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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Sachs

Closer To Fine



When I learned in 2012 about my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), it was like a hard punch to my gut. I had heard stories about people with BPD. I had known at least one person with BPD. But, in no way did I want to be associated with this illness.


To me, it was like a scarlet letter of branded darkness for all to see. I didn’t want it to be true that I was a person who fit the BPD profile. But when I considered the defined symptoms of BPD, I was kind of the perfect storm.


Fear of abandonment? Check.


Unstable relationships? Holla.


Impulsive, self-destructive behaviors? So many bad/dangerous choices.

Self-harm? A very unfortunate ‘yes.’


Extreme emotional swings? My highs were epic; and my lows were even deeper.

Chronic feelings of emptiness? I felt like a nobody.


Explosive anger? I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!!!

I was diagnosed with depression in my early teens and, not long after that, bipolar disorder. I developed an eating disorder in college. I’ll have to pen a separate piece about my extended Yom Kippur (aka anorexia).


There were so many doctors and specialists over the years. I looked to outside sources to try and heal me. Things that were dangerous and unhealthy. Relations with men who didn’t care about me. In early college, I would drink myself silly. I was a habitual marijuana smoker for over a decade. I tried to seek comfort in things that were ultimately bad for me. The most stable element of my life seemed to be my instability.


To me, no other diagnosis or problem carried the deep level of stigma and shame that Borderline did. There were countless online communities and message boards dedicated to hating on people with BPD. Even when it was very clear to me that I was probably one of “those people,” I jumped through a lot of mental hoops to seek and embrace denial.


I’d been in talk therapy since I was 14 years old and, while I had an amazingly supportive and patient therapist, it just wasn’t working for me. There were few options left. I was fortunate to enter an excellent residential treatment facility for women struggling with emotional disorders — specifically BPD. But I didn’t have BPD, right?


Riiiight.


So, what was so bad about my situation that I needed to go into a residential program?

Well, for starters, I thought about killing myself. Not once. Not twice. Literally, all the time. Dozens of times a day.


Someone would cut me off on the road and I would automatically think to myself: “You should fucking kill yourself.” Then I would imagine killing myself in a variety of ways.

Driving into oncoming traffic was a common scenario. It seemed like a quick and easy way to check out. But there were no guarantees. I could wind up alive, but paralyzed. Or even worse, I could hurt or kill someone else, which would be an unforgivable act. Still, the urge to end it all when I was behind the wheel was strong. (But, come on. What perfectly normal person hasn’t thought about killing themselves in Los Angeles traffic?)

I would be on the phone and someone, most likely a loved one, would say something to me and I would unreasonably take great offense. When screaming and crying at them didn’t work, I would threaten suicide, hang up, and then smack or punch myself in the face repeatedly, while sobbing. Then I would remember what a worthless human being I was and think about how I should really kill myself. My family and friends would be much better off. I was a burden to everyone who loved me. There was nothing left for me. No good place for me in this world. What was I waiting for?


It was excruciating being locked in my head and having zero control of the most horrible regularly occurring thoughts.


Failed relationships with men would send me into a tailspin of emotional collapse. Each rejection was proof that I was unwanted, unlovable, and that I had no real value in life.

With every heartbreak, I wanted to end my entire world. And there was a lot of heartbreak.


Imagine a constant loop of this:

You’re a loser. A piece of shit. Nobody really likes you. You should kill yourself.

You are a terrible daughter/sister/friend. An even worse person. You’re not talented and how stupid of you to think you ever were. You should kill yourself.

Your life has amounted to nothing. You are a waste of space. No man will ever love you.

You should kill yourself.

End it now. Get it over with. What are you waiting for, you idiot?

I don’t know how I survived like that for as long as I did.


Treatment

I entered treatment in Venice, California with several other women of varying ages who had their own severe emotional problems. Our days were spent in a former convent, converted into the in-patient clinic. Our time involved seemingly round-the-clock therapy groups, learning the ins and outs of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (known as “DBT”). I remember when I arrived, I was having a really difficult time connecting with the other women in the house. They were all smokers and would congregate on the back patio, polluting their lungs and sharing their life stories. I was the only non-smoker and I stayed inside with the adult coloring books and colorful permanent marker pens, working on intricate mandalas. I felt really lonely and I relayed that to Christy, the first counselor I met and the one with whom I was most comfortable sharing.


But on this one night, I confided to her that I wasn’t making friends and I was kind of bummed about it. She told me to think of my situation a little like being on a reality show.


I ain’t here to make friends. I’m here to win. And while I wasn’t much for reality television, what Christy said spoke to me.


I may not have made a single friend there, but that DBT shit saved my life.


DBT

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy was developed by Dr. Marsha E. Linehan as a form of psychotherapy to treat people with severe emotional disorders and to help individuals struggling with suicidal ideations, self-harm behaviors, and substance abuse.


There are four modules in studying DBT: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotional Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. Studying these concepts takes time, energy, and a willingness to change one’s unhealthy and deeply-ingrained behavioral patterns and ways of thinking.


In our therapy groups, a counselor would lead us in exercises in which we would practice methods of dealing with intense emotions. We studied from a large workbook and would often fill out worksheets, citing examples of our struggles and then figuring out how to utilize the DBT skills to deal with events of extreme emotional disturbance, dangerous behaviors, and thoughts of (and urges to commit) suicide.


Mindfulness helps you accept your thoughts for what they are and then encourages you to intentionally pivot your mind to make you more aware of your environment. It allows you to experience your emotions fully, without judgment, yet with perspective.


Distress Tolerance is a set of many skills meant for surviving an emotional crisis. One useful way to put a stop to a panic attack is to do self-soothing activities related to your five senses. Add in some mindfulness, and you can “turn up the volume” on your senses and turn down or off the distressing and dangerous thoughts in your head so that you can better fixate on what you are observing. You can look at something visually stimulating. The trees outside. The clouds in the sky. Observing and describing the things you see is one way to turn the mind away from intrusive and sometimes harmful thoughts. Another way to cope is to mindfully listen to sounds. If I need to, I can go outside and savor the birds chirping or the sound of the rain. Or I can pull up a song I love on my phone and focus on the music. Using your sense of smell can also be really helpful. I always have a sweet-scented candle that I can turn to. I have bars of an almond- scented soap that I like to smell and it makes me feel good. Taste can also really change your mood if you focus on the flavor of whatever good thing you are eating. Focusing on touching something is another way of taking yourself out of your thoughts. Petting my cats is a great example of this, but you can practice this sense with a fuzzy blanket or a cozy sweater as well.


Emotional Regulation is difficult to master but there are a lot of skills you can draw from to ease yourself down from an extreme episode. The most helpful of these skills for me is Opposite Action. This involves doing the opposite of what your impulse is in a stressful moment. If I am depressed and want to crawl under the covers and not come out, I should consider going outside and taking a walk.


Interpersonal Effectiveness involves improving your communications and interactions with other people. There are many acronyms for skills you can utilize to create healthier experiences with others. For people with severe emotional problems, it can be really difficult to express your needs. Interpersonal Effectiveness skills help with this. You learn how to communicate your feelings and needs in healthier, more effective ways. Mastering these skills can be a real game changer in relationships.


Radical Acceptance is a major tenet of DBT. It involves accepting one’s situation and facing life circumstances and emotions (positive and negative) without judgment. Many people with BPD, myself included, struggle with extreme feelings of guilt and self-hatred that stem from experiencing extreme emotions. “I shouldn’t feel this way” is a common thought that I would personally have when dealing with negative feelings. In those moments of severe depression, sadness, and anger, it always felt like I would never recover from the all-encompassing pain that I was feeling at that moment. Suicide seemed like the only way out. Radical Acceptance, when practiced successfully, allows a person to acknowledge that this is how you are feeling right now but that you won’t feel like this forever.

Tackling these skills is difficult. Many people meet these techniques with resistance. It’s hard to open your mind to change when you have been stuck in your struggle with mental illness for so long. Personally, I did not have time to waste when I was in treatment. I had exactly one month to soak up all of the modules and study like crazy because I really wanted to get better. And, hopefully, put these helpful and effective gifts into my life going forward.


The staff

I was really fortunate to have found so many amazing women who worked at the treatment center. They helped guide me through strong emotional episodes. They were understanding and non-judgmental when dealing with me and my BPD. Sure, they were trained for this. But I couldn’t help but appreciate them and all that they did for me.


Christy was the first person to comfort me when I was feeling down and out and lonely. She and I began working on a massive jigsaw puzzle of a bunch of cartoon animals performing acts in a circus. This puzzle was a much-needed distraction for me.


Every night after dinner, I would work on the puzzle. Sometimes other residents would join me. But the best nights were when Christy was there to piece things together and chat. I’d tell her some jokes from my standup comedy set and she would (very generously) laugh, which was truly like medicine for me.


On Christy’s last night, I stayed up late so we could finish what was left of the puzzle. It took a couple of hours and when we got down to the very last piece, I offered it to Christy. She told me to place it down. It was so deeply satisfying to have completed this beast of a puzzle. Christy said she really wanted me to remember that feeling. She took that last piece out of the middle of the puzzle and handed it to me. She told me to keep it — to take it with me when I left this place so that I could remember the great feeling of accomplishment we had that night.

Christy insisted I take it and put it somewhere safe and to think of our victory whenever I picked it up. That was 10 years ago and I still have that puzzle piece. I keep it in a little tea light candle holder I made in a pottery class while I was in the program.


I immediately felt a connection with staff member Liz. We bonded over our love for the Indigo Girls. One day, between therapy groups, I became distraught over something.


I went to the office where a few counselors were chatting, and Liz was there. She asked me what was wrong. I don’t know what I said to her, but she decided to help me “turn my mind.” She pulled out her phone and turned on Closer To Fine. We sang out loud together and it helped heal my soul a bit. Liz said I had a great singing voice and, before I left the program, she encouraged me to sing Closer To Fine while she accompanied me on guitar at the community meeting where everyone would say “goodbye” to me. I practiced singing it for a few days. The lyrics — which I had been listening to for more than a decade of my life — took on a depth of meaning as never before.

“I’m trying to tell you something ‘bout my life.”


“Maybe give me insight between black and white...”


Black and white thinking is a major feature of BPD and other psychiatric illnesses. You label people and things as good or bad and this can cause issues in personal relationships as well as emotional instability. DBT helped me find the gray area, which is essential to creating a more sound and stable existence.


“And the best thing you’ve ever done for me Is to help me take my life less seriously It’s only life, after all”

This is what DBT and all the therapists and counselors did for me. I took my life a little less seriously.

“Well, darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.”

“I wrap my fear around me like a blanket.”


“I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it...”


My pain and the darkness that stemmed from it was all-consuming of me. To find lightness and relief was almost impossible before I learned to use effective skills to deal with my emotions. I would become all encompassed by my fear and loneliness. I let it take me over until I felt like I was literally drowning from the pain.

“I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains.”


“I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains There’s more than one answer to these questions Pointing me in a crooked line.”


“And the less I seek my source for some definitive The closer I am to fine”


In healing my mind, in working on my DBT skills, I didn’t ask questions like “Why me?” anymore. I didn’t ask myself what I did to deserve such misery and pain. I found ways of coping that brought me closer to a place of, well, fine. On many days, really fine.


Consistently.


I am so grateful to Liz for pulling up that song on her phone that day and helping me focus on the words. I still hold them close to my heart.


Now

So, how am I doing today?


It took many years, but I have recovered from Borderline Personality Disorder. I no longer meet the characteristics and symptoms of the diagnosis. It may be the most important victory of my lifetime. I did win.


My fear of abandonment is gone. I credit some of that to the fact that I found an incredibly good and wonderful man who loves me unconditionally and I have zero concerns about him leaving me. We just got married this past December and I am so looking forward to a lifetime of happiness together.


Purchasing handbags is probably the most impulsive and self-destructive behavior I now participate in. I haven’t put myself into debt or anything like that, but I’m kind of running out of space to store them.


My episodes of physically hurting myself are behind me. There was one time, back in 2009, when I was recently unemployed and severely depressed. I wanted to punish myself and feel pain, so I took apart a razor and slashed the palm of my left hand with the blade. I didn’t mean to cut so deep, but that’s what happened – and I had instant regret. I had to drive myself to the ER and they glued the wound shut. Not my best moment. The wound healed – but the memory is worth holding onto.


I don’t hit myself anymore. (The most pain I feel these days is on special occasions when I get a Brazilian wax. And that is someone else causing me suffering, so it doesn’t count as self-harm.)


How about extreme emotional mood swings and explosive episodes of anger? I am proud to report that I am the most emotionally stable that I have ever been in my entire life. Some of this I credit to my nurse practitioner, who has helped me develop a medication regimen that works. But a lot of it I credit directly to the DBT that I’ve spent many years practicing in my daily life. My mood is in a constant plateau of chill.


Occasionally, I will find myself frustrated, sad, or angry about something, but I never take those feelings out on myself or the people I love anymore – or strangers.


I still sometimes experience feelings of emptiness and depression – as many people do.


Things will pop up that trigger anger and frustration. I try to use DBT to cope with these events. The facet of DBT that helps me the most on a day-to-day basis is Radical Acceptance. Knowing that, yes, I am feeling this way, and yes, it sucks, but that is what the universe has handed me today and I cannot change it – but I can work on it. That’s so helpful. The only thing I can change is how I react to the negative feelings. So, I let myself feel the sadness, pain, disappointment – and I do not judge myself for experiencing these emotions.


I don’t always use the DBT to help myself. The easiest way for me to cope with difficult issues is by crawling under the covers and going to sleep. A better way to deal with this would be to change my environment and do some exercise – engage in healthy pursuits. There is always room for improvement and that is something I continue to work on.


I am so lucky to have people who love me and never gave up on me. I would not be where I am without my Dad. He has always been my biggest fan. He enthusiastically supported me when I was pursuing a career in comedy. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He took action when things became dire and generously paid for the immersive treatment that changed and saved my life. So many people cannot afford the luxury of going into a treatment facility and facing their problems in a safe, stable environment. I realize how fortunate I am to have had that experience and I am forever grateful to my Dad for funding the treatment and supporting me in my recovery.


My best friend, Lily, is nothing short of a saint. We have been besties since the first week of our freshman year of high school in 1997. She has been the most patient and tolerant person in dealing with my BPD. She never gave up on me. I called her hysterical and crying hundreds of times in our two decades of friendship and she was always willing to stop what she was doing and listen to me and offer support during my scariest episodes. I hung up on her so many times when she didn’t say what I wanted to hear. Most of the time, when I was in an episode of severe emotional disturbance, nothing others could say would comfort me. Lily always did her best to try. If I bailed on staying on the phone with her, she would email me or text me words to help me through my pain.


After many years of schooling, Lily earned her doctorate and became a Licensed Psychologist. I like to think dealing with my crazy years-long issues helped inspire her career path. She was the one who first brought up DBT and approached my parents about getting me into a treatment facility. Once I was in there, she would call me on the community landline to chat. She sent me letters every week via snail mail. I still have them.


Our relationship has changed a lot since I have recovered. I am no longer interrupting her days and nights with traumatic episodes of hysteria. She is no longer providing me with free therapy, but she always offers advice when I’m looking for it. I have become more of a rock for her. She can now come to me when she is upset — and I am able to help her through challenges. A few years ago, she had a baby and gave me a niece, whom I love so very much. Becoming an auntie is one of the greatest things to ever happen to me.


My husband, Nick, is my biggest supporter. It took months of us dating before I told him about my BPD. I was terrified he would run in the opposite direction, like so many people do when they hear the word “Borderline.” But he wasn’t scared off. My honesty brought us closer together.


I was still kind of a mess when we first became a couple. I was reeling from the recent death of my mother, with whom I was incredibly close. I was still experiencing mood swings and panic attacks. Yet, he never pulled away from me. He comforted me. He held me. He told me he loved me. I was convinced for so many years that I was unlovable. I shed countless tears over what I was certain would be a lifetime of loneliness. I never believed I would find unconditional love of such magnitude. But he’s here. He makes me feel safe. And when I get down on myself he always reminds me how far I have come in my life and in my recovery.


Things are going well, but I still struggle with major feelings of guilt. My beloved late mother never saw me reach a life of emotional stability or find the love of my life. She never gave up on me, but I’m also not sure she ever thought it possible that I could recover. She witnessed so many excruciatingly low points. It must have caused her so much pain every time I called her telling her I wanted to die. I would get angry and scream at her. Even while she was sick. But I also took care of her in her years of failing health – and I know she appreciated that.


The night before my Mom’s open-heart surgery in 2016, we had our last private talk. She told me that if she didn’t make it, she did not want me to torture myself about all the times I was angry with her or treated her badly. She said she always forgave me for those moments. She knew I struggled. She knew my pain. She knew I was trying to be better. She wanted me to remember the best parts of our relationship and to hold on to the fact that she always loved me. Always. What an incredible last gift for a mother to give. I try to follow her words. But I wish so terribly that she could see me now. I wish she could meet my husband. I know they would get along famously and make each other laugh. It hurts that I’ll never get to see that. But I try to honor her memory every day by working on being my best self.


I consider myself extremely fortunate. So many people never recover from BPD. There was a time I thought I would never get a hold on and get beyond my mental illness. I was stuck on a roller coaster of emotions and impulsivity for over 20 years of my life. I truly believed myself to be unworthy of a stable, emotionally sound existence. I certainly didn’t think I deserved happiness. In fact, I thought that was an impossible achievement.


There was no way I could ever be happy. I thought that was a life meant for other people. But here I am. Relatively happy. Regularly. In the most rewarding relationship of my life. I have healthy relationships with my family and friends.


Sometimes I worry that something will trigger me someday and I will fall back into unhealthy patterns of behavior and emotional episodes that I can’t control. That my BPD will come back in full force. That those terrifying and intrusive thoughts about suicide might recur. But I have the DBT skills to use any day, at any time, to help me reach my best and happiest self. They are powerfully effective tools to use daily. I have a strong support system. My people won’t let me fall through the cracks. And I won’t let myself fall, either.


The reason I’m sharing this deeply personal journey that has traversed so many years is in the hopes that my candor might illuminate a path to a better life for even one other person who may be suffering – from BPD or anything that hurts their mental health.


I continue to strive to be the best version of myself. I refuse to live my life in fear of what may come. And I accept that I will always be a work in progress – as I believe we all are in the positive life path that we’re traveling.

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