Warning: This article mentions suicide.
Throughout my life I have become fixated on specific people. In hindsight I see them as regular people but at the time I idealized them. The intensity of my emotions and the inability to control them always bothered me. It wasn’t until I got diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) at the age of 22 that I began to make sense of my experiences.
Broadly, BPD can be characterized as an unstable sense of self, identity and emotions. Symptoms vary from person to person but can include emotional instability, disturbed patterns of thinking, impulsive behaviour and unstable relationships with others. In Canada, 1-2% of the population live with the disorder while in the UK, studies have shown that around one in 100 people have BPD.
Hannah Larkin is a 20-year-old student in the very early stages of her BPD recovery journey. "It’s broken down my relationship with everyone in my life, to the point I don’t have a home anymore," she says. "I am in hospital and have no IRL friends."
Like Hannah, I too found that my familial relationships got to a place I thought was unrecoverable. It was only after I was diagnosed, four years ago, that I was able to understand myself. For instance, I was only recently introduced to the concept of having a favourite person (FP). From there, I was able to see how the term had incredible relevance in my most intense friendships.
Within the context of BPD, an FP represents a person who is a source of comfort and an anchor. They are different from a best friend in that they are a person on whom you depend emotionally. They provide emotional validation and security and you may start to believe that they are the only person who can make you happy.
Dr. Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and cofounder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, tells R29 that these types of relationships are a common theme among her patients with BPD. "[Your FP] could be a close friend, a partner, a working colleague, a therapist or perhaps someone a bit older who is more of a mentor figure," she says.
Though I only have one FP at a time, some people can have multiple. For 24-year-old Georgia Louise, who was diagnosed with BPD aged 21, the people who became her FP were all either romantic partners or her best friends.
Hannah, on the other hand, has one main favourite person at the moment: her mum. "I would say that’s due to the fact she is in my life the most," she explains. "I have had others in the past… They have been staff from [the] hospital, teachers and family friends."
What does having an FP feel like? Georgia describes her attachments as a form of obsession created from a deeply unstable sense of self. "When someone loves and values us for who we truly are, without the mask, it’s like falling in love with them (but not always sexually)." Speaking of her experiences when she was younger, she details how extremely protective and territorial she would get – sometimes putting herself in danger to protect her FP.
This is something I relate to. If my previous FP had issues, I would drop whatever it was I was doing to help them. Partly because I cared but also because their happiness was also mine.
"I would become overbearing for them because as much as they love me, everyone needs personal space and private time," Georgia adds. "I have two best friends who were my FPs at one point and I know I put a lot of pressure on them, but they knew I was mentally ill and I just loved them so much."
It's often two people dancing an unconscious dance.
Dr. Elena Touroni
These relationships can easily become toxic and volatile. Dr. Touroni says it all comes back to childhood. Specifically, finding someone who can help those of us with BPD compensate for any emotional deprivation or trauma we may have experienced as children (common among those diagnosed with BPD). "I think that there is often an unconscious match between somebody who suffers a lot from emotional deprivation and someone who has played more of a caretaker role (perhaps to a parent) growing up," she explains. In these instances, people become FPs because they fulfil the criteria of being a caregiver.
"In turn, the 'caregiver' lends themselves to this relationship because of some emotional experiences of their own," Dr. Touroni adds. "Very often in these types of pairings, something is being repeated." As the person with BPD hasn’t built up resilience within themselves, they become reliant on this 'caregiver'.
However, at some point the 'caregiver' will let the person with BPD down. "The demands become too much or they simply don’t understand how important their role is to them," says Dr. Touroni. "They likely entered the relationship with goodwill but they don’t realize how dependent this person is on them – and it’s not something they consciously signed up for. Both parties feel aggrieved."
For Georgia, grievances were usually due to a lack of open communication between her and her FP. "When someone becomes your 'everything' and you have 'nothing' without them … you start to feel entitled to their time."
Though the relationship was already fragile, the toxicity usually manifests at this point. The person with BPD feels abandoned and emotionally deprived, whereas the 'caregiver' is emotionally burdened and wants to withdraw. "In essence, it's often two people dancing an unconscious dance," says Dr. Touroni.
The last time my FP relationship ended, I came very close to ending my life due to having no sense of self. The situation was exacerbated because we had been intimate and so I had projected many romantic fantasies onto the relationship. This only heightened the emotions I felt. Once I was able to bring myself out of the despair, I made a conscious effort not to connect with anyone. Knowing that those with BPD are 50 times more likely than the general population to die by suicide, and having felt my capacity for despair, I chose to concentrate purely on my recovery.
It would be three years before I would connect with someone in the same way again. We had (very loosely) dated years prior and I believe that not seeing him as a 'threat' is the reason why I was able to let my guard down and eventually attach. It may not have been an immediate transition but once we were communicating regularly, I could feel myself becoming more emotionally invested.
Because I had done the work in therapy, I was able to identify my pattern of heavy attachment and soothe myself whenever I flared up. I would also make sure to communicate if I detected anything wrong in the relationship and try to own up to my actions.
Dr. Touroni also recommends "diffusing the attachment". "Make sure that there are at least a few people in your life who are meeting your needs – not just one," she explains. "Otherwise, it can easily fall into a mother and child dynamic, which by default tends to go wrong."
In regards to my new connection, it has been just over a year since we first spoke and though I did not expect it, this current friendship has helped deepen my understanding of myself. Before, I believed my FP 'completed me'; this time I have made a conscious effort to find out why they make me feel secure. As I write, we haven’t spoken in days but I haven’t felt any feelings of rejection or abandonment. I do miss him but even if we were never to talk again, I doubt I would feel abandoned. Of course, I still have my moments but this current relationship is tangible evidence that I am getting better.
Georgia echoes my thoughts when comparing her relationships from diagnosis to now. "Since recovery, I found myself capable of being alone," she explains. "I am far more self-sufficient and now find it difficult to rely on people for anything, especially to regulate my own emotions." As Dr. Touroni says: "It’s important to realize that the other person might also be playing their part." Therefore building up our own emotional resilience is key.
As for tips for finding balance in FP relationships, Dr. Touroni stresses the importance of making sure you have a few people with whom you can share different parts of yourself, and monitoring closeness vs distance. She advises those with BPD to check how much time they are spending and communicating with their FP.
For me personally, building up my emotional vocabulary and discovering patterns in the types of people I attach to has been illuminating. I did this by asking myself: Why do all my FPs share [X] quality? What are the emotions driving me to attach to this person? Answering these questions helped me to avoid idealizing my current FP and sped up my recovery journey tremendously. Though things aren’t always good, my friendship with my current FP has deepened my understanding of who I am and what it is I am capable of.
Relationship balance is constant and ever-changing but through this process with my current FP, I learned to trust myself again. I may love him dearly but I do not depend on him to exist. I also now know I am readier than I thought to pursue platonic and romantic relationships.
When I was first diagnosed, I was doubtful that my life would get any better. But hopefully, those with BPD (and our loved ones) can see that while there is no cure, we can certainly get better and have healthier attachments.
If you are struggling with bipolar disorder and are in need of information and support, please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association for local resources. If you are in crisis, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.