2.6
October 22, 2021

How my Personality Disorder prepared me for the Pandemic.

 

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I have struggled with mental illness for as long as I can remember.

I was seeing a therapist by the time I was nine for incredibly high anxiety and emotional dysregulation.

I don’t ever remember feeling or looking “normal.”

I struggled with this anxiety and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) throughout high school. I also struggled with an eating disorder sporadically. By the time I went away to college at 17, I was regularly crippled to the point of meltdown. The only solution that worked to curb the anxiety was starving myself and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around my freshman year, I had lost 20 pounds and was knee-deep in anorexia.

That was only the beginning.

The anorexia had consumed mine (and my family’s life) within six months and I found myself inside of a residential treatment center less than a year from when I left for college.

During this initial intervention phase, several tests indicated that I had borderline personality disorder (BPD). This was in 1998 and at that point in time, BPD was considered untreatable by many people in the psychological community. It was the Scarlet Letter of diagnoses. Everyone agreed that I was too young and too composed to meet the diagnostic criteria. Since then, I have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar I, ADHD, General Anxiety Disorder, and Anorexia.

After the initial non-diagnosis and the response everyone had to the test results, I figured I better see what all the borderline fuss was about. I read everything I could find about the disease and after my research was complete, I decided that I would do whatever it took to “hide my crazy.” I did not want to end up like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction—a character thought to have BPD.

I did a pretty good job too. It wasn’t until my late 20s when the pressure of my job started to overtake me, that I even started to notice that I was having a harder time keeping myself emotionally stable.

I did what any good addict would do and I found a new substance to try and regulate myself with: alcohol. I was a full-blown alcoholic within a year, and by the time I was 33, I rarely left my house other than to get booze. My alcoholic career ended with a small stroke in late 2012. Like the anorexia, I pushed it to the extremes and almost found myself dead.

That was also the beginning of my actual relationship with BPD. I was formally diagnosed in 2013, shortly after getting sober.

There is no cure for BPD. It does respond to medication, but not always and not always well. The most effective treatment for it is Dialectical Behavior Therapy and it takes a good year of practicing DBT to really see any benefits. It is a huge commitment and for most of us who have been through it, it totally changes the way that we live and how we process thoughts and emotions.

It took me two and half years from the moment I got sober until I no longer felt like I was dying inside of my own body. Borderline is both incredibly painful and incredibly misunderstood. The reception I received from others when I told them about the BPD was (and still is) illuminating. I have been laughed at, run from, and called crazy. A few of them surprised the hell out of me. It was also soul-crushing and I genuinely felt like I was Pandora’s box for several years.

We are reading stories now about how people recovering from COVID-19 feel ostracized. I totally get it. You become the disease. Recovery becomes everything and life stops for a bit.

Fortunately, I have an amazing care team and support structure. I also knew how lucky I was to be alive, so my motivation was high and my willingness carried me through the intense training periods. Even with those positives, I struggled with suicidality, depression, severe anxiety, and regular panic attacks. I was trapped in my own body and I had no idea how to get out. I just kept practicing. My life depended upon it.

Slowly, life began to resemble life again. I got my master’s degree and went back to work. I even ended up landing my dream job with a Fortune 500 Company right before my 40th birthday in 2019. I got to enjoy it for four months before the pandemic hit.

Having dealt with several traumatic events in my life, my body has a pretty effective adrenaline response to stress. I was on high alert for the first 90 days of the pandemic and because I was working in the distance learning field, my hours were crazy. I made it into May before I even had a moment to raise my head and look around. When I did, what I saw and felt surprised me.

Everyone was emotionally dysregulated. I had been trying to hide my instability for almost a decade and now suddenly, it was everywhere. I was calm and everyone else wasn’t. To say it was a reversal is a bit of an understatement. I weathered the first six months of the pandemic surprisingly well, especially considering I am single and live alone. By the time the end of 2020 approached, I was as weathered as everyone else and needed to take a break.

Here’s where it gets interesting. I had a bit of an idea and I decided to run with it. First, I decided to focus my efforts on processing my emotions about the pandemic while in therapy. We talked about the immediate and we talked about coping ahead. It became about creating processes to assist in stress relief. Instead of treating the pandemic as something to survive, I decided I wanted to upgrade how I lived inside of myself. I had been trapped inside of a hideous mental illness for years. What if that actually was to my benefit in a pandemic?

It was, and still is. I took skills from several behavior therapies (most notably DBT) and decided to act as if Covid wasn’t going away. I unpacked countless behaviors that I was engaging in that were not at all helpful. I committed to changing them in the same way I got sober—one day at a time. Addiction, like being quarantined, is incredibly lonely and incredibly isolating. The similarities were much higher than I realized and it turned out that the path of my recovery from addiction was actually also highly prescriptive for quarantine conditions.

Strange magic, eh?

While applying the skills hasn’t been overly complicated, it has not been easy either. The first step has been consistently recognizing and owning where I can be accountable to my impact and accepting the places where I have little or no power over what happens. In real time, this most often looks like picking and choosing my battles, regularly processing my emotions, and leaning into consistent personal development.

I am a work in progress.

Quarantine fatigue is a real thing and my experiences show me that the long-term effects of it are only just beginning. We have all sustained significant trauma from this and without appropriate interventions, we will struggle even more. So, step one? Acknowledge that there has been damage done and then give yourself time to process the emotions around it.

I didn’t get to meet my niece until after she was a year old. The reality of that actually didn’t hit me until well after I’d already met her. Part of me felt really silly for the tears weeks later, but that was when it finally hit me. I could have sucked the tears back and kept moving, but I chose to stay with them. It ended up being a really healing afternoon for me. It also took some courage on my part.

We also all can benefit from community support, something that has become more challenging. I had several relationships dissolve last year over masks, QAnon, politics, and my anti-racism work. I know I am not alone in this either. This last 18 months has been tense and contentious. I’ve had to restructure my social circle. Most of my close friends are in different states and countries. I found a BPD community through social media. I am part of a shamanic collective that meets online. I already knew how to leverage these resources because of my diagnosis.

Ultimately, every skill that works for managing the BPD also works for managing the ongoing stress of the pandemic. I sure as hell didn’t want to recreate the first few years of my recovery, and the pandemic likely would have taken me out psychologically had I not already had to save my life six years earlier.

Life is such a interesting animal.

~

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