Albert Camus suggested that we fall in love with people
because, from the outside, they look so whole, physically whole and
emotionally ‘together’—when subjectively we feel dispersed and confused.
—Alain de Botton, Essays in Love
I could almost hear the record scratch: one minute I was in a four year relationship, and the next I was making out with a 24 year old in a 7/11 parking lot. (He was my co-worker at a temp job. One day, after I’d taken a self-care day, he said, “I kinda missed you,” and it was game over after that. It was one month of aggressive flirting and eyes being rolled behind our backs. He was obnoxious. He’d brag loudly about being a diagnosed sociopath. He was a gemini. [Does that mean anything?] I chose him as my escape plan, naturally.)
We each left our respective relationships. All logic had been hijacked. The increase in dopamine, norepinephrine and adrenaline—combined with a drop in serotonin—had us making plans to hook up. But then it didn’t work out. We were both in pieces about our personal lives. So, instead, we sat across from one another crisscross applesauce and talked all night. He said, “You’re so easy to talk to. You’re a really great person, Cat.” And all I thought about was how often guys like him lied.
After that, we stopped talking. The last thing I ever said to him was, “I am mind numbingly bored.” I got my nails done with a different color on each hand and I failed to interpret it as an omen: I was at a crossroads. I read about how crushes sometimes served as signifiers and catalysts; my friend said something to me, like, “Every relationship serves its purpose.”
In some combined state of mania and denial, I wrote in my journal: I want to resurface into a world of singledom and fall flat on my ass in ways I have yet to experience! But—you guessed it—my euphoria was short-lived. (Later that same week, I wrote: Nothing in my life has ever felt like it counted. I feel no fixed ownership of it. I am aimless and without a sound purpose. I struggle to answer one of the most important and fundamental questions when it comes to forging an individual identity: what do I want?)
The novelty of my newfound freedom lasted for about two weeks before I began to feel my enthusiasm dwindle. This, eventually, devolved into actual depression. There was nothing to fill my nights with. There was just coming home to the lights turned out, my parents already in bed—a futon in the basement. Unconsciously, I was beginning to realize that I was a delicate flower who wilted after one day without water. My confidence and self-worth, I realized, had always depended so heavily on the attention and approval of another person. I was alone, semi-homeless, mentally ill—as usual—and completely bored with myself. What other choice did I have?
I downloaded Tinder.
As these stories usually go, the plan never involved meeting someone I actually liked. I was going to let my coworkers control the swiping; I was going to go on some bad dates and laugh at all the messages I received. (I told one guy he had nice teeth, and his response was: It’s a long story.) It was supposed to be fun! No feelings—none. But then I swiped right and made a match. I wrote a little message and that was that.
The next thing I knew I was getting donuts with a guy (we’ll call him Y) who had a penchant for milk. Y said, “I love milk,” and I said, “What?” Right before I side stepped my own question—I wasn’t there to change him—and asked, “What kind?” Instead of saying 2% or skim, he started listing off brand names. “Clover Valley is the best,” he said, right before he went on to talk about oxidation and refrigerator calibrations like it was nothing.
And as he talked, I realized I liked all the quirks in his appearance—the shape of his eyebrows, and the shape of his nose. I liked the way he told stories. (He told me about a guy who got a Tasmanian Devil tattoo covered up with another Tasmanian Devil tattoo, and I laughed.) I liked that he didn’t like Trump. (Which is a standard.) I liked that he was older, and I liked the way he drew me in with conversation.
Earlier that day, on my way to see him, I almost hit him with my car because I was so anxious; and all he did was smile. (Kerry Cohen, a psychologist, wrote about infatuation: “When our bodies experience pleasure, parts of the prefrontal cortex shut down—namely, the areas that control reason, judgment and decision-making.”) When I saw him standing there, smiling at me after I almost crushed him, I had a lucid thought: Ah fuck, I like him.
There is a psychological condition called limerence. If you google it, it is defined as “a state of infatuation or obsession with another person that involves an all-consuming passion and intrusive thoughts,” or, “an altered mental state of intense infatuation.” (As an alternative, one website termed it “romantic monomania”.)
As if it were some kind of autoimmune disease, there is a website dedicated entirely to supporting individuals experiencing limerence. It’s called: livingwithlimerence.com.
This website states that there are certain life events and circumstances that predispose one to limerence.
It says: “There are some circumstances in life that make us more psychologically vulnerable—unhappiness, stress, grief, loneliness, anxiety, or even just the flat ennui of the daily grind.”
It says: “Many limerents learn to use the rewards of rumination and fantasy for mood repair. When life is unfulfilling, and moments of joy are hard to be found, the giddy jolt of limerent excitement is a welcome distraction.”
Symptoms include: believing the limerent object can fix, save or complete you; you want the limerent object whether they’re good for you or not; you ignore the limerent object’s flaws and red flags; you neglect your own needs; and, finally, you’re scared of genuine connection.
Is now a good time to mention that I have always been particularly prone to limerence?
He made me feel like I was in high school again, which was beautiful and humiliating all at once. One time he leaned up against the back of his couch with his hands around my waist, and I imagined what it would be like to wait for him in the hall. (I resented him for it as much as I liked him for it. Nobody wants to feel so out of control with admiration, to swoon so easily at the mere influx of hormones; but there I was, listening to Taylor Swift’s “August” compulsively—living for the hope of it all.)
One night, when I was one day out of quarantine, we circled each other like sharks in his backyard to keep from touching; we asked each other about our lives. And, in the beginning, it was always like that; most nights we’d stay up talking until 5 AM, buried beneath a pile of candy wrappers. He’d say it over and over, “Doesn’t the time go by so fast?”
I fulfilled so many adolescent forms of mischief in such a short amount of time. (Once, Y and his friend took me to do graffiti beneath a bridge in the boonies. Handing me a gold can of spray paint, he explained how proper street art etiquette stated that it was only acceptable to paint over someone else’s work with something cooler. After which, I proceeded to accidentally paint over one of Y’s tags with a dripping cat face. “That’s rad,” he said. Another time he took me off-roading and we got stranded in the woods for hours. “My dad would be so mad if he knew what I was doing right now,” I said, thinking of all the hours my father had spent watching the show I Shouldn’t Be Alive. We cut through the woods to civilization, and I went home with my feet soaked and covered in mud. My hair was filled with dirt, and I was completely obsessed with whatever was going to happen next.)
He loved fireworks, and—when we set off a roman candle in the park—I put two and two together and figured out that he had likely set off the fireworks that my ex had scoffed at one summer prior. I marveled at all the metaphors a single life could hold, and I thought about what my friend said when she found out I was seeing him: “He seems nice but a little lowkey reckless.” (In the time that I hung out with him, I saw him take an ax to a fire—just because. He almost melted the bottom of his new shoe because he rested too closely to a citronella candle. He ate a bug off of his shirt sleeve when he wasn’t thinking. He got his finger stuck in a hole at the end of a broom handle, and I watched his life flash before his eyes. A little lowkey reckless, yes. But that was part of the charm.)
On a particularly good day, he took the doors off his car and we went for a long drive. He told me he dreamed of living in Victorian houses and I said, “So do I!” He grabbed my butt at the flea market, and we found a cemetery of faded graves. I can remember: from the base of one, a single purple wild flower grew. After that, he bought me pasta; I went to the bathroom and, when I came back, he was friends with the waiter and there was a bread stick in my bag. I told him about what a good day I had, and he said, “Me too.”
On another night, it was over eighty degrees; he kissed me beneath the soccer net outside our old elementary school, and we told each other stories about the playground that was no longer there. (I kept checking off the days and nights that brought us closer; it felt good to want something again, to have a certainty in my days of uncertainty—a place to go when the day was done. I wrote in my journal: I can’t even tell you what we talked about; we seem to talk and laugh about everything. I just know time moves fast when I’m with him, and I really like the way he makes me feel. It’s not this intense thing, it’s cozy and I hope it keeps going.)
Giddy as I was, it always felt like there was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Y was emotionally slippery, non-committal and evasive. With him, I always felt like I was missing something: missing out or missing a text or missing the point entirely. I found myself googling how to build trust with an avoidant-dismissive type. (Try phrasing complaints as requests, they said, Try not to interrupt their space, Don’t chase after them when they withdraw, Understand the unrealistic expectations…) Sometimes I felt like I was bending myself into impossible positions; like I was always squinting and trying to read between the lines because I didn’t want to scare him off. (“I’m just your rebound,” he’d always joke, and I’d interpret it as a small rejection, assuming that was all he wanted to be.)
One night, after rescuing his car from our off-roading mishap, he told me to look at the moon; as we searched for a large snake in the grass lining the street, he spun me in a circle. And, when I followed him home with my car, I felt like I was all wrapped up in some dreamy deja vu; like the whole thing had already happened to somebody else before, and I was on the same track. (My star, for him, was waning, and I was living on borrowed time.) As he rounded the bend before me, I felt like I couldn’t keep up no matter how hard I tried.
The noise that seemed to surround him was one of the things I liked most about him—it was a welcome distraction from the noise inside my head. But my anxiety often had me suggesting that he might not have enough space for me in his life; that he was too busy and his social circle was already too full. (How could he possibly have time for himself and one more extra person?) Really, what I was trying to say was: I feel like I’m just a walk-on role in your life. And in response he’d always say, “We are having two completely different experiences.”
Texts from intersecting arguments about a change in plans and a secret that I kept:
Me: I just wish I knew what you thought of me. Because I feel like I don’t. Like, I don’t have very many people in my life and that makes me incredibly vulnerable to people who don’t have my best interests at heart. So when I start getting close to someone I feel scared all the time. I wish I could be different, and I know I’d be a lot happier if I was, and I’d probably have a lot more people in my life if I was. And so, a shift in plans just throws me for a loop… I guess I just wish you could understand my state of mind a lot of the time. Letting people into my life is hard for me. And it makes me act weird because I’m so afraid of being hurt or taken advantage of… I’m just constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, or for the rug to be pulled out from underneath me. Because it’s happened so many times before.
(Bell Hooks, a feminist scholar, wrote in her book, All About Love: “We all know the usual approach is to meet someone we like and put our best self forward, or even at times a false self, one we believe will be more appealing to the person we want to attract. When our real self appears in its entirety, when the good behavior becomes too much to maintain or the masks are taken away, disappointment comes. All too often individuals feel, after the fact—when feelings are hurt and hearts are broken—that it was a case of mistaken identity, that the loved one is a stranger. They saw what they wanted to see rather than what was really there.”)
Y: Listen I keep saying I like you… I get that you’re telling me your feelings and why right now… But after all this, I don’t want to be mean, but it feels like it’s just an excuse to make me feel sorry for you. I know it sounds horrible, unless it’s true. I’ve had it happen so many times. I’ve been learning what people do over the years. Not saying you are, but it’s definitely reminding me. Anytime I have an issue and bring it up with someone this is what happens. I tell you I like you, but on your end you need to believe it or it’ll never work, kid. It’ll be constant sadness. And I’ll be a huge dick for not caring even though I do. It’s a personal thing I feel I can’t help with.
(Bell Hooks wrote: “When we hear another person’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, it is more difficult to project onto them our perceptions of who they are… At times women find it difficult to hear what many men have to say when what they tell us does not conform to our fantasies of who they are or who we want them to be.”)
Not to be melodramatic, but: what a tragic lapse in communication.
The day after my first defining argument with Y, I experienced a psychotic break. The next morning, my fear of abandonment was palpable and static; thunder was rumbling inside my head. I went to get coffee and listened to John Mayer’s “Heartbreak Warfare” on repeat. Then, when I got home, I just stared at the large coffee I’d ordered until I finally decided to put it in the fridge. I meditated between his texts; repeated mantras to myself, courtesy of the poet Nayyirah Waheed, like: If someone does not want me it is not the end of the world. But if I do not want me, the world is nothing but endings. I thought in terms of depressing absolutes: People are so disappointing. I pathologized myself via Kerry Cohen: We may demand a love interest’s attention and reassurance because we feel easily hurt, rejected, and abandoned. All of these dynamics can be understood as codependent. And then I pooh-poohed the thought. I asked myself: Codependent who? And then I imagined something insanely codependent, like: Every time his attention gets taken away, I feel as if the wind has been knocked out of me. I proceeded to have a panic attack on the bathroom floor with a steak knife, and then I harassed my psychiatrist for a script of Ativan. (I wasn’t about to boil any rabbits, or fill the house with bees, but I was close.) I criticized myself via Bell Hooks: A woman who disturbs her man when he wants isolation will be punished. I questioned myself: Am I capable of loving the whole of another person if I’m not capable of loving myself? I was reminded of a time when I got high on rock candy laced with THC. (I was with an old boyfriend at the time, and I was staring up at the ceiling. His arm was draped across my chest, and I imagined I was a balloon being weighed down, that he kept me from floating away aimlessly.) I cursed the depleted serotonin levels in my brain, what limerence had done to my neurochemistry. (Cate Mackenzie, a psychotherapist, said that in order to make up for the lack of serotonin caused by limerence, a person “will fantasize that someone can save them and crystallize those thoughts into a golden image of ‘the one.”) I called my mom to come home. I told her that I didn’t know what I was doing. I said, “My problems are still the same problems I had when I was a teenager.” (In high school, I had an older boyfriend that I was enamored with who wouldn’t formally breakup with me. In fact, he actively refused to give me closure right before he proceeded to pretend like I didn’t exist.) There I was—I was 17 and losing my cool older boyfriend all over again. I was acting like an infant, incapable of agency and emotional permanence. (One night, on Y’s porch, we could hear laughing and the spokes on a kid’s bike. He told me about how much he missed being a kid, and I told him I didn’t miss being a kid at all. Then, I said, “I do miss the rituals of being a teenager though, knowing exactly what you’re supposed to do day after day, having almost everything decided for you.”) My mother said, “Sometimes I think you’re scary to people because you’re fine most of the time and then suddenly you’re not. It makes a person take a step back and wonder if it’s something they should commit to.” (Bell Hooks wrote that she often longed to go back in time: “Like every wounded child I just wanted to turn back time and be in that paradise again, in that moment of remembered rapture where I felt loved, where I felt a sense of belonging.”) In a conversation that had yet to occur, I texted Y: I just never got comfortable or confident enough to believe you really wanted me in your life, and that still stands. And he texted back: Cat, I don’t know what to tell you about that. I was just being normal kid. Not sure anyone is going to make you feel good at the moment. (In a haze of grief and mental illness—my constant perceived rejections—I was always missing Y’s point. He was always trying to warn me that no one was coming to save me.)
Long story short: it didn’t work out. After another defining argument, there were three days where we didn’t talk; after the third day, I tried to give him a call, but he didn’t pick up.
It ended the way a lot of these ill-defined relationships end: we made plans until we started fighting about making plans. I couldn’t get past the feeling that I was insignificant, and he couldn’t just say it: I want you in my life.
Shortly after we stopped seeing each other, I was officially diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. This is basically a fancy way of saying that I have a very intense emotional world, and sometimes it obscures my perceptions of reality. (If you want a fictional point of reference, think Winona Ryder in Girl Interrupted.) My experience of the human condition is more painful and acute than the average person, so my reactions, at times, can seem a little extra. (For example: something bad happens to one person, and they’re kind of bummed out; the same thing happens to me, and I experience an existential crisis. Hence, the mental breakdown I described earlier.)
One of the primary symptoms of BPD is called splitting. This essentially means that I have a habit of thinking in terms of all or nothing—good and bad. And living inside the confines of black and white logic, I am constantly struggling to create fixed nuanced pictures of the people in my life—I can view a person as my best friend and worst enemy, all in a single hour. This is due, in large part, to my inability to paint a nuanced picture of myself. (One borderline blogger, TheFracturedLight, put it this way: “Our minds put us in an inescapable prison where we are forced to rewind and re-watch, over and over, the one scenario where someone has hurt us. If you try to find another tape, it doesn’t work. You are forced to watch and watch and watch this same scene play out until you know in your heart that this person is the worst person in the world.”)
Therefore, thinking about my “break-up” with my not-boyfriend, I am constantly going back and forth; either fixating on what Y did all wrong or what I did all wrong in a deeply divided way that serves absolutely no one.
With regard to him, I’ve thought: He painted me as this overly dependent and broken thing whose mental stability depended on him. Fuck him. Some people would sooner have you believe everything is all your fault than fess up to the truth: he was never really in it. All these moments were curated on his end; I was the only one truly experiencing them, and for him they were all just a means to an end. I’ve been duped into being another ego boost, yet again. It’s so annoying when someone nurtures an intense connection and then takes a step back with his hands up the moment it becomes too much.
With regard to myself, I’ve thought: I’m a dodged bullet. I’m breaking my own heart and I ruined it. I drove him to the point where he stopped seeing the point in trying. I’m toxic. Who would want this? I’m Fatal Attraction. My expectations have always been too high and I’m living in an unrealistic fantasy land. I’m too sensitive and I take things too personally. I’m not worth the trouble. I’m unsettled and mentally unstable and this never would have happened if I was normal. I need to get a life.
I know what a lot of people would say in response to my constant obsessing over rights and wrongs: It’s not that deep. Sometimes things just don’t work out. But I don’t know how to be different; I don’t know how to be anything other than who I am.
The other day when I was on Tumblr, I read a quote that said: “When you learn to love yourself, your tastes in love will change.” And I immediately thought in response: Shut up.
I was one gratitude list away from walking out to sea; I had grown so tired of all the self-help. I wrote in my journal: Maybe telling ourselves constantly that we should be okay with being alone—that we should love ourselves wholly and resolutely—is just one more way to make ourselves feel like shit. One more way to shame ourselves for being human. Humans are a herd animal, after all. It’s natural to have our hearts broken after being rejected, to feel like we’re a little less than we were before. It’s normal to not want to be alone. (Bell Hooks wrote: “Life without communion in love with others would be less fulfilling no matter the extent of one’s self-love.”)
When I opened up to my sister about what was going on, she said, “I think when people matter to you, they really matter to you.” And I agreed.
In the borderline community, there is a term called “favorite person”. It’s used to describe what google defines as: “the most important person in [a borderline’s] life.” (The “most important person in a borderline’s life” is whoever happens to currently occupy an idealized role, and, however flattering, it can be a pretty stressful position to be in.) Choosingtherapy.com says: “This person can be anyone, but it is often a romantic partner… this person may become the source of all happiness and validation—potentially leading to relationship burnout for the other partner.” It continues: “The individual with BPD wants their favorite person’s attention as much as possible, and the quality of the relationship can undoubtedly shape their mood, confidence, and sense of security.”
There I was, a borderline, consciously dealing with the loss of a favorite person for the very first time. I googled what I should do. I received advice like: “You have to allow yourself to feel the hurt that comes with being human, but not act on it.” (After being diagnosed, I was beginning to realize that my emotions needed to be governed by so many rules; that I had to protect people from myself the same way I had to protect myself from myself, and it was all starting to become very convoluted. Be yourself, but don’t be yourself, every website seemed to be saying.)
I was told I could self-soothe by not going to places that my favorite person was known to frequent, and—I shit you not—taking a shower.
So, don’t be a stalker and take a shower, I thought in response. Cool. Noted. (If I were to write my own personal list of suggestions, it would start like this: 1. Never date a guy who likes to go for long aimless drives because—when he inevitably leaves you because you are pathologically extra—every corner of your hometown will start to look like him.)
I went on Quora and read about the first hand experiences of borderlines who had lost their favorite persons. In true borderline fashion, their responses were all melodramatic and poetic. You could tell time and care had been put into their answers to the question: “What does it feel like for someone with BPD to lose a FP?” (My favorite responses included: It feels like a funeral; It feels like I was dropped in the middle of nowhere; Let me jump off something to not feel the immense pain; Every one of my tendencies that I try so hard to control will just come rolling out like a freight train; It’s a BIG WILD RIDE like nothing else. And, finally, my ultimate favorite: It feels like I want to copy every cell in their body.)
Now, let me treat the above question as a personal writing prompt:
The infinite number of diet cokes he bought you will haunt you. Suddenly you can’t enter a convenience store because the colors are too bright, and you’re squinting no matter where you look. Suddenly you can’t feel harsh AC or reach inside a cooler without the cold triggering the horrible sinking feeling that is missing someone. (And I don’t mean just him, I mean everything I’ve ever lost.)
On a day when I was feeling particularly depressed about the “break-up”, I laid around in the dark and cried as different family members came downstairs to pay their respects like I was in hospice. My mother left two M&M brownies on my bedside table as an offering. Eventually my sister asked, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “I feel so rejected!” Then she snapped me back into reality. She said, “Well, to be fair, you kind of rejected him too.”
There came a point where I did feel an obligation to myself; an obligation to admit, despite any possibility of obscured perceptions, that he did hurt me.
During another argument where I said I felt like I played a minor role in his life, he texted me, I’m done talking about it at this point… You have some things to work on for sure. And I imagined any number of clap backs I wanted to say in that moment, the main one being: And you’re so fucking perfect? But I didn’t. (Bell Hooks wrote: “The wounded child inside many females is a girl who was taught from early childhood on that she must become something other than herself, deny her true feelings, in order to attract and please others.”)
He’d often make generalizations about women. He’d say that men couldn’t say anything critical about women without it getting turned around, like: Women are the same as men about being sneaky… men just aren’t allowed to complain about it or it gets turned around. And men get blown up for it. Us guys know. We talk about this stuff. Every one of us talk about how if we have feelings we are pussies and if we don’t we are assholes. I’ve had that convo with almost every guy I’ve met. (One could argue that women get called crazy for having feelings at the same rate that guys get called pussies for having them, but I digress.)
I guess I always kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to be one of those woman turning everything around on him; I didn’t want to “blow him up”. I was so concerned about being sensitive to his feelings that it didn’t occur to me that I could be “blown up” too. (Bell Hooks wrote: “When women communicate from a place of pain, it is often characterized as ‘nagging’. Sometimes women hear repeatedly that their partners are ‘sick of listening to this shit’. Both cases undermine self-esteem.”)
“It takes two,” my therapist said, right before she asked me to describe a time when he made me feel insignificant. Afterward, she called his behavior “manipulative”. I didn’t like thinking of him in those terms, so I asked for a more nuanced word. We both settled on “inconsiderate”. (Bell Hooks wrote: “Usually partners who are unable to respond compassionately when hearing us speak our pain, whether they understand it or not, are unable to listen because that expressed hurt triggers their own feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.”)
Whenever I’m about to blame myself entirely for the demise of this short-lived relationship, I stop and ask myself: What was I supposed to do, lose my sanity waiting for someone who couldn’t meet me halfway? (Bell Hooks wrote: “To know love we must surrender our attachment to sexist thinking in whatever form it takes in our lives. That attachment will always return us to gender conflict, a way of thinking about sex roles that diminishes females and males.”)
Whenever he’d talk about women in those wide sweeping generalizations, I’d always say the same thing: “I like to believe people are more complicated than that.”
And people are always more complicated than that, aren’t they? That’s why I couldn’t go along with my therapist and write Y off as manipulative—because those “manipulative” moments still felt genuine. If I was just doing the best I could with the knowledge and awareness that I had, then so was he. So, I insist: people are complicated, and what’s simple are the situations that surround them.
In the Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy, The Break-Up (which I re-watched recently) there is a heavy handed metaphor. Aniston’s character, Brooke, asks Vaughn’s character, her boyfriend Gary, to pick up 12 lemons for a 12 lemon centerpiece. Instead of bringing her 12, he brings her 3. Naturally, Brooke gets upset that Gary couldn’t take the 12 lemon centerpiece seriously. (I don’t know who these women are that are out here mad about 12 lemon centerpieces—perhaps they exist somewhere—but I can appreciate the symbolism in a statement like: I asked for 12 lemons and you only brought me 3.)
And, as the movie goes on, you realize that this metaphor is a summary for the overall plot: two people who care about each other, continuously hurting one another as they fail to communicate. (In my biased opinion, this movie is also about an emotionally unavailable man who is afraid to meet the reasonable needs of an average woman, but I digress.)
Brooke concludes that she never truly wanted Gary to leave and, in her attempts to bring him closer, she has only pushed him away. Meanwhile, Gary’s friend reveals an overarching theme of inconsideration and emotional unavailability in all of his relationships; he says to him, “You’re a fun guy, okay? Everybody likes you. You’re the quickest guy I know. Anytime we go out, I have a blast. But everybody who knows you knows you’re going to do what you want to do. And if it’s not what the other person wants to do, well, that’s their problem.”
In their final showdown, Gary stands Brooke up for a concert and disappoints her for the last time. When he comes home to her crying, he tells her that he didn’t realize how much it mattered. Defeated, Brooke says, “You are who you are.” (You know that cool older boyfriend from high school that I mentioned a few notes back? Well, his disregard for my existence, for the longest time, was a core memory for me. And years ago, when I brought this up in therapy, my therapist gave me the most glum and underwhelming explanation for his behavior on the planet. He said, “He was just inadequate.”)
“People are going to be people,” my therapist said. And it is what it is, isn’t it? There are an infinite number of sides to any given person, and sometimes those infinite number of sides just don’t complement our own infinite number of sides. No matter how hard we try—no matter how badly we care and want it—there are just some people we can’t seem to get it right with. And that’s the simple part, the obvious circumstances that surround us. Logic isn’t hard to recognize. But when the emotions between two complicated people are involved, shit tends to get pretty messy and convoluted. So, sure: sometimes things just don’t work out, and two people just aren’t compatible. I get it. Whatever. But this logic still completely ignores the reality that we click with who we click with, regardless of whether or not it makes sense. And severing these attachments is still painful, even when it’s the right thing to do: the hope of the beginning, it’s a feeling everyone wants to hold on to.
Texts from a “break-up”:
Y: Looking at everything and what we both want we aren’t on the same page at all or even have remotely the same life.
(There is a quote from the show Girls that I think about a lot; it’s from an episode where Allison Williams’s character, Marnie, leaves her insufferable husband to have a one night affair with her ex boyfriend. In a communal shower, at her ex boyfriend’s apartment, Marnie encounters a girl who just got ditched by a lesbian on a motorcycle. As the girl reflects on her current heartbreak, she says, “It’s not even her, you know? She was as much an asshole as anyone. I just—I can’t have one more fantasy busted open. I swear to god, I can’t fucking take it.”)
Me: I was going to say the same thing. I wasn’t ready or healthy enough for a relationship.
(Bell Hooks wrote: “Perfect passions usually end when we awaken from our enchantment and find only that we have been carried away from ourselves.”)
If it isn’t already obvious, there is a theme of feeling insignificant threaded through all of my intimate relationships. This is one more added component to my borderline, all-or-nothing logic. (If you kiss and it isn’t followed by an updated relationship status, did you ever kiss at all? If it doesn’t last forever, then does it really matter?)
I don’t enjoy being this way. No one likes to sit around believing, in her heart, that she has meant nothing to the many people who have mattered so much to her.
Y was kind of right, however: this feeling might be a me-problem.
As a borderline, I am a vacuous, leaky pit in constant need of validation. (TheFracturedLight said: “Seeking validation is an endless cycle for borderlines. We feel ‘high’ for a few minutes and then it wears off. Then we need another dose. But a higher dose. We need more and more validation, until our need is so insatiable we conclude that we’re just pieces of shit that no one could ever love.”) This is due to my lack of a solid identity—if you don’t have a firm grasp on who you are, then you need to have things like your better qualities, your choices and your feelings, endlessly reaffirmed by a second party. (Dr. Ramini, a clinical psychologist, described a borderline’s cagey identity as: “constantly shifting sand”.) Therefore, even the most patient and devoted men in my life couldn’t quell the hole of need left open by my ever-draining grains of sand: woe is me.
And yet, is it asking so much to have reassurance stated? Is it so wrong to voice a constant need for it? (TheFracturedLight also said: “There is no shame in verbally expressing your needs to your loved ones. Don’t assume that if they love you they’ll do it without being asked. If they make fun of you or push you away because of it, it says much more about your loved one than it does about you. People who care about you and want to see you recover will be open minded with helping you get to where you need to be.”)
This is where my ex of four years (who I will refer to as X) comes into the story: every exposed vulnerability drew him closer to me. (Bell Hooks wrote: “The essence of true love is mutual recognition—two individuals seeing each other as they really are.”)
When one of my best friendships was crumbling, and I was convinced an entire social circle hated me, I randomly burst into tears on X’s couch. “You’re a very kind hearted person,” he reminded me. When my drinking problem was at its worst, and my brain had convinced me that I added nothing to anyone’s life; when I was convinced that I was a failure as a daughter and a sister and an aunt, he said, “You make my life better.” When all bets were off, and I decided to reveal myself fully; when I told him that I cheated, I said, “Now you know who I really am.” And he said, “There’s more to you than that.”
Every attempt to push him away was met with warmth; our relationship was a good dream. And for the longest time I got to exist inside that bubble—as cliché as it is, he was my safe haven. Finally, there was someone solid on the other end of all those love songs couples like to dance to at weddings. There was no record of wrongs, and he only ever wanted to see me shine. On my worst days, he never made me feel as if I needed to dial it back a notch; there were no limiting ideas about what a woman was or could be. But then one day we went out for a big fancy dinner, and I realized we had nothing to say to each other; our conversations had always been lacking, and I realized that was something I really needed from a partner.
It’s maddening, honestly. How someone can help pull you out of one of the most difficult times in your life and still not be the one. And facing this reality is absolutely terrifying, like looking into an abyss. Leaving someone who is absolutely more than enough feels like a gamble; and, looking at my own behavior—making out with a 24 year old, going through yet another “break-up” with yet another emotionally unavailable not-boyfriend—it’s impossible not to wonder whether I’ve backtracked, whether I’ve regressed exponentially. It has occured to me that I might be making the biggest mistake of my life. But now, having left, I can’t go back and pretend like never knowing for sure whether or not I can make it on my own—whether or not I can thrive without the validations of another person—won’t haunt me for the rest of my life.
And besides, what’s so scary about ending up alone ultimately? Maybe as a society we put too much value in the concept of labels and commitment—in the institute of marriage and the concept of a resounding happily ever after. Maybe all-or-nothing logic isn’t just a borderline problem, and maybe we’re all a little too idealistic when it comes to romance. (At the beginning of all this, my friend said, “Every relationship serves its purpose.” And in my all-or-nothing brain there is so much resistance to this simple fact: 99.99999% of all relationships are not built to last. But I don’t want to stay this way forever: tucked away inside a teenage dream, a girl—no, not a 30 year old woman—hiding out in her bedroom and writing forever in the margins of her papers to no avail.)
One of the core traits of BPD is a fear of abandonment. This fear is what underlies most of a borderline’s most unsavory behaviors: a constant race to outrun being left. It’s ironic, really. My desperate attempts to make people stay are often what pushes them away.
Regarding X, my psychiatrist said, “Think of him as proof that not everybody leaves.” (Bell Hooks wrote: “A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers—the experience of knowing we always belong.”)
Maybe this is the purpose he served: an example for what honest love with a man looks like. Proof that, despite all my shortcomings: I am someone worth staying for.
When I think of how Y and I left each other, I don’t have it in me to be mad. I’m just sad, as flat and gray as it sounds—the most boring thing a person can be. I miss talking to him, mostly.
Not to draw comparisons—but to draw comparisons—he let me into his inner workings in a way that X never did. (Between all my anxieties, I’m glad I didn’t miss the moment: when a hyper masculine man drops the façade and pulls back the curtain to reveal an average human being, it’s such a beautiful relief; like looking at a sunset and realizing that you’ve survived another day.)
Having experienced him, I believe a lot of love is still possible for me. (TheFracturedLight said: “Be grateful that you had your favorite person for as long as you did. Think about what experiences and lessons you learned from that person. Practice personal gratitude for the time you had together, and don’t demonize them.”)
In all of my 30 years, I don’t think I’ve ever made a conscious effort to commit to myself. It has always been easier to hand myself over to somebody else, like: Men, take the wheel! (Bell Hooks wrote: “If you don’t know what you feel, then it is difficult to choose love; it is better to fall. Then you don’t have to be responsible for your actions.”) And they say limerence—that all consuming form of infatuation—is its own form of emotional unavailability; that it’s indicative of an avoidance of self; that limerent objects are used to subsidize whatever a limerent believes they lack. (One limerence website suggested: “You could try making a list of characteristics you feel the person has and start to work on owning them for yourself so you don’t feel like you need them.”)
Y always seemed pretty up front about who he was, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to be for myself. See, when there’s a surplus of blogs that say people with your mental illness are abusive and toxic, when the message that is constantly reiterated to you says that you’re “too much”, it’s difficult to be up front about who you are. (I have always concealed my true thoughts and feelings with such secrecy [maybe this is why I like writing] because I don’t want to scare people off; I don’t want to hurt or overwhelm them. And it’s only just occurred to me that, by doing this, I prolong my own pain by putting myself in rejection’s direct line of fire. It seems obvious, but: how can I possibly expect to meet and keep the right people when I’m presenting a watered-down or incomplete version of myself?)
At the beginning of this, I shared a segment from my journal where I confessed that I struggled to answer the question: What do I want? But now I realize that I wasn’t asking myself the right question. See, I know what I like and don’t like, and I think I might even know what I want: it’s admitting those things to myself and most people that’s hard. (Sylvia Plath, a poet and famous borderline, wrote in her journal: “I know pretty much what I like and dislike; but please don’t ask me who I am.”)
I have a hard time knowing how to be who I am because I am constantly dealing with any number of voices that aren’t mine. The most pervasive of which is always saying: It’s not that deep. You should be over this by now. (I constantly crave validation for this reason: I am constantly invalidating and judging myself for having feelings—the most natural and human thing in the world.) And everyday is a constant battle to separate my voice from the other voices; a constant argument between who I am and the false things other people have said about and to me.
I have to constantly remind myself: if it’s that deep to me, then it’s that deep; if I’m not over it, then I’m not over it and I deserve my own validation. (Ashley Nestler, another borderline blogger, wrote that it’s a natural part of the borderline experience for pain to linger: “Living with borderline personality disorder makes me feel like my heart never fully heals—that my pain remains no matter how much time has gone by.”) And, with all that being said, borderline or not, I insist: giving yourself validation is hard. And the ugly thing about this challenge is: without your own validation, you lose your integrity, and, consequently, you lose yourself.
My friend and I talked about this recently: it is so much easier to lose yourself in another person than it is to go home and face yourself—whatever the fuck that even means. (I’m still trying to figure it out.) And, if you’re anything like me—if you have a personality disorder that leaves your identity fragmented by other people’s perceptions of you—their ability or inability to love and accept you—you constantly look at your relationships, and then you look at yourself, and you try to seperate them, but you don’t know where to begin because you don’t even know where you begin.
If these notes are any indication: I’ve been trying to crack this code my entire life. And I realize now that I envied the way Y bobbed so gracefully on the surface. I want to be more like that, but also: that’s just not who I am. I am not someone who treads lightly, and all along I’ve been avoiding and concealing that obvious truth about myself. I’ve been trying to subsidize for my own perceived lack through another person—which was never fair to me or him.
The whole point of a relationship is to appreciate someone for who they are while allowing them to appreciate you for who you are: not to become each other. And—who knows—maybe my depth was something he appreciated about me, maybe I wasn’t rejected for it. But the point is: I don’t want the perceptions of another person to matter so much to me. I just want to be myself, but it’s really really fucking hard.
Sylvia Plath once referred to herself as a “passionate fragmentary girl”, and that’s how I feel—like I’m the passionate fragmentary girl, stumbling around lost in other people’s definitions of her, flaring up and blowing to pieces whenever other people leave. And of course I sometimes wonder: Maybe I get rejected because people don’t want to be around someone who’s so fucking lost. (People will just flat out reject you for having BPD. You’ll tell them, “I’m mentally ill,” and they’ll say, “You don’t seem like it!” And they’ll think they can handle it because—like my mom said—you’re normal most of the time. But, eventually, there comes a moment when you’re not normal, and you’re having an episode, and that’s the real moment of truth. I hate to break it to everyone, but when that moment comes: a lot of people fold.) And then it becomes a vicious cycle, like: anger at others ⇉ remorse ⇉ terror of being left ⇉ anger at self ⇉ greater likelihood of self-harm ⇉ greater likelihood of abandonment… it goes on and on, into infinity. Like I said: I don’t know where to begin.
I guess, in the aftermath of everything: I have the time to try and figure it out. Having left my long term relationship, having ended my relationship with my not-boyfriend, I now have all the time in the world for myself.
So here I am, consciously committing to myself. (Figuring out who I am: it’s so obvious and difficult and contradicting all at once. Taking care of myself through honest personal inventory and actual vulnerability; listening to myself and making sure my actions align with what I want, regardless of anyone else’s feelings: it’s the only way to do right by my inner-child, the only way to feel whole within myself and my relationships. I maintain: being who you are is hard, but not being loved for who you are is harder.) So self-love, I guess, is necessary after all. (Self-help: I resent it as much as I need it.) And so I’ve read that thinking in terms of “I get to” rather than “I have to” is an effective way to “love yourself”—a healthy way to improve your perspective and attitude.
Now let me use this logic as a personal writing prompt:
I get to wake up alone. I get to make my bed and trick my brain into thinking it has accomplished something. I get to take mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. I get to feel as many as 6 impossible emotions before breakfast. I get to go to work and cry alone in the bathroom and then return like nothing ever happened. I get to buy myself a silver daisy ring at the antique mall, and I get to tell myself that it’s a small symbol of hope. I get to watch movies where good things happen to women. I get to start a sex and love addiction counter on my phone. I get to do my eyes up as if I scribbled all over them with a sharpie marker; and I get to drink NA beers in rapid succession as I pretend to cope like a former version of myself. I get to feel the color returning to my cheeks as I cultivate a runner’s high and listen to Gayle’s angrier version of ‘ABCDEFU’. I get to look at the stars. I get to internalize Bell Hooks’s words: ‘Being an outsider is a place of creativity and possibility.’ I get to change my text tone so it can’t hurt me anymore. I get to look in the mirror and accept that so many conflicting parts of me exist. I get to listen to a guided meditation that says: ‘You are the valiant hero that you’ve been waiting on to save the day and make everything okay.’ I get to feel it all, I guess. I get to have my heart continuously cracked open, and I get to come back stronger every time. I get to lead a life filled with romance. I get to enter the orbits of my favorite people like unique rooms, and I get to take away the very best of them. I get to weep when I look at all the work I have left to do.
Texts from a “break-up”:
Me: It didn’t mean nothing to you though, did it? Because I’m still really going to cherish the times we did have, and it would suck to realize I was alone in that.
Y: Hanging out with you didn’t mean anything? Why wouldn’t it?
2 thoughts on “Notes From a Break-Up: on dating with borderline personality disorder”
wow i could relate so much to this. thanks for being so vulnerable and sharing all of these parts of yourself.
I had to take a second and really take in these words, for its intense precision and yet heartwarming sensitivity to what goes on in the mind during the coming and going of people who, we feel with a deep passion, are permanent and meaningful fixtures in our lives. And as you say, it’s totally okay to have that level of love and at the same time know time will cast it down that cruel river eventually.
Some people we meet, no matter how superficial may fill some “missing” part of us in ways we don’t think about in the moment, and that reflection when they’re gone is heartwrenching, fulfilling and yet fleeting. It takes way too long to realize sometimes we ought to let things be, that not everything can be controlled and really feeling the moment is sometimes all we really need. Being ourselves and not melding into becoming/overtaking our partner takes arguably just as much work as maintaining the relationships we have with others. Every now and then, we should immerse yourself in the awesome (whatever that means now!) world around us and realize it’s all fleeting and impermanent, including our pains.
Face yourself, learn about yourself, understand yourself and most of all, be comfortable with yourself, though it may be tough some days. Reminds me of that Robin Williams line “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.” I may not relate to having BPD, but reading your story living with it is enlightening, and humbling.
“I get to” and not “I have to”, you nailed it. Life and love isn’t always the slog we believe it to be in hindsight, its the opportunity we were granted to live it out and summon the courage to face it. Your positivity is always so refreshing. Thanks again, Cat.