Sandie Jessamine takes us into her borderline story
‘I used to think escape from madness required outrunning pain; this was until I accepted that true healing involves stillness and allowing sorrow a voice.’
Throughout my life I have teetered on the cliff edge of sanity, terrified of tumbling into the abyss. But fear never stopped me falling – falling, falling, falling – no ground beneath my feet.
The ghostly realm I enter is known as dissociation. This means disconnection from the environment and self. At times I disappear altogether into a nothing realm. On one side of this void lies emotional pain so potent it swallows me. On the other side, I am cardboard, terrified trauma might be triggered, and I will vanish again.
During my childhood and teens, I called the space where I ceased to exist, “Nowhere Girl”. Inside Nowhere Girl I’d speak without sound or eternally scream, desperate to claw my way out. Sometimes I’d wake to find myself somewhere else sometime later. I’d have little or no recall of what had happened yet the people surrounding me seemed unaware I’d been gone, despite telling me I hadn’t been myself.
This, I already knew.
But what I never confided was who had taken my place. Other girls shared my body. Sami the witch who was rather posh. Wild Cat who ripped and roared. Little Arhwah who wimpered and soothed herself with song.
I’m unsure what, if any of this, I told the psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors I was forced to see as a teenager, when I was locked up in juvenile institutions. My secrets were buried so deep, they were concealed even from me, and besides, it wasn’t always me sitting opposite whoever tried to probe my mind.
Once I became an adult, I grew sick of the shame that came from being different, so I made it my mission to be normal. Ms Normal was social, and bright enough to finish university degrees and work as a counsellor and adult educator. She could be empathetic and listen to others. She could facilitate a group or teach students to write their life stories. She was a long way from the teenager who had completed one year of high school and run away from home.
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But Ms Normal never stayed balanced for long. Terror would be triggered by any reminder of the past, and again the world and I could dissolve.
Desperate to cling to normality, I’d squeeze myself even further into the chamber in my mind so that the others within me couldn’t penetrate. I was me. They were not me.
My hidey-hole grew smaller, tighter, until I could barely breathe. I felt love for family and friends – safe love – and could be affectionate. But air was alienated on the surface of myself, separated from the voices in my head and visions in my nightmares. They lived their existence and I lived mine. Split person. Split reality.
This never stopped them seizing control and, so, I’d run some more. Changing jobs, houses, friends, ferrying around my bewildered children, who wished I’d just stay the same.
The same as what? I’d ask.
The barriers between me and my other selves had grown so thick I could no longer penetrate the walls separating us. Their memories stayed wedged in my cracks. I knew and didn’t know they existed, but I preferred the not knowing and claimed it.
But when time is fractured and your sense of self keeps shifting, it’s a lonely way to live. This finally led me into therapy in my forties. The problem by then was I had so many responsibilities – a child with autism and a full-time job as a prison educator. I couldn’t risk crumbling. I accepted the therapist’s observation that I had Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, stemming from abuse when I was young and horror of becoming trapped. But it was another decade before I opened my arms to madness – or not. Madness forced itself on me, only this time I didn’t try to conceal it. This resulted in me being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder at the age of fifty-five.
Sometimes the only way to put yourself back together is to fall apart and let all who you have ever been speak. When I was finally able to listen, I reclaimed the tales I’d never told, those lost in Nowhere Girl. I found Sami the witch, Wild Cat and little Arhwah.
The girls frozen in the past had been waiting for me to free them and bring them home. Not only Sami, Wild Cat and Arhwah but younger selves I had thought of as me: Sandra the child, and teenager Sandie who I transformed into at thirteen. Together we wrote our story so we wouldn’t forget it again.
Hidden histories are what lives within all of us, until we bring them to the light.