The Stoned Chrysalis

Living with childhood trauma responses (BPD)

Aimee Vincent

This is written from my personal, lived experience - I am not an expert in mental health treatment. This piece is opinion based. If you are severely struggling mentally or emotionally please seek help from a professional that you resonate with.

When I was 16 I was told I had what appeared to be Borderline Personality Disorder, which in my opinion is generally a way of pathologising the result of childhood trauma or abandonment. In my opinion BPD is a highly stigmatized, misunderstood and over used term, I believe much of the DSM/medical model related to mental health stigmatises and over simplifies the complexity of understandable human responses to difficult situations - I do not necessarily identify with the label of BPD but I use it here for those who relate to it’s symptoms or have a diagnosis that they align with - which is totally a personal choice and one people need to make on their own.

I have spent the past 17 years of my life trying to understand myself and better manage my responses so they are congruent with who i am now, the situations I experience now and not the experiences I had as a younger person. A few weeks ago I effectively managed an incongruent emotional response and afterwards felt compelled to share more about this here for those who need it. I want to talk about my experience to give an insight into how childhood trauma and abandonment can manifest in adult life and hopefully shine light on an issue that, for women in particular, is highly demonised. Trauma and abandonment response is wide and varied, maybe it manifests as depressive episodes, anxiety, stress.. I suppose BPD technically consists of each of these plus some fun extras like isolation, risky behaviours, overwhelming fear of abandonment, low level to severe self harm and often addiction.

When, at 16, the doctor spat out her diagnosis she prescribed me anti depressants with no ongoing support, as is the case for many people lost in a medical system that often does not engage with the spiritual and emotional elements of mental wellbeing. I took the antidepressants home, ate them all and drank a bottle of spirits resulting in poisoning that could have killed me. 

I went on to attempt suicide two more times and was admitted to hospital where they essentially reprimanded me for putting myself at risk and sent me home. For me suicide attempts extend beyond focused and physical intent to self harm, I believe many risky behaviours are also levels of feeling suicidal perhaps on a more unconscious level. This includes excessive drug and alcohol use.

We hear “triggered” thrown around a lot now, to the point that it seems to have lost its meaning.. What it was like for me to be genuinely triggered is to be taken back to the original moment that fear, pain, sadness came into existence yet the cognitive memory not necessarily coming through - so it might come through on a more body level; increased heart rate, feeling of panic, clenched fists, surging adrenalin, overwhelming sadness, hopelessness, loneliness. The body remembers what the mind may have repressed or on the opposite end of the spectrum; what the mind may seemed to have made peace with. As someone with these complex responses it can often feel easier to drink alcohol or take drugs in order to numb the sensations or emotional/mental confusion. Being under the influence can also become a way of releasing what we may feel unable to release in our fully aware, fully conscious state - but of course the release is happening in a way that is dangerous and unconscious so there is no healing happening there. Compounding this, for some people with BPD or related symptoms drugs and alcohol more than often result in risky behaviours and self harm - this was definitely the case for me - and so begins the adjacent journey into recovery from drugs and alcohol often without the deeper treatment and integration of the trauma, this is why for me typical D and A treatment was largely ineffective - handing myself to a higher power was problematic when what I really needed was to regain total control and power over my life. I have heard many women who’ve experienced abuse say similar things about programs such as AA; continuously re affirming powerlessness for a person who has been forced to feel powerless in their developmental years can be toxic.

Another trauma related response can be severe fear of abandonment which can come through as surges of rage, terror or sadness. Working through relational issues with a partner can be really intense as the person with the emotional reactivity can often lose sight of the current issue as it melds into the historical issues of their life. For me issues that happen now which trigger memories of childhood have the potential to become absolutely out of control. Generally the partner of someone with BPD or emotional trauma responses must be extremely patient and would hopefully educate themselves extensively on the issue. My partner explains being with me as “extremely intense and passionate, but things can change really quickly and without warning. It seems like part of it is really feeling every emotion so when I feel your love I can feel it as the most intense, passionate love, but on the flip side when you get triggered the world can crash and I just need to remember not to take things too personally so I can stay grounded for you” When a person is in trigger state it can be difficult to bring them back into the moment, for me i’ve learnt that a calm yet firm repetitive reassurance is what helps to ground me. Being severely let down by people in formative years can leave a scar worse than the physical wounds often acquired through BPD or BPD like issues because it can make accepting love and trusting people really difficult - there is a huge element of unlearning and then re-learning how to be which includes teaching yourself how to love in a healthy way and how to expect/allow the healthy love of another. The reckless behaviour and fear of abandonment many people talk about as one of the biggest symptoms of BPD are inherently linked, really stigmatised and I believe misunderstood. From my own experience and the many conversations i’ve had with women with BPD the reckless behaviour acts as a way to push people away and does not stem from an inherent need to be cruel. It is a defence mechanism.

While pushing a loved one away may feel really personal and hurtful for them it is important to understand that it is more than likely an act of self harm rather than an intentional personal attack. At least I know this to be true for myself. Feeling unworthy and unloveable has resulted in me doing awful things to people I love and while my own trauma doesn't excuse it - it does give it context. Working through issues that arise in a relationship NOW can bring up alot of childhood stuff and being conscious of that is half the battle. Consciousness surrounding this means I am able to de compartmentalise emotional confusion and make choices that are in response to the NOW and not THEN.

I have had experiences of wanting to verbally destroy my love and this has hurt him deeply - What’s happening for me in that moment is a lot of self loathing and wanting to prove to myself that I am unsafe because: feeling unsafe is a comfortable space for me to exist in. Wait what? Complex as fuck, right.. But if I can push someone away before they can hurt me then I have less chance of being as damaged as I would if they just disappeared, let me down or stopped loving me.  For me, this has and continues to be a spiritual journey of re parenting myself and managing what comes up without slipping into old patterns; patterns that probably at one time or another felt like they helped me to survive. In saying that, this is not really happening for us anymore because of the work I have put into understanding myself and the work my love has put into understanding my responses. And it is WORK, but the most beneficial work I have ever done because neither of us want to continuously go around in circles, neither of us wants to hurt each other due to our unhealed traumas and both of us are committed to not only maintaining a ‘good relationship’ but nurturing a deep, spiritual partnership that is joyful, forgiving and long lasting. This is so possible for people with BPD and other trauma related mental health issues.  It is possible to have a healthy, happy life.

They say that BPD and BPD like symptoms cannot be cured, I believe this is an inherently medical way of looking at it as humans are generally expected to fall within a fairly narrow binary of ‘normality’ Variations in expressions of emotion are not widely accepted- While i’m sure this is partly to maximise a widely perceived quality of life I believe it is also to ensure that we have maximum productivity and viable economic worth. I am of the opinion that this is why we are currently functioning under a model that has no real time for public discussion around the very real effects of trauma and how to holistically manage them. Because that management usually takes alot of time and the empowerment of individuals and their stories. The medical models concept of management is more often than not the covering of symptoms rather than integration of our experiences and ongoing empowered management. Modalities such as DBT, CBT and Transpersonal Therapy can be really helpful for working through child hood trauma and the resulting effects, however these are rarely subsidised which can make them inaccessible for many low income people - so typical medicalised mental health treatment becomes the only option. This is an issue of systemic inequality and is basically: not fucking fair.

I want to share here some things that have helped me through triggers and emotional responses:

Noticing - One little word that is huge in it’s impact, if I am able to notice the physical response being activated then I am aware of whats happening and that awareness can be strengthened over time. Sometimes when having an incongruent response to a situation I am able to notice the physical signs but feel unable to do anything about it - this is when the practice comes in. I often describe it as walking a bush track, we walk the same one every day so it is well worn and easy to get through. Creating a new bush track requires a machete, big hiking boots and protective clothing - we will need to walk that track many times before it too is well worn and cleared. This is how I look at neural pathway responses. We will “fail” at responding how we want to many times but through practicing the noticing we strengthen it. A really basic way I trained myself to be more present when triggered was designing three questions to bring me into the space. Some baseline examples could be: Name, Age, Date, Time. The sentence “I am an adult and I can make choices” is another commonly used phrase to bring someone back to the moment. I also found doing something physical like patting my arms or shaking my body could help me to come back into the moment.

Thirty seconds of pure awareness is a long time, especially after a lifetime of escaping yourself at all costs.
— Kiera Van Gelder

Enquiry - Once the noticing starts to become easier; so i’m feeling the increased body responses and i’m well accustomed to what usually follows I am now more able to enquire; e.g. “Is where i’m going with this congruent with the issue i’m responding to?” “When have I felt this way before?”  The noticing has allowed for a moment of enquiry which stalls the process of the physical trigger response erupting into something more. 

Fake it til you make it - So even though I've gone through those first two steps i’m still feeling activated or triggered but I am now aware enough (through practice) that I don’t want to be dictated by that trigger even though I still feel like raging or crying or verbally hurting my love. Asking: “How would I respond if I didn't have this attachment to my trauma?” And then trying to fake that response. Over time I started to notice that I was able to feel triggered without responding in line with the initial desire to respond negatively. The imitation became genuine because it was in fact my authentically desired response. The trauma response is not a genuine representation of who we authentically are.

I have found it incredibly beneficial to work alot on recognising my parents and care givers as unique individuals outside of their relationship to me. This is a long and ongoing journey which I mostly undertake on my own through practices I resonate with such as meditation and ritual. By acknowledging my parents lived experiences and traumas I am better able to understand their parenting of me was in fact, not about me. As sad as this sounds and as hard as it is to work through it has been incredibly empowering and made me more able to re - parent myself in ways that I needed to be parented as a child.

These are just a few things that have exponentially helped me to become more aware, more calm and more present in my life. I’ve talked a little about it on Instagram but a caption or two doesn't even begin to encapsulate the complexity, I also found a lot of people emailing and DM’ing me asking for advice which I don’t feel right to dish out a) over a social media app and b) without knowing people, the support networks they have etc but I do feel it’s important to share personal experience particularly when it relates to issues that are often so stigmatised.

I found this quote when writing this and for me it summarises alot of my life into one sentence: “You are a warrior in a dark forest, with no compass and are unable to tell who the actual enemy is, so you never feel safe ..”  Childhood trauma and abandonment can build a dark forest within and around us, it can be incredibly isolating, scary and painful when those who we are taught should’ve been there - were not. But in this, if we are able to tune into the warrior, tune into the realest version of ourselves, into the knowledge that we are infinitely worthy in the eyes of our highest self, infinitely valuable in the context of consciousness - little sparks may begin to light up the dark forest so we can begin to make sense of who we are outside of the pain others inflicted. The warrior can become strong enough to see in the darkness.

When holistically integrated; traumas can be the fabric of so many incredibly empathetic, powerful people who do amazing things for themselves and others. When harnessed correctly; intense emotional responses can be beacons of light in a world that often feels saturated in darkness and does not value empathy or sensitivity. When supported; the love and sensitivity of people with BPD and related issues can warm the people in their lives.

I would not relinquish my ability to feel the way I do now, I believe I am better able to acknowledge others traumas and forgive in ways I would not be able to had I not lived the life i’ve lived so far. I am not a medical professional, I do not profess to be any kind of expert.. I am sharing my lived experience and what has helped me overcome issues I thought I would probably never overcome, I am compelled to share not only to make some sense and use of my experiences but because I believe I have a responsibility to other people who may feel alone, trapped or hopeless - particularly women. I have been there and I have spent many years shifting my perception of mental health and addiction as things that have damaged or tainted me to being part of my learning here in this life and more personally; part of a spiritual journey that allows me to contribute more positively to the world.