This blog post was created to explore the intersectional and humanistic nature of disability. People with disabilities live with and experience the world in a variety of ways and disability can arise for a multitude of reasons. We wish to explore how people with disabilities are affected by their lived experiences and how systemic discrimination, policies and legislation can affect individuals in society. This story specifically speaks to how a young woman who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) maneuvers the legal sphere, speaking to stigma, treatment and resiliency.
This story contains sensitive subject matter relating to mental health, self-harm and suicide. The topics discussed may cause trauma; if you need assistance, please seek support at the Canadian Suicide Prevention Service which has been set up to provide support for those who are experiencing suicidal ideations or actions. You can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling 24-Hour National Crisis Line: 1-833-456-4566, or by texting HOME to 686868.
For the purposes of anonymity, the interviewee’s name has been changed and any identifiable information regarding her location, ancestry and specific law school has been removed. We have tried to keep her words as much as possible in our editing. This is her story.
Silver (she/her) is a law student in her early-mid 20’s studying at a Canadian university. Silver states that “borderline personality disorder is my truth. As much as I would like to stand up and admit my truth to those around me, I fear for the intense stigma attached to mental illness in the legal field.” For this reason, Silver wishes to remain anonymous, but hopes that “other law students and legal professionals can relate to my experience and help change the norm/rhetoric around mental illness in the law.”
Silver disclosed that she was severely bullied as a child. From early grade school until the beginning of high school, Silver was mentally and emotionally bullied – “the thing is, I wouldn’t even call it bullying, I would call it emotional torture.” The bullying brought times of isolation, doubt, self-destructive thoughts and actions, as well as ideations and acts of suicide. Silver disclosed that she resorted to cutting and binge eating to cope,. “These actions continued until I finished my undergraduate degree. I feared that they would follow me into law school, and I wouldn’t be able to hide it from my peers.”
Throughout her life, Silver remembers feeling as if she was different than those around her. For as long as she could remember, she has felt things very deeply, and found that she could not relate to others when they described their emotions. Silver found that moments of happiness were times of heightened euphoria, and moments of sadness were deep bouts of depression. She described feeling as if she could get angry and lash out in an instant, “it was like a light switch, one moment I’m laughing and the next I’m throwing something across the room in anger.” She explained that she “rarely felt normal”, that there was no “middle ground, or balance” to her emotions. Silver also mentioned feeling extremely anxious when it came to social interactions, going to school, leaving her family (even for a few hours), and often felt as if those around her were leaving her permanently. Silver mentioned that “the fear was the worst part. Feeling as if the people around me had so much control over my emotions. That, if they left me, it would shatter me.”
Growing up, Silver met with a number of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and guidance counsellors to find solutions to her self-harm and persistent thoughts of suicide. Along with safety plans and therapy to cope with these feelings, a number of psychiatrists provided diagnoses ranging from depression to anxiety, eating disorders, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many others. Disclosing mental illness was difficult to do in Silver’s family, where she described her parents as “traditional”, that they did not “believe in” mental illness or the use of psychiatric help. Doctors were unable to pinpoint an accurate diagnosis that would encompass all of Silver’s emotions and actions.
In her late teens to early twenties, Silver was diagnosed with severe Clinical Depression, severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder, complex trauma, obsessive compulsive disorder and borderline personality disorder. “It was like getting hit by a truck. One day you are this girl with some sadness and thoughts of suicide, and the next, you are labelled as half the diagnoses in the DSM-V.” Throughout our interview, Silver mentioned that individuals who are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder are often those who have lived with severe trauma or instability in their lives. She explains that the level of “emotional torture” she experienced in childhood shaped the way in which she was able to process and express her emotions.
Silver noted that “this came as a shock for sure. My family didn’t know how to respond to the borderline personality disorder diagnosis. They didn’t know how to help me… If anything, the diagnosis made me more isolated than ever.” When asked why the borderline personality disorder was the most shocking, Silver responded, “because it holds the most stigma. In my experience, people in society differentiate mental illness into two categories, ‘normal’ and ‘crazy’. ‘Normal’ mental illness are more typical diagnoses that everyone will experience in their lives, depression, anxiety, binge eating when you’re stressed, while ‘crazy’ mental illnesses are conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Borderline personality disorder, in my life, has always been grouped with the ‘crazy’ or ‘emotionally unstable’ category.”
Silver continued, “it’s because people like, don’t understand. They think having borderline is being overly attached to people and having a flip-flop of emotions that causes massively unstable relationships – which it is, to an extent – but there’s another side to it, people can have what’s called ‘quiet’ or ‘high functioning’ borderline.” Silver described “quiet” borderline personality disorder as well managed borderline personality disorder, where an individual is able to sustain a career, school, relationships, therapy and other commitment’s that those with borderline traditionally have trouble sustaining. Silver mentions that quiet borderline still affects her day-to-day interactions with others, including her peers at school, but “ultimately can be managed with the right therapies.”
Silver stated that “the culture in law school and the legal profession is elitist, people think they come to law school because they are the ‘best’, that people who have issues, like mental illness, can’t sustain that level of ‘best’ that others can. They think having a mental illness is a weakness.” Silver described this “elitist mentality” as the reason why mental illness is “so massively stigmatized” in the law. “I see the way my peers talk about mental illness when it comes to fictional characters in a fact pattern for an exam, or even with client’s that are described in a textbook. People see the word depression and automatically think ‘weakness.’”
Silver described that it was hard to make friends in law school because of her BPD. She was very shy and unable to open up to others when she entered law school and felt like she was being judged. She described feeling as if she was “under a microscope”, that people were “watching and judging” her. Silver explained that it took time to find a group of friends that were incredibly inclusive and accepted her for who she is. Although she has not disclosed her condition to her peers, she has felt both good and bad reactions to her emotions by others. Silver mentioned that she does not want to disclose her condition to anyone at her law school, as the “law is so far behind.” Silver states that “Despite preaching about inclusivity, the law still stigmatizes against people with mental health issues illness in the workplace, in court, in the classroom and even as alumnus. But the truth is, we all have mental illness, at least I’m dealing with mine.”
Silver also mentions that for her, having borderline personality disorder is not “all negative.” In fact, Silver mentioned that having borderline personality disorder makes her extremely empathetic and compassionate. That the presence of BPD borderline makes her overly observant to subtle shifts in emotions or actions, “the borderline makes me great at detecting when something I said hit a chord.” Borderline personality disorder can cause discomfort including the fear of abandonment, fear of judgement, but that “proper therapy can do wonders.”
Silver wanted to leave a very clear message, “having borderline is not a death sentence – it is a wakeup call. It is my body telling me that something happened in my life, and I need to deal with it instead of suffer.” Silver hopes that her honesty would open the minds of legal professionals and law students to reconsider what they believe when it comes to mental illness. That mental illness is something everyone lives with to some extent.
Silver’s message encourages all member of the legal community to change the conversation when it comes to mental health issues illness. We as a profession can shift the narrative around mental health issues, making the space more inclusive for people with disabilities. We can do so by mentoring law students, creating policies and training in the workplace that support inclusivity for people with mental health issues, as well as holding workshops in law school to promote self-care, addressing mental illness and de-glorifying the norm of overworking. In shifting the narrative around mental health issues in the law, we can better serve clients, provide meaningful advocacy, and can change the norm in the legal field. Instead of tearing each other apart, we can lift each other up as professionals. You are not alone.
LDSC Research Assistant, Roxana Jahani Aval (JD Candidate, 2022), conducted Silver’s interview and transcribed her story for this post.