I recently was awarded the Inaugural Barbara Hocking SANE Australia Fellowship to study mental illness overseas. The sole focus of my application was Borderline Personality Disorder and what services and programmes I could bring back to Australia. I was so excited because I could now set out to change the world.
For the past nine weeks I have been travelling the world with three weeks to go. Ordinarily this is a recipe for disaster for someone with boundary issues, self-harm tendencies, routine and daily structure issues, food, alcohol and drug dependencies, entitlement and anger problems, inter-personal skills deficiencies, mindlessness, mood swings, black and white thinking and everything else BPD. Even though I have eighteen years of therapy behind me, sometimes the unexpected can happen and I need to be able to deal with it on my own because my family are back in Australia, and I am the only person I can rely on to sort things out. As well, I am representing an Australian mental health organisation who have placed their trust in me to do a good job.
So when I lost the connection to my mouse going through Los Angeles customs, got financially ripped off by a British hire car company, had no wifi access in the Ireland because my sim card did not work as promised and somehow connected to international roaming (very expensive and expecting huge bill) or found myself at night at Waco airport with taxi issues, I had to get myself free from not only the situation but the toxic headspace that these happenings engendered.
Being Borderline overseas can be frightening. I have circumvented several panic attacks over many different scenarios. I have woken up in different countries, with different seasons and different time zones and for several minutes I have to work out am I safe, do I have enough money, am I physically well and who am I and what am I doing here? I have to breathe, pause, feel the anxiety, breathe and pause again, remember that I am OK, I am functioning. My pre-frontal cortex has learned to kick in quickly. If I get overwhelmed I can also email and skype with my husband. I got sad and irritable one day and I emailed him and he said he gets sad and irritable as well with me being away and I resonated with that and felt validated as well.
Living out of a suitcase for three months, collecting experiences, business cards, conversations, books, papers and souvenirs along the way is tiring, exciting, fascinating, mind-blowing, scary, frightening and terrifying but never lonely and boring. I am comfortable with my headspace because I have very few demons inside my head anymore. However on this trip I have had many “aha” moments and shifts in cognition about historical events.
I spend a lot of time at airports, eating airport food, paying airport prices and sitting in planes watching “The Big Bang Theory.” So far I have watched the same eight episodes of Season 7 twice, whilst sandwiched between two fat people (Hark at the kettle because I’m not terribly slim myself at the moment). I also have to negotiate international menus and try and find local but healthy choices. Early into my trip I decided to choose what looks like fun food I want to eat, I can always lose the weight when I get back home.
So being Borderline overseas means being flexible, seeing shades of grey (not the movie) staying in the same mood, being consistent and reliable, eating regularly with real food (not just cookies and chocolate), not giving in when people drink alcohol or smoke (I’m an ex drinker/smoker) being patient, very patient, courteous, polite, deferential, socially amenable to all situations, being empathic and taking on others perspectives, tipping wait staff realistic tips and most of all, exercising extreme mindfulness.
I have met some amazing people, if you are reading this, you know who you are. People who have opened up my mind and expanded it with different perspectives on the same theme, from the register clerk at a Texas gas station to a psychiatrist at a NAMI conference. I have met people who have taken me into their homes for the night, driven me far and wide so I can get to my next destination, bought me a meal, shared their most precious stories, given me books, files and invaluable information and generally all people have made this “gone walkabout” Aussie feel welcome and at home, no matter what US state or country I am in. I am humbled by the kindness of strangers who are no longer people unknown to me but are now friends.
One of the major advantages of being Borderline is the ability to merge and take on characteristics of others. This expands to countries and cultures as well. When in England I drank tea and my accent took on a British quality. When in America I drink coffee and was staying at a B&B where the host, who had lived through two world wars, said Grace before breakfast and expounded his views on this new-fangled idea called Science. He called me Miss Sonia. I will miss him when I leave Texas. I even went to church in Waco because I felt so attuned to this place. Everyone said to me, Waco? And I said there was a pot of gold in every place I visited, I just had to look hard enough. One does not always recognise a pot of gold even when one stumbles into one.
I found gold nuggets all over Ireland. From the beach called Greystones (aptly named) to the Spanish man who was part of the Mindfulness course I did. Ninety two people from 27 countries shared five days together in a function hall in Wicklow County, each of us on our lonely little yoga mat islands. I got thoroughly pissed off when one morning I came in to discover his yoga mat had the audacity to touch mine and I felt personally violated. When we had a group sharing session I mentioned this and then he turned around and gave his version of this angry woman who tapped him on his shoulder while he was meditating and asked him to please move his yoga mat. That gave others permission to share their territorial rights stories as well. Part of the learning process of being Borderline is finding out your impact on how you come across to other people. I said to him that was the gold nugget I was told we would find in this course.
Next week I get to go to Canada. I am truly blessed having received this Fellowship. I set out hoping to change the world, and the person who has changed the most is me.
All photos by: Sonia Neale