Danielle Howe

Cambridge

CN: depression, anxiety, crisis,

medication

 

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety from a very young age, and medicated accordingly. After five years of little progress on the mental health front, and a year in which I suddenly got significantly worse, I knew that these diagnoses did not cover the range of symptoms I was experiencing.

Mainly, emotional disregulation and impulsiveness. After a year of pushing for a re-assessment of my mental health, I was finally re-diagnosed with having Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (also known as Borderline Personality Disorder) whilst spending a period of time in a psychiatric ward. The relief I felt, the way in which it enabled me to better understand myself and my symptoms, and the resources it opened up for me was a huge turning point in my recovery. The doctors realised that the medication I had been on for depression had actually been making me worse, which helped explain my sudden and significant mental health crisis after that medication was increased whilst still under the misdiagnosis of depression. It helped me understand why my mood alternated from such extremes with no obvious trigger, and why CBT never seemed to be particularly productive or helpful.

 

“Personality disorders of all kinds have a long history of bigotry and intolerance from those who do not understand them”

 

For me, a diagnosis was necessary in order to access the right medication and therapy; I would have never been able to access DBT (a form of therapy catered to personality disorders), or mood-stabilising medication. What it has brought with it, however — immediate snap judgements from medical professionals, friends, and strangers alike — has left me ashamed of a label that truthfully saved my life. The ill-informed perceptions of personality disorders was something that I was very aware of pre-diagnosis, but that awareness could not prepare me for the embarrassment and internalised self-judgment, the blows to my confidence, the days I spent wondering if I should ever disclose my diagnosis again, if it was worth it, if I would ever be able to navigate discussions about mental health again outside of my immediate circle of friends without seeing peoples expressions and manner change in reaction.

Personality disorders of all kinds have a long history of bigotry and intolerance from those who do not understand them. There seems to be a huge focus on the ability to empathise or, as many perceive it, the inability to do so. In my experience, and I can only talk from my own experience, it is not that I can’t empathise with others, it is just that I do so in a different way. I empathise with every fibre of my being. I empathise with a child’s view on the world: all or nothing. I empathise like it’s life or death. It is painful. I am so acutely aware of the emotions of those around me, and their emotions are contagious.

Sometimes I experience them to greater extremes than the person does themselves. Someone close to me is a little upset about a snide comment they received? I am filled with a sudden rush of protectiveness and anger and I feel that hurt so deeply within me and I have to step back, talk myself down, pull myself out of ‘emotional mind’, as my therapist calls it, and back into ‘rational mind’. I don’t seem to have the ability to view things in their context — little tiny comments towards someone I love are suddenly really, really bad, and the person who is responsible for their sadness or annoyance or anger is really, really bad, too. I feel everything, absolutely fucking everything with every part of me, and I feel it all the time. 

 

“I am so acutely aware of the emotions of those around me, and their emotions are contagious”

 

I love quickly and fully and unreservedly, and I care like it is the last thing I will ever do. There were times when I would lay in bed, immobile, feeling every single emotion wash over me; like an infinite number of lives were playing in my head at the same time. Like every single possible outcome of my current situation was happening at once. I internalised all of this, I never acted on it, apart from my immediate need to run away from the situation. It lived quietly inside of me and every day I felt like it might kill me.

My emotional reactions are disproportionate and irrational, and I have learnt how to recognise this, and to calm myself down. It no longer results in long bouts of depression or anger. I have become better at emotionally distancing myself from situations I find difficult so I am able to provide practical help and emotional support to those I care for. Medication and therapy have helped me regulate this, and I no longer spend everyday feeling my own and everyone else’s emotions in such an all-encompassing, overwhelming way. I also believe that such intense empathy, albeit a very different kind than many experience, made me a more caring person. I felt like I could better understand other peoples pain because I took it on and experienced it to some extent myself, too.

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And, most importantly, my mental health does not mean I cannot sympathise, empathise, or care for and with others. It does not mean, as seems to be the most common rhetoric, that I am more prone to acting in a way that is manipulative. In fact, individuals who experience BPD in a similar way to me are far more likely to experience abuse or manipulation, because do you know how easy it is to trap someone in an abusive situation when they love you unreservedly with every single fibre of their being, like the unconditional love of a child?

I have never been ashamed of the labels prescribed to me prior to this. I am a mentally unwell, disabled gay woman, and I have always been very open about this. I am also kind and caring and truthful. I am passionate and strong. I am a student and a sister and a daughter. None of these things are mutually exclusive, none of these negate the others, and none of these individually define me, but together all inform who I am as a person, the decisions I make, and the life I live. So why does one of these things alone feel so heavy? Why do people seem so willing to remember one, and forget the others?

 

“I have never been ashamed of the labels prescribed to me prior to this. I am a mentally unwell, disabled gay woman”

 

My therapist told me two things: it is okay to feel hurt in the light of judgement, but that internalising and personalising comments from individuals who don’t know me, who don’t know my experience of mental health, and who are working from a place in which their knowledge of the subject is tainted by a societal bias towards certain types of mental health diagnoses is not productive. Instead, perhaps, I should externalise it — to remember that I, and I alone, have the experience and knowledge of my own mental health that is required to make judgements on me as an individual on the basis of a diagnosis, and that any judgements they feel the need to make are a reflection on the information an ignorant society has fed them.

So yes, I love and I care and I empathise differently. I do so in ways that can be extremely difficult and hard to control. But that does not mean that there is anything that makes me worse than those who don’t experience these things in this way. It does not mean that I am incapable of these emotions and reactions. It just means that I feel and process them in different ways, and that sometimes it is overwhelming, and that sometimes therapy, and sometimes medication, is needed to help control this. Not because it necessarily hurts or damages others, but because that internalisation of such intense emotions damages myself. I am trying to stop personalising and internalising these negative interactions I may have with others because of my diagnosis. I am trying to find my confidence in all aspects of myself again. I am a mentally unwell, disabled gay woman, and I do love that.

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