Lived experience stories

It can be challenging to talk about living with a mental illness. We are grateful  for the following stories and videos that people who have lived with or supported someone living with a personality disorder have shared.

Have a story to tell? To share your story please email info-projectair@uow.edu.au 

Note: Contributors will be contacted to verify their contribution; we reserve the right to edit or remove submissions. For concerns about a published submission, contact info-projectair@uow.edu.au.

 

Lived experience videos

Peer workers with lived experience of BPD

Natalie talks about being a career peer worker foucsed on working with families impacted by personality disorder.

Sophie talks about being a consumer peer worker focused on mental health and personality disorder.

Jackie talks about being a consumer peer worker focused on mental health, personality disorder and drug and alcohol challenges.

Recovery journey

Project Air Strategy talks to Åse Line Baltzersen on her recovery journey: ‘Recovery from personality disorder is a journey’. A rich and inspiring story from lived experience.

Good treatment

Mahlie Jewel, consumer advocate with lived experience, talks about "the essential elements for good treatment for personality disorder and what you can expect from your therapist". 

Being in psychotherapy

Mahlie Jewell, consumer advocate with lived experience, talks about "being in psychotherapy and her relationship with her clinician".

My recovery: A daily journey

Stephanie Leary shares her "daily recovery journey through lived experience".

Living with BPD

Sonia Neale, mental health peer support worker with lived experience, talks about "living with BPD and working with health professionals and emergency departments".

Mother and daughter

Mother and daughter share their lived experience with borderline personality disorder and the importance of carers in the recovery journey.

Lived experience stories

Mahlie Jewell has lived with Borderline Personality Disorder for the majority of her life. Sometimes finding it difficult to find someone to hear her voice. 

Hear Mahlie's story as told by the NSW Mental Health Commission.

Stephanie shares her story of mental illness and the importance of seeking support and treatment.

Story told to SANE.

I’ve struggled with paranoid thoughts around others from almost as long as I can remember

At times this was a deep anxiousness, bordering on belief that terrible things were happening to the people close to me. At other times it was a belief that they were thinking horrible things about me, plotting against me; my best friends, my Mum, Dad, brother. So from a very early age I remember lashing out at members of my family, often in response to these thoughts which swirled around in my head.

My journey to recovery began at the end of a two-year relationship, with a girl who loved me so much more than I would ever let myself believe. She made me incredibly happy, but being in an intimate relationship, being in love, magnified the difficulties I’d been having exponentially. If she looked at me funny I’d become convinced that she’d decided to leave me and was thinking about how to do it. If she went to the bathroom at night in our house, and was gone more than a minute, I’d become convinced that she had a secret lover hidden somewhere in the house. I was often convinced that she didn’t actually have a job, but a secret life with someone else during working hours. I broke up with her 7 times over the course of our relationship, each of these times over either absolutely minuscule things or non-existent things, but all things which came from nowhere but my own mind. Almost weekly I’d find myself unable to talk to her, and vicious torrents of hate would be regularly thrown at her, followed by deep remorse and ultimately, confusion over where this all came from.

I’d been drinking alone periodically from the moment it was convenient – once I moved out of home and out of boarding school. There were times when I just had to placate all those things going on in my head, and it helped enough that this was a pattern – now and then closing the door to my room so my housemates wouldn’t walk in on me getting drunk – that I kept up for a good 4 years.

When my girlfriend couldn’t take my erratic behaviour anymore and ended it, I was devastated. I think on some level I’d always known that I had mental issues, so when this happened I talked to a mate who said I should go speak to a psychologist. Two weeks later I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Paranoid Personality Disorder.

I’m on the journey to fixing myself up now, and don’t drink when I’m alone anymore. I’ve just begun DBT treatment, and my psychologist wants to try EMDR as well. It’s comforting to know that other people have gone through the same thing as me, and probably are having the exact same fights that I did, as I’m writing this now. What is frustrating is that that these things going on in my head (manifestations of an illness just like a flu) tore my relationship apart because I never wanted to admit I had a problem. Seeking treatment and acknowledging you are having a hard time – whether for BPD or any other mental illness – is such an easy way to make things a lot better when you can’t seem to stop making mistakes.

Much psychological literature will state that it is the therapeutic relationship that is the most important part of therapy, regardless of the modality

Never is this truer than for the person with Borderline Personality Disorder. If you are in therapy long enough, certain unconscious dynamics and repeat patterns of dysfunctional relating emerge.

My twenty-year therapy was extremely difficult. It has been the hardest, longest, most painful journey I have ever been on. It was like hiking to base camp Everest without acclimatising to the atmosphere and oxygen levels on the way up. There were many times when I could not breathe properly, and I floundered on the wayside. Sometimes my therapist rescued me and sometimes she didn’t. Eventually, I learned to acclimatise myself with mindfulness and yoga.

I have the greatest respect for my therapist. She was able to help me neuroplasticise my brain and become emotionally self-sufficient. She turned my unpredictable world into a predictable one. She was always consistent, reliable and honest. During our twenty-year relationship my therapist and I exchanged thousands of texts and emails, argued, fought, apologised and debriefed. We also loved and laughed, merged and unmerged, bonded and attached, healed and hugged, and exchanged many gifts. There were frequent highs and lows, transference and counter-transference and much dependency on my part.

When my third child was eight months old, I ended up in a psychiatric ward at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth. I was thirty-three and felt abandoned, misunderstood, cheated, burned out, angry, homicidal and suicidal. This was where I met my newly minted therapist. I had so much self-loathing, I felt toxic and was sure I would contaminate her with my presence. Her greatest achievement during that time was her ability to not piss me off. I started to look forward to therapy because I enjoyed her undivided attention, even though all she wanted to do was talk about my mother.

For a long time in therapy I did not have a coherent narrative. My stories were long, rambling, confused, boring and disordered. This gave my therapist a pretty clear idea of what sort of attachment process was going on in my head. Heinz Kohut, Austrian born psychoanalyst who developed Self-Psychology believes that empathic mirroring is an essential part of the mother-child therapist-client bonding experience. One day it dawned on me that my therapist was mirroring my movements. I leaned forward and rested my hand on my chin and so did she. When I ran my fingers through my hair, I waited for her to do the same. My foot would jerk upwards when I mentioned my mother, and it was very enlightening to watch her foot kick up occasionally as well. I would also swear increasing frequency, and was bemused to hear her mirroring my language as well. Although this was perhaps not quite the reflective experience Kohut had in mind. In hindsight, I realised she had been doing this for a long time. It resonated with my unconscious long before I became cognitively aware of it, and it felt empathic and bonding. I felt known, understood and validated. I was also very attached and dependent on her. I was clingy, regressed and child-like but I wanted to find out more about myself. I spent my days and nights reading heavy academic journal articles on transference and counter-transference.

It is believed “chronic feelings of emptiness” comes from missed developmental milestones and a lack of learned social skills. My therapist displayed deep empathy and taught me what I had missed out on growing up. This is not to say my mother did not try to model this for me, but at the time I was not capable of learning from her. I was also unable to learn from teachers and friends at school either. I did not learn what children are supposed to soak up from their environment.

My therapist partially filled the emptiness for me and the rest I had to learn how to do myself without alcohol, food, cigarettes and drugs. To encourage me to exercise, she invited me to go for a walk instead of sitting in her office. It was surreal to see her outside her office, out of context, especially when we got chatted up by two men and their dog in the street. To keep the momentum going, we decided to exchange photos of interesting things we had seen on our separate morning walks. This created a beautiful feeling within me, which is still with me today.

I knew she had feelings for me. Not as intense as the feelings I had for her, but one day, out of the blue it seemed, she told me that she loved me - in the context of therapy that is. It was a strange moment for me, and one that I will always treasure. She didn’t hate me one day and love me the next like I did with her. She had a better grasp on her feelings. It embedded in me that not only was I loved, but that I was lovable. This is a long way from how I felt about myself when I first met her.

Most of all she has helped me connect with my mother whom I know has concerns about how I have represented her in therapy. The therapist is not there to split up mother-daughter relationships, it is to help one another connect at a level both parties are comfortable with. It is to help me enjoy my mother’s company in the present moment, rather than seeing her through thirteen-year-old eyes. This is neuroplasticity at its finest.

It takes courage to do an archaeological dig on yourself, examine the material and understand and come to terms with your history. It is frightening to find, face, confront, overcome and transform your demons. Yet nothing worthwhile in life comes without a cost. I can look back on the last twenty years and realise just how sacred our relationship was. It is one that will remain in my heart forever, it is now part of who I am.

Keynote talk given at the 9th Treatment of Personality Disorders conference, 6 November 2015 at the University of Wollongong, on 'The Importance of the BPD therapeutic relationship'

My daughter grace was diagnosed with emerging borderline personality disorder when she was in high school

But in hindsight there were signs as early as 8 years old that she was struggling. Grace has always been intelligent and caring. She never misbehaved in school, although she struggled to make friends and would drift between groups. During primary school she would complain to me that nobody liked her. Her school teachers would confirm these thoughts. One day Grace reported that the teacher got other children to explain why they didn’t like playing with her. This only made it worse for Grace.

I was worried about Grace, so I had her meet with the school counsellor and a child psychiatrist. The psychiatrist thought Grace’s development was normal and the school counsellor found she had a very high IQ. The counsellor concluded this was the reason for her social struggles. I moved Grace to another school which was less conforming and made room for each child’s uniqueness. Grace appeared much happier here. However, one day when she was in year 6 Grace intentionally scratched her arm resulting in a deep cut. This was the first major sign, although I didn’t recognise it at the time.

Grace is a talented performer and in high school Grace found a group of friends with similar interests. However, this was short-lived after her group of friends isolated and bullied her, seemly out of jealousy, when Grace was selected for a leading role in the school musical. Grace went on a downward spiral of self-loathing, depression, self-harm and chronic suicidality.

I became aware of Grace’s self-harm 18 months ago. Grace woke me up one night after burning her skin. It wasn’t until the following morning that Grace confessed she did it deliberately. I made an appointment with the same child psychiatrist. He prescribed her antidepressants but this didn’t help. Soon after, Grace began cutting her arms on a regular basis. I was horrified. My reactions were fear, anger, guilt that I had failed as a mother and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

At the time the psychiatrist was unwilling to diagnose Grace with mental illness as she was not 18 years old. I started researching online and within the community to try to find ways to help my daughter. There seemed little additional help available, and I was often told that there was nothing else available if she was already seeing a psychiatrist. In the next few months we presented to emergency twice because Grace was suicidal. Grace was referred to a paediatric mental health unit where she was diagnosed with emerging Borderline Personality Disorder.

As part of her treatment plan, Grace has been receiving Dialectical Behavioural Therapy for the past 6 months. She has also taken it upon herself to volunteer for a children’s charity. She recently performed in a concert for many underprivileged children. While Grace still struggles with social situations, she has come a long way. She has not self-harmed at all in the past few months. Most days are still a struggle, but she is growing stronger now that she has the right diagnosis and a treatment plan.

I was first diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder when I was around 19 or 20 years’ old and I went to trauma groups and saw a therapist one-on-one for many years

Hello, my name is Steve, and I am 29 years’ old. I have only recently started learning about borderline personality disorder and how that disorder relates to the emotional neglect I suffered as a child. As someone living with the disorder, I find it very difficult to take an interest in my own well-being. Frequently it seems like my emotions are too much to handle and it is just easier to ignore myself. Seeking help even from Lifeline telephone counselling has been difficult as I expect to be criticised from just about everyone, and it is hard not to say what I think other people want to hear rather than what I actually think or feel.

I am not sure what people mean by self-help as my parents often expected me to look after myself as a child, and I thought that was very damaging. How can you help yourself if your self isn’t there? That’s why as much as I try to force myself to practise mindfulness and what-have-you, I am very very grateful for the support I have received from other kind people such as my therapist.

A lengthy therapeutic relationship has been essential to help me get to where I am currently. Being interested enough in my own well-being to seek care and support has been one of the most difficult challenges, and I am easily thwarted by what I perceive to be negative messages from the world and other people. It’s been a long journey so far, but I am slowly learning that self-help doesn’t mean going it alone.

I first started feeling depressed at age 13. I would scratch myself to punish myself for being depressed because I felt selfish

Hi my name is Allie and I am 23 years old. I had a good family, good friends and a good life. How could I be depressed? This continued on and off until I was 17 when I got my first boyfriend. Everything was good until he broke up with me after a few months. I started cutting and was constantly thinking about suicide. I stopped eating and that was my first bout of anorexia. I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with depression, put on medication and referred to therapy. Things were still getting worse and I went back to the doctor and got diagnosed with bipolar. I was put on mood stabilisers. By this time I had my second boyfriend. The mood stabilisers increased my appetite and my eating disorder seemed to disappear. In early 2011 one of my first cousins committed suicide. He was 23 at the time. That sent me spiralling. I voluntarily admitted myself into a private psychiatric ward in mid 2011. I got too comfortable in the hospital environment and was scared to go home after 5 weeks there. When I was sent home I was referred to a really good psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with adult ADD and put on medication for that. It helped me so much to focus and concentrate on things but it also reduced my appetite. My anorexia came back and this time lasted 2 years. I was taken off that medication due to a horrible rash on my skin.

I was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Everything about it described me. I was happy to finally have a name and a reason for the chaos inside and around me.

I eventually broke up with my second boyfriend because we were constantly yelling at each other and arguing. I'm still with my third boyfriend today. We've been together for just over 3 years. I experienced a lot of bullying because people didn't want us together as it was soon after my second boyfriend and I broke up. I was bullied constantly in high school too. The bullying led to a lot of pent up anger. And by the time I was 18 I was a very angry person. Never violent but I would threaten it. I was much more likely to hurt myself than anybody else. I was cutting from 17 - 21 years old. Once I got so angry over a minor fight with family that I intentionally kicked a wall. It broke my big toe but I didn't notice the pain because I was so angry. I have been on about 40 different medications; antidepressants, mood stabilisers, ADD medications, antipsychotics, sleeping pills, etc. But I have finally found the right combination after 3 years. I have completed 4 years worth of DBT and it has helped me so much. I have recovered from anorexia and no longer meet the criteria for BPD.

I am not so angry anymore. Just remember, always have hope. Recovery is possible.

I am a woman in my early 20’s, and I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder roughly a year ago

I have suffered for a long time with distress, insecurity, impulsiveness, confusion, and black & white thinking. I have ruined many relationships along the way due to the significant distress I experience in my life.

Receiving a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder has come with both positive and negative effects. The diagnosis gave me something concrete to hold onto, and explained some of the struggles I was experiencing in my life. The less desirable consequences came from the negative image, or stigma, associated with the label, not only among the general population but also among clinicians. I have had clinicians refuse to work with me on the basis of my diagnosis. This is quite disheartening but I have remained determined to get better and access any help I can.

I have taken part in a 10 week Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, or DBT, program where I learnt many skills to manage my distress. DBT is a really beneficial program for people with Borderline Personality Disorder and I would love to one day complete the full 12 month program. I know that I have a long way to go but I also know I have taken significant steps to better myself and to break down the walls that surround me. I know I have the potential to have a strong and healthy relationship.

In the midst of the challenges I face in life, I have achieved some great things. I have completed my undergraduate degree at University, and I am now in the last semester of my Master’s degree, where I have received an award for academic excellence placing me in the top 5% of students. I have also just been accepted to complete my PhD.

The struggles I face due to my Borderline Personality Disorder make university a challenge. However, studying has given me something to hold on to in the chaos. I have a number of issues to still overcome, but at the same time, I have beaten the odds and achieved some great things. I have a goal to complete my PhD and become an academic at a University, and I will work hard to achieve this, despite my disorder. I hope that my story may provide inspiration for others who suffer, and provide hope for clinicians that people with Borderline Personality Disorder can achieve their goals.

I am Monica, I am 42 years old and had always battled with depression and anxiety until I received a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder at 38 years old and finally got on the path of recovery.

Prior to my diagnosis I had been seeing counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists on and off since I was 21 years old, but they only ever scratched the surface as to why I was having recurrent problems with relationships and why my moods were so dependent on what was occurring in my relationships.

I started to see an improvement in the way I felt about myself and my ability to have healthy relationships when I received my diagnosis and started seeing a new psychologist. The psychologist helped me to understand why I had such intense emotional responses. I discovered that a lot of the issues I was having were because of a fear of abandonment which meant I was seeing the world as though I was constantly in danger of being left out, excluded or abandoned.

With my psychologist I did work on schema therapy which was about understanding the way we view the world because of our childhood experiences, and I also did group therapy which was based on dialectical behaviour therapy. I focussed on understanding why I had been behaving in certain ways and on making changes to be emotionally healthier. I learnt so much in the process and it really has resulted in big improvements in my life and relationships.

I decided to write a book influenced by my experiences and called it ‘Sarah Woods is Unborderline’. In the book I go through each of the concepts I learnt which helped me to create a healthier version of myself. The book contains lots of examples of BPD behaviour, tips for making change, and information to help people understand the disorder. I use the term ‘Unborderline’ because due to the work I have done on myself, I no longer fit the criteria for having BPD and have un-borderlined myself; Sarah does the same in this story.

The book can be found on most online book stores.

"The beauty of life is while we can’t undo what is done, we can see it, understand it, learn from it and change" - Jennifer Edwards

I would like to start my speech today with a question that is hotly debated among people living with Borderline Personality Disorder. Is recovery possible?

My journey began six years ago when my husband brought me to Sutherland Hospital after a long period of illness. At that time I was deeply depressed and suicidal - a place I had visited many times before. With every episode you believe you have hit rock bottom but this time was different - I had lost hope of any sort of recovery. I was not seeking help – a dangerous place to be - had become completely reclusive keeping to the confines of our tiny cottage and was unable to function at even the most basic level. I had cut our phone lines trying desperately to protect myself from the outside world. My relationships were dead, dying or dormant because I had destroyed them or pushed people away so violently they had not come back only contacting my husband to see if I was O.K.

I had always struggled to understand the world around me and had felt emotionally isolated and misunderstood my entire life. My fear of abandonment and being alone was so strong I would do anything to prevent it. My relationships were all or nothing and I was never comfortable having people around all of the time. I would disappear from my relationships when intimacy became too strong or conflict arose. I was confused and in crisis most of the time – it had always been like that. I was 39 years of age and my life looked like the back end of a war zone - I was exhausted after years of being at the mercy of my own mind.

Every day was a battle not to end the pain or get through without some sort of self-harm which had increased to becoming completely out of control. My ability to regulate my emotions or cope with even the smallest distress was impossible. I felt emotionally flammable – it did not take much to set me alight. My mood swings had become unbearable and I paced about my world like a caged lioness. Uncomfortable in my own skin my mind tormenting me to the point where only self-harm or sedation gave me any peace.

I was diagnosed with Bulimia and depression at 17 and Bipolar at 32 – I had tried hard to find a path to wellness but was unable to find lasting stability. My depressions led to long periods of isolation, hospitalisations and suicide attempts one at 19 was almost fatal. I understood the Bipolar intimately what it felt like, looked like and what I needed to do to keep it in line but there was always another dark shadow within me. The Bulimia came and went – it was another way to cope and I interchanged it with my other methods of coping. I always came back to the same place on the board – a depressive episode that brought be back to hospital.

My family and husband felt that there had to be something else other than the Bipolar and so it was decided that we have a fresh set of eyes look at me.

We were blessed to find ourselves in front on Dr Peter Vaux and I was able to open up a little more than I usually would have. In the past I had talked about the Bipolar and Bulimia but not my about secret methods of coping. I decided to be honest and tell him everything.


On our second or third visit he told my husband and I that he felt I might also have Borderline Personality Disorder and that he was going to refer me over to the DBT Team.
When we went home and read through the nine traits I felt like a light had been turned on in the darkness. This was me! I was not alone there was a reason for why I was the way I was.

My second blessing came when I landed Wayne Borg as my therapist - it turned out that I did have BPD – all 9 traits and although this was a blow it was also a win because I felt like there was a way for me to crawl out of the abyss. Hope and the idea of any sort of peace or stability is a powerful motivator for anyone living with mental illness. I was put on a waiting list which was not so bad because Wayne really needed to prepare and build me up for DBT. We began a five and a half year relationship that would completely change my life.

I believe that DBT is powerful because it is presented in a different language a language that we can learn, understand and embrace. In Group we are taught – Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation and Distress Tolerance. Each skill within those modules changes how we think, behave and cope. In Individual Therapy we examine why we are the way we are and learn to apply the newly learned skills in our lives. We are given the opportunity to grow, heal and evolve into who we truly are. For many these are the first healthy skills we have ever been exposed to.

DBT was hard work, painful, confronting and emotionally exhausting especially in its early stages. For example I found identifying my feelings and allowing myself to feel them intimidating and excruciatingly painful which led to me wanting to avoid the program. In my world feelings equalled pain and pain needed to be avoided at all costs. At one stage or another every module left me wanting to drop out because it all looked and felt so alien. In a journal entry I wrote that it felt like DBT was going against my grain and unearthing the pain and secrets I had kept buried since childhood – pain one buries for a reason. It was - I just did not realise that this was all part of the process of healing and changing the pathways in my brain.

By the second round of DBT I had started to grow stronger – I decided one day that I did not want to be a victim of what had happened to me in the past or my illnesses. That was a huge turning point for me and I would never have reached it without DBT. I began to notice that I was not using my unhealthy methods of coping as much and then eventually not at all. My brain took on the skills little by little and I also started to notice that I was using them automatically. I was increasingly able to regulate my emotions and cope with distress. I ran into another doctor who suggested a new medication combination for the Bipolar and my stability increased in that area. I accepted that I needed to take my medication and stopped coming off it an old habit that had landed me in trouble many times in the past.

I was able to feel and started to experience real joy for the first time in my life. I allowed myself to begin feeling every human feeling without fear. I was able to stop the rages I had been plagued with for years in their tracks because I had learned how to calm myself and identify triggers. It was wonderful to hear myself laugh and even more wonderful when I went weeks without thinking of self-harm or suicide. My true identity slowly began to blossom as did my self- confidence. I started to think on the future with hope.

Since graduating from DBT I have continued to improve and can report that I can cross off many of the nine traits listed in my therapy journal. Others I am able to manage and continue to work on. I am better at being alone these days and do not fear abandonment as I once did. I have good people around me and have been working hard to repair relationships that had become victims of my illnesses. My husband and daughter are getting to know a new woman – their life has also changed and been enriched by the experience.

All of the skills I learned are valuable and have found a place in my everyday life. They are a safety net to fall back on. I spend more and more time in my wise mind these days and accept what I cannot change. When I find myself in my emotional mind or feel triggered I use my skills. I carry a little DBT skills card in my wallet and pull it out when I need help.

I wish I had recorded each day of the last six years so that you could see the difference DBT, Wayne and the Team at Sutherland Hospital have made to my life – they helped me to save myself. There were times when I was difficult and very avoidant – their determination and dedication was always present. My recovery was a slow process - there were many struggles, many setbacks and falls but Wayne and the team were always there to gently and when needed firmly bring me back to what we were collectively working towards.

The very simple truth - the point I really want to get across today is that DBT changes and saves lives – people who have suffered with BPD are recovering. They are crossing off the traits that once controlled and tormented them or reporting that they can at least better manage them. They are no longer at the mercy of their minds and they are creating a life worth living. Instead of surviving day in and day out they are experiencing what it is like to thrive.

On the 6th of February of this year our Mother Roma Pauline Beck took her own life. We watched her suffer, fight and survive for so long - she was never able to find the help she needed. There was therapy but nothing like DBT. She was diagnosed with Bipolar at one stage and then depression but like me had so much more going on – we really did mirror one another. Her coping method was alcohol an addiction that had far reaching consequences in all her relationships. I believe that DBT would have made a huge difference to her life if it had been available to her. It weighs heavily on me that she did not feel the peace I am feeling today the peace she so desperately searched for.

Mum was not the first person in our family to die this way - mental illness runs strongly in our family - I am determined that she will be the last. She was a young 73 and her death like many others all over the world is a terrible waste especially when we have a program that does save lives. DBT needs to be available to everyone living with Borderline Personality Disorder because to answer my earlier question recovery is possible.

I would like to finish my speech today with a quote that reminds me of my journey so far.

Personal story by Karina Whitehurst, told at the project air conference, 7 November 2014

I've always been a shy person, but by 20 years old this had built to the level that I stopped being able to leave the house for fear of getting in other’s people’s way just by existing

I felt like I was a waste of space, and I constantly worried that I would inconvenience people somehow just by being in their presence. In my uni tutorials I found it hard to speak up and participate, despite feeling really passionate about the coursework. When I did speak up I would spend days, sometimes weeks, replaying it and beating myself up for wasting everyone else’s time with my opinion, which obviously wasn’t worth bothering them with. I found it harder and harder to go to classes the more I got to know people, and my marks and attendance really started to decline. This just served as more evidence that I was defective, a waste of space, and selfish. After all, my enrolment in the course was taking up the space of someone else who would participate and attend.

From a young age home was always a volatile place. Us kids never knew what mood mum would be in, and whether we would need to hide in our rooms. I mean she never hit us or anything, but her rages would last for hours if she was upset. Sometimes she’d lock herself in the bathroom or threaten to leave and not come back. I learnt to hide my emotions and put a smiling face on when I was around her – I couldn’t risk her getting angry and leaving us. I got really good at pushing my emotions down, and taught myself to shut off. At some point, I’m not sure when, this just became automatic. That’s what made it so scary when these bottled up emotions found their way out, and I would collapse into a ball crying for hours. This just reinforced the importance of avoiding emotions at all cost – they’re just so painful.

I feel this intense struggle inside of me of wanting to be close to people, but at the same time fearing this so much. Fearing that I’ll waste their time. That once they get to know me they’ll reject me. So I keep my distance. I’ve never had a boyfriend, and my friendships don’t last long because I tend to pull back and stop doing things with them. But it’s such a lonely place...

When I first started seeing my psychologist I really worried that me seeing her was stopping her from seeing someone who was more important and deserved it more. When I missed a session after a really intense session the previous week and I just couldn’t go, I felt like the most selfish person in the world. When my psychologist called me to check I was okay and offer me another appointment, I was confused because I had expected her to tell me I wasn’t welcome back.

When my psychologist diagnosed me with Avoidant Personality Disorder it was an amazing sense of relief – finally there was a way to put words to what I had been living. I still find it hard to fully accept the diagnosis, because I feel a strong sense of guilt that it’s almost like I’m trying to make an excuse. But with the support of my psychologist I’m beginning to recognise that while this way of thinking makes sense in light of stuff that’s happened to me, it is part of what keeps me stuck. It has taken months of my psychologist prompting me to recognise and acknowledge my emotions for me to start to accept that maybe my emotions are valid, and my experiences are real. Six months later I’m still struggling with this, but for the first time in a long time I feel hopeful that things might change for me. I have returned to uni, and I’m managing to get to most of my classes. I also recently started talking to this guy in my class that I’ve liked for a while.

I wrote this to help others like me to speak up and get some help - just talk to someone who is professional and you can trust! It is making a difference to me, and I hope it will for you too.

Was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last year and remember feeling really frightened and confused

The doctor said it was going to take some time to get better. I remember getting really angry and yelling at the doctor: “It’s going to take a year? That’s ridiculous, that’s forever!” I was only just keeping things together.  I was a single mum and working part-time. I had no idea what I was going to do.  The doctor suggested I see a psychologist or go to a therapy group but I didn’t want to talk to anyone, especially not to a stranger. I was also scared that talking was going to make things worse.  I’d spent my life trying to block things out of my mind. And, I had no idea how I was going to pay for it.

Deep down, I knew I had to do something.  I wanted my daughter (who was 4 years old at the time) to have a different life from the one I did. I wanted her to grow up and feel safe and secure in herself, and have strong relationships with people.  My relationship with her father had broken down before she was born.  It was always on-again, off-again. I blamed him but knew I did things to sabotage the relationship.

I’d made a number of friends during secondary school but the relationships had all gone sour. Again, I blamed them for not being good friends. I also made a couple of friends during first-year University but when I dropped out, I never heard from them again.  One girl told me she couldn’t handle my mood swings and negativity, and ended the friendship.

Anyway, the doctor gave me a name of a psychologist who specialised in borderline personality disorder. The psychologist was able to see me one afternoon a week - after I finished work, and before I picked up my daughter.  Being able to fit me in at this time of day was really helpful as I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.  I was also able to claim some of the session fees back on medicare.

I remember feeling really nervous before my first appointment. I actually felt sick and wanted to cancel.  But I went, reluctantly. The psychologist was really nice.  She was funny, firm and fair – not what I had expected. She didn’t ask too many hard questions about my past and explained how the sessions worked, including holidays and cancellations.  We completed a care plan and I felt like I had some control over my life.  Surprisingly, therapy didn’t feel like a life-sentence and I felt much less confused and more optimistic about the future.

A year on, the most useful part of therapy has been learning how to relate to people, including my psychologist.  Working through my fears and reactions in the sessions has helped me in other relationships, including my relationship with my daughter.  I feel less angry and a little more in control of my emotions.  I feel like I have choices. There’s still a long way to go and it can be really hard work, but it does feel like I’m getting to a better place in myself.  I’d encourage anyone with BPD to find a therapist who specialises in BPD and give therapy a go.

It was when I was about 25 that I finally went to my GP because of my depression

I had been feeling really sad and down for some time, and I was barely sleeping anymore. I had no energy, and I wasn’t even playing my guitar, which I loved and used to do all the time. My GP said it sounded like I had depression, and referred me to a psychologist.

When I started seeing the psychologist, we explored some of the reasons for me feeling this way, and discovered that a lot of it was to do with some problems I had been having at work. I was so angry with the people who I worked closely with in my workplace. I was in charge of a small team, and I thought that they were all just so incompetent. Even though I would give them such specific instructions, they could never follow them properly. I gave them detailed schedules and lists of things they needed to do and how to do them, but it would never get done the way I wanted. So I began refusing to delegate any tasks to the rest of my team and doing everything myself. I didn’t want their substandard work being blamed on me by my boss.

I began working back really late every night and working all weekend to try and finish everything myself that should have really been done by the whole team. It was taking me a really long time to get everything finished to a good enough standard. I knew that the work was a reflection of my ability to my boss, and I really wanted to go far in the company. I wouldn’t show anyone any of my work until I was completely happy with the standard. It was around this time that my girlfriend broke up with me. She said I cared more about work than I did about her. My team at work were also complaining about me. This only made me even angrier. I couldn’t understand how could my boss could take their side when they were so incompetent and I was the only one doing all the work. I ended up losing my job as team leader. My boss said that although the work I did finish was fantastic, not enough was getting done, and that my team was unhappy with me.

My psychologist diagnosed me with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. We started working together on better ways to relate to others. She helped me see things from other people’s perspective, and see how my actions were making other people in my life feel. Treatment was really hard to begin with. I felt like she was criticising me sometimes, and then I would get angry and tell her that she was doing a bad job and not helping me at all. But I stuck to treatment and I have made some real improvements. I am no longer feeling depressed and I have recently started a new job. I would encourage any one like me to take a step back and look at their life. Going to my GP and asking for help was the hardest thing to do, but with the work I've done with my therapist I'm feeling a lot more connected with my friends and I'm learning to understand how to live with weaknesses in myself as well as others. I hope others can learn more about themselves by having courage to take the first step.

 

I’m Nick and I’ve struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for most of my life

I don't like talking about myself, but here goes. I’ve used drugs on a pretty regular basis since about the age of 14. I like speed, but I’ve used marijuana a lot too as it helps me to relax after I'm wasted. I’ve tried so hard to stop using over the past 5 years but I’ve only ever been able to stay off it for a couple of months at most, and then I go on another binge and I’m back on it again. It’s really hard because I’m a drummer in a band and we play the gig circuit every weekend. So I’m constantly at the local pubs and surrounded by drugs and alcohol all of the time. I’ve had a lot of different jobs as a kitchen hand at local cafés to help pay the bills, but they never last very long because I keep getting fired from not turning up to shifts or turning up smashed. I always told myself that it didn’t really matter anyway as what I was really interested in was the band and that the people who worked in the cafés were just losers anyhow. Now that I’m getting older I’m wondering what the hell I am doing and where my life is headed. I’m 37, still have problems with drugs and alcohol, don’t have a career, don’t have a wife or any kids, and have nothing to my name at all really. In fact, I’ve never even really had a stable girlfriend for any good length of time, and I’m beginning to wonder how my life has got to this point and why it hasn’t panned out quite like some of my old school mates who seem so together and happy and normal.

I guess I’ve always been a bit of a rebel and have liked to be different. I thought this difference made me special or unique in some way and have loved being above the rules. But now that I’m getting older my thinking is changing. I’ve been in trouble with the law a number of times for assault, mostly when I’ve been drunk or high. I always thought I got angry and hit people because they provoked me, but now, with the help of my counsellor, I’m beginning to see that whenever I’ve felt threatened I’ve tended to respond in an angry way. Recently, when a girlfriend had a fling with one of my best mates I got so angry that I used a knife to cut myself. I think I really wanted to die then. That is how I’ve ended up in treatment. My therapist is helping me to set some goals and work toward them and make sense of some stuff that I’ve always tried to push away - you know, issues with mum and dad when I was growing up. Dad was really violent and abusive toward me and mum, and I was always called upon to protect her and my younger sisters.  I think the pressure of it all was just too much and I turned to drugs and alcohol at a pretty young age as a way to cope and get away from it. So I’m trying to get my life on track and work out where I’m headed. I’m feeling OK about the goals I’ve set and am more hopeful about the future, even though I know it is going to be hard I also know that I have more support than ever before and everyone is really keen to help me out. Thanks for listening to my story.

My problems started from about the age of 16, when I began feeling extremely depressed

A girl in the year below me at school committed suicide around that time. I don’t know why, because I didn’t know her that well, but I started having thoughts of suicide myself. I started doing badly in school, and would often skip classes. I began hanging out with a bad crowd, and started drinking and sometimes using drugs. I was really good at netball but I just lost interest in playing and quit my team. I think I was just confused, wanting to feel happier and was trying to fit in with those around me, people who accepted me to be part of their gang as long as I went along with what they were doing.

When my boyfriend at the time, who I had been with for a year, broke up with me, I thought my world was falling apart. I felt like he was abandoning me when I really needed him. I felt a mix of really intense feelings. I felt sad, worthless and unlovable. I was scared to be alone and I felt really, really angry. My moods began to change really quickly. Mum would say the tiniest thing to annoy me and I would fly into a rage. Sometimes I would have really scary experiences too, where I felt like I wasn’t really in my body, like I was distant and not real. That was when I began cutting myself. The pain would make me feel real again. But often I couldn’t even remember doing it. I was so embarrassed of the marks I would make sure they were always hidden.

My mum was really worried about me but I refused to go to the doctor or get any help. I was too scared. When I finished school I got a part-time job at the local supermarket. I fell in love with one of the guys that worked there. I thought he was amazing, and that we were meant for each other. Eventually we started seeing each other and I started spending all my time with him. It started off really well, but then I just started feeling like he was criticising me all the time. We started fighting often. I would get really angry, and even throw things at him sometimes. But then I would get so scared that he would leave me. Often I would cut myself or attempt suicide so that he couldn’t leave me. I lost a lot of friends around that time too. They said that I was too unpredictable and confusing. I would get angry at friends for no reason, and then feel so worried that they would leave me alone that I would frantically try to do favours or do nice things for them.

It was after I had a particularly bad fight with my boyfriend that I attempted suicide and ended up being admitted to hospital. I was referred to a psychiatrist and psychologist, who diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder and set up a care plan for me. I started therapy with the psychologist every week. It was really hard. Lots of times I felt angry at my therapist for getting me to talk about difficult and painful things, and sometimes I would skip sessions. In therapy we focussed on identifying and changing the factors that typically increased the risk of me hurting myself, finding ways for me to cope with my emotions, and trying to have better relationships with my mum and my boyfriend.

Sticking to my treatment plan was hard, and I did have setbacks. But I was determined to keep going back and over time I made some really big improvements. I stopped self-harming and no longer have suicidal thoughts. I feel better in control of my emotions and feel better able to cope with life. I broke up with my boyfriend, but I was able to get through the separation with the help of my therapist. I now have a better relationship with my mum and a few close friends, and I have been promoted to store manager at work. For me the hardest thing is stopping hating myself. When I did bad things I wanted to punish myself further by quitting my treatment. My therapist seemed to understand me and kept accepting me back into therapy and now I feel that I can start to accept myself also and feel really proud of how far I've come. 

I would encourage anyone to keep trying to get help, because help is there as long as you keep trying and don't give up.

My daughter Sarah was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder when she was 18 years old

However, I began to be extremely worried about Sarah a couple of years earlier.She was such a beautiful girl, inside and out. She was good at school, and loved playing netball. But it was a few months after her 16th birthday that she became extremely depressed. Despite my best attempts to talk her out of it, she quit her netball team. I began getting reports from her school that she was skipping classes, and that her performance at school had seriously declined. Sarah started coming home late on weeknights and even later on weekends.

I was so worried about Sarah. We had always had a pretty good relationship but now she was being secretive and difficult. I just didn’t know what to do to help her, and stop her from ruining her life. Sarah became more and more hostile. I just never knew what mood she would be in, as it would change so rapidly. We were fighting all the time, and Sarah was fighting with her boyfriend all the time too. She had no friends left at school. I tried to get Sarah to see a doctor on several occasions, but she would just refuse. She seemed to be slipping further and further away.

The problems Sarah was having really impacted on her two sisters. They were worried about Sarah nearly as much as I was, and she was always taking out her moods on them as well as on me. I felt like I was a failure as a mother, and became quite depressed myself. I felt so guilty, not only that I had somehow contributed to Sarah’s problems, but also that I wasn’t being a good enough mother to my other two girls.

One night I got a call from Sarah’s boyfriend. He was crying. He and Sarah had a bad fight, and Sarah had attempted suicide. He had called an ambulance. Sarah was admitted to hospital, and a treatment plan was set up for her. I got some help and support for me to deal with Sarah too. It was from this time that things slowly started getting better. Things weren’t easy, and Sarah sometimes found it hard to stick to her treatment appointments. Sarah’s sisters and I tried to remain really supportive during this period, and Sarah did slowly make some big improvements in her life.

I think that sometimes when a family member is having problems, all the focus is on helping them to get better. But it is important to remember that it is really hard on the other family members too. I just want other parents and families out there in my situation to know that dwelling on whether it is or isn’t your fault doesn't help and muddles your mind. I learnt that it is better to face what is happening, and would encourage others to know that there is help out there for you as well as your family.

 

Marsha Linehan's story: the founder of "Dialectical Behaviour Therapy"

As told to the NY times