Empty waiting room with a modern gray sofa

I had my first therapy session last night. OK, it wasn’t the first time I had gone to see a “professional,” but there’s a reason why I consider this my first actual session.

Let me explain.

For the past four years, I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression and through a lot of Googling and talking with people in the industry, I’m pretty sure I also have borderline personality disorder. And in the process of trying to find myself and ways to cope with my personal life, family, work, passion projects and finding time to keep up with friends, I’d lost myself and my way. The anxiety was getting worse. It was spiraling out of control and all-encompassing.

It took a lot of courage for me to ask for help. Despite the stigma and lack of support available to me, I was actually proud of myself for being able to reach out for help.

I understand there is a learning curve between therapist and patient. That everybody works a little differently and their styles of communication are different. But let me tell you, this was horrendous. My therapists (I had gone to multiple because I was desperate for help) didn’t help at all. Actually, they made things worse.

I’ve had a therapist pick up another phone call during my session and actually carry on conversations while I was there. He would talk to nurses and flirt with them, with me sitting in my room trying not to fall apart. I’ve had a therapist do nothing but prescribe drugs to me, at higher and higher doses even though I said the side effects were so strong I couldn’t function. I know medication — just like finding a therapist — takes time to find the right one and for them to work, but the side effects were so bad I couldn’t work or go to school. I was shaking, throwing up. Nauseous to the point I couldn’t eat anything but soup. Some had me awake and wired all night, others had me so drowsy I couldn’t even keep my eyes open at work. The side effects were endless and when I mentioned it, I was just prescribed “better” drugs to help “cure me.”

Not once had these therapists tried to actually talk to me. Help me find the root of my problems. The best advice I’d received was to just “think about what was making you feel anxious and depressed” and then just “don’t let it affect you.” Oh wow. Great. I wouldn’t have thought of that all on my own.

I was looking for someone to listen to me, to help me find coping mechanisms. But instead all got were condescending, patronizing adults who said “I didn’t even know what life was about” because “I was too young and privileged to experience real pain and struggles.”

These terrible experiences turned me off from therapy for years. And in the meantime, I had resorted to self-medication through alcohol. My behavior was getting more and more extreme, erratic, manipulative and difficult to control. Soon it was out of my control.

After a lot of urging, support and unconditional love from my best friend, (I love you Libby) I decided to give it another go. And it was everything I had hoped it would be.

I had lost faith in therapy because of my terrible experiences. I had dismissed the entire field because of my bad experiences, attributing it to the field itself, rather than a few bad therapists. I believed a few bad apples meant all of them would be bad, that I was better off on my own, that I could find a way to cope – until I couldn’t.

My therapist, Natalie, was understanding, open, gentle and everything I needed. She was a good listener and did not once insinuate I was the one to blame for my own internal turmoil. She validated my thoughts and feelings and not once did I feel patronized or looked down upon.

Therapy was a big step for me. Looking beyond those whom I knew to trust a complete stranger with the deepest, darkest parts of myself. To open myself up and expose the most vulnerable places of myself to a complete stranger, the parts that had been ridiculed and prodded by others. What I learned yesterday was not just about the therapy or asking for help. I learned the person who offers you the help is just as important. Finding a professional, someone with the appropriate experience, someone who understands without judgment, makes all the difference.

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Having a life dominated by mental health difficulties and not talking about them is like carrying a hidden world inside yourself. Keeping my experience of borderline personality disorder (BPD) shrouded in secrecy creates loneliness and traps me in an unnecessary sense of shame. Talking about my experiences with people who listen and don’t judge is key for the emotional stability that has been a challenge for me over the years. I’d like to share the five most helpful things for me to hear when I do talk to people in my life about my experiences with BPD.

1. “It’s fine for you to talk about this.”

Historically, I have shame not only about my experiences, but for my need to talk about them. I’ve been told by former friends I was “inappropriate” for broaching certain topics and should “never talk about it again.” Embarrassment rushed through me like a hot rash and an unnecessary sense of shame silenced me for a long time. Luckily, I have moved on and have been able to talk again with open-minded people who have given me positive and accepting reactions. Through talking with understanding and open people, I have been able to release a lot of shame.

2. “You can talk to me again whenever you need to.”

Because of reactions I have experienced when talking about mental health, I am constantly worried I will “make people uncomfortable.” I have since realized if someone is uncomfortable with talking about mental health, it is more likely to be their own prejudices than my insensitivity. I feel very validated when friends say talking about my BPD to them is OK.

3. “I don’t think of you any differently than I did before you told me this.”

When I have talked to people in the past, I have been worried they will see me in a different light once they know about my experiences. I’m worried they will think they didn’t know me before and are judging my actions and character on the basis of the new information they have about my life. So when people treat me just the same as they always did, I am reassured. After all, I am much, much more than my experiences of mental illnesses.

4. “I know someone who has had a similar experience.”

When said without an annoying dose of “I know it all,” this can be incredibly helpful as it can make me feel less alone.

5. “It’s up to you.”

I don’t like being told what’s best for me. I like to supported. But at the end of the day, I know myself and my experiences best, so I’d rather people hold off with any judgments. I don’t like having my experiences and emotions judged, quantified and defined by others!

Follow this journey on BPDOrchid or Twitter.

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All my life I have been told I can’t.

I dropped out of school because I missed too many classes due to struggling with my borderline personality disorder (BPD).

“I can do better,” I said.

“No, you can’t,” my teacher said.

After my diagnosis I got a guardian from social services and they offered me a spot in a group home.

“I would rather live alone,” I said.

“You can’t live alone,” my guardian said.

So I was moved into a group home.

After one year of being certified sick and doing nothing but therapy I decided I wanted to go to college and become a professional in disability and mental health care. I wanted to help others who struggle like me.

“Then we would be co-workers,” my guardian said and laughed as if it was the most ridiculous idea ever.

“You shouldn’t be responsible for other people,” my therapist said.

“You can’t,” my psychiatrist said.

“Yes, I can,” I said and left the city for good.

I went to college to become a professional in disability and mental health care.

“People with BPD can not keep a stable job. Or have a long term relationship. In fact they can barely do anything,” my psychiatry teacher said. “I hope you never have to work with them.”

I sat in her classroom quietly.

I got a job in a group home for people with mental illnesses. One of my clients is a young girl who was recently diagnosed with BPD. She dreams of becoming an artist.

“She can’t,” my coworkers say and laugh.

“Why not?”

“Because she’s a borderliner!”

All my life I have been told I can’t. By family, by teachers, by professionals. Again and again until I believed it. Until I gave up on my dreams and accepted my future would be what others decided was best for me. I would never live on my own, have a family or a job. I accepted I was what they made me feel like: useless.

The stigma surrounding this disorder is real and dangerous. When people hear the term “borderline” they automatically think of what they have heard about “these people.” They are dangerous. They are violent. They just want attention. They do drugs. They will destroy you.

Individuals who struggle with BPD tend to have low self-esteem to start with. The stigma makes it worse. It makes it hard to accept the diagnosis and even harder to seek help because even professionals are often biased. In fact, some therapists turn clients down because of their BPD diagnosis.

A lot of people affected by it keep it to themselves simply so they don’t scare away friends and potential partners.

When you are a “borderliner,” you often get hate instead of help from those around you, although it is the latter you so desperately need.

But there is one thing everyone needs to hear: yes, we can.

We are people like everyone else. We are not monsters.

We can make our own decisions. They might not always be good, but we have a right to make them.

We have plans. We have dreams. And with a lot of work and passion we can achieve them. It might be a lot harder for us than for other people. But we can. And don’t you ever let anyone tell you you can’t.

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We all make mistakes. It’s a given. It doesn’t help if you’re too hard on yourself; something every borderline challenger can relate to.

There are plenty of times I’ve reacted before I could rationalize. As I grow and develop myself each day, the frequency of this reduces, but it rears its ugly head once in a while nonetheless. I’ve learned one of the hardest things to do is to love myself, particularly when I’ve screwed up. Here are some ways I try to look beyond the situation, and consider it as a growth opportunity. A quick word of advice though: Begin to do this when you have totally removed yourself from the situation. Sometimes that may be days or weeks after (you’ll know when you longer feel seething anger or uncontrollable tears and instead these are replaced by guilt and self-pity/self-deprecation).

1. Accept: Part of the reason we sometimes fail to forgive ourselves is that we don’t want to accept we messed up. Instead, we go straight to self-deprecation and punishing ourselves. This isn’t helpful, simply because it prevents you from looking beyond the incident.

First, say out loud what you did. And then follow it with a statement affirming that you accept the fact that it happened, and that you fully embrace the consequences.

2. Acknowledge: Here you acknowledge the emotions you felt then which caused you to react the way you did. For example: Your significant other said something to upset you before you headed out to work, and you carried that with you, acting out through reckless driving. Acknowledge you felt uncontrollable anger at that point, and could not see a way to calm down.

3. Watch: Now that you know what the emotion you felt was, it’s time to watch yourself. Try to replay the incident in your mind; this time as an outsider. Imagine you’re watching yourself drive angrily, and yet you know exactly what’s going through your mind. This is important because it helps you gain perspective on how your actions affect others, despite the action having little-to-no relation with the incident that provoked it.

4. Let go and forgive (this is the most important step): The previous three steps are to help you fully experience the emotions, so that you can finally do away with them (in the context of that situation). Now, you choose to let go and forgive yourself. I’ll admit it — this step isn’t easy even for people who can control their emotions. I realize it might be much much harder for you, given the roller coaster you’re probably always on. That’s why I initially advised doing this days or weeks after the actual incident. But do this, you must. Trust me: harboring the regret and guilt will not help you in your journey to challenge the heck out of borderline personality disorder (BPD). At this point, you once again vocalize the fact that you’re letting go of the incident and associated emotions. Then follow it up by saying you forgive yourself for your actions.

5. Commit to change: They say the best apology is changed behavior. Here you aren’t apologizing to anyone but yourself. (Chances are, you’ve probably beaten yourself up enough about the incident and don’t know how to begin to apologize to the affected people in your life. Or even better, you probably have already apologized to them multiple times). Either way, I recommend forgiving and apologizing to yourself is a pre-requisite in order to work towards the best apology your loved ones could ever get: a fully aware BPD challenger who makes sure his/her life is not dominated by the illness. This is the point where you list out alternate reactions to the same incident and commit them to memory (once again, not an easy task, but something that feels fulfilling when you do it!). In this step, you are planning for a future, which is less governed by your emotions and more ruled by you!

6. Tackle life head on: No explanation needed here. You’ve accepted, acknowledged, embraced, watched, let go, forgiven, committed to change. Now all that’s left is go out with your head held high. Like every BPD challenger should.

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You are not your illness.

It’s always nice to have a name for what you’re struggling with. It’s true that people want to know what it is that’s taking over their life. “What is my diagnosis?” However, the true challenge is ultimately to find the name… and then let it go. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) at 15 years old. I held onto that diagnosis for five years. It fit me perfectly. If people asked what I deal with because of BPD, I would list off the all the symptoms and challenges from the National Institute of Mental Health.

  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
  • A pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self
  • Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving and binge eating
  • Recurring suicidal behaviors or threats or self-harming behavior, such as cutting
  • Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness
  • Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger
  • Having stress-related paranoid thoughts
  • Having severe dissociative symptoms, such as feeling cut off from oneself, observing oneself from outside the body, or losing touch with reality

It was easy to tell people about these symptoms because personally, I dealt with all of them… plus more. However, this disorder began to define me. It told me what to do in the morning, day and night. It told me who I was and how I should feel. I became my illness. I got comfortable in that space. I would tell myself I’m suffering… but it will end. I can end it anytime I want. I was right about that point. I could end it at any point I wanted, but not in the way you would think. I’ve attempted suicide twice and it was extreme. Both of these instances I was saved by police or a civilian. During both instances I would realize at one point that I didn’t want to die — I wanted the pain to end.

I didn’t want to be healthy. I didn’t “deserve” it. I didn’t want it. I was the sick person in the family, at school and at work. I got special treatment, I got attention. I liked getting those things, but most of all, I liked being sick. It was my identity and I didn’t know who I was without the title of borderline personality disorder. If I wasn’t institutionalized, what was I going to do with my life? With my days? It was boring, and everyone who knows someone with borderline personality disorder knows that when we struggle, it’s certainly not boring! I was living life on the edge when really all I wanted was to step back and find out who I am.

I grew older and went through drug addiction, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, abuse, financial problems and more. I knew it was time. I moved out of my parents house and into my own apartment in downtown Toronto. I started my own little organization, a non-profit for LGBTQ mental health and it has begun to grow into something incredible. I started attending Ryerson University. I was out of all abusive relationships. I had friends, family and a girlfriend by my side. In those three months, I found out who I am truly as a person. I found out that I am Zee. I love running my organization. I take the time to take homeless people to Tim Hortons, buy gatorade and feed the homeless dogs biscuits.

I know this all sounds like a quick turnaround and truly — it was quick. As if I blinked and my whole life changed. You see, I was hospitalized at a private institution. In this institution you never got stripped checked, you got to wear your own clothes, have electronics, there was even a shopping center in the middle of the facility and restraints were only used if you were put into a different unit. I wasn’t used to this. I was used to having no privacy. I was used to having cameras everywhere, getting patted down and I was not allowed anything but one brown crayon with a sheet of paper. For therapy in the hospital, I would look out my window, or sleep. For therapy at this private institution, I would sit in massage chairs, work out, go swimming, tennis, learn to play the ukulele, meet people who have been through a lot at a different level. I didn’t stay long. I left after 10 days.

Those 10 days changed my life. I got to see the difference in care between the well-insured and the non-insured. The difference is incredible. That’s when I found my purpose. I opened Revolving of Doors (ROD) because of two people who were revolving door patients just like me. We used to joke around and say “see you next month” when one of us got discharged — but it wasn’t a joke, it was true — we always did see each other at least a month later. I dedicated my life to bettering the mental health system. If you go back to one of my dangerous suicide attempts, I was saved by a police officer. How? He asked me what I wanted in life — I was 16 and I said I wanted to be a mental health advocate. At 20 years old, after going through 33 hospitalizations, one group home, one crisis house, three institutions, and three consecutive years in a hospital bed — I learned who I was in 10 days. I am an advocate. I go to peer support groups, shop at thrift shops and live off potatoes and diet coke. However, I am well educated, I have a university education. I was a scholar in high school, I have won multiple awards such as Scotiabank Game Changers, Accessibility Award, EA2014, Special Achievement Award and more. I’m grounded, I know what it’s like to be scared every time I close my eyes and I also know what it’s like to walk on stage and tell my story — fearless.

I said earlier “I can end it anytime I want… not in the way you would think” my point is when I was in a dark place I could have ended my life, but I grew stronger every day and I ended my major suffering in a different way. I ended it by coping. I no longer went to the hospital to avoid coping. I only went when I absolutely needed it. I spend an hour every day on “vacation” from electronics, I read, write, color, knit, anything. I just want to be with me and that’s enough. I cope on a regular basis, not just when I am in crisis. Growing up with borderline personality disorder gave me the chance to blame everyone, especially myself. But, I no longer hate myself. I know people love me and I love them. I know that I have a purpose. I know that even if nothing is happening in my life and it’s “boring,” I can enjoy my own company.

What helped me survive was coping by myself on a regular basis. I used to hate the word “coping” and now I use it regularly. I’m not saying you have to see the world to understand and find yourself. I’m saying you need to take that time for you and only you. Get to know what you like, hobbies…anything. With borderline personality disorder, when I had nothing to do, I would go to something unhealthy — I have changed that to healthy and I’ve never been as content. Don’t get me wrong… I still struggle. I’m anxious every time I leave the house, sometimes I just stay in bed all day because my migraines are incredible and I’m heavily medicated. I have help at school to get through it without exploding from stress… but, not all my days are bad now. I have “OK” days, good days and sometimes even great days.

BPD is known as the “hopeless” diagnosis. Doctors to this day don’t know how to diagnose or treat the disorder properly. But to everyone with BPD, I want you to know you are special, you have a strong purpose, you feel everything so deeply and no one except you and other who have it will understand that. However, please know your journey isn’t to be as sick as you can, but to find your purpose and live it to your full potential while still receiving help. We feel emotions so intensely and that means we are extremely passionate about everything in our life — imagine finding that one thing you are passionate about. That is your purpose. It could be as small as smiling in the mirror at yourself every day to being Prime Minister. That is the purpose. I know you are struggling, I know it’s hard, I know you think no one understands, I know you feel hopeless, I know some doctors give you attitude because of your title, but I know you can get through this. I know that you were blessed with a curse and that you can overcome anything. You are strong. You are willing. You can do this if you try. I promise.  Remember that you are not your illness. Use it.

Following 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 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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The part I struggle with most is the addiction.

I’ve read many accounts of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) who rely on drugs or alcohol to cope, and I understand as much as anyone how easy it is to fall victim to such an extreme coping method. But my addiction was never in the form of a substance. Instead, I was a people addict.

Not everyone satisfied my desire for connection. It was always someone who was guaranteed to hurt me in one way or another. It was self-sabotage and a cry for help.

If I was friends with someone, the addiction would never manifest itself with that person. But the moment they displayed any interest in something more than friendship, any and all sense of my self-preservation and caution just flew out the window. Even though I was aware of my problem, I couldn’t stop myself.

The scariest part was the significant amount of power these people had over me and over my life. Sometimes it would seem like they were distant or growing bored of me, and I would shut myself away and cry because that’s how much it hurt. For days, even weeks, I was so depressed I couldn’t bring myself to do anything except lie in bed.

Nothing could distract me. Not my friends, not movies, not books, not even my job. I couldn’t force myself to study or do anything productive. And my mom would ask everyday why I was getting nowhere with my online studies, why I wasn’t making any progress. She would get angry and say I was mopey or lazy or in a bad mood.

I wasn’t always like this though. If the object of my addiction was displaying interest or affection, then I’d feel good about myself and even occasionally happy. But a life spent basing your own self-worth on the opinion of others is not a life at all. At least not one I would want.

For months now I’ve been trying hard to distance myself from the wrong people and surround myself with the right ones. It’s a lot easier said than done and sometimes I still make bad decisions. But I am convinced I can manage this problem. It’s only as powerful as I allow it to be.

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