Personal story by Karina Whitehurst, told at the Project Air Conference 7th November 2014
I would like to start my speech today with a question that is hotly debated among people
living with Borderline Personality Disorder. Is recovery possible?
My journey began six years ago when my husband brought me to Sutherland Hospital after
a long period of illness. At that time I was deeply depressed and suicidal - a place I had
visited many times before. With every episode you believe you have hit rock bottom but this
time was different - I had lost hope of any sort of recovery. I was not seeking help – a
dangerous place to be - had become completely reclusive keeping to the confines of our tiny
cottage and was unable to function at even the most basic level. I had cut our phone lines
trying desperately to protect myself from the outside world. My relationships were dead,
dying or dormant because I had destroyed them or pushed people away so violently they
had not come back only contacting my husband to see if I was O.K.
I had always struggled to understand the world around me and had felt emotionally isolated
and misunderstood my entire life. My fear of abandonment and being alone was so strong I
would do anything to prevent it. My relationships were all or nothing and I was never
comfortable having people around all of the time. I would disappear from my relationships
when intimacy became too strong or conflict arose. I was confused and in crisis most of the
time – it had always been like that. I was 39 years of age and my life looked like the back
end of a war zone - I was exhausted after years of being at the mercy of my own mind.
Every day was a battle not to end the pain or get through without some sort of self-harm
which had increased to becoming completely out of control. My ability to regulate my
emotions or cope with even the smallest distress was impossible. I felt emotionally
flammable – it did not take much to set me alight. My mood swings had become unbearable
and I paced about my world like a caged lioness. Uncomfortable in my own skin my mind
tormenting me to the point where only self-harm or sedation gave me any peace.
I was diagnosed with Bulimia and depression at 17 and Bipolar at 32 – I had tried hard to
find a path to wellness but was unable to find lasting stability. My depressions led to long
periods of isolation, hospitalisations and suicide attempts one at 19 was almost fatal. I
understood the Bipolar intimately what it felt like, looked like and what I needed to do to keep
it in line but there was always another dark shadow within me. The Bulimia came and went –
it was another way to cope and I interchanged it with my other methods of coping. I always
came back to the same place on the board – a depressive episode that brought be back to
My family and husband felt that there had to be something else other than the Bipolar and so
it was decided that we have a fresh set of eyes look at me.
We were blessed to find ourselves in front on Dr Peter Vaux and I was able to open up a
little more than I usually would have. In the past I had talked about the Bipolar and Bulimia
but not my about secret methods of coping. I decided to be honest and tell him everything.
On our second or third visit he told my husband and I that he felt I might also have
Borderline Personality Disorder and that he was going to refer me over to the DBT Team.
When we went home and read through the nine traits I felt like a light had been turned on in
the darkness. This was me! I was not alone there was a reason for why I was the way I was.
My second blessing came when I landed Wayne Borg as my therapist - it turned out that I
did have BPD – all 9 traits and although this was a blow it was also a win because I felt like
there was a way for me to crawl out of the abyss. Hope and the idea of any sort of peace or
stability is a powerful motivator for anyone living with mental illness. I was put on a waiting
list which was not so bad because Wayne really needed to prepare and build me up for DBT. We began a five and a half year relationship that would completely change my life.
I believe that DBT is powerful because it is presented in a different language a language that
we can learn, understand and embrace. In Group we are taught – Mindfulness, Interpersonal
Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation and Distress Tolerance. Each skill within those modules
changes how we think, behave and cope. In Individual Therapy we examine why we are the
way we are and learn to apply the newly learned skills in our lives. We are given the
opportunity to grow, heal and evolve into who we truly are. For many these are the first
healthy skills we have ever been exposed to.
DBT was hard work, painful, confronting and emotionally exhausting especially in its early
stages. For example I found identifying my feelings and allowing myself to feel them
intimidating and excruciatingly painful which led to me wanting to avoid the program. In my
world feelings equalled pain and pain needed to be avoided at all costs. At one stage or
another every module left me wanting to drop out because it all looked and felt so alien. In a
journal entry I wrote that it felt like DBT was going against my grain and unearthing the pain
and secrets I had kept buried since childhood – pain one buries for a reason. It was - I just
did not realise that this was all part of the process of healing and changing the pathways in
By the second round of DBT I had started to grow stronger – I decided one day that I did not
want to be a victim of what had happened to me in the past or my illnesses. That was a huge
turning point for me and I would never have reached it without DBT. I began to notice that I
was not using my unhealthy methods of coping as much and then eventually not at all. My
brain took on the skills little by little and I also started to notice that I was using them
automatically. I was increasingly able to regulate my emotions and cope with distress. I ran
into another doctor who suggested a new medication combination for the Bipolar and my
stability increased in that area. I accepted that I needed to take my medication and stopped
coming off it an old habit that had landed me in trouble many times in the past.
I was able to feel and started to experience real joy for the first time in my life. I allowed
myself to begin feeling every human feeling without fear. I was able to stop the rages I had
been plagued with for years in their tracks because I had learned how to calm myself and
identify triggers. It was wonderful to hear myself laugh and even more wonderful when I went
weeks without thinking of self-harm or suicide. My true identity slowly began to blossom as
did my self- confidence. I started to think on the future with hope.
Since graduating from DBT I have continued to improve and can report that I can cross off
many of the nine traits listed in my therapy journal. Others I am able to manage and continue
to work on. I am better at being alone these days and do not fear abandonment as I once
did. I have good people around me and have been working hard to repair relationships that
had become victims of my illnesses. My husband and daughter are getting to know a new
woman – their life has also changed and been enriched by the experience.
All of the skills I learned are valuable and have found a place in my everyday life. They are a
safety net to fall back on. I spend more and more time in my wise mind these days and
accept what I cannot change. When I find myself in my emotional mind or feel triggered I use
my skills. I carry a little DBT skills card in my wallet and pull it out when I need help.
I wish I had recorded each day of the last six years so that you could see the difference
DBT, Wayne and the Team at Sutherland Hospital have made to my life – they helped me to
save myself. There were times when I was difficult and very avoidant – their determination
and dedication was always present. My recovery was a slow process - there were many
struggles, many setbacks and falls but Wayne and the team were always there to gently and
when needed firmly bring me back to what we were collectively working towards.
The very simple truth - the point I really want to get across today is that DBT changes and
saves lives – people who have suffered with BPD are recovering. They are crossing off the
traits that once controlled and tormented them or reporting that they can at least better
manage them. They are no longer at the mercy of their minds and they are creating a life
worth living. Instead of surviving day in and day out they are experiencing what it is like to
On the 6th of February of this year our Mother Roma Pauline Beck took her own life. We
watched her suffer, fight and survive for so long - she was never able to find the help she
needed. There was therapy but nothing like DBT. She was diagnosed with Bipolar at one
stage and then depression but like me had so much more going on – we really did mirror
one another. Her coping method was alcohol an addiction that had far reaching
consequences in all her relationships. I believe that DBT would have made a huge difference
to her life if it had been available to her. It weighs heavily on me that she did not feel the
peace I am feeling today the peace she so desperately searched for.
Mum was not the first person in our family to die this way - mental illness runs strongly in our
family - I am determined that she will be the last. She was a young 73 and her death like
many others all over the world is a terrible waste especially when we have a program that
does save lives. DBT needs to be available to everyone living with Borderline
Personality Disorder because to answer my earlier question recovery is possible.
I would like to finish my speech today with a quote that reminds me of my journey so far.
The beauty of life is while we can’t undo what is done, we can see it, understand it,
learn from it and change. Jennifer Edwards
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