Grounded: There is a difference between a disease and the person. It’s important to know that it is a completely separate entity. An entirely different force that comes from a different place. Certainly not the same place where human souls come from. When someone is mentally ill, it must only mean that the illness now occupies our space. The human headspace. Needless to say, it is important to know the enemy to defeat the enemy. We need to know what we are up against and how to strategize.
We need to acquire the weapons for the war. We need to understand the enemy to take him down.
Nicole has been experiencing problems with her mental health since the age of 10. She sits in front of me, now a beautiful newly-married young woman alluringly twiddling her fingers while she tells her story.
Nicole: Something very traumatic happened to me, but I chose to bury it. For two years, I refused to acknowledge that it happened, because I was afraid of how it made me feel, and I was ashamed that if I showed people that I was in pain and hurt, then they would hate me and hurt me even more because I was weak. I vowed to show everyone that I was strong, and I’d get very angry at myself if I caught myself feeling sad. People around me said my attitude was flippant. At the time, I stopped eating, because it was a way to punish myself for being weak. At the end of first year high school, I was taking a math test, and I couldn’t think straight. I was overwhelmed with feelings that I couldn’t stop. At the end of the class, I had nothing on my paper, so I drew random, dark scribbles all over the sheet. My teacher decided to speak to me after. She asked why I did it, and I couldn’t talk. My jaw felt so stiff and locked, and furious tears started to fall from my eyes. I finally allowed myself to cry about what happened to me. I guess it was scary, because my teacher ran to get help. I went to my classroom and tried to hurt myself in front of my friend. She was able to stop me. When I got home, I told my parents I had a nervous breakdown. They sent me to a psychologist, and she told me there was nothing wrong with me.
Grounded: Ashamed about the outburst, Nicole didn’t want to go back to school or talk to anyone.
Nicole: I wanted to die but I was also afraid of dying. I just felt really ashamed. My friends would tell me I was so quiet when I hung out with them, so after awhile, I decided to spend most of my time by myself. Around third year high school, I was just tired of being sad and didn’t want to be like that anymore. I started smiling and laughing again. I was able to join conversations and make jokes. I was hanging out with my friends again. Things were okay.
Grounded: Relationships she got into in college were turbulent. When the relationship was not working, Nicole would do crazy things to hurt herself whenever she made the decision to end it. She finally got out of the relationship and into another one, where the destructive cycle of breaking up and getting back together again continued and she started to develop a reputation.
Nicole: I developed a reputation with guys as being the crazy girl to get into a relationship with. It was causing a destructive toll on me, and I even ran away from home at one point.
Grounded: Nicole’s emotional state grew to be more unstable.
Nicole: I’d be hanging out with my friends, then I would start to feel paranoid. I was constantly afraid someone was going to hurt me. When people laughed, I thought they were laughing at me. I would watch their movements and hear malicious intent in the most innocuous things they said. I came up with elaborate stories of how people were going to hurt me, and it was difficult for the ones I loved to get me to stop believing that. One time, I got paranoid that I was going to get hurt at my job, I acted on it. I transferred jobs after that, but a lot of damage was done.
I was already with Miko (then boyfriend, now husband) that time. It was hard for him to know which of my stories to believe and which to not. He would try to teach me what I could do to stay healthy mentally and avoid getting into destructive situations, but I would fight him, and refuse to see that the stories I was making up in my head weren’t true.
Grounded: Nicole met her husband, Miko in 2015.
Nicole: It was really hard for him, but he loved me through it all anyway. There were times when I’d keep him up all night with a problem. It was exhausting. I’d be so difficult whenever he’d try to help, but I was also better when I was with him, and when I wasn’t triggered, we were very happy. When I got hospitalized, he visited me twice in the states. He helped me see that “being borderline” wasn’t who I was and that I could get better.
Grounded: Nicole and Miko were engaged in July 2016.
Nicole: The pressure of the wedding planning got to me and I started getting aggressive, even endangering relationships with loved ones because I was triggered, angry and defensive.
Grounded: The wedding planning stress triggered Nicole’s BPD.
Nicole: When things really bad, I got even more triggered and so there were a lot of misunderstanding. I got even more crazy. I couldn’t think straight, and started thinking people were going to hurt me Instead of going to work, I would get dropped in front of my office, then take Ubers to hospitals looking for a psychologist. A few months before my wedding, I needed to go to the hospital after a series of crazy actions I did. When I got to the hospital, I had a manic episode and thought I was possessed, then I thought God was talking to me, then I thought I was telekinetically moving everything in the room.
Grounded: In a state of denial after getting hospitalized, Nicole wanted to push the incident down like it never happened and get on with getting married. However, her reaction was a cry for help.
Nicole: But there was a time before I went to the hospital that I explained everything I had experienced, the history of what I had been through, and the things I thought and felt. So even if I protested after, help was really what I was finally admitting I wanted. I ended up going to the US- to a program in Boston that treats BPD. They don’t have facilities like that here.
Grounded: Nicole checked into a treatment center in Boston that specialized in treating borderline personality disorder (BPD). When asked how it felt to be away from her loved ones, especially her fiancé she explains how being in the treatment center triggered her abandonment issues and that her biggest challenge was to stop herself from trying to rush through treatment and to be obedient in getting the work done so she could go home.
Nicole: It was a more free environment compared to others though. I was allowed to have my phone and message everyone back home. A lot of friends and even people I hadn’t spoken to in years messaged me about what happened, and I would talk to them because I’ve always been so open about what happened to me.
Grounded: While in the center, Nicole learned Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) skills, a cognitive behavioral treatment developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD, ABBP. The treatment emphasizes individual and group psychotherapy and skills that help people learn and use strategies to develop a life that they experience worth living. These skills include mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.
DBT helped Nicole learn self-loving skills such as self-soothing, self-care, making sure she eats and sleeps well. Interpersonal communication is being able to relate to people in a healthier way. She learned mindfulness which according to her was one of the most important things we all need. Aside from DBT skills the treatment meant focusing on her behaviors that needed to be corrected.
Nicole: The practice forces a person to be aware of the behaviors you have that aren’t so healthy and replace it with healthy ones.
Grounded: Nicole found herself more anxious in the center. She joined the bandwagon of the culture of some of the girls inside the treatment center, such as not wanting to meditate or participate. Everyone had different reactions to the practices, some more extreme than the rest, but Nicole’s reactions were hiding, avoiding and not participating, so it took awhile for people to know what her behaviors were. She did not want to be talked about so she decided to hide… but she could only hide for so long.
Nicole: Things were happening that were triggering it and I couldn’t hide myself anymore. I couldn’t hide my reactive things. I realized that some of my behaviors were that when somebody tries to stop me from doing things that I want to do I tend to see things in black and white and tend to attack people. When Miko wanted to visit me in the states, my psychologist didn’t agree and I couldn’t hide what I felt anymore. I started talking and saying that Gunderson was bad and that they don’t really help you.
Grounded: This is a symptom of BPD that is called Splitting. Nicole shares with us that it is when something doesn’t go your way, you start thinking that the person that your dealing with is the worst person in the world.
Nicole: This is what people with BDP do- like when I didn’t get my way in my wedding planning, I would make my mother the enemy or I would hurt myself to show her how she would make me feel. I had to use mindfulness not to get sucked into it. My reaction is when I don’t get my way I have to practice not getting sucked into it.
Grounded: At one point while in treatment centre, Nicole decided to share on Facebook that she was getting treatment for a mental disorder.
Nicole: I was in the states and I was in the hospital, and I just felt like there was so much shame attached to the diagnosis. People aren’t embarrassed about being diabetic or being autistic. It’s a real disability, and the more you don’t talk about it the more people don’t get help. I felt upset because it took such a long time for me to get help. And I feel like the more people that know about this, the more people like me would get help.
Grounded: Now how she felt after she made her struggle public on social media…
Nicole: It felt overwhelming. After posting there was a lot of support from people, a lot of people shared their stories with me, and a lot of people go through it. It felt really positive and made me feel not alone.
Grounded: The program at the centre has helped Nicole greatly with her healing process, but she courageously made the crucial decision to go home before the treatment ended.
Nicole: I drew the line though when they wanted me to stay longer than 6 months. I felt it was just too much of a strain on my relationship with Miko and I made the decision to go home. One of the things that changed for me was understanding that my opinions were valid. I used to be afraid to express them because I thought my feelings were “crazy”, my thoughts were “wrong”, that “thinking like myself” was what got me into trouble. I’m so happy to say that isn’t the case anymore. I’m enjoying finding out what I like and don’t like... even in seemingly trivial decisions like dressing exactly how I want to dress and reading only books I want to read instead of every book that’s recommended on the bestsellers list, and the thought that I wouldn’t have things any other way gives me so much joy because I had spent years trusting whatever anyone else said over my inner voice and as you can imagine, it felt very bad.
Grounded: We can all relate to the sickness of caring too much about what other people would think. Nicole had the same fear we all do- fear of the opinions of others.
Nicole: I thought way too much about what others would think, and that stopped me from getting the help I needed, and I ended up in a hospital.
That experience has made me realize that sometimes the only one who knows what’s going on and what’s best for me is me, and even if the people I love don’t understand that, I need to fight for it, otherwise, I’m literally going to lose my mind. Miko always understood me though so that helped. I’m not afraid to speak about what I experienced, because it’s better than other people making up their own stories about me. Otherwise, how will the people who need it most get help?
Grounded: Marriage- a new chapter for Nicole. Thankfully it is one that has opened new doors and given her a new perspective in life.
Nicole: Going through treatment definitely helped. I’m able to manage my moods better now, and we just keep communication about whatever is going on very open. I used to not be able to tolerate feedback from him (Miko, her hubby) at all before treatment. Now I take a deep breath and try to focus on what he’s saying instead of allowing my initial reactions to get out of hand.
The lifestyle we lead helps me manage my emotions better. We eat clean, we exercise at least 4 times a week, and most importantly, he makes sure I get enough sleep every night. It’s a very open and supportive relationship.
I also gave up drinking and smoking because of the effect those habits had on my mood: drinking made me depressed and smoking made me reactive and irritable.
Grounded: When Nicole was asked why she wants to share her story with Grounded, her reply…
Nicole: I don’t know if my story can change the conversations we are having about mental health… but it’s worth a shot isn’t it?
Grounded: It is absolutely worth the shot, which is why we are creating this platform. Every person’s story counts. Let’s not underestimate that by being authentic and honest with our personal struggles and challenges we not only turn our lives around but can greatly help others. You may even save a life.
Nicole: No matter what happens, never allow anyone to make you feel like you are undeserving of getting help.
Grounded: What does being grounded mean for you?
Nicole: Being grounded is all about living your best life! And being able to have the information and support that you need to overcome any mental conditions that prevent you from having the quality of life you deserve.
Grounded: Do you think it is important to build a community around issues such as mental health? Why?
Nicole: I believe it’s possible because I see people everywhere doing it. Our attitudes towards mental health now are so different from how they were in the ‘90s when others would just make fun of you for being weird or your parents believed it was embarrassing to be sent to a psychologist... or when everyone made it feel like what was wrong was ‘you’ instead of the illness.
Grounded: How can art and culture be a platform for wellness?
Nicole: Awareness is everything and if information on taking care of mental health can become widespread and expressed through a variety of mediums, then I believe arts and culture can definitely help a lot of people. There’s a lot of content in mainstream media that makes the outlook of mental illness look very bleak. So there needs to be a new way to talk about a different part of the story that doesn’t only focus on suffering (although this is so important) but also on healing and recovery.
Grounded: What are your thoughts on social media today?
Nicole: Social media isn’t a good or a bad thing. But if it’s triggering a lot of anxiety for women, then that’s something we should talk about in the very space that’s causing all the ill feeling. Then we can transform it into a space of positivity and self-compassion, instead of a space that generates comparison, jealousy, and inauthenticity.
Grounded: What does it mean to love yourself?
Nicole: It means being able to look at your strengths and weaknesses, accepting that we can’t be everything, we can’t be perfect... but that even with your weaknesses, you’d rather be you than be anyone else. It’s being able to say that and to feel that deeply with great conviction.
Grounded: Today, Nicole works as a fashion researcher. She reads trend forecasts and it is her job to translate the reports into insights that could be useful to the company. She is happily married and loves spending time with her husband. She stays inspired by reading, writing and indulging in her interests which are fashion and wellness.
And she believes that mindfulness will change the world.