What It’s Like to Experience the Chronic ‘Emptiness’ of Borderline Personality Disorder

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Seth Stewart

Among my circle of family, friends and loved ones, I am often the one people go to for the “big talks” about life, meaning, spirituality, purpose and other subjects that force us all to think about existence. I don’t mind taking on this role. On the contrary, I enjoy being the philosophical spider in my web of relations — think “Charlotte’s Web” but instead written by Kierkegaard. My silk-spun messages would read something like, “Yes, but what’s the point of it all?”

The reason I feel at home in these discussions, and why people come to me with their existential anxiety, is deeply related to my borderline personality disorder (BPD). One of the diagnostic criteria for my condition I experience most intensely is a chronic feeling of “emptiness.” I put the word “emptiness” in quotations because, as I and others with BPD know, the feeling is not exactly just emptiness — which implies a nothingness or void where something is supposed to be.

Certainly there is an element of sensing something missing inside me, which can lead to a lot of grasping outside of myself for stability, identity and sometimes desperate attempts to fill an emotional, mental or spiritual gap. In my own past, this has exhibited itself through changing jobs, apartments and partners — as well as a complicated relationship with food (using physical fullness as a stand-in for soul fullness).

But when I think about the chronic feeling that really incited all of these problematic behaviors, I think a better term than emptiness might be longing. It’s not just the perceived lack, it’s the yearning for it to be filled with love, connection and fulfillment. Many people experience the desire to “figure out” what it all means — what we mean as individuals, as a species and as sentient beings in a gigantic universe. The difference is that having borderline personality disorder amplifies the desire, makes it sharper and more persistent.

Although the incessant, nagging, empty presence takes its toll, and can drive individuals to impulsive and self-destructive behavior, it’s also the water in which many of us little BPD fish swim. In fact, my own psychiatrist and many health professionals who work with BPD patients cite their deep existential insights and unique skill in exploring the meaning of life and identity. When someone comes to me carrying feelings of detachment from a purpose, or questions about what really brings joy and satisfaction, or just the tears of someone hungry for something hard to articulate, I can help. Because I have learned to bear emptiness and understand longing.

I have taught myself a language through which I can express these difficult states. I can also share the perspective of someone who stares into the abyss every day, and who has come to accept that for every one of us, the full and lively light of day is always complemented by the quiet darkness of night. The challenge of living with this truth is enormous, but the knowledge it imparts — irreplaceable.

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