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Mothers with Borderline Personality Disorder

Lillian is an excellent example of how borderline personality disorder (BPD) can affect an entire family, as well as causing extreme unhappiness to the individual.

Lillian is in her mid-40s and the younger of two daughters. Although personality disorders are not formally diagnosed until adulthood, the subtle signs are present by the late teens and Lillian’s heavy drinking and promiscuous activities left her pregnant at 19. The father of her unborn child decided to stay with her, but his mother was vehemently against the relationship because, as a mental health nurse, she could see the signs of unstable behaviour in Lillian and did not want her son to marry her. This was to set up a lifetime of animosity between the two families.

By 20, Lillian had had her first child and by 22 her second. Besieged by her own birth family problems, Lillian had fallen out with her older sister but was on reasonable terms with her parents. However, neither parent understood that Lillian’s unruly behavior was a sign of borderline personality disorder. After both pregnancies, Lillian also experienced severe postpartum depression, which hindered her from bonding well with her sons, in particular, the second son.

Fortunately, her husband Keith loved his boys and was able to provide a stable base for them. Lillian, however, went from job to job, and started and stopped college courses and never completed any of the formal training she began. She ended up working as a support person helping people with mental illnesses, something which she felt right at home with, since not only did she relate to a lot of the clients’ problems, but she experienced them as well. However, this over-identification, and her own unstable behaviors, meant that Lillian was unwittingly doing damage to her clients.

Often people with controlled mental health issues make the best counsellors since they understand from first-hand experience what their clients are going through. Because Lillian had a personality disorder, however, she was unable to draw clear boundaries between what she told her clients about her personal life and what she shouldn’t. This meant that her clients, who were struggling under the burden of their own mental illness, also had to listen to Lillian’s latest tale of woe in her own life. Clearly, this is unacceptable clinical practice.

Most of her clients were sympathetic to her, and Lillian was genuinely a likeable person. But as time passed, she became an additional burden to her clients. As a heavy smoker, she developed suspicious polyps on her vocal chords. Due to her unprofessionalism, Lillian told her clients not only about this aspect of her personal life, but how terrified she was. Many of her clients were comforting her instead of getting the help they needed from her. Again, this is where her personality disorder made it difficult for her to distinguish what was appropriate work practice and to control her own problems in a clinical setting.

She was reprimanded several times and had to leave her position. She was quickly given another job doing the same work, and proceeded dealing with clients in the same manner.
Meanwhile, her husband had developed motor neurone disease which was still in the early stages. Her sons were devastated. Lillian smoked, and her smoking increased with this new stress, and finally she had to go to hospital to have the polyps investigated. Luckily for Lillian they were benign.

But her drinking also increased, her eldest son was now 19 and not working and her younger son at 15 was dropping out of school. To cope with this, Lillian’s family tales became more frequently told to her vulnerable clients; and sick people were getting sicker. Lillian could not see the harm she was causing. Her youngest son slept with his father each night, terrified he was going to die. Lillian’s clients, sick themselves, all heard about this.

Lillian lost weight due to the stress she was under and she was quite thrilled about it, telling people how her clothes were getting too big for her and she lost four dress sizes. But the drinking continued and her husband and sons were concerned for her. Already stressed from the worry of his father, the younger son stopped attending school altogether.

At this point, Lillian decided that she wanted to get dressed up and “go looking for a man”. She had reached a healthy weight and wanted to go out to nightclubs “just to see if I could attract a man”. Meanwhile her husband was left in the care of his under- aged sons while Lillian was out on the town. The main problem with this is that Lillian also told her clients, and having a support worker who was so clearly out of control in her personal life was impacting upon the health of her clients, who were relying on her for stability and assistance with their own lives.

Next came the attempted affair with her boss. This was a turning point for Lillian, and she was forced to leave this job as well. Although the company she worked for tried to cover it up, it became known among her clients, many of whom had put in complaints about having to listen to Lillian’s life story each time they had meetings.

Lillian has now moved out of the welfare system, but rang several of her clients telling them lies about how badly she had been treated by her boss, when in fact, it was Lillian who was conducting herself unprofessionally.

Lillian freely admits to many “dark times” in her life. She refuses treatment at present, her relationship has broken down completely with her husband and his family, leaving her sons without adequate support. She has moved to another city and left her 15 and 20 year old sons, whom she visits when she gets time off work. The younger son urgently needs assistance and will be taken into care, but Lillian is in a place where she just doesn’t care. She has even become abusive to her former clients.

Without adequate counselling and medication, Lillian is heading for disaster. However, it is her sons, in particular the youngest one who is grieving the impending loss of his father, who will be impacted the most. This is a tragic example of how untreated borderline personality disorder not only destroys the life of the sufferer, but impacts permanently on the vulnerable people who are reliant on a person like Lillian.


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