Recently, I was doing some research for a writing project I’m working on. My research was focused on emotionally unstable personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder, which is also my own diagnosis.
My relationship with having a borderline personality disorder (BPD) diagnosis is not straightforward. I have often described it as feeling like a relief and a burden all at once. It is a relief for me to have a name for what I experience. It was a relief pre-diagnosis to read through the list of 9 BPD symptoms for the first time (at least 5 of which you need to be diagnosed, and all 9 of which I had) and finally feel seen. It is a burden because having a label for something doesn’t make it go away. The intense and ever-changing emotions, the self-destructive behaviours, the suicidal urges, the depressive and dissociative episodes, the anxiety attacks and paranoia – they are still there.
It is a burden to be forced to face stigma and shame just for experiencing those symptoms, from people you know and love, from people you don’t know and don’t love, and from yourself, too. Sometimes I think that this is the biggest burden of all. Stigma persists. Throughout all of the various types of treatment I have tried, for every change in my circumstances or my symptoms, and with each and every time I have decided to speak up or speak out about my experiences – stigma is there.
So, I’ve become fairly well used to the stigma, discrimination and even cruelty that can so often cloud conversations about my diagnosis in particular. I thought I was well adapted to deal with it, wise to its falsehoods and hardened against its potentially triggering nature. After all, I have had more than enough experience of it since being diagnosed with BPD, just over 2 years ago. I know what it is like to read an academic text that suggests you are without compassion, or to have professionals refuse to refer to your diagnosis because they do not believe it exists. I know what it is like to come across comments, social media posts, think pieces, articles, videos, conversations – whatever it may be – that reference the internalised worries you might have about your illness as objective facts. I know it well.
But, as I say, I thought it no longer did much damage to me. Perhaps that’s because I have been spending less time Googling my disorder recently, because I have stopped digging around on the internet, attempting to uncover the very worst things a person has said about someone like me, so I could prepare myself, protect myself. I thought I’d cried over an article or a comment for the last time.
While I was doing this research, I opened an article written last year for a well-known news site which had come up as one of the top options under my Google search. I figured I’d be fine to read it. I didn’t really consider that it could be spiteful, or misleading, or careless, or anything else stigma-related that I’ve encountered before. I certainly wasn’t expecting for my eyes to fill with tears and my hands to tremble so much that I couldn’t take the notes I’d been planning to within moments of clicking on it.
It’s really tough to see people with your diagnosis described as manipulative, to see it suggested that we create chaos and crisis for those who love us, to be told that while we may be intelligent, we are unlikely to be able to hold down a job. It’s really tough to see the intrusive, irrational thoughts you have tortured yourself with suddenly looking alarmingly reasonable and coherent in someone else’s words. It’s really tough to start thinking ‘Maybe I am broken, or useless, or evil, or destructive, or unlovable…’
I wonder if the people who write and publish and share things like this realise how dangerous it is. I wonder if they know that they are perpetuating the very stigma they probably think they’re challenging just by writing about mental illness in the first place. I wonder if they know that they’re giving weight to the thoughts we fight against when we are sitting in a therapy session or opening up to someone we trust. Now, those thoughts have back-up. Now, they look like the journalist who wrote the piece; they look like the editor and the team who read it through and approved it for publication; they look like the trained and experienced professionals who were quoted; and they look like every member of the public who will read it and heed the misguided warnings given about people like me.
I haven’t felt this affected by an example of stigma for quite some time. It really hurts. I know things are changing for the better and that people are learning more every single day, but sometimes it doesn’t feel fast enough, or good enough, or enough at all. It doesn’t feel like enough when you’re scrolling past a multitude of supportive hashtags and beaming faces declaring that they care about mental health when nothing looks any different for you personally, right here and right now. Of course, our perspective is affected negatively when we have a particularly hard day or see or hear something triggering, but it is objectively painful to endure and experience stigma. It is objectively painful when you have a diagnosis like BPD and the positive conversations about mental health haven’t quite got to you yet and popular news sites can still get away with painting you as the hateful stereotypes that you are most definitely not. That’s what I felt when I came across this particular example of stigma. Pain.
But that’s why campaigns like Time to Change exist – to change that. That’s why I am so proud and inspired to be working with them as a Young Champion and why I have been feeling encouraged overall by what I’ve been seeing online recently – because attitudes really are changing, and people really are learning. And if you want to help things go faster, you can. Stigma will not be forever.