Last year I decided to take a break from casual dating while in the throes of my latest fling. Crying into hotel bedding that smelled of a man I barely knew, I realised I needed to get my mental health issues under control before I could date again. I’d flown to another country to hook up with a man I’d only known a month, then became an emotional wreck when he told me our relationship was nothing more than sex. It wasn't the first time I’d travelled hundreds of miles for a man I hardly knew but I hoped it would be the last.
I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2015, a disorder characterised by impulsive behaviour, poorly regulated emotions and intense but unstable relationships with others. I am obsessive in love, falling quickly and deeply, and I prioritise my partner’s needs above my own. I become infatuated and the rest of the world feels insignificant. Then, as quickly as I fall, those feelings can sour and I find myself plotting my escape. Relationships are all or nothing, love or hate. There’s no middle ground and it can be exhausting.
My last serious relationship ended in divorce a decade ago. It was relaying the story of that marriage and its fallout that enabled a psychiatrist to recognise traits of BPD in my past behaviours. I married a man I had known exactly five months, then eight weeks later attempted suicide when he went on a night out without me. Convinced he didn’t love me, at that moment I would have died rather than have the relationship end. I was briefly hospitalised, diagnosed with severe depression and sent home to a man who couldn’t understand why the woman he married had seemingly changed overnight.
The early days of our relationship were passionate and spontaneous – we went on our first holiday within a few weeks of our first date and were living together within two months. I was consumed by our love and needed to be around him constantly. When we were apart, I wanted to speak to him 10 times a day. I said "I love you" over and over again and would become visibly upset if he didn’t reciprocate. He initially enjoyed my attention but soon grew weary, especially when I insisted he leave the bathroom door unlocked in case of an emergency. My behaviour became more erratic and I suffered from rapid mood swings that made me want to fight one minute and fuck the next.
Paranoia crippled me, keeping me awake most nights when I’d find myself scrolling through my husband’s emails and texts, looking for clues that he was going to leave me. I was convinced he was sleeping with every woman he met and accused him of cheating daily. I felt an overwhelming emptiness and tried anything to give me a buzz now my relationship seemed to be imploding. I drank heavily, flirted with younger men and ran up debts booking holidays and buying treats to make myself feel better.
We fought constantly. Friends encouraged us to try marriage counselling but I didn’t see the point – in my eyes the relationship was beyond repair. If we’d pursued counselling we’d probably have been encouraged to open up to each other about our feelings, to develop some positive self-esteem and trust within the relationship. Dr Shani Ram du Sautoy, senior counselling psychologist at the Priory Group explains the importance of communication in relationships with a BPD sufferer: "Sit down with your partner and set boundaries. By making yourself accountable for your choices, this can help to prevent you from behaving in a manner that you agree to be unacceptable. This in turn can help to strengthen your relationship."
One day I realised I was tired of fighting and told my husband I was leaving. He looked relieved, telling me he was terrified of my mood swings but didn’t want to initiate the split in case I attempted suicide again. Within a week I’d moved out of our home and the following year we divorced.
I struggled to maintain relationships longer than a few months post-divorce. I fell in love with narcissists who enjoyed the attention I lavished upon them but felt empty and worthless when that attention wasn’t returned. If a call or text went unanswered I spiralled, imagining scenarios where something terrible had happened or that I had been dumped. Every "read" but unanswered message on WhatsApp led me to believe I was unworthy of anyone’s time, attention or love. I called a halt to every relationship, fearing abandonment so much that I was willing to break my own heart rather than have someone else do it.
I’d struggled with anxiety and depression since my teens but suffered a mental breakdown triggered by grief three years ago. Following a suicide attempt I was seen by a series of professionals who tried to understand what was going on inside my head. After multiple assessments, borderline personality disorder was mentioned for the first time. I was happy – what I was experiencing had a name so that meant it could be treated. What a relief! I immediately consulted Dr Google. I discovered the current diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder allow for 256 different combinations of symptoms that could lead to a diagnosis, so no two BPD sufferers are the same.
As every BPD patient is unique it can take time to find an approach that suits the individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, no magic pill that can "cure" BPD. Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), a type of psychotherapy – or talk therapy – that utilises a cognitive-behavioural approach and gives people the skills to manage their emotions and improve their quality of life is commonly recommended to BPD patients. However, DBT wasn’t readily available where I lived so I was offered a short course of counselling instead. My counsellor recommended mindfulness and I signed up to an eight-week course through a local charity. Dr du Sautoy believes in the benefit of mindfulness for patients with BPD: "Practising mindfulness can help to relieve intense emotions through regulated breathing, breathing meditation and body scans. It gives you the opportunity to have a little bit of space, where you can step back, notice your emotion and think about how you want to react."
It’s taken three years of hard work to get my emotions under control. Casual sex is still tricky for me because I’m not capable of switching off my feelings – I still tend to emotionally attach, even to a one-night stand. But I’ve learned to stop viewing my world, relationships and my life in black and white. Life and love are never purely good or bad and I’m ready to embrace a relationship with an understanding partner who realises that patience, communication and trust can go a long way.