I wrote recently for Black Dog Tribe, a website launched last year by comedian Ruby Wax with the aim of providing a sympathetic user-generated community for those affected by mental health issues.
Websites like Black Dog Tribe have an important role to play in overturning the stigma surrounding the subject, raising awareness and giving contact details for those seeking help. I hope you’ll take a minute to click over and visit, maybe have a browse around.
Here’s my story:
At 26 I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I‘d been treated for depression since the age of 15, but never found relief.
I first spoke to my family doctor about it when I was 15, but it started when I was around 12. I experienced regular, crashing mood-swings, so intense they altered my perception of the world around me. It was impossible to stabilise myself as everything shifted so radically. It was like being tossed about in heaving seas with nothing to cling to. I could feel the fog descend as I entered an episode and my heart would be gripped by fear. I knew I’d be facing hopelessness and suicidal thoughts alone, my parents thought I was moody and told me to “snap out of it” or keep to myself until I’d cheered up – I was selfish for inflicting my moods on everyone else. As if I chose to feel that way!
My GP was a warm, caring woman who ran her surgery from her home. I felt able to tell her about my feelings, although, with the misplaced discretion familiar to many sufferers of abuse, I couldn’t bring myself to mention what went on at home: my father’s unpredictable violence, my mother’s coldness, the physical, verbal and emotional attacks. They’d done such a good job of convincing me I was the one to blame I felt ashamed.
She asked me if I took any illegal drugs, I didn’t. She said that she didn’t think I was the sort of person who felt comfortable giving up their self-control in that way. She was right. I found out in later years that it didn’t matter what I took, I couldn’t escape my own self-hatred. Like someone with a balloon-phobia trying to get away from one tied to their wrist, I could never out-run my sense of inadequacy. It bobbed along with me, wherever I went, occasionally bumping me in the face if I changed direction sharply, letting me know it was still there, shadowing my every move.
I was prescribed counselling, but it was a limited course and although it brought some relief, I was no nearer to understanding my problems. I felt a failure for being depressed – other people worse off than I managed to function. I didn’t realise the validity of the difficulties I had to deal with at home. I had no idea others would have been horrified that my father had strangled me or that my mother told me she never wanted children. Deep down, I believed I was the cause of incidents like these, and that telling anyone else would only cause them to hold a low opinion of me too. When I turned seventeen my mother threw me out and my focus shifted from getting better to survival. Your mental health takes a back seat when you’re homeless.
I hugged my sorry secrets close to my heart until I was more settled. As the years passed I got consistently worse. I experienced anorexia, bulimia, substance abuse and self-harm. I tried to put myself through university but dropped out after two years. I became agrophobic: ducking instinctively whenever someone outside passed by the window. I called the Samaritans to distract me from suicidal thoughts, was stitched up in A&E and hitch-hiked alone. Someone called an ambulance when I passed out in the street from a cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants.
I swung between numbing the pain and numbing the numbness. I didn’t care if I lived or died and I hated myself for inconveniencing everyone – in my mind I was worthless and I expected that, secretly, they thought so too. Every birthday I wished for the same thing (immature I know, but worth a try) I wished to be happy. Every birthday I thought “Maybe this will be the year I gain the maturity to understand it all and make something of myself” Every year that passed I felt I’d failed – again.
I wasn’t helped by a string of medical practitioners who seemed as jaded as me, and only wanted to medicate my problems away. Something in me still wanted to get to the root of them, to begin repairing the damage, but my limited energy was sapped by poor and ineffectual treatment. I saw one particular psychiatrist, whose response to my requests for feedback and guidance was ALWAYS, “What do you think?” As you can imagine, this got us nowhere. Time and time again I was referred to someone new, I’d recount my story, the tears would flow, the box of tissues was sympathetically proffered, but I never got any closer to a solution. All the rooms began to look the same; the two chairs artfully arranged so that you didn’t need to make a choice, the ubiquitous box of tissues lurking nearby, and the desiccated spider-plant high on a shelf by the window…
After twelve bleak and lonely years my faltering search for help finally led me to a mental health team who recognised my problems and immediately swung into action. I got a diagnosis, a referral for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, was taken off the drugs that worsened my suicidal feelings and was offered advice about financial help I was entitled to. Resources were made available to help me integrate and socialise and I was appointed a key-worker, who I met weekly, to discuss my progress and who encouraged me to stick with it when things were tough. Everything happened so quickly. All those years spent slogging away at the rock face of mental health treatment and suddenly, instantly, I was transported. The fact that I needed a lot of work didn’t fill anyone with exasperation, my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder meant there was a chance I’d be difficult to work with but no one made me feel like I was the obstacle to my recovery.
At the time, BPD didn’t mean much to me beyond having my feelings legitimised – for me THAT was the big deal. I began to see it was understandable for me to feel the way I did. My difficulties began to seem less like my personal failing.
Gradually I learned to manage my condition. It was difficult and frustrating, especially when I knew where I was going wrong but couldn’t stop my auto-pilot reactions, but in time I finished my therapy and built a life on my own terms. I still struggle with negative thoughts and volatile moods, and often I suffer from anxiety that makes my hands shake and my heart race, but I keep pushing myself. I recently discovered mindful meditation and it’s made a HUGE difference to my relationship with myself. It seems I had time and compassion for everyone but me.
Since my treatment, I’ve learnt to drive, got married, become a mother to three amazing children, trained as a teacher, emigrated to Canada and carved out a career for myself as a freelance writer. I’m no longer on the outside looking in. Not bad for a one-time no-hoper, eh!