Late in the wet heat of January 2020, I went to the beach for the first and only time that summer. After the clouds came in and everyone packed up. After the beach was empty apart from one walker and their dog. The water was icy; so cold that it hurt. But this was my one chance – it was late in the summer break and soon life would trudge on. I went all the way in.
Swimming in the ocean was always the most spiritual experience of my life. It brought the definitions of peace and belonging and meaning and connection to the forefront of my mind, in the same way I heard people speak of God and the Church. My head was often loud and chaotic, but in the water I felt a sense of clarity that was rare for me. I was my most authentic self: untouched and brand new.
Regardless, I had spent the summer break avoiding the beach. Once again, I had failed to lose weight. I spent my life living for the future, for when I looked better. I bought clothes and jewellery and even shoes, knowing I would only wear them when I was thinner. I have wasted hundreds of dollars on a future that has never arrived. The beach was the same: as always, I decided to wait.
Though it was years ago, I still remember the stretched, unending summers of high school and university. All the time to become who the next year needed me to be. Now, as a full-time office worker, I have two small weeks to fill myself up. I had emerged from my past summer breaks feeling defeated and embarrassed, had stayed home and watched everyone else enjoy the sun through Instagram. Next summer, I thought. When I am thin, I thought. As work started and the months turned monotone, I knew it had happened. My life was passing me by. My summer: gone. Eaten whole by my fear again.
The following summer, in early 2021, I didn’t swim in Wellington once. On a long weekend away, I swam in the ocean and in Lake Rotoiti. The water was unmoving and clear; I could see the moss growing on the rocks on the lake floor. It was so cold I couldn’t help but be present. As always, I thought to myself, This is real magic. This is what healing feels like. And still I remember checking the groups of people on the beach in case someone I knew was on holiday here too. What if they saw me? Like this? I got out and flew back home. The summer carried on, but for me it had ended. I had entered 2021 tired and scared and already defeated: I didn’t stand a chance.
This was the year I had to take anti-psychotics again. It was this year, my ninth year of therapy, that I was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. After years of being told there was something else that the treatment teams couldn’t quite put their finger on. After being assessed for bipolar and schizophrenia and being called, in a helpless and embarrassing way, chronic. After over a decade of feeling like I was broken in an entirely unique and exhausting fashion, finally, a psychologist gave me the words I had been lacking and, suddenly, I had a whole new language.
I followed Reddit threads and Twitter conversations. I read scientific studies and textbooks, listened to podcasts and YouTube videos. I was ravenous for information. I came back to therapy every week and asked my psychologist to go over it again, like a child with a favourite story. Please, just one more time. How likely I was born with it – the difference in my brain. A biological vulnerability, they call it. A smaller prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps control cognitive functions like attention, impulsiveness and cognitive flexibility, and an overactive amygdala, the home of emotions, threat detection, fear and anxiety. I repeated this like a mantra: a tangible, hard fact. I spent weeks falling into my memory and watching my behaviours solidly click into place, often crying loudly with relief: there was a reason for everything.
While at first I felt this quick, burning gratitude, it was soon replaced. The more research I did, the more hateful content I found. I spent hours reading the forums depicting everyone’s terrible experiences with borderlines, and slowly my gratitude melted away. Instead, I had permission. I was finally allowed to be my worst self; every bad thing I had heard or thought about myself had been right. I could loudly unpack and explore all the feelings I had previously hidden. All of these behaviours had reason and meaning to them now. It felt purposeful. Like I was fulfilling my destiny. I felt myself slipping into something feral and hot.
The same week as the diagnosis, I started getting daily, debilitating migraines that left me bedridden and unable to see. When the neurologist asked if I could think of anything that would have triggered this, I thought of the diagnosis. Of the sudden, undeniable timing. I thought of saying it out loud, the words hot on my tongue, and then didn’t. I was too fragile to take the risk.
As a result of the migraines, I had to stop taking the birth control pill I had been on for years and, almost instantly, my mood tanked. I had my antidepressants increased four times and eventually I was put on antipsychotics. The notorious weight gain that came with it hit me suddenly and with surprise: I had never been so hungry. My world shifted and I lost myself to a fog of distraction. I couldn’t focus for longer than 20 seconds at a time. I made big and embarrassing mistakes at work. I ate until all the food was gone. One day, after months of new medication and dosage shifts, I got on the scale. I was expecting the worst but it was badder than that. In just a few, sharp weeks since I had last been weighed, I had ballooned. I didn’t think I looked much bigger, but the number was louder than that thought; it was fact. I didn’t understand what was happening or why I felt so out of control. It wasn’t until I explained everything to my psychologist that she recognised all of my new symptoms as side effects of the medication. I went back to my doctor and weaned myself off the drugs. And then I waited for the weight to slip off, but it didn’t.
I spent the next few months racing the calendar, trying to compensate. Every day was calculated and planned: how much could I eat and how much could I burn? I tried every hack I could find. Cried while riding the exercise bike. Stayed up late into the night researching diets and foraging through the internet for the one tip that would finally work. I tried to figure out how much damage a decade of eating disorders could do to my metabolism. Tried to calculate what I had to do to undo the carnage. In late November, it was clear: I wouldn’t be ready. Summer was arriving, urgent and hungry.
I was tired. It had been the worst year of my life. On the outside, it was gleaming: I got married to my best friend. Living in New Zealand had protected us from the worst of the pandemic. Our lives continued almost as normal. But mostly, the year was a dark, internal fight. My mind was twisted and loud, and I felt huge, awful things almost all of the time. I did the unending, heavy work in therapy week on week. And I had survived; arrived at the end of the year, in summer, battered and sore, despite it all. I looked different and I felt different, and I didn’t want to think about the year gone or the year coming. I wanted one, simple thing: to feel alive and held. To be out of my body and in something else, even briefly. Sometime, late in the year, I vocalised something to my therapist that was strange and unfamiliar. I felt such a deep, aching compassion for my younger self, who waited all of these years for this answer, who was the only reason I was here in the first place. This new diagnosis had unlocked something in me unlike anything else: forgiveness.
Although I was disappointed and angry in my body and the ways it had refused to act as desired, there was something else too. Something small and quiet and ignorable, at first. Over the weeks, it grew. Demanded my attention. Until I had to listen: maybe I can have a little flicker of joy. Maybe I have earned it after all of this. I’d hated my body since I was a small child. It was my earliest learning, my mother tongue. How much time would I waste if I waited until I was beautiful? I had tried all the medications, seen all the doctors, been to the hospitals and clinics. What if this was it? If, for the rest of my life, my mental health looked like this, I would spend my whole future waiting for a day that would never come. And how much longer could I hide? My whole life, a summer spent indoors.
I made a simple choice. That’s all it was: a decision. This summer, I would swim. I wouldn’t feel beautiful or confident or even good. But I would swim anyway; no matter what it took.
In preparation for my new summer plan, I dedicated time to examining what I was really feeling. I tried bullying myself out of my belief: are you really so narcissistic to believe everyone is watching you? I was told, time and time again, that no one spent their time at the beach watching everyone else’s body. Though deeply ashamed, I admitted to myself that I did. I was mesmerised by everyone; I couldn’t look away. It wasn’t about being small – there were people objectively bigger than me who I longed to look like – it was about being beautiful. And that was something I could see in every single person. There was just something about everyone. It wasn’t that I thought everyone was watching me; it’s that I knew no one was.
For so many of my formative years, I had been the small, skinny one. I wasn’t a lot of things that I wanted to be but at least, no matter what I thought of my body or what more or less I demanded of it, I knew, somewhere in my brain, objectively, I was small. Now, without that, what was I? If I wasn’t special, I was nothing. Being small had made up for everything else that I was. It had compensated. And now, without that, the worst thing had happened, and I was just me. Imperfect and hurting and without a saving grace.
I felt so embarrassed to be feeling this. To be an adult and thinking in what felt like such an adolescent way. Of course, mental illness is not age-bound. I knew this was a symptom but still, I was wildly ashamed. The year had consisted of this high level of self-scrutiny. I unpacked all my deepest, most toxic thoughts. I felt unwell and uncomfortable. And I was tired of learning about myself. Of seeing how far this diagnosis reached. Of relearning my whole past. I wanted peace. I didn’t want to have any more joy stolen.
I didn’t tell anyone. Instead, in an attempt to undo my own thinking, I decided, with even more determination, that I would spend the whole summer at the beach.
After a couple of quiet evening swims, I braved Oriental Bay in the early afternoon on New Year’s day 2022. It was the hottest day of the summer so far and the whole city was at the beach. We found a small spot in the shade of the lifeguard tower. I undressed and no one noticed me. I walked alone to the water, weaving between towels and umbrellas and people lying on their stomachs, their backs bare and oily from the suncream. At the shore, I found a small gap in the wall of people making their way into the water. Slowly, I inched in: my ankles, my knees, my hips, my waist. No one noticed me. I ran my hands through the water and felt it quiver and shift around my fingers. I dodged beach balls, and avoided splashes and felt the cold crawl up me. I dived under and came back up ungracefully, hair plastered to my face. No one noticed me. I floated on my back, my arms opened up to the sky, my ears filled with water until I couldn’t hear anything, and no one noticed me.
For this small, quiet moment, I was glad.