It is very common for those diagnosed with BPD to have had traumatic childhoods, as with most mental health issues. I want you to remember while reading this, though, that not everyone who has a mental illness had a rough childhood, and not everyone with a traumatic past has a mental illness. It’s a tough concept to grasp, but a very important one. Mental illness is our brain’s way of protecting itself.
For example, those who self-harm. Some view people who self-harm as merely seeking attention. Although this is true in some very rare cases, those who hurt themselves have actually rewired their brains to do so. When the body is in physical pain, the brain will flush chemicals like endorphins and adrenaline. This stems from our fight or flight instinct. The chemical flush is meant to aid us in our fight against whatever danger is being perceived and later to help heal any wounds. People who harm themselves do so to feel this dump of chemicals. When this process is repeated, it becomes what most people call a habit. Processes in the brain are created through synaptic processes. You learn to speak because that pathway is reinforced until it so deep that you no longer have to think about it. Same concept here. The brain experiences something and the body attempts to correct it in whatever manner is most reinforced. Thus, someone who hurts themselves has actually reprogrammed their brain to do so. It is the same with any other mental illness, I believe. As someone with BPD I have developed poor coping skills that have re-circuited my brain. Sometimes it happens because of our own actions, and other times it is a response we (and our caregivers and families) cannot control.
That being said, I will give a brief overview of the history of my childhood. It is difficult to differentiate between symptoms of BPD and PTSD, as I am diagnosed with both. Some scholars believe that those with BPD have had neglectful childhoods and parents who died or were victims of violence. I will not go into the history of my parents, because their stories are their own to tell, but know that they both suffered from severe abuse, neglect, and mental illness. I have an older brother I was not raised with past the age of about eight (he is eight years older). My family of origin consists of my mother, father, and brother. I was later raised by an aunt and uncle. We’ll get to that.
I guess the violence begins with the death of my father. In 1990 he shot himself in the chin with a sawed off shotgun. I didn’t know this for 16 years, but my brother is the one who found him dead on the concrete. My mom says she remembers hearing the gunshot. My aunt describes my dad walking through her kitchen to the backyard, incredibly distraught. They blame themselves and to a degree, I have, too. As someone trained to assess for suicide, hindsight gives me clear vision of all of the red flags of his suicide. Depression, drug use, erratic behavior, access to firearms, a plan of action… But hindsight is a funny thing and mental illness was not as talked about as it is now.
This left my mother, basically widowed, with a ten year old and two year old, all before she was twenty-five. I want to say that I remember my childhood happily. There were many, many good things about my family- and I will try to share those as much as possible. But my main focus is to bring to light the before, during, and after of my own mental illness. My mother held it together as much as she could and for much of my life, I was oblivious, thankfully. My earliest memory of my mom leaving was just before Kindergarten. She didn’t enroll me in time. I was dropped off with my aunt, who enrolled me and took me to my first day of school. My mom went to Vegas for two weeks. For the next couple of years I watched an unsteady, and sometimes violent, fight between my aunt and uncle and my mother. My mom would sleep in our closet sometimes to hide from them and see my brother and I. I didn’t think it was strange, I thought it was normal. My next sad memory was on my 7th birthday. My mom was supposed to pick me up and take me to Burger King for my birthday. She never showed up. We were moving out of my childhood home (the house my dad died at) and I have a vivid memory of myself, all dressed up with white frilly socks, crying in the middle of an empty living room in a house I loved but I’d never see again.
My aunt and uncle didn’t tell my mom where we were moving and I wasn’t allowed to see her. I had to sneak over to the neighbor’s house just to call her because my aunt was recording every call. I didn’t know that this was an invasion of privacy, even my own. I’ve listened to the tapes as an adult. There’s one of me telling my friend that we were being recorded in case my mom calls because “she says bad things”. This lasted a few months until one day she found me! From age eight to twelve there was a lot of back and forth. I starved, I was left alone, we lost baby photos and places to live. I had attended four elementary schools and moved at least a half dozen times. Sometimes we didn’t have running water or electricity. We lost pets. It was the saddest time in my childhood. At one point before that we were living in a motel and I watched my mother get handcuffed and shoved in the back of a cop car.
One day my mom didn’t pick me up from school and my aunt and uncle were in Arizona. The school turned me over to the police, who turned me over to CPS and I was placed in a foster home a couple of miles away from where we were living. I don’t remember how long I was there but I was able to go back to my mom. My foster parents were good people and the home was strict, but loving… And then my mom was arrested for murder. She didn’t do it, of course, but she was arrested. This was the final straw for my aunt and uncle. They sent me to visit my family and brother in Bakersfield while my Uncle applied for legal guardianship. See, the trouble was, was that my aunt was physically abusive. She didn’t see it that way, of course, she was just disciplining me. My uncle was only home on the weekends and didn’t know the extent of the verbal and physical abuse I went through. My mom, aunt, and brother failed to pass a drug test. My mom stole pages from my diary and entered them as evidence. Eventually, I had to speak to the judge in his chambers. I said I wanted to live with my uncle; not my mom or aunt. He granted guardianship to my uncle and I was not to be left alone with my aunt. My aunt was not to take away visits with my mom as punishment. Both of these conditions were constantly violated.
Then there was school… It was my safe haven and my hell. I was teased and excluded because I was visibly poor and a bit awkward. I lied a lot just to fit in. Whenever a new student would come to our school I jumped on the chance to find someone I really clicked with. I had a couple of close friends, only one of which I am still close to today. We met when our moms would get high together. I moved a lot and although I attended a few schools, the majority was at one very good school. My teachers were incredible, especially my fourth grade teacher. I think they all knew something was going on, but I’m sure they didn’t know the extent. They would give me extra credit and special projects, let me stay late and come early so I didn’t have to be at home with my aunt. I excelled in school. I was accepted into the Gifted and Talented Education Program. I moved schools just to attend. I had an awful teacher who didn’t teach a thing and my classmates were from a different world. They didn’t get me. The teasing and ostracism was even worse with them. When I got out of the foster home I was able to return to my old school.
Another common factor among those who have BPD or another mental health issue is that of an unhealthy attachment style. Because of the chaotic nature of my upbringing, I believe I developed what’s called an Insecure Ambivalent or Resistant attachment to my primary caregivers (my mother and my aunt). This has made it difficult for me to form healthy attachments with others, including my spouses and child.
If you want to know more about attachment styles you can visit this website: Simply Psychology.
And that’s a brief introduction to my childhood.
Originally posted on August 26th, 2016