By Ben Houghton
I’ve spent most of my life knowing or unknowingly battling what appears to be my innate need for human connection. For those of us with borderline personality disorder (BPD), fear of abandonment is deeply rooted and here I am in a place, finally, where I can see how much connection I’ve pushed away — only to secretly yearn for it to go nowhere. It’s the old BPD classic: “I hate you… don’t leave me!” But why do I do this? I think I know, I think I understand the ridiculous paradoxical thinking behind this, so I’m going to share that here and also offer some insight as to how connection feels for me.
Looking back, pre-diagnosis, my patterns are easily identifiable. In my late teens and early 20s, I was sleeping around, rapidly moving job to job or being so unpredictable with friends that at times, they would sit outside my house, unsure what mood I was in and whether it was “safe” to knock on the door. With girlfriends, I would stay long enough to overdose on the initial honeymoon period then move on to my next rush of initial contact. My level of interest was defined by the quantity of sexual activity before breaking up with them when the initial buzz of new relationships end — because in my mind, that was when the feelings had ended. With work, I genuinely was unfulfilled but a mix of grandiose, overinflated ego and that invincible feeling of youth saw me walk out of jobs feeling 100 percent justified in my actions, completely oblivious to how extreme my reaction may be to innocuous everyday work life events. With friends, it’s classic BPD – I’ll push you away then we’ll see who my real friends are by who sticks around. Yet I would never recognize those who did because I’d only yearn for those who didn’t. Retrospectively, this is all too easy. At the time, it was the same internally volatile, anxiety-ridden, confusing and unsafe perception of events that I might still be consumed by if I didn’t have this newfound understanding of myself.
I still find connection incredibly hard. I’m only now coming around to the idea that as human beings, connection is vital for survival. I can be in the lowest of intensely paranoid moods but literally a few minutes interaction with someone who has no idea about what goes on in my head and suddenly, the mood is lifted. The only explanation is being around other people. As much as I’m coming to terms with it, I’m still trying to find a safe way to engage with it because when I feel connection of any kind… it’s amplified. Man is it amplified!
Scaling is a tool I find useful in explaining this. Imagine a scale where 100 is the best feeling ever and zero is the worst feeling ever. Let’s assume that when non-borderlines meet new people they get alone with, that score is around 60 to 70 on the scale. The feeling for me is 100. I can obsess internally these days, but pre-diagnosis this is when relationships with women would start and fizzle out in first four months of the “getting to know you” phase. Or in other cases, I would start jobs and decide after four months that my job no longer felt like a 100, but instead a 20 or 30, and that it was no longer worth continuing on. For other people, drops like this probably go from 60 to 50 – if there’s a drop at all.
Now imagine I’ve just met someone new and I’m feeling 100, but I’m also attracted to them. How do I know the difference? Everything feels 100. I think to myself, do I react to this? Do I pursue this? What if I’ve misread this, can I manage rejection while I’m feeling 100 at the moment? I know I feel all things intensely. What if my delayed response makes them think I’m not interested? Maybe I’ve pushed them away now. So usually I do nothing. I wait for the feeling to subside and all the while I try to figure out what social cues are telling me is the acceptable response.
I can be at the train station and see a woman with a nice smile or perhaps I like the way she dresses and immediately I am engulfed by self-loathing thoughts regarding how long I’ve looked at her, thinking, maybe she feels objectified, maybe I’ve just ruined her day, maybe she’s repulsed by my glance in her direction. Then comes the rebalancing, rationalizing thoughts such as, but isn’t this how people meet? How does this work exactly? When is this OK? I’ve not done anything wrong, I just looked at her. Why is this so easy for other people and why did it used to be so easy for me? Of course it never was that easy, I was just unaware of what was going on for me.
It’s not just intimate connection. I can see people talking, meeting up, making plans and I wonder why that isn’t me. Engulfed by fantasies of how great their lives must be to have all these friends, I invent storylines in my head getting carried away about what a perfect social life they must have without even knowing these people. I guess that’s the obsessional nature of my BPD. When I’ve intentionally steered clear of connection for so long, my brain is bound to try and capture whatever it can, wherever it can. I wonder why all this interaction comes so easy for them. For example, when my work colleague had a baby, I couldn’t even figure out when was an appropriate time to ask how the baby was so in the end, I never asked.
Sometimes just watching other people connect feels like it hurts. Those after work drinks — why not me? Those quick pub lunch dates — why not me? The groups meeting up laughing and joking — why not me? Sometimes I have to remove myself from those situations because I can’t manage that 100 intensity. Detachment’s a big safety behavior of mine, great for the short-term but long-term, what’s the price?
I philosophize, or maybe romanticize, that life’s all about balance — you can’t have happy without sad and you can’t have love without hate, etc. I believe for everyone who is connected, there must be someone who is disconnected (or else the concept of connection couldn’t exist) and I believe I am able to manage disconnection better than some other people. Maybe that’s my purpose in life? Or maybe that’s just an justification to set myself up for martyrdom because actual connection confuses the hell out of me and I don’t believe anyone truly wants to accept this side of me?
There are times I can’t watch TV because I get too attached to the fictional relationships and characters I see. I’ll cycle through a whole range of emotions previously unfelt due to my conscious detachment from real connection. I know that’s not healthy and that’s also why I believe connection is a basic human need — I believe we try to connect wherever we can. For example, I adore music and lyrics can take me to amazing places in a 3-minute song that a 30 minute real conversation would be painstaking (for me) to elicit the same response from. I guess maybe that’s because lyrics are written by someone so I know someone must feel the same as me and be able to express it so eloquently – again, connection at arms length. I can maintain control of that connection and I like that.
You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your reaction to it and for me, peripheral detachment is my go-to mechanism, but there remains an internal resistance. Ironically, I’ll reach out when I’m at my lowest and usually this will be to someone I haven’t spoken to or seen in a long time, just a few simple questions about what they’re doing in life. For them it may be confusing to hear from me out of the blue but if they’re reading this, I guess now you know why and you should know you’re appreciated.
Therein lies the paradox: To protect myself from the exhaustion of managing intensity I will consciously detach from connection but the only way to keep myself “safe” is to connect. That connection itself then forces me to become the one thing I intentionally try to avoid – mentally exhausted.