Seeing Beyond My Medical Chart: BPD, Addiction, and Eating Disorders
by Niko Bellott
I’ve been told I am crazy more times than I’ve been told I’m smart or strong or worthy of love. I’ve been diagnosed and re-diagnosed. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out what’s “wrong” with me and how to “fix” myself.
When I was ten, I saw my first therapist. She had long hair and a long skirt and I knew better than to trust her. She wanted me to write letters to my dad that we weren’t actually going to send. I didn’t understand why she kept wanting to talk about my dad, who was in jail for reasons never explained to me. I vowed to never look her in the eye and to say whatever I thought she wanted to hear. She was the first of many throughout my youth.
When I was fifteen, my friend died by suicide. He was a ray of sunshine in my life so it didn’t make any sense. He was the first boy I had ever really kissed. I was sent to the guidance counselors’ offices for “Grief” support groups where we said the serenity prayer in unison, asking God to help us figure out what we could and couldn’t change and the wisdom to know the difference. I didn’t have the wisdom to know the difference. I didn’t believe in God. I stopped going to choir because I couldn’t sing anymore. I started wearing all black and listening to music that fit my existential gloom. My mom thought it was just a phase.
I cut all my hair off. Then my mom discovered I was cutting my body too. It regulated my emotions and brought me back into my body. My mom sent me to a new therapist who told me I was depressed. I didn’t feel sad as much as I felt nothing and everything at the same time. I either felt empty or out of control with rage. By harming myself I could turn the rage into empty. I could control it.
When I was sixteen, I started starving myself. It was even better than cutting because it was a game I could play all day long. I was disciplined and could go days without eating. I’d survive on saltine crackers or chewing gum. I’d draw a red “F” for FASTING in permanent marker on my right hand. I felt powerful watching my classmates eat their lunches, how weak they must be to have to eat every few hours. I didn’t need anything. I didn’t sleep at night. I stayed awake, manic from lack of food.
I didn’t realize that if I had to control something, it meant it was out of control. I wrote down everything I ingested. I counted calories. I weighed myself in the high school weight room as many times a day as I could until I was banned by a teacher. I exercised until I passed out. I got kicked off the indoor track team. People told me I looked like a skeleton. When I visited my grandma I stole boxes of laxatives. I started making myself throw up. It wasn’t that gross. It was more ritualistic than anything. Honestly, it felt comforting. Sometimes I wouldn’t flush the toilet filled with half chewed binge-meals as a cry for help. But no one in my family ever said anything. I got sent to a new therapist.
The new therapist saved my life when he told me I was going to die. I confessed that I didn’t care about being skinny, I just wanted to be in control. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted everyone to know how much I was suffering. I just wanted everyone to love me in ways it felt like they never would. I just wanted my dad to not have abandoned me and my friend to not have died and my mom to say I love you instead of sending me to therapists. I just wanted to know what I did to deserve this.
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I discovered drugs and alcohol. Suddenly I wasn’t paralyzed with the fear of what people thought of me. Suddenly I had no feelings. I didn’t mind the blackouts or bruises or betrayals or waking up next to someone I barely knew or losing my phone or wallet or keys or puking my guts out or getting arrested or getting lost or getting an STD—because I had real relief from my mind. I wasn’t sober for 24 hours for an entire decade.
Yet, the drugs and alcohol weren’t my problem—they were my solution, the solution to my mind. My mind was a dangerous place, a feral animal that told me I was worthless and unlovable at a cellular level, that I deserved nothing and that anything that I had would be continually taken from me.
I was miserable but I was too busy escaping my body to even notice it. I showed up to work and I graduated grad school with a near-perfect GPA, but on the inside I felt close to death. My anxiety got so bad that I didn’t want to leave my room. I didn’t want to look in the mirror. My emotions were a Fascist dictator in my tiny life. I could go from laughing to seething to sobbing. I considered for a while that I had contracted rabies or a brain tumor or mad cow disease.
I wreaked havoc on anyone who got close to me. Any friendships I had were based on the validation I could get out of it and any romantic relationships I had were bred out of a toxic fear of abandonment and a relentless urge to prove myself worthy.
Another therapist told me I had borderline personality disorder. He told me it happened when someone grew up in a invalidating environment and developed an irregular sense of self. I figured he was blaming my parents so I was hip to the idea. It is characterized by unstable relationships, impulsive and self-destructive behaviors, paranoia, fear of abandonment, chronic feelings of emptiness and extreme mood swings.
I could be diagnosed if I had five of the nine official symptoms and I had them all. I felt relieved until I went down a rabbit hole of internet research and read about the stigma surrounding people with BPD. I read articles advising people to stay away from women with BPD, because they are manipulative seductresses who will take you on a never ending roller coaster of destruction. Doctors were advised not to take them on as patients. We are manic and malicious and out of control. We are demanding little damsels in distress. We “fake pain” in order to manipulate our loved ones. We are dangerous like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
Other doctors have told me I have anxiety disorder, depression, untreated PTSD and good old fashioned alcoholism. I just wanted answers, and by answers I mean I wanted validation that I was indeed “fucked up.”
When I was twenty-seven, I started going to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy groups. DBT was designed by Marsha Linehan in the late 80s to treat chronically suicidal BPD patients of the hopeless variety. I tried to tell my therapist I had never been truly suicidal, I was just filled with rage. He insisted I try the group anyway.
I sat in the DBT group with life’s other rejects. I felt like I had real problems and these people were crybabies. We watched videos about strategies for “Distress Tolerance” and “Interpersonal Effectiveness”. My therapist gently explained that emotions were like waves and eventually I’d learn how to self soothe. I felt a joke. No one understood how hard it was to be me. I wanted to call my mom and scream, “IT’S NOT JUST A PHASE!”
The DBT group was a bare bones beginning. My estranged father died from alcoholism the day after Thanksgiving in 2015. You could call it a wakeup call because once you look into a mirror, you can’t un-see your reflection. I began to recover when I gave up and admitted I could not live with myself anymore. I got sober and started accepting spiritual help from others who had been where I had been.
Today, I never know if it’s anxiety or depression or alcoholism or BPD or PTSD or simply the existential crisis inherent to being human that’s causing me to suffer, and to be frank, I don’t care. I stay focused on the solution rather than ruminating on the problem. Today I know I don’t have to believe my thoughts, that my fleeting feelings aren’t facts and that I’m going to be okay no matter what. Today I live in reality.
Since my recovery began I’ve learned how to tell the truth, say sorry and ask for help. I’ve learned how to be vulnerable and to have realistic expectations of others and myself. I’ve learned that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s being afraid of something but going through with it anyway.
Now I can cultivate healthy relationships around communication, trust and a gentle loving kindness. I have loved ones who I don’t have to cut out of my life every two seconds for not meeting my unreasonable demands. I don’t settle for black and white thinking. I have healthy coping skills and a set of tools, even some I took from my dreaded DBT group.
Today, I still have challenges and there are things I don’t like about myself, but I can accept myself as I am. I have problems but I am still worthy of love.
Now I know that there’s nothing wrong with me. I might have a brain that’s hardwired to self-destruct, but at the end of the day, I’m just another human being having a human experience. Sometimes I need a little extra help and care. The truth is I’m not broken and neither are you. I am not defined by what is or isn’t in my medical chart. Being a human is an everyday battle and asking for help is the best thing I’ve ever done. While I have healed many old wounds, the healing has only just begun.