Diagnosing at a Distance

Borderline personality disorder is alive and well on the internet these days, what with the shenanigans of Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan. Googling Mel and borderline just now, I found lots of links, including a diagnostic blog entry on the Huffington Post by a psychiatrist and author named Mark Goulston.

In Mel’s case, it’s the rage that caused me to make the connection; some online diagnosticians point to narcissistic personality disorder instead. Ms. Lohan’s major BPD symptoms are substance abuse and general emotional disintegration.

Celebrity with BPD?

This diagnosing at a distance interests me — looking at a person’s behavior at some remove and teasing out the symptoms, like scholars who theorize about Jane Austen’s final illness or wonder whether Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression, Graves disease and/or hyperthyroidism. People commonly assert that Princess Diana, Joan Crawford, and Marilyn Monroe were BPD sufferers. Also Mary Todd Lincoln!  Blogger Bon Dobbs speculates as well about Courtney Love, Amy Winehouse, and Britney Spears, among others.

One recent study maintains that Darth Vader suffered from BPD!

These speculations may seem both silly and unseemly, but I have to acknowledge that I’ve done the same thing. I’ve diagnosed my mother posthumously. As I was writing my book about my mom’s BPD, a little voice in my head kept whispering I wasn’t allowed to do this. I wasn’t a professional.

Interestingly, no expert who’s read the book has expressed any doubt about my “diagnosis.” I’ve received no negative feedback, thus far, on this point. I don’t know if that means my insights are correct or that I’ve stacked the deck.

What I know is that when I experienced the epiphany — connecting the disorder to my mom’s irrationality, unhappiness, and hurtfulness — it felt revelatory. It felt right. It helped me, ultimately and gradually, forgive her.

What do you think about diagnosing at a distance? Any other celebrity candidates? Naomi Campbell, anyone?

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10 Responses to Diagnosing at a Distance

  1. Kathy says:

    James–Just to let you know, my book Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother is now available. You can order it at your local bookstore or find it on Amazon. Maybe you know people who know people who would find it helpful!

  2. Kathy says:

    Susan—Just want to mention that my book about my experiences with my mom is now available. I’ll also have an interview posted soon on Kimberlee Roth’s website (http://www.out-word.com/). Her book Surviving a Borderline Parent is extremely helpful.

  3. Kathy says:

    In this case, the family member is deceased. Can’t discuss it with her. Instead, there’s been a long period of study and thought and arduous writing and questioning. The resulting argument–my book “Missing”–has been read and approved by psychologists and experts in the field. Doesn’t mean I’m right, but I’m not cavalierly slapping a label on my mom.

  4. Susan Brockman says:

    This tendency to diagnose family members without discussing these issues WITH THE FAMILY MEMBERS is pernicious and dispicable. It is pop-psychology at its worst. Even the term “borderline” is being challenged, since it’s a meaningless label. The connection to PTSD and changes in the actual structure of the brain are making it much harder to be an armchair psychologist, with good reason. I have done a small survey, and learned that EVERYONE who has a family member (particularly a mother) with whom they have problems (like, uh, everyone?) gets a diagnosis for that person as “borderline.” Nonsense, and dangerous nonsense. This is a typical poor use of psychobabble.

  5. Kathy says:

    Wondering how things are going with your mom, Brigitte. Are they better, or is that just the view from outside? I know how much difference one’s viewpoint makes!

  6. Kathy says:

    Some people feel that “labels” are unkind and dismissive. For me, borderline is not a label but an explanation. It takes some of the blame away from my mom and therefore some of the anger and hurt away from me.

    My book’s due out in a couple of weeks, Susan. Maybe you’d find it helpful. Thanks for commenting here.

  7. Susan says:

    I can identify with this strongly. At 43 years old, I am finally putting the pieces together that my mother suffers from BPD. I have no doubt in my mind that’s what it is, although she never displayed the rage or venom others speak about. Mostly I see a desperate need for intimacy and total sabotage when the opportunities arise, childish conflict management, including over reactive and extreme tearfulness. Inability to hold a job, continual nomadic behavior and Now I am dealing with her burgeoning alcohol abuse which makes her symptoms worse. I too agree that knowing there is a ” reason” for her behaviors is helpful in finding empathy for her instead of anger and frustration. My sibling however, is too caught up in the stigma of BPD to accept the diagnosis. He feels the diagnosis would equal “crazy.” Hoping to find empathy sooner rather than later as her symptoms are seemingly escalating in her mid 60’s

  8. James says:

    I wound up engaged to a Russian woman, and when she came to live with me, I realized something was very off. In about 2 weeks time, I had it narrowed down to BPD. Search “Has this story ever turned out well for an American man and Russian woman”.

    Partly as a result of that experience, plus a wicked (Borderline) stepmother, plus my ex’s attorney (Narcissist) in a high-conflict divorce, I believe I can spot many Borderlines and Narcissists (but especially Borderlines) through the accounts of their behavior by others, and also by the emotional (battering) effect they have on their targets.

    While obviously not a clinical diagnosis situation, it’s helpful for people to know that the boss or coworker from Hell they are dealing with is showing behaviors associated with a Borderline or Narcissist.

    Once you know the beast, it is more possible to come up with a plan to deal more effectively with the situation.

  9. Kathy says:

    Yep…This reaction feels very familiar. So sorry (but glad that the diagnosis was less serious than it might have been).

  10. Brigitte B says:

    I have to thank you, Kathy. It was because of your book and the very thorough analysis of your mother’s symptoms that I have come to realize that perhaps my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother may have all had BPD. I don’t think that one has to be a “professional” to identify an illness. To me, it is what it is. I didn’t need a psychiatrist to tell me I’ve been depressed for most of my life. My mother would never in a million years believe that she has BPD; however, she just seems to validate my conviction that she has it more and more each day. Tell me if this doesn’t sound like BPD: my sister has been dealing with a lot of intense abdominal pain. Her PCP told her she had a “mass” in her uterus and said that because she didn’t have health insurance it would take 6 months before she could get an ultrasound done (that is a rant in and of itself). We thought she may have had uterine cancer. I told her to feign illness and go to the ER so they would have to give her an ultrasound. She eventually did go to the ER but she didn’t have to feign her symptoms. Anyway, it turns out she has endometriosis – not necessarily the most wonderful thing to know but at least it’s not cancer. She asked the OB/GYN what causes it. The doctor said that the causes aren’t really known; however, it can be genetic. Instead of my mother being concerned for my sister or expressing her gratefulness that it wasn’t cancer, her comment to my sister was “it can also be caused by someone who has multiple sex partners” !!!!!!!!!!!!! Are you serious? I looked it up, and there is nothing that substantiates that claim. In a time when my sister needed the comforting words from her mother the most, she gets venom from a snake.

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