We’ve talked a lot about stigma in recent years. Thinking back to my teenage years, I wouldn’t have known what the word meant in the context of mental illness and yet I know how desperately I tried to hide the symptoms that terrified me. Looking back, it seems so obvious that I should or could have talked to somebody at home or at school but that was just not even remotely an option. I hid them. The more I hid them, the better I got at hiding. By the time I was twice the age of that teenage girl, I deserved (so my counsellor tells me) an Oscar for my many performances.
When I was 16 there was no internet (or not visible in my world anyway) and no accessible information. I had never heard of self harm and had no way of understanding this compulsion I had to hurt myself. It seems incredible even now. Where did the idea come from? I’ve been asked but I can’t even remember a first time. I thought it must be a sign of utter and complete insanity and I lived in fear of anyone finding out. The future I was supposed to be mapping out just looked locked up, dark and full of fear and yet the fear wasn’t enough to overcome the need. My finger seemed to press further and further down on a self destruct button. I hurt, binged and starved my way through about three years. Every day I felt like I was drowning. I had no concentration, no focus or enthusiasm. At least in my 30s I knew enough to recognise the same feelings as depression. At 16 it was one block after another between me and the rest of the world.
I was ashamed and I continued to be ashamed all through my 20s as I distanced myself from that messed up figure. When the same issues rose up from time to time I covered them up and ran. I buried myself in anything I could; studying, my work. I hid, never realising that I was only delaying the inevitable. Finally in one day, one moment, my head space ran out and I couldn’t run away any longer.
Last year after a long battle with depression and a shadowy something more I can finally admit to, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. There was relief in the diagnosis and a strange triumph. In knowing that something was very wrong, it was like being finally proved right, that my mind works better than I think. However, after years of hiding, my emotions are non-existent. I am numb, tired, unable to throw away the mask that’s now firmly embedded to my face.
But slowly I try. My counsellor points out my tentative attempts, my judging of what is socially acceptable, who I test, the hints I leave. I recognise with a strange clarity that living with illness is hard but living with illness that must be covered up is next to unendurable. Why should we? My hints get picked up by others who also have a story. There are so many people like me, I realise. We are the ones that no one can believe-the ones who are “bubbly”, “sensible”, “calm”, “always smiling”. We are everywhere.
Last week, I was asked to make a “coping box”, a space of comforting items or images to help replace destructive thoughts and habits with soothing ones. I use a drawer. I am surprised at my need for soft items and colour. A cuddly toy. Pipe cleaners. Coloured pencils. Notebooks. Hand creams. I like the drawer so much I take a picture to remind me of it when I am at work.
But I place something else inside it. Diary entries from that 16 year old girl that I even as I tried to distance myself from her. I put them in the drawer. She would have liked it. She liked painting and glitter nail polish. Last week at work I had a compliment paid to me about putting “a sparkle” about the place. It made me smile. She liked writing and drawing and was honest enough to portray how she really felt as and when the feelings came. She had no choice but to face them.