Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in her early 20s, Rosie felt ashamed, isolated and confused. The stigma of BPD has silenced people for years – but she’s had enough. Through her poetry, Rosie is leading the way for change, and showing that everyone deserves love, support, and most importantly, a voice
Mental illness can often feel like a silent struggle. Finding and sharing the right words to capture the confusion and emotion of life with a mental health condition is no mean feat. It is especially challenging because these feelings are not always visible to the outside world.
Even with various efforts being made to end the stigma, silence remains an experience for many when it comes to discussing our own mental health.
For Rosie, silence was a defining part of her early experiences as she navigated life with a mental illness. “In the beginning, I felt like I had no one to talk to,” she says. “I felt extremely ashamed, isolated and confused.”
Rosie was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) when she was 23. “For years, I carried my BPD around like a dirty little secret,” she recalls. “Any attempt I made to say the words ‘borderline personality disorder’ made me want to vomit.”
BPD, sometimes called emotionally unstable personality disorder, is characterised by affective dysregulation, disturbed patterns of thinking or perception, and impulsive behaviour.
These characteristics are believed to emerge as adaptive, defensive strategies from the chronic trauma, interpersonal violence, or emotionally-unprotective environments often experienced by people with BPD.
Chartered psychologist Kimberley Wilson says: “People with a diagnosis of BPD can often feel under siege by their own thoughts and emotions, and become sensitive towards any hint of rejection from those around them.”
Rosie adds: “I would describe a BPD episode as a moment of emotional agony. In those moments, I am deafened by my thoughts and drowning in emotions.”
Unfortunately, BPD is a condition layered with myths, stereotypes and misrepresentations. Many people with BPD recall being dismissed as ‘over-dramatic’ and ‘attention-seekers’, feeling coerced into silence and secrecy for their own self-preservation.
The sanctions of silence surrounding BPD were immediately apparent to Rosie. “The psychiatrist who diagnosed me told me it would be better if she didn’t record my diagnosis in my medical notes,” she says. “Essentially, she was telling me to hide my BPD.”
Individuals with BPD tend to be treated with less compassion than those with other mental health concerns. Misunderstandings about the term ‘personality disorder’ drive a lot of aggression toward someone living with BPD, due to the belief that it is the person’s own identity that is to blame for their condition.
People with BPD are sometimes cast as ‘difficult patients’, and become the target of frustration from under-resourced and overstretched clinical teams. This rejection and hostility can intensify the punishing effects of BPD by confirming the worst fears of the person living with the condition.
Rosie set out to show that people with BPD are caring, kind and loving. She wanted to demonstrate that a diagnosis doesn’t have to lead to a life of shame, guilt and silence.
I want people going through emotional distress to be seen, heard, and cared for, with respect and compassion
Rosie began to chronicle her experience through poetry, and started her now award-winning blog, ‘Talking About BPD’. These outlets were a way for her to talk about her life when she felt there was no other way to communicate honestly.
“Writing is a tool which helps me bear these strong emotions,” she says. “It creates a space between myself and my thoughts. In these spaces, I can choose how to act, rather than reacting on impulse out of fear and anxiety.”
Commanding the language of one’s own mental health can help create a sense of autonomy and personhood, a potent tonic for any experience that leaves you feeling invalidated and out of control. As Kimberley Wilson says: “I think it’s always helpful for patients to have some agency over how they and their condition are described. Receiving any health diagnosis can be a dehumanising experience; your personality and personhood can disappear under the weight of the label, and this can be felt even more acutely when your personality is diagnosed as ‘the problem’.”
Poetry provided a channel for Rosie to write about the things that hurt the most, and turn them into an ‘object’.
“It’s hard to convey the intensity of the highs and lows I feel,” she says. “But poetry gives me a way of communicating these extremes.
“Describing myself as an electric eel, and accelerating the rhythms and frequency of the rhymes, can portray a rush of hypomania. I can capture my loneliness by likening myself to a prawn crawling around on the seabed, or convey the terror of an episode by repeating ‘help me’ seven or eight times.”
Rosie’s voice became one of representation and solidarity, letting others know that even in their most difficult moments, they aren’t alone.
“The first time I read my poem ‘Bear’, which is about an eating disorder, a woman said to me that my poem had said the things she wanted to say but didn’t know how,” says Rosie.
Though a powerful tool to help translate the reality of living with a BPD diagnosis, self-exploration isn’t all that the spoken word can achieve. Poetry can function as a platform for promoting social justice, an opportunity to act against the unfair treatment that emerges from misunderstandings and misrepresentations of mental illness.
It enables people to leave behind the spectator role that separates us from the perspective of others, and gain insight into mental health as a personal experience, felt by someone with a past and a future worth caring about.
Rosie says: “Self-expression can be a form of activism. After all, the personal experiences we have are shaped by the world we live in. Mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is a clear link between social exclusion and marginalisation, and mental health problems.
“More than anything, I want people going through emotional distress to be seen, heard, and cared for, with respect and compassion,” Rosie says. “Lots of people experience BPD as a diagnosis of exclusion from mental health services, and it’s never OK for someone to be left without access to support.”
Rosie’s words aren’t a call to action to talk, as she acknowledges that not everyone wants to, or feels safe doing so. It is an effort to mitigate the guilt and shame so often enveloped in a diagnosis of BPD.
Rosie says: “When reading my writing, I feel compassion towards myself. My writing bears witness to moments of pain, and as a result becomes proof of my survival too.”
Kimberley Wilson is a dialectical behaviour therapy-trained chartered psychologist. Find out more at monumentalhealth.co.uk