“I advise that you keep your diagnosis to yourself.” These were the first words my psychiatrist uttered upon revealing that I am living with borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD is a serious mental illness that is highly stigmatized by the public, and even some mental health professionals refuse to treat those affected. The illness is characterized by severely unstable moods, unstable sense of self and identity, and unstable relationships with others. It affects one’s overall ability to function. Both biological and environmental factors contribute to the development of BPD.
As I heard my psychiatrist deliver my diagnosis, I contemplated whether or not I would go against his counsel and be open about my illness.
I was a former Miss Maryland 2015 for the Miss World Organization and in the top 12 at Miss World America. I had just published a book about my previous struggles with anorexia nervosa and my past hospitalizations in mental health facilities as an adolescent. I wrote about how I was now free from mental illness and thriving in my adult life. But the truth was that I was hiding my worsening mental state—even throughout my reign as Miss Maryland. I knew my reputation could be jeopardized by such a consequential diagnosis. Deciding if I wanted to go public with my diagnosis could be detrimental to my status. But I also wondered if my admission would make a difference in the lives of others—and would doing so be worth it.
I drove home in complete silence, putting together the puzzle pieces in my head as to why I have been “this way” my entire life. I am emotionally sensitive not just to my own pain but also to the pain of others, which affects me in monumental ways. This is a symptom of my illness that I see as both a blessing and a curse.
I think back to the time when I was five years old, playing outside my parents’ home in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’d found a butterfly that couldn’t fly and that was being attacked by ants. I quickly brushed off the ants and noticed this beautiful creature had a hole in its wing. I then made it my mission to make sure I could somehow nurse it back to health by collecting flowers to allow it to eat and survive—which, surprisingly, worked. This tiny insect gained my trust and would walk towards me when I would hold out my hand. After having it for just two days, I woke up and noticed that my sweet pet had passed away. I was crushed and held a funeral for it in the backyard. I cried for the next few days over the death of an insect.
From this memory, I then recalled times I had experienced extreme mood changes—the polar opposite of the sweet child I described above. I could go from euphoric happiness to bitter rage in a split second.
For instance, I once had trouble opening a bag of dog treats and became so furious I slammed it against the table and squeezed it until it exploded. I’ve also broken mirrors, slammed plates, and shattered glass cups out of uncontrollable rage at seemingly small things—such as disliking the appearance of my make-up. I even stabbed a half cooked chicken because I was frustrated that it was taking hours to cook. These dramatic reactions were just a normal part of my existence. I did not know it was an indicator of a serious mental illness.
When I got home, I sat on the couch and began looking at photos of myself as Miss Maryland. I thought to myself, “Who is that person?” as I ran my fingers through my short hair.
I impulsively had my hair cut into a short pixie in search of identity. Since I was no longer Miss Maryland, I did not know who I was. I had painted myself into a picture of wellness and perfection, elegant and poised from head to toe. I had spent the last few years wearing the identity of a pageant girl and without that identity I felt lost.
As an “identity chameleon,” I morphed myself
But then, at the age of 20, I found pageantry. Pageantry was meant to be my saving grace—a good representative I could hide behind. But it was nothing more than a beautiful mask. Behind the scenes I was struggling with mental illness that never went away. Oftentimes, I would self-mutilate on my hips with a razor when I had overwhelming emotions that I did not know how to cope with—in the same ways that I used “Ana” to cope. But even though I was struggling, no one would have to know. I had my mask: I was Miss Maryland, and Miss Maryland represented happiness, success, inspiration, and perfection. No one could knock her down.
However, when I didn’t win the Miss World America title and my year as Miss Maryland came to an end, I didn’t know where to turn, and I could no longer hide. Miss Maryland was gone and all that was left was this person whom I did not recognize.
My popularity diminished, and I began falling backwards, isolating myself from family and friends and becoming consumed with paranoid thoughts. I had delusions my family and friends were working against me and no one actually liked me. After months of self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts and isolation, I had finally seen this psychiatrist whose sole advice was to keep my diagnosis to myself. It was infuriating, and it made me feel ashamed.
After looking at photos of my beauty queen days, I decided I would not fall silent, and I would not be ashamed of something that made me unique. On that same day, I pulled up my computer and wrote about my diagnosis on social media.
From there, I began to raise awareness of mental illness and became a contributor to the popular website The Mighty. I also made videos explaining my condition and day-to-day life with BPD.
But I was still hiding, not being completely honest about how badly I was struggling.
I had difficulties holding down a job, quitting at the sight of conflict or disagreements. I was job-hopping in search of stability, since I lacked stability within myself. My paranoia worsened, and I spent most of my days crying. I was unstable, but tried hard to lean on my Christian faith—even finding a job within a Christian-based business.
I really believed that my new job in a Christian setting would be the answer to all of my problems—that I would stop having ordinary conflicts and finally be happy with my life.
After a disagreement with my supervisor, I began to lose touch with reality. I had pictured myself crashing my car numerous times before, but the following morning I felt more determined than ever to complete that mission.
I woke up feeling completely disconnected from my body. I quite literally felt numb to everything around me. I proceeded to go through the motions of getting ready, but was not really present. I would later learn that what I was experiencing was called “dissociation,” another key symptom of BPD that occurs when your mind and body are in the fight or flight mode.
Although my body was in full panic, I grabbed the keys to my car, walked out the front door, and began driving to work. As I drove, I had obsessive, intrusive thoughts telling me to crash into a tree. I was desperate to feel something, because at that moment I felt nothing. I could hardly feel my hands gripping the steering wheel. It was as if I was watching myself through the eyes of someone else. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me and realized that I needed help.
I called a friend twice, but she didn’t answer. As I began to steer my wheel off the road and towards a tree, my friend called back. I immediately answered and told her I could not feel anything and that I needed to crash. She spoke to me calmly and directed me to take myself to the nearest emergency room or urgent care. I fought to keep my attention on her voice while the rest of the world continued to fade into the background.
To be honest, I cannot remember much of what was said during that conversation, but I do remember her steadily telling me to stay focused on driving.
Once I arrived at urgent care, I walked up to the receptionist and told her I needed help. There were a lot of people in that tiny waiting room for a weekday morning. She asked me what I needed to be seen for, and since I did not want to say it out loud, I slipped her a note that read, “I don’t feel like I am here. I wanted to crash into a tree. I have borderline personality disorder. I am not in control.”
She asked me to wait a moment, and before I knew it I was taken into an office and told to wait.
As I waited, two policemen entered the room and questioned me about what happened. I became increasingly distressed and found great difficulty in explaining to them everything I had experienced. Once I was finished, they all agreed I needed to be hospitalized. The police then escorted me to the emergency room where I was evaluated for several hours.
That was the beginning of my third hospitalization, and second partial hospitalization program (PHP). It had been eight years since my last hospitalization. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. Although I was a nervous wreck, the program helped me immensely. I was placed on medications that I needed in order to function somewhat normally. The medications included antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and anxiety medications. There is absolutely no shame in receiving medication for a mental illness. Just like a diabetic needs insulin, someone afflicted with a disease of the mind needs regulation as well. I also received the proper therapies to learn how to cope with my illness. As one of my counselors once said, “Just like a diabetic, the management of your illness is composed of several parts: Theirs is diet, exercise, and insulin. Yours is medication, communication, and therapy.”
I spent more time in PHP than any other patient that was admitted, and I faced many challenges during my time there. Several times I walked out of group therapy when I didn’t want to face a haunting memory from my past, or when I would argue with a doctor over his/her understanding of what I was going through. But despite the difficulties, I rose above and made incredible triumphs over my illness. After my release I was assigned a caseworker and therapist to oversee my care.
It has now been almost two months since my discharge.
If I were to write a story highlighting that I was miraculously cured and living my wildest dreams, then that would be a misrepresentation of reality. My reality is that many days are tough, but I am living—not just existing. I am not quite sure who I am, but I do know that my identity doesn’t revolve around a crown or how others view me. I do not hide behind any masks. If I could offer one piece of advice to anyone suffering from a mental illness, it would be to stay involved in medical care and keep an open dialogue between friends and family about your illness. In order to stay well, you must face your illness head on.
BPD is what I have, but it is not my identity nor does it define me. I have found my true voice in knowing my illness, and it is taking me on a journey to a more meaningful, purposeful life. I am now living on