This is a post I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to write; it has taken 8 years to finally commit to paper (pixel?). I have been wanting to share what it means to live with complex mental health conditions but have kept a lot to myself because of the fear I have carried about the nature of my diagnosis.
I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in my early twenties and have lived in fear of people’s reaction to my illness and the assumptions that accompany it ever since, but I have recently realised that now I am in recovery I might have the power to challenge some of those ideas and assumptions. I will almost certainly write more about this, but for now here’s an outline of how I came to have that label, and how I got to the point of recovery.
When I was about 7 or 8 I started showing behaviours and traits that would later be diagnosed variously as depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. By the time I was 10 I was self-harming. Throughout my education I would use various damaging coping mechanisms to try and keep intrusive thoughts and low mood at bay, and to keep me functioning well enough to hold down work, education, and a social life. I could be very clingy as a friend, and responded incredibly badly to even the most mild form of rejection. Not being acknowledged in the street could make me catatonic with depression or spark a long string of passive-aggressive and bitchy messages to or about the person who had apparently rejected me. I was stable enough to still have friends – or, in some cases, my friends were kind enough to stick around despite my bullshit – but I was deeply unhappy and felt like I was losing control of my mood, my intellectual capacity, and my relationships.
When I was 23, after trying every form of SSRI (then) in existence, along with mood stabilisers and a very long course of psychodynamic therapy, I was stuck in a cycle of behaviours that would see me become deeply suicidal and presenting regularly at A&E either to try and prevent harm or to treat it. Often I went alone and didn’t tell anyone. Sometimes I managed to find someone to come with me. Going back to the GP after one such incident, which saw me admitted overnight and then discharged when no inpatient beds were available, she asked if I had ever heard of Borderline Personality Disorder. I had, and had even been told by some of my more learned friends to seek a diagnosis, but I deeply feared what it meant about me.
I had heard that Personality Disorder was a kind of illness that ‘psychos’ had. I had heard that Personality Disorders were ‘incurable’ and that people who had them would never work. One friend, ordinarily one of the most compassionate people I know, had gone so far as to tell me to ensure I never had a diagnosis of PD because, “those people are awful; you don’t want to be associated with them”.
I went from the GP that day with a sense of relief (“it has a name! I’m not a fuckup!”) and dread (“I have a disorder of the personality, I am such a fuckup”). I started a new course of meds that included a mood stabiliser, and eventually went back to the GP and asked about how to get some decent treatment.
Getting to access treatment would be a 3 year process, but I was finally able to attend the Complex Needs service near where I was living after another year at university. The service offered was a form of specialist treatment called a Therapeutic Community, in which people come together and work alongside one another for a fixed period of time (in my case, 18 months), meeting a few times a week and committing to offering support to one another by phone in the meantime. Any time. I took support calls from others at midnight whilst at a church conference in Chicago, and called out for support myself when I was feeling suicidal late at night. The support of people whose emotional landscape was congruent with mine, and who were willing and able to work with me, was enormously beneficial.
I have been in recovery since being part of the TC, but still have ups and downs. When I am not feeling well, I can still be hurt by a small rejection, or become overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts of failure or disaster, but even then I am usually able to do my job and keep a hold of my commitments.
I’m proud of the work I put into my recovery, and grateful for the support I had to get there. There’s no doubt that without treatment designed for my condition and funded by the NHS I would not be able to do the things I can do today.