There is always hope

Author’s note: This blog was meant to be about hope; about recognising the progress of your self or loved one. I wanted to acknowledge the help I have received and how important & invaluable that help is. It was never meant to end up quite as gushy and mushy as it has! However: credit where it’s due and all that… 

Survival of the Weak

I survive

but I do not overcome.

I go on living

but I die.

I manage

but I really do not cope.

I go on smiling

while I cry.

 

I survive,

but it isn’t quite enough.

I fight the fight

to no avail.

I endure

but I do not persevere.

I try my best,

but I fail.

Taken from Chapter 7: A Sad and Sorry State of Disorder

Now available for pre-order

 

This is a poem I wrote many years ago, back in the days when I agreed with many professionals that there was no hope for someone ‘like me’. Back in the days where one day blurred into another with a sluggish trail of failure and misery in their wake. Back in the days when I gave up even trying not to fail because I couldn’t stand to be the bearer of anymore disappointment, either for myself or those who loved me. 

Sometimes, when I read my poems now, there is a response in my gut that recalls, exactly, the feelings that prompted the poem to be written. Like the faint voice of an old, familiar companion it stirs up emotions and sensations that have brought me to the brink of death.

Needless to say; it is a most uncomfortable feeling, and yet I am grateful for my unconscious determination to remember on my behalf. In a split second my heart plummets, to those terrifying depths, drawn by the familiar song – almost like a war-cry. But when my heart surfaces from this involuntary plunge – when it returns to the relative safety of ‘now’ – it heaves the biggest sigh of relief, and of gratitude. 

When I read poems like this I hurt but I also rejoice, because the devastatingly and painful days that inspire this kind of poetry are no longer a regular feature of my life.

My book, A Sad and Sorry State of Disorder – A Journey into Personality Disorder (and out the other side) talks specifically about management and not recovery. I don’t consider myself cured, or better. I am, without a doubt, better than I was and as long as I can keep saying that, I am happy with my progress. There may come a day when making sense of the world around me becomes natural and effortless; where I don’t have to second guess every feeling or emotion (of my own, or someone else’s); and, where I don’t have to fight or struggle to contain anxiety or paranoia so as not to unleash the beast within. These days may come, but in the meantime, knowing that the darkest and most hellish days are behind me is enough to keep me fighting this worthy fight! 

Whilst I try not to dwell on how bad life once was, I do believe I’d be doing a disservice if I did not acknowledge how far I have come – and I cannot do one without the other. It would be a disservice to myself to ignore or dismiss the gut-reaction I experience when I read one of these poems; the person who wrote the poems is the same person that fought tooth-and-nail, against the odds, for a second (it was actually my last) chance at life: I cannot disregard this.

It would also be a disservice to anyone else whose life is impacted by borderline personality disorder; anyone who believes there is no hope either for their self, or for someone they love and care for. I believe that people need to know that however dark and long the tunnel may appear, there is always light at the end. You don’t need to be strong, or have all the answers (or any answers at all); you just need to be really bloody brave, and keep believing in the light you can’t yet see.

I have come an incredibly long way, from the shy and terrified person I was when I was first referred to a complex needs service. For years I could barely speak in therapy, and it was several weeks before I began to speak freely in the Therapeutic Community. I have changed, almost beyond recognition, as has my life.

It is a long journey, and I would not have made it this far without the tremendous help I have received along the way. There are too many people to name individually in this particular blog; friends, family, peers and professionals have all helped me to get where I have managed to get to date. But today, in the spirit of Mother’s Day (which was actually yesterday!)  I will name one: Lizzie.  Dear Lizzie! 

Lizzie has been an amazing friend, supporter, believer, carer, and mother to me. She has walked beside me every single, painful step of the way. She has gone far above and beyond the call of duty . She took up the mantle of ‘mother’ and carried me, although I was not hers to carry. She has loved me unconditionally and embarked on the darkest of journeys with me. Neither of us knew a single thing about borderline when we began our journey together; we learned as we went along and Lizzie has remained stalwart throughout. She is my biggest fan (along with my wife Dawn), and although she cannot remember what my book is about, she promotes it tirelessly to friends and family. 

I have a feeling that when Lizzie reads some of my poems, she too will have a gut-response that throws her back, momentarily, to the dark days. And I am sure that she, just like me, will acknowledge these poems as part of who I am, and be grateful that I no longer write poetry quite like I used to. I know that when it is published, she will read my book as though for the first time, and feel pride at the journey I have been on. I know this because she is always proud of me, but nowhere near as proud as I am of her.

It takes a lot of guts to embark on a dark and terrifying journey for oneself, but it takes a damn sight more to hold someone else’s hand and travel with them, for them. I hope all the ‘mothers’ and all the carer’s who may read this feel encouraged and validated – whatever stage in your loved one’s journey you may be at, I hope you can believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I will never take for granted the help and support I have received in order for me to get to this place of self-awareness and self-management. I am also well aware that any significant unwelcome change to my life as it is now could be catastrophic for my current equilibrium. It is hard to be smug when life is so finely balanced, but that doesn’t stop me from being proud of the changes I have managed to make, with the  unwavering support and care of many along the way. 

 And thank you Lizzie, from the bottom of my heart.

Can I trust my feelings?

When I wrote last week’s blog I was feeling weary. I was tired and frustrated with what can often seem like an uphill battle and a never ending one at that. It is exhausting to constantly be battling with one’s own feelings.

But how do I know which feelings I can trust? Can I trust any of them? As is the way with borderline personality disorder, feelings come and go in an alarmingly rapid succession; they are fierce in their intensity; they are often irrational and based on a colossal misconception, and yet they all seem so incredibly real.

I have talked before about my euphoria regarding the publication of my  book – intense highs and excitement followed by equally intense self-doubt and fear, with a generous helping of suspicion!

So often this is the case for me: any positive emotions are swiftly followed by vengeful negative ones, usually accompanied by suspicion or paranoia. And with all these feelings being at the most extreme end of their spectrum, the pendulum really does swing very high and very low.

When I was in TC (Therapeutic Community), there was a lot of talk about ‘being in the moment’ – talk which, at the time, drove me mad. I suspect it drove me mad because I didn’t fully understand it, and was much less able to do it; rather than admit this I scoffed at the phrase and ridiculed the notion. I now eat those words of ridicule and scoffery, as I am beginning to understand and am learning to be in the moment, if only for a second.

It is hard, when you know your emotions to be volatile and erratic, to allow to yourself to bask anywhere. You get so used to being on the run, on the defensive, waiting for the next blow in life, that you cannot dream of stopping for even a moment and soaking in the scenery. And yet I am discovering that this is exactly what I need to be doing.

There was also talk of ‘grounding’ oneself at TC, and this talk also irritated me – again (I suspect) because I was afraid of failing to master the art. But I am starting to see that ‘being in the moment’ and ‘being grounded’ are not just therapeutic platitudes; they are ways of ‘being’ who and where we are.

Rather than feeling utterly mortified about my most recent cock-up, panicking about what might happen if I cock up again, or feeling suspicious when I am not feeling mortified or terrified, I can just stop and appreciate where I am.

Recently I had an encounter which left me feeling confident about who I am. I didn’t feel inferior or ‘wrong’ as I so often do. Instead, I felt like an equal. I felt respected and respectable. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind I knew this feeling wouldn’t last too long (and it didn’t!), but I almost didn’t care: I allowed myself to experience the feeling rather than dismissing it as a fake feeling and worrying instead about something that didn’t matter anymore, or that didn’t matter yet.

I’m not sure that I trusted my feelings in this instance or whether, because I stayed with what I was feeling, I enabled it to prove itself. Either way, I stayed in that moment and I examined it and enjoyed it for what is was for as long as I could.

It is not uncommon for me to allow myself to be defined by my feelings, but it is uncommon for me to take stock of what the feelings are and who, in that moment, I believe myself to be. For the few minutes that the feeling of confidence did last I walked with my head held high; I felt dignified and empowered. This brief interlude, and my acknowledgement of it, was a soothing balm to my all too often battered ego. I enjoyed feeling confident, and I felt entitled to it.

I wonder, as I write this, if I might be giving the impression that I am, in general, not happy, and I want to assure my readers that this is not the case at all! I am very happy, on the whole.

I have good days and I enjoy them while they last. I have days that are a mixture of good, fun, happy, anxious, sad and fearful, with varying measures of each and I have almost got used to it – and it’s no big deal (almost).  Yes, sometimes it’s really shit and harder to manage than other days, but I have learned to pick myself up, dust myself down and get on with life. I am increasingly able to hold on to what I know to be true, rather than what feels real and true.

Borderline is what it is – feelings come and go, some are much stronger than others, they can’t always be trusted and they sometimes get me into a lot of trouble. It can be exhausting, living with borderline but, by and large, I have learned to shut out the worst of the noise and disruption it generates in my mind.

I have learned to manage, and I am happy. I am learning that whilst I cannot always trust my feelings, I am more and more able to trust myself: right at the very core of me is a small, shy voice of reason that is getting gradually stronger, and if that fails I have a very reasonable wife and some good friends who are always happy to put me straight!

My feelings might be at the mercy of whichever wind may blow them and where, but that doesn’t mean I have to go with them: I don’t have to be at the mercy of my feelings. I am learning this, as I continue my journey of self-discovery and self-management. And I am happy to say that I am happy.

 

Warning signs

All of my adult life I have had spates of shopping, almost obsessively, for clothes. Without consciously deciding to, I find myself trawling through shops with a rather manic sense of desperation, trying on clothes and feeling a mounting sense of panic each time I leave a shop empty handed.

I am looking for clothes that will make me feel better. Better about how I look. Better about how I feel. Better about who I am. Better about my life. I am looking for clothes that can change me, or at the very least disguise me, physically and emotionally. I want to look in the mirror and see someone other than me, or at least someone better than the person I know myself to be. Needless to say my quest generally does little to boost my morale: despite my new attire I am still fat, still frumpy and still ugly.

There have been occasions in the past when I have spent a small fortune (the best part of my monthly rent) on clothes that improved me, or so I believed. Nowadays, when I am hijacked by this urge, I do at least trawl mainly charity shops and not the more expensive high-street shops.

As often as I have spent my rent in one splurge, I have returned to the shops within the next few days and returned at most, if not all, of my purchases: having arrived home with my purchases I am always mortified to realise that they do not bring with them the new life I sought.

As I progressed through my 18 months in a therapeutic community (TC) I became aware that these frenzied shopping sprees, and other equally impulsive behaviours, were actually an indication of something much deeper happening within. They invariably occurred as a response to an extreme sense of pressure, which precipitated overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear.

The pressure could come in any form, from anyone and anywhere. It could be a deadline, an expectation, a responsibility, an obligation, a decision I need to make or am waiting for someone else to make, or a social situation or event to name just a few. It could be an external pressure that is coming from someone or somewhere outside of myself, but it could also be a pressure that I impose on myself for a reason that as yet remains unknown. Wherever it comes from, the pressure feels entirely real, and it is terrifying.

At the root of my fear is a deep-seated and long-standing belief that I am unacceptable, disappointing, and unlovable – in essence: who I am is wrong. The challenge for me to prove I can be anything other than ‘wrong’ becomes the driving power behind my reactions when confronted with pressure.

Short of any inspiration, when put on such a spot, as to how to change myself, I seek to reinvent myself superficially, as though that would ever suffice. As I said, this is not a conscious decision; it is an impulse, and one that can continue for several days at a time.

A few days ago I found myself in the fourth charity shop of the day, on my third day of shopping. I say ‘found myself’ because it was as though I became aware, for the first time, of where I was and what I was doing there. My heart was pounding, and my hands were clammy. I was hanging up clothes back on the rail, having tried them on and I was beginning to sink in despair. I tried to connect with myself, with how I was feeling. I tried to calm down whilst acknowledging for the first time that I was not calm. I felt scared, and I couldn’t do ‘it’, although for the life of me I did not know what ‘it’ was. And then, finally, I remembered what I had learned in TC. I remembered that certain behaviours or impulses can serve as a warning sign for some emotional distress that requires our attention.

Three days, countless shops, and a few pounds later I remember this! But the important thing is, I did remember and as soon as I did I knew exactly what was happening. I didn’t realise until this point, that the pressure I was carrying was as big as it obviously was. I was aware I was feeling anxious, but I thought I was on top of it. I didn’t talk much to my wife or my friends about it, as I thought I’d sort it soon enough and it was no big deal.

The exact nature of my anxiety and fears are not relevant for the purpose of this blog. The point is, there was a warning sign and I missed it. There are times when my emotions escalate from 0 to 100 in seconds and in these cases I don’t have a smidgen of hope in intercepting the inevitable mayhem.

But there are other times, such as this, when my emotions creep up and somehow seem to multiply without me noticing. It is gradual, subtle and dangerous, and the more I am able to recognise the warning signs the more chance I have of being able to deal with it whilst it is still a manageable size.

Buying clothes from a charity shop is, perhaps, a relatively small and innocuous impulse, and whilst I am all for a bit of retail therapy I have to accept that it is all too easy to become reckless and careless given the right (or wrong) circumstances. 

I learned in therapy that changes do not happen overnight. Progress is an ongoing, never ending series of decisions, choices and yet even with this in mind it took a inordinate amount of effort not to be annoyed with myself for not seeing the tell-tale signs sooner. I may see them sooner next time (and I am sure there will be a next time) or I may not. What is important is that I will see eventually, and that when I do I take appropriate care of myself as best I can.

I am still learning to be patient with myself, just as I am still learning to understand myself – I don’t believe I can do one without the other.  And I am learning to be aware of myself and of the warning signs, both big and small, that I give myself if only I am paying attention.

My journey is often exhausting and intense, but I believe it is worth every ounce of effort I afford it. I also believe, more often than not, that who I am is not ‘wrong’ – I think I’m kind of ok. Sometimes.

Self Injury Awareness (I missed the Day)

I’d like to say I did a lot of research regarding Self Injury Awareness Day (SIAD) – indeed, that was my intention, but instead I have trawled through my email spam box (just in case), googled random people I know (again – just in case) and curled up on the bed cuddling my oh-so-cuddly whippet.

SIAD was actually 1st March, and I only found out about it after the event via twitter – just the one tweet, so maybe a little more awareness wouldn’t go amiss.

I did learn one thing when I first set out to educate myself about SIAD. A user-led charity called LifeSIGNS (Self-injury Guidance and Network Support) has supported this day for several years, and are the number one resource for SIAD material. I was wondering how a day like this works and they pretty much answered my question in one succinct sentence: ‘Raising awareness is about educating people who do not self-injure, and reaching out to people who do.’

As most of my writing is from experience and not research (I get very distracted when I try to research) I thought I would give my tuppence worth of input (albeit a bit late for the day itself) for Self Injury (self-harm) Awareness.

I know from experience that the question most asked by people who don’t self-harm is why? Why do we injure ourselves? I also know, from experience, that this is one of the hardest questions to answer: it feels impossible to put into words how being so cruel and destructive to ourselves can possibly help an already dire situation.

For me, self-harm expelled feelings and expressed them; it made the feelings and the pain tangible and explicable. More often than not I was unable to articulate the overwhelming emotions I was experiencing, and self-injury was me attempting to externalise all that I had internalised. I was overpowered, and afraid: I needed a voice, but I could not speak.

Raising awareness is about educating people who do not self-injure,

and reaching out to people who do.

I can’t speak for everyone who self-injures, but I know that there have been certain things that have helped me in times of unbearable distress, and other things that absolutely didn’t help.

To be unaware, or uneducated, with regards to self-injury is not, in itself, a bad thing – it is what it is; if you have never come across it, you have no need to learn and become aware. But being unaware can be terribly negative and unhelpful if you are suddenly faced with it and have no real clue what it is you are dealing with. I have come across some very well-meaning people, usually professionals, who have tried to help in ways that have only served to compound my sense of isolation, and reinforce my fears of forever being misunderstood.

I have been advised to count the number of red cars that drive past my window when I felt the urge to self-harm, in an attempt to distract myself. I have been told that my self-harming is selfish and manipulative, even though I had struggled for years without ever telling a soul. I have been told I am weak-willed, and even that I am playing games by self-injuring.

On the rare occasion that I have had to seek medical attention as a result of an episode of self-harm I have been kept waiting for several hours, the explanation being that there were people much more important than me to see and I was at the bottom of the list. I have sat in a waiting room listening to medical staff, feet away from me, talking about me as though I wasn’t there, telling their colleagues that there is ‘no point stitching her, she’s covered in scars – one more won’t make any difference’.

I give these examples as an idea of the damage that can be done if people are not aware of, or educated on, the issue of self-injury. I had, in each of these instances, trusted someone with the most vulnerable and frightened part of myself. I was ashamed and embarrassed to be where I was, and yet I needed help. My sense of self-worth was rock-bottom when I reached out for help, and it was, on these occasions, pretty much annihilated completely.

I didn’t ever need someone to fix me, cure me or rescue me.  Of course that would have been nice! but usually it was not what I needed. I didn’t even need someone to understand. In fact I think it would be unreasonable of me to expect someone to understand something I cannot explain.

What I needed was someone to be with me in my pain and shame. I needed someone who didn’t judge, didn’t assume, and didn’t reject; someone who kept loving me when I felt utterly unlovable. I needed someone who would care, without enabling, or colluding with, my destructive behaviours, and who would also be honest with me when they needed to – honest, but gentle with it; never condemning or critical.

If you want to help a self-harmer in their time of deepest darkness and greatest need, you don’t have to have any answers – you just have to care. And please don’t forget to care for yourself as well.

As frustrating or painful as it is to witness the impact of self-injury on someone you love or care for, be as patient as you can. I do not know a single person who uses self-harm as a coping mechanism who isn’t desperate to find a different way to cope. Silence is often much more comforting than platitudes and promises you can’t keep, and being by somebody’s side when they need you most is more powerful and far-reaching than you may ever know.

I appreciate this may be a tough topic to read about for many people – it certainly is a tough topic to write about (despite my initial enthusiasm at feeling I had been handed a blog-topic on a plate). I have few answers or explanations to offer as an insight into self-injury, but I do know what has helped me and what hasn’t helped me in the past.

Whether you are a self-harmer or not, there is always hope. Sometimes the self-harmer needs a friend or carer to believe this for them, and sometimes the friend or carer needs someone to offer living proof that this is true. It is true.

If you or someone you know needs professional help, I urge you to seek it immediately, and in the meantime the likes of me will do our utmost to raise awareness of self-injury within all walks of life.