Redefining love: Overcoming childhood lessons from a BPD mother

By Natasha Dorney

5 minute read

I grew up as an only child with a mother who had Borderline Personality Disorder. I was born as her confidante, her best friend and her shoulder to cry on. She saw me as a part of herself, a satellite to her suffering, contained as a part of her identity. This, I was told, is what love is, and this is who I am. It was us against the world, and the world was a dark and dangerous place.

From the time I could talk, It was my job to protect her from the world and from myself. I learned that my emotions – when I was scared, angry, hurt, sad, or even sometimes happy – these things were harmful. If I cried, she would cry louder. I learned not to cry.

I squished all of those murky feelings into a bitter little ball in my stomach and acted as her captive audience instead – my emotions also belonged to her. I felt that I must be a monster for feeling this way, must be a monster for doing that to my mother. So I pushed down my feelings and sanitised my facial expressions. Because this is what love is, and this is who I am. But nothing I did seemed to help her, and it was my fault.

Some days Mum played with me, we sang songs together and laughed. Other days, she didn’t come home, she drank so much she passed out, or she angrily shoved me away when I tried to comfort her. She was sick or she had been hurt by somebody, usually my father.

She told me gruesome tales of sex and death that I was too young to process that kept me awake at night.

I would creep into her room as she slept, to check that she was still breathing. Maybe I did it wrong, I thought to myself. Maybe I hadn’t kept my little ball of sadness and rage tucked away adequately, maybe tonight she would die like she had told me she would.

But she often said “I love you”, so I thought, this is what love must be. This is what love must be, I thought, when her actions were hateful. When she broke or defaced my toys, when she left me hungry, it was because I didn’t love her enough. This is what love is, I thought, and I seem to be incapable of it.

redefining love

As I grew older, she seemed to lose interest in me. I love you, she told me, but I realised I didn’t know who she was referring to. I realised I didn’t actually feel loved, and I realised that I had never considered my own feelings before.

My mother’s ideas about my interests and abilities seemed based in fantasy, a fantasy where I was alternately cast as a hero or villain, but never as just me.

The “just me” who needed to go to school fed and clean was of no interest. I was teased for being dirty. I was hungry. And yet somehow, school was my safe space: my place where I knew I could ask a question and get a consistent answer, my place where I would be treated the same, yesterday and today. I realised I wanted this self to exist, with her own thoughts and opinions. I knew I liked this person I was discovering, who all these years had been quietly waiting for an opportunity to speak.

 A childhood of denying your authentic self takes its toll. When you don’t listen to your feelings, your body begins to communicate. Being close to my mother began to make me physically ill. I would unintentionally cringe away from her touch and have extreme digestive symptoms.

Even with this physical evidence of my strong feelings, it was near impossible to accept my own boundaries when for so many years the right thing to do was to ignore, push down, repress.

But I knew that I wanted to know myself, so I kept trying, and I learned to listen to my body when I didn’t know how I felt, and I respected what it told me. This is what love is, I thought: listening to your own thoughts and feelings, to the truth in your body, and believing it. And if nobody else can do it, at least I have me: I’m listening. I believe you.

overcoming lessons from a BPD mother

Years later, I’m still listening. The dark little ball in the pit of my stomach has dissolved, although my thoughts and feelings still sometimes confound me. But I’ve learned to stop and listen, and to trust myself.

I know that I am complex and difficult, but worthy, as I am.

I consider the vulnerable little girl I was, the child I was never allowed to be, and I love her in a way that my mother couldn’t. Because, somehow, even though I hadn’t been shown how to do it, I knew how.

People are resilient, and I am no exception. I knew how to cherish my childhood self as I grew and changed. I recognised that the mingled fear and responsibility that were instilled in me didn’t belong to me, so I let them go.

I let it all go.

Thank you to Natasha for these powerful, and intensely beautiful words. You are a warrior & teacher dear lady. Maggie x

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