By Hannah Bailey
Content warning: this piece contains discussion of alcohol abuse, suicide, and self harm
I went through 14 chaotic years in the mental health care system before being diagnosed with BPD when I was 21.
I have been diagnosably depressive since I was 7.
My self-destructive tendencies emerged at age 13 with cutting and purging behaviours. I was immediately shimmied forth into CAHMS, and later into adult mental health services, where my case was diligently mishandled by over 35 counsellors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, photosynthesists – you get the picture. I was batted back and forth – the problematic hot potato case – and I didn’t understand what was wrong with me.
My first suicide attempt was when I was 15. I tried another four times. My left arm, and both thighs, look like mismatched tweed when I’m feeling self-compassionate; like an inescapable reminder of my failures, and the failures of my supposed caregivers, when I’m feeling low.
I have struggled with alcohol abuse on and off since I was 16.
All of my romantic relationships can be clinically described as “unstable and intense”. My family relationships don’t fit so neatly into DSM terminology; I would choose the terms “spewing volcano” or “meteor collision” for my relationship with my mother.
It’s been a little over three years since I first heard the term “borderline personality disorder”. My lived experience changed radically upon discovering that I Am Not A Total Wackjob; that others, many others, feel like This too. I remember the epiphany when I first researched the condition, thinking “yes, finally, yes, this is me”. I remember my relief at the thought that others exist who can understand – really understand – the turbulence, unpredictability, and unrelenting emotional intensity that constitutes my day-to-day existence.
BPD is not your garden variety mental health condition. Depression and anxiety – though indisputably painful – are becoming increasingly understood, and folks are increasingly sympathetic. This is great! But my experience with BPD is, well, weirder. In order to survive, I am constantly aware of my base mood. Part of the fun with BPD is that whatever emotion is happening, it is happening at 100%, and prone to spiking up and down very fast.
These emotional extremes are dangerous and chronically misunderstood.
When my base mood is low, I can escape peer scrutiny by saying I’m feeling depressed, which is a functionally adequate descriptor (to get well-intentioned folks to leave me alone). I get depressed sometimes as well. But BPD lows are different – much more emotionally active. I feel actively hopeless and vulnerable, and stumbling on the verge of tears. I feel energetically that there is no purpose to my existence; that I am aggressively pointless, a waste, a leech of energy and resources that I do not deserve. I feel passionately paranoid that my friends ALL secretly hate me, and that I’d be doing everyone a favour if I went ahead and killed myself, god, five failed attempts, I can’t even kill myself right.
It’s like depression on red bull and steroids; the same despair, Now with Wings!, and an active craving for self-destruction. These spirals used to culminate in a trip to A&E for stitches. I’ve recently trained myself to talk through that destructive energy with a Samaritans volunteer instead of acting on self-violent impulses.
When my base mood is happy, now, this is the tricky bit. I am HAPPY!!! And I can feel 100% delight in my music! 100% satisfaction in small things (food! birdsong! a particularly green ivy leaf oh my god look at it it’s so green wow!)! 100% connection with my phenomenal friends, 100% joy, 100% euphoria. I am UNSTOPPABLY ALIVE and the WORLD is SPARKLING BUBBLES and WHY WAS I EVER SAD???
This is, I hope you can see, not the most stable state to be in. Similar intensity happens for anger, anxiety, rationality/logic – yes, it’s possible to be energetically, aggressively, passionately logical. The slightest tremor can send me shooting off to a different emotional extreme, and these tremors can be caused by anything. ‘What are your triggers, Bailey?’ Um. Yikes. I guess. … Other people? And the things that other people say and/or do? And myself??? And things that I say and do, and think? General ennui? The concept of time??? The sight of my own left arm, or my own face in a reflective surface???? A text message asking ‘how are you’ during a global pandemic, of course I’m not okay, nothing is okay, how could you ask such a horrible question, why would you make me THINK about how not okay I am, how COULD you be so CRUEL??? I don’t want you to speak to me ever again. Why are you leaving? Don’t leave. Don’t come anywhere near me, but don’t leave. Love me, adore me, I hate myself, don’t leave me, get away from me how dare you I hate you I love you don’t leave me.
The diagnosis of ‘traits of BPD’ – a psychiatric equivalent of “stay alert” – is increasingly common for those who don’t consistently present five or more of the nine diagnostic Traits. I present, or have previously presented, all 9. (Do I get a voucher? A certificate? ‘Congratulations, All Of These Things Are Indeed Wrong With You, You Definitely Have BPD?’ I do feel like an impostor writing this, and I needed validation from several others with BPD to be able to write). I am working intensively in psychotherapy to tackle the Life Things that shaped and/or destabilised my identity. I also need regular talk therapy as a sort of week-to-week maintenance check to keep me connected with the present. This is a long process and there is a long way to go and I am working on being okay with that.
I am 24. I have made a lot of poor decisions, and spent many, many years flailing in an abyss of self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-destruction. It has taken a long time to reach a point of self-awareness where I can feel any agency over my life. Having felt suicidal for eleven years, it’s a bit of a shock, now, to realise that I am planning for A Future. I am about to start a Music degree, having made the decision to leave a course that was not right for me. I have reached a fragile level of… perhaps self-belief… more likely self-compassion and forgiveness in the face of failure. I feel driven to pursue Goals. I have changed the energy that used to be raw destruction into a meticulous work ethic, and an intense need to help others find their happiness through music and theatre. My emotions remain intense, but now, I am choosing to energetically, aggressively, passionately create meaning for my existence through my work.
I wish that there was more popular understanding that, when you have BPD, Everything Is A Lot All The Time. Living with BPD is 100% emotion, always. I forget that not everybody lives like this. I wonder, often, what it’s like to just feel…fine. That’s the dream.