COMHWA SPEECH 2017 By Carissa Wright
Now I want you to imagine you are seated on a roller coaster. I will be steering this 20 minute ride, so I want you to sit back and hold tight as I navigate my way through the last 11 years of my life experiencing a debilitating mental illness known as Borderline Personality Disorder. Its not a smooth sailing ride, but you will hopefully be touched by my triumphs, seek comfort in my hope and begin to have a generalised idea how hard it really is to cope and maintain sustainable living when you battle a mental illness every day.
So the first stop on our rollercoaster ride is 17 year old me. A happy go lucky young lady in high school, popular amongst peers and really excelled in sports during my years at Busselton Senior High School. Years later, I realised I was masking a lot of pain and suffering. I was labelled ‘overly sensitive’ when I crumbled at the thought of my friends not liking me. I was incredibly hard on myself and I remember I dissociated a lot. The dissociation then caused a lot of pain to hit surfaces when I was letting people become close to me, and I would self sabotage close relationships with people. I never knew there was a reason I was behaving the way I was. I hit one of the lowest points of my life when my parents relationship ended, and the pain surfaced to the point it was consuming me every day of my life. Coming from a background of abuse and trauma, all I was familiar to was being objectified by people around me. I never nourished or valued the true friendships I had at those times of my life until later on. I attached myself to what I thought I deserved. The chronic emptiness I was experiencing was mind numbing, and I would impulsively enter self destructive experiences to gain feeling again. There was no regulating or in betweens for me.
I remember the first time I was severely suicidal. I had left Busselton and the remains of the break down of my family dynamics behind. I felt isolated, and I was not aware of the over whelming fear of what my life was going to be like without the stability of a family support network. I remember I had been fired from my first job in Perth after I moved up, my boss at the time pointing out I wasn't ‘all there’. In hindsight he was right, I wasn't there because I dissociated to the point I wasn't aware of my surroundings. Time was passing me by, and the more it passed, the more my pain began to manifest. It was consuming me and suffocating me to the point that I could barely leave my room. I was living off packet oats as I had no money, nor did I know how to manage my money properly. I had no appetite anyway, the emptiness I was feeling was implanted in my stomach. So each time I tried to eat, I would feel psychically feel ill.
I remember coming back on the bus after I was fired. I started to search the internet on painless ways to take my own life. I never really understood the term suicide before this day, and I never understood this was going to be one of the most challenging symptoms of my diagnosed mental illness to manage. I woke up in A local Hospital the next day, unaware of how I got there and what actually happened for me to end up hospitalised. I think that was one of the most terrifying experiences, not being aware of my dissociation to the point my life was put in danger. I was surrounded by my family, one of the most gut wrenching things was witnessing my family members distraught as they had no idea I was feeling the way I was feeling.
After being sent home the day after I had tried to take my life, it was only a few months later I was hospitalised again. No one had much knowledge or access to successfully help when trying to manage BPD, so I was put on different medications that I would end up using as ways to end my life. The suicide ideation became intensified, and I felt powerless. It wasn't until my psychiatric stay in a Hospital I was able to get a diagnosis to label what I was experiencing. My Mother was in the room with me when the doctor read out the symptoms that come with the diagnosis- heightened suicide ideation, self harm, emptiness, dissociation, impulsiveness, irritability, self destructive behaviour, emotional instability, feelings of worthlessness, fear of abandonment and impaired social relationships.
My first initial reaction to the diagnosis was ashamed. I felt ashamed for who I was, and I felt ashamed seeing the absolute grief stricken look on my Mothers face. It haunted me for years on end, and I was in denial a lot of the time about my illness. I was careless in the way I needed to look after myself as I didn't feel like a human being. I viewed the whole diagnosis as a flaw in character. I viewed it as something being wrong with me. I was a slave to the stigma surrounding it. Googling things obsessively and boxing myself to the point the diagnosis started to define who I was. This is where the roller coaster ride started to fall off the tracks. I was falling off, sometimes feeling broken beyond repair. But the beauty of this illness is we have resilience, and each time I felt I was falling off, I always picked myself up and dusted myself off. Sometimes not always with the support of others, but I was always determined and driven to find ways to survive.
Second stop on the roller coaster is the intense part. Where you are going down hill really fast and you are literally hanging on to the railings on the seat of the ride. Where everything goes really blurry and you dont know if you will make it off the ride alive. Thats how I was feeling for a numerous amount of years of my life.
I was an in patient at A Psych Ward on and off for 5 years after my diagnosis. I would stay there for a couple of weeks while nurses would manage my medication in take and doctors would monitor me to make sure I was safe to go back into the outside world. Everyone views staying in wards in a negative manner, how ever I didn't. I found it extremely practical when I was at my most with my ideations, and I was able to regulate my emotions better being away from my social networks. I use to call them my ‘breathers’, where I was able to detach myself from the world and focus on myself a lot better. I felt more supported in there then the social network I had at the time. I had true loyal friendships, but the biggest triggers for me I discovered was when I entered intimate relationships. My interpersonal skills were immaculate, but as soon as I was romantically linked to anyone, my wise mind interpersonal skills seemed to go out of the window. My heart was full and I craved to be loved unconditionally by a partner, as that was something that wasn't present when I was a child. I entered destructive relationships to fix the abuse from my past, only to put myself in danger when I was at my most vulnerable. As all relationships, there were beautiful occasions. But when conflict arises, it was some of the darkest periods of my life.
Abandonment was the biggest trigger of all for me. Extending from my family experience, I begged and I pleaded with partners not to leave me alone with my own thoughts. I was on my hands and knees, idolising them and as soon as they saw my mask fall off and the pain seep out, they didn't know how to handle it. They would view me as ‘too much’, ‘too intense’, ‘too caring’ and ‘too nice’. There was never an in between, I was always ‘too much’. I craved acceptance and validation. I thrived off that to survive. One of the biggest lessons of my battle is this- not everyone is going to be able to validate my mental illness. So the lesson of being able to validate my own feelings and emotions started to take place.
I was in and out of emergency, desperately clinging on to the hope that I would be lead into a direction where the right help would be available. I became a regular in hospitals around Perth, to the point people closest to me became desensitised to my hospitalisations. It became a regular occurrence through out my years with my illness. Being escorted by the police into emergency department. Having over night stays but only to be scurried out two days later because of the shortage of beds. I was pinched and probed with drips each time I acted on my ideations. Some nurses I had were very proactive and helpful, but unfortunately not all mental health professionals I have had encounters with have all been on the same professional level. I am hoping in years to come that everyone will be on the same page when it comes to treating mental illnesses and mental health issues that are reoccurring.
Another negative relationship experience lead me to making a move over east and entering the Victoria mental health system where I was lead to a psychologist. She changed my life in so many inspiring and helpful ways, which kept me more focused on recovery. She introduced me to components of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which is the leading therapy in the world for a BPD diagnosis. After spending three months with her, I was able to learn how to manage and cope in healthier ways. I was slowly starting to learn a life where I didn't resort to suicide ideations and self harm to cope with the pain I was experiencing.
So this is the final stage of the roller coaster ride. Where you start to slow down towards the end, brakes coming to a gentle halt and where the adrenaline rush starts to wear off. You start to focus on your breathing a lot better and you are able to take in your surroundings once you get off the ride. There are times where I have stepped back on the ride, re experiencing the thrills and spills of the roller coaster. But this last stage I have learnt coping mechanisms to be able to handle the down falls of the ride, and have the bravery to get back on even when I am at the brink of exhaustion.
I was at my wits end with my illness. The self harm and isolation had reached an all time high, my friends had to visit me daily as I refused to seek the treatment I needed to really fight this. Back and fourth to emergency department, I needed a change of scenery as I didn’t for see a future here. Taking that step out of my comfort zone lead me to the right track to get my health back. I was able to learn small mindfulness components through my psychologist. Unfortunately I lost a family member and friend, so my psychologist and I both agreed for me to come back home and enter the Perth system again.
Being back in Perth, everything started off well. I returned home December 2016, back to my support network of close friends I had acquired over the years. The more my friends stood by me through my battle, the more they were able to try help me to the best of their abilities. I left the people behind who refused to try understand that my illness wasn’t a choice in behaviours, and view it as what I view it as- a brain disorder. There are parts of my brain that shut down in BPD crisis, which impairs my rational mind. Everything becomes very distorted and that is where my coping skills break down. That is where my needs of people supporting me should be met. Anyone who is suicidal should not have to face that battle alone.
It was February this year I had suffered a psychosis which saw me hospitalised again. I had entered another attachment based relationship where I was abandoned when I needed someone the most. I had dissociated to the point I started to suffer hallucinations, paranoia and emotional distress. I had tried to take my life again, and was placed in MHAU in a local hospital. I was an inpatient for 3 days, where I was guided to 2 weeks of hospital in the home visits. Hospital in the home visits is where a mental health team of mental health nurses, doctors and psychologists would visit me an hour each day to set up a mental health recovery plan out of hospital.
To be honest, as much as they helped me and guided me to the recovery DBT program I am in now, the wait list for mental health help here in Perth is daunting. The process to also be placed into a program is emotionally draining and consuming to the point you sometimes think bathing in your mental illness would be easier then seeking the help you really need. After numerous doctor appointments with a doctor telling me I was at ‘too high risk’ of suicide to be placed in to one on one psychology help, I decided to keep seeking out different perspectives and help from other professionals here in Western Australia. So navigating and weaving my way through the system, I was able to reach the help I really needed.
I went to two screening to be placed in to two DBT programs. I went to one North Metro way in Osborne Park, known as the 360 DBT program. The second one I went to was the ALIVE program screening which is out in Guildford. For our own safety and to treat this illness, we have to go through a gruelling one and a half hour interview, and once that interview is over you are not guaranteed a position straight away. The wait list for the 360 program was 12-18 months, and the ALIVE program being 6 months. I was fortunate enough to be offered a position in the ALIVE DBT program this year. I am approaching my 7th week this week.
The therapy you under go to manage BPD has four components. Mindfulness, Interpersonal Skills, Emotional Regulation and Distress Tolerance. A lot of the components I know logically how to do, but the hardest part is separating yourself emotionally. We have to re train our brains in order to survive this distressing mental illness. Some weeks in therapy have been rewarding, other weeks have been consuming and other weeks have been challenging. I believe a common misconception on the road to recovery is people believe as soon as you are in therapy, you are ‘cured’. I dont believe I will ever be cured as such, but I will be able to re train my brain to manage and cope with this illness for the rest of my life.
I am now working tirelessly with other compassionate people here in Perth co designing a BPD program that can be accessed easily, with out the screenings, the hospitalisations, the back and fourth through the system. We have a year plan to really change the way society views BPD, and finally make this stigmatised illness normalised. Looking back on the 11 years I have had with BPD, I do not regret any experience I have had. It has lead me to the most rewarding and hard working times of my life, where I excelled beyond my own expectations. There are a lot of lessons to be had, but the three that really got me through are these:
There are people out there that care for you. I use to believe I was a massive burden on my friends, family members and people closest to me who had interaction. I have had friends go above and beyond for me because I had the bravery to come forward and reach out for help when I hit crisis point. There were times I was reaching out to the wrong people which really hinder my road to recovery and healing. But by swimming through those sea of people, I began to learn the true meaning of loyalty and friendship. A friend this year reminded me I am healing from an emotional injury. An emotional injury takes a longer process to recover and heal from.
The second thing I learnt is that road to recovery is not as simple as I believed it would be. Working on yourself and coming forward admitting that you want help is terrifying to say the least. But the most terrifying thing so far is discovering layers of myself I didn’t even acknowledge. These layers that are stripping are slowly letting me heal. I had to learn how to nurture myself through self care in healthy ways that were completely out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t imagine a Carissa who didn’t self harm or act on her suicide ideations. But here I am bearing scars, which I like to refer to as my battle wounds. I still experience suicidal thoughts, but I am able to manage them effectively and validate them on my own.
Lastly, the biggest thing I learnt is not everyones experience with mental illness is going to be the same as mine. I feel this is where majority of health professionals and society go wrong. We aren’t able to validate or show compassion because we are constantly comparing illnesses. I have seen people punished for the way they try to manage and cope because their illness is so stigmatised and misunderstood. For example, your friend who has depression may use lifeline and be commended for using that source for help. But Carissa here finds other outlets more helpful, but can be hounded for her coping mechanism and viewed as not wanting to try get the help needed. Different things work for different people, and I believe if we approach everyones illness individually, we can really help those people stay on the right paths of seeking help that they want and that they need.
This is where I ask you to sit back and relax. The ride has come to a stop, but just for now. As I slowly step off the ride back on to land, I look back on how exhausting it really all is. But as I walk off in to the distance, looking back on everyone I left behind, I can see the strong support network in the horizon, smiling happily at me knowing that I have pulled through each time I didn’t want to wake up. Knowing each time I have fallen down, I always, always have picked myself back up. Knowing each time I felt like giving up, that hope was pulling me through. I stand proud of who I am becoming today and I will stop at nothing until I make sure people like me are feeling safe, validated and loved. I will not stop until this illness is treated with the compassion it deserves. I will not stop period, as this is only just the beginning to the big difference I am willing to make. Thank you.