Your mental illness is just one part of you. You cannot reduce someone to a diagnosis.
Doctors knew what was likely behind the emptiness that had consumed Courtney throughout her childhood. She found herself hospitalized at age 13—the depression, anxiety, mood swings, and what she describes as genuine, internal torture too much to bear. But the experts treating her said a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) was a heavy label that they didn’t want to give to a young teen.
Doctors speculated I had it, but they weren’t willing to give me a proper diagnosis. They knew about the stigma surrounding BPD and worried about the diagnosis following me as I got older because they believed that many kids “grow out of” what I was experiencing.
Courtney’s story began when she “came out of her mother’s womb as a ball of anxiety.” As a young child, she had friends, but didn’t feel they genuinely cared about her. Her worries were intense. At one point, she recalls going to a large park with her mom. It was snowing. Courtney made her mom hug every tree in the park because she feared the trees were cold.
My parents would often notice that I was acting withdrawn or upset. They’d ask if I was okay, and I would always say yes. Because what was wrong? I looked around and my mom and dad were together. My sister always wanted to play with me. I had everything I needed to be comfortable and was well taken care of. What was there to be sad about? I didn’t have an answer. Sometimes I’d make something up just so they would stop asking.
Courtney continued to cope by harming herself and engaging in an eating disorder following her hospitalization. Before she entered the eighth grade, she was sent to a residential treatment center in Utah, where she’d stay for 10 months. She wasn’t allowed to speak to her friends back home or make simple decisions, like what to eat. But she did enjoy her time painting, visiting the animals at the farm down the road, and even started journaling.
I now realize that experience was lifesaving. I made friends who understood what I was going through. I felt normal there. But I remember thinking I would be better after leaving the hospital, and it was crushing to realize that wasn’t the case. I was starting to learn that I wasn’t just going to wake up one day and magically feel better.
When she left the residential program, she felt confident that her mental health struggles were behind her. Less than a year later, Courtney was hospitalized after choosing to stop taking her medication and beginning to self-harm again. It was then that she fully understood that this was a lifelong illness that would need consistent management.
Even with that understanding, once Courtney started college, she decided to stop seeing a therapist. She used binge-drinking and sexual activity to cope. She felt lonely and isolated, even when surrounded by close friends. By the time she began grad school at age 23, Courtney decided she’d had enough and reached out for help.
Getting that formal diagnosis of borderline personality disorder was freeing. For years I’d wondered why I felt different from everyone else around me, but my diagnosis meant I wasn’t alone. It meant that I could get better, not just treat the peripheral symptoms I was experiencing.
Courtney was able to learn dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) exercises and the skills needed to help manage her illness. She wishes she had received the diagnosis earlier and wonders if it would have saved her from some of the pain she’s experienced. But, she wants others to know it sometimes takes time to find the right kind of help.
Finding the right therapist is like dating. The first person you meet with may not be a perfect match. You need to find a therapist with whom you can connect and feel comfortable. It’s important to have patience and, above all, to keep trying.
Courtney credits her family with providing love and support through the years. When she and her boyfriend aren’t enjoying brunch, Courtney likes to visit bookstores and museums, and watch reality TV shows. The journaling she leaned on during her time in residential treatment turned into a passion for storytelling. She now teaches creative writing and has authored a book, “The Way She Feels: My Life on the Borderline in Pictures and Pieces.”
Stigma thrives in silence and the lack of information breeds fear. We need to talk about what mental illness looks like. Humanize it. And we need to share more stories of people who are getting better through treatment. It really is life-saving. There is always hope.