The Stigma Of Diagnosis

Published in Mental Health Practice November 2013 issue | Written by Polly Fielding

It is clear, on reflection, that I was seriously disturbed from a young age.

During the numerous fosterings in my first year of life, by all accounts, I was at best neglected and at worst abused.

The Stigma Of Diagnosis

I was finally adopted by a couple whose own daughter was three years older than me. My adoptive mother liked babies and coped well with the new disturbed addition to the family (I apparently screamed every time I was taken out of my cot). She effectively won my absolute trust and utter devotion.

However, once I began to emerge as a little person in my own right, her attitude changed and she began to compare me constantly and unfavourably with her natural child.

Desperate for my parents' attention I tried everything I could to please, annoy or upset them. My behaviour resulted in beatings from my father and daily scorn and contempt from my mother. Nothing I could do was ever right. And I gradually accepted that I was useless, stupid and unlovable.

When at seven I discovered, from another child during a playground argument, that I was adopted, I was terrified that I could be taken away from my family. This fear was reinforced by its use as a threat whenever I misbehaved.

I was twelve when I first secretly cut myself in a desperate attempt to express the pain of complete rejection I felt when my parents adopted another baby. I was finally convinced that I could never be good enough for them. Perhaps they hoped that the next child would prove more acceptable.

As an adult, despite constant inner emotional upheaval, I trained to be a teacher and taught in schools abroad and in the UK. I learned early on, when I was sacked from my job in Canada after two weeks in a psychiatric hospital, that it was at my peril that I let anyone in the workplace know about my mental health difficulties. I learned to cover my tracks.

I married, had five beautiful children and tried my utmost to put my problems on the back burner. My children had to be my focus, especially as one of them was diagnosed with severe haemophilia, which presented an entirely new set of challenges.

Once my children grew into independent adults, I could no longer hide from my difficulties. I had a severe emotional breakdown, was hospitalised for months and had to withdraw from teaching. None of the staff with whom I had taught for the previous eight years visited, sent a card or even asked after me. It was as though I had never existed.

Friends and even relatives have shied away from mentioning my emotional difficulties in a way that they wouldn't if they were physical problems. Fear and ignorance fuelled the stigma that is attached to mental health issues.

Far more problematic was the sudden change in attitude of a few mental health nurses towards me, during my stays in acute wards in various areas of the UK, on discovering that I had a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. This varied from coldness to completely ignoring me.

Sadly, patients with BPD are still sometimes viewed as attention-seeking, histrionic and difficult to treat.

All too often we were not listened to when we were young and it hurts immensely when we are not heard now.

To redress the balance, however, I will never forget occasions such as when a nurse passed by my bed, noticed my distress and was not too busy to spend a short while listening to and validating my feelings. No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

I had to fight for treatment appropriate for my difficulties (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) and prove beforehand that I could both stick with and benefit from it. This took years, not months, and, had I not had the support of a very caring, supportive psychologist, I may well have fallen by the wayside.

I had to relinquish my career because of my mental health so I know only too well the prejudice against mental health sufferers in general, let alone those of us with BPD.

I regularly give talks about my mental health experiences to trainee nurses at schools of nursing and have contributed to in-service training for mental health professionals. I have always been totally open to their questions, welcoming the chance to give others a deeper insight into my difficulties. The feedback has invariably been that sharing my experiences honestly has proved extremely useful in helping them to understand patients' mental health difficulties and develop more effective ways of helping them.

My three books - And This Is My Adopted Daughter, A Mind To Be Free and Crossing The Borderline, give an insight into the development and difficulties of living with BPD and of the minefield that is our mental health system.

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