Bordering on Disaster: The Mental Health Diagnosis That Saved Me
These are the scariest words I've ever written.
Partly because of what "everyone" will think. But mainly because it feels like it could be self-sabotaging behavior. And I know a thing or two about self-sabotage. Because it's part of my mental health diagnosis.
See, I have Borderline Personality Disorder.
In my imagination, I picture you backing away from me slowly about now.
Please, don't leave. (If you aren't familiar with BPD, that was a joke about abandonment. It's OK to laugh.)
Outside my family, I've shared my diagnosis with about five of my closest friends. And since I'm prone to the occasional overshare, I've also told about 20 casual acquaintances, past colleagues and complete strangers. And now, you.
So, why am I sharing this more openly now? Because it's Mental Health Awareness Month. Because very few people talk about Borderline in our industry (or in general) and being open helps break down the stigma. And because, thanks to therapy, I'm getting better.
My story goes something like this.
Five years ago, my mother passed away and I felt almost no emotion. Big red flag. Reconnecting with estranged siblings unlocked a bucket of repressed memories from a year of my childhood I now refer to as "The Horror Show." As a result of these newfound memories, I became a walking panic attack. I was in constant, intense anxiety and swimming in self-loathing for two straight weeks, until my wife pleaded with me to seek out therapy.
I saw a specialist in trauma and memory. And spent several months undergoing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment. The therapist helped me reprocess much of that year, plus a few other little gems from childhood that we uncovered along the way. I found forgiveness for most of the cast of "The Horror Show," including myself. I felt better.
That's also when I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
At first, I was in denial. How could I have accomplished the things in my life with such a burden? A 25-year advertising career. A beautiful family. A nice home. Hobbies. Friends. The diagnosis must be wrong. I'd forgiven everyone and myself and felt just fine. Right? I didn't need any more help. Don't mind me, I'm doing a-okay.
I tried my best to go on with life, but now I was aware. And the more I read about Borderline Personality Disorder, the clearer it became that I ticked the boxes.
Looking back, the signs have been there my whole adult life. I've never felt that my mental health affected my creativity or talent as an art director and designer, but it certainly contributed to some very regrettable moments at pretty much every agency where I've ever worked. And if you know me or have worked with me, some pieces are probably falling into place right about now.
I've said hurtful things in outbursts that I can never unsay. I've overreacted in ways that, I can see clearly now, sabotaged great jobs, working relationships and, sadly, friendships that may never be repaired. I've confounded even my biggest supporters. I've made impulsive decisions and taken outrageously impulsive actions. And I've spent months at a time contemplating the value of my life. Well, mostly its lack of value.
Yeah, the signs have always been there.
A reality check showed a career held together by fishing line and duct tape. A family that I had a hard time relating to. A pile of neglected friendships. Every day was an emotional roller coaster ride. And over time, I slipped into a dark, dark corner of my mind.
I try not to use the S word. Ever. But I woke up one morning and realized I had a plan for how much better off everyone would be if I wasn't here anymore. While inside my head I was ready to end it all, outwardly I was a walking whirlwind of emotion. And one morning, in a moment of clarity, I realized I was in a terrifying place. I needed help.
To top it all off, I hadn't told my wife about my diagnosis, and she was at the end of her rope. So I came clean with her. At first, she had a moment of denial, too. But quickly realized how much it all made sense. Through this all, she has been my saving grace and the fire behind me, pushing me to treatment.
I sought out help specifically for Borderline and completed a year-long program called Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT). It's been a miracle for me. In a little over a year of individual and group therapy and no small amount of "homework," I learned how to respond, rather than react. To better manage (and feel) emotion, fear, impulsiveness and social situations. I can argue a point without making it a fight. I can accept that making mistakes or being wrong is part of everyday life. And I learned to believe and trust in myself and others again. Most importantly, I found profound relief.
It's been a year since I completed the DBT program. I still regularly study up on the skills. And I still screw up occasionally. But I don't leave a smoking crater behind me when I do. Socially I'm much less awkward, too. (Sorry if I didn't make eye contact when you were talking to me at that ad industry event. I promise I was listening.)
I'm grateful to report every aspect of my life is in upswing. And I've survived the stress of starting my own business, three moves and a massive home remodel during a global pandemic. My wife and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary this year. And that dark place in my head is a distant memory.
But it struck me recently (another reason I feel compelled to share this) that over the years, I've witnessed behaviors a lot like my own in other creatives.
The creative department attracts eccentric personalities, large egos, and those with the empathy and sensitivity to create work that people can feel and relate to. Weird is wonderful in our line of work. We need it and thrive on it.
But because of that, we also likely have a larger percentage of folks with unique mental health issues walking among us. So take a look around. Someone (including you) could be suffering and afraid to admit it. But I'm here to tell you, admitting it and finding help it was one of the scariest, yet most liberating things I've ever done. (Sharing this article is a close second.)
If you are in a dark, scared or confused place, please seek help. Don't feel like you have to go it alone. It's hard to talk about our mental health issues, I get it. But it's even harder to deal with them in silence.