Guest post by Rachel Williams. Content warning: mentions of self-harm and suicide
Receiving my diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in February 2016, aged 26, made my whole life – in terms of my psychiatric history – make sense. I started to self-harm aged 12 or 13, and struggled with an eating disorder from around the same age, officially being diagnosed with anorexia at 18. Depression was my norm. Despite these things, it took hospitalisation in 2016 before I finally received my diagnosis.
Up until that point, countless visits to the GP had my condition misdiagnosed as depression, and I was fobbed off with yet another prescription for antidepressants, none of which seemed to work. I always felt that my self-harm was dismissed as ‘just a teenage phase’. Even when I attempted suicide aged 18, no one queried it further. I think everyone thought that I was just doing these things for attention. Some went so far as to tell me that directly, but I am sure that many more were thinking it.
My psychiatrist once described BPD to me as being like bipolar but with more frequent mood swings. This fits with my experiences perfectly. You see, I can wake up in one mood but the slightest thing can trigger a change, for better or worse. It’s like Alice from Alice in Wonderland said: “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.”
BPD is a tricky diagnosis to receive and one that comes with a lot of associated stigma. Portrayals of BPD in the media, such as in the film Girl, Interrupted, show sufferers of the condition as being melodramatic, attention seeking and manipulative. A lot of psychiatrists believe that the condition can’t be treated, and as such do not want to treat us – though obviously, they can’t openly admit to this! This is something I have come across in my own experience. Almost every time that I have seen a psychiatrist and commented that my medication is not working, I have been told that this is because there is no medicinal treatment for BPD. I know this. But what I want – and need – is to be taken seriously and not just dismissed.
The recommended course of therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), was unavailable to me because I am ‘not ill enough’. I think this is because I am what can be described as a ‘quiet borderline’; that is, I internalise what I’m feeling, rather than acting out. Perhaps, had I better fitted people’s stereotypes of BPD, I would have received treatment sooner? Now, though, I am finally on a combination of meds that seems to have stabilised me. And, after waiting for over a year, I am about to start mentalisation-based therapy, an 18 month course of treatment, which I’m keeping everything crossed for.
One of the problems that comes with having BPD is that you never know if your reactions are ‘normal’. I find myself often wondering whether I am justified in feeling the way I do about something, or whether it is my illness magnifying my response. It’s hard to tell, especially when I have been told so many times that I am overreacting. Am I just being ‘hysterical’, or has something really upset me that much? One is the way I am perceived by others, and the other is my reality.
There is a lot of negativity surrounding this diagnosis, and mental illness in general, but it’s not all bad. Those with BPD are often impulsive, but it means I can be spontaneous. We feel everything more deeply – often described as the psychological equivalent of having third degree burns all over your body – but that means I experience joy and love more deeply. We fear rejection, so we do all we can to treasure those around us.
I’ve had to fight damn hard to get to where I am today. In the past year, I have had four months off work and (for various reasons, including my illness) had to quit the job I was in at the time – a job I loved. Yet now, I have just returned to study after seven years and started a Masters degree course, full time.
I have borderline personality disorder. And I’m not ashamed of that.