The borderline between professional and personal. Pun intended.


Please note: No offense is intended to anyone in the mental health community – whether that is a person with mental health issues or their workers, or someone affected by a family member – from this post. It is based solely on my own professional and personal experiences. I fully recognise I am generalizing by appearing to paint all people with a specific mental health issue with the same brush, and that is not my intent.

The thing about being a counsellor is that the skills never leave you, even when you spend most of your time hanging out in your lounge reading ‘Can You Moo, Too?’ over and over and over and…

I don’t mean to suggest that skills aren’t honed by experience, and that I’d be able to just waltz right in the consulting room and see five people a day after having such a long break. But the things I have learned, in my training and in experience with clients, stick with me.

Like, let’s take my dad’s primary mental health issue: Borderline Personality Disorder. This is like the personality disorder. Billed as ‘untreatable’ in some circles, and certainly it is very hard to work with people with BPD. It often comes hand in hand with other issues, such as alcohol or drug dependency. BPD itself also often means that clients are also self-harming, impulsive, etc etc.

But the main reason why we were warned off BPD so many times? It’s the problems with forming attachments and relationships. People with BPD can be really, really exhausting to work with. Even very experienced counsellors/psychotherapists might have their own personal rule of only having one BPD person on their caseload at any one time.

Its difficult to explain why to someone who hasn’t worked  – or lived – with these people. Maybe you can just take my word for it?

The other major thing that can come along with BPD is a tendency to see things in black and white, which is why these people (ie: my father) can have difficulties with relationships. For example, it is either all loved up and perfect …or a huge, festering shit roast party in hell. There is no in between.

Your girlfriend does something that you see as abandoning you? Well, obviously that’s a shit relationship and you hate her and you don’t fucking need her….but if she leaves me that will be so horrible i can’t be alone please please i need you and will kill myself if you leave…..but i fucking hate you. Etc etc.

Sometimes in counselling circles there is talk about a ‘parallel process.’ This means, in very simplistic terms, if your client is obsessed about money, you may become obsessed about money as you talk to your supervisor. Or in more easy terms – your client is fucking in love with the colour blue, so you are weirdly fixated on the colour blue….in supervision or with this client. And if you’re not good at sectioning things off in your head, the blue thing may leak a bit into your personal life.

And god help us if you already had a preexisting problem with blue, because working with this client will force you to reexamine your own blue-related issues. To question if your reactions to what they are saying are truly about the client, or yourself.

With BPD, I had some issues. Having experienced massive trauma as a child and young adult in relation to this disorder, among other things, I developed a curious ability to bear deep pain in my clients. This has worked to my advantage, mostly, though my old therapist and a past supervisor suggested I would always need to make sure I was taking care of myself – because I could bear to hear my client’s deeply traumatic shit meant I would hear it. People sense if you can deal with these things, I think, and consequently I dealt with a lot of people who wanted to go very deep.

This was a blessing, I think, derived from my childhood.

On the flip side, I seem to draw clients with (usually undiagnosed) BPD to me like a moth to a flame. On my counselling training, a pat phrase we heard a lot was ‘You get the clients you need.’ I agree with this….to a point.

BPD is very, very difficult to diagnose. It is not my place as a counsellor to diagnose. However, in one counselling placement alone, I had three major cases of clients with BPD walk through my consulting doors. None were coming to therapy about this as an issue – they were coming for other issues.  One particular person had not disclosed the issue during their initial assessment, and the therapist did not ‘catch’ it.

Oh, no, leave that to Super Existere, the counsellor with antennae 8 miles long for people with attachment issues.

The thing is, working with this person – even for the brief period I did – left me totally fucked up. I was going blank after sessions, unable to remember stuff. And the gut feeling I had in sessions? Very familiar. I was so upset by this person….who outwardly was certainly charming, intelligent, and someone I liked (I hate to put people in boxes, but again, this is ‘typical’ of BPD)….that I was reeling.

My supervisor said she felt I was in real danger. I sort of laughed. I said this could probably be explained away by my past history, especially taking into account that I grew up with a primary attachment figure who had BPD. I dutifully spoke to my manager at the placement, though. She did a bit of digging, and it turns out that this client had in fact been diagnosed with BPD by their psychiatrist (many of my clients also had psychiatrists), and…they had lost control in previous counselling sessions and their counsellor was at grave risk. Needless to say, I stopped my work with this client.

Because sometimes being a good counsellor means knowing when you are in above your head.

I don’t know how I got into a lecture on the mechanics of counselling, and this is feeling long, so cheers to you if you’ve read this far.

The whole point of this entry was for me to say that I tend to go all ‘parallel process-y’ on this blog in relation to my dad, only talking about the bad stuff. In real life, I am what psychotherapists call ‘integrated’….meaning I’m good at finding the middle ground, seeing things more realistically. It’s a good way to be, but it makes the necessary ‘black and white’ things difficult for me.

There were good things about my dad. I feel like I want to write about them, as part of a mourning or grieving process.

But actually, maybe I just needed to come here and say: I was a really good counsellor. But in counselling, I made a conscious decision to take a break from people with severe mental health issues (like BPD, for instance) and work with people who had more ‘ordinary’ problems – though often quite traumatic and extreme (because, again, I draw hardcore cases to me), but sometimes blessedly mundane.

I felt I was more helpful to people without severe mental health issues – maybe because the MH client group is prone to not turning up to appointments, etc etc – but also because I was making a choice to take care of me.

If I could do that professionally, maybe I can do it personally.

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9 Responses to “The borderline between professional and personal. Pun intended.”

  1. @violetsouffle Says:

    This is slightly off topic (though perhaps not) but I know a while back we talked about personality types. I know you said what yours was and though I can’t remember what if it was ENFJ or some other alphabet soup combo, something you said above clicked on the “this sounds like part of THAT” button in my brain: the part where you talk about how good you were/are as a counsellor but then seem to detract from it immediately as not being good at it because you’re just awesome or that you were good at it but didn’t do it all the time. I wonder- are you ever afraid that to become a better counsellor you may her to go where you don’t want to go in real life; that is, deal with shut like your fathers BPD to become stronger/ better? Because through part of your post that’s what it felt like you were almost saying.
    Love to you because what you’re dealing with is hard but I’m so glad you have TOOLS to do it with and understand it so well.

    • existere Says:

      I had to reread this a few times, but I think I see what you are saying and there is smart stuff in it.

      To clarify, I think my father’s BPD makes me more sensitive to BPD in clients – BUT BETTER because of it. BPD clients are almost universally (over here, anyway) recognised as very, very difficult to work with. My own therapist, who was fucking awesome and been doing it for ages, said she didn’t like working with them. (I hate ‘them’, I hate labels, but it seems necessary here!).

      Dealing with the shit with my father would make me a better counsellor, sure, because it also primarily makes me a more self-aware person. I think I’m pretty far down that road of looking at things from every which way in relation to this topic, but no doubt there are still some miles to go.

      I’m not sure I *totally* get what you meant by the ‘immeidately detracting’ from my skills bit, but want to know. leave a response clarifying?? 🙂

      Thanks, as always, for your thought provoking and thoughtful comment.

  2. Darlene & Lori Says:

    Interesting. Very interesting……hmmmmm.

  3. Katie B. Says:

    omfg. My dad is BPD, too!

    And… I’m a fairly empathetic, intuitive person who’s drawn to (strictly informally, as I have no training but my own history of depression and therapy) counseling people I care about who are in need. I have even considered pursuing training in pastoral counseling.

    When it’s someone you (are supposed to) love, I firmly believe it’s more important than ever to maintain a safe distance. My dad has his good points too… but I can barely see them anymore.

    If you ever need to vent, I’m here. I hope I can vent to you, too.

  4. Natasha Says:

    Oh, what a dillema! I felt very inclined to reply to this with telling you about my own experiences with having a father with borderline personality disorder… but then I thought, I don’t want to be another person who’s shit gravitates its way towards you, or who goes too deaply into things.

    Instead of going into it, I’ll just say that my father had BPD. He had other issues like drug and alcohol dependency, ‘anger management’ issues etc and was generally abusive. I never had to make the decision of whether or not to keep him in my life because he took a heroine overdose when I was 11. He drowned on his vomit and made the decision for me, irrevocably. Believe me, I wasn’t lying when I said I’d not go into it. This is just the bare facts.

    If you’ve made your decision final to not have your father in your life anymore, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The reason I bring up my father’s death is because people always assume I have massive issues with it. I don’t (my sister does, mind you). I actually don’t regret his death, and think perhaps it was best. I know that sounds awful, but the man was nothing but a negative aspect of my childhood. How can it be a bad thing that somebody is no longer around to not care about you? No longer there to abuse you? That you will never again hide under the bed and wait for the screaming to end… The final and definite end to that part of my life was frankly a relief.

    I know our circumstances are different, but I’m just saying, things aren’t always black and white. It’s not always the case that a father loves you, and you should love your father. It’s not always the case that a relationship with relatives is necessarily for the best of all involved. Sometimes it IS for the best to cut loose. People seem to think that because blood is involved you should try at all costs to salvage some sort of working relationship and to put problems aside… People seem to think it is impossible that the best thing for a girl is to have her father out of her life. But if a stranger treated you that way, you wouldn’t hesitate to take steps to never, ever see that person again.

    Like I say, my decision was made for me by my father’s suicide / accidental drug overdose (we’re not sure which). But my point is, I don’t regret it, and I never have. I don’t miss him. I don’t feel I’ve missed out by not having him in my life and I don’t feel that his death was necessarily a bad thing. It may sound awful but it’s true.

    I’m not sure if I’m getting across what I intended to… I’m trying to say, a relationship with one’s father is not always a positive thing to have, and to cut loose intentionally or otherwise, can sometimes give you freedom and protection that is invaluable and which lasts a life time.

    Sometimes, a permanent good bye is what is best. Even if you’re related.

    • existere Says:

      Thanks for your input! I can’t believe it; another friend with a BPD father. What are the fucking odds?

      One thing you’ve mentioned here that makes BPD so awful is all the other problems that can go along with it – in my father’s case, alcoholism, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, etc. I think about my father dying and have mixed emotions …but sort of like you, I don’t feel all that bad. Hope that doesn’t make me awful.

      You’re right about me putting up with shit from family that I would not put up with from a stranger. That made me think.

      I will continue to think about that.

      Thank you for sharing!

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