Vacationing in San Diego, CA this week let me reflect on how much life has changed since I began recovering from BPD. In this post, I’ll consider how what I look for from relationships and work has evolved over the past ten years.
I spent this week with one of my closest friends, Gareth. We visited some beautiful places, including San Diego’s beaches, Joshua Tree National Park, downtown Los Angeles, and Venice Beach, the former home of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The trip accomplished my goals of visiting fascinating new places while finding time to relax in the sun.
Earlier on this blog, I described how Gareth helped me when I first developed BPD symptoms around age 17.
For the first six or seven years of our friendship, Gareth showed extraordinary patience and endurance in containing my depression, terror, and rage. These feelings often emerged during our frequent phone calls and visits. He showed me what real friendship and concern for another person meant, concepts which were initially incomprehensible because of my traumatic childhood. Eleven years later, we remain good friends, although our relationship is very different today.
Today, at age 28, I am increasingly focused on long-term goals in work and relationships. Running my own business for four years, buying my first house, and developing positive new friendships and dating relationships have all helped me feel more independent. Where it was once an unending nightmare, life is now an adventure, full of worthwhile challenges and opportunities. I now look forward to the future.
To consider how my needs have changed, it’s best to start with the most difficult times, the days when my needs were urgent, primitive, and overwhelming.
The Long Emergency
By my mid-teens, I had developed the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder as an inevitable consequence of the physical abuse and lack of love I experienced in childhood. I had no real friends, nor was I close to my parents. I did not trust anybody. Most of my energy went toward containing the terrible feelings of fear and despair which constantly threatened to overwhelm me. I had no idea what I needed to get better, or who to turn to for help.
I had been extremely hurt by my father’s abuse. Frustrated with his job and marriage, my father would attack me given the slightest provocation. On one occasion, he threw me ten feet across a room onto the corner of a wooden desk. On another, he chased me up to my bedroom, broke the door clean off its hinges, and assaulted me with close-fisted blows to my head and body. These incidents started around age six. My mother did not protect me; instead, she ignored my father’s behavior and pretended that we were a functional family.
These abuses were not the worst thing. Even more damanging was the silence – the fact that no one in our family talked to each other. Warmth, intimacy, spontaneity, and love were alien concepts, as far from my knowledge as cell phones, cars, and computers to a caveman. Outside of the occasional intense confrontation with my father, we related to each other in a robotic, automatic way. My father, mother, younger sister and I went to school and work, ate and slept, but never connected as real human beings. I never developed a sense of myself as valuable, as a part of the family that anyone cared about. It was this experience, and the horrible void it created, that led to the borderline symptoms.
The Vulnerable Self’s Demands
However, even in this dark, challenging time, I had some sense of what I needed. I wanted love, even though I couldn’t verbalize it at the time. There was a voice inside me which always said, “We have to find help!” I named this voice “Dudie”, based on the friendly word, “dude,” and talked to it as if it were another person. In the face of Dudie’s repeated demands, I gradually realized that my vulnerable inner self desperately wanted someone to care about me. In reality, I was talking to myself. Pretending to be two people was a defense against facing how truly alone I was.
I remember being in high school science class and feeling absolutely desperate. Dudie would say to me, “You have to find someone, Edward!” and “What are you doing to help us?” and “Feeling like this can’t go on any longer!” and “You have to do something!” This borderline psychotic state was an expression of my helplessness and of my desperate need for love and support.
I was frequently on the verge of tears during high school classes, and it was not normal sadness. Rather, it was a desperate, life-threatening feeling – a sense that if I did not find help soon, the core of my being would be destroyed. The problem was, I didn’t know what sort of help I needed. The terror at this helplessness filled my whole body and made me scared to move. Feelings of rage – outrage, because it felt wrong, unfair, and abnormal for anyone to feel this way all the time – constantly exacerbated the feelings of hopelessness and fear.
Rage and The Need for Love As Shown in The Crow
Around age 16, I first saw The Crow, starring Brandon Lee. In this dark, tragic film, a man and his beloved girlfriend are murdered, and the man returns from the dead to seek revenge on the gang members who killed her. The movie features an intimidating-looking young man stalking city streets at night, carrying out execution-style murders, and finally reuniting with a ghostly vision of his girlfriend.
I remember identifying deeply with the main character’s overwhelming, constant rage and with his fervent desire to reunite with his girlfriend. My childhood deprivation and abuse created the rage that I experienced vicariously through Brandon Lee. And my longing for someone to love me caused me to identify strongly with the final scene of reunion.
Here is a typical violent scene from the movie – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gffvxlENZIw&list=PLCA31E34EE14C2520&index=4
This scene may be disturbing to some readers, but I was never violent. This scene allowed me to vicariously experience the rage and wish for revenge against my father. Today, I have forgiven my father and no longer want to get back at him. Also, if one has watched the full movie, it contains scenes of friendship and hope (especially Eric Draven and the young girl), and I liked these also.
And here is the reunion scene – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5dEM6xhL-Q
My Needs During the Dark Years
During the difficult years from around ages 16-23, my urgent need for understanding and support drove my behavior. In developmental terms, I desperately wanted a dependent, parent-child form of relationship. I wanted someone to mother me, to give me primary love and unconditional acceptance. In the void created by the lack of such a relationship – a relationship most people successfully complete as very young children – I experienced catastrophic rage, fear, and hopelessness. These overwhelming emotions precluded all other needs.
I painfully and enviously saw other young men getting girlfriends, developing networks of friends, and getting jobs. But these things presented overwhelming challenges for me, because I never felt well for more than a few hours, and most of the time I felt terrible. With no self-confidence, no identity, no inner stability, I couldn’t hope to become independent and forge good age-appropriate relationships.
A poignant indicator of the gap between my desires and my abilities was Laura. She was a beautiful, tall, blonde high-school girl who preoccupied me throughout high school. Her gorgeous body captivated me, but I had no idea how to relate to her as a person. It never crossed my mind to ask her about her opinions or interests. I hardly ever spoke to her, but always looked at her longingly whenever she was not looking.
One year, without saying anything, I timidly gave Laura a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. Luckily, she was a kind girl, and never made fun of me despite my awkwardness. Had I believed in myself, I was probably good-looking enough to have attracted her interest. But without the basic confidence that comes from having a long-term good relationship to a parent-figure, it proved impossible for me to even approach her.
At college, I wanted to make friends and join some student clubs. But my first two years at a prestigious state school turned into a social nightmare. I expected that other people would dislike me, and although that was not always the case, it seemed that way. I rarely looked people in the eye and had trouble maintaining conversations. Other people felt this awkwardness, and so tended not to invest themselves in getting to know me. In reality, my negative expectations and projections created this reality.
As I continued in college, I felt increasingly desperate and alone. By this time, I knew that I desperately needed someone to help me and to understand my struggle. But I still didn’t know where to start.
Toward the end of my first two years at college, I started to drive home on weekends to see my mother, who had divorced my abusive father and moved into a new house. These visits with my mom comforted me for the first time. My mother somehow understood that I needed emotional help. We had a number of long talks, in which I would tell her awkwardly about my struggles in classes and with making friends at college.
Eventually, I broke down and cried with my mother, telling her how alone and hopeless I felt. Although it felt embarrassing, it was such a relief. I had often cried alone in my dorm room and at home during high school. It had been a lonely, desolate type of crying, the type of mourning in which there is no one there to hold you. Having another human being there felt incredibly redeeming. It reminded me of the final scene from the movie The Crow.
Dudie was invigorated. For the first time, real human help had reached me. Dudie began to speak to me during the week at college. He urged me to return home every weekend, and told me that there would be severe consequences if I did not go!
Eventually, my mother’s support, and my continued loneliness and unhappiness at college led me to return home for good. My mother and I developed a “symbiotic” relationship for the first time.
At the same time, I found a new psychodynamic therapist. During this year, around age 21, I had been reading Jeffrey Seinfeld’s work for the first time. From my own study, I understood how Borderline Personality Disorder results from “introjecting” (taking in) bad relationships and rejecting good relationships. I understood that the failure to develop a long-term loving relationship in childhood underlay all of the borderline problems, and how full recovery could only come through a long-term good relationship with someone in the present.
Based on this theoretical understanding, I directed all of my energy toward developing a positive relationship with my therapist. This did not mean that I avoided rage, fear, and hopelessness. I felt and discussed these emotions often. But as Seinfeld noted poignantly, there is something even more important that the borderline’s preoccupation with bad feelings and unsatisfactory relationships. That something is their terror and avoidance of positive, vulnerable relationships. The borderline feels that good relationships and love are forbidden, dangerous, and undeserved. This was the case with me.
During the first few years of therapy, I invented every possible reason to distrust and reject my therapist. My therapist was, 1) Not experienced enough, 2) Not optimistic enough about borderlines, 3) Not attractive enough physically (yes really!), 4) Too preoccupied with money, 5) Not perfectly on time, 6) Guilty of advocating medication, which I hated, 7) Not caring enough, 8) Not perfect. I used each of these as reasons to create distance and avoid intimacy in treatment. Eventually, I understood that I artificially created these “problems” with my therapist in order to punish myself. I dwelled on them to avoid noticing her good qualities which would lead to a good relationship. In other words, I continuously activated the all-bad self and object images (via splitting) and rejected the internal good self and object units.
Eventually, over the course of several years, I let these doubts go and experienced a prolonged therapeutic symbiosis. This period was among the most wonderful times of my life. I felt loved like a little child, as if everything was right with the world. The experience reminds me of the opening lines of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, Fern Hill:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydeys of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sand to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the Sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark…
Words can hardly describe this time, but this poem captures some of the childlike omnipotence, the carefree feelings of joy and delight, the direct sensual experience of the outside world that characterize therapeutic symbiosis. After years of emotional darkness, the flowers, grass and the sky seemed much brighter, as if my world had morphed into Technicolor. I felt that I had cheated death and entered a kind of heaven on earth. For years I had been planning to recover, and finally it was real! Hundreds of times I had promised Dudie, my inner self, that I would find someone to love him, and now his dream had come true.
My Needs in the Resolution of the Symbiosis
Being unrealistically all-good, this period of therapeutic symbiosis could not last forever. Eventually, my doubts about my therapist had to be worked through again, and new problems with school, work, and relationships emerged. Much work remained to be done. But the loving relationships with my mother, my therapist, and Gareth had proved transformative. I would never again be so vulnerable to despair and terror. I had a hard-won sense of myself as a worthwhile person. And I kept fighting to develop good new relationships, and to succeed in college and work.
In the years following, I became director at two learning centers where I teach children. I bought my own house, began to invest in other real estate, and made new, mature friendships. My need to be loved in a childlike way diminished greatly, and I began to genuinely care about other people’s wellbeing. Where before I had only feigned interest, I now wanted to find out what other people were interested in and how they thought.
The desperate need for a savior (a mother-figure to be dependent on) has been replaced by a serious consideration of what qualities I look for in friends and in a girlfriend. I want people who are mostly kind, funny, intellectual, active, loyal, unselfish, on-time, and reliable. I am quite conscious about who I choose to spend my time with based on these and other qualities. My needs have evolved from one-sided dependent relationships in which I only “take” from people, to two-way peer relationships in which there is both give and take.
With work over the past four years, I have learned a massive amount from managing a small business on my own. I’ve learned accounting, advertising, marketing, and most of all how to teach children of all ages. After college several years ago, full-time work was not a priority because I did not feel well enough to commit to it. Work was a stress to be avoided, rather than a need. But today, full-time work is a challenge that I enjoy. Finding a balance between succeeding at work while having time for relationships is a primary goal.
At work itself, I’m trying to challenge myself in other ways. I like to learn new ways to teach kids and to automate my accounting and advertising, but I also want to start another side business that links tutors and students outside of large institutions. Whether or not this succeeds, I will learn more about entrepreneurship through the process. Lastly, I am developing long-term financial goals, saving and investing to make me more secure in the future.
Conclusion – Good Challenges
One challenge today is that the woman I have been dating for much of the past year, Aletta, has become seriously physically ill. She is a wonderful, kind, intelligent, and attractive woman, and I have benefitted greatly from knowing her. Even though she’s several years younger, I credit her with teaching me a lot about how to have a mature, respectful romantic relationship. She might think I’m out of my mind for saying that, but if so she should give herself more credit J
Although I’m quite worried for her, I believe Aletta will be able to persevere through her physical problems and recover fully. Notwithstanding these challenges, she may choose to work outside of my state in the long-term, which would make it more difficult for us to stay in regular contact. Despite the uncertainties, I enjoy staying in touch with her, since she remains a lovely person. I would be delighted if Aletta returned to live in this area, and sad if she does not, but will be able to handle either outcome.
My struggle to recover has taught me that one never reaches a place where things are all easy or problems completely go away. I am often faced with challenges and problems today. The difference is that they are not overwhelming, and I relish many of them. Despite life’s challenges, I feel genuinely well most of the time.
It’s my hope that this essay has demonstrated something of the way in which needs evolve to more mature levels during recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder. The borderline individual begins recovery with needs which are primitive, urgent, and overwhelming. He is focused on finding a basic, parental form of loving support that will fill the inner void and reduce his terrible emotional suffering. Over time, as he experiences a therapeutic symbiosis, the recovering former borderline develops mature ego capacities and an identity. He becomes increasingly able to form mutually satisfying relationships with peers, to decide what qualities he wants in others, and to find satisfaction and autonomy in his work.
I welcome any correspondance at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are struggling with BPD yourself or are trying to help a borderline individual, I would be happy to listen to your story and provide feedback if possible. Feel free to provide constructive criticism of this site also.
This article is the opinion of a non-professional layperson, and should not be taken as medical advice or as the view of a therapist who is professionally qualified to treat Borderline Personality Disorder or any other mental health condition. Readers should consult with a qualified mental health professional before undertaking any treatment.
– Edward Dantes