Coming out from under the influence of mental illness
Because shame and mental illness are still inextricably linked, I don’t have a lot of experience with what recovery, or a reintroduction into society looks like for those who have sought help, worked through their issues, and have remorse over the wreckage left in the wake of their illness. In Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the 12 steps is to make amends. In this step, the alcoholic takes responsibility for their actions and the pain they have caused others. I’ve never been through AA, but my friends who have tell me it’s a powerful experience, and I have long sought the opportunity to experience it, but in the context of having recovered from Bipolar Depression or Borderline Personality Disorder.
That last one is really hard for me to write. While Bipolar Depression is widely understood and accepted — probably because most people know someone who has received a diagnosis, and these people are often viewed as highly-functioning at least most of the time — Borderline Personality Disorder is the kind of illness you hear about occurring in only exceptionally troubled people, or see in (dark, scary) movies: we’re talking about Single White Female, Fatal Attraction, and Girl, Interrupted territory here. Just read the Wikipedia entry to feel the weight of a BPD diagnosis.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD), also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), is a personality disorder characterized by a long-term pattern of unstable interpersonal relationships, distorted sense of self, and strong emotional reactions. Those affected often engage in self-harm and other dangerous behaviors, often due to their difficulty with returning their emotional level to a healthy or normal baseline. They may also struggle with a feeling of emptiness, fear of abandonment, and detachment from reality. Symptoms of BPD may be triggered by events considered normal to others. BPD typically begins by early adulthood and occurs across a variety of situations. Substance use disorders, depression, and eating disorders are commonly associated with BPD. Some 8 to 10% of people affected with the disorder may die by suicide. The disorder is often stigmatized in both the media and the psychiatric field and as a result is often underdiagnosed.
When I received my diagnosis, it felt like a death sentence, the final piece of information I needed to confirm I was a seriously fucked-up person, broken beyond repair. It became a dark secret, item #1 of the very long list of things I was ashamed of. There’s a line in a Wilco song that still makes me cry when I sing it: “All my lies are always wishes/You know I would die if I could come back new.”
Already, I had alienated my friends and family, I was alone in a lonely, abusive romantic relationship, and I was in constant emotional distress. Even confessing my messy diagnosis was a debilitating challenge, apologizing for the messes I caused felt like double jeopardy. It was, quite literally, worse than death.
I built up the courage to do it once, via Facebook, to a very good friend I had for many years, only to see she had unfriended me. The regret, sadness, and shame returned, and I decided it was best to move forward. That self-acceptance was enough, and that I would do my best to be open about my mental health journey, and make my amends that way.
Is that enough? Too much? There’s no roadmap, and I’m not a mental health professional. When I am at a loss, though, I turn to my heart for direction and open myself up to be guided, by the Universe, my spirit guides, a tarot card; whomever or whatever wants to lead me to the answer.
There it was — my writing revealed what I needed to know. As I was working on this piece, I received a very loving comment in support of my recent writing from another friend who was a very good, best friend during those years. She was a joyful, positive presence in my life, and she supported me and my daughter through some very difficult times. But like many who were close to me, I made choices that caused our relationship to change. This is on the very short list of regrets I have, as I miss having her in my life like she had been. But she appeared, exactly when I needed her to. We both have very different lives now, thousands of miles apart, but I can still receive the love and acceptance that this special friendship brought me, with a greater appreciation than I was capable of before.