A common call to the SANE Helpline often goes like this:
‘I think my partner, daughter or son has borderline personality disorder (BPD) and I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around them. I love this person, but the situation can be so hurtful. How can I stay and support them, but protect myself as well?’
To help we asked one of our carers, 'Ace', to share his advice for living with and loving someone with BPD. We also asked SANE Help Centre Manager, Suzanne Leckie, to add SANE’s perspective on best practice for carers.
What would have made your partner’s diagnosis and treatment easier for you?
My wife's diagnosis was made seven years ago when seeing a psychologist for childhood sexual abuse, depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Being more educated would have been helpful. Also, when she was in hospital, it would have been good to have had an information night on BPD or mental illness.
There doesn't seem to be enough support for the carers. It would have been good for our three adult children to listen to what BPD is and how we can all work through this as a family. It was difficult for them as well.
SANE Help Centre: It can be hard to know where to go for information and support and it’s true that the needs of family members are often over-looked.
For those seeking information the BPD Foundation is a good place to start. It lists support services in each state as well as information on the condition and treatment. You can also call us at the SANE Help Centre to discuss your situation.
What impact does your partner’s diagnosis have on your relationship?
At times when my wife answers abruptly or is bad tempered, I ask her why is she answering like this and walk off. But then after having time to myself I realise that is not the real her, it is her BPD.
I don't like seeing my wife upset or when her emotions are very high. I try to make her stop but I know that is not the right thing to do. I just have to be there for her, sit with her and let her know that things will be okay. Even though that is tough to do.
This has also had an impact on our children. They’ve seen their mum being admitted to hospital quite a few times. So far they haven’t wanted to talk about it.
SANE Help Centre: Ace is describing a situation played out in many households. You may know that your loved one’s behaviour is being influenced by their illness but it’s natural to still feel hurt or frustrated. Ace has come up with a good strategy that gives the couple space when things get heightened, but ensures they reconnect when things have calmed down.
What do you love and enjoy about your partner?
I love my partner because she is beautiful and we always enjoy time together.
She is determined to not have her BPD and mental illness stigmatised.
She wants to get better and learn how to cope with her BPD but still struggles at times. She has a lot of issues with her parents abandoning her after telling them of her childhood abuse. I feel so helpless and don't know how to help her overcome this.
SANE Help Centre: It’s great that Ace can still see past the illness to the woman that he loves. Knowing that his wife is determined to get better will provide hope for better times ahead which will protect his own health and the relationship.
In the areas where you feel helpless to support a loved one it can be useful to ask specifically what they need. Sometimes we focus on solving the problem when it’s simpler gestures of comfort and understand that really make the difference.
Does your partner involve you in day-to-day treatment? Does this help your relationship?
Sometimes my wife tells me when she visits her doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist. It helps me understand what is going on for her.
At times, I have been involved in family meetings with her psychiatrist. It also helps me understand where the psych is coming from and how he can help my wife.
I have learnt that I need to ask more questions to the psych and even ask more questions to my wife, such as ‘how was your appointment today?’
SANE Help Centre: Involvement in the treatment of your loved one can be very empowering. The more you know about the condition increases your ability to anticipate and deal with issues as they arise. It’s not always easy to get involved as it should be, but asking is a great first step that communicates your interest and support.
How does your partner’s illness affect you? Are there any strategies you use to stay well?
My wife's illness affects our intimacy greatly. There has been no sex for the past six months because she does not have any libido due to her illness and medication.
I stay well by listening to music, or going to car shows with my sons and friends. I don't have any professional support but I do talk to my co-workers about my wife's mental illness.
SANE Help Centre: Part of Ace’s ability to cope so well is no doubt due to his ability to carve out his own time and follow his interests. If we don’t refuel we end up with little to offer our loved one, so it’s essential to fit these activities in amongst our responsibilities. Everyone benefits.
Do you have any self-care tips or advice for anyone caring for a partner with BPD?
Continue your hobbies as it will help take your mind off the issues. Talk to others. Be honest.
Don't be scared to tell others that your partner has depression, anxiety or BPD. There are always others out there that know of someone with a mental illness. You can share stories or strategies of how to help each other.
SANE Help Centre: We hear all the time how the courage to open up about your own or a loved one’s mental illness leads to similar disclosures. There’s real comfort to be gained from knowing that you’re not alone.
Of course, people’s reactions can’t always be predicted, so choose your confidant’s carefully. If you don’t receive the response you hoped for, trust that others in your life will be more supportive.
Read More . . .
- Avoiding carer burnout
- Boundary setting and mental illness
- Five things people get wrong about BPD
- SANE Guide: Borderline personality disorder
- SANE Guide: Families, friends and carers
'Ace' is 52-years-old and lives in regional Victoria with his wife of 30 years.
Suzanne Leckie is the SANE Help Centre manager.