Borderline Personality Disorder in the Media

Many of my clients are devastated at the very suggestion that they have a mental health diagnosis, especially one as notorious as Borderline Personality Disorder. I have had patients in tears after looking up the diagnosis online where they have found a great deal of anger expressed against people that are supposed to be like them. And absolutely, both in and out of public life, there is a focus on the destructive elements. However, there are some key points to note about people that fall within this category:

  • they have positive and negative characteristics like everyone else, just more extreme
  • some are more extreme than others, like anything else
  • they make up a significant portion of the general population: between 1 in 20 to 1 in 50 people
    • they are not some strange outlying alien species, but part of your everyday life
  • the more extreme characteristics are stress related and not evident everyday
    • the more extreme behaviours relate to primary attachment figure, i.e. people close to them
  • treatment offers significant gains that make real differences

Below are some examples of borderline people or characteristics in popular media that we see every day. Hopefully, this will both normalise and show that these difficult traits can have positive aspects. These are intense people so they can be very charismatic, loyal, loving, intelligent, sensitive, humorous, among many other attributes.

Celebrities with BPD

The following have shown strong Borderline traits in their public life:

Amy Winehouse, Angelina Jolie, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Heather Mills, Christina Ricci, Britney Spears, Winona Ryder, Megan Fox, Charlie Sheen, Courtney Love, Lindsey Lohan and Elizabeth Wurtzel.

Certainly I would not diagnose people whom I have never met; the purpose her is simply to highlighting that their public personas have elements that are clear representations of borderline characteristics. They may well be the result of a different underlying cause. Diagnosis is a complex and in-depth processes.

Borderline Characteristics in Film and Television

In line with the outdated clichés, the earlier films show the destructive potential of these personality traits in their full cinematic glory. After “Girl, Interrupted”, a more realistic and mixed narrative started showing the characters as full rich and diverse people.

Fatal Attraction (1987)

In “Fatal Attraction,” the infamous femme fatale character played by Glenn Close displays the emotional instability and fear of abandonment that are symptomatic of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. Her character also exhibits symptoms of self-harm, obsession, intense anger and manipulation as she stalks her former lover and his family.

Single White Female (1992)

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in “Single White Female” exhibits fear of abandonment, identity confusion, impulsivity and mirroring as she attempts to take over the life of Bridget Fonda’s character.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

This autobiography in diary format tells the story of Susanna Kaysen’s experiences as a patient with Borderline Personality Disorder in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960’s. The film (1999), which stars Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, centres around Kaysen’s 18-month stay at a mental hospital as a young adult. Both stars struggle with features of this disorder themselves.

Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron transformed into the role of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” Wuornos was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which may have contributed to the unstable and angry behaviours that led to her killing at least six men.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

A comedy in which Uma Thurman portrays a woman with superpowers and a secret identity who also displays the BPD symptoms of impulsivity, unstable interpersonal relationships and poor self-image.

Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009)

The central character of Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace played by Katee Sackhoff shows many Borderline traits, including unstable emotions, behaviours and relationships, self-destructive behaviours, boundary diffusion, identity confusion, impulsivity and intense attachments. Starbuck is a richly diverse and nuanced character which shows both the destructive and heroic sides of a Borderline Personality that typifies these engaging and powerful people.

Katee Sackhoff also plays another character, Sarah Corvus, with Borderline traits in the American TV series Bionic Woman (2007).

Dexter (2006 – 2013)

In the American TV series Dexter’s his adoptive sister Debra Morgan, played by Jennifer Carpenter, is a well-developed character that consistently and accurately portrays a comprehensive span of Borderline features; lack of boundaries, intense attachments, erratic relationships, impulsivity, self-destructive behaviours, balanced with great loyalty, drive and compassion. Conversely, one of Dexter’s girl-friends Lila Tournay, portrayed by Jaime Murray, equally fits the diagnosis only in a dramatically different with a focus on self-centred behaviours, lack of containment and destructiveness directed outward at others. Although, not exact opposites these two characters show the wide range of expressions possible within this diagnosis.

Brooklyn Nine Nine (2013)

This 2013 American offbeat police sitcom starts Andy Samberg as Officer Jake Peralta who is erratic, unboundaried, self-focused and self-destructive; but equally exciting and endearing.

Taxi Brooklyn (2014)

Chyler Leigh plays determined and passionate, but chaotic Detective Caitlyn Sullivan who has broken the rules so many times the Captain won’t even let her drive. She forms a close attachment with taxi driver Leo Romba played by Jacky Ido who provides her stability and perspective.

Murder in the First (2014)

Homicide detectives Terry English and Hildy Mulligan investigate two murders that outwardly appear to be unrelated. As the investigation proceeds, they find that both murders have a common element – that being Silicon Valley rising star Erich Blunt. The show examines the crime through the investigation, arrest and trial. Hildy is played by Kathleen Robertson to show a dedicated mother and detective contained by her work role, but with a strong underlying self-destructive drive. Her loyalty, authenticity, and passion are evident through story times where her struggle with boundaries can be admired even whilst getting her into trouble. Again the show provides the chaotic character with a stabiliser and sensible perspective in her partner played by Taye Diggs, an example of a Dependent Personality Disorder. Their antagonist is an Antisocial character being investigated for murder, played by Tom Felton.

Although all played a little close to cliché, this story does provide an excellent illustration of a Borderline/Dependent/Antisocial triangle at a sub-clinical intensity. All the characters demonstrate a limited range of life strategies definitive of a Personality Disorder, but all are functional and contributing members of society.