I have a strong network of friends. In fact I have a network of strong friendships. It is the first time in my life that I have felt secure in such a network. Many of my friendships have been allowed to develop because the turbulence in my life has slowly stopped over the past twelve years when I have stopped the crash and burn pattern of my relationships, jobs and life. Before I was aware of my diagnosis I was a nightmare friend. I confused people. I was intense in my expectations of time, feelings and shared experiences. I burned many friends out because they found it exhausting keeping up with my constant needs and demands for time.
It was frustrating to be my friend, because on the one hand I constantly presented as being in need, but would refuse to explain my upset. I frequently disrupted social events by storming out or quietly disappearing. I went missing for weeks on end, then would return with obvious injuries but refuse to explain where I had been or what had happened to me. You see, I felt that if they were 'really my friends' they would just accept me and they would actually know what was going on without me having to explain - after all that was what my 'real friends' would be able to do.
I had no boundaries, it took a long time for me to trust people on one hand, but on the other, you could find me disclosing distressing details about my abusive past within minutes of meeting. One of my friends used to describe this as an 'Alma Grenade'. It was not uncommon for me to launch these highly explosive grenades into conversations at parties, then move quickly on to crazy comedy riffs, as if I had not launched an emotionally explosive nuclear bomb. My behaviour would swing from extremely distressed and tearful to what can only be described as 'dancing on the ceiling'. When I was feeling 'hyper' I would insist on reckless behaviour. Walking in risky areas at night, ignoring any risks to myself or any others around me. Frequent reckless driving particularly at speed along twisting country roads, frequently driving at high speed on motorways. If you were my friend you may have to be a passenger on one of these 'trips'.
I expected my friends to be there 24 hours a day 7 days a week, while at the same time, fully expecting them to 'let me down' - usually when they imposed reasonable time limits and or gave me limits on when I could call. Imposing such boundaries would inevitably result in the friendships ending. My reaction to endings was extreme, I could not tolerate even being on the same side of the street as former friends, and often, forced myself to relocate entirely (usually to the other side of the country or even abroad) following the ending of a friendship.
So, at the age of 48 I find that I have one friend (and her husband) who have lasted the course since university. I have no childhood friends left, having burnt my school bridges long ago. My journey is littered with friendships and relationships. At the time of my diagnosis at the age of 42 I was in the process of repeating patterns of friendship 'implosion', having lived here nearly five years. Up until that point, apart from my childhood home, that had been the longest I had managed to live anywhere, ever.
Six years on, I have completed nearly two years of DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) and five years of care under Mental Health services. During that time I have made and KEPT a number of friends and feel I've reached a point where I can be a good friend back. I no longer push friendships to breaking point, in some kind of perverse self fulfilling prophecy that 'I am unloved and unlovable', which is the best way to describe the emotional impulses behind my self destruct approach to friendship in the past.
I have found it helpful to use the DBT Inter Personal Skills particularly when I have been tempted to return to my old patterns of relating in friendship. This has meant that over the last three or four years, I have managed to weather typical friendship hurdles and misunderstandings, without entirely having to give up on my ability to make and keep friends:
The DEAR MAN skills aim to help me achieve objective goals - often feeling that I have a right to ask for fairness in service as a customer meant that I never questioned businesses, or was able to make clear, what were my preferences. After all, my needs have never mattered. Sometimes in friendships it is important to be honest about the practicalities which may mean that I can't do this or that. To tell my friends that I would prefer not to do something does not mean that the friendship has to end. If I'm honest this ability to express my needs as valid is something I continue to struggle with:
A Appear Confident
For the person with BPD the idea that I can negotiate disagreements and problems in friendships without being rejected is one of the most difficult to come to terms with. I have had occasions on which the following GIVE skills have helped me to explain any issues without feeling that I am risking the friendship. They have helped me to negotiate issues without them becoming 'do or die' moments for the friendships:
E Easy Manner
Feeling secure in myself and my value to friends has been vital in keeping balance in my friendships. It is hardly surprising that if I have no idea who I am, or that who I am has any value in any of my relationships, it is hardly surprising that I have experienced and persevered with damaging relationships and friendships, whilst rejecting those which valued me. This is a paradox for those who care for those of us with BPD. Sometimes we are so suspicious of genuine love and care, abusive relationships somehow feel more familiar. I regret the number of caring relationships and friendships that have foundered on the rocks of my lack of self esteem. The FAST skills are designed to help me to deal with issues and relationships which may be harmful to me, or continue to reinforce my lack of validation. One symptom of my lack of self esteem is a continual feeling that I must apologise for everything, just in case I am to blame for all that is wrong in the world!
A Apologies (no Apologies)
S Stick to values
Learning what these skills are is only the beginning for me. Along with the basic DBT skills I have made some discoveries of my own, which are still working their way out in my day to day friendships.
1. Friendship is different from Intimate Relationship. One of the main problems I faced in friendships was the confusion between close friendship and sexual relationships. Given the experiences of confused sexuality born of the experience of childhood sexual abuse, it is hardly surprising that I have at times confused care and concern, for sexual interest. Inevitably this has led to mistrust and confusion in the boundaries within friendships and unfortunately opened me up to further sexual abuse in relationships as an adult. Boundaries are important for me as someone suffering the symptoms of BPD. I am not a hugger. It is important for me that physical intimacy is not a part of friendship. If you find me physically attractive and you want me to respond in kind, it is vital that you are clear about your expectations of me, this may seem a bit childish, but I am easily confused by 'signals' and need clarity. This is important because physical attraction adds problematic dimensions to relationships, that I may not be equipped to manage, particularly if I remain unaware of 'agendas'. For me, relationships cannot become games of flirting, my emotional responses are too erratic and my ability to read other people continues to be impaired. Clarity prevents unintended hurt feelings on both sides.
2.Ground Rules are Vital For the person with BPD all relationships and friendships are akin to trying to negotiate a minefield without any map or GPS. I have learned to be honest with people about the things I find difficult. I am a good actress and one of the coping mechanisms I have used in the past is to mimic more successful behaviour around me. The problem for me in relationships was that often I was only aware that my grasp of friendship dynamics was faulty after the fact. 'Learning from your mistakes' became a matter of 'that didn't work, let's see if this works'. The problem is that any models of 'acceptable behaviour' I followed were not necessarily right for me, because they took into account the personalities, values and beliefs of another person. In all my current friendships I have learned to listen to myself - it is easier as I have been using DBT skills which mean that I am no longer lost in a fog of indefinable feelings, which are swinging wildly out of control. So now, if I need some time to myself, I am able to say so. If I feel I need some company and have nothing planned I know who and when I can call as friends. I also have learned that unplanned calls or visits where friends are not available is not a rejection of me. I can therefore cope when friends tell me, No. This means that they in return don't feel they have to 'walk on egg shells'. They know I will not spiral out of control emotionally just because they have other plans. It has been important for me to be clear about this and to keep checking it out, instead of going into a corner and brooding until I believe I have been utterly rejected. It also means that I have a responsibility not just to disappear and blame friends for not knowing a) where I am or b) what I am feeling.
3. I take my Friends at Face Value. I no longer suspect motives or 'read minds'. If my friends say to me 'I missed you' or 'It's really good to see you', I do not assume either a judgement of my absence or that there is a suspicious motive in 'buttering me up'. I am learning to listen to them 'non-judgementally' and I am learning to accept that if they are spending time with me, it is just because they actually enjoy my company, or that I have to buy them things to 'reward' them for doing so. As a result I have found that my close friendships are no longer fraught, nor do I feel that I need to buy expensive (and embarrassing for the recipients) gifts to 'buy' their friendships. Learning to do this is validating in itself.
4. No Friend or Person can Undo the Pain of the Past. One of the impossible expectations I have put on all my relationships has been to
5. Friendships Aren't Bound by Vows. Unlike marriage, my friends and I are not bound together by legal or religious vows. It is not a contract as such. In the past I have tried to impose conditions that were unfair and binding on my friends. Conversations with friends which begin 'Promise me you'll never...' are deeply unfair. They are born of the desperation not to be abandoned and the fear of rejection. True friendship is given and received freely. Sometimes there is a natural ebb and flow to them, as people move in and out of our lives. Such flow of relationships is so difficult for me as a BPD sufferer, because, after all you're getting a job on the other side of the world is because I am such a hateful person - isn't it? If I were able to open up to my friends about the depth of my belief that I am so utterly unlovable that I must the cause of all separation and abandonment in my life and the lives of others, they would be shocked. But that is the reality behind my desperate pleas for you to promise, never to move away, never to change, never to get married etc... Accepting that I cannot do so has been freeing and has allowed me to grieve for the loss of friends who have had to move away or who have moved out of my life simply because we both have moved into different phases in our lives. Every now and then I need to be reminded that my life is a journey and not everyone I meet on the road will stay with me for the duration of the whole journey. In fact the only relationship in which I can expect a promise of a life together, is one which has been formalised in marriage, and even then, for many this relationship too can end.
As I have moved forward with my Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills and my basic friendship rules I have found that I am able to develop honest, stable friendships and I am willing to move outside a very narrow circle of one or two close and trusted friends. As a result my social life is developing faster than I expected.
Here are a series of Interpersonal Effectiveness Handouts which give excellent examples of when to use the different skills: http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/interpersonal_effectiveness_ha.html