Diagnosis & Me & BPD

Since I’ve already written about my breakdown last year, and have only touched on what actually living with Borderline Personality Disorder is like for me, I thought I’d write a post about how it actually affects me day-to-day. As with any medical condition, my experience is phenomenological  – it is purely my own, and the product of my thinking and patterns of behaviour, as well as things that have happened over the years. Everyone has a lot of preconceived ideas about mental health problems, and there are a lot of clichés knocking around, but everyone is different and my experience of BPD may not match someone else’s who has received the same diagnosis.

[The NHS information about symptoms of BPD is here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/borderline-personality-disorder/symptoms/, if you’d like to read the ‘official’ symptoms etc.]

First of all, I had never really heard of Borderline Personality Disorder (or Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder) until September 2018, when one medical professional first suggested it as a possibility. I think a lot of the stigma of this condition comes from the name – I still don’t really get the ‘borderline’ bit, and anything that basically implies that your personality is the problem is not the best thing to be told, especially when you’re not feeling top-notch in the first place. Since I received my ‘official’ diagnosis from a consultant psychiatrist in November 2018, I have done a lot of reading about it all, and I now know that the ‘personality’ bit really just refers to patterns of thought and behaviours that certain people exhibit that can be grouped together in a certain way. So that’s a bit better.

Anyway, I thought I’d briefly outline the things I personally struggle with, which have been identified as characteristic of BPD.

Intense Emotions

Oh, this is a fun one. When I’m having a bad day it can feel like I am one massive knotted ball of emotions. It feels like I can’t escape myself or my racing thoughts. These intense emotions can rage from crushing depression, to crippling anxiety/panic, to furiously overwhelming anger. In the moment when they are happening it can feel like there is nothing else in the world and you want to do anything to escape them and switch them off. Rationally, you know these moments will ebb away, but at the time it is TERRIFYING. Approach with caution.

Sometimes it can feel like my brain is experiencing all the emotions from Inside Out (and then some) all at once.

Black and White Thinking

I couldn’t find the source for this image, but it really does sum up a BPD day quite well for me.

When I first became ill last year, this was a particularly tough one. I found it hard to accept that I was as ill as I was, whilst also being incredibly angry and frustrated that I couldn’t be the ‘well’ version of myself I felt had existed only a few weeks before. In my mind, I was either ‘Well Sarah’ or ‘Poorly Sarah’. No prizes for guessing which one I decided was Good and which one was Bad. I still do this a lot on a bad day (Tom – I can virtually see you nodding furiously at this point), and assign judgement to my emotions and thoughts – they are either Good or Bad, and I am failing if I think the Bad thoughts. A lot of the work I am doing with my therapist is around accepting how I am feeling at any moment, and letting myself see things as not Good/Bad or Black/White, but sometimes as more grey or just OK.

Relationship with myself/sense of identity

This is probably the trickiest one for me to talk about, so I probably won’t say too much right now about it. As I’ve just said above, a lot of the thought patterns I can fall into are very judgemental of myself, and sometimes it can feel like I just don’t know who I am, or what it even means to be me. Writing it down while I’m having a better day, it looks really bizarre, but honestly it’s what it feels like. And it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. I self-blame a lot, and unfortunately this can lead to some destructive behaviours that I am still not fully comfortable speaking about. Yeah, this one is a toughie.

Relationships with other people

A lot of people with BPD struggle with unstable relationships and struggle to form attachments. I don’t really have this issue as such – I am a naturally sociable person and I am happily married. My other personal relationships are pretty solid, too. However, a BPD trait I do have linked to relationships is that with some people (especially some close friends and boyfriends) I am either absolutely besotted and think they’re the best person ever, and immerse myself deeply in the relationship/friendship, or I cannot stand them and push them away. 

Me and Tom on our wedding day. BPD wasn’t invited.

I did this ‘push-pull’ with all three of my serious relationships before Tom, and it played a role in all of them ending. When these extremes started to happen with him, luckily I realised I did not want to lose him the same way I’d lost the others. He was a Good One, and I knew (even though I didn’t know about BPD) that our relationship was worth more than the irrational thoughts. I talked to him about what I was thinking, he gave me space to work things out, I accepted the thoughts I was having and tried not to label them Good or Bad, and eventually things evened out. Evidence that acceptance does work! 

(NB: I knew the thoughts I was having were irrational, if I had had serious doubts about the relationship’s suitability I would not have just blindly stuck it out.)

So those are my main experiences of BPD. There are others, often from when I was younger- such as separation anxiety- that I may talk about at another point, but these are the things that currently affect me day-to-day.

Sorry it hasn’t been a fun post (it wasn’t much fun to write, either) but I feel the more information I can give about BPD and Me, the clearer it will make everything else I post about. If that makes sense.

Anyway, thanks for reading, if you have, I really appreciate it!

Sarah x

Vitamin Sea and Me and BPD

“See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me…”

Moana (Disney)

It’s said that the best cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat or the sea. 

Tears. Well, anyone who knows me knows I cry. A lot. Obviously at sad things, but also at beautiful views, cute positions my cat sleeps in, or happy bits in films. Oh my goodness, the bit in Apollo 13 when they’re not sure they’ve made it back through the atmosphere, and then their voices crackle over the radio. Literally gets me every time. Oh sorry, spoiler alert: they make it. I could write a blog post all about how much I love Tom Hanks. But I digress.

Sweat. I love to work up a sweat by going for a run. I’m no expert, but since 2015 when I did the Couch to 5K programme and became A Runner, I’ve done lots of parkruns, several 10K races and three half marathons. Running helps my mental health (hello, endorphins!), and pushing myself physically helps relieve some mental tension.

But the salt water this post is in praise of is the sea.

Most of 2018 was pretty rubbish after my breakdown (see previous post – I won’t be describing that again, ack), but in July we went to visit friends in Poole on the south coast. I’ve always always always loved the sea. Tom and I braved the cold water of the English Channel and for a few moments, I felt free. Weightless. Even a little bit…happy. It was a teeny spark of who I really was in the midst months of a lot of darkness.

Fast forward eleven months, and this past week, Tom and I have been in Cyprus, on a holiday booked rather last minute and definitely needed. Last year we had planned our honeymoon –  a tour of Italy – and had to cancel it due to my mental health, so this was a bit of a way to treat ourselves and have some time in the sun together. Neither of us had been to Cyprus before, or even really considered it as an option until we went to the travel agent to help us find a suitable holiday with only 5 weeks to plan it.

As it was, we both really loved Cyprus – the people are so friendly, the food is incredible, and our hotel was perfect. Yes, Tom and my in-laws had to practically carry me onto the plane the day we went, as I was convinced I could not do it. Yes, my BPD packed its bags and came with us. Yes, there were bad moments, even in a gorgeous setting in 27°C heat. But overall, we had a great time. We toured historical sites, ate local food, mucked around in the pool, one of us told the other off for trying to fuss ALL the stray cats, and we decided to book a boat trip for our last full day there.

It was an ‘adults only’ (snigger) 6 hour cruise around the coast, with stops for swimming and an open bar all day. We set ourselves up on the top deck, smothered ourselves in factor 50 and settled in. The scenery was gorgeous, and I’ve always loved a good boat trip. I barely gave much thought to the swimming stops. Until we got to Coral Bay (just along the coast from Paphos).

Coral Bay, Cyprus

The boat was set up so we could all get into the sea from the platform at the back, and looking into the (seemingly bottomless) water, I nearly lost my nerve. Tom dived in first. (This was BRAND NEW INFORMATION to me – I did not know he could dive, something I have never been able to do – and he instantly became 10000% more attractive to me.) I stood on the edge, looking in. What if there were lots of fish? (Oh yeah, I am really scared of fish. They are just…UGH.) What if it was too cold? What was beneath us? Then I thought ‘f*ck it’, and jumped in. 

IT WAS COLD, and I hyperventilated for about 2 minutes, before I could even speak to Tom and reassure him that I wasn’t actually panicking. We swam a bit to warm up, and I ended up floating on my back in the turquoise sea, gazing up at a clear blue sky, unable to believe that just seven months before I had been at my lowest ebb on a psychiatric ward. I remembered one of my favourite Matt Haig quote about depression:

‘It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky but – if that is the metaphor – you are the sky.’

Matt Haig

I lay on my back looking up and I said to myself, ‘you are the sky’. Cheesy? Who cares!

I climbed up and jumped off the rock in the middle of this picture!

The next swimming stop was, if anything, even better. My confidence was up, and I merrily jumped in this time. We went to explore a little cave, and then when I saw some of the men from the boat climbing up a nearby platform of rock and jumping into the sea, I thought, ‘why not?’ So I  swam over to the rock, climbed up, got scared again when one of the men said ‘just make sure you jump away from the rock’, then decided I’d faced scarier things than this and ran and jumped.  I jumped right in. (No other woman from our boat did, just saying.) I swam back to Tom feeling invincible, whilst snotting salt water out of my nose.

Tom and I on the boat!

That day, I got my dose of Vitamin Sea. And as always, it was so healing. I didn’t think about anxiety, depression or BPD when I was swimming in that clear water with my amazing husband. (Well, actually, that’s not true, I told him I was going to write a blog post about it and he suggested I make a play on the words ‘medication’ and ‘Mediterranean’. Groan.)

So, yeah, I will never forget how much that day meant to me. Salt water is pretty great.

Breakdown and Me and BPD

I’ve written this post about twenty times in my head. I think I knew it needed to be the one I wrote next, maybe because it kind of anchors everything else I’m writing about, and also because getting it out of my head and onto ‘paper’ might help it become clearer for me.

On the first May Bank Holiday weekend last year (2018) I had a mental breakdown. There’s no other way to put it, and it was exactly as it sounds. My brain broke, and didn’t feel like it started to even slightly fix itself until 6 months later.

The Saturday of that Bank Holiday weekend in 2018, when the brain clouds were beginning to circle.

Bit of background… In 2007 I had a breakdown, the only thing that has ever come close to this. That one resulted in loss of identity, the breakdown of a relationship, dropping out of university, and losing the job I got subsequently. Looking back, it took me about two years to recover ‘fully’ from that, and I (possibly naïvely) thought I had a reasonably good handle on my mental health. From there I started a job in 2010, got promoted in my time there, met my now-husband, went on the mortgage with him, started training as a counsellor, pulled off a really nice wedding day, and adopted a fluffy cat. I also got into running. I had occasionally flare-ups of anxiety and other symptoms and thoughts that I knew weren’t rational, but I learned to manage them and eventually they would go away.

Now, at the time, what happened last May seemed to come out of nowhere. I was newly-married, had a lovely family around me, had good friends, was successful and well-respected at my job, I was excelling in my counselling training. I’d even just landed my first placement as a trainee counsellor. All good, yes? Hmmmm. So, I’m just going to list a few things that weren’t quite so rosy, looking back. 

  • I was pushing myself to run two spring half-marathons, training through physical illnesses, and I ran the Sheffield Half with a chest infection.
  • I was pushing myself to get top grades in all my counselling assignments.
  • I was ruminating a lot on our wedding and if everyone had enjoyed it. Beating myself up because I had drunk a LOT of wine. 
  • I loved my job, but I was taking a lot of emotions home with me from the young people I worked with, no matter how hard I tried not to.
  • I was trying to be a perfect wife, have a perfect home and be a good cat-mum to Stella.
  • Some issues with a friendship, that I had long found difficult, were coming to a head. 
  • I had stopped taking the Pill, and had come off my antidepressants – both of which because I was thinking we SHOULD start a family soon.
  • I was getting physical illness after physical illness.
  • I was trying to convince myself that I was fine, despite all of the above.

*DISCLAIMER: NONE OF THIS WAS ANYONE’S FAULT. EVEN MINE. THINGS HAPPENED, AND I RESPONDED IN A CERTAIN WAY, AND MY BRAIN PROCESSED IT ALL IN A WAY THAT RESULTED IN A BREAKDOWN. ONCE AGAIN: NO ONE’S FAULT. NOT EVEN MINE. ESPECIALLY NOT MINE.*

The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back came that first Bank Holiday weekend. I had kept working all week through a nasty illness, when I finally gave in and went home on the Thursday, visiting the doctor on the Friday. I was told I had sinusitis and oral thrush (one of the most revolting things I’ve ever experienced) and given antibiotics. By the Saturday, I was feeling my brain start to ‘wobble’ –  a lot off irrational thoughts about time going too fast were creeping in, by the Sunday I was getting upset worrying that something would happen to my Grandma or my cat. And by the Monday, there is no other way of saying it, I was borderline suicidal. 

It was like all the light had gone out in my mind. Nothing was okay. I wasn’t safe inside my own head. I became terrified of trying to fall asleep because of how vulnerable I felt when I closed my eyes and was left with my own shapeless, black thoughts. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I cried buckets and didn’t even know why. No one knew why. Even though I had dealt with mental illness before, this was so much worse than anything I’d ever experienced, and it left me terrified, robbed me of any confidence I’d built from being ill in my twenties, and led to long months of misery, with very little respite.

I still find it hard to talk about or write about, but it happened, and for a long time I was in denial that it had. I had always prided myself on knowing quite a bit about my own mental health, and it was like it had snuck up behind me when I was least expecting it and gone ‘A-HA!’ I clearly had been kidding myself all those years. I had worked with young people, teaching them how to look after their own internal environment, and suddenly I felt like a massive fraud. I had to take sick leave from my job immediately and other not-very-nice things happened that I’m sure I will eventually write about on this blog.

I was speaking to a friend last night in light of Mental Health Awareness Week, about how physical and mental health are so closely linked, and how holistic any treatment or conversation needs to be. There were so many contributing factors to what happened to me last year, but I am sure that a lot of it was physical- I was run down, changing medication, and was given an antibiotic that has had ACTUAL PROFESSIONAL PAPERS written on how it can cause depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation. I don’t believe that any one thing was responsible for my breakdown, but I do wonder if I hadn’t been prescribed that antibiotic at a time when I was vulnerable, maybe things would have been different and maybe I could have pulled myself back from the edge. Maybe. But then, maybe last year needed to happen in order for me to get my BPD diagnosis, access the support I now have, and start to figure out even more about my own mental and physical health. So, y’know, my health. It’s all just health.

One thing I did learn from my breakdown is that this kind of thing can happen to anyone, literally anyone. I knew more than most people about mental health and psychology – having learned a lot from being ill previously, and also from my counselling training. I knew about self-care, and knew all the typical signs that my own health was failing. But it still got me, really badly, and really suddenly.

I was not, and am not, weak just because this happened to me. 

I broke down. And now I am slowly putting my new self together.

Sarah x

Nature Therapy and Me and BPD

I’ve been quiet since I started this blog. I’m not sure why, considering when I started it I was so excited to share what has been going on, and I literally have a note on my phone full of ideas for blog posts, written the same day I created the blog page.

Then I had a bit of a crash. This happens a lot in my recovery, and seems to be happening more frequently recently. Mood swings are extreme, and sometimes debilitating. I think a lot of that is because the recovery ‘bar’ is constantly being raised for me. In November 2018, when I came out of hospital, every little win was a massive victory: the first time I slept through the night without terror or anxiety, the first time I drove my car again, the first time I cooked a meal. Those were all a cause for celebration and a middle finger to the symptoms of BPD, anxiety and depression that I’d lived with intensely for 6 months. Well, I’ve done all those things today and I still had what I class as a bad hour or so earlier. I had a meltdown on Tom, I freaked out because I felt disconnected from myself (that’s depersonalisation –  a fun BPD symptom I will write about when I feel a bit more able), I cried and I wailed that I was back at square one. The truth is, I’m not sure that’s ever possible. I will never feel the same way I did this time last year, because I have a different frame of reference, and because I am a year older/wiser/several hundred glasses of wine further down the line. ANYWAY. That was a bit of a ramble, when what I wanted to talk about is something that currently helps me on pretty much a day-to-day basis, especially when I am in a recovery dip like this… nature as therapy.

I proper love nature. Like, have always loved it. When I was seven, I watched The Animals of Farthing Wood and decided that when I grew up I was going to be a fox. Our house is littered with fox paraphernalia, I own a decent pair of binoculars, and I like tramping around keeping lists of birds and animals I have seen. I can draw most of them, too. 

My family all enjoy bird-watching and walking in nice, green, open places. And this is something that I have been building into my recovery plan. Since the start of the year, I have been keeping a list of birds I have seen in 2019, I have been taking photos of trees, of animals, of birds, of flowers. I have walked and walked and walked, sometimes not even noticing what I’m passing, but just trying to focus on the feel of my feet on the ground and the sun on my head, while I battle the whirl of irrational thoughts in my befuddled head. I’ve learnt names of birds and insects I never knew existed (Hairy Dragonfly, anyone?), and have squirrelled (pun TOTALLY intended) away facts and trivia that most people would probably think sad (did you know that the family of birds that crows, ravens and magpies belong to is called corvid?). 

On a day-to-day basis, these things don’t necessarily make me feel better straight away. They are the things I build up brick by brick, experiences I add to what Matt Haig refers to as the bank of good days. They are the days my recovery has been built on since hospital, and I know they will continue to be as I move forward. Trying to connect with something bigger than yourself sounds like a real cliché with mental health, but it does seriously work. When you learn a dragonfly spends years as a lava and then only lives a few weeks as a beautiful, flitting spark it really makes you realise you and your weird thoughts aren’t the only things in the world. The world is way bigger than me, and that both terrifies and amazes me in equal measure.

Plus it helps if you have people around you who will drag you out and make you look at things, add birds to your list, learn random stuff about nature and go ‘ooooooh’ when you see a new bird of prey. I have those people: they are my parents. They walk beside me when I’m quiet, they celebrate with me when I see something new, and they humour me when my attempts at macro photography don’t turn out quite right. How lucky am I?

BPD and Me and The Recovery Graph

When I used to mentor teenagers who had emotional and mental health issues, I used to regularly draw them what I termed ‘Mrs P’s Recovery Graph’. I have tried to recreate it in the image below.

You’ll find many versions of this online, and they are all very similar. Usually, they feature one graph on the left of the image, with a straight line showing positive correlation from start point to end point, with steady, consistent progress being made over a period of time. This is usually entitled something like ‘What We Expect Recovery To Be Like’. Nice. Neat. Straightforward. 

Then, on the right, it shows the same axes with a very different, squiggly, up and down, confused, tying-itself-in-knots line, but still with the same start and end points. Now there’s just a hell of a lot of mess in the middle. Not nice. Not neat. Not fucking straightforward. This is usually entitled ‘What Recovery Is Actually Like’. And that’s how it is. We get to the same place, IT IS JUST NOT LINEAR.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this graph recently, especially about how easy it used to be for me to draw it for OTHER people. I enjoyed showing the young people I worked with (and often their parents too) that recovery is never easy, simple or what we expect. It is hard, it is unexpected, it is hard again and, regularly, it is spectacular. That’s really easy to explain to someone else, but living it and applying it to yourself is another beast entirely. And I mean a beast that keeps changing shape and tries to suck out your soul in the process. Like a Boggart crossed with a Dementor. Sorry for people who don’t get the Harry Potter reference. (And I mean that: I am sorry for you, those books are great.)

I must have drawn this graph for at least twenty people, and yet every time I find myself in one of the dips I have drawn so many times, and which are now much further up the graph than my dips used to be, I still run round in circles (both metaphorically and literally) going ‘GAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH what if this is it??? What if I’m like this forever?? I’m as bad as I’ve EVER been!!! GAAAAAAAH.’ Completely ignoring the fact that if I drew my own recovery graph from my hospital admission in October, there is not a single bad patch I have not bounced back from. The evidence is literally irrefutable. And each time the peaks of my graph get higher.

But that’s the bugger about recovery. It’s hard. You often have to climb one bit of mountain, slip back down, and then climb the same bit of mountain all over again several times before the progress ‘sticks’. How frustrating is that? Yeah? Try living it, mate. 

I know a lot of people, when I tell them I’m in another bad patch, assume that things are as bad as ever. And I don’t blame them at all, because I regularly think that myself. Which is why I need my people to be MY Mrs P, to draw the graph twenty times over and remind ME how far I’ve come and the progress I’ve made. I need those closest to me to repeat themselves umpteen times, because my BPD wants me to forget how awesome I have been, and to just focus on the times I have felt bad before. And BPD is a fucking liar.

So, please, do not pity someone if you know they’ve been ill, and you know they’re struggling again. Chances are, they just need to consolidate their progress, climb the same bit of mountain several times over, rest a bit at base camp, and then try for the summit again soon.

Sarah x

Who am I?

…is apparently a common question a lot of people with Borderline Personality Disorder ask. But let’s do the basics first…

Hi, I’m Sarah. In November 2018 I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, after a lifetime of baffling spells of tricky mental health, interspersed with incredibly happy and stable periods of time that can last years. I’m going to use this blog to talk about my experience of living with BPD, how it manifests for me (and always has done), how I was diagnosed, what helps, and everything in between.

Anyway, I thought I’d start with some basic facts about me:

  • I’m 32.
  • I grew up in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.
  • I live in Sheffield with my husband, Tom, and our grey-and-white cat, Stella.
  • Tom and I got married in October 2017. It was an incredible day filled with love, laughter and much wine. I gave a speech and crushed it.
  • Oh, I love wine. Especially a good Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Until recently I worked as a Learning Support Assistant at a secondary school, but I made the decision to hand in my notice and focus on my health for a while.
  • I’m a runner: I have run 3 half marathons and over 60 parkruns since I first did the Couch to 5K course in 2015.
  • I have a BA degree from the Open University in Humanities (History and English), and graduated in 2012.
  • I had to drop out of York Uni in 2008 due to my mental health. Hence the Open Uni, and studying whilst working.
  • I’m incredibly determined, and when I set my mind to something I will do what I can to complete it. Sometimes this is to the detriment of my state of mind.
  • I love cooking, coffee, make up and anything creative. Also a fan of statement necklaces.
  • I had what can only be described as a major breakdown in May 2018, and in October 2018 I was admitted to a psychiatric ward as an informal patient, where I received my BPD diagnosis.
  • I love books and films.
  • I’m currently knitting myself a sweater. Just in time for summer.
  • I’m a feminist.
  • I’m trying to eat less meat for environmental reasons.
  • DOMINOS PIZZA. IDST.
  • I’m writing this while I watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

So that’s a random collection of facts about me. Some mental health-related, others not. Because that’s life, isn’t it? I have BPD, but I’m also still Me. That’s what I want this blog to show – my own experience of living with a mental health diagnosis that has a lot of stigma and confusion attached to it, but also just my experience of LIVING.

When I was trying to decide whether to start writing about all this, I immediately started second-guessing myself and thinking ‘Who wants to read yet another person’s experience of mental health issues?’ Then I realised that I have never once regretted reading another person’s account. (Matt Haig. Bella Mackie. Bryony Gordon. They’re all great, you should check them out.) (Also I’ve realised from writing those names that I need more diversity in my reading.)

People with mental health ‘labels’ tend to be grouped together and generalisations are thrown around. Every single individual who adds their voice and their experience to the conversation is adding a new dimension, helping to build a bigger, brighter and more varied picture of what mental health (good, bad, and all the grey in between, we all have it) means to human beings. How can that ever be a negative thing?

So this is me adding my voice.

Sarah x