Monday, 27 February 2017

Looking for love... or not.

Here I am again sat at the keyboard, fingers hovering hesitantly over the keys: what do I write about?

Its been a while hasn't it?

The uncertainty I forever feel at the beginning of these tasks is at best daunting, but at worst it lifts the lid that releases the serpent that constricts around my heart even on my best days; self doubt is maybe my oldest enemy. But that moment, the fingers hovering, the dryness in my mouth as I sit with a stillness only achieved in the deepest states of concentration, the cold coil of self doubt and insecurity in my chest, it always ends. The snake slithers back to its hole to try again another day.

Before writing those first lines I sat for perhaps 10... no 20 minutes... the clock stopped ticking I'm sure. But still I ask myself that question: what do I write about? Well I guess I'll write about me again, call me a narcissist, self absorbed, I don't really give a damn.

This time I'm talking about love, which incidentally is all I ever seek and simultaneously revile. Me and love have what you might call 'a love/hate relationship.' I'm sorry but tragic irony is part of my personal brand, its inescapable. If I sit and think about what drives me through life, be that University, work, relationships, everything, I would have to admit- despite the damage it will inflict upon my inner emo- that love is a huge drive for me. There is a lot of love inside me, so much so that at points it is unbearable, uncontainable, overflowing. The greatest pain and sadness I have suffered is borne of love in some way or another, it is an emotion that is as destructive as it is nurturing for me, and the same for many others.

In all honesty love- and its capacity for toxicity- has poisoned me as much as it has helped me grow, maybe more. Am I less developed than I could be had my foundations not been eroded by such acidic love? I don't really know, I'll disclose the truth if I ever find it, don't hold your breath though (I'm not). But yes, love has the capacity, like many things, to be deadly, poisonous and dangerous. Some people weaponise love (I sure as hell hold my hands up; guilty as charged), use it to control, manipulate, use the trust it insights to eradicate your sense of self worth. But at the end of the day once you've used loved in such a twisted way it isn't love anymore. Too bent out of shape to bare the name.

But this is not the kind of love I lay focus on, why would I? Love like that is not the kind of love that endures and now it only exists in my memories. Love has gifted me so many things that are far more worthy of my time, and I have love for far better things than any those memories hold. At the risk of sounding corny... love has given me so much strength. Love from my family, my friends has helped me but above all love of myself. Loving myself has given me a power and a strength that is quite simply put, exhilarating. Its helped me take steps towards self discovery that were just that little bit too far away before, its helped me realise who I am and who I'm not (even if I'm not all the way there yet). I stand by the love I have, I am unmovable in my conviction. I love my friends, I'm learning to love my body, I love my degree, the art I produce, the art my peers produce, the environment I am lucky enough to get to work in, I love women, all women, especially bad women because 'Dammit! Bad women provide us with the examples of resistance we need!'. I can be confident that when someone accuses me of being awful, nasty or completely self-centred, that 'NO I AM NOT!' because I have seen the kindness and selflessness I am capable of even if it isn't perfect. It has given me the strength to harden myself against those that condemn me as wrong, ugly or damaged because my beauty comes from within and if you revile me then go ahead, my worth is not dependent on anyone but me.

Yet I find myself sat here with no desire to find love; the love, the one that everyone is looking for. I can't really answer why exactly that might be, though I do have my theories. Is it simply that I am finally fulfilled by the love I have for myself and in need of nothing more? Maybe I just haven't met someone to spark that kind of love in me again, it can often be so damaging. Or maybe I have realised, truly and finally, that I do not need that kind of love at this stage in my life, the stage at which I have just embarked on my lifelong goal of becoming an artist at one of my dream universities. I sure as hell hope so. I am content with the strength and happiness that exists within me and I have no desire for anything more, why would I when I am much more reliable than anyone else ever could be, and why search for something that no good can come of when forced. Why waste time searching for love when I am already surrounded by it?

There is so much to be felt in this world, so much to see and experience and enjoy and none of it should depend solely on another, I have learnt that the hard way. At this age I would gladly welcome love but simultaneously I have no desperation for it. If it comes along, it will show itself but if it doesn't then that only reinforces the feeling that right now is my time to be alone, and enjoy it.

Monday, 2 January 2017

2016 is the year I dug myself out of a grave

By all rights I should be dead, yet I am fortunate enough to still be here and damn, it feels good. So I will savour that feeling, holding it close as I enter into 2017 unapologetic. No longer will I look to the past and punish myself for things I cannot undo. Instead I move into the new year with fierce determination, never again allowing myself to become as withered and limp as I once was. No longer will I apologise for my being who I am, flaws and all.

This past year has undeniably been one of the hardest of my life, but simultaneously the most rewarding, spending half of it in self destruct- writhing in my own skin as I felt myself decay. I spent months trying to wrestle my way out of my own mind only to sink deeper into its icy grip, severing the ties of many a relationship as I descended ever deeper into the grave I had dug for myself. I was resigned, uninspired and convinced of my undeniable evil; all of this seems like a distant memory now. Awakened from a dream, vaguely aware it happened, the details lingering on the periphery of my mind- dancing away from my grasp whenever I reach out to retrieve them. I say let them dance, let them evade my reach, they are but shadows of the demons of my past.

I have spent the latter half of this year growing as a person more so than ever before. 2016 has been the year I clawed myself free of my grave; digging furiously at the darkness around me until eventually I emerged, gasping and disorientated into a lightness of being I had not felt in what seemed an eternity. I emerged all at once the same person and completely reborn; I learnt to walk again, talk again, breathe, communicate, love, fear, cry, feel- I learnt to fit myself inside my skin and it was glorious. Never has life tasted so good to me as it has these past months. I unwrapped myself from the chains of my illness and learnt how to walk on my own through this world. It is undeniable that I wouldn't have got here without the continued support from the people I hold most dear, but for the first time in my life I can stand up and know that I am ok- better than ok- on my own. My happiness is no longer dependent on any single person, I am untethered, unrestrained and free to fly; free to climb up high and breathe in the crisp air of my success.

I have gone from personal decay, to seeking help, to diagnosis and continued deterioration and finally I have found myself in a comfortable middle ground. I am not my illness, but neither am I completely separate from it; I am an amalgamation of the experiences it has caused and contributed to. Within this I have found peace and comfort. I do not run. Instead I take the truth and wrap myself in it; mould it to my body, fill myself with it until it overflows. It is my armour, my shell, it is warmth and light and it is mine and only mine. I have, not only accepted but, become the truth of my being and that truth is frightening and comforting all at once; the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is becoming that truth bad in any way. I am an imperfect conception of a hundred mistakes and successes and I am gratified to be the result of that. If even one aspect of my past changed then who is to say I'd have become this same person? In retrospect it's ludicrous to wonder what alternatives may have become my reality, other than the one I'm living, it only serves to destabilise and make you wish for things that could have been. In the end I am stuck with myself and the truth of my being and if I ever wished to move forward I had to embrace it; run at it with arms wide and leap into it without hesitation, and that is exactly what I did. After writhing, wrestling, sinking, succumbing, clawing and breaking through some of the darkest months of my life I slowly rediscovered myself and my truth and that truth is this...

I have the capacity to be a terrible, volatile, terrifying thing: selfish, nasty, vindictive, aggressive, petty, irrational. But these are not attributes reserved for the mentally ill, and by no means are they the core aspects of my personality. Everyone in the world has the capacity to be these things in their own way- this is something that I have come to realise and it has served as a great source of comfort. I am more than my worst days, more than my worst parts. I am kind, selfless, caring and above all loving; I am intense, passionate and fierce. Some people will like this in me and some people will not, but that is not important. What is important is that I like this in me, and I do. The love I now feel for myself is fresh and uncertain, fragile and unstable, but it grows everyday. By no means am I perfect- nor do I wish to be. What fun would life be if I was? So I take myself into 2017, I take all of myself. I take my love and my pettiness, my selflessness and selfishness, my kindness, consideration, anger and irrationality and I bring them unapologetically into another year only to tame them, refine them and own them ever more. I go into 2017 unapologetically myself and unafraid.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Being a Borderline, stigma, and what you might not know

Over the past few years mental health awareness has boomed and campaigns have appeared everywhere promoting awareness and destigmatisation of mental illness, creating platforms for people to share their experiences and stories with others - like the Time to Change website. Whilst all of this is obviously very positive, just how much more aware are people of the implications and severity of mental illnesses? 

If I was to mention the term 'mental illness' to you what would be your first thought? Depression? Anxiety? These are terms we are all familiar with, illnesses that most people will no doubt encounter or experience at some point in their life - with depression affecting 2.6% of the population, anxiety affecting 4.6% and a combination of the two affecting 9.7%. But aside from being able to list a few other known disorders just how much do you actually know? Schizophrenia, bipolar, personality disorder - these terms bring to mind for many an image that is, sadly, terrifying - and damaging. But how much of it is real? How much is the cliched stereotypes portrayed in TV, film and literature.

Representations of these disorders in the media are perpetuating the notions of fear, danger and even romanticise the most severe mental disorders - trivialising their severity. I used to think that depression and anxiety were more talked about because they were more common, but this is in fact not the case. Other disorders such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder affect 1-3% of individuals over their lifetime and Personality Disorders 3-5%, so why is their so little information on them? Why are we so much more aware of some illnesses and not others? 

Winona Ryder as Susan Kaysen in 'Girl, Interrupted' is a perfect example of the damaged, hypersexualised, problematic version of mentally ill women the media portrays.

These are questions I have asked myself a lot over the last few months; about a month ago, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I Had been 70% sure I had some form of personality disorder for several months before that, and prior to my knowledge of what a personality disorder was, I had been convinced that there was at least something ‘wrong’ with me. Even as a young child I held a firm belief that I was 'different' or 'wrong' - in fact, it was probably one of the only things I was ever certain of. But like most people, I was uneducated on mental health and told, even by my parents, that I was simply going through puberty and that my hormones were changing.

This was not the case; as I grew up, these behaviours did not settle as was expected. At the age of 15 I was still throwing tantrums like an oversized toddler, screaming and shouting until my voice was hoarse. Volatile, aggressive, a tense ball of fluctuating emotions, writhing and kicking, barely in control of myself, it scared both myself and my parents. I couldn't process my feelings - always overwhelming me, bursting out through tears in my thin emotional skin. I vividly remember asking my mum for anger management therapy only to be told that I was being stupid and overdramatic, and yet they would still tell me how horrible I was - selfish, manipulative, nasty, vindictive, evil. Words I became desensitised to after several years. I accepted them as fact and each day I looked in the mirror I hated myself just that little bit more, internalising the idea that I was exactly as they described me to be - a monster. 

Fast forward to today, and I now understand that these were the emerging symptoms of my disorder, unfortunately my parents probably helped to nurture  and feed them. Borderline Personality Disorder is characterised by emotional instability, disturbed thought processes, impulsive behaviour and intense but unstable relationships. Marsha Linehan describes the etiology of BPD to be both biological and environmental, and either one can be more important depending on the individual. Both my psychiatrist and I feel that personally I developed BPD due to a combination of being genetically predisposed and experiencing trauma and neglect throughout my childhood. 

BPD has been a controversial subject among clinicians for years; some refuse to acknowledge it as an illness, and some argue that it should be reclassified as a form of complex PTSD due to the overlap in symptoms and the frequency of BPD being comorbid with PTSD - however, in doing so, this disregards the 25% of people who develop BPD despite having experienced no trauma. Some clinicians even refuse to work with Borderlines, branding them ‘untreatable’; they’re often assumed to be difficult, manipulative, selfish and even abusive… words I have heard a thousand times before, words which are dangerous and damaging to brand an entire group of people with, a it is not the case.

BPD is a complex disorder: the diagnostic criteria specifies that only five out of the nine symptoms need be present to be diagnosed, and thus each individual experiences BPD completely differently from the next ,with there being over 250 combinations of said criteria. This can make the specifics of the disorder hard to wrap your head around. Below are the 9 symptoms listed (and if you want to look into each of them in more detail I suggest you read this blog post):
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Very intense emotions
  • Uncertainty around identity
  • Difficulty in making and keeping stable relationships
  • Impulsive actions
  • Suicidality and self-harm
  • Feelings of emptiness and loneliness
  • Issues with anger management
  • Paranoia, psychosis, or disassociation
The symptoms of BPD vary greatly and this is one of the main reasons I feel that disorders like BPD are set apart from clear-cut illnesses like depression and anxiety, they have a much more pervasive nature and affect. For me, BPD affects my responses to almost everything: my brain processes everything completely differently to a neuro-typical individual, from the way I handle social interaction to my perceptions of reality. With depression and anxiety, these are heightened emotional states that people understand more readily (whether or not they comprahend the severity of the illness), thus making them ‘easier to swallow’ in a lot of ways (though I am not trying to undermine the severity or suffering of people with either).

Although, it's also easy to look at the symptoms of BPD and say 'oh but everyone feels like that at some point' and though you're not wrong, what you need to consider is the intensity, duration and consistency of these feelings. Yes you may have felt one or more of these symptoms before, but was it every second of the day? Every emotion on the spectrum electrified? From the most despairing sadness to the most ecstatic happiness to uncontainable rage within seconds? Did it affect your ability to function day to day? You may have experienced impulsivity or been unsure of your identity or even paranoid before, but has it driven you to a point of questioning your own reality? Questioning whether or not you are real, whether anything is real? Has it left you lying in bed or crouched in a corner desperately clutching at yourself as something squirms, writhes and claws at you inside. The answer, for anyone not experiencing a mental disorder, I assume will be no. 

The reason I assume no is because studies have shown a 10-20% hippocampus size reduction (an important part of the limbic system, the region of the brain that regulates emotions) in individuals with BPD and a 22% size reduction in the amygdala (the region of the brain known to process emotional arousal) compared to control groups without the disorder. These results are similar to those conducted on people suffering with PTSD, furthering the connection between the two, and trauma exposure and hippocampus size have shown to be related. Though like I mentioned earlier BPD isn't classified as a traumatic stress disorder because it does not always develop due to the presence of trauma and I know several people who have no history of trauma or neglect that have developed BPD, proving that genetics also plays a key role in its development. But the key thing I wanted to point out in using these statistics is that it isn't an imagined illness, it isn't someone being overdramatic.

If you encounter someone with BPD and you cannot fathom why they act in a certain way, consider this - it is not just in their head. Their brain is physically different to yours, and just because the symptoms are behavioural does not make them any less valid and does not mean that they can necessarily help them. The likelihood is that they are trying every day to function as 'normally' as possible, take it from someone who knows firsthand just how hard it is to rationalise your thoughts when your brain is so irrational. At the end of the day, who would choose to behave like this?

For anyone who doesn't have BPD, I can only imagine how hard it is to deal with and understand, but on that same merit it is just as hard to live with and understand, because even I am sat here half the time trying to wrap my head around why my brain responds in whichever way it might. I feel I am an incredibly fair minded, rational person, but my brain is the literal opposite. I work every day to understand myself, my illness and its affects on the people in my life more so that I can work on it and develop the healthiest coping mechanisms I can. But - with no available therapy or real medication at the moment - still I have hurt and lost more people than I can count and a quick google search on relationships and BPD will reveal a plethora of articles all screaming the same message to anyone thinking about dating or befriending a borderline - 'RUN'.

But it isn't all as bad as it might seem. Despite stigma, borderlines are not all manipulative, selfish, awful, evil monsters. If anything, our intense emotions mean we are more empathetic than the average person; we are caring, creative, incredibly self aware, and not every impulsive action leads to a bad situation - some of my best stories come from impulsive decisions. We deserve happiness and health just as much as the next person and the majority of the time that is all we are trying to work towards. However, funding to mental health services is scarce, medication can take years to get right and getting even a diagnosis, yet alone therapy and support, can take months or even years. Many people being misdiagnosed due to the stigma and contempt some clinicians hold towards BPD, landing them in the wrong therapy with the wrong medication, so trust me when I say its no quick fix and there are no shortcuts on the path to mental wellbeing.