The following article was originally published in Probation Quarterly, Issue 11. The CEO and editor were very keen to publish it. However, soon after it was published, the issue was re-launched without it. There was no explanation and so I have published it here.
Editor: In this issue, we have a challenging article from a service user. It does not make for comfortable reading but her analysis of what could and should have been done differently in her supervision – not only by probation but also by community mental health services – is eloquent and she argues that achieving the right balance between empathy and professional distance requires a sophisticated level of skill and awareness.
Probation, ‘Borderline’ Offenders and the need for Boundaries
The first meeting with my Probation Officer (PO) started off badly. She had read my case notes, which said I was ‘high risk’, and made it clear she had reservations about supervising me. I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and was known to struggle to manage my emotions. The Community Mental Health Services (CMHS) had refused to help me, saying first that there is no treatment for BPD, and then after my arrest, that I was obviously in crisis and so unable to engage, so I was used to knock backs. Nevertheless, I was a little disappointed with her attitude and the fact that she had pre-judged me. I had never had a PO before and didn’t know what to expect. I was 55 years old and this was my first time in prison. I was looking forward to going home to my partner and was sure that I would not be returning to prison.
After my release, I saw the PO twice a week. I attended all my appointments and did not offend further, so after a couple of months they were cut down to once a week. I frequently asked if, and when, I would receive input from the CMHS. I received two stock answers. It was either ‘you can obviously manage your emotions, so you don’t need any help’, or ‘you cannot manage your emotions and so will not be able to engage’. I never did get any help, but it didn’t seem to matter because I could talk to my PO. She had softened towards me since our initial meeting and I looked forward to seeing her each week.
We spoke about any issues I was having but equally, we discussed her and her personal life. ‘Enough about you, did I tell you about what I did last weekend?’, she would say. I liked talking to her. She was funny, intelligent and interesting. She also seemed to care about me. We discussed my issues with attachment, a common symptom of BPD, and she seemed to understand what a serious problem it was for me. The feelings can become so intense that some people become obsessed and even resort to stalking. I hadn’t, but I understood how easy it could be to reach that stage.
We talked about anything and everything, and we laughed, a lot. I was becoming attached to her, and she knew it. She asked if I wanted a different PO; I declined. The best way of curtailing this type of attachment is to have no contact with the subject. However, the one with the attachment will not break the contact because they yearn for that person’s attention. The following comments are a good example of the feelings some people, including myself, frequently experience. It may sound extreme, but unfortunately, for many it is reality.
… the constant shifting between idealization and devaluation. When anything changes (the tone of their voice, body language, etc.), the shifting only goes between the two extremes. It’s like I’m the happiest when they are happy to see me, but I have self-harming and suicidal thoughts when anything changes. Salma H.
They’re like my drug. Whenever I get their attention, I’m happy for a while. But when I don’t, it’s like the world’s falling apart and I don’t know what to do. Jordie W.
Half way through my probation period I was told by a senior officer that I would now only need to see my PO every two weeks. I had been doing well and the concerns of supervising me, exhibited at the beginning, seemed to have lessened. This should have been good news. It wasn’t; I was devastated. I started to think of the time when I wouldn’t be able to see her, and I couldn’t bear it. I thought of the railway track and how much I wanted to end my life. I don’t know how I managed the drive home. I felt numb, yet desperate.
Once home, I couldn’t settle. I sent an email to the PO, complaining about never getting any help from CMHS. She phoned me, but I didn’t answer. I knew I wouldn’t be able to talk because I was crying so much. She asked the police to carry out a safe and well check, but they refused. Over the weekend, I sent more emails to my PO, threatening anyone she might send to my door. I wasn’t serious, but I needed to do or say something extreme so that I could calm down. On the Monday, I was arrested and charged with malicious communication. I pleaded guilty. The police said they had a statement from my PO to say she was upset at receiving the emails. The magistrate was sympathetic to my feelings but said he couldn’t allow anyone to send vitriolic comments to a PO. He sentenced me to 6 weeks in prison.
While in the cell awaiting transport, my PO came to see me. She told me that her manager had recalled me to prison to serve the rest of my initial sentence, another six months. She also said she had not made a statement and was neither angry or upset at my emails. She thought the whole saga was ‘sad’. Despite the fact that I would have to serve another six months in prison, I was happy that she was not angry with me.
After my release, despite the emails, and perhaps proving that she had not been upset by them, the same PO continued to supervise me for the seven months extended probation I had been given. I was still attached to her and grateful that I would be seeing her every week. Our relationship went back to the way it was before my arrest and one day, she became emotional and apologised for what had happened. Looking back, I don’t know if she had genuinely wanted to help me or had encouraged my attachment. She gave me a lot of information about herself but when I then tried to probe further, she said it was inappropriate. Either way, the thought of not seeing her was more than I could bear. I said it was ok, I didn’t blame her, and it was true. How could I blame her for being kind?
I do question, however, why probation officers (and possibly police and prison officers?) do not have the kind of awareness training that warns them about attachments, so that they can set boundaries. Individuals with BPD can be extremely vulnerable and prone to overplay the smallest act of kindness shown to them. I was told that a Forensic Psychologist was available to give advice to officers at my Probation Office. Clearly, the advice did not cover those with severe attachment issues.
Since leaving prison, I have been working to raise awareness of BPD and associated attachment issues. I would like to do a presentation for probation officers, but I don’t know if they would welcome it. If not from me, then it must come from someone. They need to know how to set boundaries at the very beginning; it could save a life. One in ten people with BPD end their own lives. I was very nearly part of this statistic.
Editor’s Postscript: There has been limited research on working with offenders with Borderline Personality Disorder. This article from a service user’s perspective makes an important contribution to our understanding of BPD.