‘I was on an unending emotional roller-coaster’
It was Saturday night, date night: I was 21, and I couldn’t wait to spend time with my new boyfriend, Steve. But when I arrived at his parents’ house, he was still in the basement working on his computer and barely looked up at me when I walked in. “Just a sec,” he said. As I stood there, I began to feel insignificant and stupid for getting so excited when he clearly didn’t feel the same way about me. The panic was overwhelming. I got back into my car and drove laps around the neighbourhood, crying, until he’d sent enough texts apologizing and begging me to come back.
A few days later, I was filled with self-loathing because I couldn’t figure out why I’d reacted so strongly. We’d only been dating for a few months, and I felt like I’d already morphed into the girlfriend from hell. And that wasn’t the last time it would happen. For the next seven years of our relationship, I found myself enacting similar scenarios over and over again. I was on an unending emotional roller-coaster — cheerful and laughing, then raging with anger or mired in sadness. Any time I thought he had let me down in some way or that he didn’t love me enough, I would throw things (a plastic pail at his car, a glass vase of roses in the kitchen), scream, cry and say horrible things. I would push him away with all my force, but what I really wanted was for him to love me and prove that he would never leave.
What is borderline personality disorder?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was exhibiting classic signs of borderline personality disorder (BPD), the diagnosis I later received from a pair of psychiatrists in 2017, about a year after my relationship with Steve ended. It’s a mental health disorder characterized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by the presence of at least five out of nine specific symptoms, including:
• intense fear of abandonment;
• a pattern of unstable relationships that may include idealizing someone in one moment and then believing the person doesn’t care enough in the next;
• rapid changes in self-identity and self-image;
• wide mood swings;
• inappropriate anger, impulsivity and feelings of emptiness
• stress-related paranoia resulting in loss of contact with reality
• suicidal tendencies or self-harm (this last one affects about 75 percent of people with BPD).
For a person to receive a diagnosis, these symptoms must significantly impair functioning in day-to-day life. The disorder affects around two percent of the population. Mental illness affects many more though; even celebs like Selena Gomez and Mariah Carey have shared their struggles with mental health.
Though BPD can impact many areas of life, relationships take the hardest hit. “Borderline personality disorder can impact how a person feels about themselves, how they relate to others and how they behave,” says Dr. Valerie Taylor, psychiatrist-in-chief at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “Essentially, it’s a disorder of interactions with other people.”
‘I don’t want him to see just how messed up I am’
The relationships in my life that have been most affected are with those closest to me or with those to whom I want to be close; romantic relationships suffer, making it extra difficult for me to be single and dating. As soon as I start to like someone, which usually happens in a matter of two or three dates, the worry that I’ll lose him rears its head. My logical mind understands that it’s premature to fear abandonment when you’ve only known the person for a week, but my emotional mind is like a computer programmed to search for clues that someone is going to hurt me. A guy waits too long to text, cancels a date, has to take a phone call when he’s with me or compliments someone else and I see flashing warning signs to run for cover and protect my heart. This usually means I check in too often, ignore texts to punish him, give the silent treatment during dates, throw subtle insults and cry a lot by myself because I don’t want him to see just how messed up I am, even though it sometimes slips out. For a guy who’s only known me for a short time, it all probably seems absurd — like the cool girl he went on a couple of dates with turned into a clingy, insecure weirdo in the blink of an eye. Watch out for warning signs your relationship isn’t going to last.
And I’m not just wary at the start of relationships. My fears seem to get stronger with time because endless scenarios crop up that I’m able to read as signs of abandonment. “Say he was supposed to show up for dinner at 5 o’clock, but there was a car accident and he couldn’t make it,” says Dr. Taylor. “It was completely outside of his control, but that can cause a reaction of ‘If you loved me, you’d have found a way to get here.’” When these seemingly trivial events happen, I can go from loving my partner to hating him. And because I recognize, on some level, that my behaviour is irrational, I worry that my partner will tire of me, so I feel like I need to keep testing him to check if he loves me. It’s an endless, exhausting cycle.
Also, because I have an unstable sense of who I am and frequently see myself as ignorant, lazy and unattractive — though at other times I believe I’m one of the prettiest, smartest women alive — I can’t imagine that someone would love me or want to spend time with me. According to I Hate You—Don’t Leave Me by Jerold Kreisman and Hal Straus, the layperson’s Bible for coping with BPD, “the borderline’s greatest obstacle to change is his tendency to evaluate in absolute extremes. The borderline must either be totally perfect or a complete failure; he grades himself either an A+ or, more commonly, an F.” In the dating world, which is rife with rejection, I find it easy to take a guy’s lack of interest in a second, third or fourth date as evidence that I’m the worst person ever and I’ll never find love.
The problem is, I’m not completely delusional. It is harder to find a partner when you have BPD because loved ones often end up with “compassion fatigue,” says Hamilton, Ont.-based psychiatrist Dr. Marilyn Korzekwa. “They run out of emotional strength to continue being supportive. When that happens, they either disappear altogether or they get frustrated and short-tempered, and don’t communicate effectively.”
The good news is that most people with BPD recognize that something needs to change and seek a referral to a psychiatrist for potential diagnosis. That’s what I did. A diagnosis helps you access funded group programs in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) — the gold standard in BPD treatment. The big problem is that the wait-lists to see a psychiatrist can be long, and wait times are even longer for funded DBT groups, so the fastest way to get treatment is to pay for private therapy where no diagnosis is even required. The catch? It’s super expensive and DBT requires months — sometimes years — of dedication.
I’m currently on the wait-list for a 20-week group in Toronto. In the meantime, I’ve been reading everything I can about the illness and working through The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook, which has exercises in emotion regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness to minimize the impact of BPD symptoms. I’ve been learning to distract myself in stressful situations so that I don’t overreact to negative emotions, because no feeling lasts forever and I’m more likely to make smart decisions if I can wait until I calm down. That way, I’ll avoid saying or doing things that I beat myself up for later.
‘Underneath this girlfriend from hell is someone pretty special’
I want to get better, because I don’t take pride in throwing tantrums, manipulating people or hounding them for attention. I feel horrible for often treating worst the people that I love the most, and I don’t want to keep falling into the same behaviour patterns. But my BPD traits have been with me so long that they’re at the core of who I am — and they’re not all bad. I’m passionate, intense, sensitive and loving. I don’t want to lose those things. Still, I need to gain control of my emotions and impulsivity, and find a stable sense of self-esteem if I’m going to have a healthy, happy life. I just hope that my friends, family members and maybe a guy someday will be resilient and loving enough to stick it out for the long haul. Because I have high hopes that underneath this girlfriend from hell is someone pretty special.
Next, don’t miss the shocking truth no one tells you about sex after 40. And, if you’ve recently found yourself single, be sure to check out our guide to using dating apps likes Tinder and Bumble.