In this week’s episode of “It’s All In Your Head”, you’ll gain a first-hand understanding of what it is like to live with borderline personality disorder (BPD). You can watch the episode and read the transcript below. Plus, check out the recap episode! Missed the first episode? Check out “Supporting Somone with BPD”.
Jackie Colbeth: Hi, welcome to MedCircle’s It’s All in Your Head podcast. I’m your host, Jackie Colbeth, and it’s great to be with you. Today we’ll be featuring part two of a two-part series, focusing on borderline personality disorder from the perspective of someone who’s living with BPD, Sara Rosenberg. Sara was diagnosed with BPD and she shares with us the different ways that manifested itself in her life in the hard yet very rewarding work she did on her road to recovery. Professionally, Sara is a licensed financial advisor and one of the vice presidents of Emotions Matter, board of directors overseeing programs and operations. Sara is an inspiration to so many and we are so excited she took time out of her very busy schedule to chat with us. Sara, welcome to It’s All in Your Head. Sara, thank you so much for being here with us today. It’s really great to have you on.
Sara Rosenberg: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about my BPD journey share with everyone.
Jackie Colbeth: Well, I know our audience is going to get a lot out of it, so we’ll dive right in. So I guess starting at the beginning, when did your struggles with BPD begin?
Sara Rosenberg: Sure. As far as I remember, it was early teenage years. Pretty much I always had this distorted sense of self. I really didn’t understand who I was. I thought everything that happened was my fault. I had a lot of anger outbursts, always just reacting super negative to everything I had in school. I was really popular and I did really well and everything seemed fine, but then once a year I would have this crazy anger episode that would kind of come and go, but nobody really forgot about it. So I was like, that girl who was awesome and everything but just a little crazy.
Jackie Colbeth: I can relate.
Sara Rosenberg: So I mean, that was the beginning of it. I really just didn’t think I had a problem. But at the same time, I thought that everything was my fault. It was just this super weird not understanding what’s going on. And then later in my later teenage years, it became more obvious. I was having more outbursts. I would like ruin family functions, just go crazy at family dinner and stuff and just storm out. And everybody kind of felt bad for me and they wanted to help me, but I did not want to admit that I had a problem. So when I was in high school in the 11th grade, I had this terrible episode and the principal stepped in at that point. I mean, I don’t know why they didn’t step in years earlier, but she stepped in and she forced me to go to therapy and I refused to go, but there was no choice. I wasn’t going to be able to go back to school if I didn’t go to therapy. So I just basically went and I sat there and just stared at the therapist and didn’t say a word. And then basically they let me go back to school.
But that was the last year. I ended up going to a seminary in England. My family’s Jewish, so I went to an Orthodox Jewish seminary in England where it got even worse. I don’t know why. I don’t know how it developed exactly, but I remember one of the girls telling me that they, she’d never seen anybody get as angry as me. And again, I was popular, but everybody thought I was crazy. And one time I was threatening to end my life and I got hurt in between. It really wasn’t related, but I did get hurt and they had to call an ambulance. And then again they said, “If you don’t go to therapy, you can’t come back to the seminary.” And I didn’t want to go to therapy. So that was that. I just didn’t go back to the seminary at all. So that was the beginning stages of it.
Jackie Colbeth: So definitely as far as symptoms for you, it would manifest then is anger and then a lot of just self punishment of all me, all me, all me.
Sara Rosenberg: Yeah, exactly.
Jackie Colbeth: Did you struggle with any other symptoms during that time or do you think that was just predominantly how it manifested itself with you?
Sara Rosenberg: That was mostly how it was. There was a lot of suicidal thoughts. I didn’t really ever want to do it in my teenage years, but I would threaten many times that I’m going to do it. I felt like I didn’t want to live, but I didn’t really have the guts to actually do it or to try it. But I did threaten that a lot of times and people didn’t know how to react to that, but it would come and go.
Jackie Colbeth: So it would probably be fair then to say when you were diagnosed, and I can certainly relate to this, it was not a feeling of relief or, “Oh, great. This is something that explains a lot,” and some people seem to, when they’re diagnosed with any mental health condition, some people seem very, or at least more receptive. But would it be accurate to say when you were diagnosed it was just something that you were diagnosed with, but probably initially no interest in really diving in?
Sara Rosenberg: Well, by the time I got diagnosed, which was about at age 25, I had already had serious attempts to end my life. Things had gotten a lot worse. I had been in an arranged marriage where my ex-husband forced me to go to therapy and then we ended up getting divorced because he couldn’t handle my mood swings and my suicidal threats. And it was really, really bad at that point. And the way I got my diagnosis was actually after my first hospital, during my first hospitalization, they told me I wouldn’t get discharged unless I agreed to go to a therapist within the hospital. And at that point I was like, you know what? This is crazy. I can’t going to die if I don’t take care of this. And I wanted to get better at that point.
So I did agree to go to the therapy appointment and I got diagnosed pretty much immediately and I was kind of relieved. I was like, “Oh, so there’s a reason why I’m crazy. I’m not just different than everybody else. There are other people that have the same problem as me.” But they did tell me that I’m going to have it for the rest of my life. And I basically thought that I’ll never get better. And I didn’t know how I was going to live like that. It was just an impossible way to live, just getting worse and worse. So it was devastating to know that this is going to be forever. Turns out I did get better, but I didn’t realize that at the time that it was going to be possible.
Jackie Colbeth: Well that’s certainly a daunting thing. I remember it yesterday when I was diagnosed with bipolar two disorder and I like yourself, refused to speak during the first few therapy sessions. I lot of shame, lot of, I don’t want to want this label, I don’t want this to be forever. So can definitely relate to all those feelings for recovery in moving into that phase. What did that look like for you?
Sara Rosenberg: Yes. So we started right away with DBT therapy. It was super intense, three times a week in person at the hospital. So it was taking a college course, we had a thick book and every day we would go through a different kind of scenario of something that can come up emotionally and discuss why we react in a certain way versus how we’re supposed to react. And then we had homework every time and we had to see within the next couple of days when that kind of situation came up and figure out if we can handle it the right way or not. And we would have to write it down and then we would come back and review it.
So it was a year long of really intense therapy and during that time I was doing once a week therapy, one-on-one therapy and I really took it very, very seriously and I’m into studying and I’m very good with stuff like that. So I just took it super seriously and really understood what I had to do to get better in that first year. I mean, I don’t remember getting better, but I understood a lot of things. But then it took some time after that with another five years or another four years about of one-on-one therapy. And my therapist just taught me how to react to different situations. And then I would call her in the middle of the night with crazy thoughts and she would have to talk me down the ledge pretty much.
And eventually I would come into the therapy groups and I would tell her what happened during that week. And she was like, “Well, you handled it the way I would told you to handle it.” So I started getting better and I started focusing on the little achievements each time I was able to get over a small episode where I was able to handle the episode just a little bit better than I Yeah, would’ve handled it in the past. I was proud of myself and I said, okay, I can do this. And eventually after years I realized that I can get better and that I just have to keep trying and keep pushing. And it was sometimes one step forward, 10 steps back. But I just kept doing it and kept doing it and I just said, “I’m not going to be able to live like this. I’m either going to die or I have to get better. I can’t continue living like this.”
Jackie Colbeth: You definitely described a lot of work that you put into this. Certainly very intensive therapy, but it sounds like you had an unbelievable support system with that therapist and with that group. How did friends and family receive this? Were you surprised by any reactions or pleasantly unpleasantly, just different people in your life when you open up to them outside of your therapist?
Sara Rosenberg: Yeah, I mean support was the biggest thing for me. My family is, I mean, still is so, so, so supportive. My family, like I said, is they’re orthodox Jews and I left the religion, so that was a big divide. They weren’t happy that I left, but they really just focused on my health and they didn’t bother me about not being religious. They just wanted me to be better. And during my hospitalizations they would all come visit me and bring me food and they always said, “We always knew you had a problem, but now you’re taking care of it and you’re fixing it and you’re getting better.” And they just pushed me and supported me. They didn’t even understand really what BPD was. Even till today, they don’t really understand. They never did any research or anything. They just showed me that they loved me all the time no matter what.
They didn’t necessarily know the right thing to say, but I knew that they loved me versus back in the day, I didn’t understand that. I used to think that they hated me. So it took a long time, but their support just meant the world to me and I always wanted to show them that they were right, that they believed in me and they had a good reason to believe in me because I was getting better. And honestly at this point, they’re so proud of me. I come to family functions and I’m smiling and I’m complimenting everybody and I’m having a good time and they’re just happy that I’m happy. They don’t even care that I’m not religious. Yep. It’s an unbelievable turn of events, but it’s really amazing their support.
As far as friends went, I didn’t really notice friends having a problem with me after episodes. My friends were really just supportive in a quieter way. We wouldn’t talk about it as much. I mean as the years have gone by, I talk about BPD all the time, all the time, but back then they just didn’t leave me. They didn’t say, “Okay, you’re too crazy. We can’t be your friend.” So that in itself was a big support. And then lately in the last four plus years, I’ve had Emotions Matter as my biggest support system.
Jackie Colbeth: Awesome.
Sara Rosenberg: Yeah, that’s what drives me every single day. Being the second vice president at Emotions Matter is such an honor to me. And it’s kind of unbelievable that I used to be suicidal and so miserable and so I hated myself. And here I am being able to help other people going through the same things that I went through. And I feel so empowered that I was able to go from such a low place to such a good place.
And just that fact it just gives me energy and the strength to always just push forward. They’re so warm. It’s a family, everybody feels connected, welcome, understood. There’s no shame involved. Everybody understands we’re all going through the same thing. I’m also a support group facilitator, so awesome. We have only peers are the facilitators. And I sit in these groups and the emotions that come up I, it’s heart wrenching. It’s just so sad to see what people go through. And I remember all those feelings myself and I try to encourage people that I got better. Recovery is possible. I want them to see in real life that somebody got better. So I validate their feelings, their emotions now, but I also tell them that it could get better. So that’s this huge support for me that I probably wouldn’t be able to be anything like I am if not for Emotions Matter.
Jackie Colbeth: And that’s an awesome segue because knowing what I know about Emotions Matter, and we’re going to be speaking with one of the founders later on, knowledge is power and stigmas are born out of ignorance. And a lot of times when people are diagnosed, there isn’t a ton of information at their fingertips. It might be in medical textbooks, you dove right in, which I love and just wanted to consume and educate yourself on that. And then in turn you get to be the shining example in the hopeful face for anybody else who’s struggling. And I can certainly relate to that. When I was going through treatment for my alcoholism, the single thing that helped me the most was literally just listening to somebody else to appear who had similar struggles to me. And they really got it right on that level. And with Emotions Matter for those who might not know a ton about it and we’re going to be bringing more information about it, I was so impressed because it is such a knowledge based organization. There’s great education, there’s so much I learned just going through the different material, your website, speaking to people there. And I’m wondering if you felt the same way that when you met someone else with BPD, it was really a pivotal part of your recovery.
Sara Rosenberg: Yeah, absolutely. You go through, I mean, I went through the illness feeling a lot of emotions, but when I heard other people describing my emotions in their words and it made so much sense the comparisons that they would make and just the descriptive language. And I was like, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel.” And it’s an unbelievable validation that there are other people like me. It’s just incredible. And one of the things we have, one of the events that we have in emotions matter is an art show, which we’ve done a few times and we have one coming up. And that’s just so emotional when you see the way people with BPD express themselves through art. And I’m not an artist, but when I see these depictions I’m like, “That’s exactly how I feel. How do they know?” But it’s just that connection and it’s just incredible to see.
Jackie Colbeth: Yeah, I was scrolling through and I always love looking at art that anyone who struggle … I, like you, I really don’t have an artistic bone in my body, but I always admire people who can really capture that within a picture. And I’m not going to lie, just some of the images for your art show this year, they were so beautiful. I mean a few of them almost brought me to tears, just how perfectly they really captured feelings within a picture. And Emotions Matter, how did you find this place?
Sara Rosenberg: So I had this one friend with BPD who I had actually met in the hospital and her therapist had told her about Emotions Matter. And it was a little over four years ago that she invited me to go to the walk for BPD. And I didn’t really know many people with BPD. I didn’t really know that there was an organization like that. And I went and I was blown away immediately this speeches and just talking to people. And there was this whole group of 100 people with either with BPD or had a loved one with BPD or a clinician. Everybody understood me.
I was like, “This is amazing. I need to be a part of this all the time. I just want to be around these people.” It was an incredible feeling of being accepted and it was just like a family. And I remember that first day I just went over to the, I signed up to be a volunteer and I just wanted to be involved and I was already in recovery at that point, so I was feeling good and I wanted to help other people, but I had no idea how much this organization was going to help me in the future just to keep me going because you know can get better and then you can go backwards and obviously I don’t want to do that. So going to that walk, it changed my life. It really did.
Jackie Colbeth: And what I love about your story, Sara, is you went from patient to advocate, right? I mean, you’re the living representation of what it is to have an acceptance and live an extremely fulfilling life. And so when you dove in and you started Emotions Matter, I have noticed you’ve certainly moved up the ranks, which I think is a really cool experience. So I’m hoping you can tell our audience just a little bit more about the roles that you’ve had there and what you do with them today.
Sara Rosenberg: Sure. So I started out going to some in-person connections groups where it was more of a fun activity type of group. It was amazing back then before COVID when we were able to have in-person events. And I would go to each one every month and then they started asking me to lead some stuff. So I would lead introductions or lead a game and I guess they saw that I had the leadership qualities. And one of these events months later, I’ll never forget it, Paula, the executive director, asked me if I would be on the board. And I had never been on a board of anything and it was the most validating moment, just you want me on your board? It was incredible. And Emotions Matter’s all about peers running the programs and peers running everything. And obviously they wanted somebody with lived experience of BPD to be involved in a higher level.
So I joined the board and I was just so passionate about helping other people and I brought this younger energy onto the board and I brought something new and they really appreciated that. And as time went on, I was very involved in fundraising, so I brought a lot to the organization and then at one point she asked me to be the second vice president. And of course I was completely honored and excited and I take this role super seriously every day. It’s really the most important thing in my life. I really feel amazing just especially hearing what people say after our events and even after just our groups, how much we help them. Some people are just really at the end of their rope literally, and they come to our group or their event and it changes their life, or I could say saves their life. So it’s just so beautiful to see that I am that I have a hand in that.
Jackie Colbeth: Yes.
Sara Rosenberg: So it’s the best thing.
Jackie Colbeth: And I love that because I know a lot of people who are diagnosed struggle with any sort of mental health. It’s sort of that feeling of will I be able to contribute anything really awesome to society, early on in the recovery. How’s that going to look for me? And I love that you are such a great example of really busting that, what I call stinking thinking to shreds because you were able, like you said, to come up with an organization, put all your passion into there, and then in turn up with a role in being on a board and being vice president that it’s just a really inspiring story. And I know that a lot of people in our audience and really the whole foundation of the It’s All in Your Head podcast is to show that really is to show the experience, strength and hope that anybody who’s diagnosed with anything can have certainly not relegated to any sort of mediocre life. I would ask how you’re doing today, but I think I already know it looks like you’re doing great, but how are you feeling today?
Sara Rosenberg: I mean, I would have never imagined that I could be this happy. It was an impossible thing back in the day. I mean, I do feel like I’m happier than your average person who doesn’t necessarily have a mental illness. I feel like the challenges that I’ve overcome were so difficult and now that I did it, so proud of myself and I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m really proud. I feel like very powerful and I feel like I can achieve anything I want and nothing’s going to ever stop me. I was saying earlier, I have the most amazing relationship with my family. I have an amazing career in finance.
Jackie Colbeth: That’s awesome.
Sara Rosenberg: It’s things just are really working out because I put in the hard work and I just keep believing in myself.
Jackie Colbeth: And I think that’s so important to highlight and I’m glad that you do. There is a lot of hard work that has to be put in and it can be daunting for sure, but just being able to see the smile, the energy, that’s not anything people can fake. And really you’re such a beacon in attraction for what the hope that anyone who’s diagnosed with this can achieve, which is very special. I’m wondering, what would you say the biggest misconception may be of borderline personality disorder would be? I know that there is a lot of ignorance on different mental health disorders, which we love to bust, and I’m wondering if you could share with us any ignorant reflections or inaccurate, I should say, in the way of misconceptions about this.
Sara Rosenberg: Sure. I think a lot of people think that people with BPD are looking for attention with the suicide attempts, just the big outbursts. People think that, and it’s completely not the case. It may seem that way, but we are in so much pain and this is the way our brains are reacting. It’s not on purpose. We’re not planning this stuff out. We’re not trying to do things in this crazy loud manner and just bursting out with anger. We’re not trying to do that. We don’t want to do that ever, but it just, that’s how our brains react and we have to work on not being that way. But when we have an episode, it’s not purposely trying to look for attention. So that’s just something that really, really bothers me that people think. And it’s really hard to explain how that works because somebody that doesn’t have the disorder just you can’t really understand it, but it’s just the reaction in the brain, it just takes over, really. There’s no control.
Jackie Colbeth: Yeah, it seems to be very insidious in that respect. Almost an amalgamation of different symptoms from different mental health disorders and coupled with too, people have personalities and their character and then they have the behaviors that the disorders in control of, to your point. And these things are happening. I’m not trying to make them happen. This is part of the pain that you would go through. So we have our personalities are God-given character, and then we have the diagnosis. And I think a lot of people have trouble sort of discerning, well, what is me and just my personality and what is part of the disorder? So for instance, I’m Italian, I thought my anger outburst were really just because I was spunky and fired and passionate was the word that I would like to use. And while that’s all true, that’s part of my personality, but it can also manifest as part of my illness. So I’m wondering if you had a similar struggle, really kind of deciphering, well, what’s Sara and what’s the BPD?
Sara Rosenberg: I never really thought about it exactly that. I think that if I look back at the way I reacted to a certain situation and it wasn’t the reaction that would get the result that I wanted, then that’s the BPD. I can be very loud sometimes I have a very big personality and it’s not a problem sometimes, but when I do it in a negative way and a way that in my heart I’m just, I’m feeling shame, I’m feeling feeling this insecurity, that’s the BPD. And sometimes it’s very blurred, but that’s okay because I don’t have to be perfect and I don’t feel like I have to always differentiate or anything like that. BPD is part of who I am and it’s fine. I don’t feel that if I have an episode, if I handle it decently, even if it’s something that maybe other people wouldn’t do, I don’t feel that I’m a terrible person. I’m me. I have BPD, I will always struggle with reactions to situations and it’s okay. I don’t have to necessarily think that it’s a bad thing because this is part of who I am and I still have an amazing life and people love me and it’s all good. I’m not perfect.
Jackie Colbeth: That’s awesome. That’s awesome advice. If there’s anything you would say to your younger self, what would that be? In the moment that you were diagnosed in the early struggle, what advice, if any, would you have given younger Sara?
Sara Rosenberg: Listen to the people who are trying to help you. People care about you. People love you. They want the best for you. They’re not being mean or hating you. They really care about you and just accept it and appreciate it and take what you can get because not everybody has the support, but I did and I wish I understood that I can could get better. And that once I would get better, life would be so much more amazing. And it’s worth the work basically just it’s so hard, mean every day, every minute, I’m still just having to control everything because my natural reaction is just the way my brain works. It’s not conducive to having a good relationship with anybody or being in public or whatever. I just wish I understood that I could get better.
Jackie Colbeth: Sometimes I think early on in different diagnoses, you almost feel like help hurts. You don’t quite know how to accept that. And there there’s a lot of fight against the one thing that can really bring you that freedom. So that was beautifully illustrated. And something we ask everybody is anybody who’s struggling in our audience today, either with an early diagnosis of BPD or maybe they suspect they might be struggling with it, to those who are really in the throes right now who might be watching this, what is the best piece of advice that you could give to them in that moment?
Sara Rosenberg: You’re not alone. You’re not alone, you’re not crazy. There is help out there. There’s support in lots of different ways. And I would say that keep pushing forward. You can do this, you really, really can do this. You just have to keep believing in yourself. And with BPD, it’s really hard to believe in yourself, but you have to push yourself. And the main thing that really has worked for me is changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts. And it’s kind of a process that took me years to perfect. I mean I can’t say perfect because I’m not there yet either. But with BPD automatically your brain goes to the negative and when you have a negative thought, you’re going to have a negative reaction.
And basically what I did was, and this is what I learned in therapy, you have to notice when the negative thought comes up. And once you notice it, the next step is to stop it. And the next step is to change it to a positive thought. And honestly, it took me years, years to be able to do that. But if I was able to do it once per day or even once per week, then it pushed me to be able to do it again and again and again. And now I just notice it. Sometimes I’ll get angry for five or 10 seconds, but it won’t be an episode because I notice it and I just try to smile and I try to think of something positive. And sometimes it’s a negative thing that happened and it’s so hard to think positively, but sometimes I’ll come up with some crazy outrageous, positive thought that really makes no sense, but I’m like, what’s the difference? I might as well just think something positive so that I can smile and be happy and react in a nice way so that people want to be around me and just be normal basically. So the negative to the positive is a huge piece of advice that I would definitely give people.
Jackie Colbeth: Well, that’s great. I know they would definitely appreciate that coming from you, someone who knows this well. And I just want to thank you so much for coming on and sharing deeply personal information. And you’re an impressive woman, Sara. I definitely have to say your enthusiasm for getting better in the work that you put in really is inspiring. I think that might not be a route a lot of people think they have the capacity to have, but to your point, if you can do it and you can put the work in, people can see these great results. So we definitely wish you all the best and don’t be a stranger.
Sara Rosenberg: Thank you so much. I’m so glad I was able to share my story. It was really great experience. Thank you.
Jackie Colbeth: Thank you all for joining our conversation with Sara today. While we know more today than we ever did before about borderline personality disorder, it’s important to continue to share people’s lived experiences with the diagnosis. Sara’s candid account of how BPD affected her life along with the very hard work she put into therapy highlights that no matter what someone is diagnosed with, that does not preclude them from living their best life. Becoming involved with organizations that both educate and support people with this diagnosis offered Sara the strength and confidence she needed to tackle anything life threw her way, including BPD. I really hope you enjoyed our conversation. If you visit medcircle.com, you can access tons of other combos, including weekly workshops with our credential doctors and award-winning video library featuring almost 1,000 educational videos. Become a member of our community today. Visit medcircle.com to learn more. And thank you for listening to It’s All in Your Head.