Why I’m Not Ashamed of Identifying as ‘Mentally Ill’

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I’ve heard lots of people say I shouldn’t make my mental illness part of my personality, or let it define me. That I should focus on other things. Even more often I see people frustrated with my insistence on labels. “You’re more than the diagnosis,” or “one word can’t define you,” or my favorite “why are you letting people box you in?” It seems like a lot of people think that embracing your mental illness means living in negativity.

I don’t think it would surprise many people to know one of the things I identify most strongly as is mentally ill. I bristle when people tell me this means I’m limiting myself, being negative or letting the mental illness “win” in some fashion. Here’s the truth; accepting and paying attention to an important fact about myself is not negative or limiting. My mental illness has a big impact on my life. To say that it isn’t an important and integral part of who I am is to lie.

But more than that, mental illness is not exclusively negative. Yeah, depression and anxiety have screwed me over more than once, but my anxiety makes me a truly badass worker. My depression makes me compassionate and my borderline personality disorder makes me empathetic. Taking away those elements of my personality doesn’t just take away things that hurt me, but also irreparably changes me and the awesome person I am. This is a basic tenet of neurodiversity, and I strongly stand by the fact that if my brain wasn’t the weird place it is, I would not be depressed, but I also wouldn’t be as badass as I am.

Beyond all of the philosophical stuff, there’s also the idea that in terms of things I have to pay attention to, my mental illness is bigger than any other element of me. Just as I would with any other chronic illness, I have to take my meds, pay attention for changes, see my doctor periodically and continually take care of myself with exercise, self-care, socialization and writing to keep my mood up and my brain in a place of rationality and stability. If there was another element of my personality that took up hours every day of my life, then maybe I would identify more strongly with that. But there isn’t, so mental illness it is because in reality it’s what affects me.

Understanding that a huge part of who I am involves the care I have to take with my own mind isn’t negative. It’s not giving in to anything. It’s not ignoring or downplaying the great things I do. It’s recognition of reality. Mental illness is a huge part of my life. It affects everything from how I dress (thanks eating disorder) to how I eat (seriously, thanks eating disorder) to how I exercise (once again, eating disorder) to how I think (at least this one’s depression and anxiety) and how I feel (woohoo BPD!). It affects my relationships, it affects what I consider fun and it affects how I socialize. How is that not important? Why should I feel ashamed of an aspect of myself because it happens to be something that oftentimes is a challenge? I cannot think of a single other identity that affects all the elements of my self so strongly.

So yes, I will continue putting “mentally ill” at the top of my list of self-identifiers, along with nerd, writer and social justice warrior, because these are the things I pay attention to each and every day. It is healthy and important for me to include my mental illness on that list. If I don’t pay attention to it, then there’s every likelihood I will end up in the nasty depressed place that’s truly dangerous. But more than that, I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t incredibly important because it’s supposedly negative, or involves stigma. That is letting the mental illness win.

My bio will continue to read Olivia, crying-face depressed sometimes, writer extraordinaire, weirdo. Can’t stop, won’t stop.

Follow this journey on We Got So Far to Go.

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To Someone Just Diagnosed With Borderline Personality Disorder

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To someone who was just diagnosed with borderline personality disorder,

I’ve been there. Hell, I am there, and I know there are about seven billion different emotions happening that may seem impossible to sort out. These three letters just hit you like a brick wall. I’m here to tell you this feeling you have right now — the feeling you can’t quite put your finger on because it’s composed of so many different emotions — won’t last forever. It will come in waves for a little while as different trains of thought, each conducted by a different emotion. Try to take the lead.

You might feel relieved at first. I did. Having a partial answer to the question that is you. Knowing so many of your behaviors and issues were simply symptoms of a real, concrete, documented illness that was out of your control. The relief of  those three letters and being able to stop wondering (and Googling) what was wrong with you. Because you knew all along it wasn’t just “a phase” or “hormones” or “asking for attention.” You weren’t asking for attention. You were asking for help. This isn’t your fault. Let that sink in for a minute. This isn’t your fault. 

Relief is beautiful, but often brief. After the initial shock wears off, your brain might start running down endless rabbit trails once again. Each with a different treasure chest of emotions at the end. It’s possible you’ll experience phases similar to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

It’s OK to be scared. Illness can be scary. Especially this illness, with its negative-sounding diagnosis. You may fear the unknown future that lies ahead. Your mind might wander, as it usually does. It will probably convince you that, somehow, this is your fault, and you may as well send back the college acceptance letters or turn down the new job offer because you’re headed for nowhere anyway. You have to make the conscious effort to shut this down ASAP. Listen to music, go for a walk and memorize a poem, read a book, do a puzzle. Do something that keeps your brain working hard so it doesn’t have the opportunity to stray. This is a tough phase, but you’ll get through it.

A piece of advice: don’t do too much research. I’m all for being informed, but in reality you’ll probably just end up scarred and scared at the statistics that truly don’t apply to you. Those numbers aren’t you. You are OK. You are here, now, reading this. You are breathing. You are OK. Numbers don’t mean anything. You are not a number. You are not a statistic.

The details of BPD may knock the wind out of you for a minute. You feel like you must be a lot worse off than you thought because all of these descriptions are, with overwhelming accuracy, describing you. I’ll tell you a secret: they were describing me, too. Along with millions of other individuals living with BPD. In a way, you just gained a family of semi-stable people who understand you in ways you don’t understand yourself yet. You are not alone. (Let that sink in.) You are a beautiful and unique puzzle. Each piece fits differently and connects in ways that are totally individual to you. This diagnosis is not the whole puzzle. Just a piece. But it’s a piece that gives you the opportunity to connect with other people’s unique puzzles. That’s such a gift.

All these words are nice, but the choice lies on your shoulders. It’s a choice that needs to be consciously made. You have been given three letters. Three little letters. You choose what you’re going to do with them. You can let them grow far bigger than they deserve to be. You can let them weigh you down and overwhelm your puzzle. Or, you can let them light a fire under you to send yourself running in the direction of perseverance, support and success. Borderline personality does not define you, change your intelligence or smother your ability to kick ass in this life.

Listen, I know that today isn’t your day. I might not even be your year.  But I also know you will get there. I know you are so much bigger than three little letters and a prescription. You have BPD, yes. But BPD doesn’t have to have you.

Love,

A Fellow Puzzle

The Mighty is asking the following: Give advice to someone who has just been diagnosed with your mental illness. What do you wish someone had told you? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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99 Lessons From My Recovery Journey

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1. My passion for mental health.

2. Mental illness doesn’t define us.

3. Self-reliance.

4. It’s OK to not be OK.

5. There are no good or bad emotions, but there are good and bad ways of expressing emotions.

6. Resiliency.

7. Self-compassion is a priority.

8. Self-awareness is key.

9. Coping skills that best work for me.

10. We don’t owe anyone an explanation for self-care.

11. Beauty lives in our differences.

12. The benefits of therapy.

13. Mindfulness.

14. The more I loved myself – the more I fell in love with my kids.

15. To not feel guilty for self-care.

16. Patience and understanding for others

17. Recovery comes first

18. How to stand up for myself and fight against stigma.

19. Things will always work out – do not give up.

20. We are not broken, weak or worthless.

21. It’s never too late to become the person you want to be.

22. The present moment is all you ever have.

23. Who my true friends are.

24. My story has helped make a difference.

25. Internal vs. external locus of control.

26. How to be at peace.

27. I am brave.

28. I’m an introvert and value my alone time

29. To let go of my past mistakes; they do not define me

30. I am emotionally intelligent.

31. I gained more self-esteem.

32. Judgments are a confession of character.

33. Happiness is found within.

34. Self-Confidence is the best outfit; own it.

35. Mental Illness is nothing to be ashamed of.

36. Self-love is the most important love.

37. I am a stronger and healthier mother to my two kids.

38. Without the dark and stormy days, we can’t learn to appreciate the good days.

39. The minds like ours are beautiful

40. Our feelings are valid; don’t justify them or seek approval – they are your feelings.

41. Our behavior is driven by our emotions.

42. Helping others makes me feel good – we rise by lifting others.

43. Your worth is not defined by someone loving or not loving you.

44. My worst days in recovery are by far better than the best days in my manic episodes.

45. A bad day doesn’t equal a bad life.

46. The words, “f*ck it” do come in handy every once in a while.

47. You are not a burden.

48. You have to learn to love yourself before you can fully love someone else.

49. Do not be afraid to walk away from toxic relationships/friendships.

50. It’s OK to sometimes embrace the sadness.

51. It’s OK to be different.

52. Be patient with yourself.

53. Recovery isn’t strictly about being “happy,” it’s about learning to become whole.

54. The bad things people say about you are actually reflections of what they think of themselves, not you.

55. I am unique

56. Ultimately it’s only your opinion of yourself that matters. Do what makes you happy.

57. The art of meaningful conversations.

58. Stigma’s three components are: stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination

59. When you can, be your own advocate.

60. Step outside your comfort zone – you might actually have fun.

61. You are worth much more than you think.

62. It all starts with willingness.

63. I am a fighter, survivor and a warrior – so are you.

64. Be acutely aware of your thoughts.

65. No, we can’t just “get over it.”

66. Good things take time.

67. Expect nothing – appreciate everything.

68. How beautiful it is to be alive.

69. How to live less out of habit and more out of intent.

70. We are the directors of our own mindset.

71. Strength.

72. Life’s a bitch sometimes.

73. Mental illness is not a choice.

74. If you make friends with yourself, you will never be alone.

75. I no longer want to compete with anyone but myself – I hope we all make it.

76. Hold on to hope.

77. Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.

78. How not to lose myself in the process of loving someone else.

79. How to magnify your strengths, not your weaknesses.

80. We can’t fix ourselves by breaking someone else.

81. My appreciation for music.

82. We are exactly where we need to be

83. Breathe! 

84. Protect yourself with the Americans with Disabilities Act

85. How to maintain a balanced life – parenting, career and education.

86. I am emotionally sensitive — my emotions are more intense than the average person and that’s OK.

87. Face your fears – It’s liberating!

88. Be gentle with yourself.

89. Your time is important – spend it on things you’re passionate about.

90. Make time for yourself.

91. The part you play is sacred – you are priceless.

92. How to manage impulsiveness.

93. The value in our stories.

94. Trust your intuition.

95. Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle; start a conversation.

96. Your speed in recovery doesn’t matter; forward is forward.

97. Life gives you challenges that you can overcome; be strong.

98. Emotional awareness means recognizing, respecting and accepting your feelings as they happen.

99. How to discover who I truly am.

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5 Things I Wish Others Knew as a Parent With Borderline Personality Disorder

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I was officially diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) when I was 19 years old. My mom and doctors had a pretty good hunch the signs weren’t just “typical teenage behavior” the closer I got to 18, but it wasn’t until I began seeing a psychiatrist on my own at the age of 19 that I was officially diagnosed.

In junction with my BPD, I’m also diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Fast forward five years and here I am. I’m a mother to a 3-year-old boy, and I’ve spent the past three years trying to get parenting “right” in spite of my BPD tendencies. Between my impulsive spending habits, anger that seems to stem from some dark place deep inside and the black and white thinking I can’t seem to get under control, it’s been the most challenging and emotionally trying three years of my life so far. I spent a lot of time researching how to successfully parent while living with BPD. Much to my dismay, the majority of the articles and pages I’ve found were not supportive of parents who live with BPD. Instead, I found numerous websites and articles devoted to support of the children damaged by a parent with BPD, articles that warned others about the abuse a child with a parent with BPD is likely to experience and tips on how to ensure a child is safe emotionally and physically while being parented by someone living with BPD.

This got me thinking: If I could say anything as a parent who lives with BPD, what would I say?

These five things are what I came up with:

1. I love my son.

And not in the sense of BPD-typical black and white thinking where one day I love him and the next I can’t feel it. The one thing that is consistent, no matter what, is that I love my son more than I ever thought was possible. Even on my bad days, he is the one light I can find in all the dark.

2. I’ve learned to manage my anger. 

In spite of my issues with anger, I’ve never abused my son physically or verbally. I used to be a very explosively angry person, irrationally so. It is a daily battle to keep my temper in check, but I’m living proof that a parent who lives with BPD can successfully manage their anger. I’ve found that giving myself a “parental time out” when I feel close to just losing it has helped immensely.

3. My ability to be a good mother isn’t defined by my diagnosis.

In spite of the articles I’ve read that basically say children of parents with BPD are doomed to be miserable and damaged, I’m determined to prove I can and will be a good mother to my son. I work ten times harder to get being a mother “right” because of my BPD. My son means the world to men and I refuse to let the stereotypical idea of mom with BPD influence who I am as a parent.

4. I know parenting with BPD is hard.

I don’t need to be reminded that things are going to be harder for me as a parent because I live with BPD. I’ve had several people say to me, “You do understand things aren’t going to get easier, right? It’s always going to be harder for you.” Yes, I do understand that. I also understand that fighting harder every day to manage my impulses, anger, self-destructive thoughts and black and white thinking is worth it. My son is worth it.

5. We’re going to be OK.

My son is going to always have a roof over his head, food to eat, clothes to wear and a mom who loves him. We have our good days, and we have our days where handling my “issues” is more difficult, but I know in my heart we will be OK. I’m not alone in my battle to raise my son while managing my BPD. I have an amazing support system, and I have the determination to beat the stigma that revolves around being a parent with BPD.

Andria and her son.
Andria and her son.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To the Emergency Room Staff, From a Person With a Mental Illness

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Dear madam or sir,

Welcome to your supporting role in my mental illness! Obviously, as I’m presenting myself to you (or if I’ve been presented to you), I’m not feeling well. This could be due to a number of reasons. Maybe I’m hearing voices that are persistent and incredibly distressing and scary. Maybe I’ve hurt myself (or want to) and feel unable to cope. I might feel like I’m being followed, have been bugged or watched. Possibly I feel like the world around me is unreal and find it difficult to drag myself back to reality.

No matter why I’m here, I assure you it’s real.

If I’ve brought myself here, don’t assume I’m “well enough to come to hospital, so I must be well enough to not be here.” Don’t dismiss what I’m going through because I have the insight to know I’m in distress. I’ve worked hard to be be able to do this; it has taken immense strength to get here today. This is true whether I arrived by ambulance, walked, drove or I’ve been brought by the police for my own safety.

From a young age, it’s hammered into everybody that hospitals are serious business. You only ever go there when things are dire. You only ever get to ride in an ambulance when you’re practically dying; any other visit or reason is simply wasting time and important resources. But when you have a serious mental illness (such as borderline personality disorder) you feel like people never take you seriously. You feel like you aren’t important enough to ask for help. You feel like people will call you attention-seeking for doing what you’re supposed to do.

I understand the emergency room can be the busiest place in any hospital, and that every nurse, doctor and consultant will be rushed off their feet trying to hold the place together and save the lives and limbs of the people they care for. When I come to you, I’m in just as much pain as the person with the broken arm, even if it’s invisible. I’m just as scared as the little girl crying for her mommy.

So if I’m left alone in a room with nurses rushing backwards and forwards outside, noises all around, with nobody but myself, I may start to feel like the loneliest person in the world. This makes me feel like nobody cares. My brain then picks up on these thoughts and amplifies them, turning them into malicious impulses to harm myself or to do stupid things just to show the people ignoring me I’m worth listening to. I feel the need to prove my illness is legitimate and that I need help.

And I understand I’m not easy to deal with. I understand you don’t always know what to say. But I’m also a human, in pain. It doesn’t matter that the pain comes from inside my own brain. It doesn’t matter you can’t see where it hurts. If we tell you it hurts, believe us. At least try to understand. 

Just now and again, take a minute to stick your head in and ask if I’m OK. Remember being this ill is very, very scary. Don’t leave me to ruminate by myself for too long. Don’t avoid my gaze. Don’t forget I can’t help being ill and don’t think, “It’s not my job, I’ll wait ’till psych gets here.” A small piece of kindness, even if I can’t respond, drags me back into the real world for a little while. 

I know your job is a thankless one a lot of the time. So let me say thank you for the people too ill to say so themselves.

I don’t blame you, and I’m thankful you exist. This letter will not even apply to a lot of you angels of the ER. But next time you do have a patient cross your path who has an acute mental illness, maybe you’ll remember this article. Maybe you’ll save someone’s life just by being kind.

Sincerely,

Your patient

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When I Realized I Was Thankful for My Borderline Personality Diagnosis

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I was recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and upon hearing those words, my heart sunk. It couldn’t be me. When I thought of BPD, I thought of violent people who get angry at the drop of a hat and lash out at any little thing. That’s not like me at all — or is it? The more I researched BPD, the more it felt like someone was writing about me. Everything I read described me exactly.

One of the defining characteristics of BPD is unstable emotions, and boy are my emotions unstable. Something so small, like a causal statement or a particular song, can send me right off the edge. Sometimes I can snap back as quickly as I went into it, but most of the time not so much. I’m stuck picking up the pieces of an emotional nightmare which might not fade for hours. I feel like I’m floating in the ocean and being tossed by the waves. Some days are good and calm with no waves, but on other days the waves are gusting and throwing me so hard I feel I can’t take it.

I feel emotions more easily and deeply than others. I see this as a blessing and a curse. Depression feels overwhelmingly deep and dark, but feeling good feels amazing, like euphoria. I feel intense joy over small things and incredible gratitude for kindness of others. Because of this, I have empathy for others — but even that’s not always a good thing. Hearing about a friend’s divorce can send me into a whirlwind of emotions. While it’s good that I can share her pain and be there with her in it, it also means it may take me a long time to get my own emotions back in order.

Black and white thinking or thinking in extremes is another hallmark of BPD. Things are either all good or all bad. With BPD you don’t see gray, it’s only black or white. For me when life is good, it’s absolutely great. Sunshine, lollipops, the whole deal. But when one little thing doesn’t go the way I think it should, bam — darkness takes over. All of a sudden life is terrible, I’m terrible, it’s all hopeless, I don’t deserve to live, etc. I experience “splitting” in relationships, too. People are either all good or all bad. There is no middle ground. I can think of someone as absolutely perfect and wonderful, and then they do one little thing and they are the worst person in the world. I can’t sit with someone being mostly good, but somewhat flawed.

But when I read about self-harm and suicidal behaviors, the BPD diagnosis really hit me. Because I feel things more intensely, overwhelming emotions are just too much. I can’t even begin to describe the torment it feels like. Imagine you’re in a sickening bright room curled up in the corner. People are pointing at you and screaming horrible things, but you can’t do anything to make it stop.

That’s when I realized my diagnosis was beneficial for me. It helps me understand myself and why I do the things I do. It helps me get support from others struggling with the same issues. A great thing about BPD is that there is a great recovery rate with therapy. It won’t be easy, but now that I can define the problem, I can start gathering the tools to make it a little easier.

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