SOME TIME AGO, Laurie’s mother was digging through old documents when she came across a piece of paper that caught her eye. It was a doctor’s report written back when Laurie was just 13 years old.
“There’s this chief complaint section in the report, and in it the doctor quotes me saying, ‘I do stuff that I don’t want to do. It’s getting worse, and I cannot control my anger,’ which is a clear snapshot of a 13 year-old who knows something is wrong and is asking for help,” Laurie says.
At the bottom of the report, under a section marked Diagnosis, the doctor wrote one word: Dysthymia. Laurie had no idea what the word meant at the time (it’s the name of a mood disorder not too different from depression), but it would nonetheless mark her life for the next few years.
“Unfortunately that doctor got my diagnosis wrong, which meant that it would be a long time before my mental health was properly treated,” says Laurie, who is now 24. “Looking back, it’s interesting to think that that visit played such an important role in my life, yet I had totally forgotten that it had even happened.”
After the diagnosis I understood that my reactions and emotions were caused by my mental health challenge which was comforting, but I also knew that I’d have to work really hard to explain that to other people and accept that I was living with a disorder that I had read so many negative things about.
THIS WOULDN’T BE THE LAST TIME LAURIE ASKED FOR HELP. Over the next few years, she’d see a handful of different nurses and doctors, none of whom were able to pinpoint the exact cause of her distress.
During that time, Laurie’s violent outbursts not only continued—they grew worse with time. New symptoms like extreme anxiety and irrational fears also emerged, and Laurie’s life began to quickly spiral out of control.
By the time she was 18, her anger had gotten so bad that on one occasion her mother had to call the police on her. No charges were pressed however; she was asked not to return home.
“I remember that it was two days after Christmas, and I was just walking around the streets on my own, thinking ‘I don’t have a home, I don’t know what to do.’ Luckily, one of the few friends I had left at the time took me in,” she says. “But even though I found a place to stay that night, it became clear to me that if I wanted a future, something was going to have to change.”
A week or so later, Laurie was sitting in front of a brand new counsellor. Although she wasn’t entirely sure that seeing someone new would bring the relief she so desperately needed, her doubts were dissipated as soon as the two started talking.
Laurie immediately felt a special connection with her new counsellor, and for the first time in years felt comfortable opening up to someone about her history, her true thoughts and her symptoms. After hearing everything that Laurie had to say, the counsellor looked straight into her eyes and told her something she wasn’t expecting:
“I can’t officially give you a diagnosis,” she said. “But I’m pretty sure that what you have is Borderline Personality Disorder.”
ACCORDING TO THE CENTRE FOR ADDICTION AND MENTAL HEALTH, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is “a serious, long-lasting and complex mental health problem” in which people have a difficult time dealing with their emotions or controlling their impulses.
People with BPD can be hyper-aware of their surrounding environment, and may harm themselves or others when attempting to deal with intense emotions.
Laurie knew a few things about BPD from her psychology classes, but was no expert on the matter. That’s why as soon as she left her appointment that day, she began researching everything she could about it.
She quickly realized that the symptoms matched perfectly with how she was feeling, and for the first time in years she felt validated about what she was going through. But her research also showed that recovery could be extremely difficult, and that BPD was among the most stigmatized mental health challenges.
“After the diagnosis I understood that my reactions and emotions were caused by my mental health challenge which was comforting, but I also knew that I’d have to work really hard to explain that to other people and accept that I was living with a disorder that I had read so many negative things about,” she remembers.
Laurie knew that accepting her diagnosis would be an uphill battle, but she was ready to finally start her journey towards recovery.
BY THE TIME LAURIE RECEIVED HER OFFICIAL DIAGNOSIS EIGHT MONTHS LATER, she had become quite an expert in BPD. By then she was 19, and had read plenty of stories of people who were living with the diagnosis. She had even refocused her psychology studies at Simon Fraser University towards researching the disorder, which meant that, when the time came to finally start her treatment, she was ready to face it head on.
This open-mind and positive attitude, coupled with the guidance she received from her counsellor and from the group therapy sessions she regularly attended, allowed Laurie to learn how to manage BPD’s often-overpowering symptoms.
“After so many years of suffering, it was amazing to learn strategies that would help me deal with my mental health,” she says. “If you think about it, it was something I had been looking for ever since I was 13 years old.”
Today, Laurie does a lot of things to maintain her wellness. She sings in a choir, runs, and talks to her friends whenever she’s feeling down. She also tries her best to practice mindfulness when she needs to calm herself down, and has embraced something called radical acceptance, a strategy recommended to her by her counsellor that allows her to accept her diagnosis and everything it entails.
“Radical acceptance has taught me that if I get angry or beat myself up about my diagnosis or something that happened 10 years ago, I’ll never be able to move forward,” she says. “Accepting these things from the past that I have no control over allows me to refocus my attention on things I can actually change, which lets me live a much better life.”
This new attitude has helped shape Laurie’s mission in life, which is to change the ways in which BPD is understood, diagnosed and treated, so that no one has to go through the same ordeal she went through.
To do this, she redirects all her energies towards her work as a mental health advocate. She gives talks at schools, participates in policy discussions, and facilitates open conversations about BPD and mental health amongst young people. Her goal? To change the way parents, doctors, policy makers and youth approach this often-ignored and highly stigmatized subject.
“On a large scale, I’ve made it my mission to use my voice to decrease stigma at all levels of society, while giving youth a voice when it comes to changing the mental health system,” she says. “And on the smaller scale, I’m engaging youth in projects that will change their immediate reality for the better, and what’s amazing is that they – like me in the past – had no idea they had that power.”
This story is part of a series aimed at sharing the experiences of young people across BC. As part of Foundry’s goal to work alongside young people, create connections and promote mental health and wellness, we are creating a platform for young people’s stories to be heard.
Article by Peter Mothe. Photography by Connor McCracken.
If you are in crisis, please call 1-800-784-2433.