When, aged 17, I found myself at rock bottom and in a fit of absolute despair, was admitted to a psychiatric unit. I saw a string of doctors during my time there and various diagnoses were discussed. Bipolar seemed to be the most likely conclusion but, during a particularly erratic and incoherent period in my illness, the term ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ was mentioned. That scared me. Not in and of itself but because by that point I’d seen how nursing staff had responded to the girls on the unit labelled ‘Borderlines’.
The staff seemed to project different meanings onto the behaviours of those with Borderline Personality Disorder. Self harm, for example, was treated with sympathy in people with Depression but the girls with Borderline Personality Disorder were often castigated for using it to ‘manipulate’ staff. It also seemed like there was a reluctance to move these girls over from the day unit to inpatient in a crisis situation – a general perception that they were ‘trying it on’. The list could go on; I had a general impression that they were seen as second class patients.
Time went on, my condition improved and the possibility of me having Borderline Personality Disorder was dismissed. I was still left feeling uneasy about the way those girls were viewed but perhaps I’d been imagining it? The girls in question were the only other adolescent girls on the unit so it’s perhaps unsurprising that I paid particular attention to the way they were treated. Yes, perhaps that was it, the nursing staff were professionals after all!
Fast forward ten years and I’ve stayed well enough to finish college and university and to start my career. One afternoon at work was set aside for ‘Mental Health Awareness’ training. I’d silently giggled at the title as for much of my life I’ve been painfully ‘aware’ of mental health!
It seemed a lot like any other training session. Two trainers clicked through a series of slides and delivered basic but reasonably solid information on common mental illnesses. Then a slide came up labelled ‘Personality Disorders (Borderline)’. The trainer looked somewhat disgruntled, ‘Well, we’ve got to talk about this’ she sighed ‘but I’m not sure we should have deal with these people as mental health professionals, we should leave them to the social workers really. I mean, they call it a mental illness but they’re really just being a pain in the arse sometimes’.
What’s appalling is that my first response wasn’t anger, but shame; was that what a doctor had once considered was the problem with me? Not ill, just a ‘pain in the arse’? The slide remained up and she managed to list a whole host of other prejudicial generalizations, ‘They’re the kind of people who turn up pestering the doctor a lot… You can often tell someone’s Borderline because their speech or their clothing will be very weird… when you see ‘bag ladies’ around town a lot of them will be Borderline’.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I’d known girls with Borderline Personality Disorder well and none of them were trying to be a pain in the arse, from what they told me they were struggling with extremes of emotion that I can’t even imagine. Their realities were often terrifying with a heightened threat perception or permanent fear of abandonment and they found themselves carried along by extremes of mood that left them feeling powerless and frustrated. None of the things the trainer was telling us rang true. I had no idea of the extent of the prejudice against Borderline Personality Disorder and certainly wouldn’t expect it from mental health professionals who presumably know better.
To my shame I didn’t say anything during the session. I struck dumb by incredulity and self-consciousness but when I’d had time to gather my thoughts I put in an official complaint. To my even greater shame it may be the case that the staff on the psych unit all those years ago were indeed treating the girls on the unit prejudicial and I looked on and said nothing.
What I find shocking is that, ten years on, the prejudice seems more entrenched than ever and it’s entirely self-perpetuating. People with Borderline Personality Disorder fear speaking out because they’re aware that expressing hurt, anger or indignation can be interpreted as simply ‘being Borderline’ and that being labelled non-compliant can affect their treatment. What seems clear is that this attitude is institutionalized, these attitudes have no hope of changing if they are not challenged first from within the professional community. Borderline Personality Disorder is one of the least visible mental illnesses but one of the most – if not the most - in need of anti-stigma message.”
People often ask me how Depression feels,
and so I try and explain it like this.
It feels like
I’m walking upstream
though a current strong enough
to pull me under four times over.
There are others, with me
but they are walking along the banks
telling me to “just get out of the water.”
But instead of extending a hand in help,
they just move on and leave me behind.
Every once in a while I find a rock
that is strong enough for me to lean on,
And I can rest for a bit.
But the rocks always get tired of holding me up,
and when they let go, I’m left drowning,
thrown 50 ft. back again.
And nothing is harder
then standing up in that current,
when everything in you
is telling you how much easier things would be
if you just let yourself get dragged under.
If you don’t understand mental illness, good. Good for you. You shouldn’t have to understand.
If you don’t understand why some people can’t get out of bed in the morning, good. I hope you jump out of your bed every day ready to take the world by storm. If you don’t understand how someone could drag a blade across their skin, or bruise themselves, pick, probe, burn, then good. I hope you’re never that desperate to feel something. If you don’t understand what would drive a girl to keep starving herself despite everything she’s lost in the process, good. I hope you stay heavy and present and real. If you don’t understand what eating everything in your kitchen only to throw it all up solves, good. I hope you always remember that it solves nothing. If you don’t understand why he won’t just go to rehab or church or find someone who can help him, good. I hope you always remember you have somewhere to turn. If you don’t understand how she can put getting high above her own children, good. I hope you never fall in love with a substance that only kills you in return. If you don’t understand how someone can keep swallowing bottles of pills, tying knots in ropes, or standing at the tops of bridges, good. I hope you’re never that desperate for relief.
If you don’t understand how people do it, good.
You’re not supposed to.
It’s all fucking sick.
It’s all fucking mental.
When you say your prayers tonight, thank God for ignorance.