Last week I had the great opportunity to speak before two very important groups of people in the world of borderline personality disorder: those that heal and those who are being healed — patients in a dialectical behavior therapy outpatient program as well as psychiatric residents in the second year of training. These people humbled me with their honest questions, the struggles they were able to share and willingness to listen to my story. There were many moments of hope they shared about the disorder that surprised me. I was so happy that they, too, see hope that I find so helpful in my own journey.
Below is part of the talk I shared with them. It’s about my battle with Recovery — not my battle with mental illness — and how I’ve found peace with it.
Recovery: the word haunted me.
Perhaps because for the most part, I didn’t believe in it. It was the white unicorn of mental illness, or Santa Claus, or a ghost. It was talked about often, even real for some and sure, i wanted to believe in it — but after years and years stuck in an intense mental suffering, I was too tired, too exhausted to try.
Don’t get me wrong: getting my diagnosis of BPD saved my life… I had been living in the dark for 29 years of my life and once I got into treatment the truth was that it took me 3 years to no longer meet the criteria for BPD.
The biggest improvement of all was that I wasn’t acting on my urges anymore — but unfortunately, I was still mentally imprisoned by them, even though I did the hard work that treatment asked me to do.
I was getting better and yet, despite all of that effort, the question of suicide in my all or nothing attitude continued to haunt me. I was frustrated. I was living and getting by but everyday was a constant battle: fighting urges, struggling to use skills, frenetically staying mindful — I was doing what was asked of me and yet I knew something was missing.
So close and yet so far from recovery, I was scared I’d never find it.
I didn’t know where the answer lay but deep in my heart of hearts i knew i was made for more than just getting by and gosh, if i could just get passed this, I knew I could do something with myself. And then you have one of those moments — where the pain of one minute seems to last an eternity — and you come upon a choice, a fork on the road that only you can answer an no one else:
I can either say that this struggle is preventing me from living; or I can believe that this struggle is the reason why I am alive. Perhaps, it is the reason to be remarkable.
And that’s when I started to own up to my life.
I decided to have a mission — to figure out my reason, my meaning in this struggle. Maybe my suffering wouldn’t go away, but if I was able to bear it with dignity; if I was able to use it to help someone else; if suffering became a means to something more than just pain and self-pity and self loathing, then maybe it wouldn’t hurt as much.
I didn’t know it then, but I found my reason through this thing called boxing.
It was the last thing on my mind that I thought of to try and be remarkable in, but last year I set out to fight as a competitive amateur boxer, hoping I’d find myself in the New York Daily News Golden Gloves, but even more so, to use my life as a fighter to represent all those who have fought the hard fight of mental illness.
Sometimes, having that outside goal shows what lies on the inside.
Slowly I began to create a new life for myself. I was erasing old habits with new habits. When I decided to compete in boxing, it was just the thing I needed to kick my old unhealthy ways to the curb; the ones that got me stuck in a revolving door of urges and suicide and self loathing. For my old habits were deeply embedded in my brain — my being.
As I began to embody the life of a boxer, recovery didn’t seem too far fetch of an idea.
On a practical, day-to-day level, boxing is rather mundane but is physically no joke. It was the combination I needed to help get me to where I am today, with little-to-no urges and thoughts of suicide. It gave me the framework to lead that healthy life that was once out of my reach; it gave me an outlet for my tension and pain and my emotions; it gave me something to focus on besides feeling sorry for myself.
Everyday, I began to own up to myself — I mean I couldn’t feel sorry for myself — I was a fighter and I had to embrace a new mentality. Fighters eat healthy, fighters go to sleep on time, fighters are too tired to think about urges. Fighters fight. They want to lead the remarkable life. They want to look back and remember that they gave it their all. Fighters, though we lead rather predictable lives, do the training everyday to improve our bodies, our self image, our mental well-being — all because it tips the scale in our favor.
To my wonder, I began to understand what it means to struggle and tolerate pain in an entirely new way, not as something to get rid of, as was my natural habit, but something to respect — for I began to learn, through boxing, all of those things I once struggled with were a natural process. I learned of breaking down and building up, of repair and recuperation; of developing strength and will power.
And most of all, I learned Recovery was just as intrinsic as the struggle.
I have tasted what it feels like to overcome fear in the ring, of facing my demons of self worth, of pushing on with my will when my body no longer agrees with me. I could exist beyond pain, beyond exhaustion, beyond muscle fatigue. I could exist beyond the suffering and turn it into ordinary pain. I could exist.
Even with a mental illness like BPD, we are fighters, we don’t back down from our disorder, we don’t take no for an answer and it won’t take us. We are worthy of striving, of pursuing. We are worthy of the struggle.
In the end, I won four fights and made it all the way to the Golden Glove semi-finals. In the end I chose a different story for my life when I realized I could do something to make mine and other lives better; In the end I chose to not just survive my illness, but to strive to be remarkable because of it.
In the end, in spite of the struggle, I continue to choose Recovery.