Heartbreak

My Ex-Wife Had Borderline Personality Disorder, But The Doctors Didn’t Tell Us

Photo: Patnaree Asavacharanitich / Shutterstock
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When I’m in a relationship, I’m all in. There are a few problems that can’t be overcome. Love does conquer all. But I also know that a relationship, especially a marriage, requires two willing partners.

What if you had a debilitating disorder and your doctor didn’t tell you? What if they knew your diagnosis for 5 years before telling you?

That’s what happened to me. My ex-wife (I’ll call her Andie) was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). A psychiatrist and a counselor confirmed the diagnosis, but it was 5 years before they told her. They even treated her with the wrong therapy.

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Her counselor wouldn’t support her plan to divorce, so she fired her counselor. Only upon expressing her desire to leave counseling did the counselor tell her, “You can’t leave. You have Borderline Personality Disorder.”

Imagine having cancer or heart disease or any other life-changing or possibly terminal disease and your doctor not telling you or your loved ones.

“The hell I can’t,” Andie said and fired her on the spot. When Andie made up her mind about something, there was no stopping her.

Imagine having cancer or heart disease or any other life-changing or possibly terminal disease and your doctor not telling you or your loved ones.

“I’m sorry, your wife is very sick but we’re not at liberty to discuss it with you. HIPAA rules, you know.”

Something is wrong with that system.

Because of her BPD, Andie and I were in and out of counseling for much of our 15 years together. But neither of us had ever heard of it.

The counselor and psychiatrist couldn’t talk to me about Andie’s BPD because of privacy laws. They had failed us.

She asked me about it right after she fired her counselor. We were separated, still sharing our one car, and she picked me up to take me home after work. The conversation went something like this:

“Do you know what Borderline Personality Disorder is?” she said.

“No idea. I’ve never heard of it. I can look it up when I get home,” I said.

“My counselor said I have it. But I think that’s what Demi has.” 

Demi was my stepdaughter. 

“I’m going to call her and tell her she has BPD.”

“But you don’t know that. You’re not a doctor,” I said.

She waved me off and dialed her cell while driving.

“Demi, are you sitting down? My counselor just told me that you have Borderline Personality Disorder.”

Always so dramatic.

Demi didn’t, doesn’t have BPD. She had rough adolescence (I was father figure number 3 and her mom had BPD, so do the math). But Demi grew to be a responsible young woman out of necessity, fending for herself, putting herself through college, supporting herself, and setting reasonable career goals.

I looked up BPD when I got home. The message in the first forum I found about it said, “If you know someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, RUN THE OTHER WAY!” Startling introduction. But too late. We had been married for 14 years at this point.

I approached Andie with care the next day.

Andie, I looked up BPD. This is bigger than us. We can address this. We can solve this.”

We were only a few weeks into our separation, but even at that early date, it was too late.

A few months before she fired her counselor, everything was fine. We had an enjoyable trip away for our 14th anniversary. We returned to discover that her mother was in the hospital from a car accident. She left immediately for a week-long trip from California to Virginia to visit her mother.

When she returned, it was like a switch had been thrown. She didn’t want to be kissed or touched. “I love you” had turned to “I hate you,” for no discernible reason.

Alcoholism and BPD took over her functioning for the last 9 months of our marriage until she birthed our divorce.

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The counselor and psychiatrist couldn’t talk to me about Andie’s BPD because of privacy laws. They had failed us. I asked my own counselor why they didn’t tell us or even tell Andie. My own counselor could only speculate. She said, “Maybe they didn’t want her to live up to the diagnosis.” My counselor knew stories about Andie.

Andie was high functioning for someone with BPD. Her career was top notch for which she won awards. But her personal relationships were fraught with difficulties. Her reasoning was faulty and her emotional states were often uncontrolled.

As a married couple, we had the typical arguments, about sex, money, and the division of household chores. But they were cyclical and irrational, and we could never get beyond them. We had the same fights for 15 years, despite years of counseling.

We stopped once for a period of two years when a counselor said, “Why don’t you just agree not to argue?” That worked for a while, but then the arguments started again.

We also had some doozy original fights, too. She believed she had every disease she ever looked up on WebMD. Once she claimed publicly at a party that she had cancer. She didn’t.

During a routine mammogram, a swollen lymph node was discovered. She assumed the worst, called me on the phone with the news across campus, and hid under her desk, sobbing hysterically. I ran to her and calmed her down and said we’ll take it one step at a time and see what the doctors say.

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Out of an abundance of caution, they took the lymph node out to biopsy it. Turns out she had cat scratch fever from the feral kitten she had found in our yard. She brought it into the house and tried to show it to the dogs, who wanted to eat it. The kitten scratched her all to hell.

“Can we keep it?” she asked, bleeding on the carpet.

“No, we can’t! Now get it out of the house before the dogs killed it.”

At the party, I overheard her tell some strangers that she had cancer. I confronted her afterward, telling her that I overheard her. She was angry, insisting that she had cancer. It was a swollen lymph node after all. That’s what happens when people have cancer, she reasoned incompletely.

Though that was a typical argument, 15 years of something like this every month, like clockwork, can wear anyone down. But still, we were married and committed to each other, so I, at least, kept trying to keep the peace.

I learned everything I could about Borderline Personality Disorder, and the 9 criteria for a diagnosis, of which she clearly had 8. I found a book for relatives of people with Borderline Personality Disorder: Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder.

OH MY GOD! Someone had secretly recorded my life for the past 15 years and printed it out. It was uncanny. There is no way anyone could have known what I experienced. But there it was, in black and white, all the cyclical arguing, the unresolved anger, the insecurities, and emotional instability for 15 years.

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Then I learned that the unstable relationship patterns of people with Borderline Personality Disorder are deeply ingrained. Most people with BPD have very short relationships, 3–6 months, maybe a year. But we had been together for 15 years!

What was different for us? Turns out, I was the key variable— I’m an extremely patient person, willing to forgive and forget and move on. That is if an argument can be let go.

Also, someone with BPD often has 3-stage relationships: Intense Seduction, Intense Clinging, and Absolute Hate. Our relationship fits that pattern exactly.

There is also an effective treatment for BPD. It’s called Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT), which has a 91% effectiveness rate as long as the patient is sober. But Andie wasn’t. In fact, during our separation, she also went on an alcoholic bender, downing a bottle of wine and a fifth of vodka every night.

Her counselor had been using Cognitive Behavior Therapy with her, despite knowing she had BPD! I guess not every medical professional graduate is at the top of their class.

During our divorce, I often knew what my ex was going to do before she knew it herself. I had the gift of foresight based on hindsight.

You see, I was husband number 3 and witnessed how she had left husband number 2. As she began leaving me, I was husband number 3 as she pursued husband number 4. I even got the bill for her new lingerie, which I promptly sent back to her. She had bragged about how husband number 2 had paid for the lingerie that she wore when she met me. Her pattern was exactly the same.

The divorce was messy and unnecessarily confrontational, amped up by that BPD hate stage. We had no kids, no assets of any kind, and had recently paid off all our bills. We could get a quickie paperwork/no lawyer divorce for under $400.00.

But she didn’t want to work with me even to that extent. So she borrowed $5,000.00 from her mother (which she deemed was her inheritance anyway) to hire a high-powered attorney, which forced me to get representation. She ran out of money and my lawyer had to finish the divorce for both of us, on my dollar.

Knowing about BPD now, it was clear that we had done everything wrong in our previous counseling.

If we had known, we would have acted differently. BPD is a devastating disorder, throwing relationships into unfathomable instability.

A psychologist teacher I met worked with child rapists and abusers in the prison system. But she said she would never work with people with BPD. She said they were “sucking vortexes of personality.” I totally agree and get where she’s coming from.

But people with BPD are still people. Through learning about BPD, I gained great compassion for my ex, even despite her cruel behaviors during our divorce.

In marriage counseling once, our counselor asked her if she could see in all that I do for her that I loved her. She shook her head as tears silently fell down her cheeks.

The counselor asked her what she was feeling. She often had difficulty identifying her feelings, but on this day, she was clear.

“Every day, I feel empty inside, like no one is there. That I’m a perfect fraud. It’s like someone’s going to find that out. I’m standing on a high cliff with one foot over the edge ready to step into the air, and my body is leaning over a bottomless canyon. That’s what every moment of every day is like, waiting to fall.”

How can you not feel compassion, anguish, and sorrow for someone who must live like that? Every. Single. Day.

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Our divorce happened quickly. She started cheating in March.

In April, after 3 separate incidents, I asked her to move out. She met someone across the country in May, in a planned rendezvous. She filed for divorce beginning of June. In July, she moved cross country from San Diego to Virginia with her married boyfriend. She broke up that marriage, too.

We were officially divorced on December 22. On December 30, she emailed to wish our dog a happy birthday and told me never to contact her again.

In October, we had a few brief tolerable phone calls. She was in Virginia, living and fighting with her elderly dying mother, sneaking out at night to smoke pot, and visit her boyfriend, acting like a teenager, though she was in her mid-40s. I asked her how she was doing, was she getting any treatment for her BPD.

“Oh that,” she said. “I left that in California.”

I can only hope that people with BPD can leave their disorders behind, like a discarded shirt. Among the piles of strewn bodies from their fraught and fragile relationships.

It’s been more than 8 years since the divorce. I’m happier now than ever, especially thinking back to the constant strife of living with someone with BPD.

And while we may still have divorced even if we had known she had BPD, I feel cheated that we didn’t get to try while knowing. We didn’t get a chance to try proper treatment and approach marriage counseling with knowledge about BPD.

In the end, I was the only one trying to keep the marriage together. And as we all know, a marriage of one is no marriage at all.

Lee G. Hornbrook is a writer who edits the Medium publication The Writing Prof. He writes the free substack newsletter My Own Private Waste Land: T. S. Eliot, Mental Illness, and the Making of a Memoir. He taught college English for 24 years in every time zone of the continental United States.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.