Last week I met up with a friend and her one month old daughter. We sat planning years ahead, imagining taking the baby to see musicals and pantomimes. My friend whispered to her girl that ‘Auntie Rae will shout louder than everyone else’. ‘You bet I will!’ came my reply.
Later I was filled with gratitude that my friend continues to recognise me as an individual with an identity beyond mental health diagnoses.
She doesn’t just think of me as the person who cancels lunch arrangements at the last minute because she can’t get out of bed, or the person who shows up three days into a long weekend away because anxiety overwhelmed her.
My friend sees who I can still be. Beyond the PTSD, the depression, the anxiety and the borderline personality disorder, there’s a woman with humour and smarts and an enormous capacity for kindness.
Recently I’ve fleetingly accessed this bigger self. I’ve had days where I’ve worked hard and had important breakthroughs thanks to my own efforts and initiative. I’ve managed a week where I’ve got out of bed every single day, the first for several months.
These glimpses of a self that I understand to be me are reassuring. Aspects of my character that I treasure the most have too often been lost in the mental health fog of the last eighteen months. Only last week, I screamed ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’ to my partner as my behaviour contradicted values of independence and freedom that I’ve long held dear.
Maintaining a sense of self is especially difficult when we are diagnosed with long term conditions that aren’t going to pass.
Although we may experience episodes where we are relatively ‘better’ or ‘worse’, some mental health disorders won’t ever go away. In these instances, it can feel as though the illness has taken over. With any chronic complaint, not allowing it to become the defining factor of our lives is hard.
I’m gradually accepting that borderline personality disorder– as the name suggests – is part of who I am.
However thanks to the skills acquired in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), I am also learning to contain it.
For example, practicing mastery (doing something every day to increase your sense of competency, intended to reduce your vulnerability to negative emotions) has enabled me to experience a number of wins with work.
I’m more engaged with the professional side of my identity that cannot flourish on the days that I’m unable to get out of bed.
Accepting my borderline personality disorder while slowly starting to manage it is not easy or straightforward. But this approach allows me to see the disorder as part of me without it becoming all-consuming or the only feature by which I define myself.
I guess I’m beginning to see myself more like my friend always has.