Silent And Still Deadly – The Quiet Borderline

Trigger Warning!!

Ed: This article was posted on behalf of it’s author Claire Graham

The person writing this is in her late forties, owns her own flat, has a full time job, is a certified Mental Health First Aider, and has a degree. So far, so good, so responsible, right? What if I dropped in to the mix that she can’t legally hold a gun licence in the UK, she has a permanent exemption from jury duty in Scotland, takes three pills a day to make herself stable enough to function in normal society and has appointments with a psychiatrist every six weeks or in the current Covid climate when she can actually get one?

I’ve written this down and I’m reading it over again with some incredulity as this is me in 2022 and somehow I defy expectations of what someone living with one of the most misunderstood personality disorders should achieve or experience. My diagnosis is Borderline Personality Disorder which is also known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder. I also live with depression and anxiety which are well known co-morbid mental health conditions with BPD. I’ll refer to what I live with as BPD as this seems to be the more common name for it. Please note that I say “live with” rather than “suffer from” as the point of this blog is to discuss that it’s possible to live a good life with this diagnosis and also that we need to encourage inclusive language for non-visible disabilities that accurately reflect the reality of living with serious mental health issues.

I can only write from my own experiences and if you live and experience the condition in a different way then that’s perfectly legit. There are several root causes for BPD that vary from person to person and from talking to my first psychiatrist, it would seem that family history of mental illness, being born extremely prematurely and early childhood trauma all helped to rewire my formative brain so by the time I became a teenager it was floundering. The sensitive, clever and usually ignored child began to realise that there was something very seriously wrong. This was the 1980s and there was a joke in South West Scotland where I grew up which was “the white van with the square wheels will take you away to the Crichton.” The Crichton was the local psychiatric hospital. You couldn’t therefore possibly admit you were mentally ill. I had been catnip to a long line of knuckle draggers at both primary and high school and my mere existence seemed to aggravate people. I would throw up most mornings before school with fear and dread about what would happen during the school day. The teachers were usually more interested in going outside for a smoke than actually controlling pupils and the teachers I did try to tell about the horrific bullying I experienced were totally disinterested. I quickly learnt that I was totally on my own. You can’t learn or retain information if you’re in an environment of constant sheer anxiety and fear.

Everything came to a poisonous head when I was 18 and I had a full nervous breakdown again quietly and on my own. If you break a bone it can be noticed and fixed. However, a mind can totally snap and no-one will see or hear. I worked out that I could call the Samaritans for an hour before the call would show on my parent’s telephone bill. These days, a call to that amazing charity won’t appear on a bill, but in the early 90s it did and I really didn’t want anyone to ask questions. I now recognise that this is because I am a particular subset of BPD diagnosis, which I’ll come back to later on.

I started to starve myself and deliberately drink to black out once I was away from home at college and then later university. A drunk student passing out in pubs is neither here or there nor one that is wasting away. I remember living in halls of residence and being begged to eat something. I became obsessed with weighing myself and what I did eat, was heavily restricted. There were times I ate little more than porridge and pasta with tomato based sauce. I became good at hiding it – I would eat a good meal in company but restrict when I was by myself. I was still having periods so I kidded myself on that it was no big deal. If I could have extreme control over my eating then it was a tiny bit of control I could hang onto when everything felt in flux. It’s a myth that self-harming is purely cutting or taking overdoses. It’s any behaviour that is intended to cause harm. I would tell myself I was “elegantly wasted” as I slopped more whisky into my coffee. Somehow I held it together enough to graduate, but by the time I was in my third year I was very seriously mentally ill and my guidance lecturer, who was also a clinical psychologist, warned me that if I continued on to my Honours year (a Scottish degree is four years with Honours and you can graduate after three) I would have a breakdown. He was right. I knew that I was likely to drop out or get what they call a Richard the Third so I took my BA and bowed out gracefully.

I’ll fast forward to just over 10 years ago. Remember I said that any behaviour designed to cause harm is still self-harm? This includes staying in a toxic marriage when you know its shrivelling you into a shell of your former self. For all my mental health problems while at university, I was fully expected to achieve a good career in print journalism by my lecturers. That didn’t happen and I ended up taking a job that would make sure the bills were paid. I pushed away what I really wanted out of life and I eventually got to the point where living felt unbearable. My dreams no longer mattered out of sheer necessity for survival. I knew if I didn’t reach out for help, I would end it all.

One Saturday in utter desperation, I e-mailed a Scottish mental health charity and poured out exactly how bleak I was feeling. It was a long rambling e-mail and it probably didn’t make any sense. I didn’t expect a reply so soon, if at all. I had an e-mail two days later from a wonderful charity worker who gave me a bullet pointed plan to follow. It told me what recommended local medical practice to register with, what to tell them and even the directions to get there. I cried with relief. The medical practice was only 10 minutes walk away from my house. It was doable.

I registered with a doctor and then made the appointment that was to change my life forever. I had a full howling meltdown in the safety of a consulting room and told the doctor that if he didn’t do something, I was going to get my Dad’s shotgun and blow my head off. This wasn’t an idle threat – farm girls know how to use a gun so that they’re taught to respect a lethal firearm. I sat crying ugly tears, absolutely begging for my right to life. They tend to take you seriously when you say stuff like that and I was given an emergency referral to my first psychiatrist. I remember sitting in the waiting room of an old converted town house in the middle of Edinburgh shaking with terror. I was mad, bats in the belfry, toys in the attic, gone fishing, out to lunch, not the full shilling, wasn’t I? The white van with the square wheels of my childhood had finally come to collect me.

After four or five consultations and being bombarded with all sorts of weird questions about my medical history – what the Hell did my periods have to do with my mental health? – I was told that I had Borderline Personality Disorder. I just felt total relief that whatever the Hell I had going on with me had a name and I was told I could be helped. My symptoms were a tick box exercise in the condition’s diagnostic criteria. I had a referral to outpatient psychology at the local mental health hospital but I knew that would take a while to come through. Meanwhile, my parents and husband refused to discuss with me my diagnosis or treatment. I see now that they were too scared to. It took weeks and weeks of the broken record technique saying “I’m not going anywhere, my diagnosis isn’t going anywhere and we’re dealing with this”. In the end, I had a breakdown so severe in April 2011 that the only reason I wasn’t sectioned was that my parents agreed to look after me because my husband wasn’t fit to. I regressed into being a toddler again. I followed my Mum around their house and I would loudly panic if my Dad left the room and didn’t tell me where he was going. It took months and months to recover. Also, my immediate loved ones were now reluctantly forced to deal with it. My parents were on board but my ex wasn’t and before he eventually did leave he admitted that he nearly left me in 2011 when I was ill because he didn’t want to cope with it.

I can look back now and see that was when I really started to learn how to live with it all. When you’re at rock bottom and your knees hit the floor, you have to look upwards and figure out how to get back up. I learnt that my brain chemistry and how my brain works is totally different to a normal brain. It makes me experience emotions in widescreen Dolby stereo and cartoon colours. When I’m happy I’m high as a kite but when I’m not I’m in black mood purgatory. My moods can swing from one extreme to another with no warning and with a frequency that makes me feel out of control. It makes interactions with other people difficult because you aren’t able to process quickly if something is a threat and you just overreact anyway, which has caused me so many problems at work. I can deal with it all in a better way now but it doesn’t mean that I’m magically not mentally ill or cured in any way. I’ve just got a good grip on it but sometimes I lose it. There’s only so much that having three prescribed medications can do and knowing what my triggers are. If exercise, shoving crystals up my arse and just thinking happy thoughts could cure me, trust me I’d have given it all a go by now.

I’m going to return to what I wrote earlier about being a specific subset of Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis. This is the concept of the Quiet Borderline. I believe that my mental distress was unheard, ignored and dismissed for so many years because I turned my anger issues inward and punished myself silently instead of cutting, physical attempts at suicide, hospitalisations for self-harm and actual violence towards other people. I was deemed “high functioning” because I was able to maintain employment and a fairly normal life.

It also meant and still means that if I do have a meltdown it actually terrifies people because I am good at putting “a good face” on. I honestly think people forget that I am severely mentally ill because I appear to cope on the surface. I am extremely socially anxious and I prefer to keep away from people because I’m not good at reading people’s behaviour. I feel easily triggered by noise, light and I detest my personal space being invaded. If I choose to give you a hug it means you are extremely special. I don’t even hug close family. If I am in distress I disassociate, which means for me that the outside world feels further and further pushed away and I can sit there and feel utterly numbed to everything. I’ve spilled boiling hot porridge on myself accidentally during this once before and didn’t feel it scalding me. I need a set daily routine to make me feel safe and I don’t react well to any changes of plan. When I’m out and about I have earphones tucked into my t-shirts in case I need music ASAP to self-soothe. Life is still challenging – I just don’t “act out” in the stereotypical way that someone living with Borderline Personality Disorder is expected to.

I can’t just make myself a better or more stable person. It’s constant bloody hard work and its so tiring. What I would like for others who have just received this challenging diagnosis to know is that there is hope. You can have a decent life. I wish for you a good psychiatrist who takes you seriously. I wish for you finding out what medications work best for you. I wish for you finding a talking therapy that works if that is appropriate. I wish for you the confidence to let people know about your mental health issues so that they can get the best from you, whether that’s in a working environment or in your private life. I wish for you peace, understanding, self-soothing strategies that work and all the luck in the world. Borderlines are brave, beautiful and bold people who have the strength to survive in a world that is not built for them. We’ve had to constantly adjust ourselves to the world around us. It’s about time the world extends us the same courtesy.

1 thought on “Silent And Still Deadly – The Quiet Borderline”

  1. Absolutely brilliant. Clearly written, and so obviously painful. Despite all the ‘mental health acceptance’ which is constantly claimed, the real situation is that, while you are ALLOWED to live with mental illness, should you display any signs of distress, you are treated like a leper. I’m going to put this in the comments too. I look forward to reading more from you. You’ve shone a light on a very dark situation.

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