Kimberly Rolfs is a writer, actress, and producer from New York. She is the creator and writer of the web series, Life or Death, Basically, in which she also plays the main character, Maggie. The series centers around Maggie, a young writer with borderline personality disorder, and her experiences dealing with the end of her codependent relationship and coming to terms with her illness. The series is based on Kimberly’s own experience with BPD, and it is available to watch on Vimeo. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kimberly to find out more about her, Life or Death, Basically, and life with BPD.

What inspired you to make this series?

I went to college for acting, and I was in a pretty intense conservatory program. As I neared the end of that experience and we started to talk about “type” and the business of acting, I was incredibly put off by how narrowly the entertainment industry tends to view women. All of the roles that I loved and wanted to play were in some capacity romantic leading women, and I was being told that that wasn’t really a realistic option for me. Life or Death, Basically started as a way for me to write the kind of role for myself that I wasn’t “allowed” to want to play. And then, you really can only write what you know and what you’ve lived through to some degree, so that’s where the borderline personality disorder aspect of it comes in. Any love story I wrote was going to be a story about how mental illness and love intersect and influence each other.

What sort of feedback have you received for the series?

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. People have written to me telling me that they are so happy to see this kind of representation in a series and that they’ve never seen a mentally ill character like this before. They’re really invested, which is amazing.

Maggie in episode 1

In Life or Death, Basically, the main character, Maggie has borderline personality disorder. What were the most challenging aspects of writing about a character with BPD?

Honestly, that was the easiest part. It’s my lived experience, and I don’t purport to be speaking for everyone with BPD, or even anyone other than myself. That way of thinking is already such a part of my life that it influenced the character without me really having to try. I am coping with my BPD much better now than Maggie is at this point in her life, so it required me to go back into my more impulsive moments a little bit. But they’re still with me, so it wasn’t hard.

Can you tell me about your own struggle with mental illness before making this show?

I was diagnosed with BPD when I was nineteen, after a few years of struggling pretty badly with self-harm and impulsivity and a lot of codependent relationships. I was originally diagnosed with chronic depression and put on medication, but I didn’t really start to be able to get my symptoms under control until I learned about BPD and started to address those specific ways my brain works.

Maggie with her love interest, Tom.

Can you describe how your struggle with BPD is similar to Maggie’s, and how it differs?

It’s pretty similar! Like I said above, Maggie is still learning how to cope with her BPD. She’s getting there, but she’s definitely still leading with her heart on her sleeve and following her impulses, which is something that I don’t really do anymore (for better or for worse). I’ve become a bit more guarded than Maggie is, just out of necessity and to cope with my difficulty with interpersonal dynamics. But her struggle is basically the same as mine – she is self-destructive, afraid of being abandoned, and loves really, really deeply, which is beautiful, but also sometimes a detriment to her mental stability.

How difficult was it for you, on a personal level, writing the show?

Sending the first episode to my friend and creative partner Alex, who eventually became the director of the series, was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Second to that was the posting of the casting notice, after which everyone knew I had BPD (I had told very few people at that point). From then on, though, I wasn’t really afraid of it anymore. Maybe I should have been, because it is so personal, but I’m kind of an open book about everything anyway. It was hard, like writing anything is, especially because my writing process is so slow and sometimes it really feels like I’m dragging the story out of me, but writing it and sharing it has felt so natural to me from the beginning.

What to you think of how mental illness is generally portrayed in TV shows and how did it influence your role in making Life or Death, Basically?

There are so, so few shows that deal with mental illness in a realistic way. There were a couple of shows that have done it well – United States of Tara was one of the best, I think – but they were for the most part short-lived and not as widely viewed as they should have been. It seems ridiculous, but the reason that United States of Tara felt so revolutionary to me is that it shows a woman with a serious mental illness (in this case, dissociative identity disorder) who is also just living her life. Tara has a happy and functional marriage, she has children, she has a job. The show is about her struggle with her illness, but it’s also about how it is possible for her to not be entirely defined by it, and still have life.

That’s my goal with Life or Death, Basically – to write a love story within the context of mental illness that is sad and difficult, but also full of joy and heart. All of those things are valid. Mentally ill characters need to be written with the same kind of compassion we give neurotypical characters, and the same forgiveness, and the same empathy.

BPD is a mental illness rarely discussed in public. Can you give me a short description of the traits associated with the illness and what it’s like living with it?

So, the official diagnostic criteria courtesy of the DSM-IV (the DSM-V has different criteria, but I still find these to be the most succinct and true for me) are as follows:
1) frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. 2) a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation. 3) unstable self image or sense of self. 4) impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). 5) recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior. 6) affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood. 7) chronic feelings of emptiness, 8) inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger. 9) transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

I list them all out like that because I currently experience or have experienced every single one of those symptoms. Generally speaking, my moods fluctuate to extremes throughout the day, I have a lot of trouble maintaining relationships and friendships due to fear of abandonment as well as lack of a substantial self-image, and I have a tendency towards instability, anger, and destructive behaviors.

BPD is an incredibly difficult disorder to live with, and it is made even more difficult by the fact that many people don’t even know what it is. But I manage my symptoms through therapy, medication, exercise, and open communication with the people that I’m closest to. I’ve found that things have become easier to deal with since I’ve been able to be open about my symptoms and talk about them by name, and the people in my life have been wonderful about trying to learn and understand what I’m dealing with.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about BPD?

There is so much misinformation out there about BPD. People who have lived with partners or family members or friends with BPD tend to have a very difficult time with those relationships, and understandably so. But this has resulted in there being more information about how to cope with knowing someone with BPD than for someone with the diagnosis to cope with their own mental illness. Much of this information and material is about how people with BPD are manipulative, abusive, compulsive liars, and how people should extricate themselves from these relationships as soon as possible. And while, of course, it is possible for someone with a borderline diagnosis to also be abusive (just like it’s possible for anyone), the idea that that is a primary trait of everyone with BPD is absolutely false. These kind of misconceptions can actually prevent people with BPD from receiving care, due to the fact that some mental health professionals believe that borderline patients are impossible to treat.

Life or Death, Basically focuses on Maggie’s experiences dealing with the end of one relationship, and starting a new one. What advice would you give to anyone whose partner has BPD?

Communication is absolutely the most important thing. Someone letting me know when they’re going to be unreachable for a little bit, reassuring me that they’re not upset with me for any reason, as well as me communicating with them about my own behaviors, explaining why I feel the way I do and what I need from them in that moment. It’s also so important for anyone whose partner has BPD to educate themselves on the illness and the characteristics associated with it.

Many people with BPD have something that is colloquially known as a “favorite person” – someone who they are incredibly attached to, and whose behavior can dictate their entire emotional state of being. For many people with BPD in relationships (as has been my experience), their partner becomes their favorite person. This can easily lead to a dysfunctional relationship, but it doesn’t have to.

Treat your borderline partner like a person, because they are. Our behavior may sometimes seem irrational, but if you make the effort to understand the illness and the roots of it, you can begin to understand and support us.

Similarly, what advice would you give to anyone with BPD who is in a relationship, or whose BPD is interfering with their social life in general?

I’m going to say the same thing I said above – communicate. Your partner (or anyone you’re close to in your life) needs to learn about BPD, and you need to be willing to discuss with them what you need and learn how to articulate when you need it. Because of fear of abandonment and fluctuations in mood, it is really easy for people with BPD to detect the smallest changes in a relationship and fixate on them. For me, it’s helpful to save screenshots from conversations in which I felt heard and validated and to take photos or videos with people that make me feel loved so that I have something to touch back on and ground me during those more paranoid moments.

Also, I would recommend people look into DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy). That way of breaking down those all-consuming paranoid thoughts about relationships or anything else in your life can be so helpful in reducing the anxiety surrounding those thoughts, and preventing the need for frantic or manipulative behaviors in more difficult moments.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you had to overcome while trying to break into the acting / producing industries?

Part of the reason why I started creating my own work (and why now I’m leaning towards that being my career path, as opposed to just acting) is because I felt like there wasn’t really a place for me in the entertainment industry. After three years of incredibly intense acting training, I was so tired of having to think of my body and my face as a commodity, as a “type,” as something that I had to define and market selectively. I was tired of the constant succumbing to someone else’s opinion, of not getting to have ones of my own. I was tired of being told what to do, honestly. I wanted to be in charge.

As far as the producing side of things, I am still so new to that journey that it’s hard to say. I don’t have a lot of experience and I didn’t go to school for it, so I think the biggest challenge right now is that I’m kind of flying blind – I don’t necessarily have the background knowledge or the connections. But I feel like that’s almost better – I don’t know how much I don’t know, so I’m just persisting based on determination and instinct until something happens!

What are the biggest lessons you have while learned living with BPD?

I’ve learned there will be people that will leave my life because of my mental illness, there will be people who stay in my life despite it, and there will be people that love me because of everything I am, including my mental illness. And those people exist, and I can surround myself with them.

But the second lesson is that it’s always going to take work. Friendships and relationships are always going to be more complicated for me than for the average person. They are going to require a deeper level of communication right away than a lot of normal relationships.

I have to take a lot of care to always be taking care of my body and mind. I have to prioritize sleep, and food, and taking my medication and getting out my anger through exercise and listening to what my body needs in order to listen to what my mind needs. It is really, really exhausting. But it’s worth it, because right now I am in the most stable place I have been in years (knock on wood) and I think it’s because my awareness of myself has grown and my desire to live a full life has grown along with it.

Is there a season 2 of the show?

Yes!! I wrote it in the year between shooting season one and releasing season two, and I am so proud of it. We are currently in the pre-production stage, but we recently received a $1000 grant to put towards filming, so we’re hoping to be able to start this fall or winter! The response to the first season has been so wonderful, and I can’t wait to share this one with everyone.

What are your future goals, both personally and career wise?

I want to keep creating, writing, and producing my own work, collaborating with friends, and hopefully get these stories out to a wider audience! My number one future goal is to have a fully realized television show of my own, that I run and write and can populate with an entire cast and crew of people I love.

Do you have any final words of advice for the readers of MGM?

Something that I think about a lot is that living as mentally ill person is essentially a full-time job just by itself. Be proud of yourselves for what you accomplish every day. Even if to someone else it might sound like nothing, to us it can feel like a little revolution. Celebrate those – they are so important. And create! Even if it takes forever, even if it’s just a little at a time or it feels pointless or like nothing. Art could end up being the thing through which you come to terms with yourself. It was for me!

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