By Emma Brancatisano | 10 daily news reporter
Carissa Wright has spent years learning how to cope with distressing emotions, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, all of a sudden her life became “quite frightening”.
Wright, 30, had her vision mapped out for 2020. She was marrying her partner of two and a half years, had just landed her dream job and was “looking forward to the future”.
“I was in a content place,” Wright told 10 daily.
“I think people take that in different ways, but for me, I felt calm. Everything was running quite smoothly.”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, uprooting life as we knew it. Wright started to worry about her job, her friends and family — and herself.
For the last four years, she has been successful in managing Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) but the pandemic quickly made her feel “off-balance”.
“Life became quite frightening,” she said.
I started to feel like my old behaviours were coming up … the scariest thing for me was going back to that place, and losing that confidence I had built up.
BPD is a complex mental illness that affects between one and four per cent of the population. It’s one of several personality disorders where a person has difficulty managing their emotions and impulses.
“Often people with BPD struggle with unstable emotions like intense anger or sadness which can fluctuate quickly and turn into impulsive behaviours, such as risk-taking or self-harm,” SANE Australia Clinical Director Karen Fletcher told 10 daily.
Fletcher stressed self-harm can be a “release mechanism” from intense internal stress, not a way of attracting attention — an unhelpful myth associated with the disorder.
“This might be around what they expect of people they’re close to. They might feel really let down by how someone acts, whereas others who don’t have the disorder can ride that wave a bit easier,” she said.
Fletcher said these symptoms, which normally appear during adolescence, can make BPD difficult to diagnose. But once a diagnosis is made by a mental health professional, it is treatable.
“It’s about figuring out what support a person needs to put in place to help them understand their triggers and themselves a bit better, to avoid situations that cause them distress,” she said.
‘I Felt Like I Was Suffocating’
Wright was diagnosed with BPD at 17. At the time, she said she hadn’t heard the term before.
“I only really knew about depression and anxiety through high school,” she said.
Clinical psychologist Professor John Gleeson, who is Director of ACU’s Healthy Brain and Mind Research Centre, said personality disorders are far less talked about and understood in the community.
“It’s a big area of mystery for a lot of people,” he told 10 daily.
“I think they’re also often talked about in extremely pessimistic terms … the world to a person with a personality disorder can seem quite unsympathetic, rejecting and hostile. That can feed into a lot of their fears and concerns.”
Wright said she felt “suffocated” by the disorder.
“It feels like you’re drenched by these emotions that everyone feels, but on a different and more intense level,” she said.
She said there was a lot of pain in the first 13 years of living with her illness, as she navigated the health system in WA with “out-of-date resources”.
“At the time, I thought I was the only one with BPD,” she said.
But in recent years, Wright found a therapy called dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) which she said equipped her with tools and skills that saved her life.
‘My Stability Was Shaken Up’
While the pandemic is an uncertain and stressful time for all Australians, experts say this is more pronounced for people with complex mental illness such as BPD.
With isolation and physical distancing measures in place, Fletcher said those with BPD might experience the “double whammy” of feeling added stress but having less coping mechanisms available to them.
“Their support mechanisms and strategies for maintaining positive mental health — whether that’s sport or socialising — might be gone,” she said.
“On top of that, stress triggers more symptoms.”
Gleeson said the current environment is concerning for those who rely on “being in control”.
“We’re living in uncertain times. If someone with a personality disorder has a very high need to be in control of everything, to have things certain and to eliminate any doubt, they are going to struggle,” he said.
“It’s going to escalate their anxiety or accentuate some of their behaviours,” he said.
Wright said her sense of “stability” was put off balance when the virus impacted her routine.
“I had my routine, I had my stability and that was shaken up,” she said.
Wright said she had to focus intimately on her strategies to “stay afloat” during the pandemic as she learnt to adapt.
“I rely heavily on team sports as an outlet for my mental health, so I’ve had to learn how to do that by myself,” she said.
The biggest turning point was learning how to be by myself again.
Wright has also leaned on her partner and her support network throughout the pandemic, which she describes as the “best thing [she’s] ever done for [her] mental health”.
“It’s really easy to mask yourself and place yourself in crowds where you’re floating with them. In the past I found myself hanging around toxic people,” she said.
“Now, I focus on having my family and friends around me who support and understand and validate my experience.”
Gleeson said partners, family members or other carers can also experience stress, particularly during the pandemic.
“We know that the carers are at an elevated risk themselves for depression, anxiety and stress,” he said.
“With social isolation in place, it’s going to be harder for them to have some respite, to connect with the wider family and to care for themselves.”
He suggested seeking out ways to stay virtually connected.
“Try to remember that your support for a person with the disorder can make a difference, even though it may not feel like it,” he said.
Wright said she has learnt to accept kindness and compassion from others.
Now, the pandemic feels like “a blessing in disguise”.
“What I’ve taken away is that I can get through chaotic situations more gently and more compassionately then what I used to be able to,” she said.
“This could have really thrown me and my recovery off, and I could have gone down the path of the self-destructive things I used to do.
“I think it’s a testament to my own self that I now care enough about my self to make sure that didn’t happen.”