Growing up, I never knew any sensation without burning.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.
Illustrations by Alexandra McFarlane.
This essay discusses suicide, self-harm and domestic violence. Please take care.
A little after midnight on April 27, 2014, I was rushed in an ambulance to Auckland Hospital. I was 18 years old and I’d been at a party downtown when, on impulse, I decided to flee, then made a quiet, desperate attempt to put out my inner fire. I moved in and out of consciousness in the emergency room until sunrise. Later that morning, my mum collected me from the hospital and handled me delicately for as long as she could. That afternoon, a family friend came screaming down our driveway, announcing that my aunt and uncle had been in a motorcycle accident. My sweetheart uncle passed upon impact.
I remember the following weeks vividly. I remember that my uncle’s dog guarded his casket, and I remember throngs of people showing up to support my aunt, cousins and extended family. But I also remember that my suicidal ideation persisted throughout the grieving. My mind was stuck on an obsessive loop, reliving the moment I submerged myself so deep that I thought I’d eventually find myself propelling upward, returning to stardust. I couldn’t switch this part of my brain off and I hated myself for it.
For most of my life I’ve wondered if it was selfish of me to desire death when I had lost a loved one who didn’t want to die. Back then, this thought made me feel weak, like I should have been strong enough to suppress my urges while I processed such a grave loss. Selfish and attention seeking: that’s how plenty of people have described me over the years. But I developed my destructive streak early and didn’t know how to stop it, nor what to name it. Longing for death came as naturally to me as breathing.
Now, at 27, I finally have names to help explain my dark behaviours: post-traumatic stress disorder; borderline personality disorder. I’ve always known my brain and heart weren’t functioning in a healthy manner, so receiving a diagnosis was a relief, to say the least. For the first time in my life living feels attainable. Until a couple of months ago, I assumed I’d have to carry the weight of my trauma forever; no hope of discovering the frameworks that would guide my healing.
But my journey towards recovery hasn’t been straightforward. It’s an ascending trek through a landscape resembling Dante’s Inferno; hellish and erratic.
I’ve always seen myself as a baby on fire. Growing up, I never knew any sensation without burning; every positive emotion was laced with agony and disorder. I found comfort in things that spooked me because fright is the earliest feeling I recall. Fear grounded me and was a reminder I was alive, so I chased it for decades.
My first memory is of watching my mother being shoved and berated by our failed protector. I was three years old and this scene corrupted my spirit; withering my childhood fantasies before they had a chance to bloom. My second memory is of watching the same man smash in the windshield of my mum’s car. My younger brother and I were sitting in the back seat when the glass shattered. I was four.
Before I’d so much as begun primary school, I knew not to expect safety. In the following years, my childhood fright evolved into adrenaline surges and impulsive behaviour that horrified me, yet I couldn’t contain my need to burn.
Familiar ‘comforts’ of little Kristi: Maleficent’s evil demeanour (Sleeping Beauty, 1959) and the tornado’s violent vortex (The Wizard of Oz, 1939). Chief among them was the 1999 edition of The Highwayman, which I’d repeatedly check out of my school library. I slept with it under my pillow, spooking myself so much with its ghostly and tormented illustrations that I induced nightmares. I’d pore over the brutal murder of The Highwayman’s lover; dwelling on how the shotgun bullet tore through her breast. Such terror thrilled me. Violence destroying a fragile woman; how familiar. My childhood dreamcatcher never stood a chance.
Recently, in therapy, I established a safe place. It contains little me, protected from violence at my nana’s old house. Here, she would play Enya and burn lavender oil. These days, I listen to Enya and light incense to bring myself back to earth whenever I’m spiralling.
My nana kept me safe, and for that I’m forever thankful. But I have a complex desire to reexperience the torment and fear I felt in adolescence; a compulsion that mystifies everyone, including me.
I’m able to define most years of my life by some harrowing act of violence. In the beginning this was inflicted by someone else, but somewhere along the way, without realising it, I became my own demon. These days, it’s me I’m afraid of.
The man I mentioned earlier assaulted me when I was 14, throwing a Coke bottle at my head in a fit of rage. At this point the child in me stopped yearning for his love; stopped waiting for him to become good for me. From then on, I loathed him. As someone with a lot of faith in karmic power, I began burning candles and hurling bitter prayers in his direction. But I also made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t be on earth for much longer; that I’d ruin my own life until I found a way out.
As a teenager, I had a split existence. One side of me was inspired and eager to pursue a good life; a life not dictated by my childhood experiences. This girl wanted to be a fashion journalist, so she volunteered for years at New Zealand Fashion Week and interned for a luxury handbag designer at just 17. She wrote a chapter of a novel during her final year of high school.
Yet, her other side was dissociative and, well, deadly. She enjoyed spending a lot of time in her high school’s bathrooms. There, she would wrap her scarf so tightly around her neck that she’d black out; cutting the flow of blood from her brain.
These blackouts, along with purging food and befriending sharp objects, became regular techniques for regulating my inner fire. Then I would storm around my high school, blasting Nine Inch Nails in my earbuds and feeling the adrenaline surge through my limbs.
During this time, one of my teachers kicked me out of class and scolded me in front of my classmates. The school counsellor had sent my teachers a mass email telling them I needed TLC due to some personal challenges, and that was how she responded. Afterwards, I began acting out: running away from school, swearing at teachers and melting down in public. I lost control completely and experienced dissociative spells during most classes.
My late teens and early 20s are a dissociative blur, consisting of a few near-fatal moments due to a benzodiazepine dependency and a boyfriend who stabbed at my wounds. Fatigued with life, I began isolating myself from all my friend groups, and I couldn’t attend university for years. Holding down a full-time job was becoming impossible. Small, daily things like brushing my hair and eating became exhausting. Overwhelmed by my rapid cycling between euphoric and depressive states, I shed too much weight and had bouts of insomnia that lasted days. One minute I’d be wailing in distress, the next I’d be giggling and elated. My doctor didn’t think much of my symptoms. Many SSRIs were tried, and my body refused to embrace them.
On the outside, I was a grown woman. On the inside, I was a regressed little girl, still as spooked as I was at age three. Still as vulnerable. Still sleeping with Rabbie, a pink stuffed rabbit I’ve had since I was a toddler. Still burning.
In June 2020, I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. This time, I’d woken up with my spine locked and seized. Convinced I was becoming paralysed, I had a panic attack and felt my throat close up. At the hospital, they ran an array of tests and scans; all came back normal. My fiancé, an angel on earth, helped convince me the answers I was seeking might be found through therapy.
At the time, my only experience with therapists was spending a week in a psychiatric ward at 19; an eye-opener to how broken the system is. Growing up without much money, my mum couldn’t afford to put me into private care, nor did she realise the severity of my illnesses. So when I was admitted to the public ward, I felt hopeful professionals would finally help me identify what was destroying my life.
The reality of that week: optional group therapy (I opted out, because I could), daily blood taking, and no exploration of why I was harming myself. I watched Girl, Interrupted (1999) on my laptop in my room.
I was hardly enthusiastic about therapy after that. But after listening to my fiancé and asking my mum for help covering the costs, I finally sought professional help this year. In the first session, I knew my current psychologist was right for me, and she quickly identified borderline and post-traumatic traits. A few sessions in and I had received an official diagnosis: BPD and PTSD.
BPD is something I never considered a possibility during adolescence, nor was it the answer I hoped for because I’ve seen the stigma surrounding it. My experience with my recent borderline diagnosis is raw, and I’m still processing what it truly means to be ‘borderline’. Still, the diagnosis is helpful in that I understand my brain on a deeper level and, for the first time in my life, my emotions and reactions feel validated.
Living has only now, at 27, become an experience I want to endure. One day maybe I’ll even enjoy it. This year has been full of immense achievements: I’ve graduated from my undergraduate degree, got engaged, and have been seeing my psychologist weekly. Every day I try to have hope that dialectical behaviour therapy will lead to my enlightenment, remission and eventual healing. I’ve already convinced my fiancé that we’re adopting a sphynx cat and naming her Lilith: a signal of my desire for a future. I’ve promised myself I can’t have children until I’m able to look at myself in the mirror and feel content and trustful with who I see, but I haven’t shut the door on it entirely. And although I still have a tendency to loathe myself and struggle to identify qualities I’m proud of, I am trying.
A couple of months ago, my fiancé and I rewatched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). When it ended, I noticed my fiancé was all choked up. He’s not one to cry easily, so I asked if he was alright. “The scene where Joel tells Clementine he wishes he knew her when they were children got to me,” he turned to me and said. At this point he broke into sobs. “I wish I could’ve protected you. I wish I could’ve known little Kristi to make sure she didn’t feel so scared and alone.”
Now that I feel safer in my surroundings and within myself, I sometimes wonder if I’ll always feel the need to sleep with Rabbie hooked under my left arm. He’s a testament to how long I’ve lived and how far I’ve come. I want him to be buried with me when I pass away – a moment I will try not force upon myself. Until then, I’ll use each day to gently douse the fire inside.