How a Borderline Personality Diagnosis Helped Me Understand Years of Heartache
Turns out I'm not just a "hopeless romantic"
Trigger Warning: This article contains mention of self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Has anyone else binged High Fidelity while in quarantine? I recently purchased a subscription to Amazon Prime exclusively for this purpose. Not only is the original John Cusack film (2000) one of my favourite movies ever, but Zoë Kravitz’s character hard-core resonated with me in just the two minute-trailer of the television spin-off. I spent a day watching all ten episodes, and let me tell ya, Robyn Brooks a.k.a. Rob (played by Kravitz) and I have very similar coping mechanisms for romantic rejection. We even tell stories about them in a similar fashion.
The series follows Rob, the owner of an NYC record shop, as she recalls her top five heartbreaks of all time. Rob consistently responds to these breakups with distress, at times desperately trying to convince ex-partners to take her back. Then she turns to the camera and recounts these events in a seemingly detached manner, as if her behaviours had belonged to someone else and were now exclusively being used for the audience’s entertainment value.
The thing about Rob and I is that we’re both in love with love; we thrive off being in it and telling stories about it. I’ve always thought of myself as hopelessly romantic. That is, until recently when I received some professional medical insight that suggested my tendency to romanticize was more dysfunctional than just dramatic. In fact, my doctor feels that my fear of romantic rejection is better explained by something called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a mood disorder that CAMH describes as “serious, long-lasting and complex mental health problem,” adding that individuals with BPD have “difficulty regulating or handling their emotions or controlling their impulses” among other characteristics.
To explain how I found myself on a diagnostic mental health journey in the first place, I’ll have to tell you about my own top five heartbreaks, in chronological order, starting with my first: *Ben Monroe.
Ben was my first teenage boyfriend, a kind, athletic boy who took me on mini putt dates near the local movie theatre in the eleventh grade. He broke up with me over the phone after three months. When I finally hung up the phone that night, having spent a good hour trying to convince him to change his mind, I collapsed on my knees in my parent’s bedroom, sobbing uncontrollably. My mom jumped out of bed towards me, likely assuming that someone had died, such was my hysteria. My parents soon realized that I was experiencing nothing more serious than a slightly melodramatic emotional breakdown.
I sunk into a depressed state in the weeks following, until lo and behold, I found another boy to transfer my affections onto. Ben who? I fixed my attention onto the new guy all at once and decided that he’d be a healing balm for all my romantic woes. Meet heartache number two: Lucas Feldman. Unlike the short-lived scenario that preceded it, this relationship spanned seven months and introduced me to the true anxieties of my romantic insecurity. I would cry at the slightest indication that he was less invested in the relationship than me, and then launch myself into panic attacks over whether or not he would break up with me.
Of course he did, a month before the high school prom. While I descended dateless into another depression, I began sneaking shots of whiskey in the morning before school. I told my friends in tearful text confessions that I “couldn’t do this anymore.” My diagnosis has since helped me realize that that kind of threatening statement was characteristic of BPD, but at the time it felt very real. My friends staged an intervention for me, approaching my parents first, and then me, with their growing concern. I recall being touched by their support, but it didn’t make a difference to the central fact that I was still single; and it felt like that fact alone contributed to my sadness. Then, in the week before prom night, I improved, almost magically, as if the previous breakup had never happened. I had started seeing another boy, my best friend’s ex-boyfriend, Mike Richards. My best friend was hurt, and delivered an ultimatum to me—her or him. But she couldn’t give me what I wanted, what I thought I needed: the professions of love and physical acts of affection that seemed most meaningful in romantic scenarios. I gave up my four-year friendship with her in a heartbeat.
That inevitable breakup came four months later, after I left for university the following fall. Mike had told me he loved me many times previously, but resolved that I wasn’t likely to be his lifelong partner and didn’t want to waste more time. I prolonged the breakup conversation for as long as I could, and had sex with him after, holding back tears so he wouldn’t be turned off. When he finally left my student apartment, I felt more alone than ever. In the collegiate environment, people seemed more inclined towards casual sex than relationships so I couldn’t find a new romance to distract my broken heart with, which had been my habit all the times before. I settled for one-night stands and make-out sessions instead. My depressed states grew longer and more frequent and I desperately continued to seek romantic and sexual attention to relieve them.
Are you starting to see a pattern?
Heartbreak number four was my most brief relationship, and also the ugliest: Simon Kent. I dated him for three weeks in the spring of my first year of university, and had three times as many panic attacks. One night, I drunkenly snuck into his room in the student living complex that we both inhabited, and approached his bed crying because he’d seemed distant that day and I thought that meant he was going to dump me. I don’t remember what I said to him, only that I was desperate to not be alone. He ended the relationship soon after but I remained delusional enough to keep sleeping with him.
I consider that dorm room interaction the lowest point of my dating life. However, that boy gave me the name of his therapist, who became my first therapist soon after. He knew of our relationship, and took the opportunity to propose the following: He said that since we were both his patients, he could get my ex-boyfriend and I back together. I declined, uncomfortable with that suggestion, and wasn’t told until two years later that it had been a cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) technique, intended to draw a reaction from me.
Unfortunately for my mental health, my refusal of that CBT technique-related offer actually led my therapist away from the diagnosis—and explanation into my relationship patterns—that I’ve only recently arrived at. With this therapist, we had only discussed the possibility of a mood disorder and identified the common trigger as romantic pursuits, namely rejections. BPD never came up.
The mention of BPD brings me back to my most recent breakup, number five, the patient and kind Jack Fields. We only dated for three months and broke up this past February, but he sat with me for hours while I cycled through immediate breakup symptoms and the usual feelings of abandonment and loneliness were alleviated by his support. Usually, my first instinct when being dumped is to panic, and then subsequently become depressed because “I’m alone again.” I repeat this thought cycle methodically, but as I approached the feelings this time around, I was interrupted by the clarifying observation of their familiarity: Hadn’t I said these same things to myself many times before?
In Jack’s comforting presence, my emotional mind reclined and my rational mind began churning. I began to question why I’d previously experienced these emotions so severely, regardless of how long I’d been with the person who was breaking up with me, or how serious the relationship felt. I knew that it was normal to be upset about the loss of a relationship but surely what I’d been experiencing—the anxiety attacks, the fear of being alone and the paranoid vigilance of waiting for an inevitable impending break up—was unhealthy. That week, I made an appointment for a psychological assessment at my school’s counselling centre. The doctor rarely looked up from his notepad while he conducted his assessment, other than to hand me a tissue box when I began crying. His line of questioning seemed irrelevant to what I was feeling, until he started on my history with romantic relationships, and my behaviour surrounding them. Within five minutes, he felt confident that I was experiencing BPD, and put me on a waitlist to meet a psychiatrist.
According to a psychiatric resident at the Ryerson University Medical Centre, Dr. Colibasanu, 1.6 to 5.9% of Americans are diagnosed with BPD and 75% of those diagnoses are made in females. While symptoms of BPD behaviour can arise in adolescence, they are most persistent in young adults. On top of that, they become increasingly likely when coupled with other mental health inflictions such as anxiety and depression, and often exist simultaneously. I inhabit all of these criteria, though I might add for others curious about the factors that predispose a person to BPD, a person is five times more likely to develop it if a parent struggles with a similar diagnosis. Pending my diagnosis, my psychiatrist assessed me using a list of nine symptoms outlined in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association, is used throughout North America to help medical professionals determine diagnoses. It is the source of the aforementioned statistics referenced by Dr. Colibasanu. According to the DSM-5, a person must have persistently identified at least five of the nine symptoms of BPD, which includes frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment and chronic feelings of emptiness, by early adulthood in order to meet the criteria for diagnosis.
Dr. Colibasanu clarified that it would be okay to experience some of these feelings if they didn’t interfere with one’s day-to-day life and therefore cause some sort of social or physical impairment. It’s at that point that the combination of these behaviours becomes a disorder. This new identity is what I’m grappling with now. At certain points in my young adulthood, I’ve met up to seven of the criteria. Consistently, I experience five. I might even call myself high functioning, though my ability to rationalize myself out of emotionally distressed states lessens when I’m triggered by the immediate presence of a potential or developing romance.
Turns out, I’m not just a hopeless romantic, but a hopeless romantic with a rather serious mood disorder. Nonetheless, I’ve experienced a huge wave of relief in being able to identify some of my behaviours and feelings with my BPD diagnosis. Associating my dysfunctional relationship history with a plausible explanation has allowed me to stop considering those behaviours as my own personal failure and, for the first time in my dating history, stop blaming myself for the end of a relationship.
Now with the help of a new therapist, I’m learning strategies for spending time with myself, and for eventually participating in healthy interactions with romantic and sexual partners. While I’m acknowledging a need to be alone, this isn’t a profession of strength and independence. It’s more like I’m an addict who’s finally admitted their addiction, hoping that someday in the future I’ll be able to consume responsibly. I’ve begun by immersing myself in all the professional and educational resources I can. Dr. Colibasanu has told me that the most effective therapy treatment for BPD is Dialectical Behaviour therapy (DBT), a form of psychotherapy developed by psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan. The treatment uses four main skill sets to help Borderlines cope with and progressively unlearn dysfunctional behaviours: emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance and mindfulness. Though I haven’t had the opportunity to formally begin this treatment, I have started practicing these skills at home, while actively avoiding dating scenarios in order to focus more energy on myself and platonic relationships.
While I don’t foresee any interruptions in my sobriety, I’m not going to punish myself if one happens. Two steps forward, one step back, as they say. I will, however, try to use my newly learned skills to regulate the impact of these interactions. If I meet an attractive stranger and find myself in a conversation with him that could be perceived as flirtatious, my “action urge” (to use DBT language) is to become anxious under the weight of his potential. My mind plays a b-roll of the next few years of our non-existent but possible romance. The DBT skill I’ve been using here is called “opposite action,” meaning that I acknowledge what my action urge is to a certain emotional stimuli, and I rationally decide to act in a different way. In this case, I’m trying to walk away from these interactions altogether, so as to teach my brain that I will be okay if such an attraction doesn’t develop into anything further.
My recovery from dysfunctional romance requires me to spend a lot of time with myself, consciously rationalizing any emotions that come up in my life. I foresee it being a long journey, but one in which I have the vocabulary to stop blaming myself for dysfunctional behaviour. For me, Borderline Personality Disorder is a personal history, an explanation, and above all, a plan for an alternative future.
Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it easy to avoid dating. I’m going on 130 days, sex- and romance-free, with the aim of abstaining from any romantic interactions until I’m able to reduce the way they impact my ability to feel fulfilled and functional. When I shared this with my psychiatrist, he said he hopes my abstinence from romance isn’t a permanent avoidance of an experience—of loving relationships—that can be very gratifying in life. I told him of course it isn’t, after all I still love love, but I do want to be able to love it in a healthier way.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity