Today’s blog post is from a brave woman named Amanda Goff, who lives with borderline personality disorder. She shares her personal experiences with mental illness and it is seriously powerful. Let Amanda know what you think by commenting below!
I’ve gone back and forth over whether to share my story for years, especially since I think it would come as a shock to most people who only see my “public face.” After the year that I have had, I finally feel like I need to share my own mental illness fight. First and foremost, I am a human being. I love to laugh and make people laugh, I love animals, I have a number of people in my life I love and who support me, I like fashion and makeup, I am an active member of the United Church, I’m addicted to binge watching reality TV, I attend one of the best universities in Canada. I’m a daughter, a best friend, a niece, a cousin, a neighbor, a sometimes student, and I have a mental illness.
The main reason why I have had such difficulty deciding to post this is the same reason why I ended up doing it after all. One of the goals of our mental health community is to reduce the stigma of mental illness, and my diagnosis is one of the most stigmatized and misunderstood even within that sphere of mental health disorders: Borderline Personality Disorder. You can look up BPD online and come across a million links that will tell you why I am a person to be avoided, disliked, and feared for the damage I will cause to your life. People with BPD are believed to be manipulative, angry and argumentative, needy, demanding and attention-seeking, and a slew of other hurtful characteristics. People are warned to stay away and “walk on eggshells” to avoid our rage.
This is not how I experience Borderline Personality Disorder. It takes a lot to make me show any anger and I rarely argue, I am quiet and a little shy and I don’t like being the center of attention. There are so many possible combinations of BPD that it seems ridiculous to reduce it to the absolute worst possible associated characteristics.
For me, BPD is very deep depression and frantic anxiety that rarely lifts. I was lucky enough to find a great psychiatrist 3 years ago who finally found an antidepressant that helped me after having tried just about every medication, and now I have enough energy to cope a bit better with daily things but I still struggle sometimes to clean or even get out of bed. The anxiety is the worst part for me, my brain gets “stuck” on a specific worry and it replays over and over and over until I’m desperate to find something or anything to relieve myself of the specific thought. I can hang onto the same obsessive worry for months sometimes, to the point where I am unable to concentrate on anything else: I will pretend to watch a movie or pretend to be present in a conversation but my head will be looping around trying to find a resolution that will quiet the nonstop desperation. I will push people away by asking the same reassurance question over and over and I will know I’m doing it, and I will know I am losing someone I love but the drive to do it feels so strong that it feels impossible to stop.
Even within the health (including the ER) and mental health communities, BPD can be highly stigmatized. Like many people with this disorder, I have a very long history of self-harm (almost 20 years). I have stopped several times, but with every relapse, my injuries get worse. I wear long sleeves all summer. I have had weeks where I have received hundreds of stitches, cut to the bone, cut myself with an electric saw, and been treated in the hospital for days on an IV drip of antibiotics. I have been hospitalized against my will multiple times, going weeks without leaving the unit or seeing the sun, and been denied elective surgery on the basis of my psychiatric history. Every time I slink into the ER alone, too ashamed to ask anyone to come with me, and imagine all the awful things people are thinking about me.
I have been called a waste of time and told that I am taking time away from people who are “really” sick. I have even been called a waste of life. But the emergency room is also full of really kind people: nurses who will give me Ativan to help me calm down without me asking first, who will rub my back and tell me it’s not my fault, who remember my name and tell me they pray for me. I have had some wonderful PABs who will bring me extra heated blankets because they remember I’m always cold or who will sit with me or hug me (and risk their jobs) just because I’m scared and ashamed. The psychiatric unit and brief psychiatric unit also has some of the warmest, most caring people working in it, who remember details about my life, tell me I’m not wasting time or a bed, give me hugs and promise I’m not a burden. Many of the Psychiatrists will always give me their time, listen, and try to help, even if I frustrate or disappoint them. Sometimes they get angry and I get upset or afraid, then they tell me that they were worried. Because of past experiences, I have a huge fear of going to the hospital: a fear of being judged or being told I’m a waste of time or simply looking for attention.
After my most recent relapse it took me a really long time to get up the nerve to have my cuts treated properly. I would wait until my psychologist or psychiatrist forced me to go to the hospital, at which point it was too late to stitch or infection had set in. Last year I did six courses of antibiotics plus a five-day stay on an antibiotic IV for cuts that had become septic. I finally recently began caring for my cuts right away, because my skin tends to form horrible itchy keloids, especially when my wounds are not treated.
I get hurt very easily. Words destroy me. My current therapist says I’m so fragile that I’m like a porcelain doll, and in a lot of ways this is true. I got a lot worse after two things happened: I got hurt badly by someone I loved a lot, and I lost my job. This led to me ending up in a BPD treatment program that I struggle with. This program is very confrontational and difficult for me because harsh words tend to shatter me, and this is what is believed to be the best treatment for people with BPD. I am still having trouble with it because having doors closed in my face, being called a baby or being told I’m stalkerish just seem like further reasons to hate myself and I struggle to see how this will come together to help me. I miss my old psychologist and psychiatrist who were gentle and made me feel valued. Although I think it’s amazing that people choose to work with BPD patients, and I am so grateful that I live in a country where I get this for free, I worry a lot that this kind of treatment is going to make me worse, and I find it hard to trust that it will help me and not leave me more damaged. A gentler approach felt like it helped a million times more, and sometimes this feels like it just gives me more fodder for obsessive self-hatred. As many different combinations as there can be to get a diagnosis of BPD, it seems unlikely that this one approach would help everyone. It’s really hard for me to have faith that this is what I need to get better, and I fight myself constantly. After over a year I am only just now starting to trust my therapist enough to talk to her.
Someone I look up to a lot once told me that BPD traits can be seen as really good qualities but the volume is just turned up way too high: The flip side of my sensitivity is that I’m empathetic, soft, loving, protective, and loyal. I’m beginning to learn that these are parts of myself that I can love without harming myself or opening myself up to harm. I’m trying to avoid telling myself what I “should” do or be, or taking the blame and berating myself for my “faults.” I still hide behind laughter and sarcasm, and very few people ever see me cry. But, I went swimming the other day (I wore scar cover-up, but still), and I’m slowly learning that I didn’t choose this and I don’t have to hate myself for the things I struggle with. I’m also an individual person, and not that myth of the archetypal borderline woman: angry, overly demanding, attention-seeking, and easy to set off on a rage fit.
I am not “Borderline Girl” as a psychiatrist once called me. I am not the scars you see on the outside, or the ones you can’t see on the inside. I’m Amanda, a woman with a mental illness I did not choose, that does not define who I am.