Living with BPD during Christmas – Liz’s story
Christmas can be a difficult time for people living with severe mental illness. Liz reflects on her experience of grief, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), sharing tips on how to stay grounded during the festive season.
I live with borderline personality disorder (BPD), which alongside my current chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) can make my day to day life a challenge! Life was hard enough having to constantly be aware of my psychological state, but now I’m faced with a combination of both mental and physical challenges.
I was diagnosed with BPD in my late 50s after many years of depression, flare ups of anger and other traits symptomatic of a personality disorder. After a lot of effort, I was able to access a Complex Needs Service and spent three years attending a weekly therapeutic community group. I learned so much about the illness and how to recognise and manage my emotions, behaviours and triggers.
Unfortunately, I developed chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and had to retire from nursing earlier than I wanted. CFS means I have to pace myself in everything I do, including emotional and psychological effort. Extreme fatigue has depleted my ability to use my learned skills and my BPD has flared up this year. I’ve had to seek help once again.
BPD creates an all or nothing emotional response. Black and white, no grey. And at times, no colour.
Christmas was always special when I was a child. Family gathered and celebrated. We were not a particularly religious family, so no church attendance. It was a family affair. Losing my mum when I was 24 changed everything for me.
As many of you will know, BPD creates an all or nothing emotional response. Black and white, no grey. And at times, no colour. So, Christmas became a time when instead or feeling warm and loved, I felt empty. This worsened after my dad died when I was 29.
I have spent a lot of my adult life with undiagnosed BPD; playing various roles to fit in, be accepted and be “normal”. Christmas is one of those times where I have to be jolly, cheerful etc. Using alcohol was a way of achieving this state. Unfortunately, it also allows the demons to show their face; losing control of that closely hidden rage, despair and sadness. Now, I don’t drink alcohol at all.
Since then, I’ve “celebrated” because it was the thing to do. As a community nurse, I have tended to volunteer to work some parts of Christmas, even after I had my daughter and a renewed desire to make it special. I felt as though by working, I could fill that emptiness by caring for others. Having been forced into retirement by a decline in my physical health this year will continue to challenge me.
Choose who you’re with at Christmas. Be at peace with yourself, you matter.
Feeling lonely in a crowd is one of the worst things and I know many of you will be feeling the same. Even at family gatherings there can be an overwhelming sense of isolation, of being different or just not fitting in. Of course there have been moments of joy - watching my daughter open her presents as a child (she’s now 27!) - yet inside I yearned for my own parents.
When I go into shops in September and see Christmas trees, I remember the happiness I had as a child. I try and grasp that with both hands. I realise many people don’t have happy memories. I’m sorry if that is the case. I would like to embrace each and every one of you.
Honestly, it’s difficult to stay in the moment. It takes so much practice. But I try and use some of the things I’ve learned over the years: breathing, nature (birdsong), touching something soft, using my senses to keep me grounded. Music is great too, to shut up those annoying thoughts for a while - but maybe not Christmas carols! And I journal every day. Get it out of your head, it does help.
Choose who you’re with at Christmas. Be at peace with yourself, you matter. All I can say is that I’m grateful each year to be alive, to have another chance to move forward, recover and become me again. It’s so, so hard. But as a wise person once said, it’s better than the alternative.
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