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“I’m 22 and I’ve been heartbroken too many times”: A discussion of borderline personality disorder as it intersects with romantic experiences
I’ve written about my romantic experience specifically as it overlaps with my mental health elsewhere, but have yet to blatantly identify it here. Which is kind of funny, because my blog was the first place that I began sharing my feelings about love— before I had any concept of the problematic behaviour I now associate with it. When I was in high school, all I knew about my relationship to romance was that I was hopelessly devout to finding it. I believed in soul mates and I was confident that my higher purpose in life was to love another human romantically… (preferably one human).
Today, I’m 22 and I’ve been heart broken too many times. I still believe in soul mates but in a more adjustable capacity (most of the time). Since being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder last spring, I’ve gained a lot of insight into why love, intimacy or even just sex, has the potential to evoke certain responses in my mood and sense of security. As a result I’ve spent time re-evaluating my associations with each of these things. I’d like to organize some of the understandings I’ve developed here. And in doing so I’m hoping that I will have established some more context to an ongoing (but not really attached) series on love and Borderline Personality Disorder.
Last spring just prior to my diagnosis, I was coming out of a relationship. This is extremely relevant because usually a breakup triggers an emotionally turbulent spiral for me. It has happened several times in my young life.
In this specific instance, the spiral occurred on schedule, but with an added sense of awareness. I noticed at the time that I felt slightly more in control of my emotions than I had under previous though similar experiences. Even more, I recognized that not only had I experienced this sequence of behaviour and depressive feelings before, but that I had also recovered from them. That sense of control (opposed to spiralling without awareness of what was happening to me) was new. I started establishing patterns. Once I’d had the opportunity to organize ideas about what I was feeling, I pursued a formal diagnosis.
I told the first doctor I spoke to that I thought I might be Bipolar (type 2) because of my mood swings, but he was immediately skeptical. At the time I perceived his reaction as insensitive because I was crying, but he was in actuality trying to narrow down his assessment. It wasn’t until I started talking about my romantic history, that he seemed to perceive indications of an identifiable cause. Incidentally a different mood disorder all together: (Borderline Personality Disorder). He then placed me on a waitlist to see a psychiatrist. The difference according to him, was that a person with Bipolar would experience mood fluctuations and intense emotional responses in a more cyclical manner— whereas many of the examples that I was describing to him were triggered by specific interpersonal interactions with romantic partners.
A month or two later, I was assessed by a psychiatrist over zoom. She diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder and an adjacent anxiety disorder. I want to preface that by this time I had multiple therapy experiences under my belt, and had been taught to perceive a diagnosis with a grain of salt. Which is to say that I don’t consider my diagnosis the discovery of the one and only truth but rather a key to other avenues of mental health support.
It’s an unfortunate truth that our medical system is set up in a way that you often require a referral from a doctor (or specialist) in order to be eligible for certain forms of accommodation. On paper, it seems like a diagnosis is really just a formal confirmation that you’ve gone through the process of assessment and been a-okayed for solutions specific to a certain realm of mental illness— including prescriptions, treatment options, and various forms of therapy.
I had also read that BPD is a highly misdiagnosed disorder, partially because it’s responsible for a variety of diverse symptoms. Some people who experience BPD may identify strongly with certain symptoms and not at all with others, but to be formally diagnosed you need to experience at least 5 out of 9. I think this Instagram post categorizes the symptoms well.
Grain of salt accounted for, I’ll move along with my point. I feel good about using my diagnoses as an explanation for the present behaviours and feelings that I struggle with. The part that I’ve found most valuable for my own self growth and “recovery” is the vocabulary. Having identifiers allows me to validate what I’m feeling and also helps me explain my symptoms to myself, so that I have the opportunity to dissect why/ what/ and how I’m feeling something, and potentially consider a healthier response or coping strategy.
Supposedly Borderline Personality Disorder is something that one can recover from with the right combination of therapy and medication. I’ve read accounts from individuals who consider themselves (and are considered by medical professionals) to be in remission. It’s hard for me to imagine what that looks like.
In the longterm, I think my goal is to be able to live a full and satisfying life without the compulsive need to seek a romantic partnership that’s going to carry me through to the end. I don’t want to be so afraid of being alone that I miss the joys of it. Especially since I’ve realized that there are certain freedoms which I experience best alone. Dancing is one of them, playing dress up is another.
I can also add writing, reading and silent thought sessions to that list. The interesting thing about familiarizing myself with these joys of being alone, having formerly struggled to enjoy being alone at all, is that I’m getting better at exercising them.
Sometimes when I’m dancing by myself I feel so free and uninhibited that I actually forget I’m alone. And sometimes when I’m dancing in a crowd, I get so caught up in it that I feel like I’m the only person in the room. It’s an interesting duality isn’t it?
My short terms goals regarding my mental health, include furthering that sense of presence, both when I’m engaging in an activity by myself and when I’m interacting with others. My hope is that as I get better at using this skill in the more general aspects of my life, it will become easier to apply it to romantic interactions—which I presently experience as ‘higher stake’.
To that end, another one of my short term goals is to battle an aspect of my personal experience with BPD that has had negative impacts on interpersonal relationships in my past: compulsive attraction. Because my desire to be in a relationship is intrinsically attached to my sense of security and future well being, I find that I don’t experience romantic or sexual attraction in a natural/ healthily paced way. My compulsive desire to be in a relationship, or to “find a soul mate”, has the ability to override my judgement when interacting with people who objectively speaking, are prospective relationship candidates. For me thus far, the criteria for candidacy has been single, male, and interested in me (although I can manage without the latter).
At times this also makes it difficult to discern whether I truly like a person who meets this criteria, or even feel comfortable with them, because my instincts are overwhelmingly to interact with them in a physical or romantic way.
As you can imagine this instinct (or habit?) gets in the way of building friendships, and makes it difficult to establish healthy boundaries for intimacy. So I need strategies for refocusing myself, avoiding the urge to act compulsively.
I dance and I dress up.
I write and I read.
I’m no longer sure what the intent of this post was, other than to say “this is me, this is where I’m at right now.” Love and romance is a subject that I will always love to write about. In many ways it shaped me into the person (and writer) that I am today: age 22, and heart broken too many times.
Going forward, I hope to meet a version of myself who has nothing to do with the subject of love and romance. I think I’m starting to get to know her now, in the in between moments after heartbreak and before new love. I am stronger than I used to be in these moments, and more compassionate towards myself. In ways I like this version of myself better, but holding that perception feels unfair to both my past and future selves because I am ever changing, fluctuating between triumph and mistake.
None of it is easy, but all of it is rewarding.
Thank you for listening, to the few of you who do.
I often imagine that breakups pain me more than most people, because I feel a lot. I love like I’ll never love again, and consequently my heart breaks like it’ll never mend (until it does). Such is the beauty of life and love.
To that end, I’ve experienced a decent sized handful of heart wrenching splits, and have consequently watched myself repeat many of the same responsive behaviours. Any form of rejection used to send me instantly to the melodramatic pits of a depressive spell. I wouldn’t want to get out of bed, could not be bothered to eat real food, and generally lost sight of my purpose in the world. A more recent evolution, which I’ve experienced a couple of times now, is instead an immediate and flooding sense of relief. I think it’s because I have more awareness of my mental illness and the emotional tidal waves that it spawns. Because of that, my body recognizes that a breakup also means that I get to rest after having spent several months expending a lot of intense energy.
When I exited my last relationship, which I think was at the end of February (COVID time makes it hard to pinpoint), I felt like I was emerging lucid out of a two month long dream. I’ll come back to this point to explain what I mean by lucid, but first I’d like to offer context—
I hadn’t seen my partner more than twice since January 1st because he lived with his family and was trying to be extra cautious when the COVID cases went up in the new year. As such, the emotional validation that I naturally take from spending time with my loved ones had ceased to flow from this particular interaction, and he wasn’t one for writing letters or long FaceTime conversations like I am. I tried tirelessly to make the efforts to plan video dates, and sent him things in the mail when I wanted to express something more romantic but it often felt unreciprocated. For all I know he wasn’t invested in the relationship enough to take on the more tedious aspects of dating [essentially] long distance. For me, any pull back in a relationship is scary. I begin to question whether my partner still likes me, and my self worth plummets when I assume they don’t. As a result I spent the first two months of 2021 feeling persistently insecure.
When we actually broke up, I still hadn’t been expecting it. We had met up in person briefly, and had a normal conversation that happened to trigger something for me. I got quiet, and started crying, then progressed towards a panic attack. I think he was struggling to find patience in that moment because he didn’t understand what was happening, or how to help me. So because there was nothing else to be done, I biked home— approximately 45 minutes of sobbing, gulping air, and trying not to fall off my bike. Later that night, we got on the phone and a breakup conversation ensued. I’ll tell anyone that I date that I’m hard to breakup with. I oscillate between fight and flight responses, first attempting to convince them to stay with me, then becoming disparaged when I realize it’s not working and so on, until eventually there is nothing left to say. Often these conversations last upwards of an hour.
My intent in explaining these details, was that after this exhausting evening featuring a hysterical bike ride and an upsetting hour long phone conversation, I had nothing left in me. I stopped crying the second I got off the phone. Which is not to say that I was fine— I still assumed that I felt the world was ending, but almost out of habit more than true belief. So I panic texted one of my best girlfriends, and collapsed onto my roommate’s lap on the living room couch while we waited for her to come over. But then, I did start to feel okay. I felt (lucid), clear, present; calm.
This is where the rituals start to come into play.
The reason that I had been in my now ex-boyfriend’s side of the city, whereupon we met up briefly, was because I had sourced a vintage dress on Facebook Marketplace: an absolutely incredible, sheer lace black dress, with a layered tulle bottom. Here I am wearing it that very night:
When the girl support team was assembled, we all dressed up and walked to the 7/11 for snacks (I had yet to eat that day on part of feeling very anxious). Ritual #1: Cry in a dress. Part of my affection for the clothes in my wardrobe is the sentiments that I attach to them. I like clothes that mark an occasion, in this case a turning point towards singledom. When we got to the 7/11, I was elated to discover that they sell individual roses, so I bought myself one and also a lottery ticket. Material items play an interesting role in rituals: objects to which we can attach feelings. To me the rose represented something beautiful that I was giving myself, no longer having or needing a partner to give me that validation. And the lottery card— well, wouldn’t it have been awesome if I won the lottery on the night that my boyfriend broke up with me?
Anyway, when I got home I started performing some of the more basic, urgent rituals that follow a break up for me—ones that stem from pain. I had been harbouring a gift meant for Christmas, since we had seen each other only a few times since and hadn’t had the opportunity to exchange presents. My gift to my ex-partner had been an “I owe you” coupon book of an intimate nature, so I tore it up, and took a photo to commemorate. (Ritual #2: Destroy and forget).
I think this act is similar to the sentiment of deleting photos of an ex, which I have conflicting feelings about. I’ve heard from a number of people that they don’t like to delete photos of their ex-partners because that would invalidate the experience. I happen to agree because I deeply value human exchanges of intimacy, regardless of outcome and general “good” or “bad”. I would not wish to erase the memory of a person from my life by deleting every photo of them in existence. However I personally take a lot of photos, and find the surplus of reminders decently painful. In response to this breakup, I felt an urgent need to remove these reminders from immediate view and did delete the majority of the photos of him/ us on my phone. But those photos exist elsewhere too (on my laptop/ in my photo album), so I left it for a later version of myself to sort through. Only as of writing this do I feel ready to go through the ones on my laptop specifically. (Ritual #3: Revisiting the past). And I think that’s because I recently performed the last ritual in this breakup experience: Ritual #4— the conclusive one.
In the final efforts of moving forward with life, I biked to my ex-partner’s house one more time and dropped off the last belonging of his that I had in possession. We were meant to meet up sometime in the future to cordially pass off this item, but I felt that having that interaction loom over me was holding me back. So I discreetly left it for him on his porch and notified him via text. When I biked away, I turned back to look at his street one more time (if possible I plan to never bike down it again) and said out loud: “Fuck you [insert street name].” It felt good. During this excursion, I also sourced another vintage dress. Fittingly, a white one.
This time, the dress represented a different turning point: an emergence from mourning the loss of the relationship. I think it’s a happy dress; it bounces when I move in it.
When I got home from this bike trip, less one object of emotional remembrance, and plus one dress, I felt lighter; proud of myself. It reminded me of some of the conclusive rituals that I’ve performed in response to previous breakups, near the end of what I’d consider healing stages.
Nearly two years ago, I got out of the longest relationship I’d ever been in, with a partner who I had discovered was cheating on me the whole time. I was so hurt and angry that I got a tattoo just to have something on my body that he hadn’t touched. Then my grandparents took me out to cheer me up, and bought me a pair of red heeled boots from a nearby thrift store which we promptly dubbed the “Fuck my ex boots”. Later into the healing aspects of moving on from that experience, I decided to get rid of the giant teddy bear that he’d given me for Valentines Day. Originally I had wanted to gut it aggressively with scissors (call back to Ritual #2: Destroy and forget) but my roommate at the time convinced me to donate it so that someone else could enjoy it. So I stuffed it into my back pack, which it barely fit in, and biked to the Salvation Army to chuck it momentously into the donation shute. The whole bike ride there and home, I chanted to myself “Fuck my cheating ex-boyfriend”. I’ve found mantras to also be an essential component of healing from a breakup.
I performed the final, conclusive ritual for that breakup much later. I chose a spot in the city which I’d decided was appropriate: a portion of a Go train line that was accessible by a fence— a place that was only mine. I sat beside that fence and reflected in my journal, then chucked something over onto the rail tracks: a rose quartz stone which he had given me in necklace form. I felt that I was ridding myself of him with this final act, forevermore. Later on that year I chucked another object over the same fence in response to another breakup, and it too held a similar sentiment to my most recent bike excursion.
All of these rituals, as they were, represented steps in moving on with my life. They were finales, but more importantly points of pivotal healing, in which I found the ability to keep growing past the relationships that I had given so much of myself to.
A newsletter from yours truly, in regard to the new decade.