My Therapist Recommended I Get Back Into BDSM

Photographed by Erika Bowes
My life has been dictated by extreme mood swings, chronic feelings of emptiness, tumultuous relationships, obsessive love and persistent suicidal thoughts (sometimes in response to the most minor of inconveniences). I check many of the boxes for borderline personality disorder (BPD), with multiple counsellors independently suggesting that I have the condition. I tend to cloud myself in denial until a major life change – most often an inevitable relationship breakdown and explosive breakup – makes it impossible to ignore. 
I could go on for days about the various criteria that apply specifically to me but what really marks out BPD are the shifting, intense moods — overwhelming emotions that leave you feeling as if you’re stumbling from crisis to crisis without a barrier to protect you and make you desperate for an outlet to work through the all-engulfing feelings. This means the condition goes hand in hand with self-destructive and dangerous behaviour including self-harm, drug use, reckless spending and gambling
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As I get older I’ve been working on my coping mechanisms to weather the emotional storms that stir within me seemingly out of nowhere. I once restricted my eating and fell into bingeing and purging patterns, and have relied on alcohol to numb near-constant intrusive thoughts. But I’ve come to realise they only make things worse in the long run. In recent years I have tried to stay as close to 'quiet' or 'high functioning' BPD as humanly possible: I’m on SSRIs to take the edge off the lows, attend talking therapy to try to understand my shifting moods and thoughts, focus on eating and sleeping well to regulate my mood, and try to manage my expectations in friendships and relationships. Frustratingly, this hasn’t improved how I feel. Now I often feel like I just have to sit with overpowering emotions rather than doing anything about them. 

How do I change these unhealthy coping mechanisms for a healthier version, one which might give me some relief from emotions rather than force myself to sit in pain and do nothing?

Many months ago I dedicated a therapy session to describing the latest ins and outs of a destructive codependent relationship where I had placed myself in a role of extreme subservience to my partner. It was then that my therapist suggested something that surprised me: Had I ever tried to satisfy this submissive tendency through BDSM? I was not new to kink but the notion of ditching the dehumanising ache of my relationship for a more literal pain and ritualised subservience was something I’d never thought of before. Maybe it could work? Maybe my approach to relationships – often ignoring red flags and stumbling head over heels for emotionally unavailable partners – was a form of self-sabotage in itself: a harmful behaviour that I didn’t manage to phase out alongside disordered eating. 
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As it turns out, if you search 'BDSM' and 'borderline' online you find plenty of personal accounts from borderline submissives and even research attesting to a higher interest in sadomasochism among women with BPD. This isn’t presented neutrally – rather, in the scant research on the subject, sadomasochism is framed as a 'disorder' despite no longer being classed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the handbook used by psychiatrists in the US and worldwide to classify mental illness). But whether or not an interest in BDSM is seen as a BPD stereotype, I was suddenly onto a new line of thought: how do I change these unhealthy coping mechanisms for a healthier version, one which might give me some relief from emotions rather than force myself to sit in pain and do nothing?
Funnily enough, my frenzied googling had led me into the type of problem-solving that is actually at the centre of dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), a brand of therapy catered to those with BPD as well as those with impulse control and emotional regulation issues. I had been interested peripherally in DBT for a while: an ex-partner of mine had also struggled with borderline traits and had been through a course of DBT as treatment. Through them, I gleaned many gems that would help me better manage this disorder, from the importance of sleep and exercise to trying to pinpoint the reason behind an emotion before acting on it. It’s something I’ve always been interested in but the process of gaining an official BPD diagnosis on the NHS in order to access it formally seemed overwhelming. As such, I’d been microdosing DBT teachings for a while, building on what my ex had taught me by frequently checking up on internet forums and self-help articles for those with borderline while plodding my way through dense DBT skills workbooks at home.  
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But what if there were a way to take those teachings off the page and into real life? What struck me most about my therapist’s suggestion to try BDSM all those months ago was that there was a rationale behind it. This wasn’t a case of the 'sexual impulsivity' listed among BPD diagnostic criteria. Rather, it was a considered way of working through a problematic tendency. On some level, a huge part of DBT is shifting your mindset, being able to sit with and understand your emotions and work out how to productively self-soothe. While some people might self-soothe with a familiar film or a warm bath, maybe impact play – when done intentionally, rather than as a compulsive balm for a jagged emotional wound – could be a form of self-soothing for others? 

With my body pliant under her touch, she began covering me in short, open-palm smacks. Shivering from the impact and thinking of nothing but the next blow, I finally had a break from the inner voice criticising my every move.

Following many months of mulling it over, I decided to put the idea into action. After some extensive research into my exes, Hinge matches and acquaintances, I narrowed down my contacts to the one person I could trust with this quest. I reached out to an ex with whom I had parted ways on uncharacteristically good terms: someone I knew to be deeply experienced in BDSM, who cared about sexual health and had enjoyed multiple healthy, consensual relationships with submissives. In short, someone I could trust and who I knew would keep me safe on this journey. 
A few days and many texts about boundaries later, I was staring at the white sheets on her bed. It began with her running nails down my back and legs with alternating force and pressure. Soon, my body was covered in angry-looking scratches that burned on my skin, making me wince. When she asked if we could try something else, I nodded and felt her scrape my hair back from my scalp, holding it tight in a ball in her fist. With my body pliant under her touch, she began covering me in short, open-palm smacks with her other hand. Shivering from the impact and thinking of nothing but the next blow, I finally had a break from the inner voice criticising my every move. My mind felt totally empty. As these unfamiliar sensations spattered across my body, I felt strangely grounded. All that mattered was the present moment. 
Would I recommend the experience? Well, nobody is going to recommend BDSM if more formal treatment is on the table. That said, my experience was positive, even powerful. I discovered that BDSM can be a tool for self-soothing and catharsis, something I could integrate into my own loose, self-taught DBT curriculum. While it wouldn't work for everyone, the clarity of whips and rules offers a necessary break from the muddled, overwhelming feelings that make my day-to-day life such a painful question mark. 

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