Living with mental illness: Learning to accept your positive traits with the rest

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy looks at the positive traits associated with BPD

I came across an image on Twitter recently, listing the positive traits of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Among them were: passionate, empathetic, creative, artistic, intuitive, resilient, intelligent, witty, spontaneous, intense, devoted... You get the idea.

A few months ago, when I was firmly of the conviction that BPD was an illness, something I’d have for the rest of my life, I would have found this very reassuring. So much of what’s written about BPD paints people with this diagnosis in an extremely negative light, it’s always refreshing to come across something more positive. There would also have been a little niggling feeling of something not sitting right though – that BPD defined every aspect of who I am, good, bad and indifferent, that it was all out of my control.

However, in recent months I’ve been coming to a very different understanding of the term ‘mental illness’ and all that it entails. This is very new to me, and I’m still learning, so forgive me if I’m not making a whole lot of sense. I’m struggling to grasp the extent of it myself. But here’s a thought – what if what we know as mental illness isn’t actually an illness? The symptoms are very, very real, and I’m not denying those for a second. But what if those symptoms point to something more than just a label? What if they point to a reason for the label?

Let me try and explain. I’ve recently started working with a therapist who has some very interesting theories, the most significant of these being that two of the most common mental health difficulties, depression and anxiety, are not in fact illnesses, but emotion(s) tied to events from our past that our brains haven’t processed. Please don’t stop reading!! I was really, really sceptical too. But the more I’m learning about it, and actively experiencing the therapy, the more sense it makes.

Every single thing that happens to us, every single day, from the day we were born, shapes us. Every generation has grown up with different societal problems influencing daily life. For example, I’m an 80’s baby. I remember almost nothing about that time, but as we all know, things weren’t great for the nation as a whole back then, never mind what was going on within individual homes and families. There was a recession. Money was scarce. Jobs were scarce. The church had a powerful hold on the country. It has shaped all of us. How could it not?

I was told quite a few years ago, on discharge from the psychiatric unit actually, that depression was nothing more than un-felt feelings. I scoffed. I refused point blank to believe it, in fact, I think my exact words were, ‘How many un-felt feelings can one person have?!’ As it turns out, quite a lot.

This is what I’ve been learning the last few weeks, and what I’ve been working on. So many of my interactions with other people, my beliefs about the world, about myself, are grounded in thoughts that arose when I was very young. Things happen to all of us that we don’t understand, particularly when we’re kids. I’m not talking about major traumas here, although of course that can be the case. Something that may not even register on an adult’s radar could be problematic for a child. I see it in my own kids all the time – a house fire in the village last year quite literally came between my girl and her sleep, for weeks.

My son believed he was being laughed at by other kids over something extremely important to him, and he was devastated. It would be so easy to dismiss both these events really lightly, after all, we hear a lot about how resilient kids are. But what if it’s less about resilience, and more about learning at a very young age what to say and what to keep to themselves? And how would that impact on them as they grew up? My daughter may learn to keep her fears to herself, become extremely anxious and possibly develop some very flawed coping mechanisms. My son may decide that what’s important to him doesn’t matter, or makes him somehow less than everyone else, and his sense of self-worth would really suffer.

These are truly horrible beliefs to internalise. They stay with us. They dictate our behaviour, our thoughts, our relationships... they grow. They influence our experience, which in turn leads to further faulty beliefs about ourselves. Before we know where we are, we find ourselves as adults, struggling to cope, unsure of our place in the world, and in extreme cases, being given labels like borderline personality disorder.

I’d like to come back to where I started, on the positive traits of BPD. Yes, I’m empathetic, intuitive, resilient and intense. I’m lots of other things too, and I certainly have my faults. But what I now know is that these aren’t because of BPD. They’re who I am. BPD happened because I’ve spent most of my life hiding from that.