One man describes his journey from living in denial to getting the help he needed:

For many years, I denied that there was any effect from growing up in a household where alcoholism was present, telling friends “I got out OK, it didn’t bother me.”

Yet by my early ‘30s, I constantly struggled to cope with life. I finally admitted to myself that, when I was growing up, my parent’s drinking had affected me. I couldn’t develop intimate relationships or even let people get close. I needed everyone to approve of everything I did. I was really frightened by anger – especially my own! Authority figures – and that was almost anyone but me – frightened me terribly!

If I received personal criticism, it was devastating. I was overly responsible, couldn’t stand up for myself, felt like I was stuffing my feelings, had a low sense of self esteem. I was terribly dependent – if I got focused on someone, I would cling to them to avoid feeling abandoned – and I felt abandoned all the time anyway. Things were spinning out of control, and only getting worse.

Finally in 1983, at age 33, I did something about it. I went to a 12 step meeting for people who were living with an alcoholic, because that seemed like the closest fit to what I would have experienced. After the meeting, a woman – who I had never seen before and haven’t seen since, but who was an angel for me, said:

“You know, there’s this new group for people who grew up with alcoholism.
It’s called Adult Children of Alcoholics.”

As soon as I heard that, just the name of the group resonated with me for some reason. I explored the resource, and started reading the “characteristics we have in common as a result of being brought up in an alcoholic household.” I was blown away – it was describing my world!

I was trying to find more material on why borderlines shut down and run away. Then I stumbled upon this blurb about emotional vulnerability:

Individuals with BPD have difficulties regulating several, if not all, emotions. They have a very high sensitivity to stimuli – even small things set them off. They respond to even low levels of stress. And when emotionally aroused, they take longer to return to a baseline level of emotion. Thus, they are emotionally vulnerable. The more emotionally vulnerable a person is the more they need to be able to regulate emotion effectively. BPD individuals tend to regulate emotions by either shutting down (avoiding emotions) or escape (intense overreaction). Under the influence of intense (positive or negative) emotions, they are impulsive (unable to inhibit inappropriate behaviors). In other words, they are unable to inhibit mood-dependent actions.

Family members of BPD individuals often feel that they are “walking on eggs” because BPD individuals are so emotionally sensitive and tend to over-react.

Emotional intensity means that emotions are extreme and difficult to regulate. On the negative side, partings may precipitate intense feelings of loss, annoyance may turn into rage, and apprehension may escalate to a panic attack or out of control feelings of terror. On the positive side, they may fall in love at the drop of a hat, experience joy more easily, and be more susceptible to spiritual experiences.

Emotions affect thinking. Emotional arousal narrows the attention. The more emotionally aroused you become, the more pertinent and compelling emotion-relevant material becomes. Therefore, when emotionally aroused, emotions dominate perception, judgment, and behavior. For example, when angered, those with BPD find it hard to let go of thoughts and feelings that reinforce their anger.

“Slow return to emotional baseline” means that emotional reactions are long lasting. Basic normal emotions are fleeting and generally adaptive, lasting only seconds to minutes. For the borderline, emotions are long-lasting because they are amplified with sustained attention and reactivated with memories.

Shutting down and running away may be the only way you can deal with feelings of rejection or “hitting rock bottom” when you are emotionally vulnerable. Projecting these undesirable emotions onto others is your way of distancing yourself. It is your way of feeling in control. But feeling in control is very different than being in control.