‘I could attach 10 years of sadness to a throwaway comment, and nobody would know except me’
Seán Keyes, who lives with BPD, believes that while there is no cure, it can be managed
Seán Keyes lived the first three decades of his life battling an illness he didn’t know he had.
Eventually, aged 32, Seán was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). He describes living with the illness as feeling like a Zebra while everyone else is a horse.
Now 42, the father-of-three reflects: “I was always different, I knew that much but I couldn’t understand why.”
BPD is a mental health disorder that impacts the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems functioning in everyday life. A condition with a daunting array of characteristics, those who have BPD are recognised as having significant emotional pain in several areas, including anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, emptiness and loneliness. It can cause people to act impulsively, to self-harm, with suicidality a common feature of the illness.
Minor occurrences can prompt a major reaction, the result of a highly sensitive nature
Describing himself as an introvert, as a child, he had a crippling fear of abandonment. Every time his mother would leave the house, Seán would worry he would never see her again. “It didn’t matter that she always returned. Each time she left the fear would be just as intense. I couldn’t shake it off.”
Every emotion is heightened with BPD. Speaking of how overwhelming and exhausting it can be processing such intense feelings, and how it can lead to explosive outbursts, Seán refers to people with BPD as “adult versions of toddlers. We have tantrums. I’m happy one minute and sad the next. I can be a nightmare.”
Minor occurrences can prompt a major reaction, the result of a highly sensitive nature. Every comment must be scrutinised. He will dissect what was said, why it was said, then consider the many different meanings that can be attached to it; even to analyse tone of voice and body language. He becomes distressed easily and it sometimes take days to “return to baseline”. This can be triggered by something which someone else may not have even noticed. “It’s like my mind is a computer with numerous tabs popping up at once. Every tab must be looked at, there’s no such thing as just forget about it. I can’t.”
Clinicians have described the emotional sensitivity of people who suffer from BPD akin to the physical sensitivity felt from severe extensive burns.
While his feelings were intense, he simultaneously struggled to ascertain the emotion he “should” feel. Afraid to rely on his own judgement he recalls depending on the opinions of people he trusted to determine the appropriate emotion. When a situation would arise that effected or angered him, he would relay the scenario to his wife, sister and best-friend and ask how they would feel. He would then write down their reactions and essentially keep a logbook of appropriate emotions. “The emotional confusion of not knowing how to feel is very scary, so I relied on people who I knew had good morals and ethics. My BPD was like having to learn very quickly how to drive a really fast car that had no brakes.”
While he presents as confident and outgoing, I quickly learn this is not the case. He laughs at the very idea of it. He has never been confident. Even now, Seán admits he is more comfortable on the phone than in person. “There’s a security when behind a screen.”
This lack of self-belief is a common feature of BPD. It caused him to withdraw from both academic and sporting challenges growing up. “I never sat a state exam because I was afraid I’d fail. It would then have confirmed what I was already thinking; I was useless and incapable. It was easier to not take the risk. That way I saved myself the shame of been proved right.” The lack of self-confidence was very present as a teenager. Never wanting the spotlight, he had a very confident best-friend which allowed Sean to comfortably hide in his shadow.
He brings up the term “Splitting”, another trait of BPD. The need to be able to categorise everything. “For people with BPD we see the world in black and white. I couldn’t understand others seeing 50 shades of grey.”
While feeling happy can be magnified to absolute elation, similarly, sadness can equate to depression. “When I love someone it’s all or nothing. I am consumed with love for them. In the past if someone I loved hurt me in any way, that love would quickly turn to absolute hatred. They’d become my enemy without even knowing.”
Psychologists recognise it as a subconscious defence mechanism. People with BPD are quick to discard others, this is to protect oneself from the threat of intense negative emotions that could arise. “It’s difficult for us and for our loved ones. It’s like walking across a minefield, you never know when there will be an explosion.”
Triggered less and less now, Seán says his meltdowns were commonly caused by what he can now see was an innocent remark. “Any comment that reminded me of a negative experience in my past would automatically stir up all the hurt I had previously gone through. I could attach 10 years of sadness to a throwaway comment, and nobody would know except me.”
His passion for helping others who struggle with this condition is glaringly apparent
Although there is yet no known cure for BPD, Sean has discovered a method that works for him. Hesitating to refer to the structure he has put in place as “strict”, as it has negative connotations, he explains that what may sound imposing has simply become a lifestyle. Sean considers maintaining a healthy diet, keeping a good sleep pattern, exercising, and making time for daily reflection, imperative for his well-being. “For me it’s a trade-off, am I willing to compromise my mood the following day, increasing the possibility that I will feel agitated and more likely to be snappy for the sake of staying up late watching Netflix and eating rubbish. Obviously not. It took me years to recognise it and then have the discipline, but I got here.”
Now doing much better, Sean is dedicated to helping others try to find a way of managing BPD. He had been conducting local seminars but, when lockdown rendered that impossible, he decided to begin a podcast. He oozes enthusiasm as we chat about his podcast: You, Me and BPD.
“I did the first episode in November 2020; it now has an audience that spans over 60 countries. I love it, in the last few weeks I’ve been busy getting the office ready, with cameras set up so that when lockdown ends, I will be able to host guest speakers and stream it. I’m really looking forward to the next chapter”. His passion for helping others who struggle with this condition is glaringly apparent. His raw honesty and benevolent manner quickly put me at ease when interviewing him about such delicate issues. It doesn’t take long to see that Sean is a character it would be easy to open-up to.
With statistics stating that only a small percentage of people with BPD will manage to hold down a job, or successfully maintain a relationship, Sean is adamant that while it can not be cured, it can be managed. “I am proof of this . . . I’m happily married with three children, working at spraying cars. Providing peer support online, and now I’m running a podcast too. I’m functioning just as others do. It can be done, and I want people to know that.”