Sexual assault, PTSD, mental health
A couple of years ago it seemed like I was diagnosed with a new mental illness as often as I experienced a breakup. I would eventually learn that the reason for these multiple failed relationships was in part due to my mental disorders, a kind of collateral intimacy that left both parties worse for wear.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder (the winning combo I have been diagnosed with) each have profound psychological effects on an individual due to both disorders stemming from trauma. Aside from the often-tedious responsibility of simply keeping ourselves afloat to coast through life, throwing a relationship into the mix can capsize an already unsteady (or in my case, sinking) ship.
I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at 19. This led to a disordered dating experience where I felt forced to learn my physical boundaries through trial and error. I once thought this cycle of “disordered dating” limited me, and all my future relationships, to be defined by only my negative experiences, and that positive experiences were very few and far between. I now know that this is not the case. But this knowledge was by no means a sudden revelation. Years of intensive therapy coupled with a strong support network of my closest friends and family are what helped me reach the understanding that life after trauma is possible. Still, some days it takes boatloads of effort to cope but there is solace in knowing my experiences are part of a collective of people who are as similarly disordered as I am, and who have found stability despite their diagnosis.
Patty*, 25, shared her experiences of how PTSD has affected her personal relationships after I made a callout on Instagram looking for contributions to this article.
“My PTSD is related to sex, so I found I had to renegotiate my boundaries around sex…” said Patty.
“My mental health has always affected my [sexual] relationships in different ways – sometimes my PTSD means that I’m hyper sexual and I feel like having a lot of sex can somehow ‘erase’ my bad experiences.”
I thought it was just PTSD that affected my romantic relationships. To a certain extent it did explain a lot it of my issues; it explained why I wasn’t able to trust my male partner at the time despite him being gentle, patient, and understanding, it explained my (still ongoing) complicated relationship with sex, and it explained the internal conflict between safety versus desire. What it didn’t explain was certain unhealthy and toxic behavioural traits I had – up until my recent diagnosis with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – come to accept as inherently part of my personality. I was irrationally angry and irate. And I took it out on the person I loved the most.
Relationships are hard work at the best of times. A balance of mutual respect, shared desires, sound conflict resolution and a sense of self that is separate from your significant other(s) is what typically defines a ‘healthy’ relationship. For people with BPD, relationships don’t usually function within the idyllic scenario of separate individuals engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship. Instead, the relationship becomes an all-consuming entity with nagging uncertainties around fear of abandonment and rejection from the significant other(s) who has become an emotional crutch rather than a partner. This was my experience anyway, and coupled with PTSD I found relationships demandingly intimate and bound by expectations I could never meet. I have chosen not to involve myself in any sort of committed relationship because therapy helped me realise intense relationships were not conducive to my mental health. And that’s okay; in fact, it’s better for everyone.
Through therapy I have learned how to be open (sometimes too open but, whatever) about my experiences and my desires. Allowing myself to come into my sexuality was always difficult. Being queer was a huge part myself that I always kept hidden but that I now freely express.
Like Patty, I have found myself “alienated” from who I am, as disorders often foreground our decisions and how we define ourselves. While a diagnosis offers an explanation into behaviours and a pathway to recovery with appropriate avenues, it can also be extraordinarily difficult to come to terms with. However, a diagnosis is not a sentence to fail.
*Pseudonym used to protect the identity of participant