On the borderline with Kayla Kavanagh – A person behind the disorder
By Charlotte Fantelli
A musical star
Kayla Kavanagh first came to my attention on Facebook. Within moments of browsing her website I was a fan. I couldn’t get over the talent that one person could hold. Not only does Kayla take part in every aspect of making her music – she plays countless instruments and sings like an angel – she has also developed a unique way of ‘live looping’ that means she can play and sing simultaneously on stage alone.
Who is Kayla Kavanagh?
A bit of a diva you might think? Someone who possesses skills as diverse as Kayla’s would surely be confident and self-assured, right? Wrong! She could not be more humble. It is only through music that Kayla has even found strength to accept herself. She, like a reported two per cent of adults, suffers with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Kayla tells us how she battled a long road before her diagnosis, and how music saved her life.
The start of Borderline Personality Disorder
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I had grown up with bipolar and autism in the family, so I was well aware of mental health problems, but it wasn’t until I was 11 years old that I experienced any problems first-hand.
It was day three at senior school. My primary education had gone fine, but here I was in a new place, daunted by the unfamiliar people and surroundings. I just remember being extremely fearful. This time in my life coincided with some traumatic life events and I saw school as a terrible separation from my home and family, which was the only place I felt safe.
‘It was so bad I just knew I had to go home. I faked a back injury and ended up staying off school for three months.’
I returned to school but things were tough, I felt anxious and didn’t want to be away from home a moment longer than I needed to be. This meant that friends, after-school activities and trips were out of the question. I spent three years not even trying to fit in.
When I was 14, I felt under pressure to try not to be so much of an outsider. I was lonely, always trying to fit in, never really knowing my place. My personality always mirrored that of the people around me in an attempt to be liked, but I found it hard to find who I was underneath this false front. I pushed myself to join in with activities, I even joined the drama club but found it a real struggle. I remember one day I pushed myself so hard I went home and sat alone in my room, just numb – I felt I didn’t belong anywhere, I felt so alone. This was the first time I self-harmed. At the time it was a way of expressing how I felt inside – a release I could not put into words – but ten minutes later all I felt was hurt and very ashamed.
Music saved my life
At 15 I started to discover music and immediately fell in love with it. I suppose looking back now I can understand that black-or-white, all-or-nothing characteristic of my illness, but back then it just became a burning passion. I started playing and soon I could play five instruments. Kinda obsessive, I had found an escape, and one that was constructive, rather than destructive.
Music gave me the opportunity to make friends as well: I would go to the music room in break-time, and from sitting on my own playing the piano, other people came to join me. I found music helped me integrate and communicate with people.
My academic studies focused on my love of music and I decided to go to university to further myself and learn as much about the subject as I could. The transition to uni wasn’t as hard as I had expected. Pouring myself into my music gave me focus and determination, but again I couldn’t just do the minimum, I had to do everything! I had two bands on the go, I was writing my own songs, going horse riding – so many extracurricular interests and activities that I worked myself too hard. At uni I once again experienced some tough times and this fuelled a meltdown.
I was fortunate to have great people around me and I was given six months off to recover, which I did. I returned to complete my second year and I caught up well. It was during this time that I realised my love was more for the technology than the classical music that I was studying, but I continued and completed my degree.
After uni I did what lots of people do: I spent a few years doing this and that – web design and other bits and bobs – but always worked on my music. I played pubs and clubs just so I could have those moments with my music.
In 2006 I found a one-year digital Masters degree at Hull and decided to further the passion I had found for music technology. It was here that I learned how to live loop, which I now use a great deal in my performances.
While studying I met Nigel, who was into producing. I started working with him, and very soon we fell in love. It has now been four and a half years since we met and we are still going strong. Not that it has all been a bed of roses. He has been a rock to me, and has had to deal with a lot.
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In April 2007, I took a really bad turn. It is hard to remember all the details but I hit a real low. It all came to a head one day: the worst day. I remember texting Nigel, all it said was: I can’t do this any more, goodbye. The next thing I remember is being fished out of a lake by the police.
The detail is blurred, I felt as though I wasn’t there, like I was kind of dreaming. I later realised this is termed depersonalisation and was a symptom of the BPD at that time.
I don’t know exactly what drove me to that point, but starting out in music was hard, especially with my self-image and self-esteem issues. I hated social situations and I felt as though everyone hated me. It sounds strange that I hated being around people and crowds but I wanted to be in music – I think it only worked because when I was on stage I put on a mask. I was ‘Kayla the singer’ and ‘Kayla the musician’: I had a facade, a show to put on. But I soon felt the knocks when the mask came off.
Becoming an NHS ‘service user’
It took two whole years for me to get the help I needed after that night, despite being seen by the NHS and the police whilst I was in crisis. They didn’t comprehend that just because I was out of the lake, I wasn’t out of my crisis: I still needed help. Nigel had to give up work, as caring for me was becoming a full-time job in itself.
In April 2009, I went through six weeks of screening and assessment and was given the opportunity to talk about my issues and how I was feeling. This turned into six months of therapy that was again extended until just this month. I asked to see my notes last year as I wasn’t given a diagnosis. I looked through the reams of paper, and there it was: BPD – Borderline Personality Disorder.
I was a little scared because I didn’t know much about the condition and it sounds rather scary, but I was also very, very relieved. Relieved to know it wasn’t bipolar which I thought it might be due to the family history. But even more than this, I was relieved I had finally got a name for what I was suffering. I now knew the name of the thing I had to face. I know some people fight for the labels to be lifted, and others dislike the title of the disorder, but to me it was a diagnosis, a reason, a hope that I could now focus on getting better.
I worked hard at learning more about my condition and the things I can do to help manage it. I am now an advocate and a service user worker, working in any way I can to raise awareness of this condition and help break the stigma attached to it.
Living with BPD
Within six months of reading my notes I was speaking at the National Personality Disorder Congress in front of 250 professionals.
My life today consists of mental health and music: a reflection of myself, and I really feel like I have a purpose and a place. And of course having the support of Nigel has really helped me through.
Musically, I toured this year and have bought out my first album Stranger than Fiction which is a kind of Eva Cassidy meets country rock. It is doing really well and I look forward to the future.
I still struggle with my condition and have good days and bad days, but with the help of music I can express myself and heal in a way I never could have without it. It is true: music really did save my life.
Further help on Borderline Personality Disorder
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Kayla’s album Stranger than Fiction is available now from her website: www.kaylakavanagh.com