Do you have ongoing, serious blow-ups with someone close? Possibly a significant other, maybe a family member, or perhaps a close friend?
Sometimes the relationship seems normal, healthy, supportive, and happy—and suddenly, they’re raging, crying, accusing you of saying things you don’t mean or doing things you never did. You’re struggling to deal with the same terrible scenes again and again, when you’re not sure what happened or why it keeps happening.
Other people are telling you to set limits with the person, and they’re annoyed with you when you can’t. Or they’re telling you to leave, and they can’t understand why you stay. What actually is wrong? Could you be with someone who’s mentally ill?
I’ll never forget the moment I finally connected the dots.
I had struggled through episode after horrible episode with my mother. One day I’d be the good daughter she was so proud of, and we could go out to lunch or shopping and have a great time. The next week we’d have an awful time, with her stuck in complaining about some disagreement she was having with someone else—and very angry if I didn’t agree with her about it. She could be sunny and fun one day, rageful the next time I saw her, or tip over into an episode of crying that lasted for hours. It could be tough to tell what had set her off. For years, I had been plowing through relationship and self-help books, trying desperately to figure out what to do during these volatile and depressing scenes.
My mom-episodes were bad enough and frequent enough to upset me for weeks. I cringed when I saw her name pop up in my email or when I saw she was calling me. They seriously disrupted my life. My friends heard about them whenever we went out.
My friend Eva had known my mom three years and had an advanced degree as a researcher trained to recognize signs of mental illness. One day, halfway through my latest mom story, she looked at me and said, “Well, you know, she’s mentally ill.” I said, “Huh?”
I was a Princess Diana fan. Diana biographies had led me to books about borderline personality disorder, from which Diana is said to have suffered. And, for a year or so, I had been plowing through those, thinking more and more that maybe this really did sound like my mom.
I said, “You mean you’ve been watching me read all these books, when you knew my mother was mentally ill three years ago and you never told me?”
When we’re having the same problems, over and over, with someone special in our lives, and we can’t seem to get them solved, the issue isn’t always that there’s mental illness in the picture.
But when it is, this, the “Ah-ha!” moment, can be elusive. For those of us who get there, it’s only the beginning of our journey. And for those who care about us, looking on and watching us struggle, it isn’t always clear why we are having such a problem making decisions about a troubled person in our lives. But the truth is, we need to be patient with ourselves, and others need to be patient with us.
Randi Kreger, author of Stop Walking On Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder, outlines five stages those of us with a relative or loved one with BPD go through as we try to understand what’s happening.
When people find they can work within the relationship while preserving their feeling of basic happiness and contentment in and with their lives, amazing and poignant journeys of love and friendship have happened, even with ongoing mental illness.
But that isn’t always possible, and when it isn’t, it’s okay to put yourself first. If you sacrifice your own well-being for a mentally ill person who’s continually showing you out-of-control behavior, it doesn’t help the person, and the problems in the relationship wreck you. Then you have two wrecked people instead of one.
Each relationship is as different as each person who suffers from BPD. No one solution will work for everyone. The important thing to realize when dealing with someone in your life with BPD is that you, and any children who might be involved, have the right to basic health and happiness in your life. Not only do you have that right, but it has to be your first priority. That’s the main thread running through all of the five stages; getting comfortable putting your own well-being on a par with that of your loved one’s.