How BPD made me a better expat

Different Tree

Different Tree

Not nearly enough is written about Borderline Personality Disorder, and often what little there is, however insightful, leaves you with a foreboding sense of the enormous obstacles preventing us from functioning on a similar level to those free of this frustrating and debilitating condition.

Also, when you read about mental health issues, the very act of putting them into words gives them a black and white solidity they simply don’t have. For people experiencing them, there is always a huge variance in interpretation. No two experiences will be wholly the same. The biggest question is always “Am I ill or just a little different?” Everyone draws the line in a different place.

So, I thought I’d write about how the various “gifts” of BPD have helped me cope with expat life, hopefully contributing to the need for greater awareness and understanding of this disorder, and sending out a positive message for those affected by it, by showing it needn’t be an obstacle to meeting the challenges life presents.

IDENTITY – Who do you think you are?

One feature of BPD is a markedly unstable sense of self. I’m used to trying on personality traits like other women try on shoes. I need only watch a film or read a book to find myself “channeling” a character, drawn to our similarities, examining them for further insight into myself. I look in a mirror and wonder if I’m seeing what others see.

So the crushing loss of identity that comes with expatriation, particularly for accompanying partners like me who leave support networks, jobs and familiar surroundings to be with partners posted abroad, didn’t have a big impact on me. You can’t lose something you never had. If anything, it gave me a fresh canvas on which to boldly delineate my positive characteristics, and helped me see my negative traits more clearly and work to minimize them, all of which helped me develop my fragile sense of self.

EMOTIONAL EXTREMES – Up one minute, down the next

Borderlines often exhibit a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships, alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation. Does this sound familiar to any expats out there? That’s Culture Shock, baby!

After moving abroad, there’s a “honeymoon” period when the sense of adventure and novelty fills every day with limitless potential. Everything is new and interesting and approached with zinging pioneer spirit; “This place is GREAT! I could see myself settling here.” Then comes the crash of culture shock. Energy to deal with the daily deluge of “unfamiliar” disappears, and suddenly all the comparisons with where you’ve just come from seem negative; “This doesn’t make sense/is completely inefficient, we have a much better system back home.”

Life with BPD is dominated by the mood du jour. Simply put, Borderlines feel too much: from the soaring heights of the joyous positive to the lightless depths of the despairing negative – we’re old hands at riding the emotional rollercoaster. Like a rodeo star on a bucking bull, we know all there is to it, is to sit tight and ride it out. When I moved to Canada, my culture shock descended after three months and occupied the next three. I got through it by reminding myself of the huge change I’d just undergone, that it was my choice, and giving myself the time I needed to come to terms with it.

LEARNED RESILIENCE – Taking the rough with the smooth

The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I’ve undergone as a Borderline, has developed my capacity for self-awareness. CBT teaches you to be aware of your thoughts and their effect on your mood. I’ve learned that just because I’m thinking it, doesn’t mean it’s true.

As an expat undergoing culture shock, these skills helped me spot when I was being negative or prejudiced towards my new situation and helped me change my perspective. Learned resilience and self-awareness through dealing with BPD meant it was easier for me to weather the up’s & down’s of expat existence and to recognize when my thoughts were at fault, instead of blaming myself for perceived shortcomings.

Since coming to Canada, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in research into the use of Mindfulness in depression relapse prevention and this has added to my toolkit for managing BPD.

ISOLATION – Forever on the outside looking in

Life as an outsider is lonely – whether you have a condition that sets you apart from others, or are just a stranger in a strange land. For many new expats, the sense of isolation is what drives them “home” again. It takes a certain strength to be different; most people just want to fit in and be accepted by society.

Standing out because of your accent, appearance, or lack of shared cultural context means there’ll be times when you feel excluded, even if it’s not intended. The issues experienced by Borderlines mean a sense of being misunderstood, and difficulty trusting anyone but ourselves often leaves us on the periphery; but every cloud has a silver lining – managing BPD makes expat life seem like small fry, and, we get a great vantage point from which to observe the rest of you!


Author’s note, June 2014: Since the time of writing I’ve been re-diagnosed with Aspergers and Bipolar II. I no longer meet the criteria for BPD and given the existing cases of Aspergers and bipolar in my direct family I have to admit this re-diagnosis seems a more accurate explanation for my symptoms. Oh, the beauty of hindsight… 


Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. Wow, these are GREAT observations! I love how you’ve connected the two experiences and how you’ve found a way to use the frustrations and the learning from BPD to see expat life in a more effective way.

  2. Hi Aisha,
    As always, very poignantly put. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I think the gray area is so much wider than most people recognize and many fade in and out of it on a regular basis. Especially in the scenarios you paint so vividly.
    Warm wishes,

  3. What a fascinating post! I really like the comparisons you drew between something so glamorized (being an expat) and something quite stigmatized (BPD). I hadn’t thought of things this way before. Maybe all expats should go through CBT to deal with culture shock issues 🙂

    1. Hola Jessica, thanks for dropping by! In my opinion, the self-awareness cultivated by CBT would of benefit to many. It’s funny how admitting to difficulties in your mental and emotional balance can ultimately result in your surpassing others in terms of having the tools to better manage your experiences 😉

  4. Hi Aisha, so glad I came across your blog! It’s great to see more about BPD and is something I am trying to figure out whether I have myself. How did you approach your doctor/therapist with your symptoms if you don’t mind me asking?

    I just wanted to mention as well I’m an Ambassador for Minds Like Ours which is a growing community and has just got a non profit organisation status. It’s great because everyone is incredibly supportive, friendly and approachable and I thought I’d mention it in case you want to join. We have a very active forum and Facebook group. 🙂

    Take care 🙂

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