Dr Haley Peckham has chosen not to hide the multiple self-inflicted scars along her arms as a testament to her struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder [BPD].
Despite her diagnosis almost 20 years ago, Dr Peckham now works as a mental health nurse in Melbourne and has a PhD in molecular neuroscience.
“Some of [the scars] have stories attached to them and I don’t feel ashamed of it,” Dr Peckham said.
”I see people with worse scars than I have and I think ‘things must have been really tough for you.
“It’s more of a testament to what’s in my life, more than anything being wrong with me.”
BPD is a mental illness characterised by an instability of moods, poor self-image and suicidal thoughts, impulsive behaviour, and a pattern of unstable, often damaging, inter-personal relationships.
Dr Peckham said her BDP was a result of childhood trauma where she wasn’t afforded the level of emotional care, usually given to children.
“I had a caregiver who had a mental illness and I was quite scared of that mental illness,” she said.
“Those early relationships, they really inform how we see ourselves — it’s that invisible privilege of feeling worthy of love and if you don’t have that, you scrabble for it your entire life.”
The struggle from diagnosis to doctorate
The causes of BPD — while still being researched — is understood to be a combination of biological and environmental factors, such as emotional trauma or abuse.
Dr Peckham said her disorder manifested itself through self-harm and a fear of abandonment.
“I would literally feel like my head was going to explode,” she said.
“After harming myself, I felt calm and able to take on the world again and able to function, and as long as nobody knew about it, than it was kind of okay.”
But after working with orphanages and hospitals in the United Kingdom, Haley sought out professional help from a psychotherapist.
“I discovered that the relationship I had with him was safe, that he wasn’t exploiting me, he didn’t hate me, he wasn’t going to shame me,” she said.
“That relationship was one I could take my emotions to and he would help me with them, he gave me the time to discover that and as I discovered that, I didn’t need to self harm anymore.”
Dr Peckham said her diagnosis of BPD was bittersweet, “confirming something we all fear: that there’s something wrong with me”.
“Our experiences have a very real affect on our brains and that includes things like epigenetics and neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity,” she said.
“What happens to us leaves its mark on us and I’m sad the only way of getting that validated is through a diagnosis.”
After years of therapy sessions, Dr Peckham moved to Australia and studied molecular neuroscience, attaining a PhD.
“[The] most challenging thing for me was holding myself together when it would go wrong because I would think ‘of course its gone wrong because it’s me,'” she said.
“Whereas people who are more solid in themselves go ‘what’s gone wrong’ not ‘I did it wrong’.”
Stigma paints BPD sufferers as manipulative, irrational
Dr Peter McKenzie is a clinical family therapist with Latrobe University’s Bouverie Centre and has conducted training workshops for BPD carers in Ballarat, as part of Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness Week.
He said the extreme behaviours associated with BPD, including an increased difficulty in moderating emotions and a prevailing sense of abandonment, made treating patients difficult and has given the condition ‘a bad rap’ within the medical profession.
“We need to be focusing on relationships a lot more than we do with Borderline Personality Disorder where it’s a lot of individual therapy, which is absolutely necessary,” Dr McKenzie said.
“But I think the relational network around people is vital [and] to have them educated and understand their loved one’s experience as well.”
“It’s the more intimate relationships that become very difficult because of your distress about coping with certain issues, that often gets projected on to others.”
Dr Peckham is open with her friends about her BPD but said treating it had an ”aura of difficulty” with many sufferers often seen as irrational.
“People who have personality disorder used to thought of as being un-helpable, they were beyond reach and maddening to work with,” she said.
“Whatever’s happening, it’s probably a replay of something that’s happened earlier in their life, even if it looks crazy.”
Research shows ‘organic’ components to disorder
Dr McKenzie said research over the past 15 years shows the disorder had ”organic components to it”, with BPD sufferers often showing abnormalities in their frontal cortex — the area of the brain that helps regulate rationality, fear and other emotional responses.
“The idea that they’re actually manipulating is actually quite incorrect if you look at it cognitively speaking,” he said.
“What they’re trying to do is get their needs met and also unburden themselves of this emotional distress which gets locked inside them.
“So if it’s a significant other, they’ll do anything, they’ll try anything, to try and relieve this distress.”
While approximately 10 per cent of untreated BPD sufferers commit suicide, Dr McKenzie said those who seek treatment can live successful lives.
This piece by Dominic Cansdale was first seen on ‘ABC News’,