Words and images by Helena Fox
CN: Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), eating disorders, depression, self harm, being an inpatient, hospitalisation, psychiatrists
So,’ she asks tentatively, ‘how is everything going?’
It is mid-December, the air pleasantly mild, the sky overcast.
‘Things are… pretty good,’ I reply, almost nervously. How strange it is to hear those words from my own mouth.
I’d sat in this same psychiatrist’s office a few months ago, in heady July, when even the English sun, lacklustre as it is, was stifling.
‘My insides are rotting,’ I’d told her.
It was true. I was in decay.
‘I think you’re addicted to self-harm,’ she’d said. ‘I think you have BPD. I think you’d benefit from residential treatment. Therapy won’t help you until you work on your destructive behaviours.’
“‘My insides are rotting,’ I’d told her”
It was like a punch in the gut. Me, inpatient? It was terrifying, overwhelming, stomach-turning, but at the same time, I was finally sick enough. Being ignored by CAMHS for years despite multiple referrals and rejected by Eating Disorder Services for not losing weight quickly enough, I was never bad enough to get better in my eyes. The lack of resources of these services is not the fault of those who work for them, but it was part of what led me to more desperate actions in order to be sick enough to justify recovering. I finally had my chance.
But what had taken me to that point?
“Every year since [I was diagnosed] seems to have consisted of a bland numbness: empty, grey, and sad”
It is strange, for me, to look back over 2017. I have a very clear line in my mind that marks life before I became depressed and life after. Casting my mind back to that moment (mid-February, 2012), every year since seems to have consisted of a bland numbness: empty, grey, and sad. I know things happened (and considering the other name for BPD, Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, I must have experienced noteworthy ups-and-downs), but by the time New Year’s Eve came around each year, everything had blurred into tears and cuts and vomit, and too much food or too little food – never just the right amount. Of course, whether in blithe positivity or just plain denial, I persisted in making grand New Year’s Resolutions: stop self harming, stop weighing myself, stop purging, recover, be happy.
But looking back over 2017 is different. It is not a grey mass of unhappiness. It is a technicolour expanse of furious reds, electric yellows, swirling blues and everything in between. 2017 took me to yet another rock bottom; the shadowy, ruby glints of driving myself to A & E in the middle of the night; being unable to move from the pain of bingeing; gripping the bannister rail to climb the stairs due to having leaden legs from restricting.
“Looking back over 2017 is different. It is not a grey mass of unhappiness. It is a technicolour expanse of furious reds, electric yellows, swirling blues and everything in between”
2017 also took me on my long-planned gap year trip: an odyssey of the length of Britain, from Devon to Orkney, with the foaming teal off the cliffs of Tintagel; the charged silver at the White Spring in Glastonbury; the groaning emerald of the glens of Skye; and the dancing pinks and purples of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I had been asleep for so very long, but something in me began to wake over those weeks away.
Halfway through August, newly alive, I stepped off the train home from my travels, washed away weeks of nights in hostels and unpacked my backpack. A few days at home, and I packed again for a month in hospital.
The word ‘hospital’ lends itself to whitewashed walls and pale, mouthwash-colour sheets, but my time there was the most colourful month of my life. Suddenly being stripped of coping mechanisms and distractions I had used for years (there was no self harming, a strict meal plan, no purging, no books, no music, no TV, no phones, no internet there), a kaleidoscope of emotions hit me more intensely than I could have imagined possible.
“The word ‘hospital’ lends itself to whitewashed walls and pale, mouthwash-colour sheets, but my time there was the most colourful month of my life”
During that month, the tiny buds of teal and silver and emerald and pink and purple exploded into bellowing swathes of colour, flashing anger and laughter and despair and hope in passionate bursts. I was forced to ride the waves. There is no shame in being a chameleon.
While in hospital, I found out what it really means to wear your heart on your sleeve. I learned how to accept that sometimes I’m wrong, and sometimes I don’t know what’s best for me. I made incredible connections with people and gained rock-solid friendships. And I discovered how to be truly, vividly joyful – there is nothing that can match the fizzy, glittering laughter of people who have been unhappy for years, all finding out together that actually, things might just be okay.
Since leaving hospital on 15th September, two weeks before moving to Cambridge for my first term at university, things have been, well, pretty good. I wasn’t lying to my psychiatrist.
I have to be both active in my recovery and very vigilant – complacency doesn’t cut it. If I don’t put into practice all the things I have learnt (my need for structure, how to ask for help, the importance of not isolating myself), my behaviours will creep back in and I will begin to slip. I see a therapist, am still on medication, stick to a meal plan, and aim to go to three fellowship meetings a week – they are wonderful spaces of hope and recovery.
“I have to be both active in my recovery and very vigilant – complacency doesn’t cut it”
If I cast my mind back to my time in hospital, there is something that sticks out, bold amongst the haze. After presenting a therapy assignment to the group in my second week there, one of my peers told me that my behaviours and illnesses seemed to be feeding a ‘beautiful tragedy’. He was right. For years I had been painting dark and doomed artwork from a sombre, filmic palette, a Pre-Raphaelite portrait of tragically beautiful. In distancing myself from this mindset, I am allowing myself to get better.
“I will cover my hands in paint and I will be as I am: messy, complex, emotional. I will tread the path of every colour under the sun.”
As I approach the end of the year, I am grateful to 2017, because, for the first time, I have New Year’s Resolutions that are realistic:
In 2018, I will not be a beautiful tragedy, only daring to choose tearful greys and smoky crimsons to illustrate my days, months, and years. Instead, in 2018, I will be fearless in my recovery, actively choosing to follow its guidance and accept its challenges. I will cover my hands in paint and I will be as I am: messy, complex, emotional. I will tread the path of every colour under the sun.