Survivor Not a Victim
I just watched the movie “Joker” and at one point he writes “the worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t” – I mean this is so incredibly on point. The world is not built for those of us with mental illness. You cannot tell from the outside that someone suffers from these illnesses because we’re not supposed to act like it and if we do, we’re portrayed as lazy or selfish and cannot justify our actions because talking about mental illness is “taboo.” It’s a god damn no win situation. It’s not just a situation though, it is millions upon millions of people’s lives. It’s hard to love people with a mental illness because it’s hard for them to trust that love, especially those with trauma or abandonment issues. They need constant validation and reassurance. In my case, I suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder so these characteristics are very strong in me. This is why it’s hard for people with Borderline Personality Disorder to keep relationship. It is exhausting to be with me. To be fair, it is more exhausting being me. I find it hard to move past the self pity at times. I’m constantly angered by my circumstances. Why me? Here is my story…
I was diagnosed with ADHD in the first grade. That was when I first had the idea that something was wrong with me. I also had to be tutored the summer after first grade to learn how to read because I didn’t pick it up as quickly. I was in resource classes in second grade and the way they herded the resource kids together by calling us out of our regular classes was just pure evil. It was like putting a label on our forehead for everyone to judge. But no one judged me more than I did. This is where I got the idea I was dumb, that I was a bad kid because it was hard to sit still and be quiet. I began to experience symptoms of Bipolar Disorder around 15-16 years old. It was like a switch in my brain. I refer to it in my head as the feeling of not caring anymore. I was sick of trying so hard to be what everyone wanted me to be so I just started doing the opposite. I realize now that this sense of exhilaration and reacting without consequence was textbook impulsive manic behavior. My depression was characterized by excessive sleeping. I can remember my mom physically dragging me by my feet attempting to pull me off of my bed to go to school. I didn’t care about her concerns. I didn’t care about the implications of missing school. I didn’t care about anything. I just wanted to turn it off. That’s the thing about Bipolar Disorder, the higher the highs, the lower the lows. I eventually ran away briefly to escape the shame I was constantly subjected to by my parents (mostly my mother because my father was always in the background). They had my brother to make them proud. They didn’t need me. I was about to find out they were concerned more than I knew and were about to make a decision that would change my life forever.
My parent’s decision to send me away wasn’t based on any thoughts of my mental illness. That wasn’t really discussed in the 90’s. This was a decision based on the assumption I just had behavioral issues. That I needed to go somewhere to “make me better.” Or at least that’s what my dad said to me as I was being escorted to a van by complete strangers in October of 2000. I don’t remember much of the trip, but I do remember we had an overnight layover somewhere so we had to stay in a hotel. Again, I’m with complete strangers (a husband and wife team) and we were in a room with two beds, one of which they pushed against the door so I couldn’t escape in the middle of the night. They weren’t supposed to, but they let me call my parents. I don’t remember exactly what was said but I remember being hysterical, asking them if they were really doing this to me. Telling them I swore I would be a good kid and do exactly what they wanted me to if they would bring me back home. I don’t even remember the response, but clearly it was a no because the following day I arrived in Thompson Falls Montana to a behavioral modification school named Spring Creek Lodge. I arrived at night and I did “intake” in a trailer at the bottom of campus. Again, my memory is very fuzzy, but I remember having to get naked. They took my underwear because it was a thong which was contraband. They took my shoelaces. It was something like 0-10 degrees outside with snow on the ground and the only jacket I had was an old ski jacket from 8th grade that my parents had packed for me. Now the next part of my memory is played in my brain as if I’m in the room watching myself walk in. I can’t remember what I saw when I walked into the room, but I can see myself walk in wearing jeans and a pink sweater and sketchers without laces. My hair was stringy from washing it without being able to blow dry it. I was a zombie. I wanted nothing to do with any of them. I was not like them. Truth is, I didn’t know who I was. I can remember little things here and there. We would wake up super early and have a specific amount of time to get out of bed and make our beds. They had to be made perfectly with nothing hanging down or we’d get a consequence. Our showers had to be less than 5 minutes. We couldn’t talk in the bathroom or to anyone in another room. You had to both be in the same room to converse. But you could only talk to certain levels. Like if you’re a level 1, you can only talk to level 3s or something like that. You could only wear a certain number of layers due to being a “run risk” so even though it was usually anywhere from -10 to 10 degrees outside in the winter, we could only have 2 layers on while we walked in a heal toe line from our cabins to the cafeteria or the classroom, etc. They encouraged you to make your peers accountable by referring them for consequences. If staff sees a kid breaking a rule and knows you saw it too, they would wait for you to refer them and if you didn’t, you’d both get consequences which affect your level, which affects the time it takes to graduate and go home. So eventually you are just paranoid and referring friends for consequences and kids were getting their levels taken from them to be taught a lesson. Then there were challenges like being put on silence, sometimes for days, weeks even months at a time. That means you couldn’t talk nor could anyone else talk to or even acknowledge you. This was a challenge I was put on quite frequently because I was constantly being accused of being an attention suck and being loud and acting out for a reaction. Let me remind you, I was just 17 years old. This type of treatment is torture for a developing mind. To this day I am triggered by being “shushed” or being told to be quiet. There were other challenges involving physical labor and humiliation but the real kicker were the seminars.
Let me preface this with you cannot get to higher levels and graduate without successfully completing seminars. The first one was Discovery. I can’t remember how long I had been there before I had to go to my first seminar, but it was terrifying. My memory is very blurry here, but I can remember being in a group of my peers with the junior staff (fellow program kids on the higher levels) and regular staff and a facilitator and them asking me what is the worst thing that had ever happened to me. The first thing that came to mind was being sexually assaulted by a Citadel Cadet at age 15. He did not vaginally rape me, but I was forced to perform a sex act on him. They did not believe that was the extent of my assault. They called me a liar. Told me to “choose out” of the seminar and think about the terrible thing that actually happened to me and come back next time. Well, that was the worst thing that had happened to me, which I later realized is awful in its own right, but since it wasn’t enough, I would be prepared next time. The next time came around and I had prepared a detailed, horrific rape story to tell them. I was made to bang a towel wrapped in duct tape on the floor, screaming at my rapist. There was a junior staff boy yelling in my face calling me a dirty whore and a slut and at one point one of them pushed a pillow against me simulating the pressure of my rapist while I continued to yell at them that I was worthy and that I was not dirty and I was not a slut. I left that seminar changed forever. I spent the rest of the program retelling that story over and over again to where I even believed it myself. I even had therapy where I retold this story for 10 years before I came to terms with that not being my truth. I left that seminar broken. So broken. What they try to do is break you down so that they can build you up to be the cookie cutter version of yourself that your parents always wanted you to be. To take accountability for why things happened to you. I even took responsibility for my own “rape.” “How did you create this for yourself” was a common program question. There was more of the same terrible attack therapy and psychological trauma throughout the 9 months I was there. By the time I went home, I was so brainwashed that when I began to inevitably experience signs of my mood disorder, I thought it was all my fault.
By the time I was in my sophomore year of college, I could no longer fend off my Bipolar Disorder. But I had no idea what this was. In my mind I was lazy. I was dumb. I was irresponsible. I began exhibiting impulsive behavior followed by debilitating depression again. Due to the program, I blamed myself more than the average person with mental illness because I was brain washed to believe that I created everything that happened to me. I spent the next 15 years going through cycles. I would have a good job, great friends, relationship, but then I would have a mental breakdown consisting of promiscuous behavior, excessive spending, heavy partying followed by severe depression. I would go ballistic on those closest to me. If they said anything remotely negative about my way of life, I would flip a switch and push them right out of my life even though they were simply showing concern.
The worst example of my sabotaging relationship was when my best friend since high school, La, finally had enough. She was tired of being my punching bag and threw in the towel. That was one of the most destructive downward spirals I’ve ever gone through. All around that time I lost my job, had an affair with a married man, got evicted and then I found out La’s mother was dying. I will never forget that when I found out I was at my surprise 30th birthday party and my friend, Christina told me the news. I proceeded to text La (pretending I didn’t know) to see if she was coming to my party. I wanted her to be my friend again more than I was concerned about her mother and her own emotional state. I realize now that was delusional thinking and an impulsive response. I try not to guilt myself, but this continues to be one of the hardest things to forgive myself for. This wasn’t the only time I had pushed someone away. I have ruined relationship in dramatic and grandiose ways throughout my life by simply being a human bulldozer, but this one hurt the most. Probably for both of us if I had to guess. She could have really used my support during this time, but I have tried time and again to reassure myself that I, too, was sick and did not have the capacity to be there for anyone else.
Off and on throughout my twenties, I was in an extremely toxic and abusive relationship. I still blame myself for starting the fights and being equally abusive, but I then remind myself that I was completely helpless when my abuser stomped my face into the bathroom tile floor of a hotel in Hilton Head and I consequently ran to the front office in my underwear to escape from him. I am easily triggered by men if they get impatient with me as I am easily triggered and become fearful.
I have been “date raped” more times than I’d like to admit. I put it in quotation marks as it is still hard for me to not take responsibility for that as it was my choice to get blackout drunk and put myself in situations to be taken advantage of. On top of that I was highly sexual due to my frequent manic states so it’s hard for me to decipher what was consensual and what was not. I could want to be with a man one moment and the next be in the fetal position crying. That’s a confusing time for me.
It wasn’t until I was 32 that I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder which was developed by never forming a bond with my father as a child and then sexual assault later from men throughout my life starting at age 15. At this time I was also diagnosed with PTSD from my time at the cult like program and Bipolar Disorder. This was a tough pill to swallow, but once I finally accepted it, I was on my way to starting over in a new career and a new lease on life. I had a few hiccups along the way though. At 33, I had a Transient Ischemic Attack which is commonly referred to as a mini stroke due to high blood pressure. That was traumatic and definitely flipped something in my brain as my emotions got even more heightened and coming from someone with Bipolar Disorder, that is terrifying. I feel like crying at the drop of a hat, but I’ve learned to live with that.
On Easter of 2019, I went to celebrate Easter with my dad and his wife and my brother and his family. I smiled all day and played with the kids as I love to do. Later that evening, I went home, took about 30 Ativan, flushed it down with a bottle of Champagne and went to sleep with every intention of never waking up again. A little background, it doesn’t take someone with mental illness like mine to lose hope. I used to frequently just wish I were dead. Life is too hard and sometimes I get tired of working so much fucking harder than the rest of the world just to be a little stable. I was alone and getting older and that is terrifying and I didn’t see a way out at the time. Anyway, I woke up with the curtain rod on the bathroom floor, a bedroom table flipped on its side in the den, bruises up and down my body with no recollection of the night and my phone was ringing. It was late morning on a Monday and my boss and coworker who happen to be two of my best friends and biggest supporters, had called my mom and HR rep and were trying to get a hold of me. I didn’t tell my mom at first I had tried to commit suicide. I just told her I took some pills because I was depressed. I didn’t want to be committed. However, I did eventually fess up and checked in to an outpatient mental illness treatment center. It was there where I met my sister, Arianna. She is one of the reasons I am still here and writing about this right now. She is exactly like me when I was her age (21 at the time). I have been able to do so much healing through mentoring her and she has been just as inspirational and supportive to me. This time around, I knew it had to be different. This wasn’t going to be just another point in my vicious cycles. That was it. That was the last rock bottom. I had someone who depended on me. Someone I needed to be alive for. I finally started seeing a therapist that scares the shit out of me but it’s because he makes me uncomfortable and try new things. I even thought I fell in love with him at one point (I still struggle with these feelings) but it’s because of my severe issues with male attention and a lot of projecting on him. He has helped me with my illogical thoughts and helped me learn how to live my life day to day as well as to look ahead and see a future and to live for my passions.
Which brings me to my last point. I am passionate about removing the stigma of mental illness. I am passionate about advocating for teenagers’ rights and for their parents to understand the signs of mental illness and the best ways to find resources and communicate with their sick kids. I’m passionate about mentoring those who are new survivors from the troubled teen industry. These programs leave us broken down and then nobody understands us or what we’re going through because we don’t even know. We have so many triggers and illogical thoughts that we’re afraid to share because for so long we had to watch what we said for fear of being made to do a challenge or being called a liar or being humiliated. So much of my issues stem from this program, but I am equally troubled by my mental illnesses. The only way I can see a future for myself is if I can be a beacon of hope for others. If I can help one person see a single path outside of suicide, my life will have meant something. If I can stop one parent from sending their child to one of these programs, my existence would be meaningful. If I can get anyone else to join me and come out and speak about their mental illness with me and join me in this battle against mental illness stigma, I will know why I am a suicide survivor and no longer a victim.