A diagnosis is unsettling, yet relieving and confirmation. Confirmation that life is hard. Confirmation that you are unwell. Confirmation that you warrant support.
We often hear stories of how years of suffering can pass before people are taken seriously by mental health professionals. And for many people, such as myself, receiving a diagnosis can provide a gateway to the start of the next phase in another difficult and long path.
Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, otherwise known as Borderline Personality Disorder. It was surprising and confusing, as the psychiatrist was reluctant to diagnose me until I asked her outright. Yet, it was my own reluctance that reaffirmed the stigma and misunderstanding of those suffering and living with this serious illness. I was initially misdiagnosed with depression and it was easier to continue to tell others, including friends and family, who until now are none the wiser.
For a long time, it was obvious that something was ‘wrong’ but impossible to describe in words how I felt. Complex traumas, increasing work stress, feelings of emptiness and lacking a sense of who I was had overwhelmed me. Unable to cope with day-to-day problems my emotions were typically erratic. I struggled to manage with the ups and downs, prompting epic mood swings and outbursts. This led to a pattern of impulsive and reckless behaviour. And eventually resulted in suicide attempts, followed by an admission to a psychiatric hospital. On reflection, it was a long time coming.
Despite my uneasy feelings being an inpatient, I knew it was necessary. I couldn’t continue to function in this chaotic mindset any longer. At ward rounds, I spoke about how I did not trust myself. And I couldn’t find the means to explain why. How I felt was instantly changeable from hour to hour and even minute to minute. This wasn’t anything new but particularly heightened in recent months, I later realised triggered by recent life events. They called it ‘emotional intensity.’ What an understatement, I thought! Still, it was the beginning of the unravelling of a mystery that has plagued me for as long as I could remember.
At a follow up with the psychiatrist she explained to me what it meant to be emotionally intense, in the context of personality disorders. Simply put it was described to me as: ‘the inability to regulate emotions appropriately.’ She went onto say emotional sensitivity and abuse in childhood were common features, as well as fears of rejection and abandonment. I could relate to that.
Although never advised without caution I scoured the internet to find out more, which didn’t give me much hope. For instance, I read words including: ‘controversial, manipulative, angry, attention seeking, self-destructive’ and ‘untreatable.’ And examples were given of people ‘acting out’ or being ‘over-dramatic’ re-enforcing unhelpful stereotypes. Ultimately, I got a strong impression that personality disorders are an anomaly in the world of psychiatry. An enigma, perhaps. Misunderstood. I gave up on any further reading and concluded that it’s just a name that describes a set of common symptoms. That’s all. What mattered to me is that everything I had been experiencing and continue to experience is validated. Not dismissed. But acknowledged. And finally, it has.