The other day I was chatting with a new friend and the conversation turned to mental illness. I ticked off the people in my life who’ve led me to experience the rockier road of mental health but it wasn’t until later that evening I realized I’d forgotten to include myself.
In a conversation about mental illness, I’d neglected to mention my most direct experience.
Switch scenarios to the Telegraph blog, where I posted an excerpt from a piece I wrote entitled “How BPD made me a better expat”. A charming man had left a comment detailing his certainty of the fact that my perception of myself, my neighbours, dammnit! even the human race, was questionable. He sneeringly advised me to “keep avoiding the pills”.
I was floored, because his view of me was so at odds with my own. He’d written me off as some nut-job after reading a couple of hundred words, whereas I didn’t really see myself as ill at all. I knew better than to take his comment seriously but nonetheless it made me think. Is that how people see me? Was my illness obvious? I’d always imagined no-one knew of it unless they’d read my blog. Was my refusal to let my struggles beat me construed as denial? An image of my father floated into my head, scattering his pills around the kitchen as he laughingly refused to accept he was ill. Was I no better?
The thing is, despite having BPD, I see myself as no different to everyone else.
Sure I experience personal difficulties in certain areas, but so do many people. I would even go so far as to argue that I’ve learned skills to deal with these challenges that leave me better equipped than most to deal with them.
While I’m not in denial – I knew I was ill and fought hard for a diagnosis – I don’t see my problems as an insurmountable obstacle to functioning in the world. For a long time after I was diagnosed I didn’t really research my illness at all. I didn’t want to absorb excuses that would let me off the hook of trying.
My entire life has been a struggle to understand mental health/illness. When I was younger, I tried to understand my father’s condition. How much of his abusive behavior was down to his illness and how much of it was the “real” him? Where was the crossover line? I could have been blaming the illness for what was actually a character trait. I studied Psychology at college in the hopes of increasing my understanding.
During my teens my own struggles began, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I just believed my parents when they told me I was moody, spoilt, ungrateful and worse. I agonized over my inability to control my feelings, my propensity for despair. My self-esteem was obliterated by doubt. The dislike my parents had for me, I turned on myself. antidepressants didn’t make much of a difference; drugs and alcohol couldn’t blot it out. Life was about hanging on, nothing more. I studied Psychology at university in the hopes of increasing my understanding.
Later, I grew to see my mother’s manipulative behavior for what it was. My father, with his overt violence and aggression was an easy scapegoat for her more devious machinations. The more I investigated I realized her mental state was no better than his. I began to untangle the web of lies.
I always saw my difficulties in terms of something that could be fixed given the right treatment. I put distance between myself and my parents, I sought help for my depression – I knew if I could just break my negative thought-patterns, find a way to like myself and talk my feelings through with someone who understood, I could have a normal life.
It was never about being broken, just different.
Author’s note, June 2014: Since the time of writing I’ve been re-diagnosed with Aspergers and Bipolar II. I no longer meet the criteria for BPD and given the existing cases of Aspergers and bipolar in my direct family I have to admit this re-diagnosis seems a more accurate explanation for my symptoms. Oh, the beauty of hindsight…