When Calista’s friend recently set her up on a blind date, she prepared with the usual amount of nervousness and trepidation. Would he like her? Would she like him? If she did like him (and he liked her), how soon would be too soon to tell him about her mental illness? Calista has borderline personality disorder (BPD). As a result, she experiences fears of abandonment, unstable relationships, an unsteady sense of self and difficulty regulating her emotions. All of these symptoms impact social relationships, particularly romantic relationships, and eventually, a romantic partner would become aware of Calista’s issues, even if he wasn’t aware there was a name for them. Her belief was that anyone she dated had a right to know. Jerry sat across a teak table from her at an outdoor oyster bar. They were both nervous and somewhat shy, but after the meal had arrived and the conversation began to flow in earnest, they discovered they shared a great many things in common. Both loved outdoor music festivals and similar indie bands; both loved to mountain bike; and both had Labrador retrievers. Dog lovers connect, but breed lovers connect on a whole other level. The chemistry was palpable from the beginning, and Jerry made the comment that their mutual friend had done a great job; he’d been certain the date would be a failure, but had come along “just in case.” Instead, both Calista and Jerry were surprised and excited about the possibilities, and Jerry said as much. That’s when Calista grew quiet. Suddenly she could feel the disappointment of a decade of ruined relationships in her wake, and she wasn’t hungry anymore. She could no longer meet Jerry’s eyes. “There’s something I have to tell you,” Calista said, fumbling with her napkin. After an hour-and-a-half of meeting, Calista disclosed her BPD status to a virtual stranger – granted, one she was having a very good time with, and hoped to have more. Not even their mutual friend knew about Calista’s diagnosis. It wasn’t surprising when Jerry asked Calista, “What does that mean?” BPD has a bad reputation in and out of the psychological community, but the fact remains: most people don’t know what it is. She explained her symptoms and how they impact her life. She also explained that she is in therapy and working hard on recovery. But from that point forward, dinner was awkward. Jerry was still polite and gentlemanly, but distant. He walked her to her car and gave her a quick hug, but he didn’t ask for her number. Calista’s drive home was a shower of shame and regret. Why had she told him? Would it have been a lie not to? Would she ever find someone who could understand and accept her despite her mental health status?
Dating With BPD
First dates can leave us feeling vulnerable and uncertain; we want to make a good impression. Honesty and authenticity are vital to establishing a good impression, which make it difficult to navigate mental health disclosure. Should a potential significant other be warned? Does a date deserve to be told? It is OK to recognize that your mental health status is your business, and no one else’s. It only becomes another person’s business after a degree of intimacy, commitment and trust has developed. That means that you feel safe to tell the person you’re getting to know, and recognize they now have the right to know because of how close you are becoming. This kind of closeness does not develop in a first meeting, and may not have developed even by the 10th – though sometimes it can feel that way. It’s important to know whether the person you choose to tell will be compassionate, understanding and withholding of judgment. You can ascertain all of these things fairly early on, but it’s important to be certain they aren’t the efforts of someone trying to make a good impression. Find out how your date feels about people who are different by asking, and asking again later on. Find out by observing his or her behavior toward others and listening to him or her speak of past experiences. Keep a keen ear open for stories of judgment versus stories of empathy. You’ll know better when is the right time to tell only after you know if the person you’re choosing to tell is safe with the information.
Your Recovery From BPD Comes First
There’s a saying in the addiction recovery community that holds true for the mental health community: your recovery comes first. Your instincts as an individual with BPD might be to cling to a new relationship over and above your need for acceptance, understanding and compassion, but these are the very things you need in order to recover from your condition, which is, by the way, absolutely recoverable. You will need unconditional friendship and support to help you heal. Putting your healing ahead of everything else allows you to bring your best self into any relationship you may then choose to enter, and this will bode well for both emotional intimacy – a necessary ingredient of closeness and connection – and for relationship longevity. It may sound yawningly cliché, but your focus should be, at least for a while, on developing this kind of relationship with yourself. Once you have that, your antenna will be more sensitively attuned to whom to trust and when – and whether entering a relationship with someone will leave both of you better off than you found each other, a goal all couples – new or not so new – should strive for.