March 2020 seems like yesterday and a million years ago all at once. COVID-19 had started to spread around the UK but life was cautiously carrying on as normal, albeit with a feeling that something big and scary and uncontrollable was coming.
For me it was, but it was nothing to do with COVID.
It was Friday 20th March. Bored in my flat that evening, I made arrangements to go to the pub with Harry (not his real name), a guy I’d matched with on Hinge the previous day. His pictures were slightly fuzzy and I wasn’t sure if I’d even fancy him. When we met, I was neither excited nor disappointed. He was fine. There weren’t instant sparks.
Over a pint, we discussed the impending doom of COVID and how I thought we might end up barricading ourselves in bunkers a few months down the line, those of us with toilet roll poised to fend off raiders without it. He told me he was in the midst of an acrimonious separation.
Now, here’s where present-day me would have cut and run. I wanted a relationship. I spent most of my 20s being hurt by a string of unavailable men, some of whom weren't over their exes. A depression sufferer since my teens, my self-esteem took another knock with every rejection, and the black void inside me grew. I continued under the misapprehension that it could be filled by the love of another person. Harry was as good as warning me that he was going to end up as another rant in my group chats but I didn’t know then what I know now. I saw him again the next day.
Two days after we met, Harry said he felt something special between us and cancelled his other Hinge dates. He needn’t have cancelled anything because Boris Johnson did it for us. The next day – three days after we’d met – lockdown was announced, and Harry suggested that I stay with him throughout quarantine.
We both lived alone but his flat was bigger so it made sense. With no idea when the regulations would be lifted and we’d be allowed human contact again, I agreed. I also liked the idea of being someone who found the love of their life by taking a risk. It was like the plot of a movie.
I’m in isolation with a man I met on Hinge last Thursday, I tweeted. I thought it was funny and that 20 or so people might agree. Within days it had thousands of shares and tabloid websites had turned my tweets into a story. I had calls from radio producers and TV bookers asking us to do interviews. A literary agent offered to represent me if I wrote a memoir about my quarantine romance.
While I enjoyed the attention, Harry hated it. I turned down all the interview requests and offers to write about it. I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. As far as I was concerned, we wanted a long-term relationship, not just a quarantine fling.
Even at the time I think part of me knew, deep down, that nothing healthy could move that quickly. I just didn't want to believe it.
Then it all began to unravel. His ex saw the tweets and reacted badly. He began conversing with her in secret, which I discovered by checking his phone. I don’t condone phone-checking but I don’t condone secret deep and meaningful conversations with exes when you’re seeing someone new, either. I dumped him and walked halfway home, hoping he’d chase me and beg me to come back. He didn’t, so like an idiot I turned around and went back myself.
I’d been at his flat for nearly a month when he dumped me. During that time there'd been more arguments than there’d been daily COVID press conferences. I begged, I screamed, I called him the most hurtful things I could think of. I was incensed when he said something about it being too much, too quickly. Wasn’t it him who asked me to move in and declared his love a week later? Looking back now, I think my fragile mental health played a big part in why I was swept away by the idea of it being a whirlwind romance. Even at the time I think part of me knew, deep down, that nothing healthy could move that quickly. I just didn’t want to believe it.
Alone in my flat, I screamed into my pillows. Why does this keep happening to me? Harry could have been any of the people I’d dated – our ill-fated coupling was intensified by lockdown but the pattern was the same. The intense beginning, the rollercoaster middle, the explosive end. I don’t want to excuse the bad behaviour of people I’ve dated – and I’ve encountered plenty of lying, false promises and disrespect – but I had an important realisation. I’d been choosing, albeit unconsciously, to repeat the pattern. Unavailable men were my kryptonite. Well, I thought to myself as I stroked the dog I impulse-bought after the breakup. This stops now.
After some googling, I came across borderline personality disorder (BPD). Reading the list of symptoms on the NHS website, I could have been reading a description of me. Emotional instability, check. Impulsive behaviour, check (hello, new dog!). Intense but unstable relationships with others, check check check. I should note, it’s a controversial condition and psychiatrists and people with BPD alike disagree on what it means to have it. Some people believe that the kind of behaviours associated with BPD are a reaction to trauma rather than a disorder, as many people with BPD had unstable or traumatic childhoods. There’s a stigma around it, with some psychiatrists believing that people with BPD can’t be helped. Conversely, this study notes that developments in treatment suggest it is treatable and can be cured.
BPD is also a gendered issue. Women diagnosed with the disorder outnumber men three to one, and one researcher has suggested that "prejudices" could influence diagnosis, especially when it comes to anger as a symptom of BPD (something I’ve definitely struggled with). Stereotypes of angry women are overwhelmingly negative – the crazy ex, for example – and it’s this kind of sexism that some experts think unfairly influences BPD diagnoses.
My GP referred me to a psychiatrist and a few weeks later he called. I spent over an hour on the phone to him, describing everything that had happened with Harry and throughout my adult dating life. Reciting it back, it was textbook: I’m attracted to others with trauma of their own. I desperately try to make them love me and the more they pull away or treat me badly, the more I cling on. My desperation turns to rage and we break up in a toxic dumpster fire of character assassination tennis. Rinse and repeat. I asked the psychiatrist if I might have BPD. "Yes," he said, "you certainly fit the criteria."
For me, the diagnosis was a lifeline: a framework through which I could finally understand why I was the way I was. Once I understood the part my childhood played in my BPD, I understood why dating was so intensely triggering for me. In a nutshell, the lack of support from my emotionally distant dad led me to seek the validation I wish he’d given me in other men. At the same time I was drawn to men just like him: unavailable, complex and with trauma of their own. Every rejection was more salt in a wound that, I realised, was nothing to do with men or dating at all.
I discovered all this in therapy and with this new understanding of why I felt and behaved the way I did, I was able to gain more control over my emotions and recognise early on when someone was a bad romantic fit for me. For anyone else struggling, I’d say try and get to the real root of the problem through therapy if you can access it. If you can’t, a useful thing to do might be to identify the things that trigger you and think about the emotions you feel. When I’ve acted impulsively and angrily I’ve usually regretted it afterwards, so taking some time out before sending that furious text could be helpful.
I regret dating Harry but I learned from the experience. There was nothing cute or fairytale about our isolation romance but without it I’d never have got the diagnosis that finally broke the pattern. I’ve learned some valuable lessons: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is; if someone falls short of my expectations, walking away rather than admitting defeat is empowering; and the void inside me could only ever heal with the love of one person: myself.