When I Had to 'Take My Armor Off' to Help a Patient With Borderline Personality Disorder

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My patient is sitting in front of me with a concerned look of his face.

“What’s going on in your mind?” I ask.

“Look at you. You’ve got it all together. You’re married, have kids, have a job… I want those things, but I’m not focused enough. One day I work for something, then the next day my goal will be completely different.”

He is older than me and we met each other at a job training a long time ago before I was a psychologist. Now he’s in front of me and while he’s lamenting the “wasted years,” he’s also viewing me as a person who — to put it quite bluntly – has her shit together.

You don’t even know, I think to myself. I studied two years of computer science, one of graphic design, finally finished psychology and then worked three years in neuropsychology, four in human resources and now clinical psychology. The reason: borderline personality disorder (BPD), same as him.

“I’m tired of this,” he continues. “I feel like a failure. I haven’t accomplished anything. I don’t like how my life turned out.”

While it’s true he isn’t happy with his life right now, he’s working to accomplish the things he wants to accomplish. He’s still not there, but at least he’s on track. However, this state is more than that. It’s the characteristic period of hopelessness that we BPD warriors go through.

If we look at the cycle of BPD, there’s usually an intense motivation (“World, get ready for me”) that lasts a couple of days, then the sudden and sharp decrease of motivation (“What the hell was I thinking? I can’t accomplish this”) and finally the depressive phase (“I hate my life, I’m not good enough for anything.”) He is in this last phase right now. He’s living in the darkness, the rage, the disappointment and the suicidal thoughts. I know them well.

So I try to show him the bigger picture, explaining the stage of the cycle his illness is taking him through. I tell him the goal of therapy is to have these cycles be more manageable and less significant in his life. I tell him this period will be over soon, this part of the cycle repeats sometimes and that we’ve only been in therapy for two months.

He acknowledges what I’ve said but then replies, “It’s easy for you to say because you don’t know what it’s like.”

Oh, but I do.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be so desperate to stop the voices in your brain that you will try anything.”

The small scars on my arms prove you wrong.

“It’s exhausting, I can’t live like this. Who can ever be happy this way?”

It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. You can have a life worth living.

He’s going through one of the most difficult emotions a human being can experience: Hopelessness. Hopelessness is a thick fog that permeates everything it touches. It suffocates, poisons and steals the worth of everything. He needs hope.

So I do it.

I take my armor off and become completely vulnerable and exposed.

“I know you feel lonely and feel like no one understands you. Not even me. How would I know, right? I know that you feel like a failure because you have dreams you haven’t accomplished while everyone else seems to be on track with their own dreams. I know you feel like you are a burden to those who surround you and you constantly feel guilty for that. I know that you get to the point where you hate yourself for not being stronger, smarter, braver and more focused. I know because that person is me. I don’t know it out of a text book, I know it because I’ve lived it.

And you know what else I know? I know there is hope and help. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be able to sit here in front of you or my other patients. I didn’t believe I’d be able to have a family and yet I have a wonderful husband and two sons. I’m going to be completely honest with you. You can feel better and have a good life. I’m not necessarily saying you will be ‘cured,’ but I am saying you can manage your symptoms if you know yourself and learn how to deal with unwanted situations. But in order to do that, we need to work on it. Trust me, I’ll do everything I can to help you get better, but we need to establish that I do know what I’m talking about and it does apply to you. I can help you help yourself. Please let me.”

His eyes filled with tears as he nodded. Several months later, he confided in me that this was a turning point for him, not only regarding my knowledge as a therapist, but in giving him hope that those of us with BPD really do have hope.

I always thought I had to show strength in order to help others, but this experience taught me that in some cases you simply need empathy and humanity. There is strength in vulnerability.

Goodbye superwoman, hello flawed me.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Showing the Reality of Borderline Personality Disorder

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I wrote an article for an Irish national daily a couple of months back, in which I stated the following:

My concern is that the current media representation of [mental health] issues is in danger of doing the subject more harm than good by having a really restricted focus in terms of how mental health problems manifest, who they affect, and how they are managed.

I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), which occasionally joins forces with severe depression, and as a service user/patient/client it frustrates me when I see the same stories being told over and over again, the same limited number of issues being discussed, the same “solutions” being presented.

One could be forgiven for believing that the only issues that affect people are depression and anxiety, that it’s only our younger population who are impacted, or that exercise will fix everything. While these are all valid points, they are merely the tip of the iceberg…

We’re making huge inroads in talking about [mental health issues], but we’re still dancing around the edges. I don’t want to hear anyone else “opening up” about their successful “battle” with depression. I don’t want to hear soundbites about how mindfulness, a good diet and regular exercise will help keep me well. I want to hear reality. I want to hear open, honest, and above all real conversation about this. About depression. About bipolar. About borderline. About schizophrenia. About all the other countless illnesses that affect us.

About people.

Immediately after the article was published, I was contacted to do both TV and radio interviews to discuss it further, which I had to decline. I knew while I would get great energy from them and it would possibly help take the national conversation about mental health a little further, it would also knock the stuffing out of me, and the fallout wouldn’t be worth whatever slim gain may have been made.

I realize there’s a massive irony in this — I gave out that media representations of mental health issues are very one-sided, yet when given the opportunity to do something about it, I had to say no or my mental health would suffer.

So I decided vlogging would be the next best thing. I’ve been writing about trying to manage BPD and depression for years, and now I want to show you what it can look like. None of these vlogs are scripted, rehearsed or edited in any way. They’re mostly recorded in my car because it feels like a really safe place to do them, if a little dull visually. And they are short — generally between one and three minutes. I tend to think a lot when I’m driving, and it helps to record my thoughts this way on a day when I may not get time to write. What you see is how I am — I don’t usually wear makeup, and I often look extremely tired and/or spotty. This is my reality. I’ve never sugarcoated my writing, so I’m not going to sugar coat these.

Image via Thinkstock.

Watch Fiona’s vlogs at Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers.

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Confessions of a Former 'Damsel in Distress': Learning How to Save Myself

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“You can let it destroy you, or let it strengthen you.”

I don’t mean to, but I’ve always had a kind of “save me” mentality. At 14, I wrote stories of poor, fragile girls passing out at school from lack of food or trying to kill themselves, only to be saved by handsome, older boys. I always hoped the boys I liked would save me. And hey, before ya judge, I was unwell mentally at 14 years old.

I made my first suicide attempts at 14. There was a part of me that hoped someone would save me, but as I spent weeks in hospital, nobody visited. Just my parents. None of my friends. Definitely no handsome, older boys.

woman crouching in front of a mirror

At the end of the day, it was me who saved me. I pulled myself out of the desperately dark hole I lived in and got better for a while. At 19, same thing. More suicide attempts and more loneliness in the hospital. Eventually, there was someone who sat by my side. He cancelled work for days to sit by my side. We ended up dating for three and a half years.

He helped in a lot of ways. I also started to get therapy. He refused to feed my desperate needs for reassurance. I’d sob on the floor, begging him to tell me he was going to stay, that he loved me, just one more time, and he wouldn’t. It wasn’t to be cruel, but rather, he was trying to teach me to self-soothe.

I had more than enough proof he was going to stay and he loved me. I had to learn to calm myself down. I learned with him I didn’t get the things I wanted by playing “weak,” a victim or by needing constant reassurance. I got what I wanted by being a strong, self-assured, young woman.

Eventually, our relationship turned abusive in other ways, and I left. However, I left stronger than I’d ever been before. The fire in my heart was roaring, and I was ready for anything. As I migrated to Melbourne, I started dating a few others, and, as I did, my mental health started to crumble. I am almost at the point where I wonder if new relationships are my trigger. I’ll be fine, so wonderful, until the onset of a new relationship.

Yet, as I got to know these handsome men, my mental health slipped backward. I found myself clingy, needy and breaking down regularly. I wanted to be held by them and comforted. I wanted them to come to my aid, and in a sense, I wanted them to rescue me. In a f*cked up way, it’s an unintentionally manipulative way for me to get comfort, affection, dedicated time and attention.

People are only willing to oblige so much. I mean, the relationship is new, and I’m having a meltdown in front of you. It can be scary, and a lot of people just aren’t down for that.

I, then, met my current partner, D. When he met me, he felt overall I had my life together. I lived in a cute apartment on my own in St. Kilda. I had a shiny finance job in a shiny office in Docklands. My own car. No debt. A wardrobe of gorgeous clothing. Experience sexually. A bunch of gorgeous friends. I was, by many counts, “put together.”

Yet, the same thing happened that always did. As the relationship progressed, my mental health slipped. I slipped back into self-harm and having episodes. Out of nowhere, I would start shaking, fall into panic attacks, curl up on the floor sobbing over nothing. He said it was almost like I was possessed because I’d go from laughing and fine one minute, to a shaking mess the next. When he looked me in the eyes during episodes, he said he didn’t see me in there at all.

After six months, I made the first call of, “I think I’m going to kill myself. I need you here.”

More followed. Luckily, I didn’t make any actual attempts on my life. By New Year’s, I was suicidal. His best friend had to stop me from walking into traffic twice. The next day, he broke up with me. He said he couldn’t do it anymore.

For three days, I laid in bed sobbing. It wouldn’t stop hurting. How did I make it stop hurting? Eventually, I realized I had two options following that break up: I could let it destroy me or I could let it strengthen me.

I booked psychologist appointments. I started running again (which my fatigue prevented me from getting further, but I made the effort!) I cleaned the apartment. I cleaned myself up. I organized to meet him a few times. I didn’t break down in those conversations. I didn’t beg for him back. I laid out, rationally, why I felt it was silly for us to be broken up. I pointed out the positive changes I was making.

After a few days, we got back together. Many months later, he told me the fact that I got up and kept going was a key reason why he came back (another being that he loved the sh*t out of me.) He said if I’d laid there, broken, then it would have reinforced the decision to leave, but I didn’t. I got up, I worked and I saved myself.

Things are a lot better now. However, recently, I’ve found I like someone new a lot. What am I noticing? I’m starting to get into that “save me” mentality. Damn. I’m facing this really hard battle every time I talk to them. My mind screams “be weak, be soft, make them want to protect you and save you.” Yet, evidence has shown me, time and time again, that needing to be saved has done nothing for me but alienate me and cause me to lose valued friendships and relationships.

What has made those relationships flourish is when I’m the badass I am. It’s being a strong, powerful woman with a love of colors and vibrancy. Nobody has wanted to save me. The only person who keeps saving me, day in and day out, is me. What has lured more people in than I can count  is walking like I’m 10 feet tall, embracing every beautiful aspect of myself and shining in every way possible.

I’m realizing my method of being a “damsel in distress” is a poor form of communication. I don’t know how to ask for cuddles, affection, more time, more compliments and more conversation. I feel guilty for it. Somehow, I feel less guilty when I’m in meltdown mode. In meltdown mode, I have the belief that I’ll get those things without asking for it.

What I really need to be doing is working on my communication. I need to say, “Hey, I like you. I’d like to talk more,” “Let’s hug,” or “I think you’re fantastic. Can we spend more time together?” I have a suspicion those will get me more of the things I want than any tears ever did.

Image via Hannah Penklis.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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When You Don’t Fit the ‘Black and White’ Definition of Borderline Personality Disorder

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In the beginning of summer, when everything started to blossom, it had gotten warmer and brighter and a scent of sunscreen was in the air, and I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). I had been seeking help battling my good old enemy, depression. Depression sat next to me in my office chair, cuddled up in my bed, walked by my side and left me nowhere to hide. Eventually, razorblades found their way back into my life as well. After five sessions of counseling, my therapist carefully dropped the three words that changed everything: borderline personality disorder.

Depression is like having a carousel constantly spinning in my mind, giving me no break from anxiety and self-loathing. It makes it impossible to rest or even find peaceful sleep. However, after years, depression finally felt like something I could measure and learn how to deal with. I had developed strategies to avoid irrational thinking. I was practicing mindfulness and positive thinking. I started taking antidepressants, which helped me fall asleep.

After hearing my problems do not only go by the name depression, but have an older, bigger sister who pulls the strings, everything I had learned and practiced felt useless. I felt defeated and crushed by something way out of my control. I felt like I would never ever get better because BPD is said to be incurable. Even my depression became speechless for a few days. I felt empty and hopeless.

On the outside, I seem to have it all together. I am a scholarship student with a job, a loving boyfriend, a caring family, a great flat and the means to travel the world. How could I achieve all of this while my diagnosis implies that my personality is disordered, not fully developed or even broken? I did not want to accept my diagnosis because admitting it felt like I would eventually end up losing everything I gained.

I assumed with BPD, I would never have a normal and healthy relationship with myself and with my boyfriend. Everything I read about BPD made it sound like I could only learn how to stop hurting myself, but never be able to escape my extreme emotions and mood changes. My life has always been me battling against myself. I have my own worst enemy right inside my head, undermining my logical thinking and manipulating my emotions. I am constantly stumbling from one side to another, from love to hate and back again. I feel helplessly lost in the between, forever locked in the vice grip of conflict. My life is extreme. I feel extreme.

My diagnosis could explain my experiences, but I refused to believe it fits me. It actually made me really angry being labeled because a lot of the things people tell you about BPD sounded like insults to me. The internet is full of people claiming to know how those affected by BPD function. These people rage about how selfish and dramatic people with BPD, people like me, are. They talk about how they manipulate others to get what they want, how they hurt themselves to get attention and how they destroy everybody naïve enough to get involved with them.

I did not feel like I was reading about myself while researching BPD, and I could not relate to what is called “black and white” thinking. I thought it reduces my whole being into a two-dimensional space. However, I learned my BPD diagnosis does not define or change who I am. The diagnosis is an instrument that makes it easier to get well-approved treatment in the areas I struggle with.

Furthermore, BPD is a spectrum, not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. There are more than a hundred possible combinations of all the criteria for a BPD diagnosis listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. There are all different kinds of unique people with different personalities but the same diagnosis. Most of us do not fit the image painted by these self-proclaimed “experts.”

We are not all selfish or self-obsessed. We care a lot about how we affect others. We do not hurt ourselves for attention. We hurt ourselves when we no longer can stand the melting pot of feelings seething inside of us. We do not all see the world in black and white, good and bad.

For us too, it is love and hate, black and white and everything in between. It is the rollercoaster between the extremes that makes our feelings so hard to bear. We can go from soothingly calm to extremely angry or hateful within minutes. In intimate relationships we switch from idealizing love to venomous distaste, but it is not only black and white. It is also all the other million of colors.

We feel a lot more than just the extremes. Everything in life strongly affects us emotionally. We experience plenty more mood swings than people not affected by BPD. We struggle to keep rational thinking on board, while being tossed around by the waves. Sometimes, it feels like feeling too much.

The stigma around BPD made my feel terminally ill and irreparably broken, but my personality is not broken. My personality is not fragmented and I am not two-dimensional. I am so much more than black and white.

My personality is bent, not broken, and at times when I am stressed out or scared, it bends so much it brings me to my knees. At times, trauma breaks the surface, and I act like a little child crying for help and raging in despair.

However, these things do not make me broken. If anything, it makes me, and all the other people affected by BPD, strong. Strong because we inhabit feelings most people never need to feel, feelings so overwhelming it make us hurt ourselves to get rid of them. Yet, we live with these emotions every day.

We experience relationships, which can come along with outraging despair, but we learn to handle that. We bravely face the storm and the waves a normal day can bring to us. We are strong while seeking help and strong while enduring being stuck in our own minds.

I hope you do not listen to the stigma around mental illness. I hope you can see BPD not as a defeat or a flaw but as a chance. A chance to feel life to the fullest, to go from deep blue to bright yellow. A chance to feel utterly devastated and head over heels in love and everything in between. A chance to be passionate and exceptionally compassionate. And a chance to be overly-sensitive to your surroundings so you can appreciate all the little good things in life. I hope you will learn to deal with all your emotions in a creative way without hurting yourself. It is OK if you feel like you feel too much. I do too.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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A Day in My Life With Borderline Personality Disorder

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Quite often people have asked me what it is like living with my borderline personality disorder (BPD). They really have very little idea in regards to what it actually means. They are under the impression I am “borderline,” so I am “sort of” in the middle of having a personality disorder. Not a full blown disorder, but not quite “normal” either. I don’t fault any of them for thinking this way, as society has historically mystified, shamed and driven any talk of mental illness into the deepest, darkest depths. Out of sight… out of mind.

In truth, I am not trying to be flippant or judgmental. Not at all. This is the stigma surrounding mental health. Nevertheless, I am quite happy to say I do believe the tide is turning. There is a movement afoot to end the stigma and support those who have been shunned in the past. In an effort to support such a movement I have recorded what a typical day in my life has been like living with BPD. My hope is of course to bring heightened awareness… not scorn or pity. This is a typical day in a “down” period. I am undergoing recovery now so I am happy to say my downs are more balanced with better times. Just a warning, what I’ve written below could be triggering for people.

I wake up after a fitful night’s sleep. Actually, to call it sleep would be an oxymoron. I have awakened more tired than when I first put my head on the pillow. I am exhausted and sweating. My mind has been in turmoil all night long. I may have gotten some sleep, but there was no rest. I look out the cracked window in my room and see the people below scurrying around like ants. They all seem to have somewhere to go, someone to see… a purpose. I turn and look down at the scars on my wrists and thighs. I sigh heavily; it is another day. I choke back my meds with a glass of warm water and thus begin the daily routine.

On my way to class I have this overwhelming feeling of dark oppression combined with uncontrollable dancing butterflies in my stomach. I feel nauseous. My legs feel as if they are just going to give way. I stop and sit down on the curb for a minute to try and catch my breath. A group of young people walk by looking down at me. I am sure they are laughing at me. What’s their problem? I look at my anchor tattoo. It somehow gives me a feeling of momentary peace. I struggle up and start walking towards my class again. The peace does not last long. As I am walking I have no idea why everyone is staring at me… but it is really starting to get irritating. A rage begins to swell inside me. Every noise on the street reverberates through my head like a runaway locomotive. Head pounding, palms sweating, stomach churning. I feel a floating sensation and no longer really have any idea of where I am going. The voices are talking to me again… telling me I am worthless and useless and that is the reason nobody ever stays with me. I sit down again holding my aching head in my hands.

After a while I manage to recollect myself. I have driven the voices away for now. However, there is simply no way I will be attending class today. Waves of exhaustion have overtaken me. I manage to find my way back to my apartment. I flop down onto the bed totally disgusted with myself. I rise and go over to the refrigerator and grab a bag of ice to hold tightly. I need the distraction. I go over to the sink and splash cold water on my face… then again. I want to call my parents to let them know I did not make it to class again, but I realize that won’t end well. They will get angry with me. I can almost hear it now: You were fine yesterday! Why can’t you hold it together for more than one day at least?” This conversation will inevitably end with me screaming, crying and hanging the phone up. No need to bother with that… too tired anyways. I glance over at pictures of some of my friends on the wall. I don’t see most of them anymore. They have pretty much left me. Who could blame them? I lie down again and drift to sleep.

I wake up after a few hours, covered in sweat again. I feel some hunger but really don’t know for what. If I eat something there is no chance I will keep it down. I am starting to wonder if I need to go back to the hospital. However, I already know what they will say. “You have to work through this. There is nothing that we can do for you anymore.” That is usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes and a wave of the hand. A true outcast. I reach for my bottle of vodka and light a cigarette. Tomorrow is another day.

My message to society would be to never judge that person on the street; you really don’t know anything about them or the battles they may have fought to get as far as that curb on the road.

Follow this journey on Revolving of Doors.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Finding Purpose in My Borderline Personality Disorder

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Sometimes, I find it quite astonishing I’m here today, sitting in my room and looking back all the things I accomplished when I didn’t think I was going to be alive. Living with borderline personality disorder (BPD) is like that. You are constantly waiting on edge for another thing to just throw you off balance.

Friends say you are up and down. Work managers use a “wave” hand gesture to describe your emotions. Partners don’t want to talk to you as you are too emotionally-draining from the scenarios you are assuming will happen and making up in your head.

I was first diagnosed when I was 17 years old. I had no understanding of BPD and what the term meant. All I knew at that stage was I wanted to end my life, as the emotional pain I was experiencing was unbearable. I felt like I couldn’t stabilize anything, whether it was work, sports, family and friends. I felt isolated and like no one wanted me around. That is the first time I knew I was experiencing chronic emptiness.

As I got older, I learned how to present this happy, go lucky mask so people would want me around and wouldn’t have to worry about me all the time. What people don’t know is that this mask eventually comes off and I crumble, which will end with the frequent-self mutilating episodes and suicide ideation.

When I let people in, I would push them away, even though it was the closeness I craved. I wanted them to just understand me instead of always questioning and judging my behaviors. People would label me and define me because they couldn’t psychically see the emotional pain I was in. It seems when people don’t see it, they don’t believe it.

While people get other bad news and will go about their day, I will receive bad news I’ll carry for weeks or months. It depends not on the depth of care and love I had for this person or thing. I can’t shut the feelings out as it results in me becoming numb, and when I become numb I want to feel something. When I become numb, I often seek for that thing to make me feel again. There is no in between.

Relationships come and go with me. I am lucky enough to be highly emotionally intelligent, where I can talk things out and see another perspective. I also can feel what my partner is feeling at the time, and I will take on their pain too. In the past, I have entered relationships where I know I wasn’t respected and where I was viewed as the issue, even though logically I knew I wasn’t. Due to the voice in my head, which often tells me I am worthless and hopeless, I will start to believe in that again.

It’s an exhausting way to live. In my old relationships, the partner has always viewed my suicide ideation as a way to get them to stay. This isn’t the case. Being highly sensitive to the treatment I received is what made me feel that way, as well as my past abuse. Putting all this aside, this year I found out a reason to stay here. I was always so scared to open up until I realized the only thing that was going to save me was opening up to people. I started a blog to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding BPD. I also work for organizations such as Suicide Prevention Australia and Borderline Personality Disorder Foundation as a lived experience talker.

What made me survive was meeting people who have had similar experiences. I have listened to parents talk about the pain and grief that came from losing a child to suicide. When I heard that, I knew I had to stay alive so I can help these types of people. They made me feel like I had a purpose for once in my life. For once in my life, I realized I am living proof it does get better, even in near death situations. I still ride the wave of the emotional tsunami my life throws at me.

I think I have the resilience, knowledge and awareness to know when I am OK and when I am not. Some days, I still pretend I am OK but that always results in an episode. So when I have a reason to be upset, I will show people and explain to them why I am. The right people in my life who love and care about me understand and accept why I am. I am still learning to ignore the people who are ignorant and who really don’t understand the dangers that come with living with BPD.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

 

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