to see her old friend. I obviously couldn’t say no since I had no other way home. She had tricked me into spending more time with her. At the interview, she walked me to the room and waited outside (even after I asked her not to).
Later that month, I flew out to Oregon to do another interview. She knew I had applied to a variety of schools but she was very opposed to Oregon. I know normal parents aren’t thrilled at the idea of their children moving across the country but I’m fairly certain most of them either get over it or adequately express their feelings. My mother is not a normal parent. She lacks the ability to express her emotions appropriately, instead making guilt-ridden statements such as “What if something happens to me or your dad?”
I ultimately did not get into the schools across the country and accepted my place at the closest university. The summer before I started, I returned to the rafting company in West Virginia and my then boyfriend proposed. I didn’t tell anyone until I drove down to see my mother. When I told her, not only was she not excited, she got mad at me and didn’t believe me when I said she was the first person I told (she then spent the next 4 years leading up the wedding telling me he had to get her’s and my dad’s approval before I could get married). I pretty much ignored her for the rest of the summer.
Naturally, when it came time for me to move, my mother was a little frantic. Not only have I worked out-of-state all summer, now I was moving to another state for at least 2 years. You can imagine she felt abandoned. Here I was, her only child, moving 3 hours away for graduate school.
Contrary to her previous overbearing self in undergrad, she rarely called. Often, she would make me feel guilty when I called to check up on her, saying things like “I was wondering when you’d call. I haven’t talked to you in 3 weeks.” She would occasionally drive down to see me and we would have an uncomfortable, tension-filled meal. Then she would leave, later trying to make me feel guilty for never coming home when she would drive 6 hours in a day to see me, even though she knew I couldn’t afford it.
This pattern of feeling betrayed is typically in people with BPD. They often report feeling disrespected and abandoned when they do something for someone else and the other person doesn’t reciprocate.
I started to suspect my mother of Borderline Personality Disorder during my second semester Diagnosing and Assessing class. One thing I learned about people with BPD was their behaviors typically worked for them to meet their needs at one point in their life and now those behaviors don’t work, often causing the opposite reaction.
I also learned that most people with BPD have a history of trauma. The same is true for my mother. I used a school assignment of creating a genogram (family tree + relationships and family patterns) to get a better understanding of her history. Her mother was physically abused by her father and they later divorced. She also talked about her sister being violent towards her throughout her childhood.
In a therapy program, you learn a lot about how to help and support others. What’s rarely talked about is how much you learn about yourself.
I came to the realization that my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder when I started working with Meg (named changed) in my internship. Meg had many of the classic symptoms of BPD: frequent & severe mood changes, unstable relationships, and an intolerance for being alone. The longer I worked with her, the more she reminded me of my mother.
One day when I was reviewing the criteria for BPD, I realized my mother met almost every single criterion. She wasn’t acting like this on purpose – she has a personality disorder! This moment was revolutionary for me because it started my process of not taking her actions personally. I have to continually remind myself of this when she attempts to manipulate me through emotional blackmail.
Once I realized her diagnosis, I tried very hard to let go of the years of anger I had built up. My view of her changed from “my crazy, overbearing mother” to a victim of her past. It also allowed me to start looking at my own learned borderline behaviors and change them.
Note: Children of people with mental illness can learn behaviors associated with those mental illnesses even though they may not have a mental illness.
Borderline Criteria & My Mother
1. Frantic efforts (wild, chaotic, disorganized) to avoid real or imagined abandonment (does not include suicidal or self-harming behavior)
This is basically the rule my mother lives her life by. She also experiences paranoia related to her fear of abandonment (#9).
2. Pattern of intense, unstable relationships that frequently shift between extremes
My mother has only had one stable relationship in her life, and that relationship was with her deceased mother. She often changes from love to hate with me, my dad, other family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.
3. Identity disturbance, such as ever-changing/unstable sense of self or self-image (Often presents as rapid career changes, sexual identity, morality, or types of friends)
My mother changes friends quickly, changes her mind on moral issues quickly, and has changed jobs approximately 12 times in my lifetime.
4. Impulsivity in at least 2 self-damaging areas (sex, spending, reckless driving, substance abuse, binge eating, etc.)
My mother has a history of reckless driving, binge eating, and emotional/impulsive spending. Despite being continually late or overdue on the mortgage AND cell phone bill, she bought a new chest freezer. Then 2 years later, with the same financial situation, she bought a dishwasher.
5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, OR self-harm
She does not do this.
6. Inability to control or cope with moods (extreme reactions, usually lasting anywhere from a few hours up to a few days)
Every reaction my mother has is extreme and she takes everything personally. For example, she responded to my engagement announcement with anger and disrespect.
7. Chronic feelings of emptiness
She has not expressed this, though she was diagnosed with “Empty Nest Syndrome” and later Major Depressive Disorder.
8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger
My mother has no ability to control her anger, though she is not violent or destructive. Her anger is often out of proportion with the situation or completely uncalled for. She often gets angry and is unable to explain the cause of her anger. She will also suddenly get angry about something that occurred months or even years ago.
9. Fleeting stress-related paranoid thinking or severe dissociative symptoms
My mother has paranoid thinking about abandonment and what others think of her. She has never talked about any type of dissociative symptom.
During my twenties, I worked on setting boundaries with her and naming her behaviors. It took a long time (like 5-7 years) for me to get decent at setting boundaries with her and not later caving in. Setting boundaries became much easier for me but it took a while to maintain them without feeling guilty.
During this process, she struggles both with understanding and following these boundaries. Here’s an example from one winter.
My mother-in-law asked me to help babysit my young cousins one weekend in December and I agreed. I later got an invitation from my family to our annual family gathering which happened to be the same weekend. I let me my mother know, via text, I couldn’t make it because I’d already agreed to babysit that weekend. She quickly responded asking if I could bring them to the event. Before I could respond explaining the situation (i.e. I’d be out-of-state at their house), she began calling me. I didn’t answer her because I knew she was heightened and it was a situation I didn’t want to put myself in. It turns out she was very heightened. She called me 57 times without leaving a message or taking a break. I wasn’t even able to finish my text to her for over an hour because of this.
I rarely try to explain other people’s behaviors however I must make an exception for this. This is an example of one of the core diagnostic criteria for BPD: frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
I can tell you from decades of experience that not answering a call from my mother only means 1 of 3 things to her:
- I’m avoiding her
- I hate her
- I’m dead
Despite years of repeatedly telling her my phone was on silent or I was unavailable, she continues to jump to these conclusions. I can’t blame her, however, because it is literally part of her personality.
I still have a lot of anger towards her and towards the universe. In my adolescence, I accepted that I would never be best friends with my mother. I’ve transitioned to anger at the universe for taking away any chance I could have ever had at a normal relationship with her.
She continues to intervene in mine and my dad’s relationship. My dad never got a cell phone so any time I need to get in touch with him, I have to go through her.
I’m still not perfect at setting boundaries with her, but it’s a lot better. And I’m much better at keeping those boundaries. I’ve actually celebrated 2 birthday days without her, though I did have to go to another country for the first one.
I still name her behaviors, but she still does not respond well to this. For example:
Last year, she tried to make me feel guilty in a text about not coming home to visit her because my very, very old dog was just that-very, very old. When I told her she was trying to guilt me, she immediately denied it and doubled-down.
So things still aren’t perfect but we’re getting by. I’m working on having more positive interactions with her and trying to improve our relationship overall. This will only work so far unless her behaviors change.
How I Cope
It’s been about 8 years since I realized my mother has borderline personality disorder. Since I realized this, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my childhood and adolescence, and working through years of anger. I’m currently in therapy, though not for this, but it does come up quite often.
The things I’ve found to be most helpful are trying not to take her statements personally. When she tries to make me feel guilty, I focus on how she’s trying to communicate another message, like “I want to spend more time with you.” It takes a lot of reminding.
I also try to focus on the good days, when my real mother is there.
I intentionally avoid playing her games and fighting fire with fire. If she begins to act passive-aggressive, I simply say what I think the issue is.
I have to set a lot of boundaries, such as “I feel like you’re only trying to make me feel bad so I’m getting off the phone.” or “You cannot stop by my house with letting me know in advance.”
I also have to be assertive, something I did not have growing up. This is when I say things like “It’s not okay to talk to me like that.”
And I talk about it, a lot. I talk to my best friend, my friends, my husband; anyone that’s appropriate.
I write about it because it helps get the years of anxiety, frustration, fear, and anger out.
And I periodically read things I think could be helpful to me.
I used to think my family was pretty normal until I went to grad school and realized I was just used to this shit. I hope you enjoyed my story.