Laurice Reed is a force to be reckoned with. At age 25, she’s already done more than most people do in a lifetime, with stints as a competitive gymnast, a tennis player, a college student, a midwife and a government worker.
At the very beginning of this year, Reed added something else to her list of accomplishments when she founded I Am Borderline, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing education and research about borderline personality disorder (BPD) and supporting individuals and families living with the diagnosis.
Reed knows more about BPD than most because she’s been living with the disorder since she was a child. She was officially diagnosed with BPD just a few years ago, but she’s spent a lifetime struggling with its symptoms and pushing up against authority figures who sought to classify her as a “difficult” child and an impulsive and emotional young adult.
First officially classified in 1980 in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), BPD is a mental illness characterized by a fear of abandonment; a pattern of intense and unstable interpersonal relationships; an altered sense of self; extreme impulsivity in potentially self-damaging areas, including spending, sex, or substance use; recurrent suicidal behavior; an ongoing sense of emptiness; inappropriate anger; mood instability; and stress-related paranoid ideation. More women than men are diagnosed with BPD, though experts believe that many men with the condition are misdiagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, and many end up in the criminal justice system.
Until recently, BPD was considered untreatable, and mental health professionals were advised not to tell patients of their diagnosis in the belief that it would be counterproductive to know about a condition that was hopeless, or, at worst, pejorative.
Kaz Nelson, M.D., vice chair for education in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry, is an expert on BPD. Because of the evolving understanding of the disorder, she considers the practice of withholding the diagnosis to be misguided and even potentially unethical.
“Imagine if someone had diabetes and we didn’t tell them they had diabetes,” Nelson said. “That would be terrible.” More doctors are now explaining a BPD diagnosis to patients in the hopes that the knowledge will help them build healthier lives.
Reed, a small, intense woman with a keen intellect, said that learning that she had BPD after years of struggling to understand the unique way she moved through the world felt freeing.
“It helped to have a diagnosis that finally explained who I am,” she said. “It helped me understand why I am the way I am and why other people react to me the way they do.”
In the last decade or so, the psychological community, led by Marsha Linehan Ph.D, a psychology professor from the University of Washington, has begun to shift their thinking about the prognosis for people diagnosed with BPD. The disorder is now considered treatable with dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Other therapies also have been proven to be effective.
“BPD actually is treatable with a one-year psychotherapy treatment protocol,” Nelson said. “We need to flip the paradigm, and say, ‘This condition is a treatable condition, something with a good prognosis. Laurice is bravely stepping into this context.”
Reed doesn’t always think of herself as brave. Most days she prefers to think of herself as an ordinary person, a young woman making her way in the world like anyone else. Because she wants to end discrimination against people diagnosed with mental illness, she’s willing to make herself a public face of BPD, but she’s intent on showing others that even though she lives with a serious mental illness, you can’t tell it by looking at her.
“Oftentimes, when people think about people with mental health issues, they think about a person who is always distraught,” Reed said, “but I think there are more people like me who are actually successful in their professional careers but also do suffer from severe mental health issues that do affect our personal lives and sometimes can carry over into our professional lives. We still manage to succeed. I’m working to let people know that people like me really do exist.”
On the borderline
Elaine Love has a family member who lives with BPD. She wanted to better understand the condition, so she signed up for “Family Connections,” a 14-week-class sponsored by NAMI-Minnesota that explains for participants how the diagnosis can impact their loved ones’ lives.
Love was so inspired by what she learned in the class that she signed up for training so she could teach it herself. “To be involved in this personally helps me,” she said. “Every time I teach this class, I am reminded of the need for communication, validation and radical acceptance.”
Since 2016, Love has been the class facilitator, walking participants through the BPD diagnosis, its origins and treatment options.
“BPD is really an emotional dysregulation,” she explained. “It starts with a brain disorder. There is a predisposition that can be triggered by a trauma or some other event.” The main characteristic of BPD, she explains, is a fear of abandonment, which can present itself in “intense mood shifts and impulsivity. Anger problems are really huge. Sometimes a person with BPD will push loved ones away because they are afraid of being abandoned.”
Nelson added that some researchers believe that societal factors may have something to do with early development of BPD.
“Oppression and trauma can play a role,” she said. “Part of the way the disorder develops is when people do not get their needs met early on. Because of this, oppressed communities, like minorities and GLBTQ people, are more at risk. When we invalidate people systematically, that can have developmental consequences.”
Learning about BPD’s early foundations helped Reed put her own childhood in context. One of eight children in a family with three sets of twins, she was split from her twin brother at six months and sent to live with her grandparents in Hopkins.
“My parents had other children already when I was born,” Reed said. “My mom also had her own mental health that she was dealing with at the time. She probably had postpartum depression or something like that. My grandparents took me and raised me ever since.”
That early separation is a defining factor in Reed’s life. “I’m the only one that was raised separate from the rest of my family,” she said.
Though from the outside it looked as though Reed was growing up in a happy home, she remembers a childhood where she was treated like an outsider. Her grandparents sent her to a school where she for the first few years was the only African-American student in her class.
“I knew I was different because of my skin color,” Reed said. “I was the only brown girl in my class.”
Reed said that at as early as kindergarten, she felt she was singled out for behavior and labeled as a “troubled child.” Though she did well on classroom projects, she recalled, “No one ever told me that I was gifted or talented or special.”
She’s well aware that oppositional behavior and paranoia can be a symptom of BPD, but Reed believes that the negative school environment “played into my deep insecurities,” symptoms she said that are “associated with borderline.”
‘She was delightful’
When Reed was in sixth grade, she participated in a tutoring program, where kids were paired with adult volunteers from a local church. Reed’s tutor was Kathy Peterson, a newly retired teacher with a deep understanding of child development.
“My job had been working with troubled children,” Peterson said. “Laurice didn’t seem like a troubled child to me at all. She was delightful. She was joyful.”
On the days the two met for tutoring, Peterson recalls, “Laurice would come into the church doing cartwheels all the way. She was sometimes looked on as having bad behavior in school. But I thought she was exuberant.”
In 2012, when she was 18 years old, Reed’s life took a turn. A competitive high school gymnast, her dreams of collegiate athletic stardom faded when she suffered a serious spine injury.
“It just turned my world upside down,” Reed recalled. “No longer being able to compete, not knowing what I was going to do with myself, put me in a terrible place.”
Reed suffered from what she calls “a huge breakdown.” She eventually went to a Minneapolis hospital for mental health treatment. She recalls that staff there treated her poorly.
“The psychiatrist called me ‘a threat to society,’” Reed said. “It re-traumatized me. It made me feel like I was back in elementary school, where there were these ladies, predominantly white women, who were putting a label on me, saying that I’m bad and different and making me feel like I was the ‘other.’”
After being discharged from the hospital, Reed decided she wanted to work with a therapist of color, someone she felt could better understand her unique history. After a year of searching, she said she found an African-American therapist who showed her how the separate pieces of her life combined to build her adult self.
The therapist gave Reed the BPD diagnosis. “He said, ‘Have you ever heard of borderline personality disorder?’” Reed recalled. “I hadn’t. He walked me through the diagnosis, said these are the signs and symptoms he’s seeing, and explained how my past connects to my present.” After she got over the initial shock, Reed said, she felt an intense feeling of relief.
The characteristics of BPD, Reed said, “described me. I understood more about myself and the way I’ve lived my life. It gave me answers I didn’t have before.”
Reed’s reaction is common, Love explained. Once they come to terms with their diagnosis, many people with BPD feel empowered: “When an individual understands where their behavior comes from, it can be key to recovery.”
Knowledge brings understanding
Reed would be the first to admit that her life so far has been full of sudden twists and turns and seemingly unachievable grand plans. The BPD diagnosis helped her put her impulsiveness in perspective and give herself permission to slow down, to step back and take a deep breath when life seems to be spiraling out of control.
“I’m not perfect,” she said. “There are some days when I may need to take a mental health day from work. Maybe I’ll wake up and I’m just not feeling OK. I may be having a meltdown for whatever reason, and now I’m comfortable telling people that. Just because I don’t look like the assumption of a person with mental health doesn’t mean that I’m not struggling on the inside.”
The impulsivity that is a hallmark of BPD may explain some of Reed’s life choices. Her intense curiosity can lead to sudden life changes and shifting friendships. After high school, she attended three colleges, studying political science and biology before jumping into midwifery school.
“I was just really fascinated with the birthing process,” Reed explained. “When I learned more about borderline and understood that a woman has to take care of herself when she has a child, it really resonated with me.”
Midwifery continues as a sideline for Reed (“In my other life, I deliver brown babies for fun,” she said), but her day job is with the City of Minneapolis, where she works in the Division of Race and Equity as an enterprise engagement associate.
Reed has always set high goals for herself. In the difficult period leading up to her diagnosis, she worried that her life might not turn out the way she’d planned, but now that she understands more about her diagnosis, things are back on track.
“I have huge aspirations,” she said. “I had three childhood dreams: to be a gymnast, to be a tennis player and to be president of the United States. I’ve met the first two goals so far. Now I’ve got to achieve that third dream.”
Reed likes to think of BPD as an advantage rather than a hindrance. While discrimination against people with the disorder is still common, more public figures, including “SNL” cast member Pete Davidson and New York Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall, are speaking about their diagnoses.
People with BPD are known to be creative, driven and energetic, Reed said: “We can be successful. We really have a clear sense of direction. We think, ‘This is what we want to do and we are going to do it right now.’ We’re not afraid. That’s what makes me and others like me so very dynamic.”
Peterson said she and Reed lost touch during the hard year of her PBD diagnosis and treatment. But then one day she got a call from her former mentee.
“She said, ‘Meet me for dinner,’” Peterson recalled. “I was thrilled. Over dinner, she told me how she had worked with a psychologist. They had determined she was borderline.”
At first Peterson said this news felt troubling. But as she and Reed talked, she saw how all the pieces of this young woman’s life were beginning to fit together.
“For years, I’d known that Laurice was troubled,” Peterson said, “but I also always knew she was resilient. I knew she’d find her place. And that’s what she’s doing so beautifully right now.”
Road to recovery
At the end of May, I Am Borderline held the organization’s first-annual Presidents Dinner at the Dayton YMCA at Gaviidae on Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall.
About 30 people attended. There was dinner, a testimony from a woman with BPD, a spoken word piece by a performance artist, and keynote speech by Nelson.
Nelson said she was excited to see a diverse group of people gathered to talk and learn about the condition. “There were people with lived experience, people in the treatment community, and people interested in learning more about BPD. It was beautiful.”
When it was time for her presidential address, Reed stepped to the podium and used her own story to explain why she felt it was important to found the organization.
“I talked about some of my vulnerabilities, about having an eating disorder and the times I considered suicide,” Reed said. “I talked about how I became one of those people who decided that we need to start a movement.” Ten percent of people diagnosed with BPD complete suicide, a rate that is significantly higher than that of any other mental illness, Reed said: “I explained that we will use this organization to reduce those numbers.”
Nelson said that I Am Borderline is proof that Reed is a woman of great potential, a future leader who has bravely stepped forward to make a difference in the world.
“Laurice is in recovery from BPD,” Nelson said. “She’s amazing and brave. People with BPD do remarkable things and people in recovery from BPD do remarkable things. They are high-potential people. We owe it to them to make sure they survive their disorder and go on to grow. They have so much to give the world.”