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Why Fear of Abandonment Is the Big Bad Wolf of My Borderline Personality Disorder

Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

For me, there is no question that abandonment is the worst symptom and diagnostic criterion for borderline personality disorder (BPD). It is the very center of the wound. It is the symptom that made me the most suicidal and contemplate my own annihilation. It has taken me many years, much therapy with hard-fought growth, some mastery of my illness, as well as 10 published Mighty articles to even be able to write about abandonment.

To me, it really is the big bad wolf. Easily, the worst feeling I ever experienced. I remain so afraid of it today that I still can’t really consider a relationship, or even dating, or even download dating apps.

But I can say that it is now years since I fully experienced its horror and undoubtedly that’s because once diagnosed with BPD, I could see it as part of a common mental illness that many people experience worldwide. This symptom of BPD most likely has its genesis in past trauma, which dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) enabled me to radically accept and let the past hurt go without turning it upon myself.

In other words, it’s not our fault!

I repeat: It’s not my fault!

Unrequited Love is Fertile Soil for Abandonment

Looking back the two most explicit examples of frantic attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, more imagined in both cases, both involved unrequited love and infatuation with two roommates, or — to use the Australian expression — flatmates.

In my early 20s, I lived in a flat on the upper North Shore in Sydney and had two unforgettable flatmates, one of whom I became very dependent on right when my first mental health breakdown happened. I had just turned down a relationship with a very beautiful dancer basically on Christian grounds, and so I turned the heavy weight of my affections on the one who was around. He also was very loving, earthy, wore his heart on his sleeve, was very physically affectionate and deeply cared for this stuck bind our version of Christianity had placed me in. To be loved like this when I felt profoundly unloved really was very powerful and overwhelming.

Of course, the problem was he was decidedly not gay, though that did not at all deter my heart from throwing itself right off the ledge. Eventually, he moved out, clear that he couldn’t give me what I needed, perhaps hurt by some ugly emails where my frantic attempts to arrest a state of abandonment were there naked to see if we just knew what to look for. This friend made the very magnanimous gesture of asking me to be one of his best men at his wedding, which I wanted to turn down but instead behaved like I was at a loved one’s funeral, again naked for all to see.

One Unrequited Love is Not Enough

Ten years later, the frantic attempts to repel abandonment happened again in eerily similar circumstances with another flatmate, as if part of some curse, and the effect was much worse, much more devastating. This time, my closeted gay and closeted borderline heart latched on to a sensitive aesthete, hipster Christian, but again one not gay. The beginnings were similar; a return of major depression, dissatisfaction with my life achievements and being alone with “same-sex attraction” (a term I have always reviled even in the midst of being an evangelical.)

The fatal misstep this time was my flatmate asking for my advice on talking to someone from his church, one of its pastors who was “same-sex attracted” and not really wanting to remain in the church. I gave my advice: “Love him, show him you love him (by physical embrace) and tell him you love him.” By the time I had reached the end of my advice, I realized that’s exactly what I wanted him to feel, do and say to me. As my major depression got worse, still undiagnosed with BPD, I confided in him more and very soon I was utterly smitten. I would not sleep until I had heard him come home and the sound of him tiptoeing past my room in the hallway. And his hugs were a shot of the warmest, most affirming drug as I felt the shape of his body: a perfect blend of the masculine and feminine.

My frenzied abandonment diversion soon began; running long distances three to four times a week, very diligent daily Bible readings, devouring Tim Keller books on idolatry (the irony), and above all trying to bond or bind my flatmate and I together permanently through shared confidence, prayer and downtime.

The day it was very clear that I had reached the point of no return was one Saturday afternoon, when my flatmate and I had made a plan to catch up, but when the time came he was an absolute unreachable no-show. I waited for hours, becoming more and more desperate. The frantic avoidance was also denying that there was any problem, specifically that I feared being separated from the object of my affection while the truth was it had already started to become a premonition of my worst nightmare.

About a month later, this premonition was actualized as my flatmate casually announced one rainy morning he was moving out because he had found a better place. It was at this moment that my borderline monster catapulted out like a malevolent Jack-in-the-Box in the character of Pennywise the clown. The abandonment horror was indeed out of the box and I tried to treat it with self-harm, self-hospitalizations and field trips to suicide hotspots. When I sat at one of these bleak places, I could see the absurdity and dark humor of my situation:

“I don’t identify as gay but I am utterly besotted with a lovely guy who isn’t even gay. What the hell am I doing here?”

Later, I would also feel abandoned by God when, soon after these events, my Grandmother died. I felt that God no longer cared and hadn’t heard any of my many desperate prayers around the separation from my flatmate or my Gran’s salvation. Not to mention the fact that I was still alone with no active sexuality frozen by scriptural condemnations. When dear Christian friends kept talking of God’s love, Jesus’s eternal salvation and the comfort of heaven, I began to think they were talking in fairy tales. At this time, I tried to still believe and most loved the suffering cries of Job, the meaningless refrain of Ecclesiastes and Jesus’s cry “My God My God why hast thou forsaken me?” — the ultimate cry of abandonment from God the son to God the Father.

How Diagnosis Saved Me

It wasn’t for another two years of living in this abandonment desert that I found a new caring and intuitive psychiatrist who diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder, which effectively rescued me out of this wilderness. I will never forget the night after I was diagnosed, I read for the first time the DSM-5’s nine diagnostic criteria and the almost conversion experience of reading number one: “Frantic attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.” An enlightenment. A codebreaker. A conversion. I can’t overstate what happened in my mind, heart and even soul when I read the first diagnostic criterion.

“That’s what that was. That’s why I felt such psychic pain over my unrequited loves. That’s why I ended up at the suicide spot.”

And then a realization that I wasn’t alone but many people experienced this feeling, this state. My punitive critic had nowhere to go. I had to admit that this incredible pain and desire to die was unequivocally not my fault as if a late, unexpected piece of exculpatory evidence had just been presented to the jury that proved my innocence. I could then go back and make sense of these perceived abandonments and even ponder where in my life they came from.

The Source of my Abandonment

I am not alone amongst my fellow borderlines to identify childhood trauma as the origin and center of my wound. I may be downplaying but I feel that my trauma is not as devastatingly traumatic as some of my BPD friends and others widely. But in the end, the trauma was traumatic enough to create instability around who I am, and a deep fear that those I love will leave me whether in life or in death.

I will sidestep a detailed discussion of my family as sources of abandonment because I don’t have their permission to do so and because I argue the main source of my abandonment and my BPD generally was my first year of boarding school at the beginning of high school. Before I do I acknowledge that the family home I grew up in was not always happy and I experienced invalidations and witnessed much ongoing conflict.

Recently I watched an episode of the second season of “The Crown” which depicted the cruel, relentless bullying both Princes Phillip and Charles experienced in their childhood boarding schools, and I sat quietly sobbing in the corner without my parents’ detection, still how deep this wound goes.

I was bullied for the way I said that I loved celery in the dining hall queue the second night I arrived. I was really bullied for being suspected to be gay, before my sexual attraction had even developed. I remember the homophobic slurs trapped me as they came right at me, from all sides and from almost everyone. It is appropriate to describe what happened to me inside that exclusive all-boys boarding school as an abandonment. I was 600 km from home, aged 13, just on the cusp of adolescence and not yet sexually attracted, and suddenly I’m ambushed by hostility directed at my sexuality. No wonder it took so many years to come to terms with this sexuality and see it in a positive light; in fact, I still struggle to do so. My parents were hamstrung into sending me away from our small country town so the abandonment was by no means their fault and I don’t recall ever blaming them.

But there I was, merely an unguarded, sensitive and creative child very different to many of the other students who were more conforming to type from their conservative, heterosexual, rugby and rowing-focused country families, and that difference was condemned at a time when it needed to be affirmed. In response to these humiliations and invalidations, I felt lost, intensely alone, dissociated at times and a lingering abandonment, though I couldn’t name it back then. Instead, I muffled my pain into my pillow when the dorm lights went out and I could see across Sydney’s harbor to the lights of the tallest buildings of the CBD.

So why is it the centre of the wound? The symptom from which the others flow?

I may not be speaking for every person living with BPD, but from my experience, abandonment is my wound’s center because it goes back to my original trauma, in my case boarding school.

Secondly, I believe that frantic attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment is the symptom or criteria, along with an unstable sense of self, that so many other symptoms flow from because the others are outworkings or responses to the abandonment pain. Practically speaking with my example, my feelings of abandonment and my unstable sense of self often lead to my splitting, impulsive behaviors, affective instability, chronic emptiness and especially self-harm and suicidality. Not always, but often the state of feeling abandoned outworked as these other symptoms as I engaged in them to try and take away or soothe the abandonment pain or the lingering abandoned feeling led to other effects or states or relational responses.

The Future: Will I Feel Abandoned Again?

I think that it would be easy for my abandonment to return: just start dating. I have very tentatively touched my toes in that water the past year but soon retreated at any hint of rejection or what I really fear: abandonment. I have no solution here and I am very open to suggestions. I remember my last romantic attempt, which was over after only one encounter, and how intense my response was. Finding someone whose heart is very kind seems to be the only way I would feel held and ready.

I don’t have a simple antidote to abandonment except to build many, very deep friendships and at least some bonds within our families. When I was at my very abandoned lowest, when I was not wanting to go on, they unconditionally loved and did not let go.

That really is the antithesis to real or imagined feelings of abandonment.

Photo by Na Inho on Unsplash

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