This week's interview comes from my friend Chris. I've been following Chris' journey via social media for a few years now. His story has inspired me in many ways, and his words and honesty have gotten me through some really dark days. I'm honoured to have him share his story on the blog today. Over to him...
Please note: content warning of mental health issues and self-harm.
In his own words...
My name is Chris Jones and I'm a writer and mental health advocate from England, UK. I share my personal journey with others about my struggles with depression, anxiety and BPD and my goal is to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness by starting more conversations about it and normalising it. My hobbies include hiking, photography, and oversharing with strangers on the internet.
1) Hi Chris, how are you?
I’m fine thank you! I hope you’re well too?
2) How are you really?
Actually, things are a little tough right now, I’m going through some major life changes that are out of my control and I’m struggling. But that’s okay, right? Thank you for asking again.
3) That's absolutely okay! You're someone I know who speaks very openly about their mental health battles. Why do you feel it's important to do this?
I’ve always thought that by speaking out so honestly and openly it would help encourage others to come forward and share their own experiences. It’s so important to talk about how we’re feeling, especially as men! Toxic masculinity has created a problem in men feeling like it’s not okay to share feelings or be in touch with our emotions. Ultimately, talking about this stuff saves lives and no one should ever underestimate the power of speech. Also, the more we talk about this the sooner we normalise it and end the stigma attached to mental illnesses!
4) You were diagnosed with clinical depression at the very young age of 15, can you remember how you felt at the time receiving that diagnosis?
I remember feeling very lost and confused. At the time I was very ashamed and embarrassed and I hid it for years before telling anyone other than my family about it. I was isolated and felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere, I couldn’t be the real me as everywhere I went I put a mask on so no one would see what was underneath.
That was nearly 16 years ago now, mental health care and understanding has come a long way since then though.
5) Did you develop ways of coping with the depression over time?
Yes I did, but these were predominantly maladaptive coping mechanisms when I was younger. During my early struggle with depression I went through phases of intense pain and suffering and then periods of absolute numbness. When things got painful I’d mask it with alcohol and drugs and I developed a problem. When things were numb I turned to self-harm just to make myself feel something. Eventually I got the help I needed and developed better ways of coping with the help and support of friends, family and professionals. Ultimately, the best coping mechanism to deal with depression was simply talking about it. As soon as my loved ones realised how much I was suffering it was easier for them to offer me help.
6) You were re-diagnosed at the age of 28 with borderline personality disorder, can you remember how you felt towards this diagnosis at the time?
Being re-diagnosed much later in life is very daunting. I felt lost and very scared about the implications of this diagnosis. It was a confusing time and left me with more questions than it did answers about everything that had happened in my life up until this point. Questions like “have I wasted 13 years of my life by not actually getting the right kind of help I really needed?” It played on my mind for a short while, but ultimately I decided that if I had already wasted this time, why waste more by dwelling on it? I wanted to get better, and until now I never knew what was actually wrong with me. Time to take back control of my life and stop feeling sorry for myself. I was about to be given the tools to finally allow myself to move forward with my life and I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity.
7) Did you have any misconceptions about BPD prior to your diagnosis?
Ironically, it was pretty much the only mental illness I hadn’t researched. At first I thought the worst and that there was something fundamentally wrong with me as a person rather than just a mental health problem that might be temporary. The term “personality disorder” can feel very condescending to some. But prior to the actual diagnosis I didn’t know anything about it!
8) Do you think there is any stigma around personality disorders?
Unfortunately, yes. I remember researching it a lot following the diagnosis and looked for books about it and to my horror I found more books and articles about how to deal with a person who has BPD than about dealing with the illness itself. Again, I think the term “personality disorder” doesn’t help much with that either. People with personality disorders are seen as manipulative and controlling but, although this may appear to be the case, it’s often just a desperate cry for help from someone who was never allowed to express their emotions in a healthy way. BPD falls into the same category as Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorder which when clustered into groups can stereotype others with illnesses classed as personality disorders. At the end of the day I think it’s a complex illness that is not fully understood, and as human beings we fear that which we do not understand therefore creating stigma. That’s why it’s my mission to be brutally open and honest about my journey.
9) If you had to describe borderline personality disorder to someone who has never heard of it, what would you say?
It’s like having a wound on your brain that never fully heals. Sometimes it’s a minor niggle or an itch and then other times something causes that wound to re-open causing a lot of long lasting pain. People with BPD are hyper-sensitive emotionally.
The illness is characterised by an inability to effectively regulate very intense emotions which can lead to a person becoming extremely impulsive.
Most people who aren’t familiar with the illness are much more aware of other conditions like bipolar which is known for its extreme mood shifts. BPD can sometimes feel like having bipolar but on fast forward, the changes in mood are frequent and intense, sometimes numerous times a day. These mood shifts, the impulsive and reckless behaviour, chronic fear of abandonment and extremely distorted thoughts of oneself can make it very difficult to form and maintain relationships with others.
10) How does BPD impact your life?
It impacts every aspect of my life. I struggle with interpersonal relationships, usually due to communication issues that arise due to paranoia or self-doubt. I become extremely impulsive at times and even reckless in my actions as a result of my extreme mood swings. I have problems with self image and sometimes I barely recognise myself in the mirror. When something triggers me I tend to lose my temper, another typical symptom of BPD. This anger presents itself as pure rage and is uncontrollable, and sometimes completely inappropriate.
Deep down I feel like a failure, so I try and overachieve in everything that I take on to win the admiration and respect of others in my never ending search for acknowledgment and validation. It’s exhausting.
11) For someone who sees you at your most vulnerable, what would you want them to know?
That with their patience, understanding and support I’ll be OK.
12) What is the most challenging thing about having anxiety for you?
How debilitating it can actually be. These days it’s almost glamourised as a “cute” personality trait but it’s very serious. When my anxiety is bad I lose all faith in my ability to achieve anything and my confidence drops massively which can be a real setback in any situation, especially social.
13) How else does anxiety impact your life?
Another way anxiety really affects me is physically. I shake and I sweat, a lot. I also get a very dry mouth and that horrible feeling you’re about to be sick. I think that people who don’t experience it do not understand just how much a mental health disorder can affect you physically.
14) Is there anything anyone else could do to help you if you were feeling anxious?
Not putting me in situations that they know might make me uncomfortable. Not make jokes about it. Be patient when I tell them I need some time. Basically just listening to me!
15) Have you learnt anything in particular about yourself through your BPD diagnosis?
I’ve learnt so much about myself that I never would have done if I hadn’t become unwell. I’ve learned just how resilient I really am and how adaptable I can be. I’ve learned that accepting the reality of potentially living like this for the rest of my life is okay and that I can still live a fulfilling and rewarding life. Most importantly, I’ve learned that mental illness recovery shouldn’t be seen as a destination or an end point. It’s an ongoing journey of self-discovery, learning and healing. Relapse might be inevitable, but it’s about using your experiences and skills to manage whatever life throws at you next.
16) If someone reading this today has just been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, what would you like to say to them?
You are not a monster. You are going to be okay. It isn’t your fault you have this disorder, but you must accept responsibility for getting better and you need to put the work in. It’s not going to be easy but it’ll be worth it I promise.
17) What are your main coping mechanisms when it comes to your mental health?
I like activities where I can create something, I find it very soothing and rewarding. For example, gardening! I think of managing my mental health like creating a garden, the weeds being negative thoughts and plants being positive affirmations and actions. I have to stay on top of it all the time otherwise it becomes overgrown and overwhelms me. Some days I can’t face doing the work but I know I’ll have to do twice as much the next day if I don’t. Every time I take a weed out I try and replace it with a plant! I also love cooking and cleaning, again that creative aspect really appeals to me. I love being outdoors, especially hiking in the mountains! That’s my favourite thing to do. Exploring way up in the clouds gives you a sense of freedom and empowerment that is unparalleled!
Writing is also a coping mechanism I turn to when I’m unable to get outside or do any of those other things. It helps me make sense of the racing thoughts in my mind, so much so that what started as a small journal has turned into a 35,000 word book!
For relaxation I love to float! If you haven’t heard of floatation therapy I highly recommend you look into it!
18) What is your biggest personal goal mental health wise?
It might surprise you to hear that my biggest goal is not “happiness”. Happiness is just an idea until you achieve it, and then what? I am seeking more. My goal is to continue learning, changing, adapting, and evolving. I have made peace with the fact that I may never be completely ‘happy’, and I’m totally fine with that! In fact, if anything, putting myself in that mindset has actually made me happier because I put no pressure on myself anymore. The goal now is simply to use my experiences to make a difference in other people’s lives.
19) Can you tell me more about the book you're writing, your mental health advocacy work, and where people can find you on social media if they want to follow your journey?
The book I’ve almost finished writing is a bit of a memoir and a self-help guide which is aimed at everyone, and I mean that literally as this book is written in such a way that even someone who has no experience with mental illness themselves should be able to pick it up and understand it through the use of metaphorical speech. The idea being that they can then use this to help someone they love who perhaps is unable to help themselves right now. It also includes useful tips and coping strategies I’ve learned over the years through various different therapies, as well as ones I’ve developed myself through self-discovery.
20) How do you feel after answering all these questions today?
I feel great, it’s good to share and I would encourage everyone to talk openly like this about their own mental health. A good starting point would be to ask yourself all of these questions and really check in with yourself first!
Chris, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us today, I'm right behind everything you said and behind you all the way through your journey. Thank you for being a beacon of light through mine (and many other people's, I have no doubt) too. Keep looking after you, you're important.
I encourage everyone reading this blog to keep their eyes peeled for Chris' book in the future, that's going to be a must-read! In the mean time, remember you are enough, you're doing great and you are important. If you are struggling with your mental health in any way, please reach out for help. See a doctor, speak to someone you trust, or you can go to the 'support' page on this website where you'll find a list of useful resources. You are not alone and you are worth helping.