If you are familiar with my non-fiction work, then it is likely that you are aware of my struggle with borderline personality disorder. For those unfamiliar, borderline is my Achilles’ heel. When I was fifteen, I endured some trauma, and I believe it was this trauma that caused my BPD. In my essay, How Borderline Personality Disorder Manifests In Me, I wrote…
I am not sure if there is much to this scientifically, but I swear I remember the day the BPD emerged. I was walking to school (probably listening to Marilyn Manson). It was a beautiful Sunny Autumn day. But I felt somehow different. I still had not yet acknowledged that I was being raped and abused. However, I had become aware of just how worthless I was feeling. As of that day, the seed of the belief that I am unloveable had sprouted.”
BPD is a mental health disorder, specifically a personality disorder, rather than a mood disorder. While people with borderline can, and typically do, experience extreme mood swings, these mood swings are not the root of the disorder, the way they are with a mood disorder such as bipolar. Rather, quick-changing moods are a symptom of borderline.
Sufferers of borderline struggle, not with a chemical imbalance, but with their cognition. Their perception of both themselves and the world are easily distorted. Perhaps the most common symptom of borderline is an intense fear of abandonment—or at least this is the case in my personal struggle with BPD. Another is to lack a sense of self, to not know who you really are. But the symptom I want to focus on today is ‘splitting’.
In my essay, I Have Borderline Personality Disorder—But I Am Not A Bad Person, I gave a definition of ‘splitting’…
‘Splitting’ is a defence mechanism: an unconscious attempt to avoid perceived abandonment. Fear of abandonment is borderline personality disorder’s signature symptom. When someone with BPD ‘splits’, they will often shift from idealizing their partner to devaluing them. All-or-nothing thinking is a symptom of BPD; seeing the world in shades of grey can be challenging for us.”
This is a good definition in the sense that it describes this symptom of BPD: “Unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.” However, reviewing the essay a year and a half later, I now think my definition is too narrow.
The last year and a half has brought me some truly wonderful things, one of them being my partner. I love my partner and I am very happy with my relationship. I have someone in my life who is not only my lover, but also my best friend and someone I make music with. What more could I ask for? I am over the Moon!
However, even though this relationship is so fulfilling, this doesn’t mean it has always been easy. It has been challenging, but challenging in the right way. We share the same values, so building a life together comes naturally. That said, being in any relationship forces me to look at my trauma, to look at my complex post-traumatic stress disorder and my borderline personality disorder, to look at my shit.
In a sense, this is even more the case with a relationship so happy and healthy; for, when I was in a relationship with an individual who I did not share values with, I could justifiably make the mistake of blaming my aforementioned partner for why I was unhappy. But now, being with someone who loves me the way I want to be loved, and then still experiencing borderline episodes, and then still ‘splitting’… I will admit it: in most cases, I ought to point the finger, not at my partner, but in the mirror.
So, yes, this relationship has led me to introspect more deeply about my struggle with borderline personality disorder. A year and a half ago, when I wrote that first essay on BPD, I Have Borderline Personality Disorder—But I Am Not A Bad Person, I was really just coming clean about my true diagnosis. I had been vocal about the importance of mental health for a long time, but, because of the stigma around borderline, never had I made my actual diagnosis public. Honestly, writing and publishing that essay was an exercise in self-love—radical self-love.
My relationship, new at the time, had triggered my BPD. Relationships, wonderful as they can be, are my biggest trigger. Prior to meeting my current partner, I had been single for six months, and during that time, my BPD had been in remission. In my essay, Falling In Love Triggered My Borderline Personality Disorder, I wrote about how, during my time away from dating and relationships, because I went so long without an episode, I had fooled myself into thinking that borderline was a thing of my past, and that when I got into my next relationship, it wouldn’t be there.
And then when I did fall in love—even though I had proven to myself that I could be okay on my own, even though the man I fell in love with is so well suited to me—my BPD was, of course, still there, waiting for me in the shadows.
I do not want to limit myself and say I will never be completely cured, but current medicine does suggest that borderline is something you learn to manage over time, rather than something that goes away. I will keep healing myself, but it is likely that BPD is something I will struggle with for a long time, maybe for the rest of my life. This disorder is a part of me. And this relationship has helped me, not only better understand myself and my borderline, but also accept and love myself more deeply, despite my BPD.
Of course, every individual case of borderline will be just that: individual. However, through this relationship, what I have learned about my ‘splitting’ is this: I am much more likely to ‘split’ on myself than I am on a loved one.
Prior to this relationship, I didn’t really understand what ‘splitting’ on yourself is. Frankly, I did not even know that was possible. The stereotype of someone with borderline is that they go from loving their partner to loathing them—or, in clinical terms, from idealizing their partner to devaluing them. I am capable of this too. But it is much more likely that I will devalue myself; it is much more likely that I will go from feeling okay in my skin to absolutely hating myself.
Now, of course, everyone gets down on themselves sometimes. But, as someone with borderline, what I experience is an intense self-hatred, one that makes it challenging, or even impossible, to function. When I ‘split’ on myself, my partner, in attempts to ground me, tells me that it is ‘opposite day’ in my brain. Honestly, this is a pretty accurate way of wording what it is I experience. There is an all-or-nothing thinking that comes with borderline, and when I ‘split’ on myself, that all-or-nothing thinking is activated. I will discount all my good traits and everything I have accomplished.
What is really going on in those moments is this: I am seriously questioning whether or not I am a good person, whether or not I deserve anything good in my life, and, sometimes, whether or not I deserve to live at all. And I will feel incredibly guilty for taking up space in my partner’s life—for taking up any space—for existing. The self-doubt I experience at this time is overwhelming.
So, when it comes to ‘splitting’ on other people, for me, this almost always manifests as an intense fear of abandonment, paired with radical self-loathing—both common with BPD. To quote my essay, I Have Borderline Personality Disorder—But I Am Not A Bad Person…
When I ‘split’, I just become a clingy fuck. And then I hate myself for it.”
Why is this? Well, if my all-or-nothing thinking does get triggered and I do start discounting all of the good in my relationship, it just isn’t in my conditioning to loathe the other person. I have been conditioned to not externalize, but internalize. So, if the other person is upset or angry with me, or if they are about to leave me, or if I just think one of these things, I am much more likely to blame myself, not them.
What does this look like? ‘Fawning’. When it comes to dealing with fear, people tend to ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘freeze’ or ‘fawn’. The first three fear-responses are the most known, while ‘fawning’ is less talked about.
Let’s say there is an individual with borderline who is also a ‘fighter’. They will likely respond to interpersonal conflict by fighting, by getting angry. Their ‘splitting’ might involve them lashing out at their partner, expressing their feelings, maybe inappropriately.
Now let’s say there is an individual with borderline who is also a ‘flighter’ This individual will likely respond to interpersonal conflict by flighting, by running away. These are the borderlines who suddenly break up with you, and maybe they don’t even tell you why. They want to avoid the conflict and are willing to sever the connection in order to do so, even if they later regret this.
As for a borderline ‘freezer’, they will likely do nothing in interpersonal conflict—or rather, freeze—not because they don’t care, but because, when faced with conflict, their instinct is to shut down.
Finally, as someone with a ‘fawn’ response, I deal with conflict by making attempts to please the other person. I do this unconsciously; it is second nature. When ‘splitting’, rather than get angry or run away, I will, instead, internalize the conflict, assume I am the problem, and then make desperate attempts to ‘fix’ things for the other person. I’ll try to ‘fix’ myself, because I have a deeply rooted belief that I am broken.
Because I am ‘splitting’ on myself, rather than living out the BPD stereotype of ‘I hate you—don’t leave me!’, what I experience is more accurately worded ‘I hate me—don’t leave me!’
Now, while this habit of ‘fawning’ can make things feel okay momentarily, in actuality, this is an incredibly unhealthy coping mechanism. For one thing, with the exception of abusive relationships, interpersonal dynamics are always, well, a dynamic between two individuals. Things are rarely all one way or the other; more often than not they are nuanced.
Taking the blame for everything, internalizing every conflict I have in my relationships, this is not only inaccurate, but it is also unhealthy. It only feeds my BPD, perpetuating the cycles of the episodes, triggering other symptoms of the disorder such as the fear of abandonment, episodes of depression and dysphoria, identity disturbances, suicidal thoughts, and the like.
Furthermore, hiding my true feelings is not only unhealthy for me as an individual, it is also unhealthy for a relationship. True intimacy requires vulnerability. When my partner and I are faced with a conflict, yes, it is great that on the other side of this ‘fawning’ coin, there lies one of my greatest strengths: my empathy. However, it is also vital that I express my feelings, while still making space for his.
So, what are the consequences of not being honest about how I feel? Well, when I fail to express my feelings because I fear abandonment, those bad feelings don’t just go away. Sure, I can pretend they aren’t there, for a while. But eventually, they will catch up with me, and I will not be able to hide them anymore. And then, because I have stuffed them, they are likely to become intense, overwhelming, explosive.
I will be honest: these are the moments in which I have, in the fashion of the BPD stereotype, ‘split’ on my partner. Because, at this point, I am at the end of my rope. So, even though I don’t want to be angry with them, I cannot help but become angry with them. One of the symptoms of BPD is: ‘extreme anger or difficulty controlling anger’. In my essay, How Borderline Personality Disorder Manifests In Me, I wrote…
This particular symptom is not one I personally struggle with. It is rare that I feel angry, even when appropriate. But this lack of anger is not the result of me being some kind of saint; rather, it stems from my codependent traits. Naturally, I am an empath, and unfortunately, I have lived through some situations in which that empathy was exploited.”
Because it is hard to admit, what I failed to mention in that essay, was that very, very exceptionally I will feel extreme anger and I will have a difficult time controlling it. By ‘exceptionally’ what I mean is that I have been angry like that only a handful of times in my life—so probably less than most people without borderline, let alone people struggling with such a disorder.
One of the instances occurred towards the end of a five-year relationship, during a tumultuous time. Another instance was at another boyfriend, again during a time I was experiencing a lot of stress. Oh, and I was very drunk, which did not help. Finally, I can think of one instance in which I blew up at my current partner. Again, it was during an emotionally challenging period, and I was at my wits’ end. (There may have been other instances as well, but these are the examples that come to mind while writing this essay.)
None of these explanations are excuses for losing my temper. However, I now understand that if I had sooner been honest about my feelings, not just with the other person, but with myself, then my feelings would not have evolved into an uncontrollable rage.
In hindsight, I wish that my relationship with myself had mattered to me more than my relationship with these people, even though they are all great people. That is to say, I wish I hadn’t, prior to these angry outbursts, spent months pretending things were okay when they really weren’t okay. I wish my fear of abandonment did not compete so viciously with my inner voice.
As an individual with, not just borderline personality disorder, but a ‘fawn’ response, this is one of my biggest challenges: listening to myself—figuring out how I truly feel about things—drowning out the voices of others.
I still have a long way to go; I still have many bad habits I must unlearn. However, I do think, in this last year or so, I have made progress with this. Not only do I understand myself better than I did before, but I am also getting better at taking time to listen to myself, and I am getting better at expressing my thoughts and feelings, asking for the things I want and need, in a healthy, balanced way.
I am learning to live, not just for others, but for myself.