‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work.
If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.
Words by DeAnna Avis, as told to Harriet Williamson.
I’m DeAnna Avis (you can call me Dee), a musician and activist based in the UK.
My diagnosis is Borderline Personality Disorder, which can sound scary! It definitely doesn’t have the best reputation. People with BPD are thought of as bunny boilers, femme fatales, or loose cannons… think of all the negative representations in films like the unenviable Single White Female, Fatal Attraction or just plain vague and misleading representations such as Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted.
Borderline Personality Disorder has a number of characteristics and they can manifest themselves in a wide and wonderful range of flavours. I can speak broadly about the diagnostic criteria and only, of course, my own personal experience of them.
First and foremost is emotional instability (in fact, an alternate name for BPD is ’emotionally unstable personality disorder’, according to the ICD-10). In me, this manifests itself as PASSION. When I’m happy, I’m passionate about whatever is in front of me and this includes politics, music, art, writing, work. It can be a tremendous source of energy and inspiration.
The flip side of this is that my emotional intensity also extends to severely feeling negative emotions – depression, anxiety, fear, shame, dread, you name it. It’s no surprise that I was a goth as a teenager and never fully grew out of it. I’m the type of person that, if I’m feeling bad, I’ll metaphorically bake a goddamn black cake and embrace that feeling.
I’ll throw myself a pity party with black ballons. This definitely comes out in our songs too – I mean, our band name is ‘Muertos’ which means ‘the dead’ in Spanish, named both after my Mexican heritage and my love for their famous spiritual (and gothy!) celebration, Día de los Muertos.
This PASSION, emotional instability and energy can also lead to the unstable sense of self that is common in BPD. With varying moods experienced with such intensity, it’s very easy to completely lose perspective – one moment, I am an activist and live 100% for that. The next I’m a career woman, confident and aspirational and climbing the ladder. The next I’m a bohemian musician and want to run off and leave everything behind and just play the violin. If I do anything I do it 100%. I recently started studying Psychology at university and got a distinction in my first two modules, this is whilst juggling a full-time job and another nearly full-time job as a freelance musician in not one, not two but THREE bands, not to mention being a good partner and mum to my two cats.
I personally have to be careful to not try to be all things to all people. This manifestation of BPD may as well be called FOMO – fear of missing out – fear of not being the right person so you try to be EVERYONE. My obsessions may seem funny and they can be channelled for good, but sometimes it can feel very confusing wearing so many hats and switching between them – the world spins. My approach has always been to grab the opportunities by the cojones, but in my recovery, I’ve started to become more discerning about what and who I allow to take up my time. No is a very powerful word.
There are lots of other aspects to BPD – including the intense fear of abandonment. Many people with the disorder have experienced some form of abandonment in their life that continues to haunt them. That’s the only way to describe it. It’s like a ghost – you may know it’s not real, and that a present-day situation that has triggered off these feelings again is just an echo of the past – but when you get that deep sensation it’s every bit as terrifying and chilling to the bones as encountering a phantom staring at you through the window in the middle of the night.
Sometimes I don’t know how to cope with this phantom and react in bad ways. This feeling of abandonment, the belief that ‘no one likes me, no one cares about me, I have no purpose or worth’ is so deeply experienced that I can begin to question my own existence. The ultimate existential crisis.
Emptiness is another common feeling – when facing severe emotions such as abandonment, it can put everything into question and you may lose sense of perspective, which way is up, which way time-space-or gravity is pulling, or feel that all meaning has been wiped out.
Other times, instead of being an intense emotion, it may also be a low-grade chronic kind of emptiness. People who are addicted to drama, to doing impulsive things and using these damaging coping mechanisms in order to feel something, to feel alive, may often feel empty in the absence of drama. For me, I was so used to instability, so used to things being fucked up, that it took me a long time to feel comfortable and trust in my happy life – that my partner is real and not going anywhere, that I really do have a stable roof over my head, that I do have friends that care, that I am good at my job and not complete rubbish, etc. I was always waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under my feet, as it had been so many times before. I have to remember that the rug is still here.
Like many people with BPD, I used to self-harm. For me, this took the form of cutting myself and I am left with a lovely little geometric pattern on both arms as a reminder of those times. Other times it was taking reckless overdoses, not out a desire to end my life, but out of complete disdain and disregard for my body. I also suffered from a severe eating disorder. Anorexia, for which I was hospitalised on four lengthy occasions, was my preferred method of harming myself. Because of my lack of stable self-image and self-worth, I felt that I didn’t deserve to take up space. I felt that I was never good enough. I began essentially turning myself inside-out, hoping my hard skeletal bones would protect me like some sort of exoskeleton. I coped by becoming as small and contained as possible, and by being crueller to myself than anyone else could ever be. It is a slow suicide to which I hope to never return.
I could go on and talk about the other criteria – the intense relationships, having so little confidence in yourself that you idealise others and then completely lose heart and crash when they show themselves to be mere humans rather than the idols you had made them out to be, the sometimes dissociating from oneself and in times of great difficulty, losing touch with reality like it is behind a pane of impenetrable aquarium glass, the anger that comes in waves, like all the other intense emotions.
I’m giving this interview in the hope that others can relate – because at the end of the day, no one is their diagnosis – we are all human beings. Many aspects of BPD will be part of the microcosm of daily human experience, it’s just that some of us experience it on a greater and deeper level.
I am “recovered”. Well, at least 90% so, according to my former therapist and the lady who saved by life, Amanda Watson. For a long time, more than 15 years, I struggled to get the help I needed. People with BPD have very specific requirements for their treatment however due to lack of funding and resources, the therapy we need (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy or DBT) is unfortunately not widely available on the NHS.
For this and many other reasons, I am a big advocate and campaigner for properly funding our NHS and making sure it is fully publically owned. It is completely unethical that private outsourced companies profit off illness and misery. I have been in the mental health system for more than a decade, and at times was turned away because my condition is TOO HARD TO TREAT (e.g. they knew I needed urgent help, but they could not provide it, so they gave me nothing).
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is the gold standard and one of the only therapies that is strongly evidenced to help with BPD. I actually feel like DBT should be given to the whole human population because you learn so many valuable skills – in DBT, people aren’t crazy or bad, they just lack ‘skilful means’. As a result, I have started to notice that many so called normal people also lack skilful means and could do with learning about the four modules of DBT – mindfulness, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness (e.g. skilful communication and assertiveness) and distress tolerance, e.g. treating yourself kindly.
In addition to continually practicing the DBT skills, there are other habits I have that help keep me on the course of recovery. My favourite tool in my recovery toolkit is meditation. I meditate EVERY DAY, this means even if I have to get up early before work, or stay up late after a gig, even if, ESPECIALLY IF, I don’t feel like doing it.
Meditation is powerful when you get into a routine with it, when you don’t do it just because you’re in the mood or because it feels nice. Sometimes the difficulties, fears and anxieties that come into my mind are very real, and meditation helps me to deal effectively and face those things rather than reacting in a destructive manner. It’s about facing reality head-on, sitting face to face and eye to eye and making friends with the glorious messiness and constant imperfection that is life. And other times, meditation can help us see through the stories that our mind spins, for that is what our minds do, constantly spin tales. It’s about watching the hurricane rather than getting caught up and swept away by it.
It also helps me in my life off the meditation cushion. Meditation helps me practice taking each moment as it comes, approaching people and situations dialectically (from all sides, not from a self at the centre of the universe perspective), engaging in the world and not buying into stories that make people or things to be all good or all bad. Once I’m clear on my aim in any given situation, instead of reacting in an emotional manner, I can ask myself what would be the most skilful, compassionate and effective way of approaching the situation.
One of my favourite practices that I recommend to anyone struggling with difficult feelings is the Metta Bhavana meditation – “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be at peace, may I be of service”. Practicing metta (universal loving-kindness) takes us outside of ourselves and helps us have compassion for all beings, even those who we disagree with or who may have treated us badly. This focus on others is a large part of my recovery – I do not want to psychoanalyse myself forever, I want to get on and help the world be a better place.
However, sitting in meditation isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. When dealing with some deep, all consuming shit, there may be times when we need to fully feel, embody and appropriately act on our emotions to process them. This is the dialectic between acceptance and change. For situations where change is what is needed, I recommend, no word of a lie, witchcraft. For everyone regardless of creed or lack thereof, what I mean is tap into your subconscious for deeper wisdom that your rational mind is not able to reach, read those tarot cards for a new perspective, write down all your hurts and worries and sorrows and burn them, let them go with the smoke.
Ritual can touch us and help us move on. Humans are not rational beings, much as we like to think ourselves so, and being in touch with the other dimensions of ourselves can be deeply empowering for healing ourselves and fighting for social justice. For more on healing trauma and our connection the universe I heartily recommend the following books by feminist witches and heroes: Witchbody by Sabrina Scott and Witch by Lisa Lister.
Another thing – sobriety. (UGH). I know. I went a whole year without drinking not long ago, for mental health reasons, and I felt great. I fell off the wagon, due to thinking that it was going so well that it’s no big deal, I can handle it and I must be normal now… and lo and behold, soon fell into the chronic binge-drinking that marked my earlier decades. Alcohol is atrocious for mental health, I’m sorry to say, so I have recently bid it adieu again. If I was someone who could do stuff in moderation, then perhaps it would be ok for me, but I’m not, and it just makes me feel everything more intensely, which let’s face it is the last thing I bloomin’ need!
Lastly, creativity – where we started and where we end this interview. Creativity is a wonderful channel for all of our intense emotions, for all that pent-up energy that is suddenly available when you stop misusing substances and alcohol, for when you stop seeking escapism in self-destruction. However, creativity is much more than a way of coping – it is a way of being. We are not here to be consumers. We are here to make our own personal contribution, not just through buying things or by some arbitrary external measure of success but through finding our own authentic form of meaning. It is very empowering to use creativity to decide and express ourselves on our own terms – not capitalism’s terms, not academia’s terms, not your mum or dad’s or peers’ terms – yours.
Throughout everything – my emotional upheavals and crises from adolescence through to adulthood – creativity has been a stable bedrock. Sometimes I think I have no idea who I am, but then I look back, and it all makes sense. I grew up as a musician, a violinist since the age of three, discovered punk rock and riot grrrl when I was 16, and music and art are the things I always come back to replenish myself.
I channel everything through my songwriting, through drawings – even activism can be creative. Riot grrrl saved my life, learning violin saved my life, my goddamn Open Uni social science module saved my life, as did the many feminists and socialists whose words I’ve devoured for decades. It’s through social consciousness and wanting to empower and help other people that I’ve found out how to save myself, and continued to grow and humbly do my best to be of service and thrive in this world.
Photo credit: Stuart De Voil