Hurdles and Harvard
People with BPD Making a Difference
This article was inspired by Ross Trowbridge’s fearless work to increase awareness about, and reduce the stigma of, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). In particular, I identified 100 percent with his story in The Mighty, dated July 3, 2018, titled “The Mental Health System Nearly Killed Me.” It is a must read for anyone with BPD.
Lesson 1—The American Dream
In 1969, I was born the biracial daughter of French and Haitian immigrants who came to the United States to pursue the American Dream. My parents believed that with a good education, passion, and hard work, anyone could accomplish anything. They lived in a color-blind world, meaning my parents did not see color; however, most everyone else did (e.g., my very existence was illegal in 13 states). Life was not easy for any of us. Racial discrimination was rampant (including from family members). Even though our nuclear family limited our company to the diversity of intellectuals, artists, poets, actors, foreign dignitaries, academics, religious leaders, healers, missionaries, etc.; we were still marginalized for being different.
From the time I could speak, I was exposed to both parental and formal education, including the arts, science and math. I loved to study, as an only child I loved the attention, and I excelled at academics to please my parents. At the age of seven my world came upon its first great hurdle—my parents divorced. My mother left a “Dear John Letter” for my father, and we literally escaped from the West Indies to move to “France.” Meanwhile, I remember my father exposing us to his philandering, the hazards of his alcoholism (including domestic violence), both of which left an indelible mark on my psyche and would contribute to my own future aberrant behaviors. This was the beginning of my tainted and paranoid view of the world and its people. If I couldn’t trust my own caregiver, then who could I trust? My mother? Myself? This was a giant leap from childhood to co-parenting myself; I was thrust into mini-adulthood.
Mother and I settled into an upper middle-class cosmopolitan neighborhood in a beautiful city near Lake Michigan. I had the advantage of being among the privileged few participating in an International Baccalaureate program for “gifted” children until the age of 13. I worked hard to prove my worth in this program; however, my peers looked upon me as an anomaly, “exceptional for my race.” I was intelligent, but I never fit in.
Being raised in a single parent home, I secretly started experiencing social anxiety, panic attacks, and tried to quell the insecurities about my ethnicity, racial identity, gender, sexuality, spirit, and my growing infatuation with death.
Death, I felt, was the ultimate relief from the pain and psychological turmoil that bubbled beneath the thin veil of ‘happiness’ I displayed. I was clinically depressed and had no way to articulate it. Never having fully dealt with the loss of my father, by age 11 I was faced with a 35-year-old mother who could no longer “control” me and a stepfather whose culture denigrates females; I instantly lost all independence. After tolerating four years of verbal, psychological abuse and neglect, the second great hurdle: I was abandoned by my impregnated mother and her new spouse.
It was 1984, when I was scurried off to a small basement apartment in a working-class neighborhood, and left there to fend for myself on the streets of the city. My mother left the country, again. It was one week before my 16th birthday. I recall something snapped in my brain (my first episode of dissociation)—third hurdle. “You are born alone, die alone, and can trust no one.” So much for the American Dream; it clearly was not in the cards for me.
Lesson 2—High School Drop Out
At sixteen (16) I dropped out of a highly regarded college preparatory high school to work and support myself. I had no contact with any family members for years. I was on my own. I met and befriended all types of characters, from the homeless to the very wealthy; I did not discriminate. The caveat was that I was living life looking through a tainted lens, with a grandiose personality, and the self-esteem of a pea.
The nagging feelings of doubt, fear and insecurity plagued me every day. I was suffocating in the muck and mire of my thoughts, feelings and behaviors. After all, if I was disposable to my parents then, I reasoned, I must be worthless.
Fear of both failure and success (i.e., imposter phenomenon) followed me everywhere. I was simply waiting to be found out for the incompetent worthless human-being I felt I had become. I spent several years “slumming” and “fronting” as a “want to-be” “loser,” “player” and “baller.” What did I really want to be? DEAD BY 30 YEARS OLD! And I was well on my way.
I took unnecessary risks as a teenager that led to my being molested, abused, robbed, tricked, taken for granted, and just plain used by people. I had several near-death experiences and wondered what kept me alive. Why am I still alive? I wondered. What was my purpose on this earth? Deep down I wanted to die, and thought, “Who cares? It’s not like I will make it to Harvard now.”
Needless to say, my future was not bright. Despite all the risks I took, I lived to the age of 18 and completed a high school equivalency exam (i.e.the GED) and placed into college classes. While working at an international Fortune 500 company, I took course by course, semester by semester, year after year, as my International Baccalaureate ‘contemporaries’ were graduating from Ivy League colleges and making six-figure salaries right out of school. I was not even finished completing my Associate of Arts (A.A.) Degree. I was despondent; I could not even keep up with my contemporaries.
However, with a little good fortune, hard work, and the grace of God, I survived two more years, completing the A.A. degree with full reimbursement from my company. Did this mean the tides were changing to my favor? Well, yes and no:
Yes, because I was granted a 70 percent scholarship to attend an exclusive liberal arts college. It was an extraordinary experience. I met all sorts of people, and experienced the finest of everything.
No, because this was also when I first diagnosed with ‘’clinical depression” and entered therapy. I underwent a battery of experimental therapeutic procedures: psychoanalytic sessions, cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and more. Like a guinea pig, I was put on medication and then taken off abruptly. This went on for twenty years (see Trowbridge article, July 3, 2018).
In my crushing loneliness and depression, I contemplated suicide often and self-medicated, hoping I would die at 30 years of age. However, I did graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree with much fan fair and my family around me. This was a turning point in my life.
Lesson 3—Harvard Graduate School
I was accepted to Harvard University Graduate School (hurdle four) and said “no” to attend a Psy.D. program to be—you guessed it—a Psychologist to help disenfranchised people like me. It wasn’t until the end of that summer, when Harvard called back, that a fire was lit under me, and I postponed the Psy.D. program to attend Harvard’s Graduate School. In my mind, I had succeeded despite all odds—this was my vindication (I was not a loser after all). I was twenty-nine years old.
Upon arrival to campus, I knew instantly in my soul that I was finally home. I was among my peers, all with similar idiosyncrasies (i.e., it seemed like being obsessive compulsive was a prerequisite to acceptance) and the staff, faculty, teaching assistants and students were intelligent beyond belief! The air was electric. I liked to say, “even the bricks in Cambridge ooze with knowledge.” It was like getting married, “you only do it once in life” (ideally), and I made the most of it!
I buried my feelings of insecurity and moved to Massachusetts to participate in an academic experience like no other. The diversity, inclusion, and representation of all sects of people flowed in and out of the buildings at a dizzying pace. The two-year individualized program was designed to be completed in one year and allowed for a double major: Human Development and Psychology, as well as Risk and Prevention. This was perfect for me. I was able to work and live half the week in Massachusetts, and commute to New Hampshire for my year-long Harvard Practicum working with adolescents put-at-risk (i.e., systemic issues that increase risk and decrease protective factors for teenagers).
Upon receipt of my master’s degree my father commented, “Now, you have now mastered their [the USA's] system.” Thinking that this would help me in my career aspirations to give back to the community, I returned home to find that people either loved or hated the fact that I had a master’s degree from Harvard Graduate School. I even had an undergrad alumnus say to me, “Harvard Graduate School doesn’t really count as having attended Harvard.” Imagine?
Contrary to my internal death-clock, I had made it to my 30th birthday for graduation with no overt signs of death looming! Despite this, the crash of falling from the ivory tower was unbearable. I owned a home in a semi-rural community, with little or no stimulation for an Ivy League graduate. No single people like myself, diversity, or entertainment.
As a substitute for loneliness, isolation, depression, and hopelessness, I went back to negative coping behaviors. My core beliefs were that I was like my father and would never be able to sustain a level of happiness and success in life (hurdle five). The pain of all those years of abuse, neglect, and abandonment came rushing back in my 40s.
I remember often wanting to fall asleep and never wake up. I was too scared to try to do anything about it myself, but I thought of it often. Working for a toxic boss, one day I asked, “Why are you so hard on me?” and he answered, “Because you went to Harvard.” What was his expectation of a Harvard graduate? That I would be perfect? I worked for progress, NOT perfection.
Although I was a strong leader, I was cast in a role as the “hammer” and people feared me at work. I was successful for many years in this position. But I always had something to live down… I was either intimidating, disappointing (I wasn’t President of the United States), or a genius (treated like royalty) to others. There was no in between. For someone with the self esteem of a pea, this was a heavy burden to carry.
Eventually, I sold my home and I moved to a large metropolitan city and cried myself to sleep several nights a week, over a period of years. Why? Because I allowed everyone else’s opinions and actions influence my thoughts, and ultimately, my behavior (hurdle six). Over time, the Ivy League glow faded, and the depression crept up like a monster hiding in the corner of my mind.
Despite my ennui, I was featured in the College Lake County newspaper as a Harvard educated public servant “giving and receiving care.”
I was also awarded an Annual Outstanding Citizen Award and presented as a Keynote Speaker at a Commencement Ceremony to a packed auditorium of students, faculty, and family members. One of the many highlights in my career—and I had BPD.
Lesson 4—The Stigma of Having Mental Health Issues
I knew I needed help, but was afraid of the stigma of having mental health issues (hurdle seven). Customarily, one would say one is suffering from “exhaustion” or “nerves;” not suicide ideation, anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and deep depression (all symptoms I face daily).
After Harvard, I applied to be a Foreign Agent for the U.S. Government working in France or Africa. One of the applicant questions was, “Have you been hospitalized for a mental health issue (or) have/do you see a psychiatrist?” Talk about not wanting to admit to something! I passed the all-day examination, but based on health issues I decided I could not bring myself to move to a country untreated.
All the years of adverse childhood events (i.e., domestic violence, neglect, punishment, abandonment, molestation, and betrayal) had changed not only the wiring of my brain; it changed its chemical composition and the way I perceived people, their actions and reactions. All this negative energy needed an outlet, so I took it out on myself and those near me. I self-harmed in multiple ways (i.e., bouts of anorexia, bulimia, piercings, shopping sprees, and other manic behavior to mask the pain and fill the void in my heart). I took out my fear and pain on family members, even my spouse.
I laid wreckage in my wake, and wondered why it kept coming back to greet me (hurdle eight). I created and recreated my own personal hell. Over the years the people, places, and things changed, but the lifestyle did not. I continued to be reactive in my relationships. Cognitively, I knew about the Law of Attraction (i.e., “What you give out comes back to you a thousand times,” mother used to say) but I was unable to let go spiritually long enough for it to work for me. It wasn’t until much later that I began to manifest positive actions by holding on to positive affirmations and surrendering to the life force that lies within each of us.
However, a dichotomy existed: the fact that I took two steps forward and three steps back. I practiced surrendering to the universe, inviting positive energy; meanwhile, I still trusted no one, manipulated people which drew resentment, all the while feeling like a hypocrite. “Fake it until you make it” was often touted in the group therapy sessions—the idea of positive thoughts and feelings, followed an action (e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
I continued to self-medicate, chose unhealthy behaviors. I was rebellious in self defeating ways: spending wanton amounts of money, buying people (including strangers) gifts, taking friends out for lavish outings and traveling the world. I was completely self-absorbed and selfish, though not completely unkind—depending on my mood.
Which leads me to the first time I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I was in the second year of Ph.D. studies in Community Psychology when my psychiatrist first showed me the list of BPD symptoms and asked how many applied to me. Nine out of ten symptoms were present in my life, and BPD being “incurable,” I rapidly descended into a whirlwind of despair.
[My current psychiatrist deems BPD “the kiss of death” of mood disorders. According to him, the only thing more daunting is Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder). This happens when a trauma is so extreme that the brain protects the individual by manifesting different personalities to “handle” the pain.]
One of the biggest misconceptions about mental illness is that all it takes is willpower to rid yourself of being on the brink of insanity (a legal term, not mine)—when in fact it takes mindfulness, time, and therapeutic practice coupled with medication to heal. Even then, there is no cure for BPD; antidepressants and therapy alone do not work. If someone had a broken leg (something you can see), we would not expect that to heal overnight and neither does mental illness. It’s a process, not a destination.
Lesson 5—Unconditional Love
After 35 years of service work, I retired and worked as a Senior Activity Aide (another highlight in my life), when an 80 year old told me “Be careful, it’s a jungle out there!” I smiled and wondered what life had shown her to have her say that to me. Quietly, I pondered my sordid past and reminded myself how important it is to cultivate love, when possible. I felt a wave of compassion flow over me and I recognized to cultivate love, one must: plant seeds, nourish, and cherish them. Keeping the garden of love fertile, alive, continuously growing and evolving is vital in a well-balanced life.
I found this unconditional love with my lifelong companion and beloved dog, Angel.
Since I was 16, she always knew when to comfort me and was loyal through thick and thin. No matter how tough life was in the world, I always came home to her unconditional love and happiness. We lived, feasted (and starved together), played, and reveled in getting our own home and backyard. We traveled the world together for 18 wonderful years. Angel taught me love, patience and selfless trust in another being—something I never really had. At times when I doubted my own judgment, she was an excellent judge of character, and let me know immediately how to separate the wheat from the chaff. If she reacted negatively to someone or a situation, I knew I was headed for trouble.
I have yet to find a replacement for this type of connection. In fact, if you are well enough to care for an animal or plant, I strongly recommend it. It has curative powers, washing away all the fear, pain, and apprehension one may have with relationships with people. Just remember, it’s a lifetime commitment of caring for these angels on earth.
I also have been fortunate to experience unconditional love from my handful of close friends, the mentors and teachers (both formal and informal) I have met along the way, my aunts, my godparents, and two female cousins—who are like sisters to me.
Since there were no role models in my nuclear family, I sought out mentors, people who were doing positive productive things in their lives that could coach and guide me. They taught me their secrets to success, like: steadfastness in the face of obstacles; the value of having pride in one’s work from cleaning toilets to get through college (or) being a keynote speaker to thousands of people (both of which I did). They taught me how hard work and elbow grease can put you head and shoulders above your professional competition; and how to be a person of integrity during both success and failure. I began to honor those who came before me and paved the way for me to make it in this life. After all, it was my parents and grandparents that made it possible for me to be born in the land of opportunity, believing the American Dream of hard work, education and tenacity would (and did) eventually pay off.
Lesson 6—The Reluctant Parent & Forgiveness
The reluctant parent is one that has to be coaxed into caring for their child. It is not pleasant for the parent, the child, or any intermediary attempting to reunify a family broken by divorce. Particularly if the parent has moved on to the greener pastures (e.g., a new husband, child and wealth). Much like lions, I wished that my stepfather would have killed me before moving on to create another family. That is how sick my thinking was as a child.
But then, as an adult, I began challenging my perceptions about my parents’ choice to leave me behind. I examined the interaction between us and began owning the incidents that were mine and forgiving myself for those transgressions. I stopped chasing the idea that somehow, I could “perform” my way back into their “good graces.” I started to seek approval from a new set of peers and mentors. Forgiving my parents for abandoning me is an action-step for me, a process that I must face daily. I work hard to forgive others’ transgressions, as I learn to forgive myself for mine.
Lesson 7—Find Positive Role Models
I was drawn to my mentors by attraction, not promotion, and humbly asked for their guidance and mentorship. In retrospect, I realized that at every critical developmental stage of my life, someone was there to coach me (sometimes in positive directions, and other times not so positive). Being told that I “could not” do something had the reverse effect on me; I would strive to work even harder to make my goals a reality. I took both positive and negative life lessons to fuel my desire and determination to succeed. I believed in myself and recognized that my values do not have to impede my relationships with others. I worked as though I had no limits and my only boss was God, or the Universe, or whatever higher power exists.
I was also taught to honor the achievements of my predecessors who made it possible for a young black woman to reach the seemingly unachievable. I became a happy social service professional, consultant, teacher, speaker, writer, and grateful human being.
I no longer take what I have for granted. I have everything I need and most of what I want. And frankly, since you can’t take it with you (I’ve seen so first-hand working with Seniors in Assisted Living), you might as well enjoy every experience! My attitude definitely has an impact on what I can, and do, achieve. With the support of people with greater vision than myself, courage, and dedicated time to a miscreant like me gave me hope that the future is not all doom and gloom. I can work hard with aspirations of becoming healthier in my life. I do so with a robust and renewed vigor for life and have positive aspirations for my future.
Lesson 8—Keep Swimming
My path seems to be wrought with hurdles. Like a rite of passage, as soon as one lesson is learned (usually the hard way), a new mentor or teacher surfaces to teach me the next lesson. Today I take my friend Ren’s advice and I “keep swimming,” because “the sun will rise tomorrow,” and you never know what the tide may bring!
Ms. Champagne lives in the countryside with her soulmate and husband of 13 years. She is now retired, and hopes to work with others to break down the misconceptions about people living with Borderline Personality Disorder, hoping to increase awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding BPD.