Growing up with a parent who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder makes the unpredictable predictable. My dad’s illness has a noticeable pattern. For a couple of days he will talk incessantly, making intense eye contact and fidgeting a lot. The following few days are spent in a moody, sulky reverie – he won’t talk to anyone, he won’t eat, he’ll drink excessively and avoid eye contact. By around the fifth day of this cycle, he will become extremely angry and emotionally abusive – he’ll shout at anyone in his way, break things, swear and spit. Unless this is nipped in the bud very early, it becomes beyond control and nothing can make him see reason.
BPD is an illness characterized by excessive mood swings, a lack of respect for boundaries or authority, a sense of extreme entitlement, and a 60-70% suicide rate. I assumed that moving away from home and going to university would feel liberating, but I’ve found it a struggle to adapt to a life where I’m responsible only for myself.
I call each of my parents every day, spending about two hours discussing the day’s events and hearing both sides of the story. It’s difficult to explain to people, even when they are aware of my domestic situation, why I need to have such frequent contact with home. They just see that it drags me down and leaves me with less time to work. I’m reluctant to give a fuller explanation.
After the initial anger, dad takes a week or two of cooling down on his own, during which time I call him from college and listen to a tirade of bitter abuse against everyone he feels has let him down. Later, he’ll feel incredible remorse and overwhelming guilt, leading to tears and threats of suicide.
While most people can brush off homesickness as a phase, I’m struggling to let go of my role of caring for my parents and diffusing the drama. I feel out of the loop, wrenched away from an environment that is disruptive and explosive, but that, over the years, I’ve become comfortable with. Moving from a home with no boundaries and coming to university is a shock to the system. Cambridge feels like a different world, and I miss the emotional intensity of home.
As a result of the destructive nature of our family life, we have developed incredibly strong bonds – we’re a unit, and we do everything together. I’d like my dad to be able to come and visit me because he’s so proud of my achievements, but the journey to Cambridge would make him anxious and the planning and responsibility would be too much for him. By the time he arrived he’d be too much to handle.
There is no medication for BPD, and there is very little support available to family members. My tutor at Cambridge is understanding and supportive, but in a ten minute interview twice a term, there’s not much that can be said. I was referred to the University Counseling Service. They took 7 weeks to get back to me, and I’m now on a 5-session course for the term. But time is always restricted, and after a while, people want to see an improvement, which simply isn’t possible after 20 years – particularly in just 5 weeks. The advice we’ve always received from healthcare professionals is to distance ourselves from my dad, because there’s nothing anyone can do. But this feels unnatural. I know it’s difficult for those on the outside to forgive and forget. But because we love him and know it’s not his fault, we have no choice.