I thought I knew.
I thought I knew what I wanted in life, how to get there and how to deal with life in general. I thought I was wise and understood human nature, including my own self.
My world was narrow and clear which made me unknowingly judgmental of those who seemed lost or different.
But actually, I just hid everything traumatic and difficult from myself so efficiently that when things started to fall apart, I had no clue why.
Thus began my most severe and 10-year-long episode of Borderline Personality Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and depression. Strong suicidal urges and multiple suicide attempts seemed to come out of nowhere very suddenly. I was in my last year of a bachelor’s degree and I quickly lost the ability to study, work or concentrate on anything. Most strikingly, I lost the ability to hope and strive for my long-held goals. I felt like a 90-year-old woman whose future only contained death, even though I was in my early 20s. I thought I found a solution when access to drugs came my way but they only made the darkness worse in the end. Everything I held onto and valued in myself was stripped away.
Little did I know that it was actually the painful beginning of becoming a new person. I became a new person who can integrate the bad and good in life and have compassion for those struggling on the margins of society. I developed the humility to understand that I don’t know everything and that’s okay. What I thought I knew and valued were actually blocking me from growing on every level including spiritually. My mental health journey felt like tearing down an unstable building to build a new sturdier one. But with one huge difference, I didn’t have much control over the tearing down process. It felt like my life was falling to pieces.
I couldn’t control many aspects of myself including my emotional reactions. I was in the dark as to why I would have sudden episodes of paralysis, intense self-destructive urges and was unable to maintain routines like studying and cleaning. Part of me fought tooth and nail against the changes. I felt like I was losing everything I held dear, including my sanity and perfectionism. I felt I was failing at everything, including being a person of worth. It got to the point where I didn’t and couldn’t care about anything anymore, but at the same time, I cared too much.
I tried bullying and hurting myself to get back to regular functioning but, of course, it made things worse. Eventually, I would attempt suicide 11 times just to get a break from my own punishing mind. It took me a very long time to learn to lower my expectations of myself and give myself a break. For years I couldn’t accept that I was ill. I didn’t want to accept my lower level of functioning and I didn’t know how to show myself any compassion. The third and more serious suicide attempt led to a month-long hospitalization (my first of several), first in the ICU, then in the psychiatric ward. At this point, I thought I must be the most miserable person on the planet. But I quickly saw in the hospital that I wasn’t the most miserable person. Suddenly I was living with people with many different types of mental illnesses and I saw for the first time their torment and also strength and solidarity. I realized I wanted us to help ourselves deal with the particular difficulties we faced, and create lives worth living. I decided I wanted to work in the mental health field and eventually enrolled in a second bachelors in psychology which I am still working on today. I thought that because I had found a direction, my life would get better. For a long time, though, it only got worse.
I developed self-destructive habits to deal with traumatic events and sometimes those habits got out of control. I had unresolved guilt and anger over my mother’s death when I was 18 and suffered beyond what I thought possible each time it was her birthday, Mother’s Day and the day she passed. This complex grief made me even more sensitive when my grandparents passed away and when a friend I considered my little sister died by suicide. In the middle of all this chaos, I happened to meet my future husband, a kindred soul also lost in darkness. I somewhat unwillingly started going to individual therapy, and eventually went to group therapy, rehab, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for many years. Through each crisis, I painfully learned more and more about my illnesses, about life and myself.
I relearned almost everything I thought I knew. Pure self-will and ambition didn’t work for me anymore. Denying my reality slowly gave way to accepting my past and present. Therapy guided me into commemorating the death of loved ones instead of self-destructing from overwhelming pain. My complex grief eventually became normal grief as I processed what happened with my mother. I was taught to have a plan for crises that involved letting current loved ones know instead of spiraling alone.
And I learned from my pastor that God was with me the whole time and loved me even though I wanted to die. Social skills training as part of DBT really helped me deal with difficult people and how to communicate effectively. I learned the importance of validation both for myself and for others. It made communication with others go so much smoother. Boundaries with others became a useful tool as well. Sometimes I was not in the right mindset to be able to understand what the therapist was saying at the time, but I would remember what they said later and realized I finally understood. I came to value those eureka moments when things just clicked and something I thought impossible would be possible like being able to withstand negative judgments from others. The film The Big Lebowski helped too: “That’s just, like, your opinion man.” — The Dude. I also had to learn to navigate the underfunded mental health system and stand up for myself when service providers dropped me or mistreated me. In fact, the righteous anger they triggered may have been the beginning of self-respect. I certainly didn’t know that all my struggles would add value to my life.
The effort I put into recovery often seemed pointless. But even if progress sometimes went backward, each iota of effort eventually created a pattern of survival. I came to appreciate the good days when I woke up feeling ok and could do some things I had planned to do that day. I learned to live a bit more in the moment.
If I have a bad day, which still happens of course, I’ve learned how to ride out the storm: to reach out to friends and family, be easier on myself and avoid constantly putting myself down. I consider myself lucky. Many don’t survive similar struggles; some were friends from the hospital. After a decade of therapy and meds, I’m finally starting to feel like myself again. I’ve restarted my creative goals and find I’m painting better than when I was in school for it. I hope to restart playing the guitar and singing soon as well.
The new challenge now is to learn to be a good steward of everything God has given me out of grace, and extend that grace to others.