Mental Health Awareness Week: Three Letters

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week and Borderline Personality Disorder Month, James Donnelly explains what it is like, living and loving someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. 

I had been afraid of my mental health for a long time. It felt oppressive, demeaning and wildly isolating. I felt alienated from those I wished to have the strongest connections with. I felt misunderstood, yet was often highly praised for what I deemed to be minor accomplishments. I’d think of something, try it out and be okay with the result. People would make an effort to tell me how much they’d enjoyed what I’d done, how interesting it was and how it had made them think differently.

I met Sam over ten years ago. My then girlfriend was a frequent visitor to her tattoo shop. I, of course, would be by my then girlfriend’s side at all times. Sam was an immensely interesting person, complex and welcoming yet with a visible dark streak. This woman knew the world. I thought I knew the world.

I was a cynical, alcoholic, self-loathing and submissive hollow of a person.

I lacquered on my personality as I did make-up and hairspray. My hair at one point added a foot to my height, at its peak. I dressed like one of the members of Towers of London and acted like one too.

I was angry, I was a punk, I didn’t give a fuck. But it was all a ruse, and I knew Sam knew. I liked that Sam knew. For the first time in a long time, I felt like someone understood. I couldn’t place the feeling and chalked it up to rampant, cuckolded, teenage lust and a crush on a MILF.

We reconnected some years later, I’d suffered massively at the hands of my mania and depression. Constant cycles of self-destructive, near-sociopathic lack of care and crushing, hugely self-aware, overtly empathic self-loathing. She’d gone through much the same. She’d weaned herself away from prescription medication, I’d weaned myself of a 4 can a day drinking habit. We’d both made risky life choices, had our own blood on our hands and cherished the idea that one day it would all be over, we’d sleep forever. Probably on our terms, by our own hands.

She’d told me she had Borderline Personality Traits, I didn’t really care much.

This is an unusual precedent for me. I’d recently been told by a few old partners that they’d be diagnosed with similar conditions. Our relationships had been tumultuous, yet passionate. Communication had dropped, anxieties had taken over and vindictive behaviour was present in all of us. The diagnoses made sense. I’d been diagnosed with Cyclothamia, a mood disorder that Stephen Fry describes as ‘bi-polar lite’. It made sense at the time, I was in a reflective and Zen place when I’d been given the diagnosis. If I’d have gone a day later, I’d have felt very differently about myself, my situation and my ability to handle it. I wouldn’t have gone a day later though, as I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed. What would be the point? I wasn’t worth their time.

Me and Sam had talked online, on and off, for most of my university career. We were a two-person support network. We shared a mutual understanding of each other and I considered her a close friend and ally. Yet, she lived in my hometown and I lived in my University town. We were always just out of touch. As University wrapped up, I began to put steps in place to begin to move away from the crushing depression and narrowly avoided mental breakdown. I investigated mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism. I made great strides in my ability to be aware without getting attached to triggers and mood swings. I was able to a step back and assess myself as a whole, not fragments.

I went back to my hometown, with the express intent of seeing her.

I didn’t let on though. I wanted to play it cool. We’d described each other as virtual lovers and I wanted this to become a reality, believing and hoping that she did too. I ask if she’s going to ‘the’ club. She says she might be. I tell her I’m definitely going if she is. She turns up. We both smile like fools when we see each other. We hug and we laugh and we flirt outrageously. We’re stuck to each others sides. At one point, she said something like “I feel like we’re going to kiss” and my reply was akin to “Might as well be now”. I knew, right then and there, that I loved her.

Our first big thing as a couple was working on ourselves. We talked theory, philosophy, politics, nostalgia, shared memories, music and mental health. We revealed our demons to each other, right off the bat. “Honesty is the best policy” I would repeat, a mantra for our romance. We held nothing back. We found peace in ourselves and each other. As our relationship unfolded, situations changed. Her son went to live with his father, she moved into my parents house with me, I graduated and our ‘disorders’ rose to the forefront.

This is vital. This is not an issue. This is fantastic. This is important.

I had internalised so much of what had happened to me in relationships. Bullied at school, bullied in relationships. Insecurity breeding dissociation. I’d lie, cheat, close up and get angry when no-one was around. I gave myself panic attacks, guilt weighed me down. Yet, knowing that my actions were choices meant I could take responsibility. Not knowing how sensitive the other person was to my over-sensitive defence mechanism caused misinterpretation on a huge scale.

With Sam, it’s all on the surface. I know what I’m dealing with and I know Sam does too. It means we can work together to help ourselves and each other. We listen, we communicate, we speak from experience and we give each other the space to reflect and the time to say what is necessary. Sometimes, Sam will go quiet and her face will drop. I’ll know something I’ve done has caused this reaction. I will ask why. She will tell me. If I think there’s more, I’ll apologise for making her feel bad and continue asking questions. I’m not apologising because what I did was wrong, I’m apologising for the effect it had and explaining my position. Regardless of intended meaning, hurt feelings are hurt feelings. Together, we will find the root cause for the reaction and I will assure her it’s not the case. I will make an effort, because  I want to be the best me I can be for her. In turn, I trust Sam will reciprocate these favours.

I do not believe we are over-sensitive.

I believe something else has made us sensitive, this is merely salt on the wound. The tip of the iceberg. Once we’ve seen the bigger picture, the reaction is merely a symptom. The root cause is tackled and we accept new viewpoints. We are mindful.

My reactions are very much unique to Sam, spontaneous, tailored and aware. But this is not because of her BPD. It is because she is a human being, not a diagnosis nor a set of symptoms given form. She is much more acutely aware of emotions than many people, or at least accepting them. This is a gift and a curse. But that doesn’t mean I tread on eggshells around her. I will push her, take her to task and expect the same back. Her BPD is important to her, it is not important to me. It is not her sole defining feature, but it is one of many. Without it, perhaps, she would not be the woman she loves. But my love is not dependent on it. She is alive, she is another part of this wonderful universe. One who sees in me, all that I wish to be. I see in her everything I wish to be. Why would three letters change that?

There are only three letters I care about: