Black. White. Straight. Gay. Male. Female. Young. Old. Catholic. Muslim. A tiny selection of thousands of labels that exist in the world today. Labels that many fight to disregard on some level because no matter which can be applied to you we are all humans who deserve the same rights and the same respect without preconceived judgement. All of them have clear distinctions between them yet those distinctions should never determine our capabilities or affect our chances in life. Those words should be a celebration of what we are and what they mean to us. It is extremely saddening that this is not always the case. That too often we judge based on these words alone without truly knowing anything about that individual. They are all simply words that when used alone tell people part of the story of what we are but they do not tell the world anything about the most important part: about who we are.
I was recently diagnosed, after a difficult fight to have this confirmed by my doctors, with Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder. Some people may have heard of it as Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s not something that’s generally portrayed in a positive light in the media and it’s also not something many people have an accurate understanding of either.
So why, knowing the stigma that can be attached to any sort of label, did I fight to have one attached to me that has so many negative connotations?
It was not initially a label I desired at all. When the words personality disorder were first used as a part of a description of me I knew absolutely nothing about them. Cue some very long, intensive online searches through medical websites and scholarly articles to soak up as much information as I possibly could about the different types. (Another lesson from the past few months: Do. Not. Google. Illnesses. It is never a good idea and will never give an accurate representation of the situation no matter how reliable you feel the site is). When I realised the symptoms of some of these fit perfectly into how I feel, think and perceive the world around me my response was one of total and utter panic. Why? Because my trusted friend google had painted a devastating picture of someone who was going to be incapable of ever living a normal life, who was always going to feel the same and who was never going to get any better. Google had given me the impression I will dive from one emotional crisis to another, it described me as a manipulative, impulsive and hostile person with nothing but chaotic relationships surrounding me. It was terrifying and it consumed my whole being.
The turn around came several weeks later. First, I had to come to terms with what my new diagnosis meant…without the help of google. My nurses wisely banned anymore ‘researching’ of in-depth and jargon filled papers on the subject and told me to only read what they gave me and ask them questions instead of the internet. Always a good idea to stick with the professionals. The biggest change came when, still, hung up on this new negative label my nurse felt the need to remind me that actually nothing had changed. I’m pretty sure she’d told me this 100 times already and I’d most definitely ignored her all 100 of those times. I was adamant that this did change everything, that I’d been given a life sentence of misery and pain I had to somehow want to survive through. Only she’d had enough of me refusing to listen and told me as much. This label I felt I’d been given, didn’t change anything because all it did was name something that was a part of me. It didn’t give me the illness, the illness already existed. My perception of me may have changed but I hadn’t. I had not suddenly morphed into this diagnosis with no other defining features. And more than that, being told what was ‘wrong’ with me could really only be seen as a positive because I could now move forward and focus on getting better. I could be treated for the right illness and begin seeing some progress in my health which wasn’t happening before because the help I had been receiving wasn’t the right help.
Of course, she was right. My nurse that is. And I knew, as I had from the first discussion on the subject, that the doctors were right in their diagnosis of me. It made complete sense and gave me the answers to so many unknowns that had been haunting me from my past. It was challenging accepting it but I did.
Then…my psychiatrist changed his mind. Perhaps I didn’t have a personality disorder after all. Perhaps…perhaps, I didn’t have anything wrong with me at all. Maybe this was all just a case of poor coping skills leading to some emotional distress.
I can’t even begin to explain how confusing this all was. How overwhelmingly difficult it was to hear that after a lifetime of knowing there was something wrong, after experiencing a truly horrendous few years and facing challenges many never will to feel completely dismissed by the system in this way; to have had my longstanding beliefs about myself and the way I have learned to think to be acknowledged as a pretty serious issue; to have started to overcome my fear of receiving help; to have allowed hope for the future to settle inside me and then to have it all ripped away. That’s how it felt. It felt as though they were tearing away any confidence and acceptance I’d gained in myself. I had made leaps forward and in one conversation I allowed that all to disappear. My entire life has revolved around this fear that there is nothing wrong with me, that I’m making up my troubles and shouldn’t need any help or support to get over them because they don’t really exist. When they changed their minds on my diagnosis that fear became my reality.
That new reality almost cost me my life. Not because it was a true reality but because I do very much have poor coping skills and this new revelation was beyond my capability to manage. Luckily my family stepped in and demanded another opinion. And once I had calmed enough to be rational again I too fought for an answer. I spent almost four months living on a hospital ward working through genuine problems and difficulties. It was not acceptable to me to go home not having a definitive answer. I didn’t care what the label was, as long as it was the right one, because without that label I wouldn’t get the help I need. Labels only have control over us if we allow them too and the negativity surrounding them only has to exist if we choose to be close-minded and refuse to look past them. Suddenly being labelled didn’t need to be a negative.
So this label that I have attached to me in my medical file is a pretty big deal. But not in the way I originally thought it would be. It’s big because it determines what my treatment plan is. It determines what support I need to be able to live life as fully as possible. That’s the only reason it’s so important. I’m not that list of adjectives I found on websites that ‘fit the criteria’ of someone who is emotionally unstable. I’m still me. I’m still the girl that loves to read books about the universe. That loves to laugh with the people closest to me. That loves working with kids and seeing them grow. That loves helping others. That loves playing with my dog. I’m still Ashleigh or Ash or Ash Bash or whatever other nickname you know me as. I hope that if anyone who does know me personally, who has any preconceived notions about what someone with a personality disorder is like, can look past the label to see me and realise their opinion doesn’t need to change as a result of this illness. This will only be a barrier to me in life if I allow it to be one.
I refuse to let four words define me.
I may have another label but I am NOT that label.