Check out Ruby's three-part audio diary series “Ruby and Borderline” to learn more about her experience with mental illness.
On the eve of April 1st, as most people put the final touches on their elaborate April Fools’ Day pranks, I am usually lining up vodka bottles and drugs, reminiscing about every mistake I’ve ever made in order to dig myself into a black hole of man-made depression. This year I didn’t do that.
April 1st, 2014 marks the worst day of my life. I casually describe it to others as “the day my mind broke," the day I lost control of myself, which feels like losing the core that binds someone’s humanity together. The day I vowed that no matter how my life turned out, I would never emotionally get over.
At the tail end of my freshman year of college, the relationship I had been in for two years was finally splintering. Anyone from the outside could see that although it was full of genuine love, the relationship was toxic in its inclination towards codependency, manipulation, and emotional abuse. I was aware of its destructive nature and how it consumed every aspect of my life, but because I felt truly unconditionally loved by my girlfriend—something I didn’t receive from my parents—I was irrevocably attached to her. She enabled our addiction to one another, making me believe that I couldn’t live without her. And I truly believed that. Feeling like she was the person who understood me in a way that nobody in my life ever had or ever would made the concept of losing her unfathomable. We couldn’t stand to be apart—her walking out of a room could spin me into a full blown anxiety attack.
I WAS AWARE OF ITS DESTRUCTIVE NATURE AND HOW IT CONSUMED EVERY ASPECT OF MY LIFE, BUT BECAUSE I FELT TRULY UNCONDITIONALLY LOVED BY MY GIRLFRIEND—SOMETHING I DIDN’T RECEIVE FROM MY PARENTS—I WAS IRREVOCABLY ATTACHED TO HER
By the end of March we had entered a vicious cycle of breaking up, having had countless conversations about the necessity of separating but still talking to and seeing each other. The depression caused by the never-ending turmoil consumed me to the point where I stopped eating or sleeping, and I wasn’t going to class. It all came to head on April 1st with an exchange in my dorm room, and I felt in my gut that when she left, it would be for good. The fear of losing what felt like my genuine lifeline sent my entire body into fight or flight. I lost all responsiveness and physically attacked my girlfriend in order to keep her from leaving, in the midst of what I would later understand to be a dissociative psychotic break. Similarly to an alcohol-induced blackout, I can only recall flashes of it. When I finally returned to awareness and was told what had transpired, the agony and immense shame involved with hurting the person whom I loved most in the world was incomprehensible. Suicidal, I was involuntarily hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for a full week. It was during that hospital stay that that I was first diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, leading to six weeks of inpatient treatment in my hometown.
Doctors explained to me that my “blackout” was due to extreme dissociation brought on by what felt like a world-ending breakup. At the point of the disassociation, I hadn’t been in control of myself in any way; I was operating in destructive autopilot mode. Phrases from therapists and incredibly supportive friends like “it wasn’t your fault” and “you were ill... that’s not who you are” brought little relief. There was no convincing me otherwise: I was a monster. I had recurring nightmares, haunted by flashes of the incident. Worse were the dreams where I imagined myself doing it again to someone else I cared for and loved. I cried myself to sleep for months from the guilt and shame. I offered myself no forgiveness.
Over months and months, I began to understand the inner workings of my BPD and how something like this could have been triggered. Through lots of trial and error, I became regulated to the correct meds, worked through the stages of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and began to let go of the “monster” label I had put on myself. I wasn’t a bad person, I was just ill.
Even though my experience in inpatient treatment had allowed me to reconcile with the relationship ending as well as gain essential clarity about how unhealthy it really was, I was obsessed with gaining my ex-girlfriend’s forgiveness for the incident. Nine months of distance from the relationship had given me both perspective and the time to build the strength to live a life physically without her, but the emotional hold she had over me remained; in fact, it had grown stronger. While in the past it was more subjective and defined by manipulation, it was now attached to something concrete and tangible that I had done. I accepted that I would be indebted to her the rest of my life.
BUT EVEN WITH THE SUPPORT, I WOULDN’T FEEL AT EASE UNTIL THE PERSON WHO I FELT KNEW AND LOVED ME BEST AND WHO I BELIEVED WOULD BE EMPATHETIC TO THE EXPERIENCE OF MENTAL ILLNESS, GRANTED ME FORGIVENESS.
I am so grateful that everyone else in my life could understand that I was not a villain and validate that what had happened was also a traumatic incident for me, not just her. But even with the support, I wouldn’t feel at ease until the person who I felt knew and loved me best and who I believed would be empathetic to the experience of mental illness, granted me forgiveness. Even though she verbalized compassion, it became abundantly clear that I was to be continually punished for the violent episode. Using the deep shame I felt to humiliate me, she told strangers at our mutual college about the incident, people whom I would later randomly meet and discover that they already knew intimate details about the worst moment of my life.
She grasped at every opportunity to remind me of the episode and what “I had done.” All the work I had done in order to even begin alleviating the guilt would disappear the second I met her eyes. But I held onto hope and worked harder and harder to earn her forgiveness as she worked harder and harder to remind me that it would never come and therefore I would never move past it. Even as friends tried to show me how fucked up her treatment of me was, I passionately argued that it was her right and that I deserved it.
During this time, I entered a relationship with a supportive man. On the first anniversary of the April 1st date, he thought being supportive meant letting me have my day of self-abuse and penance. With his love and non-judgmental support came happiness. Even so, I felt like I didn’t deserve his love because of my past and the outstanding forgiveness from my ex-girlfriend. But instead of finding internal strength, I leaned into his love for me, relying on him to feel healthy and whole. And it seemingly worked, and was a whole lot easier than self-analysis. So I stopped going to therapy and skills group to learn how to support myself—I even stopped taking my meds regularly. Later I recognized this as codependency, which made me less able to take ownership for my own recovery (patterns of codependency are common among people with Borderline). This unsustainable dynamic led to an inevitable breakup. So when the second anniversary of April 1st came around, I believed I had the blood of two destroyed relationships on my hands. That day, I got blackout drunk at 10:00 am, ripped apart my apartment, and dissociated over and over again. I was back to the monster I once believed I was. I had promised myself I would never end up back there, but I had.
And this time I had let it happen. Instead of implementing DBT skills and utilizing the available tools and safety nets, I had let my codependent relationship trick me into feeling stable, shifting responsibility for my recovery onto my boyfriend when it should’ve been mine alone. I had set myself up to return to square one, and I did.
As I mourned the loss of this second relationship, which I blamed myself for just as I had the previous one, I pushed myself to avoid wallowing in the mistakes I had made and self-destructing further. I re-committed to my mental health, returning to therapy and making sure I was taking my meds. I had already proven to myself that I could get through a breakup and come out stronger and with more insight. I distracted myself from the pain of the breakup with self-analysis, reading everything I could on Borderline. I transformed my feelings of helplessness and defeat into curiosity and a determination to understand why I act the way I do. What were my triggers? What options are available to me when I feel panic or rage coming on? By doing the “hard work” involved with treatment and taking ownership over my mental stability, I could forgive myself knowing I was making sure that I would never hurt myself or someone else ever again. I had developed a set of tools and resources and finally trusted myself enough to use them. I was proud of myself and began to actually like who I was.
I TRANSFORMED MY FEELINGS OF HELPLESSNESS AND DEFEAT INTO CURIOSITY AND A DETERMINATION TO UNDERSTAND WHY I ACT THE WAY I DO. WHAT WERE MY TRIGGERS? WHAT OPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE TO ME WHEN I FEEL PANIC OR RAGE COMING ON?
I think my ex-girlfriend got wind of this because she asked me to dinner. I was elated; finally she would see how far I had come and forgive me. I walked in with my head held high, but I walked out the shamed and broken girl I had been in a relationship with her. She saw I was doing well and used every opportunity to undermine my success, reminding me of what I had done and playing on every insecurity. I was broken apart yet again by my past. But this time, instead of self-punishment, I dried my eyes, took a deep breath, and applied the nearly impossible DBT skill of “radical acceptance”. It was then, on my walk home from a terrible dinner, that I came to terms with the fact that my ex-girlfriend would never forgive me for what I had done to her and that she didn’t have to. There was nothing I could do to change that, and in order to build a healthy life, I knew I had to finally remove myself from someone that I once felt indebted to.
So this April 1st, instead of paying the price for a version of me that didn’t exist anymore, I went to an AA meeting, saw my friends, and had a smoothie. I can forgive myself because even though some days aren’t perfect, I work hard at remaining healthy. No one can take that away from me.
Suicide Prevention Resources: 1-800-273-8255
Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386
Self-injury Resource (LGBTQIA-specific)
Thought Chain Template (one of many on the internet—find one that works for you!)
LITERATURE AND VIDEO
I Hate You - Don't Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality by Hal Straus and Jerold Jay Kreisman
Sometimes I Act Crazy: Living with Borderline Personality Disorder by Hal Straus and Jerold Jay Kreisman
Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason