by Lucie Kavanagh, See Change Ambassador
“When you judge others, you do not define them, you define yourself”
― Earl Nightingale
Very ironically the day I received my official diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder was also the day of one of the highest points in my career as a social care worker. I had spent recent years developing a visual communication aid for one of the women I supported in the group home in which I worked and thanks to a HIQA inspection, I had been given free rein to develop communication aids for the other people who lived in the house. That day I went straight from my psychiatric appointment to a meeting at work where I introduced what I had come up with and set out the plans for beginning to work on them with each person. My presentation was well received and straight away the work I had done began to make a difference.
I also went home that evening and Googled my diagnosis. Immediately I noticed that, rather than websites talking about the condition and maybe offering supports, there were just as many sites giving advice on how to deal with or cope with people with personality disorders. I read words like “manipulative”, “needy”, “drama seeking”- words that I couldn’t identify with, but a little voice in my head started to internalise it.
Maybe I am like this.
I had always been quite open at work about my mental health difficulties and had on one previous occasion needed to take time off to regroup. Despite the negativity I had observed online, I decided to tell my managers about my diagnosis. It felt like a responsible thing to do and a way of hopefully keeping pressure off myself if I could be open about how things were. Previous years of masking had led to nothing but exhaustion and hopelessness.
I arranged to speak to my manager alone and told her about the diagnosis. Not much was said in response but a few days later I was asked to meet with her again alongside someone from our HR department. I was a bit alarmed at this but still, rather naively, believed that my years of working alongside them and the sector we were in would mean that there was understanding around what I had told them.
This was not the case. At the meeting I was asked to see the company doctor to assess my fitness for work; I agreed to this and then was asked to tell them about Borderline Personality Disorder. I was still getting my head around the diagnosis myself and struggled to put words to it when my manager, who at that point had known me and been nothing but complimentary about my work for years interrupted with a sentence that has haunted me ever since.
“We’ve Googled it and it’s not pretty.”
I think at that moment I suddenly realised that in their eyes I had become something other than myself. I had worked in the same organisation for 17 years, but it seemed to no longer matter. It was a very awkward meeting and I suddenly started to understand that this diagnosis would cast a long shadow in front of me.
I did go to see the company doctor, who concluded that there were no difficulties with my fitness to work. He felt I had reasonably good insight into my difficulties, was getting support and taking all advice offered. He seemed a little surprised about why I had been sent to see him.
But rather than taking any pressure off, that meeting at work left me with a feeling that I had to be perfect and prove that I was still me. I started to come in earlier for my shifts and to leave later at the end. It felt like nothing would ever be good enough to erase those words.
In the end I had to take time off. One day I reached the end of my ability to keep going. I was exhausted, physically and mentally. My GP wrote me off for a few weeks and I began to think about what I could do to prevent this from happening again. I had at that stage been doing shift work for 15 years and it was suggested by my psychiatrist that day work would be much healthier for me. It would mean that I could work on always getting enough sleep at home, using medication if needed, and this would help with overall mental health. I had seen colleagues over the years getting different accommodations in a variety of circumstances but nothing seemed possible when I asked about this. The only thing I was offered was to work at a lower grade in a different service but still shift work. I accepted the offer, but felt disgraced, as if I had done something wrong and was being demoted.
In the end I didn’t make that change. The anxiety around work grew and the awareness of the attitudes around me and the unwillingness to meet me halfway had a very detrimental effect on my mental health. I was offered 6 months unpaid leave and took it but in that time there was complete silence from work; no signs that anyone would like me to return, no feeling that anything would change if I did. I had been told in a letter to not contact work in that time “for my own health” but it felt more like I was being told to keep away. After the 6 months the meetings started up again but I found it very hard to overcome my anxiety about meeting my managers and it was very evident that I was struggling.
The situation came to a head one terrible evening in a local hotel where I met with my managers for the last time and was dismissed from my job. The meeting lasted about fifteen minutes, and no one warned me what it was about or suggested that I bring anyone with me for support or advocacy. I only wish that I had been in a better headspace to challenge what happened. But sadly, it took me a long time to get past the feeling that I was wrong, and that I deserved what happened. I felt tainted and wrong and in the months after losing my job, there were major financial problems and a real threat of losing my home. I spent the time firefighting, trying to keep myself alive and my life as intact as I could.
What really hurts now is the fact that me disclosing a diagnosis turned into a catalyst that led to so much loss and trauma. Being diagnosed with BPD didn’t mean anything about me had changed. My difficulties had been with me for most of my life and I was addressing them. I had never received negative feedback at work. I loved my job and was always able to throw myself completely into it while on shift. The people around me had all known me for many years. And yet it counted for nothing in the end. That still hurts.
The other point that still hurts a lot is the fact that, at probably my most vulnerable, people I had known for years, met me without advising me to seek support, and dismissed me from my much-loved career in such a quick and cold-hearted way. I was just lucky that evening that I managed to get myself to my GP who offered me support (and expressed fury about what had happened which did help a bit). Their judgement overcame their knowledge and loyalty towards a fellow colleague and caused so much heartbreak. When I lost my job, I had worked in the organisation for nearly 20 years.
Ironically, as things turned out, seven years after all of that, I was diagnosed with autism – just like many of the people that the organisation serves. However, I find it nearly impossible to talk about with people I know. The desire to be open has been replaced with caution and fear.
If you are in a position of hearing that someone you know has been given a mental health diagnosis and you want to read up on it, please do so only from trusted and knowledgeable websites. I find MIND one of the most helpful. Please be aware that the diagnosis does not tell you anything about the person and their own experience of the diagnosis. Reserve judgement and stay away from stereotypes.
As devastating as the above events were, I don’t regret that diagnosis of BPD. It taught me a lot-about people, about emotions, about stigma and about labels. It made me see how badly any of us can be judged for a diagnosis that is completely out of our control. It made me find a strength to survive that I didn’t know I had and challenge the worse kinds of stereotypes. It means that I am writing this now in the hopes that someone might read it who needs to hear that they do not deserve judgement or stereotyping about their own diagnosis. Quite the opposite. Usually, a mental health difficulty or diagnosis sadly means that that person has battled through very difficult times. That deserves recognition of the strength and the fight that it took. Most of all, it deserves an open mind.
“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”
― Amy Poehler
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following