What Tigers Have Taught Me About Relationships
I have been in a relationship with my boyfriend Tim for three years. We met online, and he has been very open and accepting of my disabilities and how they affect my life. I told him about my CP over g-chat a few days before we first met. His reaction was exactly what we would dream of as disabled people – acceptance. He has, and will continue to, be there for me when I go to the ER at any hour of the day, through exams, procedures, and hospital stays that make up my life. Unlike most men I encountered, disability was not a big deal to him. I was able to be myself, and not feel the awkward judging that usually comes with disability.
I don’t personally think there is anything overly astounding about that aspect of our relationship. Anyone disabled will likely tell you, the Tims of the world are a rare breed, and this is very true from my experience. Most are turned off by the idea of disability, and thus, dating is hard. Obviously, after three years, there is something that is going/went right to get us this far, but it hasn’t always been easy. We have both had to learn about how to handle a severe, often highly stigmatized, mental illness, and to accept that in order to thrive.
Along with a few other conditions, Tim has a mental illness called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and, honestly, the name is horrific.I can understand why there is stigma involved, just based on the name alone. It is sometimes referred to as emotion dysregulation disorder – which is much easier to understand, and feels less judgemental. It is a disease full of highs and lows where the person struggles to manage their emotions and relationships. In a class I was in recently for loved ones, someone described borderline as like being in a relationship with a tiger. It’s amusing, but true. One moment, things can be perfectly relaxed, the next it’s the complete opposite, and later on things are relaxed again until the next provoking incident.
BPD highs and lows first showed up in our relationship about two years ago. We would have periods of time where I would be unsure if we would recover, and used to take those moments very personally – getting upset and frustrated. I couldn’t understand how one minute, we would be making plans for something, and the next would be ranting about wanting to not be together. I grew confused, frustrated, and upset each time this occurred. Eventually, I was able to recognize that the verbal outbursts came and went, and that, somehow, these things were just part of the deal. I didn’t know why, and we didn’t have a name for it at the time, but I could see there was something chemical that was clearly out of balance.
These patterns of intense highs and lows would continue sporadically for about 18 months before things changed. There were days I wanted to give up, couldn’t take it anymore, and dubbed it too exhausting and stressful to live with a raging tiger regardless of how much I cared about him and how positive things were when he wasn’t truly suffering. By this time, I was convinced it was some mental illness, and assumed it was bipolar disorder. I had also heard of a treatment I had thought would benefit him called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). With all this in mind, we realized the best solution was to get him into a program for mental health treatment. In the past, he had tried it, but like so many with BPD, they are misdiagnosed, treated, and misunderstood — even by professionals. When he isn’t having a moment, you would never recognize there were any illnesses affecting him. He’s the smart, calm, goofy person who suggested we build sandcastles on our first date (we went out to dinner instead), and not a raging tiger. This made it easy for him to fall through the cracks. It finally felt like we were getting somewhere when he was diagnosed with bipolar II, and began a course of treatment, though not very effective, was a good placeholder until he began his current treatment. It took many months of being on a waiting list, and finding a therapist which takes insurance, to get him into DBT.
DBT is specialized therapy for people with borderline. It is very intensive, and requires commitment and practice to be successful. The only fully effective treatment for borderline is DBT therapy, but we cannot believe the effect that medication has had on his life and our relationship. Professionals will tell you borderline cannot be treated with meds, but it certainly helps some of the underlying symptoms and conditions that occur along with it. It has been quite a journey to find the right meds, but he is two months into daily medications that allow him to break through the symptoms and focus on managing emotions and preserving relationships. In combination with DBT, I feel like I have my boyfriend back, and his parents have their son. Though the past 9 months or so have been the hardest of my life, I feel very fortunate to still have Tim around after everything we’ve been through. I look at it as mostly a positive experience. Sure, the physical and mental stress has been some of the worst, but I think it has taught us that we can be strong in crises.I hope that by sharing some pieces of our journey with borderline, it will help de-stigmatize the illness, and potentially support readers who have loved ones with this disease.
We went into this relationship knowing that I had a disability, but I don’t think we could have ever imagined the journey it would take discovering and managing unexpected disabilities on top of that. Borderline, in particular, is quite the challenge. It requires more patience, empathy and understanding, and open communication than any other interactions I have. Just like any disability or medical condition, you have to learn and adapt to new ways of approaching situations. I have to be aware when his ups and downs start affecting me, and work on self care to make it through. As I grow older, I know that my own disabilities will affect my life in different ways, and will then require more adaptation in how we do things. We will be able to take the lessons learned from adding borderline to the mix, and apply them to our future. I know that will only continue to be a positive as time goes on.
Class I went to for loved ones