Continued from Tuesday…
I met him at a time my friend group was at a low number, having moved back to my hometown after years away. I’d not left home with many friends, and those few did not remain when I returned. I was seeking friends, and a lifestyle that conformed to the way I felt the back half of my 20s should look–parties, going out, popularity among groups. He was cool, an icon of hip bachelorhood in the social circles in which he moved. He was legendary–people spoke his name as though it was a state of being or personality type. Because of his reputation I expected him to be unapproachable and coolly removed. Instead, he was friendly and engaging right back at me, and I was attracted to his twinkling eyes and ready smile. It turned out we were both interested in music, and liked a lot of the same bands, and so making that first invitation, to hit a show together, was easy and obvious.
The coolest of the cool kids had said yes to hanging out, and expressed his excitement about the plans! Past cool kids I’d pursued had either brushed me off, or given a non-committal answer in their signature bored tone. But not this one. He was older, in his mid-30s, which meant he was truly cool, mature enough to not play games.
I found his enthusiasm for our budding friendship so appealing, intoxicating even, that I was blind to the gaping hole where his personality should have been. I had spent two decades exhausting my energy reserves chasing people who were indifferent, choosing to give my all upfront and burn out, again and again. No one could measure up to the heat and speed with which I loved in the initial stages, and no one had. His friendship felt like a validation of my methods, as I watched our bond grow under my attentions. Attentions he readily accepted and advanced. “Let’s hit a show” began to turn into “let’s make a weekend of it!”. He mirrored my words and actions, and I adored him for it. I believed what I was seeing, without question. I wanted so much for close friends whose love and attention rose to the level of mine, to question would have meant risk. And I wasn’t about to risk something that felt this good, this real, this right. The starving woman who runs across the gourmet spread isn’t going to stop and consider that food this appetizing could be plastic or poisoned. Nope, she’s going to eat until she’s sick.
He was both plastic and poison. The first time he revealed himself to be far less than what he presented, I was unable to understand his behaviors as a symptom of a stunning lack of character. When, in the midst of my alcoholic meltdown I made the decision to separate from my husband, also a “close” friend of his, he cruelly turned his back on me, refusing to hear me out. Though my husband and I asked our friends not to choose sides, he did, pushing me out of the friend group, shunning and shaming me. In my most desperate and terrible moments, he walked away from me without a word.
Of course, I found out much later, he was free with his words against me and my character. Losing his friendship was devastating. I perceived him to be the brightest star in the social firmament, without whom my friendship life was dark. And because I was uncomfortable being by myself, the loneliness that resulted in losing him made me want to jump out of my skin. And even as I got into recovery, and went to therapy, and began to understand myself and the errors of my interpersonal ways, I continued to believe I was the problem in our particular relationship. He was poison, drawing me in, and keeping me close as long as I behaved; flinging me into the trash the moment I didn’t. I allowed his rejection to crush me, his silent disapproval to infect me with doubt as to my character.
Somehow, even with all the great work I was doing on myself, I was blind to his personality disorder. I longed for his friendship, knowing that he and my husband, with whom I had reconciled, remained close. I missed him. After close to six months of silence, I emailed him to congratulate him on his new relationship, which I learned had progressed to the moving-in stage. In an attempt to court his favor and test the waters (disguised as taking the high road) I acknowledged my past wrongs against his friend, my husband, and ventured the hope that if thrown together in a social setting we would be civil and respectful of each other, for the sake of my husband’s feelings. What I wrote must’ve hit the right buttons, because he responded almost immediately with approval, affirming the air had been officially cleared between us, and thanking me. In another six months I was at a party at his house, and it was like nothing had ever happened. In another six months after that we were back to the closest of friends, though he was less available because of his relationship. We were back, and I failed to see or understand that his personality disorder was the cause for our falling-out, and the cause for our reconciliation.
As long as I was supporting his extremely fragile image of himself, I was good, and could remain an insider. The moment I stepped a toe outside his comfort zone, I could expect to be met with either harsh, sneering ridicule or heavy silence. I learned his terms without questioning or examining them, and I followed them. His manipulations of me were seamless, the well-rehearsed practices of an elaborately constructed facade of normalcy, under which lurked a vast, empty frozen tundra. The beginning of our friendship felt uncommonly natural and right, because he was simply mirroring what I displayed, and rewarding behaviors that supported his image.
I was dealing with a Borderline man, whose identifying characteristics eluded me both because of my low self-esteem and because of gender. Borderline Personality Disorder is inherently gender biased, beginning with the way the diagnostic criteria are written, and I believe it is under-diagnosed in men. As a man, his voice, interests and opinions naturally superseded mine in a way I accepted as an unchallenged societal norm. Many of the behaviors and traits we revile in women are accepted in men, and this is what makes Borderline difficult to spot in men. Cloaked in male privilege, his Borderline characteristics were nearly invisible to me.
Men are allowed to be angry, women aren’t. When he had the inappropriate outbursts of anger that are a hallmark of his disorder, it was terrifying because it was cutting, personal, and cruel. I only needed to see it once or twice to correct myself, and make certain I never did anything to upset him. His anger drew me toward him, because men have the right to be angry, and I felt responsible for alleviating his discomfort. Codependent, much?
Men are expected to remain unattached, and unfettered by relationships, even when they’re married with children. It wasn’t unusual then, that he went through long stretches of being single, or that his relationships ended when he was caught cheating, or that he’d go on a few dates with someone and it would fizzle, or that his last two girlfriends were long-distance. It didn’t strike me as odd that his closest friends lived in other states, and that his main local crew was made up of colleagues.
On the surface, not much is wrong with this picture (the cheating, though). He was a cool dude who had his own life. Or was he? Was it more that he offered so little in the way of true human connection he was better in long-distance relationships, where less need be offered, less could be examined? I tried having an in-town, intimate friendship with him, and experienced firsthand his interpersonal instability. Even before he tossed me away, we had a little dance going where we’d have an amazing time together and he’d pull away in the following days, acting sullen and withdrawn. I’d inevitably draw nearer to investigate, and put myself out further to feel close again. He’d reward me with more fun time together, and back off again, sometimes questioning our relationship, but never allowing room for conversation. He controlled the pace, depth and health of the relationship, fully, totally.
Speaking of depth, he had none. It’s OK for men to be shallow, skating on the surface of feelings, out of touch with their inner experience. Thus, the Borderline’s feelings of chronic emptiness as evidenced by unstable self image, among other things, were hidden too. I threw a large house party one time that featured all the things we loved to do together: pizza, music, a beer keg and Rock Band karaoke in the living room. We’d been planning the thing for a month, and he’d decided we should pack the weekend with activities, the party being the crowning event. The guests were a mishmash of people from my various social circles, including mutual friends. A close friend of mine, who readily describes herself as socially awkward and prefers to “watch the fishbowl” at parties rather than participate made a comment about him I’ll never forget, “he’s so uncomfortable with himself, it makes me feel comfortable with myself”. It took me nearly five years to see what she saw, a man ill at ease inside his own skin, who did not fit, hovering at the edges, searching for an identity. I perceived quite the opposite. Because she wasn’t involved in supporting his broken personality the way I was, she was able to see him clearly.
He depended on people like me, with low self esteem and low expectations to make him a person. On his own, he was no one. I can only guess that any attempts to look inward were met with a horrifying, unrelenting blankness. I imagine that as a teenager (when personality disorders begin to emerge) he learned to play off the people around him, to use their responses to him to create an image of normalcy. Without people he would be untethered and other, strange and bereft. I sense he learned to manipulate those around him to support his identity, preying on vulnerable, malleable people he knew wouldn’t ask questions. He had no answers to give. He lived as though he had a projection screen or mirror where others have a personality. He was comfortable allowing others to project themselves onto him, a smooth surface that reflected kindness, fun, happiness, friendship, ethics, whatever the other person sought. He played this trick on me and I fell for it more times than I can count. I wanted to see him as my closest friend, a loyal big brother who watched out for me, and he was happy to project this role, without playing it. There were times I assumed best intentions on his part so fervently, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t actually done what I wanted or needed. He was a fantasy brother, who I understand now lived mostly inside my mind. The real man was nothing.
I abandoned him three times in the end, a Borderline’s worst fear. Because the fear is deeply pathological, abandonment as it’s understood by a Borderline could be something as small as, say, not responding to a text. The first time I abandoned him was when I left my marriage. We’d been a three-person unit, he, my husband and I, a package deal, rather inseparable. He loved us together, and when we split up, it challenged his understanding of the friendship, and therefore of his self image. Instability meant crisis, behind which exposure advanced. And who wants to be exposed as crazy? I was out, thrown in the gutter, utterly devalued, whereas a month before I’d been up on a pedestal, one half of his favorite married couple, one of his favored friends.
The second time I abandoned him was to move out of state. I’d given everyone a three-year notice about my plans, and it was no surprise to anyone when at last I pulled up stakes. Sure, he showed up my final Saturday night in town, which I planned as an exclusive evening for the three of us. But I did not hear from him again after I left town. Sure, he responded to my texts and emails sometimes, and showed up when I came back to visit, but not once did he initiate contact. He went so far as to tell his girlfriend he wouldn’t consider a visit to my new place because he hated the whole state, even though he’d been multiple times to visit others and attend major college football games.
I must have felt his disapproval and devaluation the night we said goodbye, because once the door closed behind me I fell to my knees sobbing, my heart filled with longing for my brother. I’m not a crier. I did not cry when I said my goodbyes to anyone else. I’ve not come up with an explanation for this outpouring of feeling that fits. The best I can do is to imagine that on some subconscious level I understood my relationship with him was over, that it would never be the same, and experienced the loss of my illusory brother in that moment. My conscious mind has no sense to offer.
The third and final time I abandoned him I purposely did, and I will not acknowledge him again. I became close with his girlfriend, establishing and developing a friendship with her independent of mine with him. Over a period of of years I watched her go from smitten to disenchanted with him. She confided in me his shortcomings as a partner, and I began to see him as a clueless and selfish boyfriend, which I kept independent of my feelings about him. He got worse. He did unforgivable things, and I found my loyalties lay with his girlfriend, that she and I had the relationship I’d projected onto him. I stopped talking to him, easy enough since I was the contact initiator. I’m sure he went months without knowing I was gone. I’d already abandoned him by moving away, and I believe at this point, when I’d been gone for over a year, his acceptance of my friendship was both grudging and part of his careful routine. I went so far as to advise her to leave him, stating that I would not know him anymore after what he’d done. I was done.
We will not speak again. We will not meet again. We did not say goodbye, and my decision was not challenged. There will be no closure, and there need be none, because anything I felt or thought, all time spent, all love given was illusory, grounded in another’s manipulation of my sense of self in service of his own. What can you do with a friend like that? Read our story and see the warning signs, and heed them. The signs were as much about my stunning lack of a sense of self and low self-esteem as they were about his personality disorder. Statistically speaking, the Borderlines will continue to enter my life. I’m going to start guarding against these toxic people who have hurt me and mindfucked me by attending to my sense of self, building it, strengthening it, discovering it, challenging it. I won’t fall prey again, and I won’t as long as I don’t look like prey. I’ll do that by taking care of myself, and cultivating friendships in new ways that aren’t about control and desperate need. I hope if I’m not putting it out there, I won’t be pulling it in.